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May 01, 2013

Bullish on Big Lake

The Remarkable Productivity of Louisiana’s Calcasieu Lake Promises Fast Action and Satisfaction for Inshore-Slam Seekers

The conditions were all wrong. The season's first big cold front — a bit ahead of schedule for late October — decided to come roaring south on the same day I went flying west, and the two of us met up in the southwestern corner of Louisiana.

I don’t generally care to keep company with blustery types, but there it was.

Of course, I’d heard about “Big Lake,” as Calcasieu Lake is known locally, and its world-class fishing for trophy trout and abundant redfish. Some pretrip research had also made clear that Calcasieu is at its best when conditions are calm. With the wind predicted to blow from the north at 15 to 20 knots the next day, we weren’t going to see much calm weather. A north w

ind announcing a cold front usually isn’t a harbinger of good things in most inshore fisheries either.
But we had to play the hand we were dealt, and the next couple of days offered instructive — if chilly — proof of the opportunity that awaits anglers at Calcasieu.

Diving Birds Promise Trout

The author enjoys a late-afternoon gator trout, for which Big Lake’s famed.

Just as the sun began showing over the salmon-orange horizon, I was hunkered down in front of the console of Capt. Guy Stansel’s bay boat in the 35-knot wind, biting thanks to temperatures too close to the 30s for South Texas in midautumn.

Guy was heading us north, to the upper end of Big Lake. Before we left the dock at Hackberry Rod & Gun, on the upper western shore of the lake, Guy had done a good job of keeping down the expectations of his anglers, Gerry Benedicto (Seaguar’s brand manager) and me.

Guy assured us that after the leading edge of the front had passed through in another day or two, we’d likely see one of Big Lake’s hallmarks: flocks of gulls and terns wheeling and diving over shrimp. “In fact, once a cold front has gone through, in spring and fall, you’ll see birds working all over,” Guy said. “The cold flushes the shrimp out of the marsh and into the lake.”

And even in the stiff wind, some brave birds had begun forming small flocks, and Guy steered us right toward them, because where there are diving birds, there are trout.

Sure enough, for the next couple of hours, just about any lure we could drop under a few birds would be snatched. We could see shrimp here and there leaping from the café au lait water, four to six feet deep (and typical of most of the lake). The action was fun, but the fish that morning fell short of the “trophy” category.

Still, I could imagine the scene Guy had described when it’s really on here, when — rather than a few, small, isolated bird flocks — you can jump from one huge melee to the next. “You can do that all day long, usually,” Guy said.
I kept waiting to hook something other than trout, since often those “others” predominate in such feeding frenzies — ladyfish, jacks, sailcats, bluefish. But nary a one. That’s another surprising thing about Calcasieu. Guy says that often reds are mixed in with the specks, but it’s rare to hook many other species except in May, when ladyfish can be common.

trout fishing
Unseasonably cold fall morning on the lake’s northern end slows but doesn’t stop the trout bite.

Also common in midspring: massive schools of juvenile ribbonfish (cutlassfish). As much as trout like shrimp, they seem to have a particular taste for the silver four- to 10-inch eellike fish. “That’s a great time to get some really big trout,” Guy says.

“Really big” is always a relative term. In Big Lake, 10-pounders are present but rare, according to Capt. Kirk Stansel, Guy’s brother. “On the other hand,” Kirk says, “trout from six to eight pounds are pretty common.” Spring and summer are prime times to get them.

Bull Reds and a Peek at Pinky

Once the shallow waters of West Cove warmed up, redfish like this began competing with trout for our paddle-tail soft baits.

While trout were about on that chilly morning, nary a red did we see. Figuring the shallows usually so productive for reds wouldn’t have much to offer that day, Guy ran us down the 15 or so miles from the north end of Big Lake to the south end, entering the Lake Charles ship channel that connects to the Gulf of Mexico a few miles farther south. There the jetties mark Calcasieu Pass, providing the only access into the lake.

En route, we got a glimpse of a local celebrity — “Pinky,” the rare albino bottlenose dolphin that lives in the lake. There’s no missing Pinky’s distinctive, shiny, pinkish-white body.

Some other boats from Hackberry Rod & Gun were already anchored or rafted up around the end of the west jetty — and already hooking up.

This wasn’t sight-casting or working lures in shallow water. It wasn’t finesse fishing for school-size reds. This was about dropping live or cut bait to bottom, 18 or so feet down in the roiling muddy water, hooking up and hanging on. The reds were bullish, averaging 15 to 30 pounds, and very willing.

As the tide changed, the bite waned and we headed back up the lake.