Chasing Louisiana's Monster Bull Redfish with a Fly
How good is the fly fishing action for world-class bull redfish in southeastern Louisiana? So good that there are times to drop whatever you are doing, grab your fly rod and go chase possible record-setters
Conway Bowman is one of my favorite people in the fly fishing industry, always smiling whenever I see him and usually willing to stop and talk shop.
In some respects, that's his job as the host of 50 Places to Fly Fish Before You Die on World Fishing Network along with being a co-host of The Outfitters built by Ford F-Series shows on WFN's sister network, Sportsman Channel.
In other ways, that's just Conway Bowman being Conway Bowman, one of the most likable anglers anyone will ever meet on and off the water.
I first met Conway at a fly fishing show more than a decade ago when I was a writer for ESPN Outdoors and he was the host of the ESPN show In Search of Fly Water.
It didn't take long for me to like Bowman and his infectious manner, not to mention the fact he was into catching big fish.
Or more exactly, extreme-size triple-digit fish on the fly, something that he is particularly good at as a fly fishing guide for fly rod caught mako sharks swimming the Pacific Ocean waters near his San Diego home (www.conwaybowman.com).
Since then, whenever we've seen each other at a trade show, Bowman has always taken the time to visit, to provide needed quotes for a story or even to repeat a longstanding invite to come to the West Coast to catch a mako shark on the fly with him (one of these days, my friend, one of these days).
During one of our shooting-the-bull visits about fly fishing, the conversation turned to a familiar subject we had first visited a decade earlier, the subject of Louisiana's huge redfish.
Or more specifically, to the shallow waters lying barely an hour to the east of New Orleans' Bourbon Street, a collection of intricate and complex saltwater marshes including Biloxi Marsh among others.
All of these years later, Biloxi Marsh is a spot that remains near and dear to Bowman's heart despite the fact he has – quite literally – fly fished all over the world.
That ongoing love affair with one of the best saltwater fly rod venues in North America came after an impromptu trip to chase bull reds on the fly with Capt. Gregg Arnold (www.giantreds.com; (504) 237-6742) back in January 2004.
As the story goes, Bowman was getting ready to shred several feet of new powder at Southern California's Mammoth Mountain ski area when Arnold called and in essence told Conway to ditch the snowboard and to get his backside to southeastern Louisiana.
And it wasn't just to celebrate the BCS national football championship that the home state LSU Tigers had reeled in days earlier with a win over the Oklahoma Sooners.
No, the gist of the conversation between Arnold and Bowman had to do with the opportunity to catch world-class redfish on the fly, something that caused Conway to quickly shelve his snowboarding plans and to hop a plane for the Bayou Country.
A few days later, Bowman left Louisiana with a huge smile on his face after experiencing some of the best fly fishing action the saltwater world has to offer.
All just a hop, skip and a jump from the Big Easy's downtown area and the French Quarter.
"(The) place (Biloxi Marsh) is insane," said Bowman. "I didn't catch a fish under 20 pounds the whole time I was there, (but) I never expected to catch a world record."
World record? Yeah, no wonder Bowman was all smiles.
Caught on the fourth and final day of his trip, Bowman had to make three or four pinpoint casts in front of the feeding red before she pounced on the fly, inhaled it and then proceeded to take off for Biloxi or some other spot on the nearby Mississippi coastline.
With a couple of long, hard runs that took Bowman well into his backing, the fight soon settled into a mammoth half-hour-long tug-of-war at the end of his 10-weight fly rod.
Caught on a purple-and-gold Haley's Comet crab fly designed by Tim Aid, Bowman's big bull red weighed in at 41.65 pounds.
That was enough to eventually gain certification from the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) as a tippet-class world record for the red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) in the 20-pound class.
These days, despite such problems as a natural disaster (does the name of 2005 Hurricane Katrina ring a bell?) and man-made disasters (such as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010), Biloxi Marsh continues to be one of the best spots in the world to go catch a big bull redfish on the fly.
"We have a very healthy marsh in close proximity to bigger water," said Arnold, a highly sought after fly rod captain who now has a total of five IGFA world record redfish landed aboard his skiff.
Bowman agrees with Arnold's assessment, noting the abundance of food on the shallow-water flats near New Orleans is one of the primary reasons the big boy bull reds leave the Gulf of Mexico each winter and head for the skinny water.
"Some of (the) fish (on that trip) were standing on their head with their tails sticking out (of the water) for like five seconds trying to grub crabs," said Bowman.
"Imagine a 40-pound redfish standing on his nose trying to pick up a (crab). It's pretty cool."
Indeed it is, especially when that fish turns out to be an IGFA world-record contender on a 20-pound tippet.
Interested in tackling a trophy redfish of your own with a fly rod?
"First of all, pick out the right time of the year, October to January," said Bowman.
While smaller redfish (and other saltwater species like speckled trout, black drum and sheepshead) can be caught year round, the late fall and winter months are the best times to go and try to run down one of the region's giant bull reds.
If the timing is one consideration, so too is the casting.
"Don't go down there thinking that you'll make your typical 40-foot cast," said Bowman. "A lot of those fish were sitting out at 60 feet. Be able to cast a minimum of 50 feet and you're cool."
A third key is to tackle these giant reds with the right fly tackle. That includes heavy fly rods, a floating fly line and a 9-foot monofilament leader with 20-pound test tippet.
"Be prepared to throw a 10-weight rod," said Bowman. "With a lighter rod, you're just not going to be able to overpower these fish."
Keep in mind part of overpowering these bull reds is to let the rod do its work during the fight that ensues after a big fish is hooked.
"On those big fish, you've got to get that low rod angle," said Bowman. "When the fish is running out, lower the rod angle and let him run.
"When he stops, then start putting the screws to him."
With any luck, a half hour or so after doing that, Capt. Arnold will be hoisting up another huge redfish to see what weight the Boga Grip shouts out.
And with a little more luck, perhaps your name will be the one that edges Bowman's out in the IGFA record book.
If he doesn't beat you to the punch, that is, and break his own world record.
"It's the best sight casting I've pretty much ever done and I guess I've fished for just about everything," said Bowman.
"You're fishing in inches of water, you're sight casting to these fish and then you're fighting a truly big fish on a fly rod," he added.
"It's really everything a fly fisherman could want."
That and a huge, world-class smile, the kind that Conway Bowman is known far and wide throughout the fly fishing world for having.
Even on days when he leaves more than 40 inches of fresh powder and his snowboard behind.