The only way Jeff Bruhl could know the Tchefuncte River any better was if he owned it.
In a bass-fishing way, he does.
“We’re a little late,” the dyed-in-the-wool Covington fisherman said recently.
He wasn’t talking about his early morning trip to the doctor that put us at the landing near Madisonville some three hours after sunrise. Bruhl, like most of the Bruhls living in the Covington area, played football, and his doctor visit was to help ease an old football injury.
“The early spring is the time to be on this river,” Bruhl said. “We’re going to catch fish (bass) today and maybe some white perch, and we should find some bream, but the spawn is over and the fish move from the backwaters and into the main river.”
That knowledge alone is worth filing away for the future trips to this majestic Florida Parish river.
Actually, the Tchefuncte River that thousands of folks pass over going east and west on Interstate 12 is what locals call the “lower” Tchefuncte (pronounced cha-funk-tah). Smaller rivers like the Little Tchefuncte, the Bogue Falaya and the Amite River converge a short distance north of the I-12 bridge to form a most-times clear, green river that flows through western St. Tammany Parish on its way to Lake Pontchartrain.
Bruhl was right about this mid-spring trip. Except for a couple of hundred yards along sloughs and smaller rivers off the main river, the backwaters were void of fish.
“What happens here is that the shad start concentrating in the main river, and the bass move out to feed on them,” Bruhl explained, then pointing out a school of threadfin shad maybe 20 feet wide and twice that long.
Looking closer, it was easy to see bass feeding in this massive ball of baitfish, something that for a bass must look like a banquet table.
“The trouble is figuring out how to catch them,” Bruhl said. “There are bass that live on the edges of the river and just wait for the shad to pass by, and there are others that will stay out in the middle of the river and cruise just under the shad waiting for a chance to eat one that strays from the school.”
His first tactic was to pick up a rod rigged with a white buzzbait. His first move was to bend the wire leading into the head of the bait about 10 degrees up toward the blade, then open the bait’s arm a tad.
“You want the bait to run below the surface with only the blade running on top of the water,” Bruhl said. “That’s why you want to bend the shaft. That way the skirted part of the bait is a little easier for the bass to grab and for you to set the hook.”
The second cast near one of the many bulkheads produced a solid strike from a pound-and-a-half largemouth. Several casts later a scrappy spotted bass jumped all over the buzz.
“There’s another pattern you can work, and that’s to find the points where bass will stage,” Bruhl added. “Look for grassbeds and work them over, but make sure to work the bait all the way back to the boat. The fish will hide in the grass and follow baits sometimes yards away from the point.”
It was easy to see that bass don’t seem to stray far from deeper water because that’s where their main food source, the shad, move up and down the river.
Later in the day, with the sun overhead, a different school of baitfish made their appearance. Pogeys, small menhaden, moved under the I-12 bridge and their constant dappling on the water’s surface proved this rolling food ball was different than the schools of threadfins.
Just to make sure, casting a shallow-running crankbait, a smallish, black-speckled-on-white, square-billed lure, snagged a four-inch pogey. More than likely, bass, like their saltwater cousins, eat pogeys, too.
While the buzzbait produced, that wasn’t the only ammo Bruhl was loading that day.
“Crankbaits work, too, and so do Rat-L-Traps and some topwaters, but you have to find out what the fish want that day,” Bruhl said. “You have to find out the depth they like and what kind of a presentation they want.
“Some days it’s slow. Other days fast. Clear water makes a difference in (lure) color and that’s what makes it difficult,” he continued.
The real bug-a-boo when it comes to all Florida Parishes rivers is rain, and how much and how fast is falls. Rain runoff muddies these rivers from the Comite-Amite near Denham Springs on the western end of the Florida Parishes all the way east to the Pearl River that forms the boundary between Louisiana and Mississippi. The secret is to give the rivers a couple of days to clear after a hard rain.
“Another point about fishing these rivers is wind direction,” Bruhl said. “Get too much east wind or southeast wind and the water stacks up in Pontchartrain and pushes water into the river. You just have to read the conditions and determine what’s best for that day. But most days you can catch fish.”
While the town of Madisonville is south of the I-12 — and there’s a long “no-wake” run near the town — the best access to the Tchefuncte is north of I-12 at Exit 59. Turn north on to La. 21, which turns into South Tyler Street.
Travel north to West 8th Street (there’s a hospital on the southeast corner) and turn right (east) and travel to the dead-end intersection with South Jahncke Avenue. Turn right, travel four blocks to East 4th Street and turn left to the launch/landing ahead.