When the mercury falls into the basement, Caney Lake’s yellow bass come out to play. And this state record holder knows exactly how to put them in the boat.
“Yeow — that’s a big yellow bass,” I thought to myself when I saw the new first-place entry of 2.67 pounds in the official state fish records kept by the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association.
I knew the official all-time world record for these little yellow stripers was only 2.56 pounds. Then I looked at the name attached to the state record — Eddie Halbrook, who hadn’t entered the fish in the IGFA books.
I should have known.
The West Monroe resident, once known for being a fierce bass fisherman, was now just as fanatical about guiding for crappie (aka white perch) and monster redear sunfish (aka chinquapin), working under the business name of Fishing Adventures (318-548-1375).
Halbrook knows Lake D’Arbonne, Caney Lake and Grand Bayou Reservoir like the back of his hand, so it had to come from one of them. I didn’t know much else.
So I called him.
Wait until it’s good and cold, and then come on up, he said in his invite. He cautioned that, while we would catch a lot of yellow bass, we would catch even more crappie.
Oh, such hard luck and suffering!
It was indeed a cold January morning when we pulled his 20-foot aluminum boat to the ramp at the Caney Lake Marina, located at one end of the dam that created the Jackson Parish lake south of Ruston.
The lot was already buzzing with activity, mostly from old-timers, lots of them in bib overalls and packing powerful North Louisiana accents.
The cold made me appreciate the short run — if it could be called a run at all — to his fishing spot located in the open waters of the lake just above the dam that created it.
We were within easy sight of the boat launch.
Everyone else launching seemed to have the same idea. It was 7:15 a.m., and 10 boats were already there in a loose cluster when we stopped.
I looked askance at Halbrook about fishing so close to other boats.
He must have caught my questioning look.
“Everybody catches fish, but not everybody catches fish — know what I mean?” Halbrook drawled with a sly look out of the corner of his eye.
Halbrook was in no hurry setting up to fish in the chill morning air. So I got a good look at how his boat was set up for targeting his two favorite fish: crappie and redear sunfish.
Two comfortable swivel seats were side-by-side on the boat’s bow deck.
Between the seats was a small tray for incidental tackle. Within a short arm’s reach behind the seats were a couple of H-shaped Glo-Buoys for marking hotspots and Halbrook’s coffee thermos.
Eleven rigged rods were cradled in a custom-built, elevated rack behind his seat.
A foot-controlled trolling motor was mounted on the tip of the bow. Set to one side was a Minn Kota electric anchor winch (which he didn’t use all day) for anchoring in deep water.
Immediately behind that and right in front of the two seats was a high-definition sonar screen (which he used all day).
“One of the most-important things for this kind of fishing is a good depth finder — knowing how to use it and what you are looking at,” he explained. “I love Lowrance technology — all the HD units are good.”
Besides the one mounted on the bow deck, Halbrook had two more on his console that he ran on different settings: sonar, down-scan or GPS.
“Fishing this time of year,” he explained as he settled into his seat, “is on the lake bottom in the deepest part of the lake, 35 to 40 feet deep. The crappie and yellow bass are following the shad.
“If you find the shad, you find the yellow bass and crappie.”
There are few secrets here. The boats were all fishing within easy sight of each other. All were fishing straight down very near the bottom, usually with jigs, but occasionally with live shiners.
Halbrook was fishing with hair jigs that he tied.
“I can make my own colors, plus I am big on catching fish on something that I have made,” he said. “I call them ‘Death Row Jigs,’ because the fish know they are going to be fried.”
For those who don’t tie their own jigs, he recommended Black Lake Tackle hair jigs.
For those who prefer plastics, Halbrook said 1/16-ounce Bobby Garland Baby Shad are popular. Halbrook’s favorite color is blue ice, followed by baby cricket for stained water.
His own jigs are made of squirrel tail hair tied on 1/32-ounce jigheads. He pinches a No. 2 split shot on the line about a foot above the jig. On windy days, he often adds a No. 4 split shot above that to improve his ability to feel strikes.
When Halbrook uses live shiners, which he does occasionally, he simply swaps the jig for a No. 5 short-shank hook, a glorified bream hook.
“I don’t like them big hooks,” he grinned.
Most of the time, though, he sticks with his jigs.
“A jig will catch anything from a bluegill to a cold,” Halbrook chuckled. “A friend fishing with me caught a 10-pound, 3-ounce largemouth doing this.
“They come in here to eat the bar fish (yellow bass), but they eat little things, too.”
As seductive as he said his jigs are, he always added a Berkley PowerBait Crappie Sparkle Nibble to the hook.
“I never put a hook in the water without it,” he said. “Sometimes at the end of the day I’ll have sparkles from the nibbles all over my face.”
Once in the saddle, he lowered a jig all the way to the bottom and gave the reel handle two cranks to pull the lure slightly off the bottom.
He fished with two rods at a time — one in each hand, like an old-time, two-gun cowboy.
He gave the jigs small bounces, but said that lots of times when it’s real cold the fish don’t want any movement of the jig at all — dead-stick fishing.
Fishing was slow at first, but boats kept coming. By 8 a.m., the 10 boats had grown to 23, all within long hailing distance of each other.
Although a few boats had two anglers, most of held a single fisherman. All of the anglers used two rods.
While the fishing was slow, I checked out Halbrook’s 11 rods.
All were 10 or 11 feet long, either B & M graphite rods equipped with Shakespeare Mini Lite reels or Bass Pro Crappie Maxx rod and reel combos. All were open-faced spinning reels.
The reels were spooled with 6- or 8-pound-test Trilene high-visibility monofilament line — “green florescent,” he called it.
“The fish don’t pay any attention to the color,” he grunted.
Halbrook used his trolling motor to move the boat seemingly at random, a boat length at a time to “fish a spot out.”
“You are going to only catch the most-aggressive fish; then you move,” he explained.
The strong breeze was giving him fits with boat control, so he ambled to the stern and dug out 5 feet of half-inch chain tied to a small rope. He lowered the chain to the bottom and tied the rope off to the boat, creating an effective drag that slowed the boat’s drift speed substantially.
By 9:10 a.m., 37 boats had joined the fun, but Halbrook had only four fish in the box.
“Oh, this normal,” he assured me. “It will pick up when the sun gets higher.
It was cold work, even with the blue skies. Most of the other fishermen were wearing insulated coveralls or bibs. Halbrook pulled on a pair of latex surgical gloves to protect his hands.
“They are cheap; I get them at Wal-Mart and I don’t lose any feel,” he explained.
There are no consistent hotspots within the general area of the lower lake, he said.
“When you find a biting school, you try to stay on it as long as possible, but they won’t be in the same spot the next day,” he Halbrook said.
Surprisingly, finding fish has nothing to do with locating the old Caney Creek bottom.
His concentration on the rods and the screen of his fish finder was palpable. A strike doesn’t feel like a hammer in this cold water, he explained; it feels like the line is simply “getting heavy.”
He never laid his rods down except when he hooked a fish. Then he laid down one rod while he reeled in the fish on the other.
It wasn’t uncommon in some of the other boats to see two anglers without rods in their hands, fishing dead-stick. They looked like they were sun bathing.
By 10:05 a.m., the bite had picked up substantially.
Mixed in with keeper yellow bass and crappie were a number of smaller fish Halbrook disliked keeping. When he threw them back, they floated on the surface, flopping listlessly because of air bladder damage caused by decompression as they were reeled from the deep.
Halbrook dipped a few of them up again with his long-handled dip net, muttering apologetically that “they are going to die anyway.”
But most of them were gobbled by birds — long-legged great blue herons that have mastered the technique of half-landing long enough to nab the helpless fish and then awkwardly getting airborne.
His ability to interpret what he was seeing on his fish finder was amazing.
“Look for the big yellow arches on the screen,” he directed. “They are the air bladders of fish. Yellow bass make shorter, more-humped arches. Crappie arches are flatter and more elongated.”
Each arch was one fish. He called the species of fish before they took his jig, and he was always right. He had his machine zoomed in enough that even the jig and its movement was visible on the screen.
Although there were short lulls in the bite, for the most part the action was steady. He tossed each keeper with unerring accuracy the length of the boat into the open livewell.
By 1:20 p.m., the livewell was chock-a-block full of fish, and Halbrook declared victory.
I was hungry anyway.