Saltwater

 

6-27-2014

Dancing with Dolphin
The right step with these fish is not for moony-eyed belly-rubbing. No Sir, get down and BOOGIE!

Fly Guy U

Dolphin – the offshore pelagic fish, not relations of “Flipper”! – live in the fast lane. Their life-spans are very short, with seven being a ripe old age. They mature rapidly, with females becoming capable of breeding within their first year, and they breed profusely. They are also preyed upon throughout their lives, even by larger members of their own species. To survive in the open ocean, the capability of schooling in large numbers as dolphin frequently do is essential; so is speed, and dolphin are swift! They are also quite prone to jumping – both from the maw of a marlin and while on the end of a fishing line. And they are awfully hard to beat when skinned, filleted, and sautéed with just a light sprinkling of lemon-pepper seasoning. So let’s see – there are plenty of them, they are fast, they jump like crazy, and they taste great! What more could a saltwater fisherman ask for?
More dolphin?
With smaller fish – 1 to 2-pound “chickens”, that is not difficult, and prior to present and very restrictive bag limits, catches of these little delicacies could be almost obscene. Any flotsam, be it various grasses, forms of wood, or man-made creations, found in water over roughly 70 degrees and 50 feet deep and at least clear-green in color will hold these fish, often in surprising numbers. Take a light spinning or casting outfit loaded with 10-pound line which is finished with a foot or so of 20-pound fluorocarbon and offer them a speck-sized jig, and you can catch all the law allows very shortly. Remember to always keep a hooked fish in the water at boat-side; it will hold the rest of the school nearby.
For larger fish, or “bulls” of 20 pounds or more, the most consistently productive patterns can be entirely different. Frequently these fish are caught incidentally to billfish. Therefore it is normal for them to be captured on 50-pound or even 80-pound trolling gear – the kind of stuff that you can lead your dancing partner with pretty forcefully! And I’m not going to say one word about gearing up expressly for dolphin when in marlin country. That simply ain’t done in the real world! But there are a few adjustments you can make in your trolling spread which can make the dance a little more lively besides coping with some adversities which occasionally arise when fishing for bull dolphin.
For instance, one fine summer morning some friends and I had pulled surface plastics along a sharp but grass-less color change for some time without a strike, so we picked up the spread and headed further offshore. There we discovered a huge mass of sargasso. Most of it was compacted into solid mats, but some if it was randomly scattered about in such a manner that it would foul at least one lure as we trolled around the mats. No billfish showed any interest in our spread, but bull dolphin could be plainly seen, darting out to inspect and then refuse the grassed-up lures.
We finally stowed the big sticks and broke out the one 20-pound outfit which was aboard, rigged it with a dead ballyhoo behind a skirt which covered the hook’s point and was hoped would ward off the grass, dropped it back, and immediately hooked up. I recall we caught five like that, slow-trolling around the mats – fish in the 20 to 30-pound class which really did some progressive two-stepping with a lot of aerial “twirls” on the light gear. Then a yellowfin tuna came out of nowhere and dumped the reel.           Sometimes you will get tagged while dancing with dolphin!
But that’s a risk one takes when he trolls a bait or lure on the offshore grounds on anything less than 50-pound gear. Casting, on the other hand, is a method which is more selective than trolling, since you can pick your fish and cast directly at it. Therefore it is less likely that the lure will be intercepted by an unanticipated beast. First, of course, you must find a fish to cast at.
Another party and I had trolled all morning with results much skimpier than we had anticipated. The color change was gradual instead of the desired “knife-edge”, and most of the grass we had found was scattered. The only fish in the box – a pair of 20-pound wahoo and one 40-pound dolphin – had come from a “line” of reasonably well-compacted grass but only a quarter-mile or so in length.
A little after noon we picked up the spread and went looking. It was a gorgeous, slick-calm day, but for almost an hour no bait, no sign of feeding fish, and no worthwhile flotsam was evident. Then in the distance the water’s indigo surface turned light brown from a huge raft of sargasso. Out went the spread, and an hour or so later in came one rather small bull dolphin.
I don’t know why they wouldn’t strike a surface lure that day. There were plenty of them, plainly visible along the edge of the raft – and well beneath a swarm of fish in the 5 to 10-pound class near the surface! Eventually we quit our trolling efforts, broke out the casting tackle – “medium” spinning and casting outfits with reels holding around 200 yards of 14-pound line, tied on some half-ounce jig/soft-plastic combos, and began to drift-fish along the edge of the raft.
Now you can dance a pretty lively jig with dolphin like those on that type of gear, and they showed no reluctance whatsoever to striking. But the presence of the bulls below was rather disconcerting; we could easily see them, 20 to 30 feet beneath the smaller fish and showing no more interest in our jigs than they had the surface lures. Of course, that might have been because it was virtually impossible to get one of those jigs through the smaller fish and down to them!
Finally one of the crew snipped off his rather light jig and tied on one appropriate for amberjack fishing. Then he sliced a thin strip of belly-meat from one of the fish in the ice chest, tipped the big jig’s hook with it, and then sent it all plummeting into the depths towards a bull he had picked out. And after a half-hour or so of some serious rock-and-rolling, the 30-pounder was gaffed aboard.
There’s a pretty good lesson in that event, but it sure takes some self-discipline to ignore all those fish which are right there just waiting for the next dance. Point is, sometimes you most go to some extremes to avoid smaller fish in order to catch the bulls – like “deep-jigging”!
And here I must recall the “unanticipated beast” which I mentioned earlier. If you found the dolphin, you can safely bet that one or more of them has, too. Take a freshly-caught fish in the 3 to 5-pound range and set it out on a drift-line from one of the trolling outfits, clicker on and with the drag in gear on “light strike”. And keep an eye on it! I have never caught a billfish this way – though I once had a strike and the dolphin showed clear evidence of having been “billed” – but I have and will continue to set one out whenever I am drifting, casting to dolphin.
Just in case!
One of the hardest times to catch bull dolphin is when there is no grass along the color change, and in the clear water beyond it the grass is scattered in small but fairly thick patches. Here, it is almost impossible to troll even a skirted dead bait without it fouling – surface lures are out of the question! Now what?
A charter skipper/buddy invited me along to do a TV show on bull dolphin, and that was the scenario we discovered. As we tried to troll we would occasionally come upon a fish here and there, but by then the lures were invariably grassed-up, and the five lines which were in train – two flat, two from the outriggers, and one from the center-rigger – made it impossible to cast at the fish from the cockpit. And as the sea was a bit sloppy that afternoon, I was not about to try casting from the bow!
We finally retrieved the spread, secured the outriggers, and began to simply idle along through the grass, just looking. It wasn’t long before we came across a 25-pounder, I made one cast at it, and though our dance together did not receive the rave reviews of Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever”, it made for some great TV footage!
What it all boils down to is do what you have to do to catch bull dolphin. I had never before idled along offshore just looking with no lines out. I seriously doubt many others have, either. But it worked – just like “deep-jigging” – just like trolling “weedless”. Think about it the next time you are offshore and things aren’t going quite like you would have them go. That way, you’ll be much less likely to miss the dance.
(Game & Fish Publications 7-1997)

 

3-15-2014

The Gulf’s “Other” Flounder Season

Fl 3

            Flounder fishing can be almost as good after their spawning run as it is beforehand.

        

            I’ve never cared for fishing in canals during spring, but recently a series of events just about demanded that if I was going to eat any fresh fish, I’d best learn to love it! And on an early-May trip to some favorite canals near Grand Chenier, my buddy Durel and I – by pitching spinnerbaits – got a decent dose of positive reinforcement, complements of seven nice flounder and a handful of respectable reds.

            Then the rain came – and then the wind blew so hard that even canal-fishing was out of the question, so I sat around the house and stewed for three weeks!

            When “The Day” finally arose I discovered that all of my usual fishing companions were pre-disposed, so I prepared for a solo trip, and while I was gathering my gear, I decided that everything promised to be quite favorable for fly fishing. And it was. By mid-morning I had boxed my limit of flounder (10) and released a pair of almost-big reds! Incidentally, that was the best hit I had put on flounder since the possession limit was established and my best ever on fly!

            But only by a few!

            The runner-up trip was admittedly an autumn inspiration that arose a few years prior to K. and took place near the mouth of Southeast Pass below Venice. Although several friends and I had been taking some serious specks along with a creditable number of flounder in several spots, one of them simply demanded an attempt with flies. So ol’ buddy Bubby and I made a sortie to see if flounder could be caught on fly on purpose! They could – seven fat ones – and I have no doubt I could have finished my limit that day had Bubby not simultaneously filled his quota with jigs!

            That was the first time I had ever set out to specifically catch flounder on flies. However, I had caught a pile of plie beforehand thusly, mostly while fishing for specks and blind-casting for reds. And that brings up an interesting fact that I learned while serving as the recreational fishing representative on a committee of the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission a while back. While almost all of the northern Gulf coast’s anglers really do appreciate the flounder they catch, only about three percent of them actually make targeted efforts for these fish!

            I sincerely doubt that these lines will have much effect on increasing that number, but the data herein could help you box a few more to supplement your specks and redfish, especially at this time when thoughts of flounder are few and far between in many folks’ minds.

            While juvenile flounder – and a few mature fish that are more interested in eating than sex – remain inshore during winter, most of them head offshore during late November or early December to spawn, a movement that is typically made en masse. On the other hand, once their reproductive duties have been taken care of, the fish move back inshore in a very piecemeal manner.

            Being somewhat undernourished from both the rigors of their recent offshore journey and the lack of decent habitat out there for feeding, the new arrivals initially seek out places that are conducive for regaining some protein, and their numbers are typically maintained or even increased in spots like that with newcomers. So to begin with, concentrate your search for Spring flounder near the seashore, and that can be right on the beach!

            Although the trough/bar sequence that is present in the surf across much of the northern Gulf can gather and hold these fish, better spots include the mouths of tidal cuts and small passes. Find one of those with clumps of oysters – or solid reefs – along its banks, work their edges on the falling tide, and you’d better remember that there IS a possession limit! Shoreline pockets that are protected from wave-action by sandbars are also well worth prospecting. In such areas it’s often possible to sight-fish for them – ¼-ounce gold spoons and size 1 lightly-weighted Clouser-type flies are equally effective here and are also appealing to any redfish you might encounter.

            Sheltered pockets along the shorelines of broad bays and sounds also hold these fish early on. The first “intentional” fly-fishing trip I made after them was in such a setting where the tide fell out of a fairly deep cut and then across a shallow sand-flat before entering the deeper water of the bay. The flounder laid up on the flat while waiting for prey to be swept across it by the current. Find a spot like that, and you’ve got a real honey-hole! If possible, cast directly across the flow, then impart a moderate-speed retrieve – with fly or otherwise – as the lure is swept down-current of you.

            Eventually the fish make their ways deeper into the estuaries, though most are still fairly close to the seashore. The canal where I caught that first limit on fly is an excellent example of prime feeding water of this type.

            It’s an old oil-well location canal, perhaps a mile inshore and partially filled in since the well was plugged and abandoned long ago. From the point where the turn-around begins, both banks have subsided and created gradual slopes that extend some distance out into the canal. Oysters – and odd-and-end oil-field discard – litter those slopes, creating beneficial structure for feeding flounder. However, the canal’s premier attraction is its back end where the shoreline has receded considerably, leaving a broad, wide, and very gradually-deepening slope that could almost be called a “flat”. It is well-littered with fly and spinnerbait-eating oysters and junk, but the fish love it!

            Now here’s a little helpful hint. There’s no way, short of the village idiot yielding to blind prospecting, that you will discover such a spot on the high tide – when flounder don’t often feed anyway. If at all possible, do your searching for spring flounder at least a little way into the falling tide – half-way through it is better. Besides concentrating prey, you’ll get a much better look at benthic structure that way. And remember that canals without any “drains” or cuts leading into them are often more productive on the low end of the rising tide than they are on the falling tide, so don’t go home too early if the water is slack low when you arrive!

            Under decent meteorological conditions, flounder aren’t too picky during Spring. I’ve caught plenty of them on 1/5-ounce Sidewinders, gold Pet 13’s with yellow feathers, and straight-up jig-soft-plastic combos. Nevertheless, my all-time favorite chunk of hardware for them is a spinnerbait, and I create my own out of a ¼-ounce short-shank jig-head, a size 4 gold Hildebrandt jig-spinner, and a “Baby Bull Minnow” in “LSU” (Clear purple with glitter and a yellow tail).

            Effective flies are also rather basic. Sizes 1 and 2 lightly-weighted “Clouser-types” (a.k.a. “Charlies”.) in chartreuse over white, purple, or gold and some 2 to 2 ½ inches long usually work well. And as far as the “lightly-weighted” part of the recipe goes, consider the fact that you are likely to find fish in water as shallow as a foot deep. Therefore, bead-chain or plastic “eyes” are recommended.

            On the other hand, along much of the coast Spring is a time of “spring-tides”. All that extra water gives the fish an opportunity to feed in places where fishermen can’t go – like into   shoreline grass. And yeah, I mean into the grass – spartina, roseau canes, and whatever else. When that happens, you must give them an offering that is as close as you can get it to them and then stays there.

            In my experiences that is a shrimp-tipped popping rig with the float set 1 ½ feet or so above the baited jig. That’s pretty plain vanilla – what isn’t is that in order to get it close to them, you must “flip” it. And in all my years of fishing in saltwater, I have seen only one angler who was not in my boat practicing that exercise!

            This must be short-range work – 15 feet is plenty – since you have to hit pretty small openings in the thicker stuff. The rig’s splash-down is often enough to attract a nearby fish – more than one pop will usually foul the jig in the grass. Let the bait soak only for a half-minute or so after splash-down or a pop, then try another target. Set the hook on the slightest tremble of the float, and if the cause of it happens to be a double-digit redfish – the likelihood of that increasing with the height of the tide – you will then be treated to one of the rowdiest experiences there is in inshore fishing!

            That’s just a little lagniappe, but it probably will happen to you on a grass-flooding high tide. Otherwise, try the other patterns for some flounder-action that might surprise you.

(Gulf Coast Fisherman – Spring 2012) 

 

 

8-20-2013

The Delta’s Deep-water Flounder

            Here’s an opportunity that’s just waiting for you to take advantage of it! scan0002

 

            The drill goes something like this, and it may be familiar to some readers. You and your buddies have located a deep school of filleting-sized specks and are amassing a mess of ‘em. To expedite things – permitted because of their “schoolie” size – you “jack-slap” them aboard rather than net them, hurry to unhook and toss them into the cooler, and then quickly fire off another cast.

            Suddenly someone shouts “Hey, look at this flounder!”, and cockpit chaos erupts as everyone else searches madly for the landing net. Finally, with the fish either secured in the ice chest or back in the security of the depths after shedding the hook, you hear someone mutter “Man, where in the world did that thing come from…?”

            Autumn creates a paradox in the Mississippi River Delta. In the areas of broad bays, small tidal cuts, and broken marsh which are typical above Venice, most of the action with all the popular inshore species – specks, reds, and flounders – takes place now in water relatively shallow – say, to five feet deep or so. On the other hand, below Venice the best action with specks normally comes from the fairly deep waters of the smaller passes and the cuts leading off them. There, you are just as likely to encounter flounders as you are while fishing for reds along the passes’ shallow shoreline sandbars or while fishing just about anywhere up the road a bit.

            There aren’t any particular methods to specifically target the Delta’s deep-water flounders – which seem to average considerably larger than those which inhabit shallower water; too many other creatures are around now that can and will eat your offering before a flounder can get to it. However, there are some ways to improve your odds of supplementing your day’s catch with these tasty fish.

            The first is to fish in places where flounders are commonly taken during autumn. Two of the Delta’s most consistent producers of these fish are the spillways through the west bank of SouthwestPass, the first lying about three miles below Head of Passes and the second roughly seven miles further downstream. Here, limits of specks are often common, limits of redfish holding deep against the shoreline drop-offs are by no means rare, and flounders are a possibility on virtually every cast!

            Provided, of course, they can detect your offering.

            Both spillways are basically similar, each having a deep hole at the point where the river flows into them, then abrupt rises and a general leveling off of bottom as they depart the river. Both have abrupt shoreline drop-offs, and both are subject to considerable current.

            That current, however, is not nearly as strong near bottom as it is near the surface. Because of that, all three popular species are normally found in the slower water of the depths, and that can be literally anywhere down-current of the holes. Specks will make regular forays after schools of shad, small mullet, killifish, and such passing by in the stronger current nearer the surface, as occasionally will the flounders which feed aggressively as well as from ambush. Still, to take full advantage of the flatfish potential these spots offer, your lure must bump bottom.

            Also, even though the water in both spillways can be quite clear during much of autumn, allowing the fish to detect the lure by visibility alone, a baited jig is normally much more effective for flounders than one which is served straight-up. A jig/soft-plastic combo tipped with a small shrimp, or a bare jig-head with a live killifish (i.e. “cocahoe”) or finger mullet hooked through the lips, are equally effective. Just make sure they are heavy enough to hold bottom in the current.

            One way to facilitate that is to fish the spillways during the top half of the rising tide. That slows the current somewhat, allowing the jigs to sink deeper than they could in heavier flow. Also, always make your casts up-current and retrieve the jigs with the flow; on down-current casts the jig will quickly rise out of the strike zone during the retrieve.

            If you can fish only during a period when the tide happens to be briskly falling, you have three options. First, you can try “jigging” with very heavy jigs (Not recommended, since the technique is more drudgery than fun!). Second, you can anchor a live bait to bottom with a heavy fishfinder rig (Okay if soaking bait is your thing.). Third, you can head to the cuts in the shorelines towards the back of the second spillway (Highly recommended!). Granted, they do not fall into our “deep-water” category, but if you must fish a hard-falling tide, they can be the best thing going.

            And you just might box a limit of reds there along with the flounders!

            The spillways are not the only “cuts” leading off a pass which can provide you with some big, deep-water flounders at this time. There are several others off South Pass (Enter these at idle and holding closely to the canes at their heads  to avoid bulkheads that have settled over time and are now submerged!). GrandPass, too, has several productive cuts. Generally, their bottoms are similar to those of the spillways, and most flounders will be found after bottom has abruptly risen and leveled off. Find that point with your depth recorder, set the anchor at the lip of the level bottom, allow the boat to drift down-current a ways before tying it off, and then cast back upstream to the lip. Once again, jigs worked too shallow normally attract only specks!

            The shorelines of the small passes offer another opportunity which is almost a no-brainer if you recognize the significance of what you are looking at. During autumn – especially early in the season – storm minnows (A variety of killifish) can be drawn out of the marsh and into the passes by a high, then hard-falling tide. Once into these waters they form into schools and become prime prey for every predator around, no matter if it is adorned with scales, feathers, or bait buckets!

            Schools of storm minnows are commonly encountered on the surface, swimming along the outside edge of a pass’s shoreline drop-off and quite vulnerable to attacks from below. Any shallow pocket in the shoreline, especially if it is graced with submergent grass, appears as a sanctuary to the minnows, and they seek refuge in those grassy shallows. At least, they do until some skinny-water beastie discovers their ploy. Then, as they are driven back into the pass’s channel, the carnage from below begins again.

            I witnessed that “cycle” on numerous autumn mornings in Tante Phine Pass. The storm minnows would appear on the surface, swimming with the current on top of the deep water alongside the shoreline canes. Those abruptly ended at the beginning of a shallow, narrow pocket perhaps 50 yards long and with a thick grass-bed along the lip of the drop-off. The specks, reds, and such which we were then catching would eventually drive the minnows into the supposed cover of the grass, then all action would cease until either another school came along or until the gar, crabs, stingrays, and herons discovered the “hidden” ones. Then they’d begin fleeing back into the channel where the specks and reds would soon go to work on them again and where we would again go to work on the specks and reds!

            Along the way some very nice-sized flounders discovered this small but quite prime feeding ground and stationed themselves on bottom of the deep water just outside the grass-bed. There they were obviously gorging themselves on wounded minnows – and bits and pieces of others – contributed by the near-surface feeders. And it’s not really surprising that if no minnows – or raids on minnows – were apparent on the surface, there were no strikes from the deep flounders!

            The point of all this is to take serious note of any schools of minnows on the surface. If there is a “parade” of them, and if a shallow “refuge” for them is nearby, set the anchor opposite it and make a few casts – fairly shallow for passing specks and redfish, then bump bottom for any opportunistic flounders. If you catch a few specks, I’ll give some very good odds you’ll also add a nice flounder or two to your ice chest!

            Unlike while fishing the spillways and cuts off other passes where bait normally enhances one’s efforts, straight-up jig/soft-plastic combos are entirely adequate when the storm minnows are running. Just make sure those soft-plastics are purple! For the best all-around “feel”, use a fairly short, fast graphite rod and either braided or stranded line – Spiderwire “Fusion” being my preference – with a short mono leader. And even though you might find yourself in a gang of deep, schoolie-sized specks that can be handily jack-slapped aboard, keep that landing net in plain view of the entire crew! Bump bottom with those jigs, and eventually you’ll need it!

(GulfCoast Fisherman 10-2001)

 

                

Pipes 16-9-2013

Prospecting the Pipes

            These small structures offshore of the Mississippi River Delta provide big action with cobia.

 

            At first sight the single offshore oil well seems very insignificant against the backdrop of the distant full-blown production platforms which sprout from the green waters of Louisiana‘s West Delta like thistles in a spring pasture. On looking upon it a fleeting thought might arise of a sentinel watching over verdant rolling plains should signs of an approaching army of antagonists appear. Then the thought fades as the platforms beckon, promising a day of great offshore action. The sentinel in forgotten, left alone to stand its guard.

            And the anglers who pass it by on their way to those popular and productive multi-legged structures have no idea that the sentinel has failed in its duty: an army has taken it captive – an army of cobia which now patrols its perimeter.

            Literally every type of drilling, production, and transportation platform conceivable by the petroleum industry has been erected off the Louisiana coast. Many of them were designed and constructed to develop vast reservoirs of oil and gas by means of drilling numerous directional wells from a single surface location atop water of great depth. These are the type that usually come to mind when someone mentions “rig fishing”, and they are a very expensive endeavor.

            In shallower water prolific reservoirs can be effectively produced by drilling a large number of vertical wells at individual sites throughout the areal extent of the “field”. The petroleum is then “gathered” to centrally located processing facilities through small-diameter pipelines laid beneath the seabed. While this practice is less expensive than developing a deep-water reservoir from a major platform, the cost of drilling all the wells and the construction of the facilities is great and is also justified only by the amount of the reserves.

            Some reservoirs are economic to drill, but the added expense of building an associated production platform would prevent them from being profitable. Here, the well’s owner produces his petroleum through a small pipeline to the processing facilities on a nearby platform owned by someone else for a small fee. Many of these marginal reserves lay off the Louisiana coast, and those in moderate water depths – roughly 30 to 70 feet – are produced by only one or two wells. Of those, one type which is commonly designed by the industry is supported and protected by a single, heavy-wall tubular caisson, and to those of us who are familiar with them and their worth as fishing structure, they are fondly known as “the pipes”.

            They really do appear like lonely sentinels, too. Nevertheless, don’t be misled; they can offer action with cobia (among others) that can be second to none. There are several reasons why.

            First, literally anything that finds its way onto the relatively featureless, gently-sloping bottom of West Delta will quickly attract both prey and predators. Even a “pipe” stuck up in the mud will soon become a fish-magnet.

            Second, most offshore anglers ignore them; after all, that multi-legged platform right over there just has to be more productive than this single pipe – doesn’t it? Well, whatever their reasoning, the lack of pressure on the pipes allows surprising numbers of fish to accumulate around them. It’s common to find a school of eight or more on the surface near one, and several friends have related catching upwards of a dozen around a single pipe.

            Finally, there is the technique best suited for fishing for them, and a significant factor in that allows actually catching them and not prematurely releasing them because of the fish dragging the line through a jumble of barnacle-encased legs – a common occurrence while fishing at a full-blown platform. Here’s the drill.

            On approaching a pipe look for fish on the surface nearby. Look closely, too, since the small boat dock which has been fastened to the caisson at the waterline can mask their presence. Don’t get too close while doing so, though, or the fish’s inherent curiosity will draw them to the boat where they often become more interested in checking out the outboard’s lower unit than in eating your lure. On that note, a 3/8-ounce jig head with a stout size 3/0 hook and a “Queen Cocahoe” in chartreuse with glitter is a very good choice; fish it either straight-up or sweetened with half of a cigar minnow, depending on the attitude of the fish.

            Once a school has been located, you must exercise a degree of self-discipline for a moment. The temptation will be to fire the lure into their midst – that will almost always result in a quick strike, but all too frequently that strike will come from a small fish. Take a moment to determine which one you want, then cast the lure at a point about two feet directly in front of it and immediately begin a moderately fast retrieve. And always be ready to snatch it away from a smaller one, should a baby appear to be winning the race with the brute to it. Then a quick follow-up cast – or “flip” – to the fish of choice is more likely to be successful.

            Along that same line, a swarm of cobia in pursuit of the jig might inspire a second crew member to make a cast into them. That is not a very good idea, and the reason why will be illustrated shortly. First, a discussion of deep-jigging tactics is in order.

             Those are required during the times when no fish are apparent on the surface. There are several explanations for this, one being that the fish are simply not in a sun-bathing mood at the time. Another arises from the school having followed a hooked fish deep and not returning to the surface. And finally, it can result from the presence of a layer of dingy water around the pipe. The latter factor can be discouraging to the point where a particular pipe can be passed by. Don’t do it; almost invariably clear green water is only a few feet down.

            Whatever the reason for the absence of fish on the surface, cobia are probably still present, and a one-ounce jig dressed with a six-inch chartreuse curly-tail grub – again either straight-up or sweetened with a cigar minnow – will usually get their attention. From a position up-current and 40 to 50 feet distant, cast it at the pipe, allow it to sink to bottom, and then retrieve it rapidly with short pumps. Here, as while presenting to fish on the surface, one crew member must remain on the helm with the outboard running.

            The reason for this is because a hooked cobia is lifetime guaranteed to do his best to put the pipe between you and him. You, and the helmsman, must be ready to immediately pursue the fish around the side of the pipe it has passed. That is why a second crew member shouldn’t make a cast into a school after a fish has been hooked, since one of Pete’s Laws dictates a second fish will run around the pipe on the side opposite that which the first one did. And that will result in a form of cockpit chaos which cannot be resolved successfully!

            Sound like fun? Then add to it the fact that the tackle normally employed is little more than redfish gear – a 6 1/2-foot medium or medium-heavy “pitching stick”, a reel similar to a 5500C, 20-pound line, and a couple of feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon for fray resistance – and then it becomes a real boot!

            While “pipes” are not limited to Louisiana’s West Delta area, at this writing six of them in and near Block 58 are the ones I am most familiar with. The “Inside Pipes” – a pair located about six miles just west of due south of the mouth of TigerPass – are long-time favorites and the site of many days of a half-dozen or more fish between two of us. The “Middle Pipes” (another pair) stand just northeast of the Block 58 platforms and are roughly seven miles on a 215-degree heading from the pass. The “Yellow Pipe” is west of the Block 58 platforms and about two-thirds of the way to the Block 61 platform. And just south and east of the Block 58 platforms stands “Pete’s Pipe”. No kidding! It earned that moniker through the capture of my erstwhile state-record fly-caught cobia there:41 1/2 pounds. That’s fitting – and flattering – but it is no more productive than any of the other five.

            On a clear day you can easily see them all from the Middle Pipes. They offer a run-and-hit circuit which seldom fails from June through September; that’s saying something, because these days my friends and I are usually fly fishing around them. And when cobia are on the surface, fly fishing for them is the most fun of all. But it’s also an entirely different story.

            Still, it would be a story with the same theme: the great action these pipes create. Oh yes, those multi-legged steel giants will continue to beckon offshore anglers, and they will assuredly make for some great days of “rig-fishing”. But if you happen to pass a structure on your way to them which appears like a lonely sentinel, you would be well advised to stop for a moment and prospect the waters around it. You may discover you don’t need to go any further.

(Tide 7-1999)

 

5-16-2013

Louisiana’s Ever-changing Speck Structure

            Understanding how the changes in our bay-bottoms effect the positioning of specks will lead to more of them in your ice chest.

 Fly Guy L

            It is said that nothing ever stays the same. Well, I’m not so sure about that. The wind still whistles when the weather wizards say it won’t, the weeds continue to take over my backyard every February, and Jack Daniels tastes every bit as good today as it did 40 years ago. But when it comes to benthic speck structure – that which is of or occurring at the bottom of a body of water, it is oh so true. Take a certain little oyster bed I relied on for unfailing action over many, many years.

            It was roughly the size and shape of a football field, and the water’s depth throughout it was a relatively consistent 4 feet msl. Usually I entered it through the south “end zone”, and the fish were almost always found beyond the 50-yeard line and within the right (east) half of the field. And that’s where I expected to find them on my first trip of the year some time back. However, on that day (And on two subsequent days!) there wasn’t a fish on the playing field! They were beyond the north end zone – totally outside the markers defining the bedding grounds – in an area I had often tried in the past without any success whatsoever!

            It was understandable that I could have blundered onto a stray school of fish one day, but not on three straight trips! That, along with the complete absence of fish where they should have been, led to the realization that something had changed.        

            The obvious reason why the fish were no longer in their time-honored spot was that the oyster fisherman had dredged the bed since my last trip there, removing the structure which the fish had held to for so long. Why, then, were they schooled up in the same spot outside the bed on three separate occasions? Who knows, but something must have certainly been there – a small hill or even an accumulation of oysters which were bedded outside of the staked area – which has attracted and held the specks.

            The point is, oyster beds are common across the coast, they are popular and productive structure, and they are quite subject to change! It is very possible that one day you will discover one of those long-time honey-holes of yours is devoid of specks. When that occurs, don’t lose heart; look around. The absence of what was once the primary structure in the area may cause the fish to be attracted to “secondary” structure nearby.

            One of the most notable instances I have witnessed of that happening was in the area surrounding “Hell Hole #1” – a derelict petroleum facility in one of the bays behind Buras and once a fish-magnet of the first order. The reason for its productivity was the bay-bottom surrounding it was covered with oil-field scrap-iron odds and ends, upon which grew oysters and provided neat cover for a plethora of baitfish. The reason for its name was that it was therefore home to some very big fish – specks and reds alike – which upon being hooked would dive into the “structure” and almost always cut the line. Still, if you could keep the reds away you could usually manage to box a mess of very creditable specks there – and very occasionally on the nearby oyster beds.

            Eventually the platform’s owner cleaned all that wonderful junk off the bay-bottom around it. Afterwards the only fish I encountered there were sheepshead and an occasional rat red. The big reds had long since scattered, and the specks also moved away, though only to the oyster beds. Yeah, I guess cleaning up the bay-bottom was the right thing to do, but it sure messed up a great spot in this case! Anyway, I seldom fished “Hell Hole #1” proper from that point until the platform itself was removed a few years later, but I regularly caught fish over the nearby bedded oysters which were once secondary structure but became primary in that particular area.

            Good fish-attracting forms of benthic structure can be added as well as removed. Still, for you to be able to locate it, you must be fairly familiar with a given area. On a particular winter trip to an early-season hotspot I noticed one of the previous year’s storms had blown away a derelict fishing camp that had been around for many years. In its pre-storm condition it had been a consistent producer of nice specks, though most often it gave up only a few of them at a time. Now only the pilings remained, and as we passed by I made a mental note that one day soon I should try to locate the rest of it.

            A couple of weeks later on another run to that early-season hotspot, we found the water there dirty, so we headed back to the inside bays where it was still quite clear, and eventually we speculated the old camp. There – in one very specific area on one side of it – we quickly caught almost 20 very nice specks. Jigs lost to “snags” well away from the pilings clearly indicated the fish were holding over part of the camp that had been deposited on bottom by the storm, and all the while we were catching them, we were joking as to whether we were fishing in the kitchen or the bedroom!

            Besides oysters and man-made debris, benthic speck structure can consist of natural phenomena. One which is common across much of the state is the result of coastal erosion: submerged flats, points, and hills which were marsh not long ago. To find these it again helps greatly to have been familiar with the area before the loss took place, but it is not absolutely necessary.

            My good friend, Capt. Bubby Rodriguez, and I were once fishing a small bedding ground along the edge of what was once a large bay and what is now an even larger bay – and very shallow in places where there was once marsh. A boat approached us, showed consideration by slowing to break his wake as he passed us some 100 yards distant, and then got up on the squat – not the “step” – and proceeded directly toward a long submerged point which he apparently didn’t know existed. I casually mentioned to Bubby that the ole boy wouldn’t go much further on that heading. He didn’t.

            Now I am certainly not recommending you use your lower unit to locate this form of structure! Nevertheless, if you accidentally discover it that way – or better yet, if you notice the lighter hue the water takes on when it is shallow – and slow down to take a look, then you may have found a promising spot. However, either way you will initially be faced with some considerations as to how and where to fish it.

            First of all, you should define its perimeter, and I must say that in dong so you may spook every fish around. Sure, work the spot while you are learning it, but consider this an investment for future trips.

            If there are oyster-lease stakes in close proximity to the high spot, they can be used as easily-recognizable reference points. If there aren’t any, then use your compass and distant features – camps, tank batteries, tree-lines, grass islands, and the like – to establish the limits of the structure and the directions their edges follow. Let’s use the ole boy who grounded his boat on the long submerged point as an illustration of how to do it.

            Just before he realized that the bottom had suddenly gotten awfully close to the top, he was in about 4 feet of water. At that particular tide – normal low rising with around a foot of range – the place where he hit it is about a foot deep. Once he fought his way back to the deeper water, he should have killed his outboard, dropped the trolling motor, and begun to make his way along the edge of the point, casting ahead of him into the deeper water if he so chose but mainly establishing the direction which the drop-off on that side of the point ran.

            Following the drop-off, which is easily determined in those tidal conditions in reasonably clear water, he could then establish the limits of the point. If there were oyster-lease stakes nearby (Which there are on that side of the point), he could use them as references, ie. the point’s northern drop-off roughly parallels that line of stakes over there, lies about 40 feet due south of them, and ends around 100 feet south of those two stakes which are planted in such a manner as they form a tight “vee”.

            Now he should cross the end of the point and locate and follow its southern drop-off, noticing that it runs almost directly toward a small grass island. Here, he will discover the water south of the point is only around three feet deep and appears to be a broad flat. Here and there he might notice scattered clusters of shells and oysters on it. Finally, he would reach the base of the point where it merges into a very shallow flat: once the marsh of which the point was a part. From there he could look back to the north – where he grounded his boat – and notice that the point is about 100 yards wide, runs about 200 yards east and west, and tapers to a width of about 50 yards at its end. Of course, if no oyster-lease stakes are present, then that determination is a tad more difficult.

            But it is still no big deal. Along the edges of the bays and tidal cuts across the coast are many crab-traps, discarded by shrimpers who caught them in their nets and are lost to their owners. Along with them are their floats which can serve as excellent markers to you while remaining quite insignificant to your counterparts; after all, they are only crab-trap floats! And in using them to mark the perimeter of the point – the strike zone, you are not really littering but making good use of litter which is already present. Should you discover some of those castaway traps, remove the floats, tie them to about 6 feet of stout nylon line, and tie the other end to something like a sash-cord weight. Four should be enough – two on each side of the spot you intend to mark, and set them on the edge of the shallows so that shrimpers won’t catch them in their nets. No one but you will know their true purpose.

            Okay, you have defined the extent of the point, hill, or whatever bottom structure you have discovered, and now you are on your next trip there. The water is again clear, the weather is nice with a light easterly breeze, and the tide is about the same as it was when you scouted your new-found spot. Now, where and how do you fish it? Let’s use the point again as an illustration.

            On normal tides I will idle up to the north side of its base, kill and tilt up the outboard, and use the trolling motor to cross the point; approaching it from the south might spook any fish on the flats, which on all but high tides is the best area for specks. Once I have reached the deeper water of the flats, I drift with the east breeze parallel to the point’s southern edge and about 20 yards distant, casting to the point’s drop-off as well as prospecting the flat ahead of me. Again, most often the specks will be near the edge of the point, and in this particular stage of the tide – normal low and rising a foot or more – that is true with all types of this form of structure.

            On high tides I simply stop my trolling-motor approach about half-way across the base of the point and drift along atop it. And I’ll tell you this: when you work a high spot on the bay-bottom like that one on a high tide and don’t use a surface lure, then shame on you!

            On the day the ole boy grounded his boat – a normal-tide day, Bubby and I waited for the turmoil to subside, then crossed the point and worked the flat adjacent to it and caught about two dozen very nice specks on straight-up jigs. A week or so later and on a very high tide, we returned to catch 42 to almost 4 pounds on top of the point using Top Dogs and fly-rod poppers. When it comes to this kind of structure, let the tide tell you where and how to fish it.

            Another way to find benthic structure which may hold specks is to pay attention to any “Pipeline Crossing” signs you may come across. You can bet your last cocahoe that when they were erected, they stood on the shoreline of whatever body of water the pipeline crossed. Those you now see standing “out in the middle of the bay” are clear indications that the marsh once extended out to them, and the old drop-off from the grass into the bay should still be somewhere nearby. The factors which apply to working the submerged points and hills are identical here.

            Always approach a pipeline sign on the side which you are supposed to read. The deep water will be on that side; behind it will be the shallows – the erstwhile marsh. The drop-off – which is the strike zone on normal tides – will probably be on an imaginary line roughly paralleling the plane of the sign. Find a spot like this – and there are plenty of them – and I’ll guarantee everyone who passes you will think you are a rank rookie, fishing “out in the middle of the bay”, but I’ll also guarantee you will often have the last laugh on them!

            One last note. Many of those old shoreline drop-offs – no matter if they are the edges of a submerged point, hill, or the once-upon-a-time bank near a pipeline sign – are not as steep as they were when they supported grass, having been eroded into gradual slopes by wave-action. In being so they may not appear to be worthwhile structure. Don’t you believe it! In periods of low to normal tides specks will feed along them just like they did in the days when the marsh was present there and the drop-offs were sharp. That, at least, is one thing concerning benthic speck structure which has remained the same since I began fishing it in Louisiana over 40 years ago.

(Game & Fish Publications 8-2000)

 

12-4-2012

Pier-fishing 201

            Greater profits can be gained from this market by trading more effectively.

 

             Throughout much of my adult life piers have contributed greatly to the net worth of my freezer’s contents during winter. Until quite recently, though, those assets were almost always acquired after dark and from specks. However, last winter some market studies (i.e. fishing trips) resulted in previously unrealized profits in (A) the sources of the aforementioned assets (i.e. fillets), (B) the time in which the sources of said assets were most profitably traded (i.e. caught), and the practices (i.e. patterns) that were involved in gaining those profits. And I avow 

 that if someone ever accuses you of utilizing insider information by applying the following data to your trading in this market, those accusations will be coming from someone who wasn’t paying any attention to this!

            I wouldn’t say it all began on that raw Christmas Eve afternoon, 2004, but the day’s miserable weather played an important part of it – thick clouds spitting sleet, 37 degrees, and a rather brisk 15-knot northerly with conditions forecast to deteriorate. On a whim – perhaps just to see if I still “had it” – I bundled up, unlimbered a casting rod, and armed with a small box of light jigs drove over to a nearby marina. There, while walking along two of its five piers, I jigged up eight reds in the short time before I began fearing for my freezing fingers! Granted, most of the fish were rats, but catching them sure beat the heck out of staying home watching Molly Poly vs Timid Tech in the Hardhead Bowl on TV!

            The next day a major snowstorm smothered much of southeastern Louisiana, creating absurd conditions for the annual drive from the Delta to Lafayette to celebrate Christmas with the kids and grandsons. And I must confess that because of all the detours due to the snow and iced-up roads, I saw parts of Louisiana I had never seen before and devoutly pray I will never see again! But all that aside, we made it there and back again alive, and on the 29th with the sun out and the temperature at a balmy 63 degrees I sortied to the marina again. There, during bright midday, I sacked two frying-sized flounders and released a half-dozen reds!

            By that time it had become obvious that reds and flounders, at least, could be caught from piers during winter’s daylight hours. Admittedly, that’s about all my market research revealed on that nasty Christmas Eve afternoon (Except that “The Stupid Factor” – a lifelong malady that led to such extreme behavior – still ran freely through my blood.). However, the trip on the 29th resulted in some very profitable data.

            That was based on an adjustment of sorts that I had made a while back to my night-time trading practices. Historically, those were to initially cast a fairly light jig across the edges of a pier’s lighted water, then allow it to sink near bottom, and then to slowly retrieve it – a very profitable practice. Still, there had been times when trading was slow, and some very interesting commotion was taking place in the dark water directly beneath the pier, even on some pretty cold nights. Eventually the racket demanded my normal practice to be adjusted to vertically jigging right alongside the piers. And throughout last winter that technique turned out to be at least as profitable as casting, and it even produced fish in the darker water some distance from the lights’ glow!

            The “very profitable data” I acquired on 29 December 2004 was the result of deep vertical jigging, “deep” being about six feet: most fish were caught along the shaded side of the pier, not on the sunlit side where the water might have been a tad bit warmer. And the “shaded side” part of future trading became a steadfast procedure – at least when it pertained to reds and flounders.

            Nevertheless, initially there was a minor glitch in the program. If I walked along a pier in a certain direction, my shadow would pass over the water I intended to speculate before I could trade. I have no clue whether or not the fish noticed my shadow’s movement and were turned off by it, but when I fished in water that had just been effected by my shadow, I didn’t catch anything! A much more profitable procedure was to walk past the part of the pier where I intended to trade in such a manner as to keep my shadow off the water, then retracing my steps while I traded. This kept my shadow behind me – and I caught fish like that.

            So the fish were holding to the shaded side of the piers. This led to the thought that visibility near bottom there might be quite limited, even though the water was quite clear throughout most of the entire trading period. That soon inspired the idea that profits might be increased by enhancing the lure in such a way that would allow the fish to detect it more easily. With natural baits being an unacceptable option, I shortly made a raid on my ultralight freshwater box and procured a couple of 1/8-ounce lipless crankbaits with rattles.

            And I am pleased to report that I caught a fair number of rat reds and frying-sized flounders on them while vertically jigging them with short, sharp jerks along the shaded edges of the piers (And, incidentally, at night!). But I was not at all impressed with their profit margins, as they cost much more than my jigs did, and I soon lost both of them to bottom rubble. Still, FYI vertically jigging a “Tiny ‘Trap” along a pier does work during winter!

            That said, the realization that a rattling jig should be much more profitable than a silent one (Or a ‘Trap) soon arose. So did a rather hostile bid: how to make the jig rattle. Nevertheless, the buyout was thwarted after I had destroyed only a meager handful of heads and various grubs while attempting the modification, and I was quite happy with the results.

            There are three important factors in the light-weight rattling jig. The first is a 1/8-ounce round jig-head with a size 1/0 short-shank hook. This is threaded through a 3-inch shad-type grub (Clear chartreuse with glitter or pearl with a black back are good choices and are available, as are the jig-heads, at Wal-Mart.). The key is to thread the hook through the grub in such a way as to leave as much room as possible in the grub’s “belly”. And mind you, this only works effectively with a shad-type grub.

            The third factor leads to the equivalent of a stock-split. Drive over to your friendly Academy Sporting Goods store and purchase two cards of Excalibur EWR4 worm rattles. They run around $2.50 per card of 10, and you will need the extras, I promise! Back at home now, carefully insert a rattle, pointed end first, into the front of the grub as close to the bottom of the hook as possible (The grub’s deep belly allows this.). Push it firmly all the way into the grub, otherwise it will work its way out. Vertically jig it with slowly-paced short but sharp jerks just off bottom – day or night.

            Besides accounting for many more flounders than I ever caught from a pier during a single winter, the rattling jig produced numerous specks, including 2005’s largest. The day I caught that one some excessive computer work had just about driven me to the point where I was about to sell some bullish stock short and decided that before I crashed and burned I’d better take a break. Instead of heading for the local coffee and socializing shop, though, I took a casting rod over to the marina. And I avow that a short fishing (And “catching”) break is a much better cure for computer burn-out than coffee-shop socializing!

            Finally, I feel obliged to reveal that I eventually figured out a way to affix one of those rattles into a Clouser-type fly. The key to it was to use a size 1/0 hook with a shank long enough to accommodate it, yet still keep the fly’s dressing at a 3-inch maximum length. And I did catch a number of very nice specks and frying-sized flounders on those flies before the fish scattered with the warming weather – quite a treat!

            Pier-fishing was much better than normal for me last winter, especially after I made those modifications to my trading practices. Hope I’ll get to speculate them again this year – that’s a no-risk investment if there ever was one!

(Gulf Coast Fisherman – 1-2006)

 

9-8-2012

Advanced Trawl-boat Trechniques

 

            There’s more than one way to fish an offshore shrimper.

 

            One of the most exciting days I’ve ever had while fishing was spent chasing a particular offshore shrimp trawler. The results were nine blackfin tuna between 20 and 25 pounds, one of which I took on fly gear, along with the satisfaction of sharing our fortune with a local charterboat by alternating passes with him through the strike zone – “leap-frogging” each other, so to speak, as one of us hooked up and dropped back. Together we worked that trawler like a well-oiled and fine-tuned machine across almost four miles of Gulf – quite a heady experience!

            I’d imagine most of the Gulf coast’s offshore anglers have absorbed at least one magazine article on fishing the trawl-boats. I’d also imagine that those articles concerned them only while they were on anchor and culling their catch, “in effect creating the world’s finest chum line, drawing all sorts of pelagic predators to the boat’s stern where they can be caught with ease” yada, yada, yada. Well folks, an offshore shrimper would go broke pretty quick if all he did was sit on the hook and cull his catch! He has to fish, and while he is doing so he can generate action for the knowledgeable angler that is at least as good as what can arise in the “traditional” setting.

            And I must declare that in most cases the guys on the trawl-boats don’t have any problems at all with you fishing close to them while they are under way, provided you don’t interfere with their operation. Fact is, on several occasions I’ve gotten the impression that they view us as a superb form of comic entertainment! However, if you get some bad vibes from one of them, it’s best to leave that boat and go find another.

  An understanding of the rigging and procedures employed by these boats is necessary to get the best of the potential they offer. Generally, they pull three nets – two large working nets and a smaller “test trawl” – from outriggers extended from around amidships. The mouths of the nets – which are shaped like a flattened cone – are held open by large weighted wooden or aluminum “doors” which also serve to hold the net on the seafloor. Each net’s doors are attached to a bridle, and the main cable runs from that back through the outrigger to a winch. Finally, a “lazy line” is attached to the net’s “tail” – the part which collects the catch – in such a way that after the net has been retrieved and its doors are hanging from the end of the outrigger, the tail can be swung aboard, untied, and its contents dumped without having to bring the entire net aboard. Then the tail is re-tied and swung back overboard, the winch is released, and the net is returned to its fishing position on the seabed. Notably, all that usually takes place with the trawl-boat moving slowly ahead.

            Prior to electronic tracking devises – which now make it all much easier – once his nets were initially deployed, the trawler would take off on a particular compass heading. Every 15 to 20 minutes or so he would check the contents of his test trawl, which is much easier and quicker to retrieve and re-set than the big nets. If one stage of his “drag” resulted in a suitable number of shrimp, he would reverse his heading and make another pass through that stage of his course; if he didn’t he would simply continue along on his original heading.

            Now try to imagine this. Not considering the added effects of the test trawl, here are two large nets being dragged across the floor of the Gulf, scooping up anything and almost everything in their paths. Many of those creatures are small enough to either partially or completely pass through the nets’ meshes, “creating a chum line…” Well, you know the rest. Need I say that it does not take long for the trawler to pick up a host of predatory hitch-hikers that have discovered an easy meal. Not so incidentally, those fish will often stay with the boat – or with its nets while they are working – as long as it is either trawling or culling its catch!

            Obviously, it would be rather difficult to position a lure or bait just behind the nets as they are being pulled. However, fish – like the blackfins mentioned earlier – can be found alongside or beneath the trawler while he is under way, the result of earlier catch-culling.

            So, you should approach the boat from dead astern. The cables leading from the ends of the outriggers to the water and then to the nets will be obvious; the test trawl’s cable won’t be. Look for it running from a snatch-block midway or so down an outrigger. Once you have determined which one pulls the test trawl, advance towards the boat’s opposite quarter. For instance, if the test trawl runs from the starboard outrigger, your target area is the port quarter.

            Once in position you have two options. First, with little or no additional weight cast a dead bait (We used 4 to 6-inch menhaden) tightly against the trawler’s hull. Then idle back, always ensuring your boat remains between the nets’ cables, allowing the baits to sink and “drift” past the trawler’s stern like cull would do. This technique worked well with two men simultaneously working heavy casting rods on blackfins, though not unexpectedly, we did lose a few fish to the nets’ cables. However, when yellowfins are present – as they can be during the prime offshore shrimping time of early autumn, option number two is more appropriate.

            Here, upon having advanced to the trawler’s quarter, someone pitches a double-handful of chunked baitfish – the type is not all that important – towards the boat, ensuring it all lands in the water and not on his deck! At that point you slip your boat into neutral, and similarly-baited hooks on 50-pound trolling gear are tossed overboard and allowed to drift and sink with the chunks. One note here is to not tarry too long waiting for a strike. If fish are present they can eat all the free-floating chunks and return to the trawler very quickly! A wait of two to three minutes should be about max.

            On the day of the blackfins we used the casting technique while the charterboat chunked, and that time we fared the best. Not bragging; the point is that if one technique doesn’t work, try the other before leaving a promising trawler.

            There is an exception to that rule. Any time you are offshore, trawl-boats are around, and you are not single-minded in your efforts, keep an eye on them. When you see one with its nets’ doors having just appeared at the ends of the outriggers, get over there right now!

            As the nets are being winched toward the boat, the predators which have been following them also approach it, ending up near the surface all around the boat’s stern. As the nets’ tails are swung aboard, the throats of the nets remain in the water. There, and in the meshes above the water, by-catch creatures fall from it – or are plucked from it! – by the predators. No kidding! During the minutes it takes for the nets’ tails to be retrieved, dumped, re-tied, and re-set, the melee unfurling before you is something you must see to believe, so don’t waste any of that time!

            While many of the creatures which fall from or are plucked from the nets are still alive when they meet their fate, most are dead. I mention that because dead-drifting either a lure or a bait (Or a fly!) here is often more productive than working it. And on that note, I have reached the point where I simply must tell a tale.

            Five of us were chasing trawl-boats one sultry late-summer morning a few years back. Our targets were big crevalle jacks; our intention was to fly fish for them. Action, for the lack of a better word, was not long in coming.

            Trawlers were plentiful that morning, and the first one soon beckoned us with his suddenly-appearing doors. Upon reaching his stern we beheld the biggest gang of the biggest, baddest jacks I had ever seen. Pay attention now.

            Crewman number one advances to the bow, casts, hooks up, and moves to his left, allowing crewman number two to take his place. Hook-up number two ensues immediately, and so the progression goes until all five of us are solidly attached to jacks, all in the 20 to 25-pound class. The fact that we were fly fishing aside, can you imagine all the whooping, hollering, ducking, and dodging that went on for the next 15 minutes? I recall it being cockpit chaos of the highest order, and I’d bet those trawl-boat guys thought we were all nuts! Oh, we got all five fish, and after a short rest we hunted up another trawler who was just picking up his nets and did it all over again!

            And then there was the day some friends and I, on a single-minded effort that did not include chasing trawl-boats, came across one working in water way too shallow for much other than sharks and jacks. However, we eventually cut his wake and while doing so noticed a suspicious swirl within it. Upon investigation we discovered a sparse trail of by-catch emanating from the trawler – and I mean sparse! Nevertheless, a handful of enterprising jacks were patrolling it, occasionally rising to the surface to gently suck down some floating morsel. We soon decided we just had to catch one, single-mindedness or not, but they wouldn’t even look at a fly. So we finally dipped up a dead croaker, hooked it onto the fly, lobbed it at the next jack we saw, and caught him. And so what if it wasn’t really “fly fishing”!

            There are a lot of ways a Gulf coast shrimp trawler can provide you with action besides while he is sitting on anchor, culling his catch…

 

(Note: There are a few things to consider when working a trawler that is under way. First, and especially when approaching one that has just picked up his nets, check for a rope or cable trailing behind the boat and extending between the ends of the outriggers. I don’t know the purpose of this line, but if you cast across it and hook up, you must be able to lift it and pass your rod beneath it before the boat re-sets his nets. And once that process is begun, get well away from him.

            Also, if you foul-hook a lure or bait in net, on an outrigger, or on the boat itself, break it off. Do not try to move in close to retrieve it – that’s dangerous, and do not ask the trawler to slow down or stop for you. He’s working; you are playing.

            Finally, be friendly to the guys on the trawler. While I have never had an incident, I’ve heard some folks have, and I don’t like the idea of having bits and pieces of scrap-iron, lead, and such being thrown at me from a distance of 20 feet or less! Be nice; most of them are okay guys, provided you don’t interfere with their operation.)

(Salt Water Sportsman 9-2001)

 

7-31-2012

Dealing with Dusty Reds

            Sometimes redfish enter water so shallow that you might expect them to raise a dust cloud. Here’s how to catch them in this extreme environment.

 

            Having passed almost 50 years of avidly pursuing redfish, I have reached the conclusion that they are one of the most adaptable creatures to ever inhabit saltwater… or brackish water… or at times even freshwater. I have caught them in depths ranging from mere inches to almost 150 feet and on so many different artificial lures and natural baits that the largest tackle box presently available would not hold a single member of each type. Yet for all that generality, there has been a single factor that has governed my successes with them: first I had to find them.

            I fished for nearly a decade in waters widely acclaimed for their redfish population before I finally caught one. After that momentous event the reason for my previous dearth of action with them became all too apparent: I hadn’t been fishing for them in water that was shallow enough. And most often that is indeed the key to consistent action with inshore reds. However, at times “shallow” becomes pretty extreme. So what can you do when the normally productive flats lose so much water that they become almost dry?

            If any water at all remains on them, there are two viable options. In areas where the substrate is firm enough to permit wading, then do it! If it isn’t, then float it from paddle-craft like canoes and kayaks. Both of those can serve either as a means of primary transportation or can be shuttled to and from a given area in a larger craft.

            While “bay-boats” are very popular along the Gulf coast, a lot of folks have recently begun using “Florida flats boats” to pursue ultra-shallow reds. Favored types are 16 feet long, weigh in the neighborhood of 500 pounds, and are adequately powered by outboards in the 60-hp range. They are low to the water, will float on a heavy dew, and are easily push-poled – and are therefore quite stealthy. They are also a bit pricey, but should you desire to take your dusty redfishing to extremes, they are a very worthwhile consideration. Whatever, the following tactics apply to them as well as to paddle-craft and larger craft, and I feel the need to reveal that both wading and paddle-craft have provided the means for several thousand of the reds I have caught over the years! Not bragging, y’all, just fact!

            Redfish can frequently be found in water that does not completely cover them, allowing their dorsal fins and even part of their backs to become exposed. These fish, appearing to be in some danger of sunburn, are occasionally referred to as “crawlers”, and while they create an easy solution to the “First you have to find them” problem, catching them usually requires a few considerations.

            “Dusty” areas are often created during a day’s meteorological low tide alongside grass shorelines that have been eroded by wave-action, creating shelves of sorts. This form of structure extends from the present grassline to a drop-off into slightly deeper water – water where bay-boats and the like can be propelled by a bow-mounted trolling motor. Reds commonly move from the adjacent deeper water to the top of those shelves to feed, and in doing so their dorsal extremities can become exposed.

            So you come upon one in such a setting, toss your trusty half-ounce gold spoon at it, and watch in shock as the fish’s hasty departure from the shelf renders the water atop it into the semblance of Farmer Brown’s plowed-up cotton field and sends every bird within fifty yards aloft squawking in alarm!

            Dusty reds are skittish, son! The pulses emitted from a boat moving along a little too fast may not spook them, but it will raise their warning flags. So will the shadow of a lure passing overhead, and the impact of a heavy lure anywhere near them is likely as not to send them scurrying! When reds are found in water this shallow, stealth is paramount, and the use of lures that are much smaller than those normally considered for these fish is almost mandatory. The old favorite half-ounce gold spoon usually won’t cut it here!

            I have caught more dusty reds on fly rod poppers than on all other artificial enticers combined. That point being made, my conventional-fishing favorite is a one-eighth ounce buzz-bait, and I must declare that favoritism was founded at the time these lures were introduced for the bass-fishing market and remains to this day. During that period I have discovered nothing that will beat it when it is dressed with a 2 ½-inch grub in lieu of a skirt. Cast it across the fish’s track and reel it slowly across the surface at a slight angle away from the fish, not approaching it!

            Of course, there will always be days when even the best won’t do the job. Those require a bit more finesse – a 2 ½ or 3-inch grub rigged weedless on an offset worm-hook and without any other hardware. Toss it five or six feet ahead of a fish, let it rest on bottom as the fish approaches it, and then give it a few slight twitches. Need I say that is exciting stuff when the water is clear enough to watch it all happen!

            Still, dusty reds can be found in places where neither of those lures are very effective. One in particular is a rather wide opening in an expanse of submergent grass. On low tides the grass forms into mats, and those can combine with the shallow water to prevent the boat from getting near enough to the opening to allow an angler to work it effectively with artificial lures.

            An alternative is to suspend a single hook no more than a foot beneath a small popping cork, bait it with a medium-sized shrimp (If that’s a bit ripe, all the better!), toss it as far into the opening as you can, and wait. Do not pop the cork! The fish will find the bait by scent alone – or they won’t, and after 20 minutes or so without a bite you should get the idea that it’s about time to try something else. But do give it a little time to work.

            On the bottom end of a really low and still falling tide – when flats and shoreline shelves actually are dry – a good pattern is to locate a cut that still has water flowing out of it from interior areas. These can be quite small and with little current now, yet they can still carry prey into water adjacent to their mouths that remains deep enough for prowling reds.

            Approach these spots with the trolling motor set on “slow” for at least the final 40 yards. These fish will be in water deep enough to prevent them from being truly dusty, but the confining banks adjacent to the mouths of these little cuts can cause the fish to be quite uneasy. In other words, even though they are there to feed, they are not “happy fish”!

            But they are catchable. Resist the common urge to make the first cast or two directly up the cut. Rather, quietly move the boat to a point near the bank 20 yards or so from the cut’s mouth, further if shells are present near it. Since prey typically disperses along the banks as it exits the cuts, this will present the lure to any fish that have moved to the adjacent water in pursuit.

            In this setting a small spinnerbait is a fine choice. For years I have created my own using a #3 ½ gold Hildebrandt safety-pin spinner fastened to a 1/8-ounce jig-head that is dressed with a 2 ½-inch shad-type grub. It is best worked here with a fairly slow retrieve with short pauses just below the surface. And always keep an eye out for a crawler along the edge of the nearby dirt – a common occurrence here.

            Realizing it is still summer and a long time before any significant cold fronts again effect the Gulf Coast, I feel obliged to make one final point. During the depths of winter when high barometric pressure combined with offshore winds cause the flats and shelves to become as dusty as they will ever be, reds can still be found on or near them. The key here is to target them on the day the tide begins a rise that will eventually flood these spots, even marginally. I have often been quite comfortably attired in four layers of clothes topped by insulated coveralls and caught reds in water barely deep enough to float them – fish not actually crawling, but close to it! Remember that next winter as a screaming norther begins to subside and the tide is forecast to begin to rise. But whatever the season, don’t be hesitant to fish for reds in and around the dusty spots. Those are the buffet tables for lots of them!

(Game & Fish Publications 4-2006)

 

6-18-12

Breakwater Bonanza

                                                                                        

       

            My first speck was caught off a breakwater – so was the biggest one I have ever seen alive! My largest redfish – and my biggest fly-caught king mackerel, both at 36 pounds – were also the products of this type of structure, as was my second-biggest flounder.  And my largest ladyfish, my largest fly-caught Spanish mack, and two of my first three encounters with tarpon! See where I’m headed?              

            Breakwaters – call them jetties, moles, seawalls, or whatever else you so choose – are without a doubt one of the most consistently-productive forms of structure found along the Gulf coast, and that applies to a variety of popular species. They are built to deter silting near the mouths of major shipping channels, to shelter docking areas from wave-action, and to protect vulnerable shorelines from erosion by that same force. And wherever they are found – no matter if that is inshore or extending into offshore waters – they draw fish like magnets!

            That is at least in part because they are different, and anything “different” along our rather featureless coast will sooner or later draw both prey and predators. Most are created from large boulders, pre-formed concrete blocks, or a combination thereof, and virtually all of them shortly become covered to some extent with algae which provides nourishment for several of the prey species. Also, those that were built at least in part with boulders have plenty of little nooks and crannies across their faces that offer those creatures some degree of shelter. Many forms of prey that manage to locate a breakwater will hang around it for some time – unless they are driven from it and eaten by some beastie! The presence of others draws and holds the predators nearby.

            Although some of these structures are created with a smooth walkway along their lengths for access by foot, usually the most efficient way to fish them is from a boat. Then too, techniques that are best for inshore breakwaters vary from those that are preferred for the “offshore” type since, in effect, these structures are quite different.

            The inshore versions are, as a rule, the shorter of the two types. The depth of the water on one side of them often varies greatly from that on the other side, and although fish of several species can occasionally be taken from both sides – or “faces” – of these structures, one is usually much more productive than the other. Generally, that is the “outside” face – the one that receives and breaks the waves. It may not be the deepest side, but it will be the one where most fish are usually caught.

            The faces of breakwaters that have been created at least in part with boulders tend to slope – a requirement for their construction. Therefore such a structure is wider at its base than it is at its waterline and above. This creates fish-holding habitat that is further from the part of the breakwater that is visible (And therefore most commonly prospected), which is near its waterline. So the most effective way of working this type of structure is to cover as much of that outside face as possible.

            This is usually best done by making a cast at an angle towards the exposed rocks. Initially the retrieve should be fast enough to prevent the lure from fouling, but it should be gradually slowed somewhat as the lure is drawn away, allowing the lure to sink with the deepening water. This procedure will cover both the water column and the structure’s face. Quarter-ounce or 3/8-ounce jigs serve this purpose well; offer them either straight-up or with a little ”sweetener” at your discretion. However, at times – like when the water off the structure’s most promising face is not very deep – a popping rig might be a better choice.

            Inshore breakwaters – especially the smaller ones – tend to suffer from neglect. Subsidence can be a result, and that allows water to pass over the top of the structure in places where it sags. During periods of moderate to strong tidal movement the current passing across or through those low spots can concentrate prey on their down-current sides. Any spot where there is water flowing across the top of a breakwater should be thoroughly prospected, the edges of the flow being the prime target area.

            Likewise, the points where such structures once met a bank can wash out over time, allowing current to flow through a gap there, and of course, the end of any breakwater that extends outward into a bay or such will at times have prey-gathering current passing around it. There, they commonly draw such roaming species as specks and Spanish macks, while the washouts around one’s base attract home-boys like flounder and redfish. For sure, your favorite inshore fish can be found along any point of a breakwater, but the odds of catching some increase greatly with the presence of something different in the surrounding area! Got that?

          

 

           The same goes with offshore breakwaters. Here a small-boat angler has a very realistic opportunity to tangle with large pelagic bruisers like crevalle jacks, king mackerel, cobia, and even tarpon. Because of that potential, he should use gear somewhat stouter than what would normally suffice inshore.

            As is the case with inshore breakwaters, anything different along one extending offshore tends to concentrate fish. However, these spots may be some distance apart and not as obvious as some that grace the inshore varieties. One of the best ways to locate these little “sweet spots” is to prospect for them by trolling.

            A pair of 6 ½ or 7-foot two-handed casting rods with heavy butts and quick tips have proven to be unbeatable in this setting; conventional reels with a capacity of around 300 yards of 20-pound mono are appropriate. Any less and if you are a bit slow at the helm, you or a boat-mate are likely to get dumped – your reel is, anyway! A friend with a less-than-adequate supply almost freaked out when that happened to him one day with a big king mackerel. How do I know it was a king? Because the fish stopped just as the line tightened against the knot that tied it to the spool! Close, huh?

            Anyway, two outfits are plenty. Rig them both with about five feet of 60-pound single-strand wire. One end of it should be finished with a Haywire Twist for attaching it to the line with a black 90-pound ball-bearing snap-swivel; the other should be looped to a CD 12 or CD 18 Magnum Rapala with another Haywire Twist. At about three knots set one lure back to a 10-second count and the other right at the point where the swivel is barely visible above the water’s surface. That one will be close – right in the wheel-wash – but that’s the king mackerel lure!

            Troll a moderate zig-zag pattern with its mid-point some 30 to 40 feet outside of the structure, provided that sea conditions allow it. Upon a strike immediately make note of any obvious feature on the breakwater nearby that can be used as a reference point for a follow-up trolling pass or two. These “landmarks” can range from a particularly large or odd-shaped boulder to an eye-catching “painting” courtesy of the gulls and pelicans. Return to it – lures deployed – as soon as you can!

            Some folks don’t particularly care for trolling. If the ocean’s hills and gullies are small enough, you can effectively work an offshore breakwater’s outside face with trolling-motor power. Cast to it like you would to an inshore version with a 3/8 or ½-ounce jig, which should be retrieved in the same manner. Here I have used a 6 ½-foot medium-heavy “pitching stick” and a conventional reel loaded with 200 yards of 20-pound mono with good results, though my short 50-pound fluorocarbon leader has been snipped on occasion by mack-teeth. I choose to live with that, since I’m not especially fond of casting wire. Your call there.

            Jigs worked along the outside face of an offshore breakwater can result in some very entertaining, if not particularly unusual, catches. I have tallied seven species in one morning by doing just that, and while several of them weren’t fit for a skillet, they sure put a nice bend in that rather heavy rod that I normally use. Some of them made my reel squall pretty loudly, too! While casting, use the same “landmark techniques” that were recommended for trolling tactics, and you just might find a school of redfish – among others – like I did one early autumn day a while back. There were so many that were so willing that catching them became almost obscene, even though almost all were released! Know why? Because they were too big to be fit to eat!

            The bonanza you can discover around a breakwater – inshore and offshore alike – can lead to all sorts of stuff like that! Plenty of skillet-material, too! Get yourself some of it!

(Game & Fish Publications 8-2006)

    

 

5-13-12

Techniques for Offshore Specks

 

            For once my persistence (a.k.a. bullheadedness) at fly fishing for West Delta’s cobia and tripletail had been tempered by a back-up plan. Those favored fish had recently been a little scarce, but specks, on the other hand, had been plentiful around the wells in the Block 27 field. They were the reason my boat – normally loaded with only fly-fishing gear during summer – also bristled with light casting rods on that sultry June morning.

            Nevertheless the crew, consisting of Dave Ballay and Capt. Bubby Rodriguez, and I had every intention of seeking out the primary targets along a drop-dead gorgeous rip which had been running through Blocks 30 and 58 for several days. And we cut it right on schedule, turned south, and began to work our way along it.

          And presently it led right into the center of a big and getting bigger squall!

            Fishing 10 miles out in the Gulf in a 20-foot bayboat demands a bit of discretion at times. That was one, and we quickly decided it would be prudent to change course and move off some distance to see which way the squall was heading. That sent us back toward shore where there was no cobia or tripletail structure but where there were the wells in the old Block 55 field – “the West Bay Rigs” – where it was reputed that specks were occasionally taken. So we decided to pass a little time there while we watched the progress of the squall.

            One of these days I’m going to learn to keep my mouth shut, and if I get lucky, it will appear that I really know my stuff. But true to form, on the way to the first well I mentioned I had never caught doodley-squat in this field. Then we tied off to the well and immediately initiated what would end up being a catch of 71 fine specks! Man, would I have ever shined if I had just kept quiet!

            Fishing Offshore structures in the Gulf is like that – boom or bust – and the reason more folks don’t fish here is that most of the times they did try were busts. Here, unless you get lucky like I did, you can’t just tie off to any ole well and spend the day expecting to catch your limit. You must prospect, and that means with your boat as well as with your lures.

            That is not to say some structures are not consistently more productive than others. Should you discover a big school of fish around one, make note of the platform’s designation or the well’s lease and number, both of which are found on signs posted on the structure, or simply drop a way-point there on your GPS unit. You may have found a spot that will produce these fish for years.

            I have no clue as to why one well in the Block 27 field (“The Sandy Point Rigs”) gave up specks on a regular basis for 30 years, yet a duplicate not 50 yards from it never produced a fish! And there is no real need to speculate, since if there was some sort of anomaly around the productive well, I would have to make a dive to discover it and then dive around other wells to see if something similar was present. No thank you! I’ll do my “looking” with a casting rod, and I strongly suggest you do the same. Keep prospecting; you’ll find ‘em!

            While specks occasionally hold to the up-current side of a structure, working them most effectively there demands either maintaining position with a trolling motor – which is a royal pain in the posterior in current – or anchoring. Since most nearshore oil and gas fields are fairly old, their wells have typically undergone considerable remedial work, during which an occasional odd-and-end piece of equipment inadvertently ended up on the floor of the Gulf nearby, just waiting to snag an anchor. It’s usually best to tie the boat off on a down-current corner of the structure, cast beyond it to the up-current side, and retrieve the lure alongside it.

            There are a few pointers about securing a boat to these structures, especially the wells, that need to be made to those of you who have done all of your previous speck fishing inshore. First, never let the securing device or the boat come in contact with anything that appears to be a part of the well itself. Look for something on the well’s cribbing (A cage-like structure that surrounds and protects the well.) that will be easy to attach and release whatever you use. And do not climb onto the cribbing; that is both trespassing and more than a little dangerous!

            For securing purposes, lots of locals use a “rig hook”: a length of 1-inch aluminum pipe fashioned just like a fishhook with an extra-long shank and with the anchor rope tied to the hook’s eye. It is placed on any horizontal member of a cribbing or a platform, and it is quite functional and quick to attach and release. However, it is also a long and cumbersome addition to everything else you carry in your boat.

            I prefer to toss the anchor rope over a horizontal beam using a shackle for weight, then retrieve the dangling end with a long-handle gaff and tie it to a bit. I do not recommend throwing a loop around any of the bits you might notice on a structure, since that can be difficult to retrieve should you need to get away in a hurry.

            In most cases specks will be found near bottom. Since the water in many of the productive nearshore fields ranges in depth from roughly 15 to 25 feet, 3/8 or ½-ounce jig heads are recommended; dress them with either purple, chartreuse, or your favorite color soft-plastic. A slow retrieve with short, easy pumps works well.

            At least it does when the specks are reasonably active. At times they aren’t, and artificial lures produce little more than casting practice. That’s when it’s time to break out the bait.

            Fact is, live bait almost always outfishes artificials in this setting, both in numbers and in size. Mullet, menhaden, killifish (cocahoes), croakers, and big white shrimp all have their advocates, though mullet and shrimp in the 5 to 6-inch class are awfully hard to beat. My young friend, Capt. Brandon Ballay, took one over 8 pounds on a mullet in the West Delta Block 27 field a while back. Mercy!

            There are two time-proven and quite basic ways to rig live bait for offshore specks. The simplest applies to the finfish and involves the same 3/8 or ½-ounce jig-head – or one a bit heavier if the current demands it: remove the soft-plastic and hook the fish through the lips so that it rides upright in the water.

            The big shrimp are best worked on a fishfinder rig: a ½ to 1-ounce egg sinker threaded onto the line which is then tied to a #3 black swivel, 2 feet of clear-green 30-pound mono leader, and a #4 treble hook. The shrimp is hooked through the rostral keel. I’ve seen some eye-opening specks taken on this rig, but personally I’d rather see shrimp that big on the bar-b-cue pit and fish with mullet or croakers.

            Besides usually being found near bottom, specks can be quite localized around an offshore structure. On the trip with Dave and Bubby we did catch fish at three of the four structures we tried, but the most by far were taken from a down-current corner of the first well. And on a trip to Block 27 earlier that summer, every fish another friend and I caught came from a spot very close to one side of one well. Work these structures thoroughly and in such a manner that the lure will be as deep as possible as it is retrieved by a side or a corner. If you are prospecting for up-current fish while tied off on a structure’s down-current corner, long casts will be required to gain that end.

            While offshore speck fishing can be so fast and furious that limits are quickly taken, occasionally the action will come to an abrupt stop – or it will suddenly shift from action with specks to action with creatures that eat specks. The sudden presence of porpoises is lifetime guaranteed to end the festivities in a heartbeat, and crevalle jacks, especially, will occasionally crash the party, eating jigs as well as specks. When these events occur – and eventually they assuredly will – do a little prospecting around some other structures, but always return to the productive one a couple of hours later. Usually that’s more than enough time for the disrupters to have departed and the specks to have settled down and resumed their bite.

            And during summer – when it’s often quite difficult to amass enough speck fillets from interior areas to get a decent stink out of a skillet – they do bite offshore. Follow the patterns, and you’ll see!

         

Note

            While specks can assuredly be found around the structures in small nearshore oil and gas fields, bigger is usually better. Some of the best are West Delta 55 approximately 8 miles SSE of Tiger Pass and West Delta 27 some 4 miles WSW of Red Pass. The vast Bay Marchand Block 2 field lies just offshore of Port Fourchon. There are several fields just southwest of Marsh Island that are accessible from  Cypremort Point and Intracoastal City, and the West Cameron 45 and 48 fields begin some 14 miles WSW of the Cameron jetties.

         

Note

            If you have never fished in the ocean – for specks or anything else – you should always know what’s going on around you. Summer squalls build quickly, and there are no camps out in the Gulf like those that offer refuge in the marsh, so be ready to run to safe water quickly, and know your heading to it. Also, one of the field’s support vessels may need to perform work on the structure where you are enjoying fast action and must tie off to it where you have. Yes, that can be heartbreaking; just remember those folks are working – and it’s their structure. Move away quickly and without ire toward them.

(Salt Water Sportsman 6-2001)

 

             

 1-22-2012 

Flippin’ and Pitchin’ for Redfish

            Why in the world would someone consider using flipping and pitching techniques for redfish? Well, I’ll tell you…

            It all began quite unintentionally many springs ago on a particularly windy day while bass fishing in a canal in the Venice Dome oil field. Being prior to the advent of reliable electric trolling motors, I had to sit on the bow of my boat and scull with a short paddle from spot to spot in order to fish them. The wind finally reached the point where I was driven to the sheltered bank and forced to doodle my spinnerbait in the pockets along the shoreline grass right in front of the boat rather than cast to them. And I’ll tell you this: There’s an appreciable difference between sticking a 1 ½-pound bass and a 6-pound redfish when they strike just beneath the tip of your 5 ½-foot casting rod!

            Some years later I bought a bona fide flipping stick, though more for bull reds than for the bass that I was presently pursuing in some other canals. And I managed to catch several reds along with the bass there, too, flipping Texas-rigged motor oil worms to pockets in those shorelines. And I must declare that with 30-pound mono and the little reel’s drag screwed down to STOP!”, the ensuing facases with the spot-tails were quite lively – though as I would recall later, they were confined to rather short distances.

            And that is what led to my first practical application of the technique. Some outsized reds had taken up what appeared to be permanent residence around a wreck in a bay near Buras. Of course, there were also some smaller fish present, and those were usually not too difficult to wrest from the barnacle-and-oyster-encrusted structure with my normal casting gear. On the other hand, when one of the brutes took a liking to my offering, the ensuing contest was almost invariably one-sided in favor of the fish! Sure, I managed a few very respectable ones that had temporarily forgotten their escape plans, but the ratio of wins to losses wouldn’t get anyone into the play-offs! The thought of the flipping stick and the short-range battles with their favorable outcomes finally arose – perhaps I could successfully apply the same tactics to the beasts around the wreck.

            It turned out that I couldn’t – the fish were just too big and refused to come out a sufficient distance from their line-shredding structure for me to prevent them from regaining it. However, I did account for several less-brawny beasts, and each one – after being hooked at a distance less than 10 feet – was a boot in the butt!

            Now it so happened that I was occasionally having the same problem while fishing from the piers of the Buras Boat Harbor. That has been a fine escape for me from the time of Geraldo’s nighttime TV show way back when up until much more recently when I would just have to get away from the computer for an hour or so during the early afternoon. The technique was to walk along a pier, casting a short distance between the pilings or vertically jigging. Both patterns were effective for any specks, flounders, and grilling-sized reds that might be around, but occasionally something much larger would eat my small jigs, and there would be no way I could keep it from tearing around the pilings and shredding my line. So once again I reverted to the reliability of the flipping stick for strong-arm short-range work.

            And I am proud to say that the results were entirely favorable – except once. That was because not a double-digit redfish ate my grub but a 40-odd pound black drum did, and there is nothing you can do to keep one of those beasts from going wherever it wants to go for a while. In that particular case even a short while was far too long! Anyway, this is not about flipping for humongous black drum – or the 26-pound cat I once caught practicing the exercise along the edge of Sawdust Bend down South Pass. Be prepared! A flipped bait gets into spots where lures that have been cast don’t usually reach, and the inhabitants of such spots – no matter what their lineage might be – are not bashful about striking them!

            During virtually all of my redfish-directed flipping efforts, the lure I relied on has been a 4-inch curly-tail grub, Texas-rigged with a 1/16-ounce bullet weight and the hook’s point buried in the grub to render it as “snagless” as possible. Productive colors have ranged from motor oil to clear chartreuse with glitter to solid purple. The choice there seems to be personal; the main concern is getting whatever color you select in the face of a red.

            That is aided by the size of the bullet-weight – which is quite light for normal flipping purposes. That is desired because the overall tactic is best suited for fairly shallow water – up to six feet deep or so, and it sinks the grub slowly, allowing the fish time to grab it on the drop. And that’s something they are definitely prone to do, so maintain constant contact with the grub while it is sinking as well as during the retrieve.    Another part of my rigging that is a bit different from that of most freshwater aces is a short (Between four and six inches long) 50-pound fluorocarbon leader, attached to the line with a double overhand knot and upon which the bullet weight slides freely up and down. That provides increased fray resistance, since besides probable chafing from a big red’s teeth, you WILL be subjecting the grub and a bit of line to the wear and tear of oysters and other hazardous structure. If you aren’t, you won’t be catching many fish!

            And you won’t be needing to flip for them in the first place!

            “Pitching” is another technique from the bass-fishing playbook that has purpose for redfish. I recall an instance when it made all the difference between fishing and catching!

            The setting was a broad shallow flat that was lush with submergent vegetation. Fact is, it was choked with the stuff! However, there were plenty of redfish on that flat, too – we just couldn’t catch any of them because even short casts with buzzbaits and lightly-weighted grubs would usually become fouled after the first foot or so of the retrieve. It was aggravating to the max, but just about the time we’d vote to call it quits and try another spot, another pair or three reds would appear a short distance away.

            And they, too, would blow out in terror with the nearby impact of a one-eighth ounce buzzbait or an attack by a light grub that had become goobered up with grass!

            The solution required a very light and weedless lure presented very accurately at fairly short ranges. That’s something I cannot do with my normal casting gear, but my companion was armed with a stout little spinning outfit that day. The productive technique involved tying a freshwater worm hook – I believe it was a size 2/0 – directly to his line (A 30-pound braid), and then threading on a grub, finishing it in a “weedless” fashion. Then upon spotting a fish, my partner would make an easy underhand “pitch” at a point just in front of its nose. The underhand motion did not appear to alarm the fish as had previous overhead casts, and the un-weighted grub’s soft impact was often greeted with an immediate attack rather than a hasty retreat. I don’t know if that would officially qualify as “pitchin’” but it’s a technique that should be remembered!

            Finally, it seems appropriate that I relate the tale of “The Not-So-Ultimate Pitch”. A fly-fishing buddy and I were sight-fishing for reds on a big, shallow, and grassy flat when a fish obligingly waved its tail at us. My friend then began to push-pole us toward it as it kept beckoning us until the exact moment I was about to make my cast. Then it disappeared into the goop.

            So there we sat, my buddy with the push-pole spudded down and me with the fly rod in my right hand and the fly – a small popper – in my left and with a considerable amount of shooting line coiled on the deck. And there we waited for the fish to give us some sign of its location – which it refused to do!

            Finally – for no real reason – I happened to look down, and there was the fish laying in the grass right beneath my rod’s tip. There was no way I could have flipped a cast at it, as any rod-movement would have assuredly spooked it. So I did the next best thing – I “pitched” the popper at the fish with my left hand!

            Alas, the red still spooked, but it might not have. The point is, when other tactics aren’t working, try flippin’ and pitchin’ for redfish. The results may surprise you! 

(Game & Fish Publications 5-2007)

            

         

12-10-2011

Countdown for Specks

Don’t pass the winter wishing for spring’s fishing festivities. Tune up your depth recorder and start counting!

“… seven thousand, eight thousand, nine thousand, ten.”

I made a short, slow pump with the rod and felt an immediate response. A couple of minutes later a nice 1 ½-pound spotted seatrout – or “speck” – was flopping on the boat’s deck.

“This is what you’re after”, I chided my fishing buddy, Bruce, as I held up my eighth fish of the morning. “Are you going to contribute to the box or just soak up the sun?”

Bruce looked as much perplexed as he did annoyed. “Man, you’re waxing me”, he said. “I haven’t had a hit all morning. What are you doing, anyway?”

“You’ve got to let it sink to a ten-count, man. Looks like that’s what it takes to get these jigs down to them.”

Bruce watched with renewed interest as I made another cast parallel to the drop-off and glanced at the LCD recorder as the tandem-rigged jig/soft-plastic combos started to sink. We were in 23 feet of water in a pocket along the edge of the drop-off between the marsh and the Buras Canal. What was apparently a school of specks was lying 3 feet off bottom, and an occasional pod of baitfish, probably small menhaden, was passing by at about 15 feet. The ten-count appeared to be just enough to allow the lures to settle to 15 to 20 feet, and the specks were on the feed even though they wouldn’t rise above that depth to strike. I pumped the rod twice at a seven-count and made a 5-foot retrieve – nothing. Then I dropped the lure back for a four-count, adjusting for the lures’ rise during the retrieve, and immediately I was hooked up – as was Bruce, who had finally learned to count.

“Man”, he said as we admired a brace of 1 ½-pounders, “I’ve fished for specks down here for 20 years, but never this deep! They must be wall-to-wall down there!”

It was the third day after a ripping nor-wester had laced the coast, sending the temperatures plunging from the high 60’s to the low 40’s. The thermometer had read 48 degrees when we left the marina that morning, but it was sunny, and the wind had decreased to a northeasterly 10 knots. I found the fish after prospecting in only three other places – in a spot where I had never fished before.  The recorder really proved its worth that morning, for that 50-yard-long stretch of drop-off eventually produced an ice-chest full of some of the tastiest fillets around, and we released probably three fish for every one we kept!

Winter speck fishing can be a boom or bust affair, and knowing the fish’s likes and dislikes is almost essential in consistently catching them. Up until the end of December they can be found both over oyster beds in 3 to 5-foot depths and in the deep waters of the canal. However, during January and the first half of February the weather can become cold enough to send most of them deep. Then the search begins.

In 1974 a hurricane buffer zone was constructed from Empire to Venice by pumping river-sand into the marsh and building new, solid ground about a quarter-mile past the back protection levee. After this fill was pumped in, a canal was dredged along its edge to an average depth of some 40 feet. However, strong currents have severely altered it, and the canal now ranges from 12 to over 70 feet deep – and it is full of fish!

At the Venice end of the canal is Hospital Bay, a fairly large body of shallow flats, broken marsh, and an average depth of about 5 feet. The canal cuts across the north part of the bay and is almost impossible to find without a depth recorder. From late December well into February the specks can pile up here in the “hole”, as it is called, and the fishing can be phenomenal – if you can find them. Normally, the colder the water the tighter the fish bunch up, thus enhancing the “feast or famine” type of fishing this constitutes. Also, after some three or four days of warm weather, they can scatter and even move into the nearby bays, so chilly weather often leads to the best fishing.

Still, finding the fish can be difficult, almost impossible if you are without a depth recorder. These fish don’t necessarily hold to the deepest water in the canal, and there are many holes and pockets along the edge of the main drag that seem more attractive to them than the canal itself. Since most of the south bank of the canal is now eroded away and many of those pockets are quite small, it is virtually impossible to find them without a recorder. Use it to locate promising water and schools of bait, since you can waste a lot of time fishing for the “rough” species inhabiting the canal if you target the “fish-images” on the screen.

Some two weeks after the trip with Bruce another cold front sent the fish deep again, and I found a nice, tightly-grouped school – again suspended at about 20 feet – about 100 yards further down the canal. There was nothing in the spot where Bruce and I had caught them. The next day, back at the original spot on the onset of a warming trend, the fish went wild, but they still wouldn’t take a lure that wasn’t allowed to sink to a 10-count! Interestingly, they had moved into slightly deeper water but were still holding at around 20 feet. I kept 19 and released 34, all from a 20-yard stretch of the drop-off.

Three days later after another cold front had ripped across the Delta, an old college pal drove down for a badly-needed dose of medicinal fishing. Confident with the cold weather and my recent successes, we bundled up and headed out. After three hours of pounding the previously productive spots, we were fish-less. I even began prospecting the “speck-looking” images on the screen – to no avail. Feeling certain that the fish were still deep and that we just hadn’t found them, I used the trolling motor to follow the drop-off out into Hospital Bay. All along the south side of the canal, working our jigs in 20 to 35 feet of water, we graphed small pods of bait and occasional larger “somethings” but went strike-less. Then, mid-way across the bay, I decided to try the north side of the canal. With the recorder showing 25-foot depths and rapidly shallowing up the drop-off, my buddy had a fish. By the time I shut off the trolling motor, the boat’s bow was in 3 feet of water, so I eased down the anchor at that point and let the breeze drift us back over the productive depths. In the next hour we boxed 20 nice specks, a good redfish, and released at least as many fish as we kept. They were bunched up in an area no larger than the bed of a pick-up truck and again, 10-count deep. The medical treatment was a success, and my friend also had the bonus of some tasty treats to bring home to his wife. Three days later the fish were on the flats.

Deep-water winter speck fishing requires little but a suitable-sized boat, a depth recorder, and a light spinning or casting outfit. Twelve-pound line is sufficient for all but the largest black drum or red that might be encountered, but a short 20-pound mono leader is advised, since speck-teeth are abrasive and will fray the line after a few hook-ups. Soft-plastic minnow imitations in chartreuse with glitter, clear with silver flecks, or purple should be rigged in tandem on 1/8-ounce jig-heads with wide-gaped hooks, allowed to settle to different counts until the right depth is determined, and then retrieved slowly with short, easy pumps. Adding a drop of super glue to the keeper on the jig-head before threading on the plastic helps keep short-strikers from pulling it off and shredding it, and a small piece of shrimp on the jig may entice an extra red or two, but it is not normally worth the effort (Mess!) for specks. Delta Marina at Empire (504-657-9726), Joshua’s Marina in Buras (504-657-7632), and the Venice Marina (504-534-9357) offer immediate access to this area.

This is a great way to beat the winter blahs, folks. Bundle up, check out your depth recorder, and head for the Buras Canal. With a little bit of prospecting you have a very good chance of returning with some delicious fillets and a new-found enthusiasm for cold weather!

(Salt Water Sportsman 2-1988. First published article.)

 

8-20-2011

The Autumn Flounder Run

The best time of the year for catching these tasty fish is coming up. Here are some hints on how to amass a mess of ‘em.

The first fish acted just like a red: a solid thump and then a nice run across the shallow washout, using the current as a booster. But as I drew it toward the boat, a succession of small swirls indicated it was indeed not a red but a flounder, the targeted species of the day. It would not be the last!

It had been quite a while since I had made a trip specifically to catch flounders – too much fly fishing and too much “dog-walking” for the local specks and reds, I guess. But now it was autumn, and some of the best action with those two species had been requiring jigging. One really sweet spot – a small, deep pass near the Gulf with a broad, shallow washout through one bank – had also been giving up a handful of flounders each trip, so it wasn’t long before I decided it might be worth a directed effort. That first fish was a good start.

The “pattern” was to cast our lures directly across the washout, then immediately begin a retrieve fast enough to keep them off bottom as the current swept them across the shallows. Frequently the fish were visible as the momentum of their attacks carried them to the surface, and there was absolutely none of that tentativeness associated with their strikes – friends, those fish were aggressive! When the smoke had cleared and the dust had settled, 16 of them graced the cooler – whole-fryers, filleters, and stuffers! We’d have surely gotten our limit, too if my buddy would have quit making so many casts out into the pass, looking for specks!

Did you know that although virtually everyone who enjoys fish dinners rates flounders at or near the top of the list, only 3 % of all Gulf coast anglers actually target them? Did you know that southern flounders – the most common and largest-growing of the various flatfish inhabiting the northern Gulf – can happily exist in water with salinities ranging from 0ppt (Freshwater) to over 60ppt (Texas’ hyper-saline upper Laguna Madre)? Did you know that southern flounders spawn during late autumn in upwards of 150 feet of water in the open Gulf?

I learned that and a whole lot more about these fish by serving as the recreational fishing representative on a committee of the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission to help establish a Gulf-wide management plan for them. Here’s some of the scoop from that as well as from past experience.

Understanding the fish’s pattern of movement at this time is very beneficial in increasing one’s number of flounder dinners. Initially, they will be scattered – usually in singles – across their entire range, and as mentioned earlier, that can include coastal rivers well upstream of their mouths. In this stage they can be handily caught, as southern flounders are quite aggressive and feed actively as well as from ambush, but doing so usually demands covering a whole lot of water.

As autumn waxes, though, thoughts of flounder-sex begin to manifest themselves, and the fish begin a piecemeal and rather random movement towards the seashore. There, their numbers will increase to the point where the event is very similar to a “run”, giving anglers their best chance of the year for limits in the states with such regulations, fine catches in those without.

However, just because flounders congregate near the seashore prior to their offshore spawning migration does not mean they will be generally carpeting bottom in those waters. Areas with current – either from a coastal river or from tidal movement – are primary habitat at this time, and they can be divided into two simple categories, deep and shallow.

Deep habitat can consist of tidal cuts leading off a river’s deltaic passes, those passes themselves, man-made channels from a river into adjacent marshes near the Gulf, and cuts through the seashore which provide communications between interior bays and the Gulf. Good examples of deltaic areas are Mobile Bay and the Pass a l’Outre Wildlife Management Area. The two spillways dredged through the west bank of the Mississippi River’s Southwest Pass are possibly the quintessential man-made “flounder channels” along the coast, and Texas’ Cedar Bayou and Rollover Pass are – or once were – prime deep flounder waters leading from interior bays to the Gulf.

No matter which forms of deep habitat are found in the areas you fish, there are some considerations on how to best work them. Primarily your lure – or bait – must be presented near enough bottom to get the flounders’ attention. As always, accomplish that with the lightest weight that will get the job done. Fan-casting up-current across a broad area while on anchor, allowing the lure to sink to bottom and then slowly hopping it back with the current, is effective; so is vertical jigging while drifting or power-drifting with the current.

While flounders use current to feed at this time, they are not truly creatures of flowing water. In places where there is current from a river’s pass, the combined effect of the falling tide can make the force of the flow too great for efficient feeding. Generally, those spots are best when the rising tide slows – but not stops – the current flowing through them.

On the other hand, deep habitat which is not influenced by a river’s current is usually most productive on the falling tide. While I have never experienced it, the tales told me by Texas friends of the flounder blitz at Rollover Pass on the falling tide created by autumn’s first strong northers must have been something to behold. For a fact, I know that the catches once made under those same conditions by shrimp trawlers in Louisiana’s Four Bayous Pass were neither “by-catch” nor “incidental”!

So current – but not too much of it – is desirable in this setting, and your lure must reach bottom in it to catch the fish. That is much easier to accomplish in shallow habitat.

At this time, eroded areas in the banks of tidal cuts and canals can produce dynamite action, as can those same – shallow – features when they are found through the seashore. Barrier islands with marshy back-sides are also prime spots during autumn. In all of these cases, the falling tide leads to the best success.

Contrarily, in deltaic regions where shallow washouts have occurred through the banks of small passes, the falling tide can again combine with the natural current to create flow which is too strong for these fish to feed, so as with deep habitat here, the rising tide is best. The tidal effect on flounders – both beneficially and detrimentally – can be absolutely amazing at this time, so be aware of what it is doing and work your particular area accordingly.

Fishing the right spots on the stage of the tide which is best suited for them demands a few illustrative anecdotes. In the days before flounder limits, the tide falling into West Delta through a shallow washout in the seashore gave me many fine “directed efforts” including my best flounder catch: 18. On a drop-dead gorgeous mid-October afternoon during that same period a friend and I stood at the mouth of a small tidal cut on the back-side of Breton Island and took 33 as the falling tide drained the interior marshes – and due to the lack of a landing net, we dropped and lost at least as many as we boxed! And the trip mentioned at the beginning of these lines was intentionally delayed well beyond our normal departure time so that the tide would have risen enough to slow the flow through that particular shoreline washout down Southeast Pass.

When the tide is right for the area any given flounder finds himself in, he will feed ravenously now, stockpiling energy for his upcoming rigors. At this time, live-bait advocates swear by the biggest killifish obtainable – or finger mullet – pinned through the lips on a jig-head just heavy enough to reach and hold bottom. In deep habitat without excellent clarity, that is indeed the best bet; however, in water of good clarity soft-plastics work almost as well and are much less of a hassle.

In shallow habitat more of a variety of lures are effective. Feathered Pet 14 spoons are a good choice, mainly because of their large profile and the fact that they – like jigs – have only one hook to remove from a flounder’s toothy maw! Lighter jigs – say, 1/8 and ¼-ounce – but still dressed with soft-plastics large enough to entice the bigger fish are standards. Lightweight spinnerbaits – a personal favorite for this setting – are especially productive in water that is slightly roiled, and as some readers might be envisioning, shallow habitat offers a fly-fishing opportunity now that is almost unbeatable; Clouser Minnows, if you please.

Casts should be made cross or slightly up-current. Since in this case “shallow” implies water of 2 feet or less, it’s actually best to retrieve the lure off bottom in clear conditions; slight turbidity might warrant allowing it to kick occasional puffs of mud or sand off bottom.

Follow these patterns – either specifically for flounders or in conjunction with efforts towards specks and redfish – and you are sure to catch more of these tasty creatures. At least, you will up until some time in late November. Then, after a screaming norther has dropped the water’s temperature sharply by 5 or 6 degrees, you won’t be able to catch one on a dare – well, perhaps one or two that are too young to have thoughts of flounder-sex. Don’t worry – you haven’t lost your touch; you’ve just temporarily lost most of the fish. They’ll be back after two or three months spent making babies in water much more suitable for red snappers, amberjacks, and groupers than for flounders.

Amazing stuff…

(Salt Water Sportsman 10-2003)

 

7-20-2011

Flounder on the Rocks

Flounder may normally be associated with a soft bottom, but don’t overlook various forms of hard structure for great action with these popular fish!

The hot and humid August morning began like most other hot and humid August mornings – hot and humid! And the tide was pretty high and slack, too. So I had worked up a sweat by nine and had little to show for it, but my host – who had caught naught – said things would pick up in a couple of hours once the tide began to fall. Incidentally, I’ve often heard that before, and it always makes me wonder why we have to leave the launch-site at daybreak!

Anyway, around noon he said the time was getting right, and we then headed to a large cut leading from a bay into the Gulf – a place where we had drawn a blank a bit earlier. This time, though, the water was considerably lower, revealing some fairly solid accumulations of oysters above its surface, and during the next hour or so we caught eight nice flounders by working our lures (Flies, actually!) around and across the edges of those shells.

Flounders are typically thought to be ambush predators that partially bury themselves in a mud or sand bottom and pounce on passing prey. For sure, they do just that, but they are also active feeders, and they often patrol various forms of benthic structure in search of some morsel that is not aware of that fact!

And yeah, they can and probably do conceal themselves in small areas of soft bottom within that hard structure, but one thing’s for certain: They wouldn’t be there – either partially hidden or simply swimming around – if the groceries weren’t!

The fact that hard structure served as fine flounder habitat was first made known to me while fishing some rip-rap that reinforced a stretch of the Mississippi River’s shoreline. Striped bass were my targets on that particular day, and I was prospecting for them with a CD12 Magnum Rapala. No stripers happened along, but a 20-inch flounder suddenly materialized within the rocks and slammed the big crankbait within scant feet of the shoreline.

Since then I’ve caught numerous flounder along rip-rap-supported river-banks, often so far upstream that their presence would not be expected by many folks. Remember, freshwater is no deterrent for at least the southern variety of these fish! In coastal rivers the rising tide is often best, since it slows the current a bit. Flounder do indeed feed well in current, but too much of it is a hindrance to them.

And I wouldn’t set out after them with a CD12 Magnum Rapala! Flounder regularly ingest some pretty big prey, but that lure is a bit extreme. A quarter-ounce jig-head dressed with a 3-inch soft-plastic minnow or shad – created with a flat wiggling tail, if you please – is about as good a choice as you can make for consistent success with these fish along river-bank rip-rap. On that note, especially for advocates of live bait for flounder, hard structure in general is not too conducive to working with live bait, either on a fish-finder rig or on a naked jig-head, since those will be more subject to fouling than the jig/soft-plastic combo will be.

On the other hand, live minnows served on a bare jig-head that is suspended beneath a popping cork is very effective when worked across or along the edges of concentrations of oysters and clams. However, my preference for that form of flounder-habitat is a spinnerbait.

While spinnerbaits can be purchased ready-made from the racks of your friendly local sporting goods store, creating your own is easy and leads to a lure that is much less likely to become discombobulated by the fish. Thread a gold size 3 ½ Hildebrandt safety-pin spinner onto the eye of a quarter-ounce jig-head – the round type with a stout short-shank hook. Then dress the jig-head with your favorite soft-plastic grub, the size and type of the aforementioned varieties being good choices. The flexible connection between the spinner’s wire and the jig-head prevent it from being as susceptible to bending as the rigid wire is on a standard store-bought spinnerbait. Flounder love it, and it’s plenty tough enough to hold up to their abuses as well as those that come courtesy of redfish.

For flounder, a spinnerbait should be worked with slow pumps and pauses created by raising the rod’s tip on a tight line, then reeling in the slack line as the tip is lowered in preparation for the next pump. The pumps should be just fast enough for the throb of the spinner to be felt, and the pauses should be just long enough to allow the lure to sink to a point near bottom. Therefore the water’s depth determines the extent of the pauses. Expect most strikes as you begin a pump.

No matter whether you work a spinnerbait or a popping rig around or across accumulations of shells, if the water is reasonably clear there is no need to bump bottom with the lure. Flounder that are either cruising these areas or lying in ambush within them are basically looking up for their prey. Fact is, one day while fly fishing for specks with a popper along the shallow edges of a shell-reinforced bulkhead, I had a fine flounder blast the floating fly! Come to think of it, the first flounder I ever hooked (But sadly lost) was on a topwater bass-lure. You might consider using one around shell-piles – who knows what you might discover.

And even if you don’t get any flounders, if specks or reds are around, they are often very appreciative of those lures! Whatever, shell-piles are almost invariably best when there is current passing over them, and the falling tide creates the best of that.

Rock jetties are another form of hard structure that attracts and holds flounder. While these fish can assuredly be found around those that extend seaward, the best are usually in near-Gulf bays and sounds and stand in relatively shallow water – at least, it’s shallow on one side.

Every one of the flounder I have caught around a Gulf jetty has been incidental to other species. Nevertheless, a pattern has developed that has resulted in a few of those delightful supplements to the ice chest on many trips. That is a “break” in the jetty.

I’ve encountered several of these unconformities, and to me they seem to be contradictory to the purpose of the jetty – or rather, jetties, since jetties that extend seaward usually come in pairs: They divert some of the flow that passes between the jetties. In any case, they also divert assorted prey species from the main flow, and flounder, et. al., position themselves accordingly near the breaks.

Normally the falling tide is best for working these spots. The target area ranges from the break’s up-current point and extends around and behind it. If sea conditions permit it, go around the end of the jetty and return to the break – do not go through the break to reach the outside waters! That will scatter both prey and predators (It could scatter the blades on your outboard’s prop, too!). Anchor a short cast from the break’s up-current point and prospect the water all around it. Here, a lighter jig – say, one-eighth ounce – will help lessen the number of them you lose to the rocks, but if you are working them properly, it won’t eliminate that loss. Like I mentioned earlier, you won’t catch many flounder around a Gulf jetty – even around a break, but the ones you do catch should be good fish.

“Inshore” jetties usually give up many more flounder than their offshore counterparts, and some of those fish can also be quite creditable. Generally, though, there is much more quantity hereabouts than quality – more “fryers” than “stuffers”, so to speak. ‘Course, if you (Like me!) prefer your flounder fried, then that should present no problems!

These structures are commonly found in water that is a bit less than clear, so your presentation should bump bottom occasionally – kick up a little mud to get the attention of a nearby fish. Some folks like to sweeten their jigs with a piece of fresh shrimp in this setting, and I must own up to the fact that I have done so myself and quite often. However, too many body-piercings from hardheads put an end to it! You can curtail that potential and still catch flounder by using a dark grub – purple or black are good choices.

Another form of hard structure that attracts flounder is piers. Here, the fish are drawn to prey that take shelter within the pilings rather than something benthic, and slowly yo-yoing a light jig just off bottom can result in a lot of flounder.

Well, it could have before I let the secret out. Try it anyway. And remember that any form of “hard” structure can yield a rewarding catch of these popular fish.

(Game & Fish Publications 8-2008)

 

6-20-11

The Redoubtable Spinnerbait

The flash and vibration of this type of lure makes it much more effective for numerous inshore saltwater species than spoons and straight-up jigs.

Although I have caught a lot of specks, redfish, and flounders over the years on spoons and various jigs, I have also been frequently chastened when a visible fish showed no interest in them at all. It finally occurred to me that frequently it appeared the lures simply weren’t being noticed, and after recalling some early successes (A little either side of 1970) with some sizeable specks and reds that I had taken while working spinnerbaits in the brackish marsh for largemouth bass – which I had assumed at the time were accidental – I decided to try them in saltwater in earnest. It paid off in big dividends!

This type of lure in the “in-line” fashion has been around for many years; the “safety-pin” design made its appearance in the early 1950’s, and the “buzzbait” even more recently. All were intended for freshwater targets. Each is composed of a tail – either a shredded rubber or synthetic skirt, hair, or soft-plastic minnow imitation, a wire shaft, and a revolving blade. And while the tail’s wiggle and the blade’s flash is characteristic of other types of lures, it is the vibration of the blade that sets this one apart. It is so effective that I haven’t slung a spoon in years and only use plain jigs either under a popping cork or when the fish are very deep. But a long time passed before I noticed other anglers using one – and missing out on one of the most productive lures to ever hit the salt.

The buzzbait – the most efficient shallow-runner of the group – is constructed so that the bend of the shaft is in the same plane as the hook’s gap, making it reasonably “weedless”. The large cupped blade creates a gurgling sound when slowly retrieved across the surface, and in shallow, grassy water it will call redfish, especially, better than a popping cork!

The buzzbait – my preference being a quarter-ounce Lunker Lure dressed with a 2 ½-inch soft-plastic minnow in clear chartreuse with glitter – is indeed best utilized as a redfish lure. However, I remember a hot summer day when a buddy and I were fishing a shallow reef on a dingy, hard-falling tide. His shrimp-baited popping rig was accounting for some nice reds, but there were some good specks feeding on that reef, too, and they were reluctant to dig his lure out of the oysters. My buzzbait, on the other hand, met their approval, and I supplemented my redfish limit with several nice ones. All my friend caught on his popping rig was reds – and a few pesky sea catfish! Take heed!

The safety-pin spinnerbait has the broadest range of applications and is attractive to most popular species. These lures can be modified in so many ways that it would be impossible to describe them all in these lines.  For simplicity’s sake – and because it is so effective – I’ll use my favorite as an illustration: a round one-eighth-ounce jig-head with a heavy size 2/0 hook, a #3 ½ or #4 gold Hildebrandt safety-pin spinner – the smaller one being favored in ultra-clear, shallow water, the larger one being used for everyday work, and the same type of tail I use on a buzzbait in chartreuse with glitter or in purple. In water depths from 1 to 4 or 5 feet and with reasonable clarity, this combination is awfully hard to beat.

Most of my fishing is done on the move with a bow-mounted trolling motor, realizing that in most cases the more water I cover, the more likely I will be to find fish. The spinnerbait allows me to do this much more efficiently than, say, a popping rig, but one thing that must be remembered is that the retrieve should not be too rapid. The freshwater term “slow-rolling” the blade is descriptive of what is often the best procedure for reds and flounders: work it just fast enough so that you can detect the spinner’s vibration, varying the lure’s depth by the initial “count-down” and the rod’s position. In this manner you can retrieve it at the same speed in various water depths. If that doesn’t produce enough action for you, try a retrieve consisting of slow pumps and pauses – in effect “yo-yoing” the spinnerbait along bottom.

That type of retrieve is often very effective when flounders are one of the day’s main events. The “southern” variety of this species is an aggressive predator but normally won’t pursue a fast-moving lure very far. However, the blade’s vibration will get its attention, and the slow, stop-and-go retrieve will allow the fish to run the lure down. Simply put, flounders will jump all over a well-presented spinnerbait!

So will larger-than-average specks! In clear water where the splash of a popping cork often spooks them, or when dingy water prohibits the successful use of plugs or straight-up jigs, the spinnerbait falls right into place. My largest inshore speck, as well as another that was caught by a friend and was the biggest inshore speck I had seen taken by anyone in many years, each struck a spinnerbait.

So will stripers in areas where they can be frequently encountered. And redfish simply can’t leave them alone!

The last variation of the spinnerbait is the in-line model, and though I used this type for only a short time, it bumped up my winter successes noticeably. Normal jig-heads have the hook’s eye above the body and will not work with an in-line spinner as the blade can contact the eye, breaking up the vibrations. I created my own heads by cutting the shafts of quarter-ounce buzzbaits just behind the line-tying eyes, thus removing all of the bend in the shafts and the large cupped spinners. Then I constructed another “eye” in the shaft by twisting it with a pair of long-nosed pliers. To that eye I affixed a gold #3 ½ in-line spinner and topped it off with a soft-plastic minnow.

The configuration of this lure allowed it to get deeper quicker than the safety-pin type, and the flash and vibration often added just the right amount of enticement when the fish – both specks and reds – were a little chilly and not in a serious feeding mood. It was best worked slowly – a 2-foot pull, then a drop-back, then another pull, maintaining contact at all times. Why do I no longer use it? Because these days find me fly fishing most often – even in the depths of winter!

Just like the “birds” on offshore trolling lines and trailers on spoons and surface lures, the spinnerbait is nothing more than one type of lure – in essence, a jig – with a little extra added on. It is simple and usually much more productive than the plain vanilla model. Try it – you’ll like it. Guaranteed!

(Salt Water Sportsman 3-1992)

 

 

5-17-11

Five Tips for Marsh Reds

Redfish abound in interior marshes. Here’s how to go about catching them.

The waters within interior salt and brackish marshes across virtually the entire Gulf coast hold red drum throughout most of the year. However, these fish are no pushovers. That is entirely a result of their environment and the main reason why so many anglers have trouble successfully fishing here. If you are one of those but would like to solve the riddle and experience the exciting action found in these areas, try adhering to the following tips.

FOLLOW THE TIDE

Interior marshes are typically comprised of broad stands of various emergent grasses pocked with shallow ponds – with or without submergent grasses – and laced with small, shallow creeks and cuts. As the tide rises it floods areas like shallow, grass-choked ponds and shoreline grass along the cuts and creeks which have been inaccessible to various prey species during the recent low-water period. Those creatures now move into these nutrient-rich areas, and the redfish follow.

In interior areas it is almost always best to follow the fish into the shallowest water that you can operate your boat. As the tide continues to rise, look for shallower spots. Water over 1 ½ feet deep quickly becomes a detriment, as it masks many indications of a fish’s presence.

Periods of slack tide – either on the low end or the high end – are usually best spent taking a nap or returning to the marina for a bite. Just be sure you are back in operation when the water begins to move again. When it starts to fall, target the creeks and cuts.

These can be worked effectively by either moving along their shorelines where the falling water is pulling prey from the recently-flooded grass or by anchoring at the point where a cut drains a pond. There, the current created by the water falling through the cut pulls prey from the pond. Redfish are well conditioned to these feeding stations.

USE STEALTH MODE

As a rule, redfish aren’t all that bright, and some of them can act like they are eaten up with a really bad case of the – well. However, if you assume those fish you encounter in the marshes are so afflicted, you won’t catch many of them.

You must move about very stealthily while fishing shallow ponds and creeks. Paddling is best if your boat allows it. Push-poling ranks a close second and provides better visibility, but it’s rather difficult to make a quick, accurate cast with a 16-foot push-pole in one hand. Unless there’s a buddy aboard who is willing to alternate rod and push-pole with you, paddle – sculling while sitting on the boat’s bow – if at all possible.

If you are averse to paddling, if the water’s depth is sufficient, and if there isn’t a profusion of submergent grass in the area, a bow-mounted trolling motor can be used effectively IF it is set on the lowest speed that will produce headway and if you thereafter LEAVE IT ALONE!

Whatever method of propulsion you decide on, go slowly. While that will allow you to search for fish more effectively, the main reason is to prevent the boat from creating large pulses through the water that can be detected by the fish, alerting them that something ain’t quite right. Reds will often simply swim out of the way of a boat which is just creeping along, not in the least bit alarmed. Others which are caught unaware may bolt, but after they dash off a ways they occasionally seem to forget what all the fuss was about. A cast at fish that respond to the boat’s presence in these manners can result in strikes you would have not received had your boat been pushing large pulses through the water.

LOOK FOR FISH

One of the most exciting things about fishing the waters within interior marshes is that much of it is done by sight. As you move along (Stealthily!), you should always be looking and listening for signs of fish.

A large wake moving slowly along the bank of a small off-clear pond or creek could be caused by one of several types of non-redfish found in these waters, but it is definitely worth a speculative cast. A much better bet is the tip of a tail intermittently puncturing the water’s surface beside a patch of submergent grass. An entire tail waving merrily at you anywhere you might encounter one is almost a sure thing.

Then there are “crawlers” – fish which move with some purpose in water so thin that their dorsal fins and part of their backs are exposed. These fish might also appear to be almost a sure thing, but they demand a very precise cast. Unlike a “tailer” which is a stationary target, a crawler must be led just far enough to prevent the lure’s impact from spooking the fish, yet close enough for the fish to detect it. Knowing just how much to lead it is determined in great part by experience, the phase of the moon, and blind dumb luck! Do not expect consistent results with crawlers – but then, that’s what makes fishing for them such a hoot!.

In clear water redfish can be detected relatively easily beneath the surface. For best results work the up-wind shorelines where emergent vegetation creates a calm surface. Move along in the direction allowing the best sub-surface visibility. Wear amber or yellow polarized sunglasses and a cap with the underside of the bill being dark green. If you are moving along slowly and stealthily, these fish can suddenly appear quite closely, so be prepared for a short, quick cast with minimal movement.

PROSPECT IRREGULARITIES

On first inspection a pond, creek, or cut may seem to be relatively featureless. This is not the case. Irregularities abound are often quite attractive to prey species seeking nourishment or shelter, and redfish are likely to be nearby.

Small grass points in a creek’s shoreline may extend into water which is slightly deeper than that found along the adjacent bank. Here any current may be slightly stronger, causing prey being carried along by it some disadvantage. These features make good ambush points and should be prospected with a cast or two wherever they are found. They do depend, though, on moving water – either way.

So do intersections, especially when one cut is much different from the other – smaller, shallower, more meandering, and so forth. These are usually best on a falling tide, but they can be productive during the low end of a rising tide. Target the shoreline shallows.

During low tide you may notice some shells on the bank of a creek. These may extend well out into the waterway, providing protection for prey species, especially at this time. Never pass up an accumulation of shoreline shells without making a cast or two across the water next to them.

Finally, fish may be found anywhere in ponds where bottom is carpeted with thinly-growing submergent grasses, but places where the grass grows in thick patches – often matting on the surface – tend to localize the fish. Take plenty of time looking around – and prospecting – a pond with clumps of matted grass scattered throughout it.

USE SMALL “LOUD” LURES

One of the hottest lures going these days for reds in interior marshes is the “Spoon-Fly”. It isn’t really a fly, but it was created for fly fishermen, and it does look and act like a single-hook spoon. It is very light so it sinks quite slowly, it is created with a mono weed-guard, it wobbles and flashes about, emitting audible as well as visible indications of a baitfish – and it is just about 1 ¼ inches long! Yeah, that’s pretty small, but the redfish absolutely love it!

That data is not intended to coerce you into fly fishing for reds but to use the lures which are most appropriate for them in this setting – fairly small and “loud”. In clear water a 1/5-ounce single-hook spoon can be a good choice. In areas where submergent grass presents a problem, try a 1/8-ounce buzzbait dressed with a 2 ½-inch soft-plastic grub. In the slightly deeper – but not too deep! – cuts and creeks, “junior-sized” surface lures can produce some very entertaining strikes. But day in and day out, if I must catch marsh redfish I would rely on a spinnerbait created from a gold size 3 ½ safety-pin spinner, a 1/8-ounce jig-head, and a 2 ½-inch grub. With that I can make a relatively delicate presentation to a crawler, “buzz” it past a tailer at the edge of a thick patch of grass, and prospect the intersections, points and accumulations of shells along a creek’s shoreline.

I’ve been doing all that with quite satisfactory success for almost 35 years now and see no reason whatsoever to change anything. Try these tips – you’ll find marsh reds aren’t nearly as hard to catch as you might have thought they were.

(Game & Fish Publications 3-2003)

4-12-11

Sensational South Pass

Two pine-cone-kicking buddies of mine from Grenada, Mississippi – let’s call them Tom and Walter – had made their annual May pilgrimage to the Delta to amass a mess of speck and redfish fillets. Historically that had usually been accomplished in the bays behind Buras, but with a favorable weather forecast, along with the recollection of some great days spent down the river the previous spring, I convinced them we should try South Pass.

Initially we worked the mud lumps where I once had the honor of weighing two specks caught on “Spooks” one May morning by an acquaintance, Gordon Anderson of Hammond: one around 7 ½ pounds, the other just over 8! Talk about one jealous puppy! Anyway, we only got a couple of mediocre ones, along with a pompano, on soft-plastic cocahoes before deciding to try the seawall for a while.

There we idled past the group of boats that always seems to be anchored and bottom-fishing at the end of the jetty, made our way about half-way up it, then dropped the trolling motor and began to work our way along it. Shortly the bite began.

Things were progressing quite nicely with a handful of respectable reds and a couple of fair specks in the ice chest when we began losing what appeared to be reds. There would be a solid thump on our jigs, we’d rare back to set the hook, the fish would take off like the proverbial striped ape, and then the hook would pull. After each of us had experienced a few of those mishaps, even though we’d been adding a few more reds to the cooler in the meantime, it got pretty aggravating.

Finally one of the mystery fish stayed attached to Tom’s jig long enough for us to see what it was before it, too, slipped the hook: a speck of around 6 pounds! Yeah, I know, I should have realized you don’t prematurely release redfish as regularly as we were – guess I wasn’t firing on all cylinders that morning. Whatever, we began backing off some of the heat we’d been putting on the fish, and eventually I released a gorgeous 24-inch speck. Tom and Walter each got 23-inchers, and we ended up with a nice mess of them in the 16 to 20-inch class, along with near-limits of reds. Notably, they returned the next morning to take one just under 6 pounds which now graces one of Tom’s walls, and Walter got one over 5, besides another mess of fillet-makers.

And a week later, Dave Ballay of the Venice Marina told me a 10-2 and another just over 9 had been taken at the seawall a day or so after the pine-cone-kickers had headed home!

The Mississippi River’s South Pass doesn’t get the press – or the use – that Southwest Pass does. Years ago the Corps of Engineers abandoned efforts to maintain it as a major shipping route. Now its channel is quite narrow in spots, and it has silted to the point where nothing much larger than an offshore oil-field supply boat can traverse it. Also, there is a big sandbar at the mouth of the pass that demands too tight a turn for a big ship – and a slight detour around it if you are headed to the mud lumps.

These quite rare geologic phenomena are the result of a large amount of silt carried by the river’s current being suddenly deposited near the mouth of the pass. Over time the weight – or “pressure” – of overlying layers of sediments on the now deeper layer of silt can cause the deeper layer to erupt through the overlying layers at a weak spot in them. This is done the same way a salt dome is formed. Once the weak spot has been established, the continuous deposition of sediments by the river causes the deeper layer of silt to flow gradually toward the surface. So while the mud lumps are continuously being eroded away by the breaking swells, they are constantly rebuilding themselves – as long as the “weak spot” doesn’t heal itself!

How long they will last is anyone’s guess. They are not shown in my copy of the 1949 Corps of Engineers’ “Maps of the Mississippi River”, whereas those at the mouths of Pass a l’Outre and Southeast Pass are – and the last time I looked, those no longer rise above the Gulf’s surface. And the last time I ventured to South Pass (circa spring 2005), the lumps there had all but washed away above the waterline. In any case, to reach them in whatever shape they may now be in, you must swing left (east) after clearing the marker at the end of the seawall, then head south for a half-mile or so, then run another half-mile or so west until you see them (Or waves breaking on them) on your right. And until you become familiar with their present extent, approach them from the west, always on the look-out for remnants or a new one building just beneath the surface.

When the wind is easterly and a little too stiff for comfortable fishing along the seawall, the mud lumps provide a nice haven. Work their perimeters with your trolling motor if possible. There was also a fairly shallow flat between them which often held fish. The drop-off on their west sides can be pretty steep, so expect possible contact with crevalle jacks, bull reds, spinner and bull sharks, and possibly king mackerel along with your specks and “regular reds”.

If you find the action temporarily slow at the mud lumps, don’t immediately head back to the seawall. Instead, move to the north of them with your trolling motor while scanning bottom with your depth recorder; a zig-zag search pattern is best. The bottom in this area is very irregular, and it’s quite possible to find a gang of fish – specks, reds, or both – holding to a hump. A buddy of mine, Capt. Brent Roy, had that excellent fortune a few Mays back and slayed ‘em for several days running! Usually, jigs are best for prospecting the bottom-structure here as well as for working the west sides of the lumps, but topwaters are a great bet for a wall-hanger on the flat.

Eventually, in order to either fish it or to head back to Venice, you will have to return to South Pass. Give the bar a wide berth and approach the pass’s mouth from the east. On calm days with a high tide the seawall can be difficult to detect, so if you intend to fish it, be very cautious in your approach!

The South Pass seawall (jetty) is not nearly as impressive a form of fishing structure is Southwest Pass’s east jetty, and it is not as consistently productive as that perennial hotspot is. But from the first of May into June it offers action with specks and redfish that can be second to none, and in the years just prior to K. it became a top venue for folks seeking the opportunity to catch a really big speck.

Jigs are the lures of choice here, equally so for filleting-size specks, mega-specks, and redfish (And occasionally jacks, so be forewarned!). A soft-plastic cocahoe in chartreuse with glitter threaded onto a quarter-ounce jig-head is hard to beat.

Working them along the seawall is most efficiently done with only two anglers aboard. The guy in the bow slowly moves the boat along some 30 feet or so from the jetty with the trolling motor and casts ahead and to the edge of the structure. The guy in the stern can also cast ahead and toward the wall, and if they are quiet enough, casts made behind and toward the wall will also produce. However, a third man in the middle would be required to make his casts more directly toward the jetty, and his lure wold not cover much of the bottom-structure as it is being retrieved. So if you are fishing in a party of three, the guys in the middle and stern should rotate  occasionally.

The “bottom-structure” here is in the form of boulders which reinforce the wall. You can’t see them until you near the northern end of the jetty, but they are there, and they will take their toll of your jigs if you are working them properly, so bring along plenty! If you are not losing an occasional jig, then you are probably not catching many fish!

Frequently the fish hold to a particular spot along the seawall. With it being pretty featureless along much of its length, you may have difficulty recalling just where that flurry of action occurred a half-hour ago. You could have dropped a marker, but that would surely draw competition. Since you should always return to a productive spot here after it has been “rested” for a while, what can you do?

Look across the pass and determine a landmark on its west bank whenever you get a few quick strikes. There are plenty of them over there in numerous forms, and they should lead you right back to the spot.

The South Pass seawall and mud lumps have been great places for a May trip for many years. Try them; if you see someone out there flailing away with a fly rod, that just might be me trying to beat Jeff Poe’s state-record fly-caught speck. There could be fish somewhere nearby for me to do just that – provided, of course, I can get one to bite and then keep myself from wrestling with it like I do with redfish…

(Tide 5-2000)

 

3-22-11

Pitching Plastic in Plaquemines Parish

Here’s how to make the different types and sizes of these great lures work even better for you.

When Barbara and I moved to Buras in 1968, my fishing equipment consisted of two casting outfits, one spinning rig, two fly rods and reels, a small fly box, and one tackle box which contained mostly spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and surface lures intended for largemouth bass.

The number of rods and reels of all types which littered my loft just prior to K. is not especially relevant, and I see no need to relate how many tackle boxes lined one of its walls. But what is noteworthy is the fact that at least half of the contents of five of them were made up of soft-plastics. Believe me, the lure racks at K-Mart did not come close to holding the numbers, sizes, shapes, and colors of my erstwhile stash! Why did I amass such a collection? Because they worked – and for literally every gamefish that swims in Louisiana waters, be they fresh or salty.

However, back in the late 60’s there was no opportunity to acquire such a plethora of plastic. For saltwater purposes we were limited to cutting 6-inch “bass-worms” in half or purchasing “Specks-a-Go-Go’s” or “Trout Touts”. Remember those? For sure, they worked, but the plastic people have come a long way to make things better for us these days – or have they, too, designed their lures to appeal to us first (Spell that m-a-k-e m-o-n-e-y!) and appeal to the fish second? Let’s see…

The first soft-plastics I used in saltwater were pink Specks-a-Go-Go’s which were in the neighborhood of three inches long and looked exactly like the 3-inch head section of a 6-inch worm. They had neither built-in action nor built-in scent, yet they caught redfish – as well as specks and flounders – when retrieved either directly or beneath a popping cork. So did the Touts.

Nowadays when a fish bites the wiggling tail off a “cocahoe”, we discard it and thread a new one onto the jig-head – and the manufacturers smile once again. Sure, I do too, though sometimes I think about the Go-Go’s and wonder what might happen if I didn’t. But that would be foolish, considering the advantage of the fish-appealing wiggle which enhances many of today’s soft-plastics.

In truth, these lures work so well that a guy could reach into a bin containing all sorts of different types, sizes, and colors, close his eyes and grab a handful of them, and probably go out and catch fish with those he had grabbed. But there are some considerations – and a few “adjustments”- to be made to get the best out of them.

Once I discovered that skirted spinnerbaits and buzz-baits were as effective on redfish as they were on bass, I used them extensively in the bays, ponds, and bayous from Empire to Tidewater for over a decade. The skirts, however, proved to be a real pain, either becoming mangled in short order by redfish teeth or turning into gooey, useless blobs between trips. And spare skirts were very hard to come by down in the Delta. On the other hand, soft-plastic “Shads” – and eventually “cocahoes” – were becoming available, they cost less than a skirt, and they proved to be equally if not more effective. These days a lot of folks use soft-plastic cocahoes on their spinnerbaits to catch reds – they should try ’em on a buzz-bait for even wilder action!

In either case I prefer the 2 1/2-inch “junior” sizes. They fit the skirt-retainer on a quarter-ounce “Lunker Lure” very well, and they are made to order for the type of jig-head I like best for reds: the one-eighth or one-quarter ounce round-headed models with short-shank, heavy-wire hooks in sizes 1/0 and 2/0. Now here are a couple of helpful hints which should make life a little easier for you, both when you dress your jig-head with the soft-plastic tail and when you are fishing with it. And they apply to straight-up jigs as well as to spinnerbaits and buzz-baits.

The “tail-keepers” on jig-heads and the skirt-retainers on buzz-bait bodies are round; the soft-plastic cocahoes – and many other styles – are basically oval. Therefore, if you slightly misalign the tail to the keeper as you thread it onto the jig-head, the keeper can tear through the side of the tail. That may not reduce the lure’s effectiveness, but it will weaken the “connection”, allowing short strikes to pull the tail from the keeper. To prevent this, slightly flatten the keeper in the vertical plane with pliers.

Now thread the tail onto the hook, but just before you push it onto the keeper, put a drop of super glue there. Then quickly push the tail onto the keeper. The manufacturers do not approve of that procedure, but it will keep you fishing more and replacing tails less.

Oh, once you seat the tail onto the jig-head, it should be perfectly straight, not curved upward or bunched up between the bend of the hook and the jig’s head. If you discover the tail is somewhat askew, then allow the super glue to dry for about 30 seconds, grasp the tail on top of the keeper with one hand, and with the other hand gently pull the tail down and away from the bend of the hook. This will cause the tail to be torn slightly at the point where the hook emerges from it, but that won’t hurt a thing once the super glue has set, and it will cause the tail to ride in a straight and natural fashion.

While the cocahoe-type soft-plastic works just fine on spinnerbaits and buzz-baits, in my opinion it does not wiggle as well as the “Shad” type. This deeper-bodied, thinner, and more flexible model – and one which is admittedly more easily destroyed by fish – earns its keep on a bare jig-head.

Three scenarios come to mind where a straight-up jig/shad combo is hard to beat in the redfishing department. First is when it is suspended beneath a popping cork for shallow-water marsh applications – and you can tip it with a shrimp if you so desire, though when the water’s clarity permits it, I work mine unadorned. By using the one-eighth ounce jig-head previously discussed, you will get better action from the lure than if you used a heavier size. The second is in the surf. Here, too, it is usually best to use the lightest jig-head you can cast and which will sink to bottom in any current and wave action which may be present. Seldom, though, have I encountered a realistically fishable surf that required anything heavier than quarter-ounce.

The third, however – deep-jigging – is an entirely different matter. In places like the South and Southwest Pass jetties – and in the deep, current-laced cuts and spillways leading off those passes which are prime spots for late-summer and autumn reds, et. al., three-eighths and even half-ounce heads are necessary to reach and hold the strike zone.

That brings up the point about colors, and I’d bet a bundle that you, like me, have had many  more of those than you actually need. That makes the manufacturers really smile! Anyway, in most cases if a hungry red can locate the lure, he will strike it. Making it easy for him to locate it is the key. So here’s a little rule of thumb for his benefit: light for light, dark for dark.

Consider “light” to be a sunny day with relatively shallow water – say, no more than five feet deep – with good clarity. Here, my steadfast choice of color is clear chartreuse with glitter. “Dark”, on the other hand, would denote a cloudy sky, dingy water, and depth. In those conditions

black or purple have worked well. What about fishing 15 feet down in crystal-clear water on a cloudy day – or fishing in two feet of dingy water in bright sunlight? Who knows – but mixed “lights” and “darks” could be good reasons (excuses?) for having so many colors in our tackle boxes!

Still, I’d bet I could have thrown away all the tails that I owned that were not either clear chartreuse with glitter or purple and still caught as many reds as I did. And if you like the ones which have tail sections or long, whippy dorsal fins of contrasting colors, then go for it. Reds may care less, but you might discover an increase in the number of specks you catch.

So much for colors, and as far as the scented types are concerned, I have never used them – mainly because I cannot justify their cost. Now let’s return to deep-jigging for a moment.

The larger hooks on the heavier jig-heads (size 3/0 on the three-eighths ounce and size 4/0 on the half-ounce) have a proportionally longer shank, demanding the use of a larger tail. Since a standard “3-inch” shad actually measures only 2 1/2 inches, and “4-inch” shads were not commonly found on the lure racks in my area, I used the standard-sized (3 1/4-inch) cocahoe for this purpose. And since a size 4/0 hook is much harder to set than a size 1/0, I also used a heavier outfit for deep-jigging than what was preferred for pitching spinnerbaits.

It makes sense, and I strongly recommend the different outfits. Back then mine consisted of a 6-foot medium action rod and 12-pound mono for spinnerbaits and a 5 1/2-foot medium-heavy rod and 14-pound Spiderwire “Fusion” for deep-jigging. Both were high-modulus graphite, straight-grip casting rods, though similar spinning sticks would have probably sufficed. The “Fusion” provided better feel than the mono did when working the lures at depth. Nowadays, though, I use 8/30 braid for almost all inshore applications (Except, of course, fly fishing!).

By now some of you may be wondering if I intend to mention other types of soft-plastics like paddle-tail “grubs”, split-tail “Beetles”, and those long, thin “jerk-baits”. In my most humble opinion that type of grub is lifeless compared to a shad or cocahoe, though “Beetles” do okay under a popping cork. Indeed, I have slayed the specks in that fashion but have taken very few reds on them and seldom use them now; they, too, don’t have as much built-in action as the wiggle-tails do. And as far as jerk-baits go, I had a box-full of them – from three different manufacturers in a half-dozen different colors and in sizes 4 and 4 1/2-inch – and never made a cast with any of them! They looked good, and several of my guide-buddies swore by them. I guess I just kept forgetting I had them. Then K. got ‘em, and I didn’t think they were worth replacing.

On the other hand, 4-inch curly-tail grubs served me well over many years in one specific setting: flipping for winter reds that were holding tightly to man-made structure – boat-basin piers, run-down fishing camps, oil-field odds and ends, and the like – in the bays behind Empire and Buras. Since the productive water there is usually less than five feet deep, and since this tactic, too, works best when the lure sinks slowly, use the lightest weight you can effectively flip. I usually Texas-rigged the grub on a size 2/0 freshwater worm hook which was tied to a foot of 30-pound mono which itself was tied to my 20-pound line. The one-eighth ounce bullet sinker I used most often was not pegged but allowed to slide up and down the 30-pound “leader”.

Admittedly, you could probably bait a jig with a shrimp, cast it to the spots I normally flipped to, let it sink to bottom, and catch more reds than I did flipping my curly-tail grubs. But I’d bet a bundle again you wouldn’t have as much fun as I did! Short-range flipping for reds is a real hoot!

Oh, what color grub? Purple or clear chartreuse with glitter. Naturally!

Over the 37-odd years that I lived in Buras, I caught reds almost every way imaginable – short of shooting them with arrows, dynamiting them, and gill-netting them, anyway. And I guess it was part of the evolutionary process that eventually I tried “ultra-lighting” ’em. That was a blast: a featherweight spinning outfit, 4-pound line, and 1 1/2-inch soft-plastic shads on one-sixteenth ounce jig-heads. Back then it didn’t matter if the fish almost killed themselves during the fight, since I intended to eat them. I seldom do anymore, so now I refuse to subject them to the stress ultra-light fishing causes.

However, occasionally – especially during late winter and early spring – I have noticed reds keying on small baitfish and being rather reluctant to strike even a 2 1/2-inch cocahoe. During those times I found that a 2-inch shad on a one-sixteenth ounce, size 1 jig-head often generated strikes. Since a lure that light was difficult at best to cast with my “spinnerbait rod”, I worked it with a 5-foot medium-light spinning outfit and 8-pound line with a foot of 20-pound mono for a leader. That combination has produced many reds without undo stress to them. It was really fun fishing, though if you try it, you may have to look on the freshwater side of the lure racks to find tails like those – sac-a-lait stuff.

A lot of water has moved through what’s left of the Plaquemines Parish marshes since I began fishing soft-plastics for reds – and specks, and flounders, and stripers… and for tarpon and lemonfish, for that matter. These days – when I am not fly fishing, of course – you will seldom find any other type of lure tied to my line, and if you do, it will almost certainly be a topwater. Those are the most fun of all.

But they are very limited in their applications. Soft-plastics – the different types and sizes and the accoutrements which further enhance their appeal – can be used successfully in literally every setting imaginable save that when the water is the color of café-au-lait. Even then, you can sweeten ’em with a shrimp and often catch reds – been there/done that in the turbid, chilly waters of the Wagonwheel for many winters. That just about covers all the corners, doesn’t it?

(Game & Fish Publications 4-1999)

 

3-4-11

Weights for Baits

Back in 1976 I got a severe itch to catch a tarpon, bought a boat and three high-dollar trolling outfits specifically for that purpose, and spent a good part of the next five summers pulling Pet 21 spoons around the Gulf in pursuit of them – and never caught a fish!

Oh, I caught jacks – and sharks – and a few king mackerel, and I did jump off a handful of the great silver beasts, but it took a little more than four years to figure out something was slightly amiss with my presentation. Perhaps my spoons weren’t working deeply enough to be most effective…

So I decided to add some weight to one of them, and knowing enough to realize that a heavy weight jerking about wildly on the line with each of a tarpon’s jumps would assuredly lead to the fish’s loss, I tied the weight – an 8-ounce swivel-sinker – to the swivel between the line and the leader with a short length of 20-pound mono. That is called a “break-away system” in some circles, and one fine July afternoon in 1981 it fulfilled its purpose, sinking the spoon much deeper than it would run un-weighted and then breaking free with the first jump of a 7-foot-long tarpon. And that one stayed hooked!

In saltwater fishing it is quite possible that the only thing more important than using properly weighted lures and baits is using them in places where fish are present. In most cases “properly weighted” signifies the lightest weight that will get the intended job done; it also implies using the right type of weight for that job.

In truth, I could have used several types and sizes of weights to sink my spoon on that memorable July afternoon, but you must realize that at the time, I was grasping at straws trying to discover some way – any way – to get the spoon deeper. In most other scenarios the requirements are a bit more definitive.

For example, you are fishing for big red drum alongside a jetty make of granite boulders. You want your bait on bottom, but you know that sooner or later your sinker will foul in the rocks. Therefore, you also want to keep your loses to a minimum. What’s the solution?

Actually, there are two, each involving either a bank sinker or a swivel sinker and each being the lightest that will hold position on bottom. The first is again an assembly with the sinker tied on a dropper to a swivel between the line and leader and with its tether being markedly lighter than the line. The second is to use a 3-way swivel with the line tied to one eye, the heavier leader to another, and the lighter sinker-dropper to the third. In many cases when the weight hangs up in the rocks, it will be all you will have to replace.

Bottom fishing over sand is a bit different, and the best terminal rig is usually determined by sea conditions. In calm water with little current a fishfinder is a good choice (That’s a “Carolina-rig” in freshwater terminology.). In my humble opinion that does not include the little sleeve with a dropper-eye on it that you may have seen advertised (You thread the line through the sleeve, tie it to the leader-swivel, and tie the sinker-dropper to the eye.). Personally, I don’t want anything like that sliding up and down my line and slamming into the swivel; a lead egg sinker sliding up and down my line (And occasionally slamming into the swivel) has caused me no problems for many years, and I do not intend to fix something that ain’t broke!

Incidentally, besides being my favorite rig for use on a sandy bottom in fairly calm seas, I greatly prefer a fishfinder over other terminal assemblies when fishing deep for snappers. In even a slight current the leader will be swept horizontally by the flow, making the bait – like a cigar minnow hooked through the eyes or lips – look reasonably natural.

Back to bottom fishing on sand, some of the best action to be had with bull redfish can take place in some pretty nasty conditions. I quit “enjoying” that kind of foolishness about the time I turned 50, but I still fished on days when the swells or the current prevented the egg sinker on my fishfinder from staying put. When that happened, another “three-way rig” was in order.

Liking 3-way swivels about as much as those sliding-sleeve gizmos, I again tied my line to a swivel, and about 3 feet of 50-pound mono to the swivel and to a size 6/0 hook. Then I took a pyramid sinker – beginning with the same weight as the last egg sinker that wouldn’t hold bottom – and tied it to the leader-end of the swivel with a foot of 30-pound mono. If that wouldn’t stay where I wanted it to, I’d progress upwards to 12 ounces or a bit more, and if that still wouldn’t stay put, then it was probably getting too rough for me to be out there anyway!

On a slightly more quiescent theme, I have some up-country friends who come south a few times every winter to do some inshore redfishing. Many times the fish are found along the shoreline drop-offs of canals and tidal cuts, and popping shrimp-tipped jigs for them has been consistently productive for me for over 40 years. The “rig” is a quarter-ounce jig suspended about 2 feet beneath a 3-inch weighted popping cork. You cast it tightly against the shoreline, and as you work it out and the water depth suddenly exceeds the length of the dropper, the weight of the jig will cause the cork to abruptly sit upright and slightly deeper in the water. That point is usually the strike zone, so the rig, besides catching fish, also shows you where they should be.

Last winter my buddies came down armed with what someone had told them was an “improvement”. They had run their lines through the corks, then threaded on a quarter-ounce egg sinker and tied the line to a swivel so that the swivel was about six inches below the cork. Then they tied around 1 ½ feet of leader to the swivel and finished it off with a Kahle hook!

Once they had retrieved this rig to the point where the egg sinker came off bottom, there was no way they could tell any further change in depth, since there was no weight on the end of their terminal assembly to affect the attitude of the cork. Yeah, they caught fish – it was a good thing, though, that there were so many around that winter. However, I caught many more with much less effort on my ole faithful “weighted” rig. Take all the help you can get!

The “weighted” popping rig is fairly easy to cast, and that’s a consideration which is important when casting a bait, not simply dropping it overboard or trolling it. This technique (casting) is often required when pursuing tight-lipped lemonfish, and when these fish are on the surface, you certainly don’t need – or want – a lot of swivels, snaps, sinkers, beads, and bobbles impacting the water near them!

That was exactly what was happening to a very nice cobia that I met on a drilling rig many years ago when I was a drilling rep for Gulf Oil Corp. One of the rig’s crew-members was fishing for it, and his terminal gear would crash into the water near the fish on every cast. And while the big brown beast never actually spooked from all the watery racket, it wasn’t about to go anywhere near those splashes!

Once the crew-member became frustrated and gave up, I “borrowed” the guy’s rod, stripped about 30 feet of line off the reel and coiled it on the deck, and then tied only a hook to it. Then I baited up with a filleting-sized shrimp I had just procured from the galley, and threw it by hand at the fish. The shrimp’s impact was quite different from that of the crew’s gear, and I caught the fish on the first pitch.

I don’t use big shrimp for cobia anymore, but I will use cigar minnows, and they weigh about the same – and they cannot be cast very well un-weighted with a two-handed casting rod! So since I “threw out” my pitching arm many years ago, and since I do not use spinning gear except for ultralight applications, I must weight the cigar minnow. That is most simply done by tying a half-ounce jig-head to my 50-pound fluorocarbon leader and hooking the minnow onto it through the lips. It casts well – just like a jig, in fact – and its impact is slight. Also, I can work it fairly deep around structure – rigs, reefs, buoys, and such – if fish are not on the surface.

Finally, if you are fishing jigs and find yourself without one heavy enough for your purposes, you can make one which will suffice quite nicely. Take a swivel-sinker of the necessary weight and cut and remove the “swivel” with wire cutters. Next, fasten a single hook of your desired size to a leader (Plastic-coated cable works best here.), slide the sinker – then an appropriately-sized crimping sleeve – down the leader to the hook and anchor the sinker in place there by lightly crimping the sleeve to the leader just above it. Then attach the leader to the line – your choice of methods – and finish off your “jig” with a soft-plastic grub, the size and type dependant on what you are fishing for. It all may not look very appealing to you, but it will wiggle nicely as you jig it at some depth or retrieve it after a cast. I have taken two tarpon on these creations (And several other less noteworthy creatures), the largest estimated at 180 pounds plus. They will get you out of a jam!

So will the act of properly weighting all your “baits”. Do it – and catch more fish!

(Game & Fish Publications 7-2000)

 

1-27-11

Winter’s Dynamic Duo

The tuna and wahoo found off the Mississippi River Delta during winter can provide all the fun and fillets many folks can stand!

The first live yellowfin tuna I ever saw was taken one breezy winter day by the late Capt. “Magic Mike” Adams and weighed just over 144 pounds. I was invited on that trip by him and Dave Ballay, then the owner of the Venice Marina, to get a first-hand look at the area’s winter tuna and wahoo fishery which was just beginning to get a lot of attention in the world of big-game fishing.

Up until the capture of Magic Mike’s prize, though, things had been a little slow – a single strike near a platform in the South Pass Block 89/93 field, apparently from a wahoo. For lack of anything else we blamed our poor fortune on the sloppy sea conditions, and a little after noon we’d had enough of that and headed in. Then about eight miles south of the mouth of Southwest Pass we came upon some birds diving on baitfish of some sort which were being ravaged by a pack of tuna. We quickly deployed a pair of Magnum Rapalas on 50-pound gear, and shortly a rod decked. Mike, who was  seldom able to fish himself on his charter trips, was given the rod, and less than 20 minutes later the fish was aboard – quite an impressive job of rod-handling! But what was even more impressive was the fact that there were big yellowfin tuna that close to the mouth of the pass!

And they do get big, with fish in the 200-pound class being hooked every winter. The wahoo – the second half of this outstanding winter equation – crack the century mark occasionally, and that’s a good one in anybody’s book, but their average size – between 50 and 60 pounds or so – is what makes them shine. That and their delicious white meat!

Open-water action like what we experienced with Magic Mike is an everyday possibility, so be alert for it on your runs out and back. Nevertheless, the greatest portion of this fishery must be credited to the petroleum platforms which have been constructed in water depths that are suitable for these fish. While several meet that criteria all across the Louisiana coast, those roughly south of the Delta are the closest to shore, and during winter the comparably short run getting to them and back can sure save a lot of wear and tear on the ole bod!  Then there’s the infamous “Midnight Lump”.

Cited on most charts as Sackett Bank, the Lump – the snout of a salt dome – lies roughly 16 miles SSW of the mouth of Southwest Pass and rises some 250 feet above the surrounding seabed. It is quite close to the rim of the Continental Shelf and is a natural attractor for a variety of offshore pelagic species.

Still, the “deep-water” platforms must be given the most credit for creating this fishery which, if memory serves me right, began at West Delta Block 152 in the early 1970’s. There, captains like Larry Johnson and the late Stanley Coulon found blackfins while jigging for winter amberjacks and later targeted them directly by chumming with stuff like boiled crawfish heads. No kidding! Both of those tactics still work, but over the years others have been developed which give an angler a little more flexibility. The first is trolling.

In many cases this can be done effectively by rigging three CD18 Magnum Rapalas or Halco Giant Tremblers on around five feet of 130-pound wire, setting them back a ways on 50-pound stand-up gear, and dragging them around the hopeful target area at five to seven knots. That simple technique has accounted for a lot of tuna and wahoo, even on some pretty chilly days. I recall one – again in the SP 89/93 field – with Dave and Debbie Ballay when insulated coveralls were almost warm enough for me, and Debbie was so bundled up I didn’t see how she could even move, yet the tuna were busting bait on the surface all around us! Frequently, though, the fish will be too deep for flat-lines to be effective, thereby demanding a downrigger.

Once suspected fish are marked on the depth recorder’s screen, set the downrigger’s cannonball to run 15 to 20 feet or so above them, allowing for a little “blow-back” of the cannonball. Once the lures are set, reel in enough line to put a slight bend in the rod, and troll them at 3 or 4 knots. While a strike may occur anywhere around a platform, concentrate on its up-current side, and vary your direction around it – for instance, changing from a clockwise to a counterclockwise pattern. A sudden upright snap of the rod is a pretty good indication that the fun and games are about to start real quick!

Normally no more than two downriggers are used at once with a third lure set back on a flat-line. If the water is blue, a surface lure set way back yonder on a center-rigger can lead to some surprises you would not expect on a chilly winter day, but if it is green, forget it.

While trolling can be quite effective for both wahoo and tuna, at times the latter get really picky. One of the most recently established ways to break them of that habit is to offer them live blue runners (a.k.a. “hardtails”) about half the size of those that make such fine king mackerel baits. Those almost totally irresistible morsels can be caught around some of the most productive deep-water platforms, but a more certain bet is to gather some at a nearshore platform before heading for tuna country. Size 8 or 10 Sabiki rigs with white “flies” are used on a medium spinning outfit for this purpose. Handle the fish gently, and do not overcrowd your live-well with them

When you are ready to begin fishing, pass the point of a size 6/0 circle hook through the roof of a runner’s mouth and out the top of its nose. The hook should be tied to a fluorocarbon leader – 80 or 130-pound test – around 15 feet long. That is best connected to the line with a dacron splice so that it can be wound onto the reel for optimum control of the fish at boatside.

Set out no more than two live baits at once, then bump-troll them around the up-current side of the platform. The reel’s drag should be backed off to the point where it will just prevent a backlash after a strike. When that occurs, slowly advance the drag’s lever to its pre-set limit and hold on! You won’t catch many wahoo when live-bait fishing, so if you prefer grilled wahoo steaks over raw tuna, revert to trolling.

Trolling and live-bait fishing also work well around the Midnight Lump, but it took a fleet of commercial boats to show the recs the most consistently productive way to fish there. That’s by “chunking”, and it can lead to more action than many folks can stand!

Once the Lump has been located with the depth recorder (It’s a mile or so almost due south of the WD 143 platform.), the anchor is set with a scope of three (About 600 feet of rope). Then chunking is commenced. This is a form of chumming with bite-sized tidbits dispensed frugally, intending to whet the fish’s appetites rather than feed them. Virtually any fish-flesh will suffice, but freshly-caught little tunny is prime. Bait a size 6/0 circle hook with a chunk, toss it out with a handful of enticers, and with the reel’s drag again set only enough to prevent a backlash, feed out line to allow the bait to drift and sink at the same rate as the chunks. When you feel a pick-up, advance the drag and begin reeling. That will get his attention!

Chunking on the Lump can produce a lot more than tuna. While most often a wahoo will quickly “’hoo” you, occasionally the circle hook will lodge in the fish’s jaw hinge, giving you a better chance with it. Amberjacks are frequently attracted to a chunk line, as are kings and a variety of sharks including makos. Most of those are usually taken beneath the tuna, and while they can provide good supplementary sport and a few more fillets, I cannot recommend you fish deep on the Lump now. You just might catch the red snapper of your lifetime and have to put it back. I’ve seen it happen!

I’ve also seen a lot of very creditable yellowfin tuna and wahoo taken off the Delta during winter. There’s a great opportunity then to catch two of big-game fishing’s prestigious targets. It’s also a great opportunity to amass a mess of very tasty fillets.

Get yourself some of it!

Lagniappe

Hotspots for winter’s dynamic duo. Distances are approximate.

West Delta Blk. 152                 28* 35.3’N  89* 41.9’W         22.6 miles SW Pass

Midnight Lump             28* 38.1’N  89* 33.2’W         16.0 miles SW Pass

South Pass Blk. 89/93 (A)        28* 39.8’N  89* 24.5’W         13.0 miles SW Pass

Moxy                                       28* 36.1’N  89* 18.6’W         25 miles S Pass

Lena                                         28* 39.3’N  89* 09.3’W         19 miles S Pass

Cognac                                    28* 47.4’N  89* 04.2’W         11.6 miles S Pass

South Pass Blk. 49 (C) 28* 52.4’N  89* 04.3’W          7 miles S Pass

BP 109                                                28* 52.5’N  88* 56.8’W         10.6 miles S Pass

While many private-boat owners regularly pursue tuna and wahoo during winter, charter trips are popular. The following skippers work out of the Venice Marina (985-534-9357) and are competent with winter tuna and wahoo.

Capt. Brandon Ballay               985-637-8901

Capt. Damon McKnight           985-640-8700

Capt. James Peters                  504-834-7097

(Tide 1-2003)

 

1-23-11

Fine-tune Your Spoons!

Here are a few ways to increase the already great productivity of these time-honored lures.

Throughout most of recorded history, mankind has relied on less than a handful of artificial enticers to provide him with his fish dinners. One of those is the spoon, and almost every popular gamefish that is present along the Gulf coast will try to eat them

At times, anyway. During others it seems like the fish want more than flashes and pulses through the water.

The first “enhancement” I ever made to a spoon – in this case a “Gypsy King” – was the result of a magazine article I read back in the 1950’s by the late and great Grits Gresham. It consisted of adding a penny balloon – the long and thin type that had been partially cut lengthwise into a skirt of sorts – to the spoon’s hook. The balloon tightened the spoon’s wobbles as well as added action to it, both of which were appreciated by a nice largemouth bass that earned me – at age 12 – and the fish a picture in the sports section of Shreveport’s Sunday newspaper.

These days there are plenty of substitutes for penny balloons that can “dress up” a spoon. A short “trailer” made of dyed bucktail is effective on reds and flounders. If you can’t find any in the stores, cut a clump of hair about half the diameter of a pencil and about an inch long off a fox squirrel’s tail and lash it to the hook’s shank with red sewing thread. A couple of short yellow feathers in lieu of the hair seem to have more appeal to specks, just in case you have any short yellow feathers lying around. One thing to be cautious about when adding a tail to a spoon: too much will kill the lure’s built-in action.

The Gypsy King – along with the Tony Accetta Spoon, the Krocodile, and the Johnson “Sprite”, among others – are typically fitted with treble hooks and so armed have accounted for countless fish. Many of those have been specks and reds taken from the surf, and for wade-fishermen those three points create much more hazard than only one would. A short-shank single hook like Mustad’s C68S SS in size 1/0 for half-ounce spoons are much safer and much stouter than factory-installed trebles. The latter characteristic is a perk in case a bull red comes along and eats your spoon – something they are quite prone to do in the surf!

Single hooks are also much easier to extract from spoon-living flounders. I discovered that many years ago after I stumbled across a gang of them in a tidal cut along the seashore, and those fish went bonkers over a 1/3-ounce “Sidewinder”. Initially I spent as much time unhooking them as I did catching them! No more. Salmon egg-style hooks used in freshwater trout fishing do a good job here.

Spoons like the Tony Accetta “Pet” and the “Drone” are fitted with single hooks, and those do a fair job fresh from the card. However, they can do a lot better with a little fine-tuning.

The first step is to sharpen that hook! On Pets in sizes 13 and 14, needle-points are sufficient for most reds and all of the specks and flounders you will encounter inshore. On the other hand, sizes 15 and larger should be filed to a knife-point so that it will cut into the fish’s mouth rather than punch through it. Use wire-cutters to cut a smidgen off the hook’s point at an angle from outside to inside, and sharpen the cut to a knife-edge. Also, even with the smaller sizes, hook-setting becomes much easier if about half of its barb is filed off.

With the larger sized Pets – say, 17’s through 23’s – it’s also best to smash the threads on the end of the screw that holds the hook to the spoon. The gyrations of large fish – tarpon, cobia, and king mackerel, for instance – can cause it to back out and fall free and the hook to then be pulled from the spoon. Yeah, that will prevent you from changing the hook, should it get all discombobulated by a big spinner shark, but if it ends up saving you a 150-pound tarpon, would that matter?

Another way to dress up a spoon that you intend to use for inshore purposes is to add a strip of reflector tape to the outside of it. You can find rolls of this stuff in the fishing sections of many sporting goods stores, and it’s a cheap and easy way to increase your catches. Actually, you should never fish a spoon without it being so adorned, either straight from the card or by you!

While spoons like the heavier Sprites and Tony Accetta’s can be worked successfully down the water column, the Pets tend to run pretty shallow. And right here and now I must admit a strong preference for that model. Whatever, that tendency is a benefit when targeting skinny-water reds and flounders, but it’s a definite handicap when the fish are deep.

Along much of the coast the Pet 21 was once a very popular tarpon enticer – both when trolled blindly and when cast into surfacing schools. In the latter role it worked well, in the former it either would or it wouldn’t work at all, since tarpon – as they are prone to do – tend to feed deep at times.

I tried everything I knew to get those spoons down to the fish, including setting them back almost 200 yards! Nothing worked, and the “long-line method” would cause line-tangles that you would not believe! Anyway, one day I decided to try a “break-away” system, tying a 16-ounce bank sinker on a short length of 20-pound mono to the swivel between the line and the leader, the idea being to rid the line of that weight once the tarpon started jumping. Over-engineering? Perhaps, but it did result in a 151-pound poon – my first ever.

Break-away systems are definitely not for casting purposes, though if you are a die-hard spoon–slinger, one of those lures can be worked fairly effectively on a fish-finder rig to gain depth. Personally, if that becomes necessary I switch to a jig! Then there are the jigging spoons that are designed to be worked vertically for that purpose, but I seldom actually “jig-fish”, much preferring to cast and retrieve my lures. If I must jig-fish, then I do it with a jig. Nothing complex about that, is there?

What could be and has absolutely nothing to do with gaining depth still seems to be appropriate at this point. A guy I once fished with swore by working a Sprite set a couple of feet beneath a popping cork. He caught redfish like that, too! It always seemed perfectly ridiculous to me, but I occasionally wonder if I’ve been missing something…

If spoons are notoriously effective, they are also notoriously aggravating, the reason being that they twist your line. That can be remedied somewhat by placing a black barrel-swivel between the leader and the line – you do use a couple of feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon for a leader, don’t you? Whatever, there’s a better way.

This is for casting. Begin by installing a #5 stainless split-ring into the spoon’s line-eye, then thread the black swivel onto the split-ring. Tie your leader to that with your knot of choice and to the line with an Albright knot. The results work much more efficiently and will make you look like you really know what you are doing!

It will help keep you from knocking the insert out of your rod’s tip-top guide with the swivel, too!

Trolling with spoons is best done with the snap-swivel between the line and leader, especially when using wire. With a single-strand leader attach the spoon with a haywire twist, then make a loop in the other end with another haywire twist for the snap. Use sleeves for creating the same configuration with cable-leaders.

Back to casting now, you can also fine-tune your retrieves with spoons. Sure, they will produce action with a straight, moderately-slow retrieve, but two other methods often make a big difference. The first is to “yo-yo” them – pull them in by slowly raising the rod’s tip, then dropping it while retrieving line – maintaining contact with the lure while doing so – and then doing it again. Concentrate on what’s going on, since the fish frequently strike while the spoon is sinking.

The other is rippin’ it. Toss it out there, let it sink a bit, and then reel like hell! Warning – this is rather ineffective with reds and flounders, but it can give specks and Spanish macks fits! And I guess I should give the ol Mr. Champ a kind word here, since it’s a really good one for rippin’!

Finally, what color, you might ask? Gold or silver?

Uh, uh – I won’t touch that one! But I will suggest a few of each!

Good enough?

(Game & Fish Publications 6-2009)

 

1-16-11

Techniques for Boating Beasts

(Note: The following is just as applicable to fly fishing as it is to fishin’-fishing. I posted it here simply because it felt like the best place for it.)

You have pumped, humped, strained, and sweated at the side of the boat for the better part of an hour. The fingers of your rod-hand, tightly grasping the rod’s foregrip without a respite, are beginning to cramp; the muscles on the back of that forearm are screaming for relief. Your throat is parched, your legs tremble – but whether from the stress of the battle or from the excitement building within you, you do not know. Now, far below, you detect “color” for the first time. Almost there – you have worked for this fish, and you have earned it: a real trophy.

Then, with it finally at boatside, the guy with the gaff (Or the big net) makes a slight miscalculation in his pass, and with one quick, spray-slinging kick of its tail the fish frees itself from the landing device, breaks the line, and disappears into the depths. You wilt onto the deck, glare at the perpetrator of the foul deed, and realize it’s a damn good thing you don’t have any latent homicidal tendencies.

Ever had that bit of unpleasantness happen to you? If you have, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger! Most of us have been there, and it’s likely that sometime in the future something will again go amiss in the department of boating beasts. Fortunately, there are several ways to greatly lessen that possibility.

The first is to determine whether you want to kill the fish or boat it for a few quick pictures and then a safe release. Then consider what type of fish it is and what is the best method of going about the particular task. Take king mackerel, for instance.

I don’t care to eat kings, but I do like to catch them – and release them! Those up to 30 pounds or a bit larger can be “tailed” by hand very effectively, provided the sides of your boat are low enough to permit it. While you can certainly grab them bare-handed, a “filleting glove” – or the less-expensive orange polyester types – provide a better grip and will not hurt the fish. On the other hand, a “fish-tailer” – a noose of sorts made of spring steel – can cut through its skin, especially when a heavy fish is snared with one. Once you grab the fish around its “handle” right at the base of its tail (Its caudal peduncle), expect one or two healthy kicks from it, but that’s about all. Then slide it aboard. Big crevalle jacks can also be tailed in that fashion, and of course, billfish have their “handles” up front.

If the sides of your boat are too high for a safe tailing effort, then lip-gaffing is a viable alternative. Those gaffs with short handles are most accurately wielded; that’s important, since with fish like kings you must place the gaff’s hook just inside the tip of the lower jaw – much further and you are likely to hit the fish’s gills, so use care. Slide the gaff into the fish’s mouth, turn it so that the hook is pointed down and behind the jawbone, and then firmly pull back on the handle. In other words, don’t swat at the fish’s lower lip! Penetration should be easy, and the fish should be no worse for the wear.

So you are fishing in an S.K.A. tournament and the fish alongside the boat looks like a 50-pounder? Then gaff that sucker! But I’ll get to that in a moment.

While kings are not “networthy” targets (They have been known to slice or bite their way through the meshes!), cobia are. I actually prefer to net those up to 40 pounds or so and for a very good reason.

Cobia are well known for playing possum, and if you stick a gaff into one that’s a tad bit green and manage to get it aboard, you – and the contents of your boat’s cockpit – become subject to a pummeling! A net allows you to keep the fish overboard – but safely secured within the meshes – while it vents its final wrath. The one I used for years had a collapsible handle about four feet long when extended, a rim approximately 30 inches in diameter, and a BIG bag!

Any fish should always be netted headfirst. Always! Big fish should never be lifted aboard with the net’s handle. Never! Do so and the fish’s weight can bend or even break the handle. Instead, work the fish inside the net, and after it has quit kicking, grasp the net’s rim astride the handle with your hands and drag it into the cockpit.

If a fish is too big to net and still might be green, you can throw something like a heavy sinker at it. That just might cause him to dash away and burn up some of his remaining energy, and sometimes it actually works! If it doesn’t, then give a little prayer that he really is whipped, hit him with the gaff, and get him into the cooler ASAP! And it never hurts for someone to sit on the cooler’s lid for a while thereafter, since big fish can kick their way out of a cooler.

I have plenty of first-hand experience with that!

One last thing about netting a big fish, and this is for the angler rather than the netter. Once the fish has been led into the rim of the net, the angler should begin to slack off on the strain he is putting on it. Do NOT give it complete slack line, but too much pressure on it will hinder it from completely entering the net’s bag. And the longer the issue is in doubt, the more likely something unpleasant will occur.

So much for netting. Now let’s get back to the S.K.A. tournament-winning king – or a similar-sized cobia, dolphin, yellowfin tuna, or whatever. In other words, something that you are not about to release and that is far too large to fit in even the biggest net. Then it’s time to break out the gaff.

Ideally, the mark you want to hit with it is the fish’s shoulder just behind its gills. There, the hook will find good purchase in thick muscle and be much less likely to tear free than it would if planted in softer tissue like that which is found over the ribs or the belly. Also, the fish won’t bleed excessively when gaffed in the shoulder; that prevents the loss of precious weight as well as a big mess on the boat. Sound easy? Well, here is where many fish are lost.

The causes are numerous. One which is quite popular is the “blind swipe”. Here, the gaffer aims at nowhere in particular, apparently hoping the hook will find a secure grip on its own. Fairly often this only results in several misses before he makes a lucky hit, but during that time a lightly-hooked fish can tear free and escape. Also, misses have been known to dislodge a lure from a fish’s lip – and to contact and break the line! Take your time, aim at a particular spot which you want to hit on the fish’s shoulder, and then hit it! And don’t swat at it! Slide the gaff – with its hook pointed down – across the fish’s back, then depress it slightly and pull back sharply.

Hitting the lure with a gaff as simply unpardonable, but avoiding the line can present a problem. If the angler and the fish are positioned so that the line is across the fish’s back – the most common issue, you must slide the gaff between the line and the fish before making your pass. Otherwise, simply wait until a better opportunity arises.

Another good way to lose a big fish at the gaff is to dally around between the time you stick him and the time you get him aboard. The longer a gaffed fish remains out of the boat, the more likely he will kick himself off of it. Get him aboard! And once that has been accomplished, get out of his way, but do NOT turn loose of the gaff until he settles down. If you do, someone – or something – could get a very sharp rap from its handle!

What if the fish is too big for one man to lift aboard. Then put a second gaff into him and quickly. If there isn’t another, then lasso his tail.

The combination of a gaff and a tailing rope is very effective on fish with hard tails – cobia, yellowfin tuna, and such, but the rope should be readily available and with a large loop tied with a slip-knot on one end. Simply pass the loop over his tail while the gaffer holds on for dear life, snub it up, and then both of you drag him aboard.

A rope can also be used to snare a big fish, should your net be too small or you don’t have a gaff aboard. Tie a large loop around the line with a slip-knot, shake the loop down the line and over the fish’s head until it reaches his gills, snub it tight, and you’ve got him. Anchor rope in sizes 3/8-inch or 1/2-inch works just fine.

Boating a beast – possibly your trophy of a lifetime – is the most critical part of the entire affray. Think about what you want to do and how to do it, and then do it – quickly but not hurriedly. There is a difference, and you don’t want to discover what it is with a fish like that at boatside!

(Game & Fish Publications 5-1999)

 

1-6-11

Black Gold – Yellow Mouths

Ever been able to fish on the job?

Prior to the time I became a full-time outdoor writer, that now being over 20 years ago, I’d had a very rewarding career in the south Louisiana oil field. Early on it involved operating a production facility (a.k.a. “tank battery”); later I became a supervisor of drilling and remedial projects. Almost all of my time in both positions was spent in the waters around the Mississippi River Delta, the South Timbalier area, and Vermilion Bay, and I must avow that I thoroughly enjoyed my work and remain quite proud of some of my accomplishments in both roles. But I also received a fringe benefit of sorts that was way beyond the raises, promotions, and all the time off that went with the job – I learned how strongly the oil field influenced the fish around and within it, one of the most affected being specks.

Back in those days, if the operation was progressing smoothly, the bosses didn’t say much if I occasionally slipped away for a short while to “test bottom” (That means “to fish” in south Louisiana oil-field vernacular.). Fact is, early on some of those bosses would often appear at my facility at lunch-time to share in the results of those tests. Anyway, it didn’t take long for me to begin applying what I learned from those “tests” to the trips I made during my days off.

For speck-fishing purposes, Louisiana’s coastal oil fields must be separated into three types. The first is best described as “Inshore”. Here the reservoirs lay beneath marshlands that are too unconsolidated to support the heavy equipment that is required to drill and service a well. So canals are dredged from the nearest navigable waterway to the site where the well will be drilled so that tugs can move barge-mounted equipment to and from the spot. At least, that’s the way it was during the heyday of those fields.

Initially there was usually some attempt to isolate natural waterways from the canal to prevent possible saltwater intrusion into the area. That worked for a while, but over time canals’ banks subsided and shorelines eroded. Also, wooden bulkheads and clam-shell dams that had been constructed for isolation purposes washed out around their ends, therefore losing that capability. Because of those and other factors, the salinity in some canals increased greatly. Then too, some canals intersected large bayous and bays that were not isolated. All of this allowed any fish that inhabited the adjacent areas free ingress and egress to the canals.

An inshore oil field typically consists of numerous wells drilled at individual locations – therefore requiring different canals – and then connected to an often distant production facility by small-diameter pipelines. Here – usually! – the wells and facilities are not the primary form of speck-structure; unconformities in the numerous canals are.

One of the best of those is an intersection with a natural bayou; almost as good is an intersection with another canal. Tidal currents in these areas tend to concentrate various minnows and shrimp – which can be prolific in these waters, and that draws the specks. Another form of prime structure is a canal’s “dead-end” – either the point where it actually terminates or where it is spanned by a dam or a bulkhead. Either also serve to concentrate prey.

Inshore oil fields, while providing a great fishing opportunity for specks at times, typically have some adversities. Many of them are subject to turbidity from the effluent of nearby rivers. However, this is usually less of a deterrent during the dry times of autumn – which just happens to be the time when specks make their annual move inshore, and autumn is almost always the best time to fish these waters. Still, finding reasonably clear water remains a major factor even then in this fishery. If it is not present at intersections, try a dead-end. If it isn’t clear there, try another canal.

Current – also an important factor here – is usually most easily determined at the intersections. While the falling tide has proven to be best in my experiences, water moving either way is much better than when it’s not moving at all. Finally, unless a gang of specks has hemmed up a concentration of prey in a very confined area, they will usually be on the move. Once a hot bite cools, don’t wait for it to begin again – try to re-locate its source!

Specks found in most of the oil-field canals that I have fished during autumn can be best described as skillet material with very few even “nice” ones in the mix, most ranging from less than a pound to two pounds or so. Unless I was fly fishing at the time, my steadfast enticers were either chartreuse or purple soft-plastic grubs threaded onto a 1/8-ounce jig-head and suspended around two feet beneath a 3-inch weighted popping cork. Really grungy water may demand a small shrimp “sweetner” be added to the jig, but that’s generally a better solution for redfish than for specks. Some good examples of productive inshore oil fields are the Wagonwheel near Venice, The Chauvin field north of Lake Boudreaux, and the Deep Lake field on the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge.

The second type of oil patch found along the Louisiana coast is commonly known as a “bay field”. Those are located in large bays and sounds usually near the seashore, and they are typically developed similarly to inshore fields. Here, though, what is often the best structure is the field’s wells and platforms – the production facilities and smaller manifold platforms. The best of those is usually determined by how much iron is in the water around them, and the older and junkier-looking it is, the better!

These fields are typically found in water that is much saltier than that which is present in the inshore fields, and that creates corrosion. Although both the wells and the platforms are normally equipped with cathodic protection devices (“Anodes”), stuff still rusts, and some of it falls apart over time and finds its way to the bottom of the bay. Also, oysters flourish in many such bays, and the combination of oysters and benthic junk creates ideal structure for attracting and holding prey.

On a day-to-day basis, though, specks will most often be found where the most iron is in the water, and that concentration is usually near the point where the small-diameter pipelines – the “flow-lines” – from the individual wells approach a platform. The parts of them you will see are called “risers” and extend like your fingers nearly vertically from that part of the line that lays on the bottom of the bay up through the water-column, through its surface, and then on up to a manifold on the platform’s deck. The lines are frequently in a rather convoluted jumble on the bay-bottom near the platform, and there they can hold the largest specks around!

A marked exception to that is an individual well that was drilled through a reef or in water deep enough to require a clam-shell “pad” for safe drilling operations. The first of those scenarios must also be determined by prospecting – tight-lining with a quarter-ounce jig-head dressed with a grub in one of the aforementioned colors is a good choice here, but since there can be as many as 100 or more wells in such a field (There could have once been many more than that!), the odds of discovering one on a reef are rather poor. On the other hand, wells with shall-pads are often plainly announced by two parallel rows of piling-clusters that extend away from them, the pad lying between the rows and rising sharply some distance above the bay-bottom. With stealth, pads can also be located with a depth recorder without disturbing any nearby fish – which commonly hold position beside the well and along the up-current edge of the pad. These speck-magnets are usually found in the field’s deepest water.

Another prime form of bay-field structure is rocks that were used to protect shorelines near complexes of a field’s office and support buildings. I know of a number of those “breakwaters”, some through work, others through off-day “wildcatting” trips. One of them deserves a reflection.

This particular breakwater lined the northern shoreline of an island that housed the offices and supply buildings for the South Black Bay field where I worked as a production facility’s operator (i.e. “Tank Battery Commander”). Eventually those buildings were removed, and a stipulation in the island’s lease required that at such time, the island would be reverted to its original condition as much as possible. The rocks were removed – but not all of them!

A decade later while I was ram-rodding a remedial operation on a well in that field, I conducted a “bottom-test” along that stretch of the island which, not surprisingly, had receded a considerable distance because of wave-erosion. The remaining rocks lay scattered in 2 to 3-foot depths about a 50-foot cast from the present shoreline, and for two days – while standing calf-deep in the bay while clad in steel-toed boots, company coveralls, and a plastic hard-hat – I provided lunch for the crew.

Admittedly, those rocks would be very difficult to locate these days – unless someone did so with his outboard’s lower unit! Others that lie scattered across the coast in similar fields (Like the rock jetty off Deepwater Point across the river from Venice that protects the facilities for the Coquille Bay field.) are much easier to find, and every one – every one! – of those that I have fished, some of which were very insignificant-looking, has given up specks.

Bay fields are quite productive from late summer well into autumn, and they typically hold specks that average much larger than those found in inshore fields. They also tend to hold bull redfish and large crevalle jacks, and the potential for hooking one of those beasts is great enough to warrant gear a bit stouter than that which suffices inshore.

Any decent reel – spinning or casting – that will hold over 150 yards of 14-pound line should be sufficient. However, a slightly heavier leader is much more important here than it is in inshore work. I suggest at least two feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon in that position and tied to the line with an Albright knot – no snaps or swivels! Also, the jig-head should be a bit stouter – one of those round-headed models with a short-shank size 3/0 hook being highly recommended. Again, quarter-ounce should be enough except for the shell pads in the deeper parts of these fields where 3/8-ounce is usually a better bet.

Some of the most acclaimed of Louisiana’s bay fields are Black Bay southeast of Delacroix Island, Breton Sound Block 21 north of Venice, Timbalier Bay west of Leeville, and a scattering of smaller fields south of Houma from Cocodrie west to Theriot.

The final type of Louisiana’s coastal oil patches that offers fine opportunities for specks is found offshore – well, “nearshore” – in depths up to 25 feet or so. This seems to be a late-spring through early autumn affair, it offers quality fish, and without a doubt it requires more thought and understanding than the other two types. But if you can catch the right conditions, you can really do ‘em some damage!

These fields are developed by either individual wells that flow to a few processing facilities that are scattered about a particular area or by a number of wells drilled from individual platforms. The various structures in either type of field can be equally productive, though because of some benthic feature nearby, some of them are always better than others, so prospecting is in order. Here the specks usually hold deep and near the structures. Add to that the current which is often present, and getting even a fairly heavy jig down to them before the current sweeps it away is no easy task. But on the days when the current is minimal, it can be easily done.

Begin by securing your boat to the down-current side of the structure, ensuring that you have not tied it off to a part of a well or a piece of production equipment. Then make about a 20-foot up-current cast parallel to the structure. Allow the jig to sink as you retrieve it slowly with short twitches alongside the structure – that being just enough to maintain contact with it.

Typically of any coastal oil field, those found offshore have some structures that are regularly productive and some that aren’t. Make note of both types – that way you will spend your time fishing a good one and not fishing a bad one. And of extreme importance here, approach and leave any structure that you intend to fish as quietly as possible!

That includes the time that it takes to secure your boat to one of them! Remember that the fish are probably less than 25 feet from you, and any revving and gear-shifting that you must do during that time in order to hold the boat’s position is life-time guaranteed to turn off the fish – at least for a while. And give your competitors a break by leaving the structure in a reasonably quite manner, too. Who knows, the next guy that comes along may know something about the spot that you don’t!

If the idea of fishing for specks around an offshore platform intrigues you, try West Delta Block 27 west of Venice, Bay Marchand Block 2 out of Fourchon, and the smaller Eugene Island Blocks 29, 51, and 57 below Morgan City. And, like the other types, there are more.

One note on coastal oil fields in general. Their structures are (Supposed to be) equipped with lights to prevent collisions with them and to facilitate working on them at night. The production facilities are usually lit the brightest, and those lights tend to draw prey – which then draw specks. Night fishing around such structures, especially during late summer and early autumn, can be nothing short of phenomenal, especially in the bay-fields. If the weather is conducive for an after-dark trip, consider it. Frequently the “strike zone” is the transitional area between the dark water and that which is lit the brightest, but never say “Always”! And as a rule of thumb, smaller and lighter jigs work better than larger, heavier ones!

Of the various types of oil fields found in these waters, I must admit that bay-fields are my favorite! One reason for that is they are easier to fish and for a longer period of time than the other two. And then too, I have fished more of them than I have the others. But you can take this to the bank: Anywhere the water is a bit salty along the edge of the Louisiana coast and there’s black gold beneath it, there is a very good possibility that there are yellow mouths within it!

(Game & Fish Publications 8-2008)

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