The Saline Larto complex is inarguably the best sac-a-lait lake in Louisiana, and there’s no better time to fish it than right now.
The only thing more consistent than a cold-water crappie bite is the speed at which news of the bite spreads.Such was the case not too long ago when I met Tony Peters, a Saline Larto crappie guide, and his fishing buddy Glenn Birkicht at a little store to the south of their home lake that spans Catahoula and LaSalle parishes.
I had heard through the grapevine that there were some sure-enough slabs biting at the Central Louisiana complex, and I wanted in on the action. One thing I’ve discovered since I stopped being so mad at the bass is that I absolutely love catching — and eating — crappie.
It was readily apparent that a lot of other folks feel the same way as Peters idled his Triton TX20 toward what looked like the New Orleans Boat Show floating on the surface of Larto Lake. Boats of all ages and sizes with what looked like those old whippy CB antennas sticking out of their sides were spread as far as the eye could see in every direction.
“You don’t have to look at a calendar to know it’s Saturday,” Peters quipped. “Word gets out pretty quick when these fish start biting. It’s not as bad during the week, though. I was out here a couple days ago, and there probably weren’t 12 boats out. This morning it looks like there are 112.”
The morning was dead calm and the air icy cold — perfect conditions to know if any of the other boats were catching fish without actually having to look at them. It was easy to hear that none of the hundreds of jig poles that hovered over the water were bent over under the weight of a slab.
“It might be a little slow this morning,” Peters said. “They bit really well the other day, but it was the coldest day of a cold snap. It’s warmed up a little. That might affect them somewhat, but they’re going to bite sometime today. After all, this is Saline Larto — they kind of have to.”
That declaration may sound a little boastful, but Saline Larto has the goods to back up that kind of talk. Tony Fuqua lives in Kolin, and he recounted a conversation he had recently with an elderly couple from Missouri who was fishing the lake.
“They told me they fish for crappie all over the country,” Fuqua said, “and they had never been to a better crappie lake than the Saline Larto complex. This was a retired couple, and they could go anywhere they want at any time, but they choose to come here during the winter.”
Peters also recalled a magazine article he read several years ago that had Saline Larto ranked in the top-10 crappie fisheries in the United States.
“They actually had it ranked third,” he recalled. “The ranking was based on consistency of limits caught, how many fish over 2 pounds wound up in those limits and the average size of crappie caught. I don’t know where it would be ranked today, but I’d venture to say it’s definitely still in the top 10.”
Peters believes this complex continues to churn out slab crappie because it gets naturally stocked from the Red River at least once a year and sometimes twice. The Red River is full of huge crappie, and every time the lake floods from the Red River and the Catahoula Lake Diversion Canal, which is fed by Little River and Old River, a lot of those crappie stay in Saline Larto.
“The lake gets high with all that water coming into it,” Peters said, “but it recedes pretty slow. The lack of a fast drop means that several of the fish that found their way into the complex during high water stay put as the water starts dropping.
“Several different complexes feed Saline Larto, and all of them have white perch. That’s what makes this complex so consistent. And to top it off, the size of the crappie has been getting bigger lately.”
Peters explained there are a lot of 1 1/2- to 1 3/4-pound crappie in the complex. And it’s not uncommon to catch 2- to 2 1/4-pound crappie, especially in Larto Lake.
It didn’t take him very long to prove his point about an hour into our trip. A slight tick on his line caused him to pull up on his 12-foot jig pole, which began bowing to the weight of what Peters announced was a good one.
The fish eventually came to the surface, and it was obvious that it was over 2 pounds. Peters lifted his pole high enough to make the crappie hang mouth-up beside the boat, and he knelt down to lip it like a bass.
“That’s what you can expect out here,” he announced as he showed off the 2 1/4-pound fish. “I caught a limit the other day, and I had about 12 this size. The rest were around a pound and a half. This kind of fish is worth the drive from anywhere.”
While Peters says crappie fishing is excellent year-round in the Saline Larto complex, he pointed out the winter months as being the best time to fish the lake. The cold-water bite actually kicks off in late October and runs through February when the fish start moving up to spawn.
Of the two main lakes, Saline and Larto, Larto is the better one for winter fishing because it’s deeper and more open than Saline. From a bird’s eye view, Larto actually looks like an old oxbow lake that’s laid out in the typical horseshoe shape. There are flats on either side that drop off at a break from which point they gradually slope down to approximately 20 feet.
“Larto is the place to be if we don’t have an extremely cold winter,” Peters said. “The fish will bite out in the middle of that lake all winter as long as it not a hard, icy kind of cold.
“But if the water temperature drops into the mid-40 range, a lot of those fish will migrate toward the Youngblood’s Landing at the mouth of the bayou that connects Larto to Shad Lake. That bayou has about 22 to 25 feet of water, the deepest in the lake, and they’ll bunch up thick in there. It’s the same kind of fishing — you just have to change locations if it gets icy cold.”
There are three main ways to fish for crappie at Saline Larto during the winter, and there is one offbeat presentation that can produce. Each has its proponents, and it doesn’t take much to set off an argument about which is best. The fact is, though, that each has its place, and, if used correctly in the right conditions, each will produce.
Peters prefers going after the big slabs with a pole in each hand. This allows him to feel the light bites for which cold-water crappie are notorious. Peters employs two 12-foot jig poles, and he maintains constant contact with his line by draping it across the index finger of the hand holding the pole.
“I used to think it was hard to feel a bass,” Peters said. “But these white perch bite so light sometimes that the only way you’re going to feel them is if you have your finger actually touching the line. The colder it gets and the more fishing pressure they have, the lighter they bite.”
Peters typically spools his jig poles with 4- to 10-pound-test line depending on the weather and the pressure, and he ties at least three jigs to the end of each line. The bottom jig is a 1/8-ounce jighead with a 2-inch jig. He said it’s paramount to cinch the knot tight under the throat of the jig so that it always remains horizontal in the water.
“If that jig’s hanging straight up and down, you’ll probably never get bit on it,” he said. “I tie two loop knots above the bottom jig with 1/16-ounce jigheads and 1 1/2-inch jigs. I try to keep about a foot and a half between each jig. This three-jig rig allows me to cover more water when I make my drifts, and I can home in on the exact depth a little quicker.”
While the winter fishing is generally pretty consistent, there are days when the fish just don’t seem to want to bite. That’s why Peters never leaves the dock without his Berkley Nibbles and a bucket of shiners. He doesn’t claim to be much of a minnow fisherman, but he conceded that, on some days, fishing minnows could mean the difference between going home empty-handed and having a mess of fish to eat.
Another way to present the numerous jigs is with a spider rig that attaches to the front of a boat. This is basically a rod holder that supports multiple rods and allows an angler to quickly home in on proper depth and jig color. A lot of anglers employ spider rigs in the deep water of Larto, and they have a distinct advantage over hand-holding a pole.
“I like a spider rig because I can put out multiple poles with multiple jigs under each pole,” said Fuqua. “I think so many jigs hanging in the same general area can actually turn on the crappie that are waiting on a school of shad to swim by.
“Those spider rigs can get crazy, though, when the bite really turns on. You’re going to have to reduce the number of poles you have out just so you can keep up with the fish and keep everything from tangling.”
Anglers fishing the open water of Larto often begin their day near the edge of the flat where it starts dropping off into deep water. Peters has consistently found crappie suspended around 10 feet during the early morning and on cloudy days. However, bright sunlight will push the fish down to around 15 feet or deeper.
“You’ve got to determine the best depth and what speed you should drift,” said Peters. “You could have 12 feet of line out, but you’re jigs will only be about 8 feet if you’re drifting too fast. If you want to get deeper with a faster drift, you’re going to have to let out more line.”
Peters also pointed out that a unique way of catching some big fish at Saline Larto is to troll crankbaits parallel to the shelf. That technique isn’t widely used because the jig pole and spider rigs are so effective, but it can produce some giants for anglers willing to try.
Fuqua said that another way of catching crappie at the complex is to fish a jig under a popping cork much like fishing for speckled trout. This technique works best in the bayous around the edges of hydrilla that has died back for the winter.
“I just put a cork on about 2 feet above a single jig,” said Fuqua, “and cast it about 2 feet from the edge of the grass. Sometimes they want short little pops like you were jerking a Tiny Torpedo, but other times they want it ripped pretty hard. Everyday is different, so you’ve just got to play around with it until you find what they want.”
No matter whether you’re jig-poling, spider-rigging or fishing a popping cork, there are a few consistently productive crappie jig colors that you should have in your box. Peters and Fuqua singled out black/chartreuse as being the No. 1 color with orange/chartreuse, blue/pearl, brown/orange, black/pink and black/red also being productive.
Peters and Fuqua explained that the winter bite is at its best during January, but it begins to fizzle around the middle of February once the fish start thinking about spawning. They still bite, but the deepwater bite slows down tremendously.
Fuqua concluded with a little friendly advice for Louisiana crappie anglers.
“You just got to get out there and experience it,” he said. “Put off whatever you’re doing. Forget about raking the yard and get out there and catch some fish. You can be totally rigged and ready to go for under $200 as long as you already have a boat.
“And don’t worry too much about the pressure. If you get there on a Saturday morning only to see 70 boats already on the lake, that just means that they’re biting.”