A SACALAIT A DAY
|A SACALAIT A DAY|
That morning started chilly, as do most south Louisiana mornings following the passage of a cold front. It was a typical high-pressure day that would see the high temperature climb to 63 degrees and a light southeast wind. He worked his "vertical swimming jig" around a sunken willow top where he, from his meticulous records if not mental recall, remembered catching a 1 ¾-pound black crappie on a previous trip.
"The fish struck about 12-inches below the surface and ran to the middle of the canal. After it made 3 sweeping runs I got a glimpse of the fish as it shook its head trying to free the barbless hook," Lewis said for probably the umpteenth time since that day.
The white crappie officially weighed in at 2-pounds, 13-ounces and is the largest ever caught in the state since the two species were grouped into separate categories in 1994. The old category, which was open for both species native to Louisiana, the black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus) and the white crappie (Pomoxis annularis) has been closed. The 6-pound monster caught by Lettie Robertson in November of 1969 leads that list of top ten, all-time sacalait. But even though his 2-13 white crappie has an asterisk by its listing, Randy Lewis is no less proud of his current first place fish.
"The fish I caught that day was the end result of 19 years of hard fishing. And the strange thing about it was it the same day that a record speckled trout was caught at the Sulfur Mine. I guess it was just one of those big fish days," Lewis said.
The trout he mentioned was a 10-pound, .09 ounce speck caught by David Medine that very same New Year’s Day in Lafourche Parish. It currently ranks fifth in the category.
Many times, some folks believe most times, record fish are the result of luck. But anyone who has ever fished or even talked sacalait fishing with Lewis will tell you his catch was much more than luck. First off he understands fish. By that I mean he knows fish biology and fishery management. And that gives him a distinct advantage in knowing the habits and tendencies of several species of fish. And that gives him an edge when it comes to catching his favorite species, sacalait.
Secondly, he's out there frequently, which puts the odds heavily in your favor to catch more fish. And I don't mean he fishes what most people would consider a lot, say once every week. That would probably be enough to earn at least a few complaints from a non-understanding spouse. Randy averages a whopping 100 sacalait trips per year - and that doesn’t include outings for other freshwater species or any of his saltwater trips! In 1998 Randy made an even 100 sacalait trips that yielded a total of 2,631 fish. Not particularly a good year by his own admission. "I'll average about 3,000 sacs a year. My best year was 1991 when I caught 7,000. That year on one trip I caught and released 217 in nine hours," the carpenter who loves fishing said.
As mentioned before Lewis has a keen understanding of fish resources and can intelligently discuss the issues as articulately as any trained fish biologist I’ve ever interviewed. But what is probably Randy's biggest asset in consistently finding and catching fish are his records. Lewis has maintained detailed records of his catches since 1987. And over the last 12 years he has logged weather and water conditions, fishing times and extensive data from every trip. He identifies each fish according to species, measures it noting special markings, injuries or other oddities and adds it to the count. The data he has amassed from his usual haunts rivals that of any public agency. Consequently, he has a wealth of information to draw from when planning a trip to any of his hotspots under a wide range of climactic conditions. That's why I call him "Dr. Sac."
By now, if you’re like any red-blooded Louisiana sacalait lover, you’re asking the same questions I wanted answered. Where, when and how does he do it? Oh yeah, and what does he do with all those fish?
I'll start with the last question first. Doctor Sac releases many more fish then he keeps. But he as well as anyone knows that the sweet sacalait lives up to its Cajun namesake translating to "sack of milk." Keeping only what he needs, Randy carefully handles and releases all smaller and plenty of the bigger fish.
"I think we really need to take a hard look at more restrictive management in Louisiana. I’ve witnessed a decline in the fish and I think we need to lower the creel limit. Fifty fish per person is just too many and we probably should establish a minimum size too," he said.
Now for the where, when and how. Most sacalait fishermen only fish for them when they are the easiest to catch. Lewis fishes sacalait every month of the year and adjusts his tactics seasonally. His favorite times are November-December and May-June and he alternates fishing areas between the Lake Verret system and the Des Allemands area.
"I find the fish are most active in late fall and early winter. And that's usually when I'll catch the most big fish," the doctor prescribed. You would think that someone as successful a sacalait angler as Lewis would use a wide array of baits and methods. But the Doc's success is based on simplicity. Randy has been fishing sacalait basically the same way he has for the last 20 years.
"I got started fishing sacalait this way by Rex Wells and his sons," he told me as he modeled the same rig he used to catch the record fish. And Lewis is living proof that it doesn't take an expensive, fancy rig to catch sacalait.
He fishes exclusively from a small flat boat, has a trolling motor but very rarely uses it. He prefers to "scull," a paddling technique that has nearly become a lost art. Sculling is done with a small paddle worked with the hand and forearm to propel and control the boat. Lewis finds he can work the bank structure more efficiently and more quietly from the bow of the boat with the paddle and not the trolling motor.
"I use an 8 ½ foot Ugly Stick fly rod with a conventional-style fly reel loaded with backing line tied to monofilament. I’ll use 6-8 LB test line and tie on a 1/32-ounce jig head with a #4 hook. Sometimes I'll use 10-lb. Test but only if it's the type that measures .11 diameter. I remove the barbs to keep from hanging up in the structure where sacalait hang out. I'll use blue, chartreuse and other colored tube jigs but by far my favorite is a blue/green combination head with a flecked chartreuse skirt that J&M Tackle puts out," Lewis said.
It's not fly-fishing and it's not pole fishing, but somewhere in between. The real beauty of Lewis' rig is the ease with which snags are freed. And when dropping a jig in submerged treetops and logs, it happens a lot. When it does, Lewis simply moves the boat as close as possible to the snag, reels up the slack until the jighead reaches the rod tip eyelet. Then with a quick forward push, the hook dislodges and it’s back to fishing. Lewis calls his fishing technique the "vertical swimming jig." He starts off by dropping the jig shallow, close to the bank or structure. Holding the rod tip out and up allows it to "swim" back to the boat. Raising and lowering the rod tip can work the bait worked at a desired depth. After a few casts, it's an easy method to get the hang of.
"Springtime fishing reaches its prime when the water temperature reaches 63-66 degrees. During the spawn, I'll concentrate on dropping the jig near the bottoms of large cypress trees. I'll mostly fish the canals in spring unless there's an early summer or a major flood, then I'll move to the larger lakes," Randy said as unhooked and released another sacalait in a canal off Verret.
"In the early part of summer in May, I'll fish both canals and the lakes as well as main bayous. As temperatures heat up, I'll fish the lakes working the jig in the outer edges where there's trees and blow-downs in 5-7 feet of water. Around Des Allemands, I fish at the edge of the hydrilla grass beds and 2-3 feet out from those mats of water hyacinths. I start shallow and work deep until I find them. In late summer when it’s really hot I try to fish at sunrise but I’ve caught rodeo-winning fish during those dog days between 1-3p.m. I've found sacalait will not stop feeding until the water reaches 93-degrees."
During the fall Lewis continues to fish the lake in 6-8-feet of water but when water temperatures begin to drop from the 80s into the 70s, he knows it's time to move back into the canals.
During winter you'll find Randy working the small canal structure in 2-3 feet of water, looking for certain signs.
"Water quality is very important. You don’t want it too clear but not too dirty either. Anywhere from 4-inches to-11/2 feet is good visibility. With visibility less than 2-inches, I don't waste my time."
One important ingredient to catching sacalait that Randy forgets to mention is confidence. Knowing that your technique, your bait and location will consistently produce fish is important. But that's second nature to Doctor Sac and it only comes with years of experience that allows him to average way above the prescription of "a sacalait a day."