Fishing cane and candy canes

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Phil Rider snagged this lunker on Cane River Lake in August while introducing Steve McNemar to its underwater treasures.

By: Steve McNemar

Natchitoches is one of the most unique cities in America. It’s the oldest city in what was then the Louisiana Purchase (which comprised what are now 15 states) and is steeped in fascinating history. A wonderful diverse history that one who is not even a history buff could enjoy days exploring. It would take a city as unique as Natchitoches to offer both anglers and tourists, weekend warriors and those folks simply looking for a chance to breathe, slow down and relax something such as this city does during the Christmas season. Natchitoches has something to offer both groups that should have them pointing their cars, trucks and boats toward this historic town in December.

Let’s start with talking fishing

Natchitoches had no choice but to be synonymous with fishing actually. The name Natchitoches is a Caddo Indian word meaning Chinquapin eaters. If you are not a fisherman, perhaps you remember the name Chinquapin from the film Steel Magnolias. It was filmed in Natchitoches. The beautiful Cane River Lake’s Northern end is situated in Natchitoches and provides over 30 miles of stellar bass fishing along its picturesque banks. Cane River Lake was actually part of the Red River at one time.

However the removal of a 100-mile log jam north of the river caused the Red River to change course during the 1800s. Cane River, as it was then called, was dammed after the river changed course to create the fishing oasis known today as Cane River Lake.

The Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association held its annual convention in Natchitoches during August. A number of writers customarily start the event with a half day fishing trip on Friday before getting down to the work at hand. Captain Phil Rider drew the short straw and was assigned to fish with me. Phil has been fishing Cane for years and it was obvious that he had unlocked her secrets. Launching in downtown Natchitoches we were fishing in minutes. The first thing I noticed was how much it resembled the rivers on the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain that I am blessed to be able to fish.

Captain Phil said the Cane only averages about 250 feet in width. However he said it offers something for every angler. Whether an angler prefers fishing boat docks, piers, laydowns, grass, lily pads, reeds, shallow or deep water the Cane has something for everyone. During this short half day trip we would test almost all of these types of structures and catch fish at most of them. One thing that was quickly evident was Phil’s enthusiasm over the fishery that passes through down town Natchitoches. After just a few minutes his enthusiasm was so contagious that this angler could not wait to toss a lure. Captain Rider said that he tends to spend most of his time on the northern stretches of Cane River Lake. When asked why he said the fishing is simply so good that there really isn’t any need to travel further. He has proof in the photographs of quality fish he’s caught.

Phil said that he will travel down to the southern reaches of Cane River Lake during the spawn. He said the spawn usually occurs late March into April depending on the weather. The main reason he likes to target that area during the spawn is because the grass there allows for clearer water which makes sight fishing bedding bass great. He was kind enough to give me a list of seasonal tips together with lure selection for the benefit of anglers who would like to fish Cane River Lake:

Cane River Seasonal Tips

Winter/Early spring: use traps and square bills around laydowns and boat docks. Where there is aquatic vegetation out in the river throw spinnerbaits and flukes. If the fish are not very active flip beavers and tubes into the voids in the bank reeds. On cold days, a jig and pig is very effective for big fish on deep ends of lay downs.

Late spring: use poppers and frogs early. Late morning flip creature baits and trick worms into the reeds and in the voids in the coon tail where present. Dead stick a Senko or fluke in the same voids.

In the hot months: work top water baits and frogs around the pads early. When the sun gets up, trick worms and shaky heads around brush piles, boat docks, and bridge pilings work well. Also try medium diving crank baits down the straighter banks. Drop shot rigs are also effective fished on deeper laydowns.

Late fall/early winter: fish trick worms and square bill crank baits around laydowns and boat docks. Just go down the bank until you find them. Top colors: Plastics- dark colors like June bug, black neon, black/blue and not to forget…tequila sunrise. ? Crank Baits- chartreuse/black back, fire tiger in colored water. Shad colors when its clearer. Frogs- black or white, find out which they want. Poppers- shad and bream colors. Spinner baits- white/chartreuse with gold willow/ nickel Colorado blades. In the few short hours we fished, I caught bass while fishing frogs, jerk baits, worms and also punching with creature baits. That is not something you can do on just any body of water.

To make it even more impressive the weather was scorching even with the early start and we were fighting a full moon induced late bite. An outstanding fishery that any angler would enjoy.

Now let’s talk about candy canes:

In 1927, Natchitoches Chief Electrician, Max Bargdorf, decided to string Christmas lights along Front St. He also decorated the first “set piece” as they are called- an 8 foot Christmas tree. That humble beginning has now grown into one of the most spectacular Christmas displays in America. Each Christmas season the city of Natchitoches strings over 300,000 lights. As if that isn’t enough to behold, they also erect lighted displays, many along the banks of Cane River Lake.

This has grown into a 6-week event that begins the weekend before Thanksgiving. The displays are so incredible that the holiday night show has been ranked Best Holiday Light Show behind the Rockefeller Center and Disney World by Yahoo.com. That is pretty good company. However the lights are not the only draw. There are fireworks shows every Saturday, parades, vendors and a whole host of activities. The city celebrates the 91st anniversary of the light show this year beginning with an open house Nov. 18 and kicking off the season in earnest with the Festival of Lights Parade Dec. 2. The season runs until Jan. 6. There are far too many activities to list here so please visit these links for the full schedule: www.natchitocheschristmas.com/, www.natchitocheschristmas.com/schedule/ and www.natchitochestimes.com

So what does fishing Cane River Lake have to do with Christmas Lights? Captain Rider said that no doubt his favorite time to fish Cane River Lake coincides with the Christmas Light season. He said not only are the days mild but the bass have the feed bag on and it’s not unusual to catch 40 – 50 bass a day in the shadows of the Christmas Lights. As if that isn’t enough to interest any angler, the bass can often be caught on top waters – poppers and trick worms. Now that is a fun day in any angler’s book.

This scenario presents the perfect family getaway in December. Should the spouse and kids not be interested in fishing there is plenty in Natchitoches for them to enjoy while affording a hard working angler a well-deserved respite upon the beautiful lake that winds along the town.

Steve McNemar, a nationally published outdoor writer and photographer, has been fishing the waters of South Louisiana for almost 50 years An award winning outdoor writer and radio broadcaster, he is a member of the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association. He is also the CEO of U.S. Impact, Inc. located in Mandeville, La. He can be reached via email at steve@usimpactinc.com