John N. FelsherFew states even come close to Louisiana for offering so many water activities. Abundant waterways across the Sportsman’s Paradise naturally draw people to engage in recreational options, including fishing, canoeing, water skiing, swimming or boating. Of course, no list could adequately describe all the watery recreational activities but this list covers a few of the truly great lakes in the Bayou State. Lakes are listed in alphabetical order.
TOP LOUISIANA LAKES
Some call it “the most beautiful lake in America.” The 26,810-acre Caddo Lake straddles the Louisiana-Texas line about 17 miles northwest of Shreveport. About 12 miles wide and 16 miles long, it looks more like a flooded cypress swamp than a natural lake.
Caddo Lake possibly formed during the 1811 New Madrid earthquake that also created Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. Another theory proposes that Caddo Lake formed over several centuries when a huge logjam called The Great Raft blocked the Red River. Water behind this natural dam backed into sloughs and bayous, creating the lake.
Regardless of creation theory, anglers today find Caddo Lake full of fish-holding cover. The lake averages about six feet deep but some holes drop to nearly 30 feet in the old main channel and some flooded creek channels. Strands of moss-draped cypress trees and lily pad thickets make Caddo Lake not only picturesque but highly productive for largemouth bass, catfish, bream and crappie. Skiers and boaters however, might find a difficult time throughout most of the lake.
Managed jointly by two states as a trophy bass fishery, it remains the best place in northwest Louisiana to catch a largemouth that weighs in the double digits. Both states stock millions of fast-growing Florida-strain largemouth bass into the system. In fact, the lake record bass exceeds the Louisiana state record.
Bobby Shaver lipped a 16.01-pound bass on April 13, 1992 – but he weighed the fish in Texas. Greg Wiggins pulled the largest Louisiana largemouth, a 15.97-pound fish, from Caney Lake in February 1994.
“Caddo Lake has the best potential for a trophy bass in northwest Louisiana,” says James Seales, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) biologist in Minden. “People catch bass up to 10 pounds fairly often and numerous 8-pound fish. It has a potential to break the Louisiana record.”
Anglers may fish throughout the lake with either a Texas or a Louisiana license. However, fishing regulations may differ depending upon whether one fishes in Texas or Louisiana waters – boaters can easily slip across the state line without knowing it.
Many anglers launch off La. Highway 1 in Oil City. A launch at the base of the Caddo Lake bridge also provides access. Several launches in Uncertain, Texas, also provide access.
Information, LDWF office in Minden, (318) 371-3050.
In September 2005, Hurricane Rita ripped right across Calcasieu Lake south of Lake Charles and disrupted fishing but the saltwater action quickly recovered. For years, the oval-shaped 52,700-acre lake produced enormous catches of speckled trout, redfish, flounder and other species.
A deeper, wider and straighter version of the old river course, the Calcasieu Ship Channel, cut a swath 40 miles long, 400 feet wide and 40 feet deep from Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico. The entire estuary provides limitless opportunities for fishing, sailing, crabbing and cruising. A few sandy beaches on islands along the ship channel also offer places to swim or picnic. The Intracoastal Water crosses the Calcasieu Ship Channel, allowing boaters to go anywhere they choose.Z
Known locally as “Big Lake,” Calcasieu Lake connects with the Gulf of Mexico at the southern end of the Calcasieu Estuary near Cameron. Roughly 12 miles long and up to nine miles wide, Calcasieu Lake averages about five to eight feet deep. With abundant oyster reefs and a great expanse of open water, the lake offers outstanding boating, sailing and fishing opportunities.
While you can catch many fish species, speckled trout generally take focus. You can catch a double-digit speckled trout on any day in the estuary. The lake produced three Top 10 trout including an 11.16 pound speck caught by Timothy Mahoney on May 5, 2002.
Information, the Southwest Louisiana Conventions and Visitors Bureau, (800) 456-SWLA or visit www.visitlakecharles.org.
SONNY CARTER PHOTOGRAPH
CANE RIVER LAKE
A true “movie star,” Cane River Lake made the backdrop for the Hollywood hit, Steel Magnolias, shot in Natchitoches. The lake actually began as part of a river – in the 19th century, the Red River changed course near Natchitoches, leaving a long narrow lake that now begins about three miles north of downtown Natchitoches and runs for about 35 miles.
Cane River Lake averages about 200 to 400 feet wide and 12 feet deep, although some old holes drop to more than 25 feet deep. People sail, paddle or motor along its scenic, lazy 1,275 acres largely free of obstructions. Anglers love it for its easy access and abundant bream, bass and catfish.
“Cane River Lake is a very fertile, productive system with a tremendous amount of bluegills and shad,” says Ricky Moses, and LDWF biologist in Pineville. “For bluegills the Cane River doesn’t produce many big ones but people can catch all the hand-sized bluegills they want on just about anything. It has more bass from 6 to 8 pounds than any other lake in central Louisiana. It also produces some 10-pound fish.”
JOHN FELSHER PHOTOGRAPHS
Southwest of Farmerville in Union Parish, Lake D’Arbonne drains a huge portion of northern Louisiana. Like Caddo, much of the 15,000-acre lake resembles a flooded cypress swamp more suitable for fishing and duck hunting than boating or skiing. The lake averages about eight feet deep but some channels in Little Corney Creek and Little D’Arbonne Bayou contain water more than 30 feet deep.
About 13.5 miles long with numerous channels loaded with grass, lily pads, stump fields and flooded timber, the lake offers incredible fish habitat. In February 2000, Ed Stellner set the lake largemouth record at 15.31 pounds. The lake also produces good catches of bream, crappie and catfish.
“We haven’t seen any more 15-pound bass come out of D’Arbonne Lake, but it still has major potential to produce large bass,” says Mike Wood, an LDWF biologist in Monroe. “It’s not uncommon to see a 10- or 11-pound bass come from the lake. Crappie populations are doing extremely well. Most crappie average about 1.25 pounds. Realistically, people can expect a 2-pounder but we see a lot of crappie over 3 pounds.”
To help people find more fish, the state and private groups established several artificial reefs in key fishing areas. Using plastic pipe and “pallets,” they created units that resemble artificial Christmas trees and sunk these around the lake. The artificial cover attracts baitfish, which in turn attract bigger fish. Large yellow buoys mark each reef so you can find them easily.
Visitors stay in cabins or tents at Lake D’Arbonne State Park. Other launches off La. Highway 33 or La. Highway 2 offer access to the lake.
Information, LDWF in Monroe, (318) 343-4044 or visit www.crt.state.la.us/parks/idarbonne.aspx.
In 1699, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville and his brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, founders of New Orleans, found a stream that doubled back on itself, making a point in the Mississippi River channel. The Frenchmen dubbed the place “La Pointe Coupée,” or “place of the cut off.” The explorers then named the 3,212-acre horseshoe-shaped oxbow lake that once formed part of the Mississippi River channel “La Fausee Rivière” or False River.
Lined by camps and houses, False River, overlooked by New Roads in Pointe Coupee parish, is the closest large body of water to Baton Rouge and attracts considerable traffic from boaters and jet skis. On weekends, many flee the confines of the state capital to head 25 miles northwest to their camps and boats. At about 21 miles long and a half-mile wide, the large open lake, free of obstructions, offers boaters plenty of room to roam.
While pleasure boating dominates the recreational scene, False River still offers good fishing at times. You might catch bass, catfish, crappie and bream. The lake produced a record book carp.
JOHN FELSHER PHOTOGRAPHS
Every day, thousands of people see Henderson Lake – a flooded backwater near Breaux Bridge in St. Martin parish. Interstate 10 runs over an 18-mile causeway cutting through the Atchafalaya Basin between Lafayette and Baton Rouge. From car windows, drivers see a maze of stumps, weeds and flats interspersed by natural lakes. A weir at Catahoula south of I-10 traps about 5,000 acres of water that once flowed freely through the swamp.
Several long natural waterways offer excellent boating and canoeing through some of the wildest country in Louisiana. However, most people turn to the lake for fishing. In the past, the area produced many bass in the 4- to 5- pound range with some in the 7- to 9-pound range. It also produced some crappies up to 4 pounds. However, the area suffered an extremely bad fish kill in the wake of Hurricane Rita. After that, a drought kept water levels low.
“Before Hurricane Rita hit, Henderson Lake was a fantastic place to fish,” says Dan Thornton of M&M Fishing Center in Breaux Bridge. “It had cypress flats, coontail moss and deep holes in an absolutely gorgeous setting. Lake Bigeaux gets to 15 to 20 feet deep in places. Lake Pelba and Opelousas Bay also have some deep water. The Interstate Canal is about 20 feet deep. Some other canals run up to 12 feet deep.”
Fortunately, nature rebuilds much quicker than humans. With many adult bass and other predators removed from the system, more young fish can survive into adulthood. The state also helped with stockings of bass and other fish.
Information, M&M Fishing Center, (337) 228-2164.
SONNY CARTER PHOTOGRAPH
LAKE LARTO/SALINE LAKE
Lake Larto and Saline Lake anchor an 8,000-acre complex of swamps, bayous and creeks that offer outstanding duck hunting, canoeing and fishing. Saline Bayou links the two lakes and numerous tributaries adjacent to the 60,276-acre Dewey W. Wills Wildlife Management Area.
Lake Larto, an old oxbow lake about 25 miles south of Jonesville, stretches to about 2,325 acres. Slightly deeper and more open than Saline Lake, it extends for about seven miles, reaching about a half-mile wide in places. Saline Lake covers about 1,971 acres. Many smaller channels connect these two lakes with Shad Lake and other meandering creeks and bayous, creating a very scenic place to paddle while looking for abundant colorful birds. The complex also offers some of the best crappie fishing in the state.
“The Saline-Larto area is good for crappie,” says David Hickman, an LDWF biologist in Ferriday. “It regularly produces many 2.5-pound fish with some well over 3 pounds. Crappies in that system have the highest growth rates I’ve ever seen. Fish have a tremendous amount of food and are not overpopulated.”
MEGAN NADOLSKI PHOTOGRAPH
LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN BASIN
One of the most historically significant and now famous waterways in the post-Katrina world, Lake Pontchartrain dominates southeastern Louisiana. In August 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, water from Lake Pontchartrain backed into New Orleans. As the toxic water poured from the flooded streets back into “da lake,” people proclaimed the death of the 4,000-year-old estuary. Like many other predictions, this one also proved false.
“Ten days after Katrina hit, we saw more fish in Lake Pontchartrain than I ever saw in my life,” says Capt. Dudley Vandenborre, a guide and lure designer from New Orleans. “We saw big schools of fish. The lake filled up with shrimp. Since Katrina, I’ve never seen the fishing so good. People can limit out with 2.5- to 7-pound speckled trout almost every time they go. It’s not hard to catch 100 fish. Before Katrina, we might have caught 40 to 50 fish a day but they would have averaged a bit larger. In 2006, we caught about a dozen fish over 7 pounds and one about 8 pounds.”
Salty water pours in from Lake Borgne, really a bay bordering the Gulf of Mexico, through passes into the 5,000-square mile Lake Pontchartrain Basin. “Borgne” comes from the French word for “one-eyed.” Lake Borgne covers about 162,505 acres of shallow water.
Two deep, wide, natural passes – the Rigolets and Chef Menteur – connect lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne. “Rigolets” comes from the French word for “trench.” Thinking he found a major river but fooled by the pass, Iberville dubbed the other pass Big Liar, or Chef Menteur. Iberville also named the lake after Comte de Pontchartrain, the French Minister of the Marine in 1699.
Iberville also found two passes, Pass Manchac and the smaller North Pass, that connect Lake Pontchartrain with Lake Maurepas, which he named in honor of another French statesman in the court of King Louis XIV. “Manchac” means “back door” in the Choctaw language. For centuries, people used these lakes and passes to reach the interior of Louisiana without fighting the treacherous Mississippi River current. Ironically situated between the two most urbanized centers in the most heavily populated portion of the state, the Manchac Swamp surrounding Lake Maurepas forms one of the largest stretches of wilderness in Louisiana.
Roughly 41 miles long by 24 miles wide, Lake Pontchartrain covers about 402,400 acres or 628 square miles. It averages about 12 to 15 feet deep, but some dredged channels drop to more than 40 feet deep in places. Second only to Great Salt Lake in size for inland saltwater systems, Lake Pontchartrain remains mostly brackish to salty but the western shorelines can hold freshwater fish. A large, oval freshwater lake surrounded by cypress swamps, Lake Maurepas covers about 57,900 acres near Laplace.
Several rivers also feed into the Lake Pontchartrain Basin. With such a tremendous amount of water, people can boat all day in anything from a kayak to an ocean-going yacht. You can also ski or run personal watercraft in the open waters or canoe through the adjacent swamps and bayous.
Information, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 672-6124 or visit www.neworleanscvb.com.
Sabine Lake straddles the Texas-Louisiana line about 50 miles southwest of Lake Charles. It looms in the shadow of Toledo Bend to the north and Calcasieu Lake to the east but it can produce excellent catches of speckled trout, redfish and flounders. In fact, it produced speckled trout bigger than those found in Calcasieu Lake and the Texas state record flounder, a 13-pounder.
Up the Sabine River, you can catch bass and other freshwater species. Frequently, you can catch various fresh- and saltwater species at the same time with the same baits. Hurricane Rita ravaged the freshwater systems but they started to recover, especially the marshes along the Sabine River south of Interstate 10.
A ship channel, ports and other industrial areas dominate the western shoreline. On the Louisiana side, the Sabine River creates a bountiful brackish marsh. Between Lake Calcasieu and Sabine Lake, the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge holds 125,000 acres of marshes crisscrossed by numerous streams and canals.
About 19 miles long and seven miles wide, Sabine Lake covers about 59,700 acres of open water perfect for boating, sailing or fishing. Dotted by numerous oyster reefs, the lake averages about five and eight feet deep. The Intracoastal Waterway crosses the old Sabine River channel at the north end. The Neches River enters from the northwest and the Sabine River flows down from the north.
Many wade the flats to catch big speckled trout, up to 11 pounds. Wading allows you to get close to fish without spooking them. At night, those carrying lanterns can also wade the flats to gig flounders with spears. Many people fish and crab along the shorelines. You can fish the entire lake with either a Texas or Louisiana license but rules for various species change at the state line so check the regulations.
TOLEDO BEND RESERVOIR
What started as a joint power management project between Texas and Louisiana 43 years ago turned into a fabulous fishery. Construction on a dam across the Sabine River near Burkeville, Texas, began in 1964 and Toledo Bend Reservoir eventually backed up along 65 miles of the river on the Louisiana-Texas line.
Today, the 186,000-acre reservoir offers anglers, paddlers, bird watchers and hunters more than 1,265 miles of shorelines. You can also camp on some of the islands. The lake averages about 60 feet deep but some holes along the old Sabine River channel near the dam drop to more than 110 feet deep. Several creek arms hold more water than many lakes in the state.
Much of the lake offers little for boaters or skiers, because stumpy flats cover large portions of the impoundment. However, some cleared areas and boat lanes do offer any type of recreational boating imaginable. Many people dive the waters of Toledo Bend, often spearing huge catfish.
“Toledo Bend has a tremendous catfish population but it’s underutilized,” says Ricky Yeldell, a LDWF biologist. “It’s not uncommon to catch 40- to 50-pound blue cats. It’s possible to catch a catfish over 100 pounds in Toledo Bend. The bigger catfish are usually flatheads but we have some pretty impressive blue cats.”
For most, Toledo Bend means bass fishing. It consistently ranks among the top largemouth lakes in the nation. It regularly produces 10-pound bass with some exceeding 15 pounds. Besides largemouth bass and catfish, you can find huge striped bass, crappie and bream.
Jodie E. Crouch landed the state record black crappie, a 3.55-pound fish, in March 2003. However, the lake record black crappie actually weighed 3.69 pounds. Fritz Gowan landed the lunker in January 1985, but weighed it in Texas. Another Texan, Geneva Daniels, holds the white crappie lake record with a 2.88-pound fish.
Many marinas, campgrounds and other facilities in both Texas and Louisiana serve Toledo Bend. In Louisiana, follow La. Highway 191 south from Zwolle.
Information, Sabine River Authority, (800) 259-LAKE.
Toledo Bend Reservoir
JOHN FELSHER PHOTOGRAPH
Take me fishing
You’re thinking about embarking on a fishing trip to a foreign part of the state – or the country. You’re unfamiliar with the climate and the types of fish. In fact, you’re weary of booking this trip because you’re thinking: What if they don’t even have fish at this time of year? You find yourself wishing you could press a magic button and instantly know what temperature it is, what fish will be around and what they like to bite. If only life were that easy.
Well, actually it is that easy, thanks to a new Web site, www.takemefishing.org. Launched by the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF), the site focuses on the “wheres” and “whens” of boating and fishing. Providing a locator that shows places to fish and boat all over the nation, the site is easy to use as long as you have an Internet connection. Users can simply click on the state of their destination – or type in their ZIP code to find a list of places close by. “With our new ‘Places To Go’ locator, we expect that more people will be able to use the site to find a place to fish and boat on their next vacation,” says Frank Peterson Jr., the president of the RBFF.
Visitors to the Web site may also obtain information on conservation, safety, upcoming events and more.
Peterson believes that spending time outside is important, and hopes that this Web site will inspire others to do so. “Fishing and boating are great ways to connect with family and friends and help to get everyone outdoors to enjoy nature. If you haven’t gone in a while, make some time to discover the joys again. And if you go fishing and boating a lot, take someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to go.”
– Sarah Ravits