Lake Pontchartrain seems to have escaped an environmental disaster, and the speckled trout couldn’t be happier.
The first thing that stood out to me was just how clear the water was. I mean, this was Lake Pontchartrain — post Katrina. I was expecting to see my baits coming back coated with a filthy, oily film. The fact that I could see my jig shimmying 3 feet down was a big surprise.I had met Tiger Rag writer Chris Macaluso, one of my fishing partners for the day, at the Rigolets Marina earlier that morning. We exchanged pleasantries and got acquainted as much as the gnats would allow.
Capt. Greg Schlumbrecht, our guide, wasn’t anywhere to be found.
Twenty minutes and 200 gnat bites later, Schlumbrecht pulled into the marina, only his trailer ball seemed to be missing something — namely, a boat. He explained that we would be going out in CCA S.T.A.R. Director Sam Barbera’s 24-foot Champion. Barbera had fished the Causeway the day before, and had caught a couple of 6-pound trout.
Macaluso quickly convinced Schlumbrecht that we needed to wait inside his truck rather than battle the biting gnats that were apparently undaunted by Hurricane Katrina.
Schlumbrecht began to explain how he had just rolled back into town only a few weeks earlier.
“We moved to Tampa, Fla., right after the storm,” he said. “The initial reports were that Lake Pontchartrain would become polluted after the dewatering efforts in New Orleans. I heard from some friends that the lake wasn’t bad, so we came back.”
Schlumbrecht took inventory of his situation, and investigated all his opportunities. He quickly decided that he would rather be slinging a bait than swinging a hammer, so he went back to guiding on his favorite lake.
The good condition of the lake after such a catastrophic storm will surprise all who watched the numerous media outlets talk about the “toxic soup” created by waste from the inundated New Orleans sewer system, oil and industrial chemicals. This “soup” was destined to enter the lake during the dewatering phase.
According to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report, the approximately 224 billion gallons of water pumped back into the lake was monitored by city, state and federal scientists who made recommendations to avoid environmental impacts to Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding areas.
Scientists with the U.S. Department of Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality coordinated with the U.S. Coast Guard to place sorbent and debris booms across pump discharge locations — specifically those where flood and storm water was being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain. The booms recovered spilled oil, gasoline and floating organic material, thus reducing the impact of the contamination.
The environmental team also aerated the water in the drainage canals leading into the lake. The aerated water entering the lake helped to increase dissolved oxygen concentrations along the south shore and avoid subsequent environmental impacts.
According to the cited report, Lake Pontchartrain suffered no adverse water-quality impact from the dewatering of New Orleans. Testing 45 days after the storm revealed no oily sheens and no fish kills. Fishing continued to be as fast-paced as ever.
Apparently the efforts paid off. The EPA, the FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a press release jointly with state health and environmental agencies in December stating that seafood harvested from the Gulf of Mexico, including Lake Pontchartrain, was safe to eat despite fears to the contrary.
Barbera eventually rolled into the Rigolets Marina and launched his boat. The cool ride to the train bridge provided a welcome respite from the gnats that had begun to attack again as we loaded the boat.
We idled under the bridge and dropped the trolling motor on the west side. It wasn’t long before Macaluso was reeling in the first trout of the day. It wasn’t huge, but it was big enough to shake the chill off for a little while.
“Lake Pontchartrain has a reputation for producing trophy trout,” Schlumbrecht said. “Consider that two of the top three speckled trout caught in Louisiana, an 11.99 and an 11.24, came from the Pontchartrain Basin (the 11.24 came from the Rigolets), and you can see that this reputation is justified.”
What has Schlumbrecht so excited about this spring is that he believes Katrina loaded the lake with a ton of new nutrients. The storm brought a lot of clean Gulf water into the lake — water loaded with oxygen and bait.
The last time the lake experienced such an influx of nutrients was in 1997 — the last time the Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened. The 11.99- and 11.24-pound trout were caught right after that in 1999.
“Think about all the bait brought in from the Gulf, and couple that with the abundance of bait produced by all the freshwater bayous and rivers that dump into the Pontchartrain Basin, and you can see why I’m so excited about this spring,” Schlumbrecht said. “I believe the next state record is swimming somewhere in the lake, and this just might be the spring that it’s caught.”
We continued bumping our jigs off the bottom near the train bridge, picking up one fish here and one fish there. It wasn’t spectacular by any means, but it was fast enough to maintain our interest, especially considering we were fishing right behind a cold front.
Schlumbrecht explained that the spring season on Pontchartrain begins sometime during the middle of March. He has observed over the years that the action begins near the south shore then spreads throughout the lake.
However, he isn’t a believer that the fish are moving back into the lake during the spring. He doesn’t think that they ever really go anywhere.
“I think they hunker down on a bridge during the winter, and more or less hibernate like bears,” said Schlumbrecht. “I guess the action begins on the south shore because it could be the first place to warm up. I think it’s just a matter of fish that have been dormant all winter suddenly getting longer and warmer days, so they get active.
“I don’t overanalyze what these fish do because they’ve never tried to tell me what was going on. I’ve never caught one with a book in its mouth. I feel that once you start doing everything textbook, the textbook will change on you.
“The key to figuring out these fish is to spend a lot of time on the water to figure out where they are and what they’re eating.
“I don’t care why they’re there because there isn’t any difference between mile marker four on the Causeway and mile marker two. It’s still 15 feet of water, and there’s still good current. Why they would be at four and not two makes no sense, but that’s what these crazy fish do.
“I can tell you one thing, though: During the spring season, it’s all about the bridges.”
Considering there are six bridges that span particular sections of the basin — the Causeway, the train bridge, Highway 11, I-10, Highway 90 and the L&N train bridge — the task of knowing which bridge to fish or where to fish on the bridges can quickly become overwhelming.
Schlumbrecht offered some advice to help ease the task.
“There isn’t much difference between the bridges,” he said. “They’re all just different structures. They all hold fish.
The largest fish have come from Highway 11 in the past. That doesn’t mean that’s where they are going to be this year. Highway 11 usually holds bigger trout, while the train bridge has more consistent action.”
The consistent action of the train bridge means Schlumbrecht usually starts there. He makes it more manageable — the train bridge is 5 1/2 miles long — by fishing sections of the bridge rather than the entire bridge from end to end.
The concrete fire control structures built into the bridge when it was wooden are still standing even after the wood was replaced with concrete. These are Schlumbrecht’s favorite sections.
“I like to fish a span of one to two fire breaks,” he said. “They are easy to identify because they look entirely different than the rest of the bridge. The fire breaks have always paid off for me in the past. They tend to have more structure around them, and they usually have a little deeper water under them.”
It didn’t take long for Barbera to get a little anxious. He began gushing infinite reasons why we should make the 17-mile run west to fish the Causeway. The action on the train bridge had slowed, so we hunkered down and prepped for the ride. Thankfully, it wasn’t a windy day.
We arrived at mile marker eight on the Causeway, and began pelting the water with our jigs. The fish that bit for Barbera the previous day were tightlipped, so we began expanding our search toward the North Shore. We eventually found a few fish willing to bite.
I quickly realized that finding fish on the Causeway could be a little overwhelming.
“Think about this,” Schlumbrecht said. “The train bridge is tough because it’s five miles long. The Causeway is five times longer.
“The best way to consistently catch fish is to network with other anglers. The fish get stacked up within a block, and they may only be stacked up on two or three places.
“The best thing I can say to help anglers find fish on the Causeway is to fish the turn-arounds and the channels under the humps. The turn-arounds give them more stuff to hang around, and the channels offer a little bit deeper water.”
No matter which bridge you’re fishing, Schlumbrecht offered some tips on how to catch more trout at Lake Pontchartrain. He used the train bridge as an example.
“I personally never throw under the train bridge,” he said. “There’s too much stuff under there to hang on. I simply pitch my bait right up against the pilings because the trout will get in that eddy water when the current starts rolling. I try to use as light a jig-head as I can but as heavy as I need.”
Schlumbrecht explained that the key to catching fish is to balance the need for getting to the bottom with the need for a natural presentation. He typically uses sizes ranging from 3/8- to 1/2-ounce. Other than the current, he also takes into account the type of bait he’s using.
“A straight-tail lure is going to fall better with a lighter jig than a bait like a Terror Tail,” he said. “The current will grab action-tail baits and move them out of the strike zone. The key is to get your bait to the bottom at the base of the pilings.
“I’d say that 90 percent of my strikes come from the bottom, so rate of fall isn’t as important as getting your bait down. Get more caught up on whether you can feel the bait rather than how fast it falls.”
Since live bait is likely to be scarce this spring, Schlumbrecht recommended practicing throwing your cast net if you want to fish with live bait.
The other option is sticking with plastics. According to him, soft plastics are best during the spring anyway.
“There aren’t any secrets on this lake,” he said. “I stick with a midnight blue moon or a blue moon Deadly Dudley 90 percent of the time. Both are going to have chartreuse tails. The blue moon color looks a lot like the rain minnows that make up a large part of the trout’s diet in the Pontchartrain Basin.”
Schlumbrecht said another important thing to remember when fishing the bridges is to work your bait all the way back to the boat. He’s caught a lot of fish up to 30 yards off the bridges.
“It’s funny,” he said, “because I’ll get bit 20 yards off the bridge after pitching to a piling then pull out and stop getting bit. Once I go back to throwing to the piling and working it out, I’ll get bit at 20 yards again.
“Make sure to work your bait all the way back to the boat because these fish will sometimes follow your bait a ways before they decide to bite.”
The easiest way to find out when the trout turn on in Lake Pontchartrain this spring is to fish every day until they appear. Of course, if you have to work like the rest of the world, you can keep up with the reader reports on Lake Pontchartrain fishing reports.
Our day eventually wound down as the sun began falling low in the sky. Watching it fall behind the clouds made me realize why some hearty souls brave hurricanes to live on a coastline.
The action wasn’t that of the sure limits that we’ve been reading about in places like DuLarge and Venice, but we caught enough speckled trout to make the grease pop. Toss in a few reds, and the day was a success by any measure.
“That’s Lake Pontchartrain,” Schlumbrecht said. “There are plenty fish in this lake, and they’ll eventually turn on sometime during the day. You’ve got to be patient because you may go fishless for several hours then start catching them later in the day. These fish bite every day. You’ve just got to be there when they do.”
For more information, call Capt. Greg Schlumbrecht at 985-960-1709 or visit
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