No matter where bass fishing takes Cliff Crochet these days — and that’s been some far-flung places during the past five years — he always comes home to the Atchafalaya Basin.
The guy nicknamed “Cajun Baby” has turned his passion for a hobby into a passionate profession. Later this week, he and his new wife, Sarah, are packing up from his Pierre Part home for a trip to the Promised Land.
That’s what the Bassmaster Classic is for somebody like Crochet. This year you can find “Promised Land” at a reservoir called Lake Hartwell just west of Greenville, South Carolina.
Crochet spent the past week before packing up for his third Classic — the Hartwell adventure runs Feb. 20-22 — trying to stay sharp on Atchafalaya largemouths.
“I need to keep a ‘feel’ for the baits I think I’m going to use in the Classic,” Crochet said on a frigidly cold, windy Monday.
From the way he was chunking a swimbait he used to qualify for the Classic through the 2014 Bassmaster Elite Series, it sure was a big hint about what he thinks he’s going to use to take on Hartwell’s finicky bass.
That was about where the hints ended: You won’t find many, if any, among the 56 anglers in the Classic field revealing anything more than they know where Lake Hartwell is, and that Alton Jones won the Classic the first and only time (2008) this “Super Bowl of Bass Fishing” has been contested on Hartwell’s 56,000 acres.
They tell you they know fishing was tough, that it snowed that first day of the 2008 Classic and Jones later said he used a new “football” jig for his three-day, 49-pound, 7-ounce winning total.
And that’s it.
For now, Crochet was content to talk about the Spillway, his beloved Atchafalaya, the place he cut his fishing teeth.
It’s been an unusual three weeks in the Spillway: Water came up, then fell. Air temperatures dropped, then rose. And that combination spurred late-winter bass, sac-a-lait and catfish catches the likes of which haven’t been seen in the Atchafalaya in many a February.
“Just say this,” Crochet begins in his homegrown Cajun accent that delights bass-fishing crowds across the country. “You can find muddy water, brown water, clear water, and black water and you can find fish in them right now.
“What makes it different is finding areas with deeper water, places where the bass were living when the water temperatures were coldest and places with shallows where the bass will move up to feed and think about spawning,” he said.
Poking around in places off West Fork and Bayou Mallet, Crochet picked up fish on a day most fishermen would’ve stayed home. Monday’s windy, bluebird, first-day-after-a-front conditions made it a day he believes he will face in the Classic, maybe even colder and windier.
He found fish in the bayous and canals with at least six feet or deeper water. Shallower canals, even the two with “prettier” water, produced nary a bite.
Crochet said it takes only a few degrees of warmer water to push bass to the banks and into the canals. Those unproductive, shallow canals he fished will be productive when water temperatures get warmer than the 56-59 degrees he found in the six-foot-and-deeper bayous and canals.
His approach was to work the northern banks of east-west running bayous and canals, because that’s the bank that gets the most sunlight when the sun is in the southern sky. Later in the morning, when the sun basted both north and south banks, he fished the south banks, too.
“It’s sort of natural that you want to fish the day or days just before the next front pushed through,” Crochet said. “But don’t let that stop you from fishing more days.”
Crochet’s reasoning is simple: When bass feel a rise in water temperatures into the upper 50s, bass will move to the banks or the back ends of canals. They’re ready to eat, and ready to set up in pre-spawn mode.
“When the cold front comes, the fish aren’t going to retreat all the way back to where they were in the dead of winter,” Crochet said. “What usually happens is that the bass are in the shallow water — heck, I caught a good bass in four inches of water last Friday when we were fishing in shirtsleeves — but that’s not where they are today.
“Yes, fish will pull away from the bank, and they will orient on different structure. We found them on wood and grass two days ago, but today the bass pulled out to grassbeds maybe 8 to 10 feet off the bank,” he said.
When Crochet says “orient,” he using a term bass fishermen apply to the way a fish positions itself on structure. It’s important because putting the lure in front of the bass’ nose attracts more strikes.
All this talk was important to Crochet. He said time on his “home” water helps him translate what he’s learned there to what works for him on “foreign” lakes. Hartwell is as different from the Atchafalaya as the Smoky Mountains are to the Feliciana Parish hills, and Crochet said he knows what he did last week is something he’ll need to pack up for his third Classic trip.