Louisiana Sportsman Magazine Louisiana Sportsman Magazine
Marsh Mix

Sabine National Wildlife refuge provides all the fun an angler could ever want.

February 22, 2007

By David A. Brown

The rod butt displayed a sharp set of graphics with detailed images of a speckled trout and a redfish flanking the model name “Marsh Master.”

No doubt, a 6-foot-6 medium-action baitcaster strung with 10-pound mono makes a fine instrument of capture for those of speckled sides and spotted tails.

I doubt the folks at Challenger Rods would be troubled to know that their IM7 stick put the whoopin’ on a whole bunch of largemouth bass. The crossover element of inshore tackle with that of bass pursuits is a pretty common notion. Bottom line: Crank on what’s biting.

Such was the case when a windy day turned Sabine Lake into a washing machine. Based in Cameron (pre-Hurricane Rita), my group decided to poke around the brackish marsh waters of Sabine National Wildlife Refuge.

With redfish topping our intentions, Capt. Stephen Johnston — a Texas guide and tournament pro from across the pond — led our party of four into the labyrinth of canals, cuts and sloughs. Roseau cane, coontail grass, water hyacinth and lily pads dressed a 24/7 food-production facility.

“The marsh has (extensive vegetation) and there’s so much forage food in there for the fish,” Johnston said. “They have crawfish, crabs, bluegill, and shad — everything a bass could want.”

There are also a few things bass could do without. Alligators — guardians of the marsh — exist in no short supply throughout the refuge. Like stoic sentries, these saintly saurians warm themselves on makeshift sundecks fashioned from flattened cane. After a few days of the reptiles trudging in and out of the water, the dead weeds become brown and brittle — an ideal tanning bed for gators and a clear sign for anglers to keep their distance.

Johnston described marsh bass as early- or late-bite fish.

“Because they’re shallow water fish, it’s hard to catch them after about 9 a.m.,” he explained. “Most of that marsh water is pretty clear, so after mid-morning, they just poke their heads back in the vegetation and other shady places.”

Overcast days, like ours, allow you to fish later because the bass are not so spooky in the low-light conditions. Tides also influence the marsh by nudging interior water levels up and down.

“On high tide, you’ll have a lot more searchable water, but on the low tide you have to stay in your main cuts and sloughs,” Johnston warned. “Those marsh bass are definitely accustomed to feeding with the tidal fluctuation. When the water is up, they’ll move into the flooded vegetation and then drop into the deeper areas when the tide falls.”

Ebb and flow may not appear as dramatic in the marsh as it does on the shores of coastal islands, but the influence is nonetheless noticeable.

“The water doesn’t really move fast enough to trap you, but you do have to watch your depth,” Johnston said. “You won’t often get cut off, but you may have to get out and push your boat.”

For this reason, shallow-draft boats with narrow clearance are ideal for the marsh habitat. There’s plenty of water that can accommodate a bass boat or a bay boat, but reaching some of the sweet spots will test your resolve.

As Johnston points out, water hyacinth can get piled up in the cuts, so your fishing trip may at times resemble an off-road adventure in a 4x4. But the challenge begets the bounty, as relatively low fishing pressure means uneducated fish.

“Because it’s a bit of work to get back into those places, a lot of those fish (rarely) see a person,” Johnston said. “But once you get in there, it’s well worth it. A lot of those fish just grow up and die of old age back there.

“You’re back in areas that might get fished once or twice a month. When they see something that looks edible, they attack. They’re very aggressive.”

Such fervency delivered the kind of action that thrills the angling heart, but comes really close to spoiling a fisherman. Approximately 30 bass in just a couple of hours was no exaggeration. The total could have ticked higher, but the action inherently slows down when you have a trigger-happy photographer onboard.

Johnston opened the show with a Stanley Ribbit soft plastic toad. In the refuge backwaters, he uses watermelon seed, white and black. The legs do most of the convincing.

“Honestly, those marsh bass really don’t get a lot of pressure, so you don’t have to go back there with a bunch of colors,” he said. “Just stick with your basic selection.”

Toads cast toward the mouths of marsh cuts and runout creeks typically met with immediate demise. Those that weren’t promptly inhaled quickly attracted determined pursuit from bass so driven by aggression that they resembled mini submarines pushing wakes across the surface as they closed in for the kill.

Natural or manmade marsh cuts provide ideal ambush points for bass because wind and tide ushers water through these arteries and delivers food to the waiting predators.

“Those bass will set up on the backside of the cuts and wait for the current to push that food out to them,” Johnston said.

Working shoreline points and pockets, we also caught several fine bass on Calcutta’s Flash Foil swimbaits. The small and medium sizes worked best, with pinfish and blue the popular color patterns. Marsh anglers will also do well with Texas-rigged worms, poppers and chuggers, and small prop baits like Heddon’s Tiny Torpedo.

One of Johnston’s favorite marsh bass foolers is a 1/8-ounce Beetle Spin. The diminutive body matches the smaller indigenous baitfish of the refuge. Growing in tighter confines than baitfish of open waters, marsh forage tends to lean toward the shorter end of the scale.

Whatever the bait size, you’ll find loads along a good wall of hydrilla. Often growing in dense fields, this water weed is like a mall food court for bass.

“Fish the edge of the hydrilla because that’s where the baitfish congregate,” Johnston recommended.

Once the bass bite started to taper off, we shifted gears to a backup plan that turned out to be great trip-ender. Before we launched, a local friend had told us that crappie often swarmed around drilling structures. Scattered throughout the refuge marsh, these islands of wood and metal provide feeding stations and the ever-important shelter.

“The whole key is that it just gives those fish something to hide around,” Johnston said. “It’s a little deeper in the middle of those sloughs where the platforms sit, so the crappie have more water to work with.

“There’s a lot of abandoned platforms back in that marsh. Some people say they’re an eyesore, but for fishing, they’re great. Even if there’s not a pump or even a platform in there, it may just be a piece of broken down structure, but it gives the fish something to hold around.”

For our trip, the formula was simple: Pull up close to the structure, drop tiny swim baits next to the legs and jig vertically. We varied the actions from slow, short hops to a more peppy motion until we zeroed in on what the fish on each structure wanted. Spinning and baitcasting gear worked fine — as evidenced by multiple double-headers.

The swim baits probably worked well for a couple of reasons. First, with the lead weight held inside the plastic body, the streamlined bait allowed for precise presentations. Also, the shad tail kicked with enticing action that undoubtedly triggered feeding response.

Standard lead-head jigs of 1/16- to 1/32-ounce with curl or paddle tails would surely tickle the crappie’s fancy. Crappie seekers should also try small Beetle Spins and Blakemore Roadrunners, both of which combine blade flash and vibration for fish appeal. These baits can be cast and retrieved past the structure, slow-rolled across the bottom or worked in a jigging fashion.

Of course, when all else fails, floating Missouri minnows is hard to beat. For an active approach to the minnow routine, slide a slip cork onto your line before rigging a 1/16-ounce jighead on which you lip-hook a minnow. Attach a stopper about 2 feet above the cork. When you cast, the jig pulls the line through the cork until halted by the stopper.

This adjustable rig is especially helpful when you encounter spooky fish that require a distant presentation. The float keeps the rig on target, while allowing a reasonable amount of action.

Tip: If the crappie are finicky or if the water is murky, try jazzing up your baits with garlic spray. Sometimes, just a little touch of scent will help the crappie locate your bait, or give lethargic fish a little more incentive to feed.

In addition to bass and crappie, the marshes of Sabine NWR also hold a plentiful population of choupique and gar. Both will hit just about anything in the marsh, but the latter’s long, toothy jaws are difficult to hook. That’s usually a good thing, but if you feel that you just have to get a close look at one of these skinny rascals, tie your line to a piece of yarn or polypropylene rope, and squeeze on a split shot at the top end for castability. Skim this rig past a gar’s snout, and when he bites his teeth will get caught in your makeshift lure long enough for a quick capture.

For fishing the brackish backwaters of Sabine NWR or any marsh environment, Johnston suggests carrying a push pole — as much for scooting through shallow spots when the tide drops, as for pushing wind-blown hyacinth out of your path.

Also helpful is a mud anchor, which holds fast and retrieves easily when speared into the bottom. A piece of rebar with one end bent into an eye and fitted with a rope works just fine.

As for a fishing vessel, requirements are minimal for marsh missions in the Sabine NWR. Numerous waterways running in numerous directions means you can always find a leeward spot in which to hide from the wind. You can run as far as you like, but the number of fish you catch — or the amount of fun you have — doesn’t necessarily correlate to how much gas you burn.

“That’s what’s so great about the marsh — you can get out there in a john boat and paddle and catch all the fish you want,” Johnston said.

Indeed.