In past years, Louisiana’s central coast was known for producing lots and lots of school trout. But recent big fish catches are turning anglers’ eyes toward the marshes of lower Terrebonne Parish.
Capt. Bill Lake meant no disrespect toward his sparring partner. “That’s not the size we wanted,” he muttered after gaining a glimpse of a 2 1/2-pound trout that was darting around haphazardly in a desperate and futile attempt to regain its freedom.
Lake has nothing against 2 1/2-pound trout. In fact, during the course of most of his 14 years guiding, such fish were the prize of an outing.
But there’s been a change in the marshes of lower Terrebonne Parish, and Lake has been given a front row seat to a new production that’s drawing rave reviews from anglers as far away as Lafayette and New Orleans.
“We’ve always been known as a numbers place,” Lake, 47, said while unhooking the fish that would soon be released into Lake Crisco. “People thought, ‘If you want meat, go to Bayou DuLarge.’
“But it’s a whole different ball game now.”
Lake says the sea change began two years ago, when he and his clients began reeling in some legitimate wallhanger-sized speckled trout.
“In the last two years, my fishermen and I have caught bigger trout here than I’ve ever seen in my life,” said the Houma native who’s been fishing lower Terrebonne Parish for 31 years.
That’s not to say big trout were impossible to catch prior to that time in southern Terrebonne, but these new trophies all of a sudden began showing up in areas that had been the exclusive domain of schoolies for decades.
“You could always go offshore in the Ship Shoal blocks during the summer months and catch nicer fish,” Lake said. “But now we’ve got 5- to 7-pound fish way inside during the winter and spring.
“Six or 7 years ago, you could forget it. You’d never catch fish that big inside (the marsh).”
The big fish have arrived in DuLarge, and Lake has the evidence to prove it. It’s in the form of bits and pixels on the guide’s computer.
“I always take my camera, and I take pictures of the fish while they’re still alive in the spot that we caught them,” Lake said.
That’s not an easy thing to do when the fish are biting, but Lake’s discipline has been rewarded with a computer full of digital images of 5-, 6- and 7-pound trout, all caught within the last three years.
The current prevalence of these trophies, in Lake’s opinion, is the direct result of one action — the gill-net ban of 1995.
“Before the gill-net ban, your chances of catching a 6-pound trout out here were slim and none,” Lake said. “You’d go into Lake Mechant, and there would be a mile of gill nets put out. They’d pick them up, and you’d see nothing but solid silver, just massive pounds of speckled trout.”
Things were sometimes even worse in the bayous and canals that Lake likes to target this time of year.
“You’d find fish in a dead-end (canal) one day, and a day or two later you’d go in there, and there’d be a gill net in there,” he said. “You couldn’t get away from them.”
The netters would usually target the 2- to 4-pound fish that were coveted by fish markets and restaurants. This left the waters teeming with 1-pound schoolies, but it also greatly limited the numbers of fish that were able to reach trophy status.
Since the net ban, those 2- to 4-pounders have been growing into the wall-hangers that are slamming Lake’s Bayou Chub minnows.
Lake admits that the big fish should have shown up in the Bayou DuLarge area a few years sooner than they did. Why there was a delay, he’s not sure, but the fact that it has finally happened is undeniable, and Lake, for one, is ecstatic.
“This area has been slow to see the change (since the gill-net ban), and I’m not sure why,” he said. “We’re right in the middle of the two rivers (Atchafalaya and Mississippi), so you’d think we’d get those big fish pretty quick. But for whatever reason, it took a while.”
As the proverb goes, however, good things come to those who wait.
Lake has been finding the big trout in a wide variety of places. Like a beagle on the trail of a creeping rabbit, he follows the fish wherever they go, as far inland as the upper reaches of Bayou Sauveur all the way to the offshore waters of the Ship Shoal blocks.
“I do 90 percent of my fishing in the Bayou Sauveur area this time of year,” he said during a mid-February trip. “A lot of the big fish we’ve been catching are coming from Bayou Sauveur. It’s a great area. It’s got solid oysters on both sides of the bayou. It’s full of both trout and reds.”
That began in the winter of 2002, and continues today. In fact, in January of this year, one of Lake’s clients, Ellen Rhorer, caught two 5+-pounders on successive casts in Bayou Sauveur.
Lake likes the main bayou of Sauveur, but he also fishes dead-ends off the bayou, like the ever-popular Tank Battery Canal.
Bayou DuNord is another big-fish wintertime hotspot, as is Lake Mechant on days when Mother Nature lets its waters settle.
Lake focuses on this winter pattern until some time in March, or whenever water temperatures climb into the low 60s.
“The fish will stay in the bayous and canals as long as the water temperature is in the 50s, but if you’re fishing the canals and the water temperature is 63, 64, 65 degrees, you’re wasting your time,” he said.
As the action in the canals and bayous begins to cool, that in the lakes catches fire.
“March is the beginning of the migration pattern to Lake Mechant, Sister Lake, Moncleuse Bay — that area,” Lake said. “The oyster reefs really start to become active.”
Oyster reefs are few and far between on Lake Mechant, but Sister Lake is carpeted with them, which can make navigation a hazard.
“If you don’t know where you’re going on Sister Lake, you need to really be careful,” Lake said. “It’s a state seed lake, so it’s full of oysters.”
There are a number of places on Mechant that Lake finds to be consistently productive this time of year.
Specifically, he likes the shell islands on the east side of the lake, the flats near Goose Bay and the mouths of Raccourci Bayou and Deer Bayou.
“The key to being successful in March is to get out early,” he said. “By 9 a.m., the wind usually blows, and you’re done, but it’s rare that the wind’s blowing at daylight, unless you’re fishing the day after a front.
“After the wind starts to blow, you can fish the lee side of the lake and do O.K., but many of the reefs are in open water, so you’re better off trying to beat it.”
Lake’s bait of choice is a tight-lined Bayou Chub minnow, fished without a cork. He likes this bait in March because the trout are feeding on mullet.
“Clean water and mullet are the keys on the reefs and flats in March,” he said. “If you’ve got mullet, you’ve got fish 90 percent of the time.”
The specks will stay on this mullet bite throughout March and well into April.
But then, sometime in mid-April, the shrimp get big enough for the trout to begin feeding on them. Lake replaces his clients’ Bayou Chubs with Speculizer rigs.
“When you start seeing those shrimp popping out of the water with trout trying to slap them, then you know it’s time (to switch to shrimp-imitating baits),” he said.
Lake often fishes the shrimp-eating trout of the interior lakes until mid-May, but at the end of April, he’ll begin to check the beaches of the Isles Dernieres chain for any early spawning trout.
“Two years ago, my clients and I caught 850 trout on the beach before anyone even thought about looking for them,” he said. “We had all those fish to ourselves.
“But weather’s everything. It’s got to be right to catch fish on the beach. But if we have a mild winter and a few nice days in late April, you can go there and wear out the fish.”
Once he finds the fish outside, Lake abandons the inshore areas until autumn. He says the beaches are fun and hold a lot of potential, but his bread-and-butter summer fishing is at the rigs in Ship Shoal 26, 28 and 33.
“At those rigs is where you can see the real difference in the size of our fish,” Lake said. “We always caught nice fish out there, but now you go there and have legitimate confidence that you’re going to catch fish between 4 and 7 pounds.”
To catch the sows at the rigs, Lake relies on Carolina-rigged croakers.
“You can leave the plastic at home,” he said. “I’ve seen it to where we were catching a fish on every drop on croakers, and every trout you reeled in had six or seven trout following it up trying to get the croaker out of its mouth. I’d drop down a plastic, and couldn’t get a bite.”
Lake gets his croakers from trawl boats on the way out.
“I’ve made friends with a few of them, so I just call them in the morning and find out where they are. They save their croakers for me,” he said.
According to Lake, wind and tidal range are the keys to having success at the rigs.
“You want the wind under 12 (m.p.h.) and you don’t want a real hard tide; about .6 to .8 of a foot is ideal,” he said. “If you can’t keep a 2-ounce weight on the bottom, the tide’s too strong.”
Heavier weights make it nearly impossible to feel strikes, Lake said.
The action peaks at the Ship Shoal rigs in June and July, Lake said.
During one three-week stretch during those months last year, Lake and his clients boated a 7-12, a 7-10, two 6-pounders and countless 5-pounders — and that was just from one satellite rig.
Fish of that size are wrecking lower Terrebonne’s reputation as a sort of trout kindergarten, a place where little trout go to grow and learn before graduating to big-fish spots like Venice, Lake Pontchartrain and Calcasieu Lake.
It’s enough to make an angler disappointed with a 2 1/2-pounder.
Capt. Bill Lake can be reached at (985) 851-6015.