Winter Wading

Break out your duck hunting gear and jump out your boat to catch the biggest trout of the year on Calcasieu and Sabine lakes.

Human nature seems to require most fishermen to try and make something happen before it’s really the ideal time.

Getting a jump on the spring sac-a-lait spawn or the winter redfish run in protected waters is almost necessary for legions of devoted followers.

Trout, especially the large ones for which Southwest Louisiana has become known, are no different. As much biological and anecdotal evidence there is for an early spawn by the species’ biggest fish, most of the real trophies come during the warmer months of May and June, when weather conditions are most favorable.

But there’s a growing faction of anglers who look forward to launching boats on Calcasieu and Sabine lakes when winter’s chill is not even a memory. And, like the Texas anglers they learned from, this group unceremoniously bails out of their boats to better their chances of catching a trout that no one would be ashamed to put on the scale or on the wall.

Wading is the preferred method for trout and redfish fishing along much of the Texas coast. For years, Louisiana anglers have been stealing the line someone told about Lone Star State fishermen buying tricked-out $40,000 boats and then “… can’t wait to jump out of them.”

You can’t, however, argue with many of their results. Much like Florida fishermen, Texas guys have to work that much harder for their fish than those fortunate enough to regularly visit Louisiana waters. And there’s no questioning the size of the trout patrolling Texas waters.

Bud Rowland, a South Texas fly fisherman, caught and released a trout that is recognized as an IGFA fly-rod line-class record measuring 37 ¼ inches and weighed 15 pounds, 6 ounces, and stated he’s seen fish as big and bigger in the vast shallow grass flats.

Rowland fished from a modified flats skiff with high platforms, but many Texans choose to ease along at a height preventing them from seeing much of anything more than a few feet away.

“Several years ago, the Troutmasters tournament series came over (to Sabine Lake), and really taught us some things about fishing for big trout,” said veteran trout guide Chuck Uzzle. “We started seeing some of the big fish that they were bringing in, and it really opened a lot of people’s eyes.

“If you could combine the length of the South Texas trout with the thickness that we’ve got (in Louisiana), you’d have an incredible fish. You might have a 30-inch fish down there that almost looks like a snake. It might weight as little as 6 pounds, whereas a fish that weight on Sabine or Big Lake could very well be as short as 25 inches. The fresh water and nutrients make it an incredible fishery.”

Uzzle should know. He takes most of his charter trips to Calcasieu and Sabine.

“We’re very blessed over here with the bait we’ve got. In addition to the saltwater species like mullet and menhaden, we get a lot of shad — the threadfins and gizzards — for the fish to feed on. They don’t have that in Texas. They’re often complaining about the hyper-salinity down in Laguna Madre, just begging for some fresh water.”

The South Texas region also holds incredibly clear water at times, making the fish especially spooky to anglers fishing out of a boat. Wading tips the odds in the fisherman’s favor in Texas, and Uzzle has found that it does a superb job on his home waters as well.

“A lot of people don’t like it, and I’m fine with that. I like fishing out of a boat as much as anybody, but if you really want to have a good chance at catching the fish of a lifetime, wading is one of the best ways to do it. Even though I’ve been fortunate enough to catch three trout over 10 pounds, and they were all caught out of a boat, my single best day in terms of size and numbers was caught wading.

“It just makes sense to be versatile in your approach. If people could just once hear what a wave slapping against a fiberglass or aluminum hull sounds like (in the water), they’d realize what an advantage wading has. You’ve got guys from Houston driving hours to (wade) these waters, and they do really well.”

Of course, a certain group of anglers from Texas caused quite an uproar several springs ago, taking advantage of a foggy March day on Big Lake’s western shore to catch several dozen trophy trout. The pictures, which made the rounds on the Internet, cut deeply among southwestern Louisiana anglers, fearing an inexorable infusion of “aliens” into their sacred waters and keeping an amount of breeding fish they wouldn’t dare in their home waters.

“Yeah, those guys did something really dumb that day, especially with the pictures getting out like they did,” said Uzzle. “Things have gotten a lot better since then.”

Not only were relations strained by the infamous pictures, Louisiana anglers were unmoved by the Texans’ brand of fishing etiquette, where wading anglers are given an extremely wide berth upon passing, and fishing anywhere near them is severely frowned upon.

“There’s a big difference in the amount of space a wader generally wants from other anglers. (The Texans) have their own ideas about how you should fish around waders, and that’s been a learning experience as well.”

Uzzle says that taking advantage of calm winter days can be critical to finding ideal stretches of area to fish, especially when concentrating his efforts on Big Lake.

“Sabine Lake is a pretty fresh lake much of the year, so they don’t get a whole lot of oysters in there. Mainly we’re looking at fishing drains where the water coming out of the marsh is a little bit warmer than usual,” said Uzzle. “On Big Lake, I like to find transition areas, where it turns from hard bottom to a more soft bottom or a shell bed.

“I’ll take my Maverick on clear, calm days and get on the poling platform and look for those transition areas. From up there, you can really see a lot when you get that ‘winter clear.’”

Texas anglers are fond of fishing patches of mud in their home waters, believing that the water is a bit warmer than their normal bottom, which is much different than that which most anglers in the Bayou State are used to.

Rather than fishing specific mud pockets, Uzzle prefers working a line of transition from harder bottom to soft.

“If I’m easing along and it suddenly becomes soft, I’ll stop and thoroughly work the area on both sides,” he said.

Kirk Stansel of Hackberry Rod and Gun Club is one of the most accomplished guides on Calcasieu, and though the vast majority of his customers prefer fishing from a boat, he says that late winter and early spring can be the best times to catch “that one fish.”

“The really big trout didn’t get to be that big by being dumb. We’re talking about the fish that have survived everything in this lake for many years. They’re much like a big buck. You’ve got a good chance to catch one by just easing along and making as little noise as possible,” he said.

Stansel says that, like most kinds of saltwater fishing, bait is the key to success in wading. Mullet is the bait of choice this time of year, and though he prefers seeing bait of finger size or a little larger, any size is O.K.

Big trout have been known to opportunisticly engulf huge single meals during periods of cold weather, thus sustaining themselves for many days.

“Pelicans are another key. White or brown, they’re feeding on the same species of bait as those big trout,” he said.

Rather than working specific spots, Stansel allows factors such as those mentioned above to dictate where he chooses to fish, adding that the best way to examine an area is to have several fishermen work a shoreline from the inside out.

Like any other time of the year, the fishing in both Calcasieu and Sabine is largely dependent on the amount of fresh water coming down the rivers. Strong late-winter and spring storms can knock the fishing off regardless of other conditions.

“The entire premise of fishing (Sabine) is dictated by the amount of run-off we get from up north,” says Uzzle. “Sabine is a little worse off in that it has two rivers that affect its salinity. Whereas the Calcasieu River kind of shoots down the ship channel over there, and the lake acts like a kind of eddy, the Neches and the Sabine pour right into (Sabine) lake.”

Stansel concurs that fresh water can severely impact fishing on Big Lake, especially on the traditionally best areas for late winter.

“Most of the fishing during this time of year is on the northern end of the lake,” he said. “You draw a straight line from Commissary Point to Long Point, and everything north of the line is what we’re targeting for trout in the cold-weather months.”

Baits best used for these heavy fish are the typical fare served up by anglers looking for the biggest of the breed. Big trout are generally well past the days of chasing hordes of baitfish in order to fill their belly.

Slow-moving topwaters or sinking jerkbaits, such as Corkies or the MirrOlure series of slow sinkers, are among the top producers.

“The Catch 2000 is made for this type of fishing, a bait that you’ve got to work slowly in order to maximize its effectiveness,” said Uzzle. “The Catch 5 is a bait that has only been out a short time, but it’s really been proved to be a producer so far. It’s a little fatter than the 2000, kind of like the Fat Boy Corky.”

The Corky is another Texas import and, particularly in chilly water temperatures, has proved itself invaluable as a fish producer. There are several widely distributed knock-offs of the popular slow sinkers made by Houston-area resident Paul Brown, but Uzzle and Stansel say there seems to be something about the homemade lures, which incorporate a stainless steel wire surrounded by cork, that separates them from the copy-cats.

“You don’t wade without one,” said Uzzle.

Another winner for waders is the Bill Lewis Slap-Stik. Uzzle says the way it sits in the water is a draw to the big fish.

“Down in South Texas, they put souter on the back of a Super Spook to make it ride a little lower,” he said. “I think this is the same concept as with the Slap-Stik.”

Stansel similarly favors the MirrOlure brand of slow-sinkers such as the Catch 2000, Catch 5 and the Corky.

“I really like the white with the red heads for the MirrOlures. For the Corkies, chartreuse is the main color along with pearl with the chartreuse back,” Stansel said, adding that he always ties his baits with a loop knot on the 30-pound leader attached to 10-pound main line.

Stansel says it’s important to not be scared of fishing off-colored water and water that is not on the calm shoreline.

“You need about 6 to 10 inches of visibility, which isn’t a whole lot,” said Stansel. “You can also have a lot of success with an area with a moderate breeze coming off of the open water.”

Safety is a final factor for those choosing to wade the open water, especially away from the shoreline. Fish can literally be anywhere from 1 foot deep to 5 feet or more. This can necessitate wading in water covering much of one’s body.

The two guides had several tips to avoiding the unthinkable.

“First, I always carry a whistle with me,” said Uzzle. “It can be a big help without having to yell. I also wear a bright hat.

“The thing about wading is that some of the best fishing conditions are when it’s really foggy, conditions that are really dangerous to be out there in a boat, much less in the water,” said Uzzle.

Stansel recommends wearing some sort of hunter orange, saying that quite simply people in boats are not used to having to look out for people in the water.

“Some of the guys don’t want to be seen by the fish,” said Stansel, speaking of the thought process normally reserved for freshwater trout anglers in mountain streams. “There’s no way any fish is worth getting run over.” n


Corkies can be ordered by calling Paul Brown at 713-946-9188; Kirk Stansel can be reached at at 337-762-3391; Chuck Uzzle can be reached at 409 886-0629.

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