Roadside ditches & Mixed Bags

A Field Report

Not too far from my house, there’s a gravel road leading into a vast swath of public land. I venture there from time to time usually with a fly rod. Though sometimes just a camera. The waters are as clear as any I’ve found in Louisiana. Filtered through swamp and flooded bottomland. And while I rarely catch much if anything along the way, it is always a welcomed respite from the rest of life. Be it wading birds, Barred Owls, or the occasional otter, there’s always something worth pausing for along the way. Even the shallow drainage, little more than ditch, along the frontage road at the entrance is a sight in and of itself.

Crystal clear and no more than 18″ at its deepest, this shallow oasis teems with life. Bass to 3+ lbs, various sunfish and even the occasional small bowfin (Chopique to the locals) have been known to make an appearance. Yet, not one fell prey to a well placed fly during 2020. The mere sight of my line in the air was enough to make them scatter. On the clear, sunny days when I favor walks in the adjacent woods, I simply didn’t stand a chance with these weary fish. Not one to give up easily, I resolved to break this skunk in 2021

New Year. New Challenges.

As the calendar turned from 2020 to 2021, I reviewed the past year and began to set my sights on some new goals. I had landed 19 species on the fly during the prior 365 days and pushed the fly fishing life list, began a year prior, to 22. While I continued to keep an eye on the LA record books, I found myself increasingly enamored with the mixed bag/life listing approach. Lunkers and trophies are great, but the challenge of a new species simply outweighed the thrill of big fish. No pun intended.

A new year ahead of me, I set a personal goal of capturing 25 species on the fly and perhaps the opportunity to place in the Kisatchie Fly Fisher’s annual Mixed Bag competition.


A Strong Start and a Deep Freeze

I was out of the gate running in early January with my first species tallied on New Year’s Day and four on my scoresheet within 13 days. The weather, though cool at times, was simply conducive with success. I was elated by the strong start that even included an unexpected lifer, my first Striped Mullet.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and that strong start came to a screeching halt in the second half of January. Though I still ventured out at least once each week, I simply could not catch a thing. Well..at least not a fish.

By the time Winter Storm Uri hit in mid-February, my skunk had extended four weeks. And with the south central US facing the worst freeze it had experienced since the late 80s, there was little chance I’d break it anytime soon. Largely confined to my home in the days that followed, I turned my attentions toward my vice and began replenishing my fly boxes for the months ahead.

Among the patterns I produced were a handful of EP Minnows. Tied in a variety of sizes and color patterns, I was eager to try them out. And counted the days until the weather was projected to warm.


Revisiting the Roadside Ditch

Ten days past the onset of the deep freeze, Louisiana began feeling like Louisiana as day time highs once again soared into the 70s. Though overcast and breezy, temperatures had stabilized, and I was anxious to exchange the monotony of “work from home” responsibilities for some time on the water. Still with a longer trip to the coast planned for the following morning, I elected to stay close to home and visit my favorite roadside ditch. I still had yet to land my first largemouth of year, and some of the small sunfish patterned EP Minnows lying by my vice might just do the trick.

Slipping out around 2pm for a late (and extended) lunch break, I arrived at my destination ten minutes later. Tying on a #4 EP minnow in sunfish colors, I began fan casting across the shallow drainage in hopes of drawing the attention of at least one weary largemouth. While I hoped the finesse provided by my Echo Base 3wt would limit the number of fish I spooked, the afternoon started much as all my previously trips had. Startled fish after startled fish.

Pausing briefly to chat with a passing driver (a surprisingly common occurence at his locale), I made my way to a stretch of shore lined in dead shrubs. Near five feet in height, they provided a natural blind. And though they added a level of difficulty to casting, I hoped the obstruction would be enough to calm the skittish fish. Sure enough, a fish flashed within the first few casts and I set the hook.

Two skunks broken, I pulled in my prize. To my surprise, the fish on the end of my line was not a largemouth as anticipated, but a black crappie. Having not expected to encounter crappie in such shallow water, I was elated to snap a quick picture of species five on the year before sending it on its way. Resuming casting, I quickly landed two more similar sized fish while missing hook sets on just as many.

Content to continue fishing until dinner, that plan was quickly derailed by a string of work-related emails and I called it a day.


Once is Never Enough

Following a successful morning chasing redfish in the marsh, I found myself detouring back towards the little drainage as I neared home. I only had my 7wt in tow, but the prospect of landing a few more crappie was too much to turn down. Once again turning to an EP Minnow, my rod bent on the first cast and my first largemouth of the season lay at my feet moments later. No further strikes followed, however, and, fifteen minutes later, I called it a day.

Third Times the Charm or Something Like That

A week later, I found myself again struggling through the monotony of another day working from home. Winds and torrential rains had derailed plans to work on the fence, and I found myself anxious to escape the confines of my home office (dining room table). Checking the radar, I noted a break in the weather around noon and began rigging my 3wt in anticipation.

With wind, light rain and cloud cover to shield my approach, I might actually stand a chance at tempting a few more crappie or bass from the ditch. Raincoat in tow, I was on my way shortly after noon.

Arriving to wind churned waters, I began at the same location as prior days. With no bites to show for my effort, I moved on. Stopping along a stretch of exposed vegetation extending across the drainage.

Working the leeward side first, I spooked a large bass almost immediately before hooking into a pair of brightly colored pre-spawn bluegill on a small blue & white EP Minnow. A few additional strikes followed. But when the bite eventually died, I made the move to the windblown cove formed by the opposite edge of the vegetation.

We’re Going to Need a Bigger…Rod

Casting across the windblown cove, I immediately missed two strikes before hooking and losing what appeared to be a decent crappie. A short strike by a large bass followed shortly after. The windblown side was clearly winner, but I simply couldn’t drive the hook home.

The same held true on the following cast as a large wake formed behind my fly. A first strike fell short as with the bass earlier, but this fish kept coming. A few strips of my line later, and the wake shot forward, enveloping my fly. The hook driven home, my 3wt now doubled over and the reel began to scream.

Adrenaline surging, I momentarily believed I was locked in battle with a 10 lbs largemouth. The fish never breached, however, and a few moments later I caught a glipse of a thick, serpentine form.

The fish on my line was a bowfin, a species I had actively (and unsuccessfully) pursued much of the prior year. A would-be lifer on the line, I was thankful for the short 8lbs shock tippet tied to the end of my light leader. Far from the heavy, the shock tippet stood a better chance against that maw of conical teeth than the light leader beyond.

My flimsy $30 reel enduring three powerful runs, I eventually worked the fish to the 4′ wide swath of emergent vegetation along the water’s edge. With no net, light line and inappropriate footwear to wade in after the beast, I began the arduous ten minute process of coaxing the fish through the vegetation. With each small tug forward the fish would thrash and pull further back. But with each thrash, the fish cleared more of the surrounding vegetation. And in time, it cleared its own path to the shore.

Risking a leader grab, I was eventually able to drag my prize over the last few inches of vegetation and onto solid ground.

Setting down my rod, I took a moment to compose myself before reaching for my phone. Eager to document my prize, I took what I thought was a well framed photo before the bowfin righted itself. Snapping one more shot of the righted fish, I removed the hook, pointed him towards the water, and watched the dinosaur belly crawl with ease back into the vegetation and disappear.

Reviewing my photos, I wasn’t sure if I should curse or laugh. I had cut the fishes head out of the first, and the second was nothing to brag about. Still, I had landed a 20+” bowfin on a 3wt. Cold and wet, but beyond content, I called it a day.

Afterthoughts

Back home, head clear and hands warm, I thought back on the past week. Not only had I broken a six-week cold streak, but I’d landed four species from a body of water that had stymied me for the entire year prior. I now stood at seven species on the year (tied for first in the KFF Mixed Bag) and had just landed my second lifer of 2021. A large bowfin on an ultralight fly rod no less!

Then, as I thought about its size, I realized I hadn’t bothered to check the state records before releasing the beast. To my astonishment, only two of the ten fly rod slots were filled: a 6 1/2 lbs fish caught in 2018 and a 4 lbs fish in 2014. At ~24″ in length, the fish could possibly have challenged for that #2 spot. Or, at worst, could have slotted in solidly at #3 filling one of many vacant fly rod records that still remain on the state list.

In any case, the fish is still out there. So maybe out paths will cross again on a future lunch break excursion to my favorite local ditch.

Tight Lines

Chris

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