The cellphone image of Steve Fontana holding a giant sac-a-lait validated the ages-old “a picture is worth a thousand words” proverb.

“It was the biggest sac-a-lait I’ve ever caught and the biggest I’ve ever seen from False River,” Fontana said. “It inhaled a spinnerbait.”

The fish brought oohs and aahs from the folks at Morel’s Landing on False River’s north end, and when Fontana put it on his hand-held scale, it read 1.5.

“No way. This fish was bigger than that,” Fontana said last week before he realized his scale was set at kilograms. When converted it turned out the fish weighed 3.3 pounds, a catch that would have put his name in Black Crappie section of the state’s Top 10 Fish Records List.

But, Fontana said, "I would have had to kill the fish, and all I wanted to do was get it back in the water,” and he did. This massive sac-a-lait is swimming in the 13-mile long oxbow today."

Fontana also sent along a not-so-well-framed photo this time last year. He was holding a 12-pound False River bass, a fish he also returned to the water.

But, does any of this mean False River is ready to return to its days of old, a time, some 40 years ago, when this watery expanse cut off from the Mississippi River near three centuries past was among the top five most productive fisheries in the country?

Maybe.

Rest of the story

A drainage project begun in the 1990s contributed mightily to the demise of this grand gamefish lake, projects that poured tons of silt into the river's north and south ends.

With that came weeks-on-end muddy water and left soft bottoms where freshwater clam beds and lush submerged aquatic vegetation once provided top-drawer fish habitat. Years of drainage brought a steady decline to the point where reproduction of all gamefish species steadily declined, too. The result was an imbalance in the fish populations. Carp, gar and other non-desirable species thrived in the newer habitat.

The solution, believed then state Rep. Major Thibaut, was to push through legislation to create the False River Watershed District, a move to trigger help from several state agencies, with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in the lead.

The long haul

LDWF District 7 Inland Fisheries manager Brian Heimann was the point man, and a plan was developed in 2013 to fully identify the problems and then implement a recovery plan.

“We knew there were things in False River we wanted to do,” Heimann said. “We identified the problems, then it was time to fix it. The plan was a fluid document, and we didn’t want to set goals ‘x, y and z.’ 

“We needed dredging in the north and south ends and we needed watershed improvements, like physically removing the soft sediment and putting in baffles and gauges to eliminate the source (soft sediment),” he said.

Heimann said another plan was a lake drawdown to dry and harden the soft deposits on both ends of the lake.

Lakeside homeowners protests derailed that plan.

After dredging the south end, and creating an island for the deposited material, Heimann’s staff dumped gravel to provide hard-bottom habitat vital to reproduction of several sunfish species.

The plan to dredge the lake’s north end is underway, and Heimann said full dredging operations likely will begin later this month.

Still, there was enough improvement in water quality for the District 7 crew to stock nearly 5,000 each in 5-inch-long sac-a-lait and 4-inch bluegill in the lake last December.

What now?

Fontana said he and his bass-fishing buddies have noticed a change in the lake, mostly during the past three years.

“We’ve seen a big difference in the size of the bass and sac-a-lait,” Fontana said. “I heard several reports of big sac-a-lait coming from the lake. We know Wildlife and Fisheries putting the gravel helped, and we’re starting to see huge schools of shad we haven’t seen in years.

“Thing is, we’re not seeing a lot of small fish. Most of the bass are 3 pounds or better,” he said. “And you still have to be careful of where you’re running on the north end. It’s pretty badly silted up there.”

For Heimann, more work in the watershed should lead to more productive fishing, and “improving habitat is the most important goal.

“In addition to the other work we’re doing, we continue to sample (fish stocks). It’s important because we should be able to see an improvement in the fishery with improved fish habitat.

“That’s why we’re not setting goals,” he said. “We don’t want to limit ourselves by saying, ‘we go this point and then we’re done.’ We know improved habitat will make a difference.”

Heimann said another goal is to get more submerged vegetation in the lake and that will be accomplished by stabilizing the soils.

“We’re seen some vegetation returning, but not the grasses,” he said. “Turbidity and soft sediments, along with wind and wave action limits the growth of grasses. We’re hopeful grasses will come back following the emergent vegetation we’re seeing now.”

This weekend

Fontana said Sunday’s Kiwanis bass tournament will tell a continuing story of False River’s recovery.

“There’s a lot of deep water still in this lake, and there are guys who know how to catch fish,” he said. “I’m expecting somebody to bring in five bass weighing more than 18 pounds, and that’s a good catch anywhere.”

Weigh-in at the Morrison Parkway begins at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Any fishermen wanting a spot in the Kiwanis can call Ken St. Romain at (225) 718-1319.