MONROE, La. – Louisiana is called “The Sportsman’s Paradise” and there is little wonder why: nearly half of the state is made up of some kind of wetland, call it marsh, swamp, bog or bayou.
Whether it be the Red River, the Atchafalaya Basin or the mother of all swamps, the Louisiana Delta, so much of fishing in the Pelican State involves a maze of channels flowing through vast, uninhabited backwaters that go on for miles.
This week, the EverStart Championship has found its way to the Ouachita River, just one of Louisiana’s watery veins that feeds an endless labyrinth of oxbows and bayous. And since the whole state is seemingly connected by water, geographical boundaries were instituted at the Felsenthal Lock and Dam to the north and the Columbia Lock and Dam to the south, leaving anglers nearly 100 miles of river to explore, including the massive D’Arbonne National Wildlife Refuge.
“That’s 95 miles of river and 26 miles of the refuge,” said Hawaiian Punch pro Jim Dillard of West Monroe, La. “There’s plenty of water to fish, however, navigating that water can be pretty tricky, especially now. The river is low and accessing areas is going to be a problem.”
The Ouachita River’s backwaters and the D’Arbonne NWR combine to make one big swamp littered with hardwood stumps. With the water some 1 to 2 feet low, many of the bayous look like a bed of nails with thousands of stumps sticking up out of shallow water. A lot of the river’s best backwater ponds have been cut off by emergent levees and berms and those that are connected by just few inches of water are guarded off by gnarly snarls of stobs.
“The stumps are so tight and thick that it can take an hour just to get into a place,” Dillard explained. “Normally a boat could float over a lot of it, but with the water so low, you can literally get your boat so wedged in a place that getting out can be a real issue.”
For that reason, several competitors, including Dillard, have opted to fish out of smaller aluminum boats, making getting in and out of tight places a little easier.
“I’ve got the aluminum boat and a couple of push poles that will see a lot of use today,” Dillard said. “And even then, it’s still going to be hard to get around once I get into the places I hope to go.”
Dillard notes that unlike other well-known Louisiana backwater fisheries like the Red River or Atchafalaya Basin that are loaded with vegetation, the Ouachita River does not have as much green stuff in the swamps.
“It’s mostly mud and wood, that’s it,” he added. “There’s not a lot of matted stuff to fish. The last time the FLW Tour came here in 2005, Felsenthal was the place to fish because it has so much vegetation. But it’s off limits this time and there is just not as much vegetation down here.”
Another pro who has towed his aluminum rig to the Ouachita River with high hopes finding a backwater to shimmy into is John Cox of Debary, Fla. Cox is known for his aluminum-accessing ways due to his FLW Tour win at the Red River in 2010 when he wedged his small boat through a giant culvert to enter a backwater lake.
“I’m going to fish out of it, but I really have not found any place to get into like I did at the Red River,” he said of his aluminum boat. “But it still makes getting around a lot easier.”
Cox concurs with Dillard about the lack of vegetation.
“I think the reason there is no vegetation is because the water is so low,” Cox said. “I have found some beautiful hyacinth mats in some of these ponds, but they are all sitting up on dry land. If the water was normal, I think there would be plenty of stuff to flip and punch. Now a lot of the backwaters are just puddles with a little ditch running through them. And with the water so low, I’m guessing someone will find a small ditch in one of those ponds that is loaded with fish.”
“I’ve got a special deptfinder for this tournament,” Windham joked. “It’s a homemade bamboo push pole. I’ve got a ring around it at the 2-foot mark to let me know how deep it is – it’s all you need.”
Windham went out of his way to have a 9-gallon gas tank installed in the little aluminum boat to make it legal for the event.
“I’ve got 9 gallons of gas and I’m going to burn 8-1/2 gallons of it to get to and from where I’m going,” he added. “I might not catch anything, but I guarantee to you one thing, it’s going to be an adventure!”
But accessing backwaters is not the only play to make at the Ouachita River. The main river itself – all 95 miles of it – has plenty of bass in it, including spotted bass. Many pros, like Kellogg’s pro Jim Tutt, plan to fish the main river in their full-size Rangers.
“I’m just planning to crank out on the main river,” Tutt said. “Hopefully I’ll get a couple of two-pound ‘kickers’ to fill my limit.”
As for weight predictions, Dillard said when it’s prime, the Ouachita River is capable of producing a 20-pound limit. For this event, however, he thinks a 15-pound catch will be big news. He believes 10 pounds per day will make the top-20 cut and a 12 pound average for four days will win.
The EverStart Series Championship consists of qualifiers from five divisions – Central, Northern, Southeast, Texas and Western. Each division consisted of four tournaments where competitors earned valuable points from each event to help them qualify for the championship tournament. The top 40 pro and co-anglers from each respective division qualified for the EverStart Series Championship.
Anglers will take off from Forsythe Park located at 2401 Sycamore St. in Monroe, La., at 7:30 each morning. Thursday and Friday’s weigh-in will be held at Forsythe Park beginning at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday’s final weigh-in will be held at Walmart located at 2701 Louisville Ave. in Monroe beginning at 4 p.m.
Pros will fish for a top award of $50,000 plus a Ranger Z518 with a 200-horsepower Evinrude or Mercury outboard if Ranger Cup guidelines are met. Co-anglers will cast for a top award consisting of a Ranger Z117 with 90-horsepower Evinrude or Mercury outboard and $5,000 if Ranger Cup guidelines are met.
Fans will be treated to the FLW Outdoors Expo at the Walmart on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. prior to the final weigh-ins. The Expo includes Ranger boat simulators, the opportunity to interact with professional anglers, enjoy interactive games, activities and giveaways provided by sponsors, and fans can learn more about the sport of fishing and other outdoor activities. All activities are free and open to the public.
Temperature at takeoff: 44 degrees
Expected high temperature: 77 degrees
Water temperature: 68 degrees
Wind: East at 5 mph
Day’s outlook: Cool and sunny with light winds.