Not a Novelty

Capt. Jeff Poe has had remarkable success throwing slow-sinking flies to Calcasieu Lake’s lunker trout.

The small cove on the eastern end of Calcasieu Lake looked much like any other stretch of uninhabited shoreline. It wasn’t so much of a cove as a dip in the largely featureless stretch of bank. The location was, however, precious enough to Capt. Jeff Poe that the distant sighting of a boatful of waders had elicited a sharp reaction over the hum of the 200 Yamaha, almost enough to make him turn off of his path. But near perfect wind conditions for the location made it any easy decision after a moment of thought. “The thing about it is this: I can almost guarantee they didn’t trolling motor in there,” he said of the waders. “For some reason, they don’t think running a big engine in that shallow water scares fish. I’ve seen ’em do it a hundred times.”

He begun the almost excruciatingly long journey to the beginning of our drift via electric propulsion.

Poe had declared that, at least for the morning, he was going to fly fish for a prized Big Lake speckled trout. So now, I thought, we had two strikes against us on a morning with conditions that simply don’t come around often enough in the springtime.

Fishing Big Lake this season is often akin to going into battle. The estuary’s sterling reputation has made it a seeming mecca for trophy trout fishermen, though its treasures seldom come easily.

The past couple of springs have only enhanced its reputation for being a tough lake, with high winds, high rivers and lots of fishing pressure mucking up both water clarity and dreams of trophy specks.

So it stands to reason that the farther one is from the fish, the less chance that said fish will spook before an offering is passed before its nose. The problem with fly fishing, therefore, is distance. Only world-class casters generate enough line speed to throw the line 120 to 150 feet, and fly casting on Big Lake is hardly about making just one cast.

“Except in very specific cases, you’ve got to be able to blind cast a whole bunch. A lot of people can’t do that,” said Poe, who holds the state-record, fly-caught speckled trout with a 9.31-pound fish landed in December of 1996.

“We get some times when you can sight-cast to them — I’ve had three or four times with fly casters and about the same number with regular customers — but it’s nothing you can count on. And it normally takes place later in the year, when the algae drops out and the water gets really clear.

“Most of the time, you’ve got to be able to throw that rod for a good while. I’m going to cast it for a while, but this wind won’t have to kick up much to get me off of it.”

Poe did just that in capturing his state-record fish, tossing a bulky Deceiver for a long time before earning his reward.

“I was with a friend from Shreveport, and we didn’t start fishing until about 10 a.m.,” he said. “We both got two strikes and both landed a fish. He was fishing a topwater and caught a 7-pounder. I made a long cast and retrieved it all the way to the boat when it hit.

“It was in a similar spot to this one, about 2 feet of water with some scattered shell.”

Poe doesn’t fly-fish as often as in the past with the added responsibilities of a family and a growing guiding business, but a trip earlier in the week had obviously whetted his appetite.

Two Dallas area customers had each tentatively taken spots in the Louisiana top 10 for fly-caught trout, one of which would take No. 3. The 8.4-pounder had come from this very spot, Poe said.

“Those guys threw all day, until 1 o’clock, and that’s pretty manly. That’s more than I could do,” said Poe, checking his leader and preparing to begin casting the olive-colored Deceiver, a thick, slow-sinking pattern designed for working the first foot or so of the water column. “It really does help maintain your concentration if you believe that big trout is out there.”

Later that day, on another drift of the same cove, I picked up the rod and lasted around 10 minutes before the increasing wind and bulky fly conspired against my backcast.

Before that, I opted for a lipped jerkbait, going with the theory of showing the fish something they hopefully hadn’t seen much.

My partner, Brennan Head, went with Poe’s recommendation, a Catch 5 jerkbait from MirrOlure.

“There’s plenty of times — not all the time — when fly fishing is just as effective for catching these fish,” Poe said. “If you think about how many Top Dogs and She Dogs they hear clacking above them and how many jigs hop in front of them, it really makes a case for fishing something that the fish just don’t see that often.”

And that statement is what did it. A painful, 2-year-old memory of being thoroughly whipped by my old fly-fishing buddy, Robert Lummis, came barreling from my subconscience: springtime on the north shore of Blind Bay, fetching the net on a handful of 5-pounders, watching an estimated 7-pounder emerge from the 4-foot depths at boatside and nipping at the big, white puff of feathers before swirling away, her tail billowing clean, green water into a rough oval over the murky surface.

“You sure you don’t want to throw this for a little while?” smirked Lummis intermittently, each time knowing the answer.

I understood what was happening that day, but stubbornly tried to disprove it, tying on every finesse bait in my tackle box: DOA shrimp, Flukes, Slug-Go’s. Mixed in was a marathon session with a topwater right after seeing the big one, which was eventually rewarded with an explosive strike and head-shaking first three seconds from a 6-pound redfish, the true identity of which didn’t become clear until the fish was 10 feet from the boat.

Lummis said he never saw someone so upset by such a pretty fish. And only a few other similarly sized reds in trout territory ticked me off as much.

Twenty minutes passed as Brennan and I easily lobbed our heavy and aerodynamic hard plastics. Poe kept at his craft, methodically false-casting two times before launching an 80-foot cast ahead of the slowly drifting boat.

Then he fired the offering 5 feet past a boil spotted by Brennan, stripping the collection of hair and hackle just beneath the surface. The strike came quickly enough — it just felt like it took an hour — and the fight was on.

“That’s a nice fish,” said Poe, as I continued the retrieve of my jerkbait, half watching the fight and half looking for where I had stowed the camera.

The chrome Slap Stik dug into the shallow bottom and nicked an oyster as a result of an overzealous jerk, causing me to swing and miss and temporarily distract Poe from the task at hand.

“You had a bite? You can set that anchor,” said Poe, carefully stripping in fly line as the fish began a wide, lateral run, fully loading the 9-weight Orvis fly rod.

The fish wasn’t as big as we all had hoped, but the beautifully spotted 4-plus-pounder was soon in hand and the memories were hurtling back, piling on top of one another. Close inspection of Poe’s creation and a query regarding its construction confirmed even more evidence to fly fishing’s effectiveness.

“The natural material — the deer hair, feathers, whatever — is what makes the bait look so good in the water. Every time you strip it, it’s pulsating. Even when it’s just sinking, every little bit of current, breeze, even the fly line being hit by a little chop has that fly moving. They just can’t stand it.”

Another thing the fish at such close range can’t stand is noise. Big trout being what they are, Poe says stealth is of the utmost importance when fly fishing.

“It’s kind of like bow hunting. You have to pay that much more attention when you’re in such close range,” said Poe. “Things like slamming a hatch lid, even walking from one side of the boat to the other. Every movement you make in the boat can displace enough water to affect a fish.

“It’s all part of the game. Things are a lot more tense in fly fishing. Even when you get a fish on, there are a lot of decisions to be made. It’s more about getting in there with ’em.”

Fighting a big speck on fly gear is as different as casting a long rod as opposed to conventional gear. Most fly reels are much closer to a 1:1 gear ratio than spinning or casting gear, making for a harrowing time when a fish decides a sharp change in direction is in order. This was illustrated perfectly when Poe hooked up a short time later on a much bigger fish.

“I won’t feel good until this one gets on the reel,” said Poe. “The state-record fish was strong enough to get on the reel right away, thank goodness. This one just doesn’t want to run out right now.”

Because flies are retrieved by the angler stripping the line in, fish often are fought by further stripping the fly line until the fish is boatside. Most anglers want the line “on the reel” — and putting the reel’s drag into use — by reeling in the excess line with one hand while holding the fish on the line with the other. But the challenges don’t end there.

“Even then, sometimes you’ve got to go back to stripping if the fish comes at you,” said Poe. “It’s another one of those things that make it such a challenge.”

This fish, which had struck near a slick, went on the reel, then off the reel. Both Brennan and my baits had been worked through the slick twice due to the distance we had on our casts.

Poe’s countenance told Brennan and me more than any words he uttered that this might be the one we were looking for. A large swirl tipped us further, but it was a powerful lateral run that confirmed.

Fast-moving fly line and the water’s surface made that beautifully distinct hissing sound, and for a moment, I again thought redfish. But Poe was as confident in his initial ID as he was nervous about the battle that was entering the final stage.

“This is when you’ve got to be careful,” he said. “You’ve got a long rod to help make up for mistakes, but you’ve still got a slow reel.”

I could almost see the bottom in the 2 feet of water as the fish made its first appearance at the boat with a quick flash. I was able to get a look at its entire length, and quickly made a conservative 6-pound prediction.

Poe says that trout can be caught out of the shallow coves throughout the warm months, though he and other Big Lake Guide Service guides spend most of their time on mid lake oyster reefs when the fish begin massing there.

“The thing about the lake is this: Big Lake is about 52,000 acres, and 40,000 of those are 4 feet of water or more,” he said. “We like to fish the water where the most fish are. But there are still fish in the shallow water.”

Shallow water patches of shell are best fished on a rising tide, and the first hour of the falling tide, though Poe says he’ll seldom pass one up that has bait and good-looking water.

“The low tide makes it much more likely to get dirty,” he said. “Even boat traffic can muddy it up when the surrounding mud bottom is lower than normal.”

After several powerful surges at boatside, the net was slipped under the mule trout. Poe confirmed that it would go in his top 10 of fly caught fish, if not the top five. After an extended photo session, the decision was made to put it into another top 10, the LOWA state-record list for fly-caught speckled trout.

On a certified scale, the trophy weighed in at 7.2 pounds, ranking No. 7 in the state.

Shallow water isn’t the only place to fish for trout on fly gear. Faster sinking Clouser minnows are ideal for tempting deeper reef fish, and Deceivers and Clousers are fine, depending on their mood, for working over frenzied fish under birds.

Poppers are good attractors when conditions call for surface action, and again support the theme that lures not seen by fish can be some of the most effective. Nine-weight rods are usually best for most Big Lake blind casting, but Poe says some of the bigger poppers are best cast with an 11-weight.

“If you think a 9-weight is hard to cast for a few hours, try that 11-weight,” said Poe.

Many fly fishermen — namely yours truly — are jaded to surface flies by sloppily striking redfish, but Poe says the lake’s specks don’t miss it any more than they miss a topwater plug.

Fly fishing is certainly not for everybody or even most fishing conditions, but giving a trophy trout something they haven’t seen much of can be just the ticket for tempting one. Just make sure your casting arm is warmed up.

Capt. Jeff Poe can be reached at (337) 598-3268.