The state’s saltwater fish biologist says that trophy-trout hunters may be happiest this year.
It might never be proven conclusively, but it’s conceivable that Don Higgenbotham of Lafayette has magical powers.
The former state representative was in the midst of the best speckled trout fishing trip of his life in late February. He and two fishing partners had already boated 47 school trout in Pointe a la Hache’s Grand Point Bay, and now they were looking for bigger fish.
The three anglers were throwing Top Dog Jrs. in a shallow cove near Island Bay as the high sun warmed the water in the oyster-lined pocket.
Higgenbotham had watched several whopper trout hit his topwater plug, but none had managed to find the hooks.
Then he uttered his magic words: “I wish I could see one come up and hit the bait right next to the boat.”
Whether Higgenbotham was rubbing a Buddha belly in his pocket or there was a recently freed genie following the boat, his fishing buddies couldn’t tell for sure. But the words were barely out of Higgenbotham’s mouth when a mule trout smashed his mullet-colored Top Dog Jr.
The hacked fish ran to the port side of the boat, and Higgenbotham’s buddies shouted instructions with voices saturated with a level of anxiety that only fishermen know. Fighting a trophy fish is painful enough — not physically but emotionally — but watching someone fight a trophy fish is downright brutal.
If the line pops or the fish pulls the hooks or a shark eats the fish, everyone on the boat is devastated. But at least the guy fighting the fish can use his skills to put the odds of landing the fish in his favor. All the spectators can do is watch. And, of course, shout instructions.
“Don’t horse him!”
“Let him run!”
“Keep tension on him!”
“Keep your rod high!”
“Watch the trolling motor!”
“Loosen your drag!”
Higgenbotham heard them all, and like most anglers, probably ignored each command.
In the big scheme of things, Higgenbotham’s fight with the fish was a mere sliver of his life, but to him it seemed longer than any trip to the dentist.
The mule took approximately six years, nine weeks, four days, seven hours and 52 minutes to surrender — or at least that’s what it felt like to those on board — but finally Higgenbotham did win the fight. The 7.3-pounder was the biggest of his life.
Higgenbotham’s fish won’t be the only 7+-pound trout caught in the Pointe a la Hache area this year. In fact, sampling conducted by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries shows the entire east side of the Mississippi River should be productive for anglers who like to target trophies, according to DWF Finfish Programs Manager Randy Pausina.
Anglers in southwestern and southcentral Louisiana also will likely see an increase in big-fish production.
“Our sampling in the eastern and western zones of the state show above-average big fish,” he said.
By “big fish,” Pausina means those specks that are in the 18- to 25-inch category. Fish above that size don’t fit into their sampling nets, but they’re too rare to quantify anyway.
“But the fish that we do catch give us a good indication of how many bigger fish there are out there,” he said.
Catching those trophies this year will depend on the weather, Pausina said.
“Our waters might be full of fish of all sizes, but if we have a lot of bad weather and the conditions are poor, it seems like our stocks are way down,” he said.
This is a rule that duck hunters always have to learn the hard way, the 2001-02 season being the most recent example.
Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported high nesting success and local biologists predicted a good season, warm, calm weather across the flyway allowed the ducks to stay in the breeding grounds. Hunters in Louisiana — the very end of the flyway for many species — had a disappointing season.
But Louisiana’s fishermen will gladly settle this year for what our duck hunters hated — warm, calm weather. If we get it, anglers east of the Mississippi and in the Vermilion, Calcasieu and Sabine estuaries will battle some bruisers.
Those who fish Barataria, Timbalier and Terrebonne bays, however, may find big fish tougher to come by, Pausina said.
“Our samples in that zone were below average for big fish,” he said.
To get his average, Pausina uses sampling figures collected over the last 8 to 9 years — the maximum life expectancy of a trout.
Why the numbers are below average this year for that area is anybody’s guess, but Pausina said it could have something to do with the wholesale erosion the area has seen in recent years. Or it could just be a cyclical fluctuation.
“There are so many variables that enter into the equation, it’s impossible to tell what caused a fall-off. We need to wait and see if it becomes a trend,” he said.
Though the news is good for anglers who target big fish in southwestern, southcentral and far southeastern Louisiana, it’s not as good for the majority of anglers, who generally like to fill their creels with schoolies, Pausina said.
“Of the seven areas where we do sampling, not one had above average numbers of small fish, except Area 7 (Calcasieu Lake),” he said.
This relative dearth of school trout, Pausina said, is probably the result of a number of factors, but chief among them may be the consistently cold weather during the 2000-01 winter.
“We didn’t have any real harsh weather, but the temperatures stayed really cold for a long time,” he said.
That persistent cold weather stresses fish, causing some to die, and it also greatly limits the growth of those that survive. Most trout feed very little during cold weather, and if those cold temperatures stick around for weeks or even months, the fish won’t grow at all.
That limits the number of fish that are recruited into a fishery.
For example, a larval trout that is spawned one summer might be 12 inches long by the next summer if it has the advantage of a very mild winter. The fish can grow that quickly because baitfish also thrive in mild winters, and the speck doesn’t have to spend much time holed up in warmer water. The mild weather allows the fish to roam the shallow flats feasting on the ample baitfish stocks.
On the other hand, a larval trout that is spawned preceding a harsh winter may only be 6 inches long by the summer after its “birth” because it spent so much time in a nearly dormant state during the winter.
Not only that, but the fish will have a harder time growing during its second summer because it then must compete with other fish for the limited baitfish stocks, which were also hit hard by the cold weather.
So the fish might complete its second summer and still be below harvestable size.
That’s quite possibly what caused the decrease in samples this year.
A little more bad news for anglers is that seine samples were down last year, an indication that last summer’s spawn wasn’t very successful.
Biologists use the hand-held, fine-mesh seines to sweep known nursery areas. The numbers of fry they collect tell them how successful the spawn was.
Pausina’s hoping that the low numbers are merely a reflection of the drought. It’s conceivable, he said, that the fry simply moved farther inshore because of the high salinities, and were not in the normal nursery areas. Time will tell.
But what will affect anglers most this year is recruitment — that’s the term biologists use to refer to the number of fish that enter a fishery. Because the minimum-size limit on trout is 12 inches, a trout that goes from 11 7/8 inches to 12 is one that has been “recruited” into the fishery.
When looking at recruitment, DWF biologists use the numeral 1 as the standard that represents the average of the past 8 to 9 years. Anything below 1 is considered below average; anything above 1 is considered above average.
Speckled trout recruitment for 2000, the most recent year available, was .97 — just slightly below average. In 1999, however, recruitment was 1.25, which was considerably better than 1998’s recruitment — .6.
Those fish from 1999 could be the ones in the 18- to 25-inch range that biologists are finding in their samples. Since there was strong recruitment that year, scientists would expect there to be an increase in large fish as that strong year-class grows up. And that’s what’s happening.
Of even better news for anglers who like to target true trophies is that the recruitment for 1997 was an astronomical 1.6. The vast majority of those fish are dead today, but the few that remain will be real lunkers of 6 to 8 years in age.
If a state record is caught this year, it will very likely be a fish that was spawned in 1995 or 1996 and recruited in 1997.
And Pausina said he’s totally confident that there are state-record fish swimming in our waters at this very moment.
“There’s no doubt about it — that’s absolutely safe to say,” he said.
What’s impossible to say is whether or not someone will catch one of those fish. But it’s very exciting to know that they’re out there.
Feel that tap on your line? That could very well be Louisiana’s next state record.
Don’t horse him!