Beating the Rush at the Chandeleur Islands
This popular spot now offers great fishing and little competition.
During late winter and early spring, southeastern Louisiana’s meteorologists frequently can’t predict what the weather will be like the next day; their “extended forecasts” are real jokes! And so it was that early-March morning last year after they had promised me the wind would be northeast at 10 to 15, seas 1 to 3, and everything would moderate by afternoon – a fine day for the year’s first trip to the ChandeleurIslands. So I had phoned my young fly-fishing friend, Capt. Chris Dinwiddie, who had been looking for an excuse to make a trip there, and told him the next day was forecast to be “the day”.
Upon clearing the channel markers at the mouth of Baptiste Collette, however, we realized that once again the weathermen’s darts had missed the right rings. The wind had increased to a steady 20 knots, and Breton Sound was a turmoil of 3 to 4-foot whitecapping chop. We looked questioningly at each other, one of us then mumbled that all-too-familiar “Well, we’ve made it this far…”, then put the bow of Chris’s 22-footer into the teeth of the waves and set out on the 7-mile crossing to BretonIsland.
An hour later, having taken a wet butt-kicking from the high-idle journey, we arrived and were quite happy to discover the water inside the island’s northern pocket was reasonably clear. After securing the boat near the west point we rigged up and headed off in different directions to explore. Chris ended up drawing a blank, but I soon found a small gang of very nice redfish in a trough near the point. Chris then joined me, and we ended up releasing three and losing several others – mainly because of the “first-trip jitters” – before the action ended.
After a sandwich we moved the boat into the northernmost part of the pocket – a spot where I hoped to repeat a performance I had made about the same time the previous year with some nice specks and a baby bull red; Chris headed down the sandbar which runs along the inside of the island. I managed only a single speck and a flounder while occasionally noticing Chris move slowly but steadily down the island, stopping every now and then and seeming to perform some sort of chore. Finally, figuring I could save him the long wade back to the boat, I ran it down to him – and discovered he had been virtually surrounded with redfish!
And by then the wind had indeed laid, making the fish quite easy to see in the footish, sand-bottom water. Our final tally was 14 – all in the 6 to 8-pound class, and our return trip across the sound was made at a comfortable 4000 rpm’s.
Taking an occasional butt-kicking – either one-way or on both legs of the round trip – is just a part of fishing the Chandeleurs, especially in early season. A real threat, though, is fog which usually becomes thickest over the cold waters of the river and its passes. A boat with radar – and a skipper who knows how to use it – is quite desirable in that case; without it most sensible folks wait until the weather is forecast (Yeah, right.) to be clear and sortie with a hope and a prayer. Or they simply don’t go out there at this time, which is the general practice. To be sure, with all the oil-field and commercial boats plying Baptiste Collette – and with all the big ships on the river, running in the fog is hairy and not too smart if one sets out in it. But the lure of the Chandeleurs can be awfully strong now…
First trip two years ago – again, early March. The Venice “Jump” is socked in, but three of us – Brent Ballay, Kevin Aderhold, and myself – are hot to trot. Fortunately, this time we have the use of a boat with radar – and Brent knows how to use it.
By the time we reach BretonIsland the fog has thinned significantly, but the water there is dirty, so we continue on to Grand Gosier. There, my friends take off up the sound-side of the island; I choose to work the bar that crosses the pocket within it. And there, a hundred yards from shore and in water just over thigh-deep, the fog sets in again and totally encases me. Talk about suddenly feeling very insignificant – and very insecure!
But shortly it lifted again, the clouds thinned, and the day turned quite bright with only a breath of a southerly breeze. Nevertheless, action was surprisingly slow at Grand Gosier, so with conditions having become so favorable, we decided to run north a bit and see if Little Gosier – which had been devastated by hurricane “Georges” – had begun to reform. I am exceedingly happy to report that it had, and the flats on its sound-side were literally carpeted with redfish!
At this point I must clarify that Brent and Kevin were armed with casting rods that day. I wasn’t, and from the reactions of the fish I caught I have no doubt that every one of the 50-odd reds taken between us could have been caught on flies. As is usually the case when they are found in the shallows at this time of the year, they were hungry, and they were – well, uh, dumb. It was glorious, and on the run back to Venice we could see forever.
My log indicates that over the past decade only one fly-fishing water-haul has occurred at the islands in March and none in April. Most trips involved redfish and lots of ‘em, but as spring waxed some fine catches of very creditable specks have taken place, most of those at Breton. Then too, before the commercial houseboats arrive at Breton in late April and the lower islands quickly become way too crowded for my liking, my friends and I have seldom encountered anyone else out there.
So the fly-fishing potential at the islands is now exceptional, there is plenty of good, soul-soothing solitude out there, and you live way too far from an appropriate marina to get out there when conditions suddenly come together – as they are prone to do – to create “the day”. Or, you find yourself at a convention or attending an outdoor show at the Superdome, both of which regularly take place now, and you neglected to bring along your boat. Or, you simply don’t want to take the slightest chance with the fog – and your skinny little butt is not up to a kicking like Breton Sound can give it. Okay, but there is a solution.
Southern Seaplane is an air taxi service located in Belle Chasse, a suburb of New Orleans on the west bank of the river. A lot of its long-established business is derived from shuttling oil-field personnel, but it also offers air “tours” of the area, and – this is the good part now – one of its owners, Lyle Panepinto, just loves to fly fishing parties out to the islands.
Think about that now. Fog is normally worst over the river and the lower Delta; that which covers inland areas usually burns off by mid-morning, allowing plenty of time for a fly-out fishing trip. And of course, if the weathermen’s wind darts are a little off their mark, there won’t be any sloppy (Painful) boat-ride out and back.
The pilot and the plane are yours for the entire trip. Generally, you fly about looking for schools of fish; reds, especially, are easily detected in the normally clear water found from Grand Gosier north. Once some are located, you set down, wade over to them, and commence catching them. When they quit biting – or it unwanted company arrives, you simply re-board and fly off in search of others. Really neat stuff!
A fly-out trip, especially when waders are demanded, requires minimal gear. Bring a 9 and a 10-weight outfit (Reels with floating or clear intermediate sinking-tip lines and 150 yards or so of 30-pound backing for bull-red insurance); pack them in a double “combo-case”. One box of chartreuse and white and solid purple Clouser Minnows in size 1 for skinny-water reds and size 1/0 for blind-casting is all you will need. Use the purple ones at Breton; the chartreuse ones are best at the more northern islands. Besides the waders, a light parka is recommended, as is a set of good polarized glasses and a “flats cap”. Leave the landing nets and stripping baskets at home, but bring a pocket-sized point-and-shoot camera in a watertight case; you can get some great shots out there now, both from the plane and from the water.
To be entirely honest, though, I hope no one pays any attention to this article – that those guys who don’t go to the islands now because of the potential for fog and butt-kickings continue to stay home – that those who will consider a fly-out trip will soon lose interest, erroneously believing it sounds so easy and so promising that it’s got to be too good to be true. It would be awfully hard for my buddies and me to beat the rush out there if the rush began now!
But then, I guess a few fly fishermen scattered around out there wouldn’t be considered a rush…
(Saltwater Fly Fishing)
On Cold Times and Redfish
Just because it’s a bit chilly outside doesn’t mean the redfish won’t bite!
Talk about some apprehension! It was 32 degrees that late-January morning when I left my home in Buras for a fly-fishing trip with an old friend turned guide, Capt. Barrett Brown – definitely not the kind of weather one would normally associate with decent fishing for reds, with flies or otherwise! Then too, I was to meet him at Hopedale – a place where I had never been, much less fished – in order to access the marshes in and near the Biloxi Wildlife Management Area. And as we crossed the MRGO and headed out Bayou la Loutre, it didn’t take long for me to begin wondering if my nose was about to freeze and break off! Folks, it was cold!
Now that really didn’t bother me much about how it would affect the fishing. I have caught reds conventionally when skim-ice blanketed the shoreline shallows, and I’ve caught them on flies on days almost as cold as those. Reds are pretty bullet-proof when it comes to extremes in temperature, though that can kill them when it gets really low – like during the infamous “Christmas Freezes” of 1983 and 1989! The chill this morning was not even close to what we experienced on those frigid days, and with the low tide and the clear water – and especially the calm airs – I figured we’d catch a few.
Now if I could only keep from getting frost-bitten before we started fishing!
Barrett finally idled down off a point where a protected shoreline began. It was a promising spot, but after sneaking along it for a couple of hundred yards, we had seen no sign of prey or predator. I then suggested we high-idle along the bank for a little further to try to blow some out – a good winter technique but very inadvisable during warmer times! Still nothing! Finally, where the bank ended at the mouth of a large tidal cut, we decided to try less-obtrusive tactics again, and as we moved across the cut and onto a broad and very shallow flat along the cut’s opposite shoreline, we blew out a school of very nice reds!
As is usually the case during winter, the fish did not go far. Barrett, up for the first shot, soon spotted a good one, his cast was on target, and not long thereafter I netted it – around 12 pounds, we figured before releasing it. And do you know what? Although the temperature hadn’t risen a bit, we were both suddenly much warmer!
We swapped positions on the bow and stern platforms off and on until we got clouded out around noon and could no longer see the fish. By then the tide had also come up considerably, scattering them deeper into the marsh. But no matter; we had caught six more including another double-digit fish, and my nose was still attached to my face when we got back to the marina!
Winter redfishing can be quite frustrating for many anglers. For years (Decades?) they have been force-fed erroneous data from various media about how reds head for deep water during this time, and in order to catch them that’s where you must fish. Forty winters of fishing for them – along with timely observations of the results of the gill-netters of yesteryear – have proven quite plainly that’s not the case! I have regularly come upon reds in water a foot or so deep immediately after the winds of the most recent January cold front had calmed. And that – timing your trip to coincide with light winds rather than comfortable temperatures – is the first step to success.
Very often reds “lay up” in small schools in the deeper water near a presently dry tidal cut or an almost-exposed flat. These fish are usually not active but are simply waiting for the tide to rise again so that they can regain feeding areas in the marsh that were drained by the offshore winds. However, they will bite! A few casts around the edges of that deeper water will often locate these frequently ignored fish.
On that note, reds will occasionally feed in areas that are normally too deep for their liking but have become shallow because of the offshore winds and high barometric pressure. Benthic structure like low-relief humps and gullies, grass, and shells attract various prey, and those attract the fish. So do dilapidated fishing camps and derelict oil-field structures. Fact is, some of my sweetest winter spots were built around such “junk” and remained productive for many, many years! Take heed! And concerning that low tide, during winter I have always caught more reds on the bottom half of the rising tide – and that includes the final minutes of the slack low – than at any other time!
And that’s step number two!
The clarity of the water in many areas that are free from river-discharge is normally at its best during winter. Within the occasionally all-too-brief but regularly-occurring times after the most recent norther has blown itself out and before the impending southerlies begin to build, sight-fishing can be a very viable option. Then you can see for yourself that reds can inhabit some very skinny water during some very chilly times – especially when the sun is bright! Once the tide comes up, though – or once you lose good sunlight due to building clouds – forget it and if you simply must keep fishing, revert to blind-casting, targeting the slightly deeper edges of the shallowest water. Bright sunlight – no matter how cold it may be otherwise – is the third step to success.
No matter whether you fish with lures or with flies, smaller is frequently better during winter. Slow-sinkers like 1/8-ounce spinnerbaits, un-weighted Clouser Minnows, and spoon-flies are good choices. Be sure to carry along some in dark colors, solid purple and solid black being proven producers now.
Yeah, solid purple! And that’s the fourth step!
Besides producing good catches of “regular reds” during the cold months, the marsh north of the MRGO has given up some real brutes lately. Fact is, that was the main intention of the trip with Barrett. Unfortunately, we didn’t cross tracks with any bulls that morning, but they do provide a fine opportunity throughout winter. And you can encounter one – so I’m told – any time that you are slipping along a shallow bank in search of another “regular-sized” target! The present state record fly-caught fish – 41.62 pounds – was taken in this area in January 2004! Meeting a fish like that in clear water less than two feet deep ought to knock the chill off your hide in a hurry!
And it was only one of many bulls that are typically caught during winter hereabouts!
There are apparently two primary reasons for their growing presence in these and other inland areas across our coast. The first is a result of the eroding marshes which allow the fish easy access into waters where historically they have been rare at best. The second is the fact that thanks to stringent regulations imposed on them by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries as well as the Federal government, their numbers are much greater than they were a short time ago. It is therefore a distinct possibility that some of these fish are seeking feeding areas with less competition than what is present in the often huge schools of offshore fish. And it’s no secret that there is plenty of prime bull-red groceries in our interior waters!
Whatever the case, there are scads of “regular reds” – and enough big bulls to warrant keeping a watchful eye out for them – inhabiting the waters of St. Bernard Parish within and without the Biloxi WMA. Give ‘em a try – especially during cold, reasonably calm weather on the low tide. Your attitude towards winter redfishing might receive a serious adjustment – for the better, of course.
Just be sure to bundle up for it, and that includes covering your nose! If the weather happens to warm up a bit, you can always take it off!
(Note: Breton Sound Marina in Hopedale (504-676-1252) is the closest access point to the marshes north of the MRGO and offers a hoist and double back-down ramps besides other amenities (Including hot coffee!). Contact Capt. Barrett Brown for a fly-fishing trip at 504-908-3474.)
(Louisiana Conservationist Winter 2008)
Fly Fish for Fall Flounders
Now’s the best time of the year to catch these delights – even on flies!
Just as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow morning, flounder will begin providing an opportunity for Louisiana’s saltwater anglers that grows as autumn waxes. I, for one, certainly do appreciate that, because although these fish are assuredly fun to catch, they simply cannot be beat as tablefare!
And that was the second reason why my old podnuh, Capt. Bubby Rodriguez, and I had run my bay-boat way down SoutheastPass to a little sweet spot on the edge of RedfishBay on that especially lovely autumn morning. We had hammered a concentration of these fish on a couple of earlier trips there – along with some “incidental” specks – and wanted to thin their ranks even further before they headed offshore to spawn. You know how it is – there’s some mighty good security in having a decent stash of flounder fillets laid in for the winter.
Now that should be an acceptable “second” reason for our trip. The first one, however, may be a bit more difficult for some of you to swallow. I was going to fly fish for them. Intentionally!
Right up front I must avow that flounder are not difficult to catch on flies. I’ve caught plenty of them like that over the years – while I was fishing for specks! In other words, “unintentionally”. And there’s the rub. The flounder that have been caught on flies hereabouts – by me or anyone else – have typically been taken incidentally to some other species, mainly specks. So, since for most of my life I have had the philosophy “If it’s there, then fly fish for it”, and since I knew they were “there” in that spot beside RedfishBay, I decided to do just that. And Bubby wanted to tag along to see if I would crash and burn – and to catch some more of those specks as well as a few more plie (Cajunese for flounder) on his jigs.
I am happy to relate that we both came away from that trip well satisfied. Bubby got his limit of the flatfish along with a dozen or so specks on his jigs, and I got seven flounder on my flies. On purpose! Intentionally! And I’m sure I would have gotten my limit if he hadn’t taken so many out of the spot. Anyway, it was lovely – and not so incidentally, since then I’ve done it a few more times, too, especially during fall. And that’s almost assuredly because of the nature of the fish rather than because of something that I might be doing wrong during the rest of the year.
Did you know that flounder migrate? For sure, the southern flounder (Paralichthys lethostigma) does, that being the most important of the genre to Louisiana anglers. During spring and summer they are found randomly scattered throughout the estuaries across our coast and often in water of very low salinity – like 0 ppt! Occasionally they will gang up on a concentration of prey that has been confined in some way, but usually they come in ones and twos during this period. I am reasonably sure that is why they then appear similarly in my ice chest.
In late summer and early autumn most of the sexually mature fish begin a piecemeal movement toward the seashore which will serve as a staging area of sorts for their upcoming offshore spawning migration. There they progressively accumulate in favorable feeding locations, often in surprisingly large numbers. And there’s the main reason why autumn is the best time for fly fishing for them: it’s easier to catch concentrated fish than scattered fish.
For science’s sake I’ll go ahead and take this to its conclusion. The fish will remain in their nearshore habitat until a sharp drop in the water’s temperature occurs, usually in late November or thereabouts. Then, relatively en masse, they head offshore, swimming along bottom until they reach water often in excess of 150 feet deep.
Somewhere around then individual females will begin to swim rapidly toward the surface while broadcasting their eggs, which are then fertilized by attending males. This procedure can take place several times during the next month or so, then the fish slowly begin to return to inshore waters. The eggs soon hatch, and the larvae – shortly becoming fry – use currents and self-power to make their ways into the coastal estuaries, a.k.a. “nurseries”. Within two years both males and females will have become sexually mature and will themselves begin participating in this rather extraordinary journey.
I learned that and a whole lot more than I ever thought I’d know about flounder while serving as the recreational fishing representative on a committee of the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission whose purpose was to create a coast-wide management plan for them. Some of that data has explained most of my historic successes and failures with them and should be quite beneficial for anyone wanting to fly fish for them now, so…
The first step in amassing a mess of flounder fillets at this prime time for doing so – with flies or otherwise – is to locate a spot that has the attributes necessary to accumulate the fish. One of the best of those is the mouth of a tidal cut that drains an expansive area of marsh into the Gulf or a nearshore bay or sound. Those are commonly found in mainland areas but also occur on the backsides of barrier islands – Breton once being a fine example and still a pretty good one. During the falling tide the dropping water-level forces prey that inhabit the marshy shallows into the deeper water of the cut where the current then carries them toward the cut’s mouth. At or near that point the water often becomes abruptly shallower, confining the prey into the decreased depth of the column. Flounder often hold on or near bottom on the down-current side of the lip of that drop-off and feed on prey being swept along overhead.
These “vertical traps”, if you will, can be fairly easy to detect. The darker water of the cut will suddenly become lighter-hued atop the shallows. Also, current seams that have become a bit irregular atop the drop-off – and the wakes of killifish and small mullet – may be visible across the surface of the skinny water. Of course, the best indication of a spot’s potential is to see flounder flipping completely out of the water as a result of their all-out attacks on the minnows!
One note about those “minnows”. The season’s crop of many species has reached some size by this time, so flies should be proportioned accordingly. For this setting lightly-weighted Clouser Minnow-types in size 1 and around 3 to 3 ½-inches long are appropriate, with “mullet” colors (And those of white shrimp!) such as chartreuse or olive over white mimicking those forms of prey closely enough. Solid purple is also a good choice for areas that hold large numbers of a particular killifish known as the “storm minnow” because of its tendency to appear in vast schools as the high tide created by a tropical storm recedes. These flounder-favorites have a distinct reddish-purple tint.
While tackle is being mentioned, I must avow that in all but one case you need no specialized gear to fly fish for flounder. The equipment that you use for reds and specks is entirely adequate, as is the full-floating or floating/sinking-tip line that typically accompanies it. Personal preference is a 9-weight, since it’s easier to cast in a breeze than lighter-weight rods.
In the aforementioned setting, presentations should be made cross-current and to a point just “upstream” of the lip of the drop-off. Then the fly should be stripped just fast enough to keep it off bottom as it crosses the lip and is being swept across the shallows. Once it reaches a point where it begins to drag in the current, retrieve it with short, moderate-paced strips. Strangely enough, quite often most strikes will occur during the final “up-current” retrieve.
While working the shallow mouths of tidal cuts, it’s always best to visually track the assumed position of your fly. Flounders with their deflection and elevation properly calculated have no problems with thumping a fly with authority. Others, though, are amazingly inaccurate. That results in misses that cannot be detected in water over, say, two feet deep. However, when fishing shallower water the misguided attacks are often plainly visible – IF you are watching for them!
Such scrutiny is warranted here because of the tendency of flounder to settle back to bottom at or very near the point from which they just made their sortie. Therefore, after a pause of a minute or so, a follow-up cast to the point of the recent missed strike will often lead to another. Fact is, I once caught a flounder that had slipped the hook right at boatside by giving the fish a couple of minutes to forget what had just happened to it and then making the very short flip to the spot where the unintentional release occurred. I recall it seemed like that one ended up tasting a bit better than the others, too! But that aside, follow the track of your fly, and don’t write off missed strikes. They can actually be beneficial.
I have found several tidal “cuts” around the edges of Cote Blanche Bay and the north shoreline of Marsh Island that have produced a pleasing number of fly-caught flounder during the past two autumns. Another promising area is MudLake, southwest of Theriot, though I cannot verify that because I always seem to get sidetracked by the redfish there. Whatever, the terrain there is similar to that which produces flounder in other spots.
Another autumn opportunity for these fish occurs in coastal rivers – most notably the Mississippi but also the Atchafalaya – which can become quite clear at this time. While flounder can move into the main channels early in the period, the waters in the rivers’ deltas usually hold more of them – the closer to the Gulf they are, the better. And the best of these spots can be fairly deep – the one other case for tackle consideration that I mentioned earlier.
While the mouths of the aforementioned tidal cuts can be effectively worked with a full-floating or sinking-tip line, the best waters in a coastal river’s delta – the smaller passes and larger cuts – typically require something like a Class III “Density Compensated” sinking line. And on that note, a 30-pound fluorocarbon “shocker” for your 16-pound leader is recommended no matter whether you are fishing for flounder deep, shallow, or wherever! In any case, an extra spool for your reel that holds such a line and an appropriate amount of backing will allow you to cover all the bases.
Flounder accumulate around deep structure just like they do shallow structure. Preferred spots include the edges of deep holes that abruptly rise to shallower “flats” where, again, the fish typically hold just down-current of the drop-off’s lip. Incidentally, a favorite “shallower flat” off the first spillway on the Mississippi River’s Southwest Pass runs between 8 and 10 feet deep, so be aware!
Flounder also congregate near the mouths of “coulees” and small bayous and the like that drain into larger cuts or small passes. Here they can be found for a short distance along the shoreline drop-offs that are adjacent to the cuts as well as near the mouth of the cuts themselves.
In these settings the increased depth combines with the current which is normally present throughout a river’s delta to deter one’s ability to get the fly deep enough to be effective. Flounder will not rise very far to eat, so to catch them, your flies must get down! Here you must “lead” your target even more than what is required in shallower settings. Also, Clouser Minnow-type flies with heavy brass or lead eyes on short leaders are helpful in attaining that goal; cast them well up-current of your point of interest and strip only enough line to impart the slightest twitches to the fly. Here, strikes often appear as sudden line-drag, so setting the hook on suspicion is much better than not setting it at all!
For sure, there are other types of structure that concentrate flounder during autumn. One of note is a cut leading from interior waters through a land-mass to the Gulf. A good example is (Was?) the cut between Elmer’s Island – just west of Grand Isle – and the Fourchon beaches where Dr. Jim LaNasa of Baton Rouge got his great fly-caught southern flounder back in the fall of 1994 – 7.21 pounds! Another is Oyster Bayou which drains the southeastern end of FourLeagueBay. There, though, the oysters along the shorelines are the areas of primary interest. Mine, anyway!
In seashore cuts – or passes – like those two as well as Four Bayous Pass, east of Grand Isle, where offshore shrimp trawlers scoop up huge numbers of flounder as they head offshore to spawn – sandbars adjacent to their mouths and along their interior shorelines can also be productive. Both large and small seashore “cuts” are usually best on the falling tide.
Admittedly, fly fishing for flounder is far from the challenge of sight-fishing for skinny-water reds, and they don’t eat poppers with the frequency and gusto that specks do – though they will strike them occasionally! But they are a lot of fun to catch on fly, and fall is the best time of the year to enjoy that fun – which, of course, leads on to greater things at the supper-table. And here’s a suggestion on that note.
Rather than serve fried flounder fillets with fried potatoes (French, American, or otherwise), cook up a pot of rice, and top that with a can of Blue Runner “Creamy Cajun-style” white beans. Then put the pieces of fish on top of that, add a few drops of hot sauce to the fish, and then bust it all up so that you can eat it all together. You talk about some good lickin’!
Man, I just love flounder – fly fishing for them, eating them, writing about them, and trying to help them along their ways so that other folks can also enjoy them! Can you tell?
(Game & Fish Publications – 10-2008)
3 August 2012
Green River, Red Fish (Among Others!)
During my 25-year career in the south Louisiana oil patch, I heard many tales that were told by off-duty crewmen begin with this assertion of their validity: “Now this ain’t no s__t!” The tale which follows is made to order for such a preface, and I begin it by avowing some of the finest fly fishing along the entire Gulf coast takes place during late summer and early fall in the main-line channel and the passes of the Mississippi River!
For me, most of that action initially occurred in the river itself, both while working small poppers for juvenile striped bass, rat reds, and a variety of freshwater species from the rip-rap at Ft.Jackson and while sight-fishing for reds on the big sandbar across the channel at Ft. St. Phillip. But the wakes of passing ships – and the eventual understanding that better potential was available in the passes – finally caused me to shift the majority of my efforts to the smaller waters mainly just below Venice. Unfortunately, that has led to fewer encounters with the river’s resident stripers – which admittedly haven’t been very cooperative in recent years, but man, you would not believe the redfish!
One of the incidents which caused me to shift my target area occurred while I was returning from a dry run offshore. In TantePhinePass less than half a mile from the Venice Marina I stumbled across a gang of fish tearing into passing schools of shad – on the surface of the clear-green water in the middle of the pass! I quickly swapped the fly on my lightest outfit for a popper and in short order caught nine nice reds, nine surprisingly large white bass, and nine ladyfish. And those are the numbers in my fishing log!
Then there was the day my ole podnah, Capt. Bubby Rodriguez, and I accounted for – pay attention now – by actual count and recorded in my log: 36 reds, “several” rat (small) reds, 11 good specks and “many” small ones, one striper, and my 10 plus his “pile” of good white bass! And I recall some ladyfish being involved, too. Poppers and small Clouser-types were the hot patterns, and need I say that during the three-hour melee there wasn’t much time for anything else but breathing!
That second event was also a surface blitz, though the unfortunate entrée of the day was storm minnows – a variety of killifish which often appears now in large schools in the upstream reaches of the passes. Both days are indicative of what can happen when a gang of predators meets a concentration of prey in these waters, and days like them occur often enough to warrant keeping an eye out and an ear tuned for squawking gulls and liquid explosions nearby. However, the most consistent action occurs atop the shoreline sandbars: sight-fishing for reds.
Now before the philistines’ shouts of “Heresy!” begin to detract from the admittedly unusual wonders of this opportunity, I believe I had best explain how it occurs. After all, no one would consider fly fishing for anything in the lower – muddy – Mississippi River… would they?
Well, yeah – when it’s not muddy.
And it sheds that Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn appearance like clockwork almost every summer, becoming clear green and usually retaining that tint through much of October, occasionally well into November. That is the result of the dry season up the country, and it works like this.
With the season’s decreasing amount of run-off entering the river from its tributaries, its current slows. Since freshwater lacks sufficient viscosity to suspend sediments, it relies on its current speed to transport them. When that becomes too slow to accomplish the task, any sediments which have entered the river fall out of suspension to bottom, and the water becomes clear – at times quite clear.
The reduced current also allows saltwater to move upstream along the bottom of the passes, eventually intermixing throughout the water column by way of eddies and upwellings. This occasionally affects the river’s overall salinity as far north as New Orleans, and yes, redfish – among others – which follow the saltwater intrusion have been caught in the river as far upstream as The Big Easy!
In the lower reaches – the “Delta” – these saltwater predators join the river’s residents, which now find feeding much easier due to the clear water, to create merry mayhem among the prey species. Nevertheless the redfish, being basically creatures of the shallows, still find time to cruise the tops of the shoreline sandbars. There, against the light-colored bottom and in water unusually clear for this area, they provide excellent sight-fishing. Generally, a size 1 popper in dark green over either chartreuse or yellow and about 2 ½-inches long can’t be beat.
One of the best perks about this fishery (Aside from the fact that much of it takes place within mere minutes of the marinas in Venice) is that it is so predictable, both favorably and unfavorably. The river’s “stages” are listed daily in many newspapers, both regionally and nationally. When the difference in the stages between New Orleans and Reserve – just up the river – are less than one foot, it will take a tropical system to screw it up, and these days there is plenty of forewarning for those. Even a weak cool front – or some rather stiff un-forecast southerlies – present little problem, as a protected shoreline is almost always available, especially near Venice. The worst-case scenario is usually a sharp rise, and that can be determined from the newspapers’ listings of abrupt increases in the river’s stages to the north. Those at Cairo, IL., St. Louis, MO., and Memphis, TN. are fine references and provide the data which will prevent a visitor from having his trip coincide with a sudden influx of muddy water and allow him plenty of time to cancel or re-schedule. It’s awfully hard to have a trip washed out in this fishery!
Still, you may be hampered by a few minor hassles. Being a popular event for conventional anglers, along with the fact that much of it takes place in an area with moderately heavy commercial boat traffic, wakes can get bothersome. However, once they subside any redfish that were driven off the sandbars by them will quickly regain the shallows. Also, cloudy days can put a damper on sight-fishing, but they have no effect on mid-channel surface action and can lead to some explosive blind-casting – again with poppers – around the snags, stumps, and green cypresses found along the edges of the passes, especially Grand, Tiger, Tante Phine, and Red.
The basic tactic for both sight-fishing and blind-casting is to first locate a promising sandbar along a protected shoreline, and again, those are most often found in the upstream reaches of the above-mentioned passes as well as in South Pass and Pass a l’Outre. Then move the boat to a point just outside of the bar’s drop-off (Easily determined by the abrupt change of the water’s color from light to dark green). Now allow the current to slowly drift the boat downstream while you maintain its position outside the drop-off with the trolling motor. At this point you should be either looking for reds or tossing your popper alongside any woody structure you come across – just like you were bass fishing.
And don’t be surprised if a bass, etc., blasts it!
Catching redfish on poppers in a setting framed by willows and cypress trees and knees may take some getting used to, but no more so than discovering a gang of spotted seatrout in deep, current-laced water lined with willows and elephant ears! This opportunity is not quite as well-established as that of the redfish, but it is viable, especially if you are fishing with a guide.
In this area specks are most often found in water much deeper than what the reds prefer. That includes the river itself, the passes, and deep tidal cuts and canals leading from the passes to the Gulf or near-Gulf bays. Their fly-fishability was determined many years ago by a friend who brought an 8-weight outfit along on a jig-fishing meat-run and caught 38 specks with it on 38 consecutive casts! And need I say that I was one envious puppy!
It all took place near the mouth of a deep cut leading east off of GrandPass, and two factors led to the rather incredible catch. First, the current flowing from the pass through the cut was slowed significantly by a strong rising tide. That, plus the fact that my buddy’s reel was loaded with a Class III sinking-tip line, combined to allow the fly to sink to the depth the specks were holding which, in this case and virtually all others, was near bottom. Since then I have used a Class III Orvis Density Compensated full sinking line in this setting with very good results, but even so, the opportunity is mainly dependant on the current being slow enough for the fly to reach bottom. In other words, do your fly fishing for deep specks during the rising tide on days of good range, or leave the fly rod in its case and pitch jigs at them.
One more thing about the viability of fly fishing for the specks found in this unusual setting. If you are not fishing with a guide who can put you on a specific spot where the fish are holding, or if you yourself have been unable to find fish with conventional deep-jigging techniques (The preferred conventional method for locating them), forget about prospecting for them with flies. That’s an almost guaranteed waste of time. But on the other hand…
Size 1/0 Clouser types in chartreuse over white or solid purple are usually all you will need for the deep fish. For me they, and the sinking fly line, are best worked with a 9-weight outfit. Short upstream casts – even roll-casts – with big ole loops are generally most effective, and don’t be in a hurry to begin your retrieve.
To be sure, the river’s redfish are a lot more fun to catch than the specks are, especially when they are being sight-fished or are blowing holes into passing schools of mid-channel baitfish; I mention the specks more as an opportunity to gather some tasty fillets than as exciting sport. Still, whatever species you choose to target, you will assuredly discover there is a lot more to this unusual autumn fishery than simply the catching part.
And that ain’t no s__t!
(Note: For up-to-the-second information on the status of the river and its fishing, contact the Venice Marina at 985-534-9357. Accommodations, licenses, and supplies are available there and at Cypress Cove (985-534-9289). Flies are not, so bring plenty.
If you find yourself in the lower Delta without a boat or the time for a full day’s trip, try an hour or so fishing off the rip-rap at historic Ft. Jackson – about five miles below Buras – or from the big sandbar just downstream. In both cases wear some kind of thick-soled shoes, watch your footing, and avoid the wakes and subsequent undertow created by passing ships.
Incidentally, here’s another mind-blower: that sandbar is notorious for producing numerous and large southern flounders every fall!)
(Fly Fishing in Salt Waters 9-2002)
12 May 2012
Louisiana’s Up-country Redfish
Folks occasionally take great liberties with words and phrases, using them way out of context with their true meanings in order to get a point across. For instance, as two anglers set out on a day of fishing, one turns to the other and declares “I’m going to kick your butt today!”
Now we all know the speaker has absolutely no intention of booting his partner in the behind. The phrase, through the mystical evolution of the English language, has somehow grown to mean he intends to out-do his friend – in this case he feels he will catch more fish. In this application – if you are capable of somewhat loose interpretations – the phrase is not too difficult to understand, though for the life of me I cannot see how any form of music could be “kick-butt”.
If you are a stickler for proper grammar and know a little about redfish, you may have some problems with the title of this piece. Should your dictionary be as old as mine, you might discover that “up-country” is first not used as an adjective but as either an adverb or a noun, and it denotes interior land areas – where, here in Louisiana, anyway, there is a notable paucity of redfish. Let’s just say I used some literary liberties to create a kick-butt title for this article – it got your attention, didn’t it?
Although the title may not be scientifically or grammatically correct, it is descriptive in its implication: as summer waxes, redfish move further and further into interior areas of the coastal marshes, even into freshwater locations known better for bass and sac-a-lait than for reds. There, they offer action which can often exceed that found in the brackish and salt marshes nearer the seashore. Experiencing it, however, can require some fairly radical changes from the patterns normally productive in the “outer” areas.
Whether it is found in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, along the Mermentau River near Little Chenier, at the “Orange Grove” west of Houma, in the Salvador Wildlife Management Area, throughout the inner marshes between Lafitte and Myrtle Grove, or in the area around Tidewater, the “up-country” is a world apart from that in which most folks fish for reds.
In many areas cypress trees – and the stark remains of those of yesteryear – rise from the surface of the ponds. Elephant ears and bull tongue line the shorelines; willows, hackberries, and tallow trees sprout from the ridges along bayous and canals, and morning glories grace the hummocks.
Submergent aquatic grasses are usually profuse. Widgeon grass, coontail, and millfoil cover the bottoms of the ponds and in places rise to the surface to form solid vegetative mats. Nutrias graze innocently on it, alligators stalk furtively through it, ospreys dive gracefully into it, and – here and there – redfish crash noisily into schools of killifish alongside it. Up-country is indeed a place of beauty, a place to marvel, a place to lose your concentration on the business at hand. Distractions are everywhere.
Admittedly it was a distraction that led to my first up-country red. I was bass fishing with fly-rod poppers from my pirogue in a canal near Tidewater. Gallinules were especially raucous and playful that early-summer morning, and as I committed that first deadly sin of bass-bugging – shifting my concentration from the popper to something else, in this case a very rowdy bird close at hand – a redfish stuck its tail out of the water squarely in my line of vision. An encounter with a red in that area then being one of the farthest things from my mind, I did get a bit rattled, but I managed to cast the popper close enough to it to get its attention, and it struck on the second pop. At the time it was the largest red I had taken from “inside waters” (those found inside the seashore).
That brings up an interesting point. My fishing log indicates that with only one exception, every “inside” red I have caught which weighed 12 pounds or more was taken from fresh or almost-fresh marsh. And if that doesn’t emphasize the worth of the up-country as to its productivity, then there was the fish Peck Hayne of New Orleans caught in the relatively fresh marsh just northwest of Myrtle Grove while fishing with my buddy, Capt. Bubby Rodriguez. It weighed – hold onto your hat now – 21 1/2 pounds, and, by the way, it was also caught on fly tackle.
There are two very good reasons why heavyweight reds are often found in the up-country. The first is that it holds a veritable profusion of numerous types of prey species. Besides killifish, stomach-content analyses on fish taken from these waters have revealed small bluegills, common eels, blue crabs, small mullet, and large white shrimp. I have no doubt that baby bass are also on the menu, as are the offspring of the redear sunfish which I found bedding on a favorite redfish flat one summer. No kidding!
The other reason is that the lush aquatic vegetation provides excellent cover for a redfish looking for a meal. Whether he is tilted up and tailing with his nose in the grass as he searches for a crab, whether he is slowly cruising along the edge of a thick mat or grass island in an attempt to flush a school of minnows, or whether he is simply laid up in the salad waiting for something appetizing to swim by, he doesn’t have to expend a lot of energy to eat. That in itself – “efficient feeding” – leads to the production of big fish.
On the other hand, all that aquatic grass presents problems for the fisherman.
First, he must be able to make his way through and across it in his boat to reach the fish. Up-country reds are just as fond of skinny water as their cousins in more saline areas are. Here, though, the shallow, heavily-vegetated “flats” and ponds prevent access by bass-boats, bay-boats, and the like, and a trolling motor will “grass up” so quickly that it is virtually worthless as a means of propulsion.
However, there are several solutions to the problems of gaining and traversing the shallows. One is to transport a pirogue or canoe in the primary craft. Upon reaching the area you intend to fish, anchor the big boat in deep water, slide the smaller boat overboard, and use either a paddle or a push-pole to propel it.
Mud-boats powered by air-cooled straight-drive motors (i.e. “Go-devils”) can be used to both gain and cross these areas. Nevertheless, for purposes of stealth they should be push-poled once the fishing has begun. The same goes with a shallow-draft outboard-powered aluminum flatboat, though craft like that can also be paddled. Over the years I have used all three of these options with almost equal success, though I prefer using a secondary boat. Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle, but occasionally I seem to do a little better fishing from it than from the somewhat larger craft.
One reason for that could be the result of another problem one faces when working these areas: the water’s extreme clarity. All that submergent grass – which by mid-summer has reached its full growth potential – serves as an excellent filter. Therefore, the water in the shallows is quite clear, allowing for excellent sight-fishing opportunities – and allowing excellent opportunities for the fish to see you first!
This creates a catch-22 situation. If you fish while standing – and you use a push-pole to maneuver the boat – you can see fish a lot further away than you can while seated and paddling. But in order to prevent them from detecting your presence, you must make fairly long casts, and in this setting accurate casting is a must.
On the flip-side of the coin, if you are seated you will not normally see as many fish, but those you do encounter will be less likely to notice you. Also, they will be closer, allowing shorter and thereby more accurate casts. It’s your choice; just understand the pros and cons of each method. Personally, I like to sit and paddle in “tight” marshes and small ponds and stand and push-pole across broad, open areas.
Fish can appear literally anywhere around you. That factor demands you cover the water slowly, quietly, and thoroughly. On days of bright sunlight and therefore the best sub-surface visibility, you should not cast blindly as you move along; spot-casting to fish you see is by far the best tactic. The exception is on windy or dark days when fish which are not exhibiting sundry parts of their anatomy above the water’s surface are next to impossible to detect. Then, you have no choice but to accept the inevitability of spooking occasional fish by either “lining” them or by the lure impacting the water too closely to them while casting “blindly”.
We’ll discuss that a little further in a moment. Now, let’s assume conditions are favorable for sight-fishing, and as you make your way onto some promising shallows – in whatever type of appropriate boat and either sitting or standing – you are faced with the problem of where to begin looking for them. Do you remember I mentioned they could be anywhere? Well, that’s true, but you would do best by ignoring those which are randomly scattered about – provided they are not persistently waving their tails at you – and concentrate your search along “edges”.
Those commonly occur as shorelines of emergent grass islands, the perimeter of interior ponds, and the rims of mats of submergent grasses. Downwind edges are best, as they create a narrow band of flat water before the ripples begin, aiding in spotting the indications of redfish. Look! One just tailed up against that patch of bull tongue over there!
Now you are faced with another problem. The fish is in no more than 8 inches of water and within a foot of the bank. You can’t cast beyond it to draw the lure across its path, if you cast too closely to it you are guaranteed to spook it, and if you “lead” it too much it might turn away and never see the lure. Now what?
That exact situation is what initiated my 30-year career of fly-fishing for up-country reds. Notably, it was done mostly with poppers which floated above the submergent grass, seldom spooked fish when placed a couple of feet directly ahead of them, and provided an obvious target for them. Simply put, fly-rod poppers have proven to be unequivocally the best lure for fish found in this setting!
That notwithstanding, I realize many readers do not fish with flies. Fortunately, there are conventional techniques which can be successfully applied here.
The first is to thread a 36/40-count shrimp (which weighs a little less than half an ounce) onto a size 1/0 hook – no weight, no snaps or swivels, and certainly no cork – lob it with a spinning outfit to a point about three feet ahead of the fish, and let it soak while you hope he will detect it by smell. That has worked in the past, and it is quite exciting to watch the fish in its hunt for the shrimp!
Should you be averse to fishing with “bait”, another tactic is to thread a 3-inch soft-plastic grub or cocahoe onto the same-sized hook, leaving the point slightly buried in the lure like you would to render a plastic worm “weedless”. Then cast it into the bull tongue slightly ahead of the fish, pull it gently into the water, and then work it across his path (I’ve also done that – unintentionally, I admit – with flies and caught many reds!).
Finally, if there is no grass on the surface of the water along the bull tongue “edge”, a small surface lure like a Tiny Torpedo can lead to explosive excitement. If possible, wait until the fish tails up again, then cast to a point two or three feet ahead of him and let the lure sit. With the fish’s nose on bottom, he will be less likely to spook from the lure’s impact than he would otherwise. Then, when he stops tailing begin a retrieve consisting of continuous short, soft twitches.
While the redfish you see around the islands and in the ponds often have a backstop of sorts behind them, making them difficult, albeit exciting, nuts to crack, those found along the edges of matted submergent grasses are often quite easy. If the mat is well defined – having little if any grass reaching the surface away from its perimeter – then the surface lure or a spinnerbait can be effective; cast either parallel to the fish’s track so the lure will pass him a couple of feet distant, and he will usually crash it. But here – as anywhere else in the shallows where I am not faced with a “backstop” – my favorite lure (outside of fly-rod poppers) is a buzzbait. It is also the source of the best action on those cloudy or windy days I mentioned earlier when the difficulty in spotting fish leads to the necessity of blind-casting. Incidentally, under those conditions buzzbaits can also lead to some fine supplementary action with bass – even in the shallows – even in the middle of a sultry summer afternoon.
That’s just a little lagniappe – and a part of the up-country. My choice of buzzbait is a quarter-ounce Lunkerlure, skirt removed and a “junior-sized” (2 1/2-inch) cocahoe attached. It gives me the distinct advantage of being able to cast across the fish’s path – even if that means I must retrieve it across the top of the mat before it reaches the fish – without fouling. Remember, though, to never retrieve the lure directly toward the fish. The speed of the retrieve should be just fast enough to keep the lure on top. When one of those bluegill-stuffed heavyweight reds hits it, no one will have to tell you that you just had a bite!
Sadly, many of Louisiana‘s up-country marshes have sorely degraded; some I was once blessed with in the Delta are now entirely salty. Happily, though, many remain, and the freshwater diversion systems at Caernarvon and Davis Pond will assuredly create others. They are wonderful places – aesthetically pleasing and full of wildlife wonders, and in summer redfish will join the bass and other freshwater species inhabiting them to provide great action. Get yourself some of it; it’s a kick-butt opportunity to the max!
(Game & Fish Publications 7-1999)
10 Tips for Big Specks
A big speck is possibly the most difficult fish inhabiting inshore Gulf waters to catch on a fly. The following tips – along with a lot of good luck – will increase your chances of taking one of these prizes.
My flies have accounted for four specks that could have been considered “big”. The last one wasn’t particularly big, and there are a few places within the fish’s range where it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, even though it was caught on a fly. But throughout most of the waters the species inhabits, that one would have been classed as a big one, and it’s almost a certainty that most of the folks who fly fish in saltwater have not caught one of equal or larger size.
Why is this? Since restrictions imposed on commercial fisheries have been in effect for several years now across much of the fish’s range, big specks are more common than they once were. Perhaps the main reason fly fishermen catch so few of them is that they don’t fish for them. They break out their trusty 8-weight outfits when they stumble across a melee of feeding fish, toss out a size 1 Clouser Minnow or shrimp pattern, and catch a few, but in the process they have no clue that their efforts will result only in skillet-material. And if you feel I passed that statement directly at you, sorry, but that’s how the cow ate the cabbage (Or how the big speck ate the mullet.)!
Whoa, you say, specks eat penaeid shrimps! Sure they do – during the time they are skillet-material! And that generality is one of many misconceptions leading to practices which prevent most fly fishermen from catching big specks. If you really want claim to one of these rare fly-fishing prizes, the following 10 tips should be of great benefit, but right out of the chute I will add in all sincerity that if fortune – blind, dumb luck – is not on your side, then you will surely not succeed!
#1 – Cram as much fishing-time as possible into May and early June.
This is the time when the biggest fish – invariably females – feed heavily in preparation for the rigors of spawning. Notably, that act can take place several times over a fairly long period with the fish feeding in between them, but the female specks seem to be heaviest just prior to their first session. The “big one” I mentioned earlier was still quite thin on May 7 – the day I caught it, and its eggs had several weeks to go before they would be fully developed, but generally this is the time when the fish will attain their annual heaviest weight. Incidentally, all four of the big specks I have taken on flies – that designation being arbitrarily set by me at a very creditable size for my region – were caught in May!
#2 – Fish near the seashore or in areas known for producing numbers of big fish.
Big specks can spawn just about anywhere in areas of adequate salinity, which is required to keep the eggs in suspension until they hatch. However, along much of the coast that stipulation is met only near or along the seashore, especially in areas which are directly affected by river discharge. During dry years spawning can occur in these locales in inland waters, but day in and day out the odds of catching a big fish are best in or near the surf. Barrier islands – the water all around them! – are a great place to begin your quest. Not so incidentally, besides all four of my big specks having been taken in May, they were all caught at the ChandeleurIslands – “barrier islands”!
While those do have a name for producing big specks, other places are known for producing giants – “big” ones don’t get much press there! Nevertheless, they are still well-earned trophies. Concentrating your efforts on such well-known waters as Texas’ Baffin Bay, Louisiana’s Calcasieu Lake, and Florida’s Indian and Banana River systems will be of great benefit to your quest. That notwithstanding, big specks can certainly be found in other areas; following the rules – and occasionally rubbing your good-luck charm – will keep you on the right track in those waters.
#3 – Fish in areas where mullet are present.
Yeah, all right, I’ll concede: a big speck will eat a pogy or a barbecuing-sized white shrimp on occasion. Nevertheless, mullet are a staple, and those 6 to 8 inches long – or longer! – are much more preferred than “finger mullet”! Find a gang of these fish on the surface and acting a little fidgety, and there’s probably a big speck around.
#4 – Fish shallow in early AM.
During periods of low light big specks can move into the shallows to feed, water knee to waist-deep being a good range to target. They don’t seem to be light-sensitive, as in some areas they are found in really skinny stuff throughout much of the day, but they get even harder than normal to catch once the sun has risen a bit. And in my experiences a thick mid-morning overcast is not nearly as conducive to catching a big one as the period from daybreak to a half-hour or so after sunrise. If you want to catch a big speck, you’d best start going to bed a little earlier than normal or you will lose some sleep!
#5 – Wade or drift-fish.
Big specks are not necessarily old specks, but they have been around for a while. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that they have assuredly become conditioned to what is “normal” and what isn’t – like the whine of an outboard, the hum of a trolling motor, or the sudden thump of an anchor hitting bottom. And if that big one had not immediately responded properly to things that weren’t “normal” during its lifetime, it would not have become a big one!
Wading is by far the stealthiest approach to these fish – all four of my big ones were caught thusly. In areas where the practice is feasible, it is indeed the only way to go. Where it isn’t feasible, drifting is far better than power-drifting with an electric trolling motor. If one of those must be used, put it on the lowest speed that will maintain a desirable headway in any breeze or current that is present and LEAVE IT ALONE! That sound may not be quite normal to a big speck, but it will be a lot less alarming than those of the motor being turned on and shut off, speeded up and slowed down.
#6 – Avoid company.
When the time and place is right for fly fishing for big specks, I become as anti-social as anyone you have probably ever met – while I am fishing, anyway. The reason is that while wading I have never seen a big speck caught – by me or anyone else – with someone within 50 yards of the guy who caught it. And should another boat approach to within that distance of yours while you are fishing from it, you should immediately start looking for another spot – or be satisfied with amassing a mess of skillet-material.
#7 – Use big flies.
No matter how much a small fly might appeal to you, don’t expect it to have much appeal to a creature which regularly consumes 6 to 8-inch mullet! Lightly-weighted size 2/0 Clouser Minnows some 5 to 5 ½ inches long have produced several big specks when worked in the deeper end of the preferred water-depth range; similar-sized Deceivers and Seaducers work in shallower water. But during the lovely low-light of early morning with a zephyr barely wrinkling the water’s surface, you will find this boy working a popper – big, bulky, and a royal pain in the butt to cast, but man, what potential!
And what excitement when that last big speck I caught blew up on one!
Poppers could be the best thing going for big specks. Mine are size 1/0 and some 4 ½ to 5 inches long – not quite long enough in my opinion, but since I need a 10-weight outfit to cast them as they are, that’s long enough! And while gear is being mentioned, fluorocarbon should be used in both the class tippet and the shocker sections of the leader. If you can remember to check your point for fraying and re-tie your fly at just the suspicion that it’s needed, you can lose the shocker.
#8 – Cover water
I saw it again on the day of my last big one. The trip was intended to film a TV show. After I caught my prize I yielded the productive spot, along with a sizeable stretch of similar water, to the show’s host. And there he stood, fan-casting the area with a pattern as tight as a full-choke shotgun would throw, until I finally suggested we should move along.
Many fly fishermen I have watched over the years have had the tendency to beat a promising spot into a froth, often changing flies in the process. With the way big specks respond to everything else, I have no trouble believing that if it is going to strike at all, it will do so the first time it detects the fly. Sure, cover the water thoroughly – “improved cylinder-like” rather than “full choke”, but understand that it’s quite likely many of even those casts will be wasted effort once a big fish has seen and rejected your fly.
#9 – Leave concentrations of small fish.
This one could be the most difficult of all 10 tips to follow, but if you want a big speck, adhere steadfastly to it! It all goes back to what’s normal in a big speck’s world. Seeing a smaller member of the tribe suddenly go dashing about, sloshing its head above the surface, and performing other such antics is certainly not normal. The big fish may not actually spook from the commotion, but its warning flags will assuredly go up! I have never – ever! – seen a big speck caught after a couple of fillet-makers were pulled from a particular spot. What you do here is strictly up to you, just consider the rather limited big-fish time and places and the fact that you can harvest skillet-material during summer!
#10 – Fight her right.
Big fish and fragile mouths combine to make actually catching a big speck about as difficult as getting it to strike – close, anyway! Flies have a lot more going for them than conventional lures like the big “walking” topwaters which can tear out of even foul-hooked places with ease. Still, it’s a problem seldom encountered with any other fly-fishing prize and one which should be seriously considered during the contest.
Fight the fish firmly but smoothly – no sudden jerks or lapses in tension on it. Here in one of very few scenarios which arise in saltwater fly fishing, “high-sticking” the fish throughout the contest can be very beneficial, as the rod’s tip will then act as a shock absorber and the power in the rod’s butt will not be felt. Think about it.
Catching a big speck on a fly is no mean accomplishment. There have probably been many more times the number of permit taken in that manner than big specks, no matter what is considered “big” in a certain area. Follow the rules – and don’t get all bent out of shape if you come up empty-handed for a while, which you probably will. One day a little dose of good luck will make a big difference, and you will have claim to a real trophy!
(Fly Fishing in Salt Waters 3-2003)
Love Those Oysters!
There’s a fine line between folks who eat oysters like a big black drum and those who wouldn’t touch one with your fingers! Personally, I love ‘em, and not only on the half-shell, fried, Bienville, in a soup (NOT a stew, which I feel is a waste of perfectly good oysters!), or in a dressing. You see, oysters create fish-attracting structure across much of the GulfCoast, and in many areas it’s the best around!
Over the years I have regularly fished over oysters and have determined three different forms of structure created from them: live reefs, cultivation “beds”, and the shells of dead ones. While all three can hold a variety of fish at any given time, some consideration should be given to each type in order to achieve the best overall results.
Live reefs typically present more vertical relief than the other forms of oyster-structure, and they are less subject to year-to-year changes. Those factors contribute to their appeal to the fish and to the relative ease of effectively fishing them.
Any accumulation of oysters provides both food and protection for several prey species. The larger such an accumulation is, the more likely it will attract prey, and large concentrations of prey are more attractive to predators than smaller ones. Therefore, of all types of oyster-structure, live reefs are more likely – usually! – to hold large numbers of predators than the other two types. However, in order to enjoy the potential that reefs offer, first you must locate one!
Over the years I have occasionally accomplished that feat with relative ease, courtesy of my outboard’s lower unit. It’s an effective method in relatively shallow water, but it’s not recommended as a standard practice! Still, just in case you do succeed in locating one in this manner, forget about it on that particular day, since you’ve assuredly run off any fish that were around! But mark it and be sure to return to it on your next trip.
A less extreme way to locate reefs is by noticing changes in the water’s hue – oysters creating a darkness within a surrounding “light” bottom. Another way, especially for reefs in depths or clarity where they cannot be visually determined, is to drop a GPS waypoint on every spot where you encounter fish in open water – especially specks running shrimp. Review those numbers from time to time, and if you discover that two or three of them are close together, odds are good that you’ve found a reef – and a spot to regularly prospect even without the tell-tale signs of feeding fish!
Finally – and this applies to all oyster-structure – a very low tide can be quite revealing. Scouting trips made at this time, even though any actual fishing may not be all that good, can be excellent investments. Just be careful, since low tides are also a fine time for more than just polishing your prop!
Reefs are quite irregular, and their perimeters – and any high and low spots within them – are the primary strike zones. For species such as specks, reds, and flounders, these areas should be worked while on the trolling motor, and even if a concentration of fish is discovered. Usually, if it’s at all possible, do NOT set the anchor! Maintain your position with the trolling motor.
“Beds” for cultivating oysters are found in several areas across the Gulf Coast, especially in Louisiana. These are primarily sections of bay-bottom that are leased from the state and “planted” with seed-oysters which are attained from public reefs and which grow to marketable size in a year or so. Then they are harvested for sale by the lease-holder. Their perimeters are usually plainly marked with either long willow branches or lengths of PVC pipe, making them easy to locate. They can also change in character dramatically from year to year, and that makes them inconsistent producers at times. But man, when they’re hot, they’re hot!
Beds generally don’t have the amount of vertical relief that characterizes reefs. Single oysters and small clusters are scattered randomly across the water-bottom, with accumulations in one particular area often being greater – and more productive – than in others. In clear water these oysters also show up as dark splotches on bottom, but by the time you locate one visually, you’ve probably gotten so close that you’ve scattered any fish that had been present. The best way I’ve found to fish a bed is to drift across it with the breeze. If you must rely on trolling motor power, set it on the lowest speed that will get the job done, leave it alone. And again, if at all possible do NOT set the anchor. And since I’ve stressed that point twice, the reason is because it makes a very loud “CLUNK!” when it hits an oyster!
The reason beds are inconsistent is because of the work that is performed on them by the lease-holders. The hotspot you found in one last fall could easily be barren the following summer because the feature that made it “hot” has been altered in the meantime. Therefore there is no long-term justification for dropping way-points on productive spots in a bed. Conversely to the spot that was hot last fall, a “dead zone” during that time could now be holding the Mother Lode – again, the result of work having been done by the lease-holder. Cover a bed thoroughly and entirely!
Shells that remain from dearly-departed oysters can be found both scattered and concentrated. One of the best ways to locate them is to find an old fishing camp whose owner – past or present – regularly shucked his oysters from a particular spot on the porch or pier. Over the years the shells around these camps can accumulate into veritable calcareous mountains that often remain after all other signs of the camp are gone. In that instance these shells can also be hazardous to your lower unit, but when there is some visible indication that they might be present – they create a color change, extend above the water’s surface, or there are pilings and such remains from the erstwhile camp nearby, they can be easily and safely located. And they can draw fish – especially reds – like you would not believe! Oyster-eating camp-owners of yesteryear unknowingly (?) provided me with more of these fish – as well as a few quite lovely specks – than I would care to count!
Scattered shells are the least-productive form of oyster-structure, but they can provide good action. These often appear rather randomly as both light and dark spots on bottom and have virtually no vertical relief. Nevertheless, in places they apparently serve to provide at least some food and protection for prey, especially in areas where bottom is otherwise rather featureless.
A low tide also facilitates locating accumulations of scattered shells. Those are often given away by the presence of some that are then exposed along a presently dry or very shallow shoreline. Those shells that are now visible can hold fish on higher water, but the “secret spot” is frequently in the deeper water just outside of them. Likewise, any shells noticed on the shoreline during periods of higher tides often indicate the presence of others off the bank a ways. These two scenarios will seldom lead to the discovery of a honey-hole, but they could give up another red or flounder or two for the cooler – consistently!
Oh, speaking of the cooler, you should refrain from sampling the “structure” unless you are absolutely certain it is public and open for, well, “sampling”. There are more than enough palette-pleasing creatures found on oyster-structure for you to risk a problem in the tummy or otherwise from the shellfish. If you simply must have some, buy a sack on the way home – and a 6-pack. They sure go good together!
Oysters – the source of both great fish-holding structure and great eating. Don’t you just love ‘em!
(Center Console Angler 8-2006)
Winter on the Gulf Coast
Believe it or not, now’s the time for some of the best, and easiest, saltwater fly fishing to be had anywhere!
Much of the Gulf Coast does not see the snowbird migration during winter. However, conventions and boat and tackle shows draw a considerable number of folks from northern locales into the area.
It would be hard to believe that few if any of those visitors are ardent fly fishermen on their home waters. During the warm months some may even make pilgrimages to distant shrines, but in many cases winter is closed season near their homes. With the coming of the new year thoughts of fly fishing have become only whimsical daydreams of good past days and hopefully good days to come. Even on trips south, seldom is any consideration given to going fishing; fleeting thoughts of it are full of discomforts and difficulties. Besides, many visitors know absolutely nothing about fly fishing in saltwater, and during winter any kind of fishing throughout most of the country is marginal at best. Isn’t it?
Actually, it can be some of the finest of the entire year – and some of the easiest. A particular mid-January morning comes to mind.
Determined to take my first fish of the new millennium on flies, I was headed up a meandering bayou when my wake spooked a redfish off the bank. Upon idling down to take a better look, behold, there was another one! So I quickly strung up my 9-weight and proceeded to catch four and long-distance release another within the next hour or so. All were good fish in the 24 to 26-inch class, all were plainly visible in the shallow, winter-clear water along the shoreline, all were very aggressive, and all struck on casts of no more than 40 feet. Then I set off toward a small oyster reef in a nearby bay and caught 10 spotted seatrout to 21 inches on the same flies – size 1 purple “Bent-back Bucktails” (See the Autumn 1999 issue of Fly Tyer). Not a bad way for a fly fisherman to kick off a new millennium, huh? (Sic: The B-b B is described in this site in Flies – Saltwater.)
A lot of folks – even conventional-fishing locals – have misconceptions about winter fishing for those two immensely popular species. The one most predominant is that when it gets cold, those fish head for the deepest water they can find. There, conventional fishing for them can be boom or bust, depending on one’s ability to find a concentration of them. Fly fishing for them requires a fast-sinking line, the patience of an old priest, and more time on one’s hands than I have!
The problem with that belief is that if the weather doesn’t get really cold, all the fish do not go deep, and those that don’t still present a very viable fly-fishing option. In many cases within two days after my backyard bird-bath had frozen from a high-20’s morning low, I have found reds over oysters in a foot – a foot! – of water and specks in 4 feet, and that’s quite fly fishable! To be sure, it can get cold along the Gulf Coast, and at times that cold has caused fish-killing freezes at worst, mass exoduses to the depths at best. Still, it doesn’t happen as often as one might assume. “Normal” winter cold – minimal and short-term freezes – is surprisingly beneficial, as it causes both species of fish to gang up.
That is the result of the combination of the cold water temperature and the low tides caused by high pressure and offshore winds. In many cases the shallow areas where redfish feed even now will be exposed mud-flats; any benthic structure in deeper water nearby – and it doesn’t have to be much deeper – will collect these fish until the tide rises again and they scatter. The specks, being more of a schooling-type fish than juvenile reds, also congregate around unconformities along the bottoms of bays and bayous of fly-fishable depth – things like oyster reefs, channel lips, sunken boats, dilapidated fishing camps, and derelict oil-field equipment where that is found. Once a concentration of either is discovered, the action can be fast and furious.
Discovering these often small and subtle but prolific fish-magnets would be difficult for an infrequent visitor who has decided to trailer his boat down south. Assuredly one would do much better on a guided trip, and whereas only a handful of years ago this area was practically devoid of capable fly-fishing guides, now there are quite a few. But more about them in a sidebar.
So far the comments I’ve made about the winter weather hereabouts have been about the cold. By the first of February nice, temperate days become almost as common as the chilly ones. Typically, those are the days when the tide rises enough to flood the areas where the redfish feed; then the schools which have been ganged up in deeper water disperse to the newly-created shallows. There, in the winter-clear water commonly found in many areas, they provide an excellent sight-fishing opportunity.
So you are a little uncertain about your ability in that department? I have no doubt if you can drop a weighted stonefly nymph into a quiet pocket some 40 feet across your favorite river with a 5-weight outfit, then you should be able to take an 8 or 9-weight stick and have no trouble dropping a size 2 Seaducer in front of a red’s nose from the same distance. Then, whether you are sight-fishing or blind casting, you begin to strip it back just like you would a Muddler Minnow after it has finished its cross-current swing. When a fish strikes you set the hook with a short line-strip or two rather than by raising the rod. Then you get to enjoy having the fish clear any loose shooting line for you instead of you having to do it yourself, and then you reel in line when you can and let the fish have its way when you can’t. So now you know all you need to know about how to catch reds and specks on fly. Finding them – and that’s your guide’s problem, and presenting to them – and that’s your problem, are the variables that determine the catching part.
First of all, what do you present? For blind-casting for either species, Size 1 Clouser Minnows in either purple or chartreuse are consistent producers in many areas. As mentioned earlier, Size 2 Seaducers in “natural” or “Roadkill” are good bets for sight-fishing for reds. While booking a trip ask your guide about local hot patterns and their availability on site. We may have some guides around now, but in many areas there are a lot of highway miles between fly shops!
Now, what do you present with? Anything you can cast flies of those types and sizes in a 15-knot breeze. Personally, I’d recommend a 9-weight of moderate or “mid-flex” action. Those are a lot more comfortable and easier to cast for a newcomer to the salt than a fast-action boom-stick, and good ones carry reasonable price-tags. A saltwater-resistant reel – disc-drag or otherwise – that holds, say, a 9-weight slow sinking or sinking-tip line and 100 yards or so of 20-pound backing is fine; load an extra spool for it with 100 yards of the same strength backing and a floating bass taper line – no mono-cores in winter for these waters! Nine-foot leaders tapered to 16-pound and finished with a foot of 30-pound for a shocker is adequate; in areas where the water is very clear either lose the shocker or use fluorocarbon (With the latter, don’t forget to thoroughly wet those knots before seating them!).
Now, how do you present? It’s usually better – more efficient, anyway – to locate concentrations of fish in winter with hardware. Once you or your guide have had a couple of quick strikes, break out the fly rod. Once you have caught a couple, set the anchor and go to work on ‘em. And about setting the anchor, if at all possible set it in a position that will result in any breeze being off your casting shoulder as you cast to the target area. In most cases that is not difficult to do, just remind your guide.
That breeze brings up one final point. During winter it’s usually the wind rather than the cold that makes the fishing tough – or prohibits it. In recent years it seems the friendly and reliable weather forecasters have been having a bit of difficulty predicting wind speeds for the next day; the “extended forecast” is a real joke! The point is, you have put out the time and effort to make a winter trip, so cover all the bases – just in case. You spell that c-a-s-t-i-n-g r-o-d! Bring one!
Dress in layers – a frosty morning can turn delightfully warm by noon. Don’t forget the sunscreen – on bright days you’ll be needing SPF 30. Carry along a slicker suit to ward off spray as much as rain, and be sure to bring a positive attitude.
On decent days, mine is always positive, since I prefer fly fishing for specks and reds during winter. It’s a lot more comfortable then than summer is, it’s generally much more productive when you have reasonable weather and water conditions, and it’s a lot easier, especially if you are with someone who knows where the fish should be. Oh yeah, one last thing: don’t forget the camera. Hit it right, and you will be wanting to take a lot of pictures!
Contact the Breakaway Marina (850-653-8897) near the mouth of the Apalachicola River for the phone numbers of the guides who work the inshore waters in this area. Near Pensacola Capt. Dave Pecci (850-626-4231) is endorsed by Orvis.
In Mobile contact Tide Line Outfitters (334-344-3474) for current conditions, hot patterns, and such. Capt. Dan Kolenich at 251-422-3474 is an old fishing buddy, is endorsed by Orvis, and fishes the Mobile Delta.
While fishing can be quite good along the Mississippi coast, many pine-cone kickers do their saltwater fly fishing in either Louisiana or Alabama. Contact Capt. Sonny Schindler at 228-342-2295 for all options.
Capt. Gary Taylor (504-641-8532) is endorsed by Orvis and works out of Slidell, about 45 minutes from downtown New Orleans. Capt. Mark Brockhoeft (504-392-7146) specializes in shallow-water redfish out of Myrtle Grove, also about 45 minutes from the city. Contact the Sporting Life Outfitters at 504-529-3597 for additional information about fishing in the New Orleans area. Try the Orvis store in Baton Rouge at 225-757-7286 for guided trips near Houma. Across the state south of Lake Charles, Capt. Jeff Poe (337-598-3268) specializes in catching Calcasieu Lake’s big specks.
Capt. Chuck Uzzle (409-886-0629) is endorsed by Orvis and would just love to take you fly fishing on Sabine Lake, should you find yourself in Beaumont with some time to spare. In Houston Angler’s Edge (713-993-9981) can update you on the action in the bays along the upper coast and line you up with a guide. And down at Rockport Capt. Ethan Wells (361-729-7221) is endorsed by Orvis and fishes the waters I grew up in.
Duck Season Specks
I was a reasonably competent fly fisherman long before I was bitten by the duck hunting bug. That took place in a friend’s blind on Shreveport’s Cross Lake in a driving sleet-storm one November afternoon during my junior year in high school. Just about the time my toes felt like they were going to fall off, a single drake ringneck duck zipped across the decoys and fell to my snap-shot. That duck and that rather brutal afternoon combined to create the foundation for a love of the sport that still burns hot after over 40 years.
And I’d imagine many readers are thinking that little anecdote is a pretty odd way to begin a fly-fishing article! I justify it by declaring my love of fly fishing has also endured over that period, and I’ve often experienced the best of both within a single day!
Across much of the country those would mix about as well as oil and water. However, along the Louisiana coast they can complement each other quite nicely throughout November and at times into a week or so of December. That is the result of the tremendous number of ducks that spend the winter here, the huge number of spotted seatrout (“specks”) and red drum (“redfish”) that are present year-round here, and the normally moderate weather of the time.
Assuredly there are days when the ducks fly well and fly lines won’t, but temperature is seldom a deterrent. Indeed, I have caught a pretty big pile of both specks and reds on flies on November days with the air temperature firm in the low 50’s. Incidentally, during several Novembers prior to Katrina, the mean temperatures for Buras – my erstwhile home near the mouth of the Mississippi River – were over 65 degrees. Granted, those months were a tad warmer than normal, but “normal” is virtually never so cold as to chill the water enough to drive the fish into the depths where fly fishing for them is tedious at best. Again, during the first split of the duck season – and occasionally during the initial days of the second split, the wind is a fly fisherman’s bug-a-boo.
But every year there seems to be all too many first-split duck hunting days when a little breeze – just enough to rock the decoys – would have been the answer to many prayers. Sadly for hunting’s sake, even the sincerest of those prayers normally don’t work, and these days I’ve quit waiting around for any positive results, returning to the dock to swap out shotgun and decoys for fly rod and fishing gear.
There are also days when limits come early, conditions for fly fishing are at least decent, and enhancing the morning’s bag of ducks with a good mess of specks is an excellent possibility. And then there are the days that seem to be created especially for fishing – fly fishing.
A lot of the casting part of the blast-and/or-cast opportunity coastal Louisiana’s first duck split offers has been in pursuit of redfish – at least it has been in my case. However, that is usually most effective now when done by sight-fishing and therefore requires much better conditions than what’s necessary for blind-casting for specks. Specks also don’t demand the precise presentations which are a part of sight-fishing for skinny-water reds, but I’ll avow this: the fun and games they provide when they can locate a popper more than makes up for the lack of “challenge” there often is in catching them! If you can cast and retrieve 40-odd feet of line without dropping the rod overboard, you can catch them! And yes, on poppers – even now!
At this time, specks can be found literally anywhere in the marsh, bays, bayous, and canals that make up the Louisiana coast. Generally they have moved away from areas near the seashore into more interior waters which, in some locations, can be of very low salinity.
There are reasons for this migration of sorts. First, most of the white shrimp – a staple in specks’ diets during early autumn – have moved offshore, demanding the fish find other sources of protein, many of which inhabit more interior waters. Second, those interior areas frequently contain deep holes where during times of intense cold the specks seek thermal refuge.
Now, though, a primary concern is heavy feeding which helps them through the frequently lean times of high winter. That feeding commonly takes place in depths of three to five feet and concerns such prey as small holdover white shrimp, ditch minnows, killifish (Louisiana’s infamous “cocahoe”), and any small mullet or menhaden that still may be around. Accordingly, your flies need not match a particular minnow, but they should be between 2 ½ and 3 inches long.
On occasion you will come across specks feeding rather wildly on the surface. That is a real no-brainer event! At other times, though, you must prospect for them, and bottom structure like clam beds, shells, bedded oysters, grass beds, and the mouths of small tidal cuts entering a bay are always potentially productive. On slightly breezy days you can drift across these areas while working flies like Clouser Minnows; any hook-up or missed strike warrants quickly and quietly setting the anchor and thoroughly covering the immediate area. On calmer days slow power-drifting with a trolling motor while working a popper can be entertaining to the absolute max and send you home beat to the bone. I know!
Nevertheless, how to work poppers effectively for these fish needs some elaboration. The basic retrieve is comprised of steady, moderately-paced soft pops with the rod tip held low and pointed directly at the popper, the action imparted on the popper being created entirely by line-strips. You’ll have no doubt when you have a strike, as surface-feeding specks shame even frog-chomping largemouth bass and grasshopper-guzzling brown trout. Do not – I say DO NOT – attempt to set the hook by raising the rod! Keep stripping until you feel the fish’s weight, then set the hook with a short, firm line-strip.
There is good reason for that practice. In their attacks specks occasionally err in either deflection or elevation, or (As I am prone to believe) they attempt to stun the popper before they eat it – an act which will make eating it easier. In the first case two or three rowdy misses may subsequently lead to a solid hook-up, and you certainly don’t want to risk accidentally snatching the popper away from a fish that is striking with improving accuracy. In the second case, though, continued missed strikes (Several times I’ve had six or more from the same fish!) may indicate the fish is indeed more immediately interested in stunning the popper than in eating it. In both cases it can be wise – and quite entertaining – to stop the retrieve, let the popper rest for four or five seconds, and then give it the slightest twitch. That will almost guarantee a strike which you will re-live in your dreams for years to come and which will result in a solid hook-up. In all other cases, though, keep the popper coming.
Duck season specks are seldom particular about the type of flies they prefer. The aforementioned size 1 Clouser Minnows in solid purple or chartreuse or olive over white take a lot of specks each fall when conditions are not quite right for poppers. Those, also in size 1 and either chartreuse or dark green over white, complete a simple and very effective selection. Again, use the Clousers on breezy days, the popper when it’s fairly calm – even if it’s also fairly chilly! Remember, at this time the water really isn’t!
An eight-weight outfit with a full-floating weight-forward line is adequate, though a nine-weight will help you cope with a little more wind. You have no need for a high-end reel with a silky-smooth drag, even if you tie into a husky redfish – a likely event. You do need a 30-pound mono shocker between your point and the fly; when the bite is hot check it often for fraying from speck-teeth.
To be sure specks don’t pull nearly as hard as redfish of comparable size, and they don’t reach the size of reds inhabiting the same waters. But at this time of year they can be found in much larger numbers, and in suitable conditions they are almost always willing to give you a show of memorable surface action. Even the sub-surface action can resemble that gained from a bed of bluegills during spawning time! No matter whether you seek it out in a directed effort, or bail out to it on windless mornings when motionless decoys promise few if any visitors, or combine it with a good morning’s hunt, the fly-fishing opportunity provided by Louisiana’s duck season specks should not be overlooked.
And on the days which are too windy for fly fishing, the duck hunting can be beyond belief! How can you miss
Capt. Mark Brockhoeft (1-800-966-4868) specializes in fly fishing, works out of Myrtle Grove – about 30 miles south of downtown New Orleans, and offers blast and/or cast trips. Across the state Capt. Jeff Poe holds the state record fly-caught speck – a 9.31-pounder taken from his home waters of Calcasieu Lake – and offers the same opportunities. He can be reached at 337-598-3268. The Hackberry Rod and Gun Club (337-762-3391), also on Calcasieu Lake, offers similar trips.
If you’d prefer to fish exclusively, there are other options. Capt. Gary Taylor (985-641-8532) works the Biloxi Marsh area out of Slidell. Capt. Barrett Brown (504-908-3474) also fishes the Myrtle Grove area, and Capt. Theophile (“toe-feel”) Bourgeois (504-546-8254) is based in Lafitte. All are accomplished fly fishermen. Contact the Sporting Life Outfitters in downtown New Orleans at 504-529-3597 for additional local information.
If you choose to fish on your own, Joshua’s Marina in Buras (985-657-7632), southeast of New Orleans, the Co-Co Marina in Cocodrie (985-594-6626), south of Houma, and Hebert’s Marina (337-598-2001) on Calcasieu Lake, south of Lake Charles, all offer immediate access to some great fly fishing at this time.
(Saltwater Fly Fishing)
Five Tips for Fall Specks
Try these tips for more consistent catches of specks this fall.
Ah, only one month ‘til autumn! Don’t you just love it!
The heat and humidity of summer will rapidly become only a memory. There’ll be music in the air – familiar, but unheard since late last winter. Football games return to weekend television, shorts give way to jeans, ripe pecans fall, and specks begin to appear in interior areas, their numbers increasing as the season progresses. What more could anyone ask for?
In truth, across many of the areas that they inhabit, fine catches of these popular fish will soon come much easier than they do at other times of the year. But there are also the days when for many folks, it may seem like they have suddenly become extinct! Assuredly, even a blind hog will find an acorn or two during autumn, but for more consistent results, try the following tips.
Experience continues to indicate that specks remain in shallow areas much later into the season than what is popularly believed. Near my old home in the Mississippi River Delta there is a deep-water hotspot that is very productive – during the cool times of winter! But is seems like the calendar, not the specks or the weather, indicate to a lot of anglers that it’s time to start fishing there.
Indeed, for almost three decades I fished the shallow bays and “flats” alongside this spot with very satisfactory results, but I seldom fished it itself until well into winter. I am convinced that factors such as nearby benthic structure and the presence of bait – a combination which was also found in other shallow areas that were productive at this time – was responsible for the action, not the presence of the deep water. For sure, you may catch some specks within such a deep spot, but in doing so you are probably missing out on what is often much better action in shallower areas!
One of the best speck-stomps I’ve been involved with lately occurred between Christmas and New Year’s Day – assuredly not autumn but close enough to use for illustrative purposes. We caught the fish – many in the 20 to 22-inch class along with three larger ones – over oysters on the edge of a large bay and a long way from any water deeper than about five feet. Insulated coveralls to ward off the chill of a 20-knot nor-wester and 51-degree temperature was the proper attire. And that’s far from being the only time I have caught specks shallow while comfortably wearing insulated coveralls! Other friends and I made a great hit on them one chilly and rather bleak mid-November morning in water so shallow the trolling motor occasionally kicked up mud! Concentrate your efforts in 4 to 5-foot depths, and don’t hesitate to try water much shallower.
Incidentally, a number of those caught on that November trip hit poppers! Does this sound like a broken record? Well, it surely isn’t broken! It works! Even now!
You won’t often find specks now in broad areas with featureless bottoms. Some form of benthic structure is usually required to provide the best and most consistent action. Oysters – either bedded or in natural reefs – and clam-shell beds are common speck-attractors in many areas. Dilapidated fishing camps, sunken boats, and derelict oil-field equipment can also hold lots of specks now. Then there is structure that has resulted from marsh erosion.
One of the best is the edges of canals which have subsided beneath the water’s surface. In most cases these create a submerged ridge of sorts separating the deeper water of the canal from the bay. Since this “ridge” tends to concentrate prey, specks are often found along it. In the clear water of the season one will appear as a light-hued swath across the water – fish both sides of it if!
There are also plenty of submerged “humps and gullies” in some areas – the remains of eroded grass islands which also appear as intermittent light and darker spots in the surrounding water and frequently attract specks. The point is, concentrating your efforts on structure – shallow structure! – will increase the consistency of your good catches, and there’s a lot more structure around than shells!
GO WITH THE FLOW
Tidal movement is a very important factor in locating specks during autumn. In most cases, a falling tide is best for working tidal cuts and canals of suitable depth which are within areas of marsh. The point where these waterways enter a bay or large pond is also productive during this period. In both cases fish can be detected by surface activity – even into December – so keep an eye out for that while you are prospecting.
During late autumn and much of winter near my old home in the Delta, the day occasionally dawned with the last half of the falling tide and a bit too chilly for these old bones to go fishing. By the time I had gotten all my cylinders firing and it had warmed a bit, the tide was slack low, and for a while thereafter I seldom caught anything but skinny-water redfish. However, by about noon the tide was often rising hard, and when it was I could almost guarantee that I’d find a gang of cooperative specks somewhere – somewhere in or around the local bays!
And let me re-stress the point that invariably that “somewhere” would be less than five feet deep and created by some form of bottom-structure. So fish the marsh when the tide is falling and the bays when it is rising – and never call it quits until you have given the rising tide plenty of time to stir ‘em up!
USE SURFACE LURES WHENEVER POSSIBLE
Topwaters after Thanksgiving? You’d better believe it! And to stress the point I must relate a conventional-fishing trip.
The last time my old podnah Bubby and I made a hit on them before he moved to Florida began as a duck hunt. A cold front had been forecast to move through the area just before daylight, but it dragged its feet. By eight the surface of our pond was mirror-like, and all evidence of ducky activity had vanished. Time to fish.
After swapping out hunting gear for fishing tackle back at the camp, we made our way across the marsh to a small bay where we had found some nice specks the week before. And just about the time we began to fish, the front blew through!
It wasn’t a real screamer for early December, and we were able to continue fishing the bay’s sheltered shorelines with the help of the trolling motor. But the temperature soon began to follow the tide, which was almost slack low. We caught a handful of marginal fish on jigs at the mouth of a small cut, then the action stopped. We then covered a good part of the western side of the upper Delta without catching a fish before Bubby decided to try a broad, shallow bay which he said had produced some nice specks a couple of weeks earlier. I then made a comment about fish having tails, but on our first drift I got a 2-pounder on my jig.
I’d imagine a popping rig would have done just as well – perhaps even better, but since it was getting late in the season, I decided to speculate a surface lure one more time. That initiated one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had with specks. Imagine this, now: a week into December, water between two and three feet deep, choppy, and well stirred-up by a 20-knot norther, not the first sign of the sun all day, and two grown men who “should have known better” fishing topwaters for specks while clad in heavy duck-hunting attire – and we killed ‘em!
While I have frequently had excellent topwater fishing well past Thanksgiving – often with fly-rod poppers, I had never tried one under such adverse conditions. You can bet I will again – you should, too! But the main thing here is for you to try a popper – again, a fairly big popper – in more favorable weather, even if it seems a bit too chilly for one to be effective. One calm afternoon not too many Novembers ago – but still well bundled up – I enjoyed fine surface action not 10 minutes from the local marina. Notably, it took place during a weekend, but I saw only one other boat, yet the marina’s parking area looked like a lot for used cars and boat-trailers! All the others were pounding the local deep-water hotspot with jigs. Man, did they ever miss something!
FEAR NOT THE FRONTS
It seems like one of the most discouraging things facing an angler during this time of plenty is a front arriving in his area just before or on the day he intends to go fishing. Assuredly there will be weather systems that present problems best solved by staying at home, but there will be others which are not nearly as adverse. And they will not affect the water’s temperature enough to send the specks deep, particularly before Thanksgiving. Fish the “friendly” fronts just like you would fish on more pleasant days, targeting drains in the marsh when the tide is falling and the structure in the bays when it is rising, and you will catch specks which, notably, should average much larger than those caught by your deep-fishing counterparts. And don’t worry, if you are of the mind you will have plenty of time to join them after the first of the year!
(Gulf Coast Fisherman – Fall 2003)
Louisiana’s Red-hot Redfish
Knowing when and where to fish for reds during summer can lead to action that is as hot as the weather!
My buddy, Capt. Bubby Rodriguez, and I had spent the entire morning running around the mid-reaches of West Delta, looking for anything – anything! – that might harbor a tripletail or lemonfish. Apparently it was one of those litter-free days you occasionally encounter if you do that kind of stuff often enough, so about the time the tide should have begun falling, I suggested we stow the big sticks, break out the lighter gear, and head inshore to try for some specks.
When we reached my little honey-hole off Spanish Pass conditions were perfect with a strong falling current, bright sunshine, and glassy water – and it was hotter than Celine Dion! However, the fishing was as cold as the proverbial polar bear’s butt. Strike Two!
Now in case you didn’t know, back then Bubby guided fly-fishing trips for redfish for a living. On his days off he liked to do “something different” – like run around the Gulf all morning looking for floating structure. So I was hesitant to offer him my third pitch: a narrow, shallow, meandering tidal cut where I had found a gang of nice reds on a couple of trips in similar conditions earlier that summer. But it was either that or head home, so he was willing to give it a try.
Once again the high, falling tide had drawn the water in the marsh into the cut, making it much clearer than the open-water areas nearby. In it reds could be easily seen more than 50 feet away, and sight-fishing for them was excellent. Bubby said the setting made it different enough to make his day. Me? I had a ball!
Every year it seems that high summer across coastal Louisiana brings temperatures that average a bit warmer than those of the previous year. “Global warming” or not, and taking into account a redfish’s ability to tolerate some pretty extreme weather, by mid summer the water is so high in temperature and so low in dissolved oxygen that he is becoming rather uncomfortable. Knowing where and when that state of discomfort is at its lowest level will lead to the best action to be had with him. The tidal cut mentioned earlier is a good starting point.
As it was being pulled into the cut, the water in the grass – which was partially shaded – could have been a bit cooler than the water it was displacing. That could have lowered the temperature in the cut just enough to trigger a bite – or it may not have made an iota of difference, and the fish bit because they could more easily detect the lures as the water cleared. One thing for certain, though, is that the water being drawn into the cut from the marsh had more dissolved oxygen in it than the water that was in the cut before the tide began to fall.
Relatively narrow, shallow tidal cuts like that one have been the salvation of many summer trips for me. One reason for that is I frequently make those trips to fish with flies, and in my part of the marsh fly fishing was best done on the falling tide. Incidentally, in the lower Delta west of the river that normally takes place in the afternoon during summer – the hottest time of the day!
There is a world of difference in cuts like these between high and low tides, and I must advise that if you try one of them before the water has fallen a good bit and cleared (Roughly the first half of the falling period will usually create those conditions.), you will waste a lot of good time. However, in many areas of the marsh the water supports lush growths of various submergent grasses. These act as filters, and the water here remains reasonably clear in all stages of the tide. The water is also fairly well oxygenated, even though its temperature can surpass 90 degrees!
The marsh where Bubby once took his clients is like that. It lies generally between Myrtle Grove and Lafitte, and redfish inhabit it at all times except when winter northers have drained the area. Still, just because they inhabit it does not mean they can be caught with ease.
While most often during summer Bubby came south to fish with me on his “days off”, occasionally I would make a trip north to fish with him. We’d leave the launch-site at reasonable daylight and usually had caught a fish or two by sunrise.
It is quite pleasant in the marsh at that time. Typically it is the coolest time of the day, and it is frequently slick calm and therefore easy to see working fish – and there have been times when we could see tails just about everywhere we looked up until around eight o’clock. During that time – if our casting was decent and if we didn’t make too many long-distance releases – we took as many as a dozen nice reds. But between eight and ten we may have only seen one working fish every 15 minutes or so, and after that it appeared they buried themselves in the submerged grass to wait out the hottest part of the day.
I watched them do exactly that in the interior marshes of the Venice Dome (the “Wagonwheel”) during summer for decades. There, as with Bubby’s marsh, the tide has little effect on clarity, temperature, or dissolved oxygen, so when it begins to get hot, the fish turn off. That means you should fish areas like this very early in the morning for the best results, and that was the way I normally fished the Dome. However, an incident with Bubby and another friend finely illustrated that with patience, precision, and stealth you can catch reds when they are “laid up” in the heat of the day.
It was getting on toward noon on that bright, hot summer day, and after the early morning’s festivities had ended, pickings became pretty slim. Then Bubby – who was on the poling platform – went on point, gently spudded down the pole, and softly said “There’s a redfish at nine o’clock about 30 feet away”. Sure enough, there it was: only a 20-incher or so but plainly visible – once we had located it – partially buried in the widgeon grass.
I wish I could say I caught it, but it was not my turn. Our friend’s first cast was about two feet in front of the fish – which never acknowledged the fly’s presence. Several more casts were surely good enough to be taken by an aggressive fish, but this one appeared to be almost comatose – certainly not aggressive! Finally a cast was made so that the fly was drawn just past the fish’s nose. Suddenly it stiffened, flared its gills, and sucked in the fly. Yeah, that was a lot of work for one rather smallish redfish, but it was sure exciting, and it proved they can be caught when they are hunkered down in the salad waiting out the heat.
It also brought to mind a similar incident which occurred many years ago which might be worthwhile for those of you who don’t fish with flies. It also took place in the Dome, and it involved visible fish, none of which would respond to a lure being retrieved closely enough to them to gain their interest except to be spooked by it.
The solution was a spinning outfit, a size 1 hook tied directly to the line, and a shrimp of roughly 50/60-count threaded onto the hook. That was then lobbed just past and ahead of a fish, drawn toward it, and allowed to soak right in front of it. Yes, eventually the line became so twisted from the swivel-less rig that I had to replace it for the next trip, but the technique woke enough of them up to justify it.
Fish in this type of marsh may feed again briefly at dusk, but by that time I’ve usually eaten supper and am well into a tumbler of sour mash and a good cigar. However, summer is the time for afternoon squalls, and it is not uncommon for the sky to remain thickly overcast after the rain and neon display has ended. If you have the capability to make a trip at this time, you may encounter fishing which is as explosive as it is in the early morning.
Of course, with the overcast sky there won’t be any sight-fishing unless the reds are considerate enough to show you a little bootie. This is usually strictly blind-casting, and if you have ready access to an area with a lot of submerged vegetation, shame on you if you fish it with anything but a popper!
The “post-squall opportunity” is created by the combination of the water being slightly cooled and oxygenated by the rainfall and the fact that the sun – which is shielded by the overcast – isn’t heating it right back up again. I was quite fortunate to have lived in a place where I could take advantage of this scenario many times, and I never – spell that n-e-v-e-r! – missed!
Sad to say, there are days when there is little tide, you have honey-dos to take care of in the morning, and if you are going to fish at all, then you must do so in the bright, hot afternoon. What is your best bet then?
Going to a casino instead?
Well, the odds of catching reds in those conditions are not stacked against you quite that badly, but you are likely to have a bit of trouble finding cooperative fish. If I had to make a trip on an afternoon like that, I’d head to the seashore – or to a jetty. Let’s take the seashore first.
To begin with, the “seashore” referred to here does not include sandy beaches. It is the point where roseau cane and spartina grass meet the Gulf, and in doing so excellent bottom-structure for reds in the form of humps and gullies is created there by erosive wave-action. The water here may not be any cooler than it is in the interior – though at times the Gulf can be a few degrees cooler than the inside waters, and it may not contain more dissolved oxygen. Nevertheless, it holds hold a variety of baitfish, and even on slack tides the amount of bait concentrated along this “edge” can trigger feeding activity.
Frequently on “no-tide days” the water here can become rather turbid. Therefore, a popper is again the best option – or a popping rig, tipping the jig with a small shrimp.
In truth, I am not sure how much seashore remains in our state where spartina and roseau meet the Gulf. I recall the grass doing so up in the Biloxi Marsh where I once drilled an exploratory gas well. Of course, that grass butted up against Chandeleur Sound which, though it can closely resemble it, is certainly not the Gulf. And there is not much spartina left between Red Pass and Pass du Bois to define the eastern terminus of West Delta in that area – but man, when there was grass there was sure some great fishing along it! What a loss…
There are still plenty of canes defining the eastern shores of the lower Delta, and I understand roseau is also fairly widespread now in the Atchafalaya Delta. If you can find it there at land’s end and in water some 2 to 3 feet deep, you will probably find reds, too. You will assuredly find them around the jetties at South Pass, Southwest Pass, Tiger Pass, and Cameron – among other places.
To be entirely honest about the matter, I haven’t fished a jetty in over a decade, but when I did – summer or not – I almost always caught reds. Sure, there were times when conditions or boat company necessitated using either a baited popping rig worked tightly against the rocks for “regular reds” – or a mullet head on a 3-way break-away rig on bottom for bulls – though towards the end of my time in the Delta I either tossed a jig with casting tackle or a size 4/0 Clouser-type on a 12-weight. Whatever, jetties provide good, consistent action throughout much of the year (Spell that one “The east jetty at Southwest Pass!”), and that certainly includes summer!
But it’s only one place to catch reds during summer. Wear a hat, don’t forget the sunscreen – at least SPF30, if you please, drink plenty of water, and have a great time any way you choose. It’s there for the taking!
(Game & Fish Publications 7-2000)
Fly Fish the Southern Surf
Have you noticed how many catered fly-fishing trips to exotic destinations have become available in recent years? Man, for only $4995 (Plus air fare, plus the cost of a new wardrobe, plus the kennel’s boarding fees for your retrievers.) you get to fish for whatevers for five days, sleep in a bed for six nights, and eat three squares a day. Hell, before K. I did that at home for a whole lot less than $4995 a week!
One of the reasons was that I fished a lot in the surf – the surf of the northern Gulf coast. Hereabouts there are quite a few places you can drive to and park your car within mere yards of the beach. During much of the year the southern surf offers good potential for a variety of popular species; indeed, not long ago both the largest speck and the largest redfish I had taken on flies came from the surf! And if you pick the right spots – or properly time your trips to others, you will find many of the aesthetic delights you would expect at some “tropical paradise”. First, though, let’s take a quick look at some of the surf’s best seasonal opportunities realizing, of course, that nothing concerning fishing is etched in stone!.
During winter, redfish – and bull redfish – are the most common targets. By April specks, pompano, and big crevalle jacks have become more predominant. The last half of May through the first half of June is the best time for a wall-hanger speck. Summer and early autumn offers school-sized specks, Spanish macks, and ladyfish, and as autumn progresses pompano again appear and redfish numbers increase dramatically. And at any time, a surprising and delightful exception to that schedule can come along!
No matter what season it is, whatever fish are present at the time will usually be found in roughly the same places. Generally speaking, the southern surf can be divided into two categories: that which is natural and that which has been altered. Both types can be equally productive, but fish-holding structure in one is quite different from that in the other.
The natural surf is the way God made it. In many areas across the coast, this begins with a trough against the beach, then a bar, another slightly deeper trough, a deeper bar, and then bottom’s gradual offshore descent. At times – like at first light or at the top of a spring tide – the first trough may hold specks and reds, especially during the cooler months. At other times – like from mid-morning through suppertime during spring break and throughout summer vacation-time – it is often overrun with beach bunnies. Time your fishing days – and hours – accordingly!
To be sure, there are places along the Gulf coast where, during late fall through winter, you can actually stand on dry land and catch reds until you are beat to the bone from the crystalline water which the season creates in the first trough. However, more consistently good action – and the largest fish – usually come from the second trough.
Here, even in that wonderful winter-clear water found during that season, you won’t see the fish like you can in the first trough. Blind-casting at an angle across the trough is the technique; covering water until you find fish is the key. With the proper flies – which will be discussed shortly – Pete’s First Rule of Surf Fishing is one that should be followed devoutly: “No strikes, no fish; change spots, not flies!”
While fish of many types can be found virtually anywhere along the troughs, some feature that might concentrate them should be sought out. Generally, those are detected by a change in the water’s hue. For instance, a small submerged point extending seaward through the troughs will appear as a light-colored discontinuation of the darker water of the troughs and will serve as a blocking element for predators herding prey. I found a gang of reds one late-winter morning and enjoyed excellent sight-fishing for them at the point where a trough “pinched out” – an oil-field term used for a type of discontinuation of a geologic stratum.
Another anomaly found in the natural surf is a tidal cut through the beach. These are not actual “passes” – which themselves are also good spots, especially on a falling tide, but which require very cautious wading practices – but are more like “drains” from interior areas. While they can be found on the mainland, they appear to be more common on barrier islands.
While the series of troughs and bars – and any discontinuation of them – is usually best when worked on the rising tide, tidal cuts along the seashore shine best when it is falling. So do simple washouts through the first bar: avenues for both prey and predator between the first and second troughs. Look for color changes in the water, understand their significance, and use them to your benefit.
Many folks would not consider an altered surf to be as pleasing to look at as a natural surf. One probable reason for that is they have never experienced the action it can produce! One of the finest examples of alteration, though, was recalled quite fondly every time I looked at the painting of it which once hung in a sacred spot on a wall of Sandy Herrington’s houseboat in the Venice Marina.
The picture is of a shrimp trawler that washed ashore and wrecked on Breton Island during a storm many years ago. Over time the island shifted as the type is prone to do; eventually it receded from the boat, and the waters around it became a favorite spot for Sandy’s late husband and my dear friend, Capt. Bill. Before hurricane “Georges” created shoal waters around it, some fine specks had fallen to my flies and those of friends there. Sadly, though, by the time of K. it had already been driven into total oblivion. But in its time it was surely a fine alteration – and one strangely appealing to look at – in the Breton Island surf.
Still, there is a lot more to the southern surf than Breton Island, and there are man-made alterations much more common than wrecked boats. One of those is a seawall made of boulders and positioned parallel to the beach and a short distance offshore of it. Its purpose is to prevent beach erosion, and in a few instances the structures have even resulted in rebuilding badly eroded shorelines. Some of the older ones may have water too shallow on their shoreward sides for most species, but there is usually ample water just offshore of them.
Rock jetties are another fairly common alteration of the surf. Some protect the channel of major shipping routes through the seashore; others are created as another form of beach stabilization. While channel-protecting jetties usually hold the largest fish, the smaller types found along beaches are most easily worked, and a reasonable double-haul can often cover their entire length.
The various “rock-piles” are so popular with predators because prey species use them for protection in the otherwise hostile surf. Piers don’t offer that degree of protection, but virtually any form of solid structure found in the surf can hold fish.
There are a number of public and private fishing piers along the rim of the Gulf, catering mostly to conventional anglers. I mention them not as a direct opportunity but an indirect one. Many conventional-fishing folks apparently feel that the deepest water the pier stands in is best for their efforts and crowd its seaward end. Often its nearshore span is virtually deserted, even though it can hold fish and in water that is easily waded. If you are able to gain access to the water near a pier, give it a try. Just be on the lookout for any sinker-slinging bait-chunker who might suddenly appear on it nearby!
Appropriate flies for the surf, in most cases, are pretty basic. Size 1/0 Clouser Minnows in chartreuse and white – and in size 2/0 when big jacks and bull reds are about – are time proven. Same-sized Deceivers in green and white or green and yellow are good choices for a calm surf, and if you have any clue as to what type of fly a pompano will strike, I’d sure like to know about it!
Fly fishing the southern surf is quite unlike the image of it some folks might have, erroneously based on pictures of it being done on some storm-ravaged northeastern coast. Here, the calmer the weather the better, an intermediate sink-tip line on a 9-weight outfit is just fine, you won’t need a slicker or waders except during the cool months – but you will need sun-screen, polarized sunglasses, and tennis shoes, and a stripping basket is much more of a hindrance than a help. Still. It’s just as exciting – and at least as rewarding – especially when the fish you encounter are either prime tablefare or are better measured in feet than inches! And in the calm, promising half-light of daybreak with the beach bunnies still fast asleep in their concrete warrens and the ocean wrapping itself around you, you will discover that you don’t need to travel to some exotic destination to find aesthetic appeal.
(Note: Although it is considered by many to be a land of coastal mud and marshes, Louisiana has several fine surf-fishing areas. South of Lake Charles La. 82 follows the seashore between Holly Beach and Johnson’s Bayou a lot closer than what might seem comfortable. Southwest of New Orleans off La. 1, the beaches east of Port Fourchon, Elmer’s Island, and Grand Isle are well-established surf-fishing spots. If you simply must spend some money, call Southern Seaplanes in Belle Chasse, a New Orleans suburb, at 504-394-5633 for a fly-about day out at the Chandeleur Islands. On that note, call Bart Haddad at 601-299-0726 for an overnight trip to the northern Chandeleurs aboard the island-fishing mothership “Southern Way”.
(Saltwater Fly Fishing)
Kicking Butt at the Chandeleur Islands
The story you are about to read is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent…
And although the islands no longer wear the faces they had back in the days when I simply could not get enough of them, the fishing they and their remnants offer is reported to still be outstanding.
If you have nothing better to do, locate your latest copy of the Rand McNally Road Atlas and open it to Louisiana. On the extreme bottom right of that page – almost due south of Gulfport, Mississippi – you will notice a long, crescent-shaped string of islands. They are the Chandeleurs which, prior to K., were the finest gems in the precious chain of the Louisiana coast. They are remote, uninhabited, and some of them host huge nesting colonies of gulls, terns, skimmers, and brown pelicans. Because of that, they are a Federal bird sanctuary. And they have long been known to offer an outstanding wade-fishing opportunity for two of the Gulf’s most popular targets – specks and redfish.
Historically, literally all of that fishing has been done in conventional manners with spoons, jigs, Mirrolures, and topwaters like the Zara Spook. Not that long ago catches were measured by volume rather than individuals, for instance “Hey Boudreaux, how many you caught out there yesterday?” “Oh me, I got about three ice chests-full.” You can still catch that many out at “the islands” – as they are called by those of us who frequently venture there, but daily possession limits have become very restrictive. Still, catch-and-release, especially with the redfish, is a common practice, and you can wear yourself slap out practicing it!
Within the decade or so prior to K., I – and a tiny smattering of similarly-inclined folks – began to almost exclusively fly fish when we were out at the islands. For certain, it takes a little more effort to reach and fish them than it does for other hotspots nearer the lower Mississippi River Delta, and a lot of people would ask me why I fly fished instead of wield conventional gear and catch more fish, therefore justifying that extra effort. Whoa, I said, who says you catch more fish out there on conventional gear than you can with fly tackle?
One of the first “Chandeleur Island Butt-Kickings” my fly rod and I bestowed upon a conventional angler took place one fine early-May day at Little Gosier Island (Once the third up the chain, rather small, and very subject to the ravages of hurricanes. But I saw it regenerate twice!). The victim was a long-time friend, Duane Becasse, who actually does fly fish with me on occasion but on that particular day decided to stick with his trusty spinning outfit. Admittedly, I found the fish – very nice specks – early and had strung several before I was able to get his attention to come join me. Nevertheless, even while we were standing almost shoulder to shoulder in a small pocket in the island’s shoreline, I caught three on my Clouser Minnows to every one for his spoons. My log-book puts the final tally at flies 16, spoons 5. Incidentally, flies got the “lunker”, too. Was I feeling a bit smug upon returning to the marina to relate our day’s events (And having had a couple of cold ones on the way in)? Go figure!
The next day I accompanied Saucier Aigrette, a young guide I had met recently, and a couple of his friends for a return trip to Little Gosier. There, we again found specks in the little pocket. If I may quote my log-book once more, flies 16, jigs 12, though Saucier did take five reds to my one. But then, I wasn’t fishing for reds that day…
I was the following April, though, and I will confess that on our first trip of the year – this time to Grand Gosier Island, the second up the chain – my fly rod and I were soundly thrashed. I guess all of us are due for a bad day occasionally, but for the life of me I can’t figure out that one. Let’s just say there are no constants in fishing – even fly fishing out at the islands – and let it go at that.
That trip was made with Duane’s youngest son Becnel, and it really should not have been made at all because pea-soup fog had blanketed the entire Delta. There is no more reason to fish the islands in the fog than there is to fish them when the small-craft warning flags are flying, but some of us tend to ignore caution and go anyway. Perhaps we suffer from a common sense-altering obsession to be there in spring no matter what. It has gotten pretty hairy out there at times when we “went anyway”, so you would be well advised to do as I say, not as I do. There will always be a better day – like there was four days after the foggy trip.
That one was made with Jules Ecureuils and in the company of Reynard Goujon Sr. and Jr. and Charvet Wawaron. We have known each other for years, each of us holds the islands dear, and there is always a rather keen level of competition among us when we fish together. Incidentally, all four of them are highly accomplished with casting rods.
The tide was slack low when we made our first stop at the south point of Grand Gosier, but the water was clear and barely ruffled by a light northeasterly breeze. In early April the water is still cool enough to demand you wear waders when you fish the islands, and that appears to be the reason you seldom encounter anyone else out there at this time. You see, Louisiana folks wear waders while hunting ducks, not when fishing. Funny how that works…
The south point of Grand Gosier is a favorite spot of mine and of a once very close friend, the late Capt. Bill Herrington (his real name). I remember him and our days together there every time I fish it, and there are a lot of those memories – like the one of the bull red I caught one perfect February afternoon with him watching. It was the first big fish he had ever seen taken on a fly rod, and he was as proud of that fish as I was. For a while it held the top spot in the fly fishing division of the state’s fishing records, and we raised our glasses to it many times.
As I waded out onto the bar another memory flashed through my mind of the last trip we made here together, just three weeks before his sudden, unexpected death, and how a week afterwards on a bright, crisp December morning four of us, clad in suit pants and dress shirts, waded wet across the backside flats to the south point where we spread his ashes and hung a wreath on a refuge sign. He wanted it that way, and he deserved it – it was the least we could do for him. And yes, I felt his presence every time I fished there since that day. It’s a good feeling.
So was the surge of a good redfish from the small school I soon spotted and offered a Clouser. But it was the only fish I caught, and the crew – which had chosen to work the lagoon where Becnel had taken a few on the foggy day – also accounted for only a single red. So we shortly re-grouped at the boat and headed up to Little Gosier.
There, we again split up. They decided to try the surf while I explored the backside flats. With the tide now rising strongly, they found a few; I found a gang. By the time they joined me I had released my thirteenth red of the day and quit, beat to the bone. The four of them ended up splitting around 30 fairly evenly. Once again the fly rod took the honors, and I must admit I let my friends know it on the ride back to Venice.
Well, wouldn’t you have, too?
We had to fight a young gale on my last “first trip” to the islands. That’s as good an excuse as I can come up with for my fly rod and me getting thoroughly trounced that day, but we made up for it big time a few days later.
That trip was made with Jules, Becnel, Jarvais Paillon – an offshore guide, and Alcide Kapkap – a newspaperman intent on getting a story for his outdoor page. This time we fished Breton Island – the southernmost in the chain and the site of the previous trip’s slight embarrassment.
The day was handmade for fly fishing the islands: warm, bright, a light easterly, and clear water which soon began rising hard. We found the fish – beautiful specks – in a deep trough just off the northwest corner of the island, spread out, and went to work on them. By the time the tide peaked I had caught 34 and a 10-pound red; the best my conventional-fishing buddies could do was Becnel’s 25 plus another red. We couldn’t determine who had the “lunker” because our biggest fish were almost identical, but there were several each of us tallied that nudged the 4-pound mark. Alcide got his story, and I spent considerable time at the vise the next day tying replacements for my mangled Clousers – and grinning like the proverbial dog all the while!
Why are flies so effective at the islands? Only the specks and reds (and occasionally the flounders) know for sure, but I have an idea. It’s all in the retrieve – not particularly the way I do it but simply a basic part of the fly-fishing exercise. The fly – almost always a size 1/0 Clouser Minnow in either chartreuse over white or purple and with small brass hourglass eyes – is cast, allowed to sink for 5 or 6 seconds, and retrieved with moderately-paced foot-long strips. That is an “erratic” retrieve, and during the slight pauses between strips the fly does not sink very far or very fast. To make an erratic retrieve with a jig or a spoon, the lure will sink much more rapidly and deeper during the pauses. Apparently the fish at the islands really like that “suspending” characteristic of the fly – or maybe they don’t give a fat damn either way and you can chalk up my successes to very good luck brought about by a lifetime of clean, honest Christian living.
But that aside, you have to find the fish before you can catch them, and at the islands that requires paying attention to some important details. The first is the color of the water.
Lighter hues denote shallows; darker waters are deep. While you can occasionally find reds atop the bars along the surf-line and at the ends of the islands, the best spots for both reds and specks are the deeper troughs. These can be found in the surf paralleling the beach as well as traversing the islands’ backside flats. Wherever they are found, always make a cast or two into them before entering them, and if you wade into them to a point where the water is waist-deep, you have probably spooked every fish nearby. Unless I must cross deeper water to reach a likely-looking spot, I seldom wade in and cast from water deeper than mid-thigh.
On that note, you should always slide your feet while wading; do not take regular steps or you may end up on top of a stingray. Those are fairly common around the islands, and they don’t particularly like being stepped on. Don’t worry about them, just be aware of their presence and wade slowly, doing the “Stingray Shuffle”.
The second major detail is that current is almost essential for the fish – especially specks – to feed. Days of good tidal range – more than a foot – are best, and I prefer it to be rising. Point is, don’t burn yourself out during the slack period and quit just as the tide begins to move. The tidal lows, highs, and ranges for the islands are listed on the weather page of the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper.
The third detail is that frequently you must cover a lot of water before you find fish. Even in the best of conditions I have often seen anglers methodically pounding a trough – and changing flies several times – without a trace of action. Experience has proven that at the islands, if fish are around they will strike either the chartreuse and white or the purple Clouser; no strikes, no fish, move along and try another spot.
When I would go out to the islands I carried both a 9-weight and a 10-weight outfit with both reels holding over 200 yards of 30-pound dacron backing, just in case a bull redfish or crevalle jack took a liking to my fly. The 9-weight was my usual choice; the 10-weight was for breezy times. The leaders for each were identical: 8 feet long tapered to a 16-pound class tippet and finished with a foot of clear-green 30-pound mono for a shocker. During the cool months – say, November through April – I used a floating bass-taper line; a floating braided mono-core seemed best during the rest of the year. With either one the Clouser sank deeply enough to be effective, and they allowed me to use poppers when the time for them was right. When was it right? Believe me, you will have no trouble making that determination! A size 1/0 about 3 ½ inches long in green over white is a good choice. Watch a 4-pound speck hit a popper two or three times before it finds the hook – jumping clear of the water to come down on top of it once or twice during the process – and you will become a convert for life. That’s guaranteed!
Yet it is only one aspect of what these precious pearls of the Louisiana coast offer, and putting a royal butt-kicking on your conventional-fishing buddies is only another.
Find yourself out there thigh-deep at the edge of a trough – with the birds and grassy dunes behind you, a cloudless azure sky above you, a friendly emerald sea before you, and not another soul within a quarter-mile of you – and you will discover the rest.
That, too, is guaranteed.
And yes, I miss my trips to the Chandeleurs as much as anything else that K. took from me – and that’s saying a lot!
(Note: My friend Capt. Gary Taylor, an Orvis-endorsed guide, fishes the northern Chandeleurs from the Rigolets Harbor Marina – about 45 minutes east of downtown New Orleans – and can be reached at 504-641-8532.
The southern islands are best accessed from Venice, about 70 miles south of town at the end of La. 23. There are two full-service marinas in Venice: Cypress Cove (504-534-9289) and the Venice Marina (504-534-9357). Both offer lodging and charter services. There aren’t many bona fide fly-fishing guides around, but the guys who take clients to the islands know where the fish should be – it’s up to you to catch them on flies.
An option to a boat-ride is a seaplane trip. Southern Seaplanes in Belle Chasse, a New Orleans suburb, offers fishing trips to the islands. The pilot and plane are yours for the day, so if the action is slow in one spot – or if it becomes crowded, you hop back aboard and fly off to find another spot. Frequently you can see fish from the air, especially reds; that’s an advantage boats don’t have! Call them at 504-394-5633.)
(Fly Fishing in Salt Waters 1-2005)
Best Bets for Big Specks
(Here’s another one that is just as suitable for conventional-fishing as it is for fly fishing. Remember that in many cases, fishing with flies is simply another way of fishing in general.
And yeah, it’s a bit early for it, but the inspiration helps to keep me warm!)
Here are some tips on how to improve the average size of the fish you catch this spring.
Spring and speck-fishing go together like cold beer and hot boiled shrimp, and it usually doesn’t take a lot of refined techniques to amass a mess of these tasty fish then. However, if one would peek into the ice chests of most of those “successful” anglers, he would likely discover that the contents of most would be pretty close to the local minimum size restriction. Practicing the following tips should lead to larger fish and the possibility of a wall-hanger.
Generally speaking, the nearer one fishes to the seashore now, the larger the specks should average. Assuredly, there are exceptions to this rule, but large coastal bays and sounds and mainland surf zones offer excellent big-fish potential at this time, as do rock jetties and seawalls extending into them. Barrier islands, too, can be really prime spots now! If it’s possible to combine that little tenet with an area that is known for producing big specks, then so much the better. Also, the waters further inshore frequently provide the best action on falling tides while those nearer the seashore – and the surf – are typically best on the rising tide.
Still, the larger members of the tribe will seldom be found randomly scattered throughout even the most renowned waters. Experience has plainly shown that specks are as partial to “structure” as any fish is; frequently even those you see popping shrimp “out in the middle of the bay” are doing so above some benthic unconformity. You might remember that and drop a way-point the next time you come across such activity! That’s an excellent way to mark a hotspot that’s “invisible” to the competition!
Primary forms of “bottom structure” are oyster reefs and beds, grass beds, small low-relief humps and holes, channel edges, and man-man junk like sunken boats and dilapidated fishing camps. Locating them can often be determined visually – a line of channel markers showing the drop-off there, willow or PVC stakes around an oyster bed, and the hue of the water where light tones denote shallows and dark ones frequently indicate depth and grass. Then there are what appear to be randomly-placed and often quite small clusters of pilings.
These are usually the remains of some larger structure that was once supported by them. In many cases that structure – which for some reason fell or was driven from its lofty position – remains on bottom near those pilings. Generally it is in pieces, and depending on the length of its immersion it can be covered with barnacles and oysters. Both those and the associated “junk” draw prey which in turn draw predators, and while those predators are commonly outsized redfish, the largest speck in the neighborhood is often found associating with such structure. So be aware – that pair of awfully innocent-looking pilings over there – which is typically ignored by the competition – could harbor a very pleasant surprise!
No matter how promising a spot looks, though, if someone is already on it and you want more than marginal skillet-material, leave it to him! You might catch a few “fair ones” along with the marginals if you join him, but not many and almost assuredly no really big ones. Here and now, avoid company like the plague!
Once an area worth speculating has been established – and that is always best done at a distance! – move upwind or upcurrent of it at idle speed (That means NO WAKE!) and position the boat for a drift through it. If at all possible do not use the trolling motor; if you must, then set it to run just fast enough to provide the desired headway and then leave it alone! Also, ensure the lower unit is set in such a manner that it will neither cavitate nor come in contact with bottom!
If a couple of quick, nice-sized fish indicate you may have come upon a honey-hole, my experiences have shown that it’s best to continue working the immediate area by maintaining the boat’s position with the trolling motor – IF the trolling motor was being used already – and kept at the same speed if at all possible! If the boat was on a natural drift, try using a “Cajun Anchor” – a 6-foot length of 2-inch PVC pipe filled with sand, capped, and fixed with an “eye” for attaching the anchor rope. By thrusting it vigorously in a vertical manner through water up to roughly four feet deep, it will penetrate a soft bottom sufficiently to hold a 22-foot bay-boat securely in a moderate breeze. Also – and importantly – setting it will usually not spook the specks as, for some mysterious reason, even quietly setting an anchor often does! Still, specks are often found over a hard bottom, and the breeze can be a bit stiffer than “moderate”, so then you must use a regular anchor. So if you gotta do what you’ve gotta do, then “do it” as quietly as possible! Stealth is one of the primary factors in catching big specks!
On that note, anyone who can wade without exhibiting too much of the klutziness factor can be much stealthier than anyone trying to fish while maintaining a boat’s position. If wading is feasible, then get wet.
Once a concentration of specks is located, it’s common to catch some of the larger fish in it initially, then smaller ones begin to provide an increasing amount of the action. I admit that one of the cardinal rules in fishing is to not leave fish in order to find others, but in this case, if you want quality, when that occurs, then leave. After the “marginals” have made their appearance, it’s not likely that you will catch any more of the larger fish from that spot!
Any discussion about the best lures for big specks is a sure-fire cinch to generate a heated argument, and if you like to soak live croakers or finger mullet on bottom with a fishfinder rig, then knock your lights out! I don’t, but I have eaten a lot of very nice-sized specks anyhow! One reason for that – besides devoutly adhering to the previously-mentioned recommendations – is that during spring I use pretty big lures. And those big lures include big flies! And if you really want to increase the possibilities of taking one for the wall, then use a big surface lure!
While a Dog, a Spook, or a Jumpin’ Minnow may be the final “tip” in my list, their effectiveness is limited to suitable conditions. Reasonably clear water up to five feet deep or thereabouts is preferred, with shallower seeming to be progressively better. A calm surface is better than one that is choppy, but one that is slightly ruffled has proven to be best. Work the lure a bit faster when the water is fairly flat, a bit slower when it’s not.
During spring I use big surface lures for specks whenever I am not fly fishing for them (Which I must admit is whenever I can!). Notably, “big” does not include the scaled-down sizes – “Juniors” and such – which may be preferred during other times. Big topwaters can be intimidating to speck fishermen, believing they are simply too big for the fish they normally catch. Well, duh! This article is intended to help them catch bigger specks! Besides, I’ve caught plenty of “shorts” on a full-sized Dog as well as plenty of “good ‘uns” and some real hosses, too. Don’t; worry that the lure is too big – it isn’t!
Use one! And fly rod poppers some 4 to 4 ½ inches long and created on size 1/0 hooks!
And if conditions aren’t favorable for a surface lure, then use a very slow-sinking sub-surface lure.
I advocate that attribute because of my many successes with flies during this time, particularly some rather large but lightly-weighted Clouser Minnow-types (See “Evolution of a Really Good One” on the “Flies” page.). Fact is, one lovely April morning a few years back while fishing Breton Island with a half-dozen buddies, my flies accounted for half again as many specks as the top “jig-fisherman” tallied, and they were almost all in the 2 to 4-pound range! The semi-suspending characteristic of my flies was the only plausible reason for such a glorious (And well-boasted!) event!
Let’s see: that little anecdote included wading, barrier islands, and slow-sinking “lures” – three of the tips I’ve passed along for big spring specks. Then there was the last BIG spring speck I caught – wading at a barrier island on a hard rising tide and fishing with a surface lure (Actually a rather humongous fly-rod popper!). It all works, folks. Get yourselves some of it this spring!
(Note: While “big” specks are more desirable than marginal ones, too big can deter the quality and quantity of the contents of your cooler. In some areas along the Gulf coast, for instance, there is a maximum size restriction on these fish. Also, the larger sizes – say, over 20 inches or so long – just don’t seem to taste quite as good as those a bit smaller. And okay, unless it’s a real whompus cat that might make the record book, I just don’t like to keep big fish – of any kind! With specks my preference is 17 to 18 inches or thereabouts – big enough to get a good stink out of the grease but not so big as to lose its delicate flavor. And they look markedly better in the ice chest than a mess of 13-inchers, just in case someone wants to take a peek! Think about it.)
In Pursuit of Sheepshead
There aren’t too many really “testy” types – like permit – along the northern Gulf coast. Redfish can be particularly spooky on occasion, and every now and then one will actually rush a fly only to refuse it. Usually, though, they seem to be eaten up with an acute case of the stupids and will fall all over themselves in an attempt to eat a variety of patterns. And that’s not really all that bad, considering fly-catching is much more fun than just fly-fishing.
Specks, too, will usually strike, as will cobia who are usually fearless as well as mentally impaired, and I’ll guarantee if you let a flounder see a purple Clouser Minnow, he will eat it. Tripletail can be a notable exception to the rule when they are in one of their tentative moods, but when you get right down to it, usually the hardest part of catching fish hereabouts is finding them – well, that’s if you leave sheepshead out of the equation.
Now I’ve never laid an eye on a permit, but I’ve read a lot about them, and they seem to be quite similar to sheepshead, especially in one specific aspect: if you leave the bait bucket at home, you can have fits enticing either of them to strike! There’s one big difference in them, too – actually there are a bunch, but the one that’s most important here is that sheepshead are much more plentiful throughout their range than permit are in theirs.
Numbers are one thing. Sheepshead can also be found in a wide variety of settings. Rock jetties, oyster reefs, bridge and pier pilings, and sunken boats are prime locations since they provide the fish with its primary source of sustenance: barnacles.
Personally, I’ve never been able to create a fly that adequately depicted a barnacle on a piling, so I’ve never intentionally fly fished for them around those types of structure. However, sheepshead also love the shallows, be they soft marsh or firm barrier island sandbars, where they feed on small shrimp, crabs, clams, and the like, often in the thinnest water that will float them. It is there that they present themselves as a fly-fishing target of the first order – uh, let me re-phrase that: “a fly-casting target of opportunity”… sort of like a permit…
I’d give some pretty good odds that within the established parameters of the sport of sight-fishing with flies, there have been more permit caught than sheepshead. Of course, one reason for that may be that most of the folks who have tried to catch the jailhouse fish thusly were smart enough to quit early and move on to more realistic goals – like yellowfin tuna. Whatever, while practicing the sight-fishing exercise I’ve caught exactly three.
And, by the way, broken two perfectly good fly rods in the process.
That’s probably not particularly relevant here, though I feel I must say both of them had accounted for redfish exceeding 14 pounds. What may be interesting is the fact that all three fish – each in the 2 to 3-pound class – were tailing nicely on shallow, grassy flats, all three were misinterpreted as being reds, and all three hit poppers like there would be no tomorrow!
Unfortunately (Besides the broken rods), all that took place very early in my northern-Gulf fly-fishing career and left me with the premise that sheepshead would occasionally take a fly – sort of like a permit. And on the occasions when I specifically sought them out, I discovered they were also spooky and finicky, especially in clear, shallow water – sort of like a permit. In fact, it reached the point where they became pretty aggravating, and since I knew from the experiences with the three that they would destroy the popper (And maybe my new rod, too) should they ever choose to eat one again, I began making a conscientious effort to avoid them.
Many years later it came to pass that I began writing of my fishing experiences, and it wasn’t too long thereafter that my editors began to complain about my lack of variety – I guess some folks actually do get tired of reading articles about fly fishing for reds. Anyway, one day it occurred to me that the ever-present and intentionally ignored sheepshead would make a fine topic – if I could catch some and do it in an exciting and challenging way. Hmm… how about sight-fishing for them on the flats with a 4-weight outfit, 4-pound class tippet, and size 6 bonefish flies…
There have been times when I would have sold my soul to the bad guy to have had the conditions I met on the first morning of my quest: slick calm, bright sunlight, and low, clear water. The flat I intended to prospect had been loaded with them on a recent redfishing trip, and I was sure the pink Crazy Charlie – delivered with the precision and delicacy that the light outfit provided – would adequately ring their chimes.
It didn’t – even with a 10-foot leader and the 4-pound point! And no shocker! Of the possibly two dozen fish I showed the fly to, most immediately spooked, a few never acknowledged its presence, and a couple followed it a short distance only to turn away. Then I got side-tracked by some reds and had a very nice day, taking five to just over 6 pounds on the sheepshead-rejected fly.
Stuff like that tends to mess with my mind, especially after the second glass of after-supper sour mash. Sheepshead shouldn’t be that difficult to catch on flies. When I am out on a meat-run with my casting rod they are always thumping my trusty chartreuse spinnerbait. Chartreuse? Hmm…
Two days later I was back on the same flat. Conditions were again near ideal, and again the sheepshead were thick. Okay those of you who are enamored with the wiles of the permit, take note.
I maintain a very low profile, casting while crouching on the bow-platform. Distances range from 40 to 50 feet – the fish are unaware of my presence. I place the fly four feet ahead of one – and it spooks; four feet in front of another, and it couldn’t care less. One is tailing, its nose in the roots of a clump of grass. I put the fly right on him, he quickly turns toward it, then loses interest – in chartreuse!
I swap the Charlie for a Horror – and could have saved myself the effort. 4-weight line-shadow spooks them; the impact of skimpily-dressed size 6 flies spooks them – or it doesn’t, and when they decide to take a look, their attention spans prove to be very short.
I cast to fish that are tailing, fish that are swimming along with apparent purpose, and fish that seem to be just sitting there doing nothing – all to no avail. Finally, at a total loss, I gave up and sought out the reds, taking six to 7 pounds and again on the flies the sheepshead had scorned – or panicked from!
Later that evening I felt an urge to experience one of those rowdy surface strikes that reds are somewhat infamous for and speculated a popper that was sufficiently small enough for the 4-weight stick. In some slightly deeper water I misinterpreted a shadow, made a decent cast at it, and would you believe one of those spooky, snooty, striped, snaggle-toothed SOB’s tried to obliterate the popper!
I didn’t get my story. The fish managed to slip the hook – a very uncharacteristic maneuver that left me without the pictures necessary to accompany the prose. The editors require that. But at least I didn’t break the rod…
Anyway, in case you are looking for something “testy” to try your skills on and can’t afford too many trips to Belize to try for permit, I highly recommend you give the jailhouse fish a try. For sure, all across the Louisiana coast you will get a lot more shots at them than at their counterparts in a more exotic locale. But I sure wouldn’t cast bonefish flies at them.
There really isn’t much more to say about fly-fishing for sheepshead. Since my “quest” I have taken a few others, all while blind-casting for specks with Clouser-types. Some friends have taken a few others in the same fashion, and I’ve heard that some enterprising folks have invested enough time and effort with them to come up with a technique (Or a fly?) that is fairly effective. I’m proud for ‘em!
In any case, if you simply must catch a ‘head on a fly, then make a run offshore in April, find a petroleum platform in 20 to 40 feet or so of water (Spell that “Main Pass Block 41 C”!), and drop a heavily-weighted size 1/0 Clouser Minnow – color shouldn’t matter – down alongside the pilings. Use a 12-weight outfit with a sinking or sinking-tip line, a 20-pound class tippet, and an 80-pound fluorocarbon shocker. Once you hook one you will know why you need the heavy stuff. Sheepshead don’t hold tightly to those pilings for nothing; they may be out there at that time to spawn, but they still need to eat – barnacles! Get him coming quickly or he will cut you off. I promise! Figure one fish per fly, so bring along plenty. And though they are excellent table fare, they are mortal hell to clean! They also come equipped with lots of sharp edges and spines, so handle them with care.
And that’s entirely enough said about sheepshead (And I’m only a little sorry that I don’t have any pics to accompany the prose herein.)!
Of Winter Days and Redfish
I had been here/done this countless times, even in much colder weather, and if the wind had allowed me to cast the big Clouser Minnow 40 feet or so, I usually caught fish. But as I sat in Bubby’s boat – my hat’s ear-flaps down and my insulated coveralls’ collar up – gritting my teeth against the sting of speed as we raced down the meandering little bayou, the thought arose as it always has: “I gotta be out of my everloving mind!”
Actually, at daybreak it was only 48 degrees: the “warming spell” which occurs between the last cold front’s blow-down and the arrival of the next – which was forecast to rip across the Delta that evening. On the previous morning frost had covered the front yard of my home near the mouth of the Mississippi River, and though the thermometer had almost reached 50 that afternoon, the north wind built throughout the day. But last night it again had laid; the zephyr which barely ruffled the water’s surface at the launch was now set in the east. If one intends to fly fish for red drum in winter, this was a fine time to do so.
There was no water in the marsh and not much in the little bayou – the result of three days of stiff offshore winds combined with our day’s normal low tide. That was good; less water means fewer places the fish can be. Assuredly they have retreated to the bay – our destination – with the falling tide. There they must wait until the water again begins to rise, allowing them to scatter into the flooding marsh. I had little doubt we would find them, and when we did, we should find them in bunches.
The bay was almost clear – remarkable, considering the blow of the past three days, but a blanket of low, thin clouds had arrived with the easterly breeze: there would be no sight-fishing today. Soon, Bubby killed the outboard, took up the push-pole, and mounted the stern platform as I ascended the bow with my 9-weight. We worked two spots, blind fan-casting with my trusty chartreuse and white Clouser, without a sign of a red, and I soon recalled the sage words an old bayou-boy once told me: you can’t catch ‘em where they ain’t.
A suggestion was then made to try to “flush” some – an effective tactic now but one which will spook ‘em onto dry land during warmer months. Soon we were moving along the shoreline – following its contours some 15 to 20 feet distant – at a little faster than idle speed, but we covered more than a quarter of a mile without pushing a single fish. In winter that can be expected, but they had to be here somewhere.
Eventually we moved a small school in the back of a pocket, swung away from them, and invested a few minutes looking for others in order for those to settle down. That wouldn’t take long, and they should not move very far – a world of behavioral difference from summer.
There were no others nearby, and we soon returned to the pocket where I quickly connected with one – a 6-pounder that tried to fight but didn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders. As I unhooked and released him, I felt his body’s chill, and it occurred to me that I, too, might not be up to peak performance if I lived in water that cold.
Cold. Winter is an anathema for those who fish with flies, especially in saltwater. It is the time when many of their favorite species have either migrated to warmer climes or moved into the depths where fly fishing for them becomes difficult at best – or so they have been conditioned. It is a time of brutal cold and gale-force winds – a time when most thoughts of fly fishing are of Floridian or Bahamian flats – or somewhere in the tropics. It is the time for tying flies, cleaning gear, and attending tackle shows and seminars. And it is a time for fishing friends to gather in the evenings and reflect on past good days – and dream aloud of those they hope will come – over tall glasses of warming amber liquids. But for Bubby and me – and a few like us across the Louisiana coast, winter is still fly-fishing time for redfish.
We don’t have any real secrets about it – except maybe that reds will be found in some pretty shallow water in all but the coldest weather. Their metabolism will slow down a bit, and they are subject to a freeze-induced coma when they are caught in the shallows on a rare visit by the Arctic Express; the “Christmas freezes” of 1983 and 1989 killed a lot of them. But they are remarkably resistant to typical winter weather hereabouts, and they have to eat. Being creatures of the shallows, that is where they feed, even now.
And at this time fly fishing for them is not that complicated – once you find them. The problem most folks have now is the willingness to try it, and it’s so simple: you fish with flies just like you would with hardware, casting to a likely spot – shoreline irregularities, oyster beds, and pushed or visible fish – and retrieving the fly with short, slow strips. There really is nothing to it – if the wind allows it.
That’s the gris-gris for fly fishing for reds down here during winter, not the cold. But often it is not as bad as one might imagine – provided he dresses for it. A 15-knot wind is no real deterrent to fly casting, but combine it with our lovely humidity and temperatures below 50 degrees, and it will cut through insulated coveralls like a filleting knife! But it – and one a bit stronger – will not prevent casting 40 feet or so, and that’s usually all it takes. Reds don’t spook as easily now as they do during warmer times, and with a minimum of boat noise, they can be approached quite closely.
They also tend to bunch up on specific spots on the bay-bottom like accumulations of oysters or shells, subtle humps, and depressions, and when they do they will stay there – provided you don’t spook them – until the tide comes back in. And if you find a spot like those with fish on it, you can safely assume they will be there again after the next front has pushed through, this winter, next winter, the following winter.
I had a little honey-hole like that: scattered shells near the mouth of a small tidal cut through the marsh and in about three feet of water at mean sea level. When a norther drained the marsh through the cut, the reds ganged up on top of those shells, and it was nothing to catch 8 or 10 on Clousers. But let the wind turn to the south and begin to drive the tide back in, and you couldn’t pull a strike there on a dare; the fish had followed the rising water back into the marsh. That pattern was consistent for 11 straight winters, and need I say the spot was very closely guarded!
The bay where Bubby and I were fishing is not; it’s a popular place and time proven for producing post cold-front redfish in great numbers. With the exception of the fish in the little pocket, they just hadn’t been where they were supposed to be. We’ll find ‘em – or so I try to convince myself.
The sun makes a brief appearance, then ducks back behind the clouds; so much for any “radiational warming” of the water. I’ve read a lot about that, but I have never jumped into it during changes of sunlight intensity to verify any differences in its temperature. Don’t intend to, either. Still, reds do seem to bite better in winter when the sun is brightly shining. Maybe it wakes ‘em up. Now, with the almost solid overcast, they are all probably in one big gang, asleep with their bellies on bottom out in the middle of the bay. Yeah…
We burn fuel, trying to flush another school. With little more than half an hour remaining before we must head in, we cruise the bay’s eastern shoreline, looking hard. The tide is now slack and dead low; soon it will begin to rise – prime time is almost over.
Bubby is watching forward as a hint of motion near the bank seizes all of my attention. Then a big v-wave surges across the shallows, followed by another and then many more. “There they are, Bubby!” He smiles and nods: Got ‘em!
He makes a long, wide turn around them, idles back, and approaches the spot from upwind. At one hundred yards he kills the motor, takes up the push-pole, and eases us to within casting range. At 60 feet I let fly, and the Clouser is taken almost instantly.
After releasing the fish, several casts are required to locate the concentration. Then Bubby spuds down the push-pole, ties it off, and joins in the festivities. The fish are ganged up at the mouth of a small cut, apparently waiting for the tide to begin to rise so they can gain the marsh, and they are hungry. We count coup with five more very nice fish – and prematurely release a couple of others – within the 20 minutes before our time runs out. It has been a good day – not a great one or even very good one, but one to remedy a bad case of cabin fever, and I’ll take one like it every time.
No, it wasn’t the “classic stuff” – spot-casting to visible fish, but it sure beat staying home and tying flies, or cleaning reels, or going to seminars, or day-dreaming of warmer times. Too much of that, and I would be “out of my everloving mind” for sure!
(Saltwater Fly Fishing)