Louisiana Bayou Sac-a-lait
Crappie are abundant in the waterways that criss-cross
the flooded swamp.
by Larry Larsen
Two twitches of the rod tip was all it took for a pan-size crappie to tug back. The small bobber disappeared into the stained swamp water and the
wispy rod bent into a hook-shape. I lifted the 3/4 pound fish into the boat and glanced forward at my guide for the day, Charlie Jeanmard. He also was hoisting in a crappie of about
the same proportions.
Ten fish in the first 15 minutes. Not a bad start, I thought.
"The Sac-a-lait here are not running large enough," stated the veteran crappie fisherman. "We need to move."
For 35 years, the now-retired Lafayette businessman has been fishing the Atchafalaya Basin and catching lots of "sac-a
-lait," as the cajuns around the swamp call the crappie. So, who's not to listen to Jeanmard. He used a small handheld
walkie-talkie to tell his friend in a nearby boat that we were moving. Leroy Mouton, his long time fishing companion, agreed that the larger
crappie could be elsewhere, so he stowed his rod and followed us.
We motored along the bayou canals through some of the prettiest scenery found
in southern Louisiana. We moved through river and creek channels and through cuts that parted a shallow-looking flooded swamp. The depth in the basin, though, can be
deceiving. In the swift Atchafalaya River, depths range from 30 to 90 feet, surprisingly deep. Just off the river are numerous bayous and small tributaries that
form the Atchafalaya Basin. The water level back in the basin is always high, according to the locals, and sometimes it is flooded. As a result, plenty of backwater
areas exist just from the natural river levels.
Jeanmard shut off his outboard and we coasted to a stop along a cypress-lined creek. He readied his 8 1/2 foot rod and flipped his small jig
near the grass-surrounded cypress knees. The tip jerked downward and he swung another palm-size crappie into the boat. My first flip against the overgrown cover just off the bank
resulted in an even smaller crappie. Jeanmard and I continued to pick up crappie a variety of sizes along the bank.
The basin is dangerous to fish if you don't know what you're doing. When you
are fishing in the flooded swamps, you may find that area is only two feet deep. But, in the bayous and tributaries, you can often find 10 to 20 feet of water.
The majority of the crappie fishing takes place in the bayous and smaller creeks and canals, away from the deep river channels
Finally, Jeanmard caught one that would have easily weighed over a pound, and ten feet further down the bank, my rod was
doubled over by a heavy fish. It easily pulled drag from the small Zebco UL 4 reel spooled with six pound test line. I carefully fought the 7 pound drum to the waiting landing net.
The tussle was repeated three more times that day with drum almost as large.
Atchafalaya Basin Results
The hand-built jig pole worked perfectly on those fish, a couple of catfish, four bass
, several sunfish and about 70 crappie ranging up to about 1 1/4 pounds. Jeanmard orders the long, limber graphite rod blanks with a No. 5 or 6 tip and threads the line
from the spincast reel through the hollow blank. The reel's function is mostly to hold line and to offer a drag when a larger crappie or other heavy fish is hooked.
Jeanmard's equipment and tactics for the Atchafalaya Basin have evolved from his constant year-round exposure. He and Mouton originally employed small shiner
minnows in the basin, but switched to jigs in the early 1970s. Since then, they have used jigs exclusively.
In fact, Jeanmard's daughter makes the area's most popular jigs. Becky's Custom-Made Jigs (204 Ransome St., Lafayette, LA 70501; 318/234-2218) are a hand-tied
hair jig with a balanced lead head. They carry 1/64, 1/32 and 1/16 ounce jigs, but Jeanmard prefers the middleweight for springtime action. The 1/64 ounce is also
effective on the basin crappie at that time when the fish prefer a smaller jig.
In April, the basin water is usually high, and crappie are numerous outside of the
basin, either in the marsh or the Stevenville area. If the water level in the basin is low from a relatively dry spring, the crappie will be thick in the basin.
Getting Your Bearings
The Atchafalaya Basin is located south of Interstate 10 and stretches from Lake Arthur to Morgan City, or about 100 miles. The basin is 18
miles at its widest point and is an authentic swamp. When the basin's water is high, most of the swamp is under water. The
channels in the basin and swamp are not well marked, so it is advisable to fish with a local or a guide who knows where they are.
"People get lost out there every year," warns Jeanmard in his cajun accent. "You're going into a wild area, so you need to
take plenty of gas in your boat and a good map. Those who are unfamiliar with the basin can use their head and a good
compass to keep from getting lost. A lot of people don't have a compass or don't think about their course, though."
When crappie are spawning, Jeanmard suggests that you fish the edges of the cover that lies in fairly shallow water. He'll normally use a bobber even in waters two
feet deep or less. The fish are normally on the edge in shallow water.
The largest crappie typically taken in the bayous weigh about 2 1/2 pounds, and
the limit is usually generous. Jeanmard and Mouton catch a limit just about every time they go fishing, which is three or four times each week. Check out the bayous
and remember that good stringers of crappie here will have fish that average one to 1 1/4 pounds!
"We use a combination of black body and chartreuse wing/tail jig in the spring, says
Jeanmard. "We use black & orange, blue and white, and black & gray with a tinsel
body. The latter is real popular. It's called the minnow. Another good color for fishing in bayous called the bumblebee, is black & yellow."
Another effective tactic for catching Sac-a-lait in the bayous is trolling. The fish often hang out in the middle of the canals for a couple of weeks, but
some years that pattern lasts for two or three months. Trolling is the most productive method then.
During years of unusually high water over a long period, the pattern can change.
Most bayous are affected by rain runoff, not necessarily that rainfall in the immediate area. The water clarity changes and may get muddy with runoff, particularly if that
runoff is through reddish mud country. When that happens, if you can find an area that's clear, you might find some fish. Generally though, the crappie won't be feeding
in the muddy areas.
Editor's Note: Click if you want help with lodging or flights. This article is a partial
excerpt from the book, "Crappie Tactics". The longer book chapter contains additional information on water color lure selections, location evaluation, weather and