Lafitte's Redfish Treasure
September 28, 2010
In the spring, bruiser reds head shallow, creating some of the most exciting fishing of the year. How do top guides in the Lafitte area approach those complex, fish-filled waterways at this time of year?
About 200 years ago, the Baratarians, buccaneers under the command of Jean Lafitte, sailed the legendary waters of the bay that now bears their name, smuggling Spanish gold and other contraband goods through these labyrinthine channels.
Lafitte maintained his headquarters on Grand Terre Island across Barataria Pass from Grand Isle, the only occupied barrier island in Louisiana today. His ships docked at Grand Terre, which separates Barataria Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. Lafitte’s men sailed up Barataria Bay into what was then Barataria Bayou. Now, the dredged Barataria Waterway flows past the town that bears Lafitte’s name. From there, they entered Lake Salvador, Lake Cataouatche and numerous bayous southwest of New Orleans that eventually lead into the city.
Supposedly, Lafitte amassed a huge stockpile of gold and jewels in the course of his nefarious business dealings, and legend has it that he buried the cache somewhere on one of the numerous islands in the Barataria Estuary. Two centuries on, nobody’s discovered Lafitte’s trove.
But nowadays, another kind of gold rush is on in the waters of the Barataria Estuary. Today, the golden hue of interest is the glitter of redfish swarming the fertile waters once plied by Lafitte. These marshes, canals and lakes provide some of the best redfish action in North America.
Lafitte would probably recognize much of the lower bay today. Vast marshes broken only by an occasional camp or oil-field structure extend from horizon to horizon. However, the many canals dug to reach the precious black gold make the area a maze even more complex today than it was in the Baratarians’ days.
Those canals have contributed to the massive erosion suffered by the region. On the one hand, Louisiana contains about 40 percent of the wetlands in the contiguous United States; on the other, about 80 percent of wetlands loss in the United States takes place in the Bayou State, with somewhere between 25 and 35 square miles of Louisiana marsh eroding into the Gulf of Mexico annually.
Ironically, that loss improves fishing — at least for now. Erosion turns vast chunks of marshland into an archipelago of small soggy islands that provide edges and shorelines along which baitfish, crabs, shrimp and other morsels for predators thrive, attracting redfish in huge numbers. But if the marsh continues to dissolve into shallow open flats, the fishing is destined to decline in quality.
At the moment, however, you won’t find any better habitat for redfish than southeast Louisiana’s coastal marshes, which stretch from Vermilion Bayou to the Mississippi River Delta south of Venice and up the east side of the great river to Delacroix and Hopedale.
“Before the last storm, this shoreline extended farther out into the lake,” said Capt. Phil Robichaux of Robichaux’s Saltwater Guide Service in Lafitte, about 40 minutes from downtown New Orleans. “See that bulkhead out in the lake? I remember when that was the shoreline. It’s awful how much marsh we are losing to erosion here. The storms killed much of the vegetation where redfish hide — but we’ll give it a try.”
Robichaux stopped along a shoreline in Little Lake, a wide, shallow estuary just southwest of the town of Lafitte along the Barataria Waterway. Several small tributaries punctuate the shoreline, facilitating an influx of bait and creating workable ambush points. The water being cold and muddy, the captain suggested a slow, deliberate approach. He attached a white grub to a popping cork rig and tossed it toward the mouth of a little bayou entering the lake. Almost immediately, the cork went down.
“We’ve got fish here,” he said. “White is one of the best colors down here all year long. We’ll fish along this shoreline. If we don’t catch any more fish, we’ll move. If someone catches just one redfish along a bank, there’s a reason the fish is there. Sometimes, anglers catch two or three on the second pass. If there is something that attracted one redfish, it will attract more.”
As water warms in the spring, redfish move from the deeper canals into the shallow lakes and marshy ponds, growing increasingly aggressive. Often, anglers catch them in less than 2 feet of water. Sometimes, anglers can spot redfish sunning themselves in shallow water, backs or tails exposed, as they cruise the shorelines looking for crabs, shrimp, baitfish or other succulent items to gulp down.
“In cold water, sometimes you almost have to hit redfish on the head to make them bite,” Robichaux observed. “Slow down the retrieve when fish are not as aggressive. Leave a little slack in the line and only move the bait a few inches at a time.”
Myriad soft-plastic baits also work on Barataria redfish. I tried a plastic shrimp in natural colors with a pink tail, and a big redfish engulfed the bait on the first cast. Robichaux dropped anchor within casting distance of the bayou mouth. After catching several reds, we drifted along the shoreline.
Redfish also hit plastic minnows or slugs, or similar baits, which are usually about 3 to 6 inches long. Use these baits on 1/8- to 1/2-ounce lead jigheads, depending on depth and tide strength. Use the smallest weight that will get the bait to the bottom while still permitting long, accurate casts. Work baits along the bottom, lifting them off the mud or slowly retrieving them just over the bottom.
A variety of colors will attract redfish. In muddy water, use glow and chartreuse, white or black and chartreuse; in clear water, use avocado and chartreuse, solid chartreuse, smoke, clear, salt and pepper or purple and chartreuse. In extremely muddy or cold water, when fish don’t actively feed, tip jigheads with a piece of fresh shrimp for added flavor and scent.
On bright days, gold, silver or black spoons in the 1/4- to 3/4-ounce range also prove effective when redfish gather in grassy areas. Weedless spoons can dance over the surface like topwater baits, or wobble through weedy areas with little trouble. Some people tip spoons with bright plastic trailers, skirts or natural pork chunks.
“Gold spoons are good in clear water,” said Capt. Scott Poche, another guide on Robichaux’s team. “They are excellent when the sunlight can flash off them in clear water. In stained water, redfi
sh can’t see them. In stained water, I use something with more noise, vibration or scent. Grubs dipped in scent might work.”
As water continues to warm, many anglers shift to topwater baits, matched by few other lures for the pure exhilarating thrill produced when a big redfish explodes on them. Among the most favored topwater baits in Louisiana are walking baits, which closely resemble mullet swimming near the surface. Redfish often ambush schools of mullets, and a 5-pound redfish can swallow a 12-inch mullet — so think of the terror that a 20-pounder can evoke!
Walking baits “walk,” zigzagging from side to side across the surface. For extra strength and action, tie about 36 inches of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon shock leader to a line and attach a walking bait with a loop knot to allow the bait to zigzag freely. To create a continuous side-to-side motion that produces fish, hold the rod tip downward. Make short, brisk flicks with the wrist holding the rod. At times, a brief pause can produce a reaction strike.
“I keep it working side to side constantly but slowly,” Robichaux said. “Some people try to jerk or twist it, but that doesn’t give it proper action — the action comes from short pops with the wrist. Sometimes, I walk the dog for a little while and stop. Let the fish determine how to work a bait.”
If a redfish chases a topwater bait, avoid the natural inclination to stop to let the fish catch up to the bait. Mullet fleeing from ravenous redfish don’t stop to allow the spot-tailed marauders to catch up to them: They swim faster, and more erratically. If a redfish appears near a bait, work it even more vigorously.
Because its mouth is oriented downward, a redfish will often lose sight as it strikes at a topwater bait and, sometimes, miss — so don’t set the hook on a topwater bait when a redfish hits it, as it’ll either hook itself or not. If the hooks connect with the fish, the angler holding the rod will instantly feel the power of the line puller; if the angler feels nothing, he or she should continue working the bait, perhaps even faster. Frequently, a redfish infuriated at having overshot its prey the first time will return to obliterate the bait on a second pass.
Redfish anglers can use poppers, prop baits, jerkbaits or other topwater lures. When jerked, these lures pop, chug or gurgle, making considerable commotion. Fish these when redfish aren’t feeding as aggressively and winds or waves are producing distracting noise. Pop them once and then stop, letting baits remain motionless until the ripples fade; then repeat the maneuver. By popping and stopping with a slow, deliberate movement, anglers can keep these in the strike zone longer than walking baits.
Prop baits come equipped with nose or rear propellers that churn the water for added effect. The harder you jerk them, the more noise they make. Anglers can retrieve them with a steady motion, almost like a floating buzzbait, or use the stop-and-pop approach. At times, the repeated buzzing by a prop bait across the nose of a lethargic redfish might provoke it to strike with anger.
In Little Lake, we fished a 100-yard stretch of bank, returning to it several times. Strikes came in spurts, and after a period of no hits, everyone would hook up at once in the same vicinity. Those redfish probably clustered, unseen by us, around a dropoff, a hole or an oyster reef. By noon we’d landed our four-person limit of 20 redfish ranging from 4 to 12 pounds.
In addition to the Little Lake area, just about anywhere in the Barataria Bay system — from Lake Salvador to the Gulf of Mexico — can yield redfish. Anglers generally fish on a falling tide, but an incoming tide opens more shallows to fishing and boating.
“It’s hard to catch redfish on a slack tide,” Poche explained. “Any tidal movement is good for catching redfish. An incoming tide allows people to fish the shallow flats, duck ponds and broken marshes in a little deeper water. On an outgoing tide, people can’t get on the flats, so they have to fish deeper shorelines. With even a drop of 6 inches, people might not be able to fish the shallow ponds in most boats.”
From spring through fall, anglers generally hunt redfish along the shallow, weedy shorelines of ponds and lakes. It’s almost like bass fishing: They slowly maneuver down likely shorelines, looking for activity or blind casting to good cover. Like bass, redfish often hunt near structure such as flooded reeds, oyster reefs, docks, pilings, points, coves and other irregularities. Fortunately, Lafitte anglers don’t need to go very far to find promising cover and fast action.
“Redfish bite all year long,” Robichaux said. “People don’t realize that. We use the same 1/4-ounce jigheads all year long. About 90 percent of the time, we use cocahoe tails. Sometimes we’ll use a beetle tail.”
Within five minutes of launching in Lafitte, anglers can tangle with redfish in “the Pen,” a large system near Lafitte Harbor Marina. Years ago, a storm broke through a levee and flooded this cow pasture with about 4 feet of water. Grass thickness waxes and wanes with annual variations in salinity. Depending on that variation, and on tidal conditions, anglers can catch redfish or bass — sometimes both — in the Pen. You might also catch speckled trout, sheepshead, flounder, drum or several other species of fish there; you never know what might erupt from the grass to attack a bait.
A brief boat ride’s distance from landings at Lafitte Harbor Marina or C-Way Marina is the Bayou St. Denis area on the northwest edge of Barataria Bay. Also very close to the marinas are Bayou Perot and Bayou Rigolets. Grass flats on the southern and eastern shorelines of Lake Salvador can give up solid catches at times. Other honeyholes include Turtle Lake, Long Bay, Round Lake and Raccoon Lake.
“We don’t have to run to Barataria Bay,” Poche said. “I consider Turtle Lake and Little Lake one big area. A lot of redfish hunt along the shorelines in those lakes. Bayou Rigolets has some great redfishing at times. Bayou Rigolets goes from near Lafitte Harbor Marina through Harvey Cut; it’s about five minutes from the marina. Little Lake is about 15 minutes away; Turtle Bay is about 10 minutes away.”
On the east side of the Barataria Waterway are Bay Round, Airplane Bay and Bay Five. These larger bodies of water offer slightly deeper, solider, better-defined shorelines with dropoffs. Flats along the shorelines generally hold about a foot of water, but drop into water about 4 feet deep farther out.
Closer to the Gulf of Mexico, the passes of Barataria Bay are apt to harbor big redfish. Hotspots include the beaches of Grand Isle, Hackberry Bay, the backside of Leeville, Caminada Pass, Four-Bayou Pass, Barataria Pass and, near Manila Village, the remnants of a once-thriving community of commercial fishermen who lived in structures on stilts over open water.
“In the Barataria system, we catch many 15- to 20-pound redfish heading out into the Gulf,” said Capt. Theophile Bourgeois of Bourgeois Charters in Lafitte. “Sometimes, reds are very aggressive and hit anything. Sometimes, we see them, but they won’t hit anything. I have seen what I call a ‘red tide,’ where 400 to 500 redfish feed on the surface. I wouldn’t want to put my h
ands in the water then.”
Other worthwhile redfish venues nearby include Bayou Dupont, Bay Maurice, Bayou Pirogue, Fisherman’s Reef, Cat Island and St. Mary’s Point. In almost any site with a sufficiency of flowing water, bait and cover is the possibility that redfish may lurk, a living hoard that beckons to those prospecting for a golden treasure to rival Lafitte’s.
To book trips with Capt. Phil Robichaux’s Saltwater Guide Service, call (504) 689-2006; call (504) 341-5614 for Bourgeois Charters.