MORGAN CITY — Down in the dumps because there’s really no hope these days or for the foreseeable future to catch bass, bream or sac-a-lait in the Atchafalaya Basin or speckled trout in and around Vermilion Bay because of the flooding Atchafalaya River?
That same extra high and muddy, rolling river can provide relief for anyone with an affirmative answer or, even, who just wants to feel a fish tugging on the business end of the fishing line, plus put bags of filets in the freezer. The catfish bite is on and has been on.
No one knows that better or appreciates the catfish fishing more than Bill McCarty of Morgan City, an accomplished bass angler who fished the Bassmaster Opens and BFL, an all-around fisherman who is just as good at putting bream and sac-a-lait in the boat from the Spillway to Stephensville to the Bayou Black area.
His late spring/early summer catfish hole for the past 30 or so years isn’t far from his home in Morgan City. He often gets out on the water around 7:30 a.m. and returns before 10 a.m. after boating anywhere from 40 to 80 catfish, mostly in the 1 ½- to 2 ½-pound range, while fishing the Morgan City side of the river between the U.S. 90 bridge and the railroad bridge.
The good news is the catfish run should extend longer than usual this year because of the high water. It starts in mid- or late-April and usually ends in mid-June, mostly because the river falls and crabs, gafftops and other species dominate the bite. The river is expected to remain high this month and at least through July.
McCarty, 49-year-old owner of WHM Services LLC, which conducts marine surveys on boats and barges, usually brings a guest or two, as he did each morning this past week. His guests quickly learn he doesn’t need a GPS to put the boat in the same spot each time out because he does it the old-fashioned way, he “triangulates” with familiar landmarks like bass anglers did for years on large reservoirs before electronics were commonplace.
And they discover right away the key to his success is using river shrimp for bait. Using dry cat food in a sock for bait, he catches the river shrimp in four strategically placed shrimp cages along a flooded shoreline downriver from his fishin’ hole.
McCarty said fishermen can purchase a pint of river shrimp at D&B Seafood and Convenience Store in Morgan City. (A pint, at one time long ago 50 cents, costs $5.) Or the prized natural bait can be bought at residences in the city, mostly along Second Street, where signs read “river shrimp for sale.”
People might argue that other popular catfish baits will work. A friend of his even brought worms and hot dogs in the boat but the river shrimp outfished them 20 to 1. Even bait shrimp (saltwater shrimp) can’t hold a candle to the river shrimp, which he uses either fresh, preferably, or frozen, but never alive as it seems after they sit in the plastic container with a screw lid the smell is stronger, he said, and they are firmer.
The river shrimp appear to be cute miniatures of their saltwater crustacean relatives.
“The catfish think they are cute,” he said.
McCarty learned how to fish the spot years ago during his college days at LSU.
“My wife’s uncle showed us how to do this. He’s gone now but he could catch some catfish,” McCarty said about the late Sonny Billiot, who lived in Morgan City.
He usually launches at a boat ramp along the river on the Berwick side, he said, about 45 seconds away from his destination.
The whole area can be productive, he said.
“Sometimes when it gets good and the word gets out and it’s easy to get to, there’ll be 15, 20 boats. A lot of people go farther upriver, to Conrad’s (Conrad Shipyard LLC) and Candy Fleet (Candy Fleet Corp.),” he said.
His catfish fishing tackle includes five identical 6-foot-6 Shimano Sojourn fishing rods with matching Daiwa RG fishing reels loaded with 15-pound Trilene Big Game monofilament line. Each has a 1-ought Gamakatsu Offset Shank hook and a 2-ounce weight.
About 10 inches above the weight he ties doubles the line and makes a knot, which gives it a 6- to 8-inch leader.
On Wednesday morning, McCarty’s Express was the first boat on the water to fish for catfish in the area. He positioned the boat parallel to the letter M in the big MORGAN City sign on the floodwall and the third leg of the Mr. Charlie — the eight large structures extending out from the shoreline just below the railroad bridge. That put him approximately 80 yards from the floodwall in about 15- to 17-foot depths.
McCarty, 49, dropped the 15-pound anchor with a 3-foot chain like he has so many times since he began fishing the area. The lifelong Morgan City resident also fished in his earlier years while moored at a spot along the railroad bridge near the shoreline, he said.
“The first thing I’m going to do is chum. You’ve got to make the catfish happy,” he said with a grin as he shook a small plastic container of leftover river shrimp from the trip before into the water.
Then he pulled out two towels, one for each angler, to use to wipe their hands after gripping so many catfish and slimy monofilament line. It was time to start fishing.
He impales two river shrimp on a hook.
“I always put two shrimp on, one at the top of the hook and one at the bottom. When a fish hits the first one, he has to hit the second one,” he said in explanation.
After baiting up two fishing rods, his guest in the back seat was directed to cast one straight behind the boat, then the other at a 45-degree angle behind the boat and to the left. He fished the right side with the other two rigs.
About 15 minutes after four of the five fishing rods in his boat were baited and in the water, two more small boats motored into the area from upriver and anchored just below the railroad bridge and near the Mr. Charlie. About an hour later, anglers in a crawfish skiff joined them and just before midday another small boat set up shop several yards upriver from the railroad bridge and about 90 yards from shore.
Doubles? Four at a time? Yes, it happens, he said, and it’s wildly delightful.
“It’s fun,” McCarty said with a broad smile creasing his face.
“We did five (one catfish on each fishing rod at one time) yesterday,” he said.
On the way to putting 45 blue catfish and channel catfish in the boat, including a 12- to 15-pounder, which was released, he had three doubles. Although there were lulls, the action at times was fast and furious and the banter in the boat was upbeat.
His personal best catfish at the sweet spot weighed 8 to 10 pounds, he said after reeling in a solid 2 ½-pound blue catfish.
Other species bite on the tantalizing river shrimp. Gaspergoo, stingray, gafftops and, even, sturgeon have been caught in his boat in the past, he said.
“A buddy of mine caught a sturgeon about three weeks ago. It wasn’t a big one, probably about 3 feet long,” he said.
McCarty, an avid bowhunter who hunts deer whenever he gets a chance during the winter on the Atchafalaya Delta WMA, plans to fish there for as long as the catfish bite is good.
“It usually stops when crabs come up the river. They’re aggravating,” he said.
He’ll be there at the end, triangulated with the M and the third leg of Mr. Charlie’s.