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September 21, 2007

Trophy Trout Heaven

Louisiana's Lake Calcasieu has come into its own as one of the best places in the south to take a wall-hanger trout. Here's how the pros fish this remarkably productive honey hole.


Soft-plastic lures, such as this Assassin, will draw strikes from large trout lurking in Calcasieu's murky water.

I was sure that long-time Calcasieu guide Jimmy Deason had lost his mind when he pulled away from that school of hungry speckled trout. We were having a blast, catching fish after fish, and now he wanted to leave.

"Let's move over there and see if we can up the size our catch," Deason said, starting the engine and pointing to a spot just a short distance away. "I've been catching some trout in the six- to eight-pound range in that area."Always trust your guide, I thought as Deason idled over to the submerged reef and took the boat out of gear. "Okay, let's make a drift right through here and see what happens," he said. "We can throw plastics, but my recommendation is to work a topwater across this shell."

Again I questioned Deason's sanity. We were in nine feet of murky water. No trout in its right mind was going to hit a surface plug in those conditions. That was my thinking - until a huge trout walloped Deason's She Dog plug.

Trophy Trout Heaven
Big trout are back in force in Lake Calcasieu, helped in part by a ban on commercial nets. The result is great sport for light-tackle anglers.

"That's a good fish!" he said, leaning back on his rod. "We're going to need the net for this one." After a few minutes he expertly worked the fish close and I slipped the net under its fat belly. On the hand-held scale it registered a smidgen over seven pounds and measured 28 inches in length. Perhaps there was method to this guide's madness.

"We like to release the big trout here," said Deason as he gently lowered the gleaming fish into the water. "No need to kill the big females." As if in agreement, the big trout waggled its tail and slipped out of sight.

Calcasieu Blooms

We were fishing on Lake Calcasieu, a vast, salt water bay located in the southwest corner of Louisiana, just south of the city of Lake Charles. Recently, Calcasieu (pronounced "cal-CA-shew") has become one of the top trout spots in the state, if not the entire Gulf Coast. Its recent boost in popularity was sparked in no small part by last year's capture of a lake record 11.25-pound trout. That fish was not far off the state record 12.38-pounder, taken in May of 1950.

Calcasieu's trout fishery has bloomed in recent years. The reason why is simple: the commercial nets that used to make a serious dent in the trout population are gone, as in illegal. Sport fishermen are now seeing just how good this fishery can be without gillnets stretched from one end to the other. The lake's size and abundance of prey also encourages its productivity. Calcasieu is 15 miles long and eight miles wide, so it can handle a lot of fishing pressure. That's mainly because there are so many places to find trout.

It's no secret that speckled trout like to hold over shell reefs, which attract an array of baitfish. And Calcasieu is loaded with shell reefs, although not all of them produce every day.

Trophy Trout Heaven
Large numbers of huge fish caught in Calcasieu waters are released to fight - and breed - again.

"It's a matter of moving from one reef to another until you find the fish," says guide Rusty Byler, who within the past couple of years has caught three Calcasieu trout weighing right around nine pounds. Byler and Deason, along with 13 other guides, work out of the famous Hackberry Rod & Gun Club, located on the lake. Networking amongst the guides keeps them on fish, lots of them. That's why this particular fishing outfit is so popular.

The lodge was opened back in 1975 by Terry Shaughnessy, and is now being run by stepsons Guy, Kirk and Bobby Stansel, all of whom work as guides. "The catches of trout have been excellent," says Guy. "Through the use of radios and cell phones, we have a lock on big trout."

Lots of Spots

Calcasieu is not a clear-water bay. In fact, it's murky most of the time. More often than not, the best fishing takes place over open shell bottom in five to nine feet of water. Some of the better shell reefs on the lake include Long Point Oyster Reef, Nine Mile Cut and Wash Out. Other reefs can be found at the mouths of bayous feeding into the lake, such as Lambert Bayou and Grand Bayou.

One of the most popular reefs is Commissary Point Reef, located in the middle of the lake. It's well known for attracting lots of trout - and fishermen. Last spring I counted 28 boats on this particular reef in one afternoon.

"Commissary holds a lot of shell," says Deason. "Big trout move up and down that shell to feed on shad, shrimp and mullet. Even though the water is a little deep and off-color, the big trout will come up and smack a topwater lure."

Trophy Trout Heaven
Topwater plugs such as MirrOlure Top Dogs, She Dogs, Excalibur Super Spooks, Storm Chug Bugs and Ghosts work well in springtime, when mullet become the prey of choice for big spawning trout.

Working a particular reef at different angles can pay off with some hefty trout. One day, Deason and I found ourselves on Commissary Reef among a fleet of anchored boats. It seemed like everybody was catching trout.

After catching a few small trout, Deason made a suggestion. "Let's slide over a couple hundred yards and fish some humps of shell on the outside edge of the reef. Sometimes the bigger trout will be along the edges of the shell. The surrounding water depth is around eight or nine feet, but the humps come up to about six feet. That's where big trout hang out."

Just like magic we began catching one or two big trout on every drift by working topwater plugs over the humps. But more importantly, Deason made sure to keep the boat just within casting distance of the humps so we wouldn't spook the big trout, which are skittish by nature.

Hot Lures

Trophy Trout Heaven
Tossing topwaters across shell beds is a proven technique for anglers who want to catch trophy seatrout, even when conditions would seem to suggest a different approach.

Soft-plastics, such as Assassins and Norton Sand Eels, rigged on jigs are very popular on Calcasieu (Timothy Mahoney used a jig to catch his 11.25-pounder on May 10, 2002). But some of the more savvy anglers on the lake stick with topwater plugs, especially during spring, when the big female trout are loaded with eggs and feed heavily on big mullet. Two of the most popular topwater lures include the Super Spook and MirrOlure She Dog. During calm conditions, when a more subtle approach is needed, downsizing to a Super Spook Jr. can pay off.

As mentioned, Calcasieu has been drawing a lot more attention as of late. Last July, Mickey Eastman brought his Gulf Coast TroutMasters tournament to the Texas/Louisiana border. The anglers in this contest had the option of fishing either Sabine Lake on the border, or Calcasieu. Jon Loring of San Antonio, Texas, won the contest with a two-day catch of six trout from Calcasieu that weighed a whopping total of 33.54 pounds. That's an average weight of 5.59 pounds per fish. His catch was topped off by an eight-pounder. Loring said that all his fish were caught on Super Spooks.

Deason and many of the other veteran guides on Calcasieu lean towards the MirrOlure She Dog. "The pattern that really produces some big trout here is a chartreuse back and belly with white sides and a hot-pink throat," says Deason. "Chrome is another hot color."

Lake Calcasieu feeds into Calcasieu Channel, which leads to Calcasieu Pass and the open Gulf. That link to the Gulf is the key to the fantastic fishing. "The lower end of the lake is where some of the most consistent trout fishing takes place," says Byler. "The amount of baitfish moving in and out of the pass with the tides attracts lots of trout."

Calcasieu Info

Where to Stay:

For details on fishing out of the Hackberry Rod & Gun Club, call (337) 762-3391 or visit their website at www.hackberryrodandgun.com. This is a full-service lodge, and offers transportation to and from the nearby Lake Charles airport.

Facilities:

There are very limited facilities on Calcasieu. Hebert's Marina is among the best full-service marinas on the lake. It's conveniently located at mid-lake, and offers ramps, gas, groceries, guide service and daily fishing reports. For details call (337) 598-4545.

Guide:

To contact Steve Bono, the guide who led Tim Mahoney to his 11.25-pound trophy last year, call (337) 598-3305 or visit www.bayoucharterservice.com.

- Ron Ballanti

To prove his point, one afternoon Byler took me to the old jetties and adjacent reefs located off the Calcasieu Channel. "See the tops of those rocks," he asked as we idled up to the jetties, which were barely visible on the high tide. "There's a big shell reef right out here. The tide is about to begin falling. When that happens, the baitfish will gather in this little pocket of shell and we should catch a lot of trout."

Sure enough, as the tide changed directions, the bite turned on. We caught 36 trout to about four pounds, along with a few reds and two flounder. All were caught on Norton Sand Eels in white/chartreuse and Assassins in the new "space guppy" pattern. A 1/4-ounce jig seemed to work best. Byler likes unpainted round-head jigs with gold hooks. Incidentally, the space guppy pattern has turned out to be a real killer on Calcasieu trout. Assassin rep Drew Davis, who lives in Louisiana and fishes Calcasieu often, turned me on to the pattern while drifting the lower reefs one morning. It's a lime/gold/black-flake color pattern.

It goes without saying that when a bay along the Gulf Coast begins producing huge numbers of trout, many of them in the "wall-hanger" category, it's going to receive a lot of fishing pressure. That's why guides at the Hackberry Rod & Gun Club have made it their mission to protect the resource. "Calcasieu is getting a lot of pressure right now," says Deason. "And a large number of trophy trout are being caught. It's up to us to encourage anglers to release those fish. If we box every mature trout we catch, sooner or later the resource will be depleted."

Lighten Up for Trophy Trout

Long Casts Required Although Calcasieu is known for producing trophy trout, there is no need to go after them with heavy tackle. In fact, light line (12- to 15-pound test) can lead to more fish. The main reason why is that long casts are often required to keep from spooking the larger fish. Plus, small-diameter, lightweight lines don't dampen the action of a jig or topwater plug as much as heavy line does. To prevent cut-offs caused by contact with the shell bottom and the trout's teeth, I tie on 18 inches of 14- to 17-pound-test High Impact fluorocarbon. It's very abrasion-resistant, yet has the relatively small diameter of a lighter line.

Trout Tackle

I use two outfits for catching big trout on Calcasieu.

  • One is a Shimano Bantam Curado baitcasting reel seated on a 6 1/2-foot All Star rod.
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  • Another good baitcasting rig is a Shakespeare Catera reel matched to a 6 1/2-foot Intrepid Titanium IM-7 rod. These two outfits are perfect for fishing 12-pound line. - Robert Sloan