The making of a fisheries leader

As a young Northeast Louisiana University (now ULM) biology major, Mike Wood figured out fairly quickly what he wanted to do in life.

“My career started while I was still in school, and it never took a turn in any other direction,” Wood said. “I was a biology major and had a couple of friends — including Jimmy Anthony, who is now the assistant director of the Department (of Wildlife and Fisheries) — who encouraged me along the way.

“I was president of the Wildlife Club and gung ho about the outdoors. They needed a part-time student assistant, and biologist Ricky Yeldell told them I would be a good one. The rest is history.”

Wood went to work, helping run nets and shock fish, rode around in the boat, saw all kinds of fish and got to spend all his time on the lake.

And they paid him. What wasn’t to like?

Wood eventually ended up as a biologist, fish hatchery manager and district manager for the state agency.

It was at LDWF that he was forced to learn to mix fisheries biology with public relations and gaining an understanding of the psychology of anglers, who were a “gold mine” of knowledge and advice based on their most-recent fishing trips — whether they were asked for it or not.

Eventually, a statewide position was created to help district managers deal not only with fishery resources but with conflicts, public perception of the management of lakes and other issues.

But the crowning achievement of those days for Wood was the establishment of data-driven Waterbody Management Plans for all the state’s major lakes.

It wasn’t an easy task because it was 1) a lot of work and 2) it took a massive sales job to get the public to buy in.

Those plans are still in place today and updated regularly.

“We did it in a way to where the whole agency and the public were part of it,” Wood explained. “That way it wasn’t a manager’s plan: it was the department’s plan.

“It was not only an assessment of where the lake was, but (included) recommendations to make it even better or solve any major issues.”

Wood’s final position with the LDWF was as Inland Fisheries director. He continued to push forward the lake plans and focused on freshwater fisheries development.

As he looked back over his career, Wood said it spanned some of the most-amazing times in Louisiana freshwater fishing.

Among those was the rise, fall and rise again of trophy Florida bass at Caney Lake near Jonesboro, which yielded six of the state’s top 10 largemouth bass during Wood’s watch.

Caney was a boon to bigbass fishing, but it fell victim to aquatic vegetation issues. The use of grass carp cleared up thick hydrilla mats, but it also removed all visible habitat for the fisheries.

The learning curve brought the lake back into prominence, and it is an amazing fishery again today.

The rebirth of the Saline-Larto complex also is an accomplishment with which Wood relishes being involved.

“When this (complex) was reborn, they had some of the best fishing in the world down there, but nobody knew about it,” he said. “We worked to spread the word, and most people were delighted.

“But some of the ones that didn’t want all the public attention didn’t (appreciate the publicity).”

Florida bass stocking and management — which included slots limits — were controversial issues that were fun and rewarding, but also a nightmare.

The brunt of public disapproval was aimed directly at Wood, and it never got more heated than when he was at the forefront of leading the state to consider removing length limits on Atchafalaya Basin bass.

It was a long fight, but Wood believes the Basin’s bass management today is the best it has been for fishermen and the resource.

“We, the biologists, work for the anglers,” he said. “Our job is to provide the best habitat for the best fish populations possible. We have to make recommendations and help sell those recommendations to the best of our ability.

“We don’t always agree, but then who does?”

Throughout his career, Wood has not only worked on lakes, rivers and fish populations, but he has been an ambassador for the LDWF, working events like national bass tournaments, outdoor shows, fishing events and kids rodeos.

He has met with large groups of anglers in formal settings and smaller groups out in front of bait shops in areas most people couldn’t find without a GPS.

Louisiana’s fishing pportunities and challenges

When asked about the biggest opportunity he sees ahead for Louisiana’s freshwater fishing, retired biologist Mike Wood didn’t hesitate.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we are moving in the right direction to increase opportunities with smaller water bodies and more shoreline angling opportunities,” Wood said. “I don’t think we are moving fast enough, but it is important to developing future anglers. We need more places where kids can fish and single moms can bring kids fishing.

“It’s hard to justify the enormous expense of big boats and tons of equipment for most people today. If we want to grow fishing, it will have to be with smaller-scale opportunities where people can actually catch fish.”

The biggest challenge was an easy answer, too.

“One of the big problems we have is that we have much of the same types of habitat and climate that they do in areas of China and South America, where a lot of exotic plants and fish species come from,” Wood said. “That means they can thrive here, too, and that’s not a good thing.”

The two worst exotics are silver carp, which can over-populate a body of water to the point that it cannot even support sports fish, and giant salvina.

“It’s scary what this can become,” Wood said of giant salvinia. “If we don’t get it under control, it can take over. And anglers going from lake to lake can take it to lakes on their trailers and boat motors that have never seen it before.

“Drawdowns can control it temporarily (and) it won’t tolerate cold temperatures.

“An example is Lake Bistineau: We can draw it down and almost make (giant salvinia) disappear, but then in August, there are 6,000 acres of it again.”

Some strains of weevils that will eat the plant are being developed, but they are not a solution at this point because of the proliferation of salvinia.

“The biggest problem is (giant salvinia) can completely take over shallow-water areas of lakes like Caney, Claiborne, D’Arbonne, Bistineau and Cross,” Wood said. “And even in deeper areas, big 20- to 30-acres of floating mats can go with the flow even down into deeper areas of the lakes.

“It’s something we can’t ignore.”

About Kinny Haddox 591 Articles
Kinny Haddox has been writing magazine and newspaper articles about the outdoors in Louisiana for 45 years. He publishes a daily website, and is a member of the Louisiana Chapter of the Outdoor Legends Hall of Fame. He and his wife, DiAnne, live in West Monroe.