By TODD MASSON | NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It's axiomatic in South Louisiana wintertime fishing that the early bird has to wait for the worm. Getting on the water before the crack of dawn is often a waste of valuable time and sleep because the fish start each day with cold-induced hangovers.

They want to eat about as much as you did the morning after your fraternity's beer-bong face-off.

According to conventional wisdom, once the sun gets up, it warms the water and the fish begin to feel like their aspirin is kicking in. They may not inhale everything edible around them, but at least they don't want to vomit when they see it.

Following the get-there-late adage in Delacroix right now, however, will likely mean you're boxed out of the action, or it'll earn you plenty of single-finger salutes as you try to shoehorn your way in.

For the last month or so, Little Lake has been loaded with speckled trout, and it's one of the few places in South Louisiana that is. So everyone with a boat and an itchy casting finger has been making the short run down Bayou Gentilly to the water body that's grossly misnamed after decades of unabated coastal subsidence.

The place is more crowded than Bourbon Street just moments after the final float unloads its passengers on a beautiful Mardi Gras day (if memory serves, we occasionally used to have pretty weather on Fat Tuesday; I don't know, maybe not).

Getting to Little Lake early means you get to stake your claim to a spot or a drift line.

That's what my fishing buddy Chris Macaluso and I did Wednesday. We weren't the first ones to Little Lake, but many more would come after us than were before us. We counted six boats scattered near the mouth of Alligator Pass and inside the pass itself when we showed up on the scene.

There was still plenty of room for us, so we settled in and began to cast.

Ten minutes later, with only one takedown to our credit, we were beginning to feel claustrophobic by the steady drip of boats that fell from Bayou Gentilly. So we pulled up the tent stakes, and found a section of the lake that everyone else, for some reason, found less desirable.

Good call. Two hours later, we put speckled trout No. 50 in the box, and took advantage of the perfect-weather day to go catch bass and redfish. We counted 36 boats, most of which were concentrated in the northwest corner of the lake.

Capt. Jack Payne, owner of Delacroix's Sweetwater Marina, was overseeing a project to add spray-foam insulation to his bait shed Wednesday, so he missed out on the perfect conditions, but he's taken his fair share of trips to Little Lake in recent weeks. It's just about the only place that's been hot, he said.

“Some people are catching a few in other places, but not like it's been in Little Lake. If you want to catch a bunch of fish, that's where you need to go,” Payne said. “I've made the runs. I've gone all over just to get away from all the people, but we've caught hardly any. We come back to Little Lake to finish off the limit or get close to it.”

There's one section of the lake that, day in and day out, has been hotter than any other place, and there's a reason for that, Payne said.

“There are a lot of old oyster shells and clam shells in Little Lake, and it seems like up there around Alligator Pass, that's where most of the shells are, and that's where the fish have been holding,” Payne said.

There's usually a dearth of food available to speckled trout during the weeks of late-winter, but Payne said he's seen groups of baitfish in Little Lake this year.

“I don't know the name of those freshwater shad, but there's a bunch of them,” he said. “They kind of look like little pogies flipping on the surface.”

The baitfish in the lake have running about 4 to 6 inches in length, Payne said.

The trout are randomly spread out along the 4- to 6-foot depths of the area, but they're certainly most concentrated around the river shad, according to Payne. The most productive way to catch them is rigging a soft-plastic lure about 3 feet under a popping cork.

“About 90 percent of them are being caught under a cork,” Payne said. “If you see some of those river shad flipping on top of the water, you can throw a tight-lined soft-plastic in the shad and let it sink down to the bottom. As soon as you go to move it, a trout will pick it up.”

Not only is presentation important, the fish are also showing a strong color preference, Payne said.

“The shrimp-creole Matrix Shad has been the hottest bait, but some days they want lemonhead,” he said. “When the water was really clear, they wanted magneto, but now it's back to being stained, so I've been using shrimp creole.”

The recent stain has been caused by the opening of the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion. Officials allowed about 2,000 cubic feet per second of river water through the structure for a couple of weeks before scaling back the flow considerably on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was running at about 300 cfs.

Payne doesn't feel the fresh water injected into the system will move the fish out of Little Lake anytime soon.

“The water's low right now,” he said. “We had that big west wind this week that pushed a lot of the fresh water into that area, but as soon as we get some east wind to blow the Gulf water back up Bayou Terre aux Boeufs, Oak River and False River and into the interior, it'll get back to being salty again.”

It's those very waterways that Payne credits with delivering the goods to Delacroix speckled-trout anglers during February, a month that can be a drag across much of the rest of the coast.

“The fish can get in the deeper water and hunker down when it gets colder and go back to the shallows when it warms up,” he said. “The fish just follow the old, traditional routes into this area.

“If you look on a map, all those deep rivers and bayous go straight out into Black Bay. The trout come in to eat on white shrimp in the fall, and they get locked in here.

“In the winter now, we've got these river shad, so they have something to eat this time of year. There's enough bait that they don't need to leave.”

All those stars have aligned to put keeper speckled trout just a shotgun blast from Delacroix, and that means Payne and the anglers who launch out of his marina couldn't be happier.

“Everybody's catching fish and having fun and coming back with smiles on their faces,” he said.

Especially those who get out there early to claim their spots.

___

Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com