Reds: East Vs. West

Both the east and the west sides of Louisiana's Gulf Coast can claim rip-roarin' redfishing. So which rates the top spot? (April 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Louisiana coastal anglers are seeing some of the most spectacular redfish action in recent history. From the marshes surrounding Lake Sabine to the Chandeleur Islands, limits of redfish are the norm for those with knowledge of local hotspots and seasonal patterns. The question, however, is: What part of the state offers the best chance at catching big reds? The vast wetlands of the west or the Mississippi Delta region to the east?

Let's look at both regions, and ask the anglers who doggedly pursue redfish there what they have to say.

WEST COAST

The Sabine River basin has been producing many redfish over the last few years, yet some of the most productive areas are rarely targeted by anglers. Take Black Bayou, for example: This huge drainage begins near Hackberry and runs to the Texas border, draining hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile estuary.

Shorelines lined with clams and shell middens (areas in which Native Americans prepared, dined on and discarded the shells of clams, oysters and mussels) are present here, and are great places for targeting winter reds. Watch for the high outgoing tidal movements or the last hour or so of rising tides for the best action.

"It's hard to beat small fresh chunks of mullet fished on the bottom," said Capt. Albert Bates, who frequents the area. He rigs his mullet on a fishfinder (Carolina) rig, which consists of an egg weight rigged above a swivel and attached to a leader.

"I don't stay at one spot too long. If I don't get a bite fairly soon I will move to another and usually by the time you have hit a few you'll have reds in the ice chest," Bates said.

Anglers should not balk at targeting shell deposits north of coastal systems, even when the bays are flooded with fresh water. Redfish have a high tolerance for fresh water, as is evidenced by their stocking at inland lakes around the country. It's common for anglers to catch blue catfish and gaspergou (freshwater drum) right alongside redfish.

"A lot of people miss out on good redfish because they think an area is too fresh for them (reds)," the late outdoor writer/redfish expert Ed Holder once said. "But I can't tell you how many times I have cast to reds among largemouth bass, for example,"

Moving up the bayou system and the stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway between Orange and Lake Charles, anglers can catch plenty of reds around mussel beds. "An old-timer showed me some mussel beds after a big norther blew through," said veteran guide Capt. Skip James. "They're not very big, but there is something on them the redfish love, and I think they eat some of them as well."

James likes to fish all the way down with a Rat-L-Trap, letting it hit the bottom and slowly raising and dropping his rod tip. "It's totally against the way you would typically think of fishing with a Rat-L-Trap, but it works great," he said. "I start off by bouncing it sort of real slowly and then will slow roll it over the shell."

Anglers preferring natural baits can use small chunks of mullet or cracked blue crab. "These reds for some reason like to hit smaller baits this time of year," James said. "I think it's because most of what they are preying on is smaller, so they naturally hit it more aggressively than large baits.

"The east side of Louisiana gets a lot of attention for its redfish and deservedly so, but I think ours fight a bit harder and are bigger on average. So I would say the west coast gets the advantage -- that is, if catching a big fish is on your agenda."

Moving toward Lake Calcasieu, look for some of the deeper oyster reefs to provide some of the best fishing for reds. Oyster reefs are loaded with sand eels, a key component of the redfish diet at this time of year. The general practice while fishing reefs is to make long drifts with the current. A good tip is to use a windsock or driftsock to slow boat movement. A slower drift will make for fewer hangups and better bite detection. Keep in mind that not all oyster reefs are created equal, and that not all parts of an oyster reef are the same. It's important to look for the structure within structure.

An oyster reef is a structure all by itself, but structure lies atop that structure. A big clump of oysters rising up on a slight ridge on a reef with an average depth of 10 feet is structure on structure; a sunken boat on a reef is structure on structure.

Drifting the reefs with soft plastics like the Slimy Slug or Hackberry Hustler is a surefire way to catch reds, according to Capt. Buddy Oakes with the Hackberry Rod and Gun Club. "Drifting is very effective," Oakes said, "because you can cover a lot of ground. The reefs on the south end of Big Lake are very effective in spring and early summer."

An indispensable tool for targeting deep reef reds: a marker buoy. You can purchase these at a tackle store, or simply make your own with 2-liter soft-drink bottles. When coming across a hotspot, throw out the buoys so that you can return there. There might be 100 fish bunched up in a 20-yard spot, and that may be where they stay all day. It's important to be able to stay within the bite window to be successful.

I like to use what I call a "breakaway" rig, because it allows the angler to break off the weight instead of lose the entire rig. To make a breakaway rig, take a barrel swivel and attach a 24-inch 10-pound-test monofilament leader connected to a one-ounce round weight on one end and a 12-inch 25-pound-test leader fitted with a hook on the other.

Using 20-pound-test or better line allows the angler to drift over the oyster bed and, potentially, to encounter reds -- and to be able, when getting hung up, to break the weight off rather than lose the whole thing.

Even better is the NO-SNAGG Slip Sinker by Lindy, which works extremely well on oyster reefs. Its unique shape allows it to twist itself free from obstructions when other sinkers can't. When fishing with it on reefs, slowly raise and lower the rod tip to give the rig a hopping action. It works well with lures, but also is excellent for rigging live bait.

Mud minnows start showing up in coastal bait camps in spring and are great bait for reef reds. In fact, they're probably the top choice at this time of year, right along with finger mullet, if you can find them.

EAST COAST

With hundreds of square miles of potential habitat, the marshes around Venice offer some

of the finest redfish action in the country.

"For redfish you just can't beat that area," said Mark Davis of Shakespeare. "The fishing is simply phenomenal for catching large numbers of fish. There is a reason the fishing is legendary down there. The reputation is deserved -- well deserved."

One of the top sorts of spot for redfish here will be areas along the stands of roseau cane, the very intricate root systems of which hold baitfish on high tides. Flounder are known to gang up on the edges, waiting for the tide to fall and baitfish to move out -- and redfish do this as well, although not to quite the extent that the flatfish do.

I've caught numerous reds in these spots in the Venice Marsh, and the good action seems always to coincide with a tidal fall. These shallow marshes are very tidally driven, and the fishing for reds revolves as much around tides there as at any place I've fished from Florida to Mexico.

Something important to keep in mind about tides: They're affected by not only the moon but also the wind. In other words, tidal charts offer great guidance, but don't be surprised if there's more or not as much water exchange than you were expecting in a particular area.

For example: If the tidal charts are calling for a 6-inch low tidal movement at the Lake Borgne entrance, and for two days you have had a 25-m.p.h. south wind blowing, you might not notice a depth change at all. In fact, you might have water higher than expected because of the south wind pushing a bunch of water, which can spark redfish feeding.

If you have a big wind blowing, it'll often push baitfish against the north shoreline of a bay system, or concentrate them in areas, like a protected cove, in which the wind's effects are lessened. If the reds are feeding on a flat coming out of a marsh, you need to know if there'll be water on those flats; if you're expecting them to be feeding on the edge of an area to which baitfish are clinging on high tides, you'll want to find the tides that're high and falling.

If it's big reds you want, the mud lumps out of Southwest Pass are great spots at which to get them. "There are some huge reds out there, and that area offers some of the best chance you have for catching trophy-sized reds," said. Capt. Scott Avanzino. He does most of his fishing for bigger fare offshore, but recognizes the trophy potential of this area.

For extra-large reds, fishing live or fresh dead bait is the way to go. There always seem to be a few over-sized reds lurking in the deeper holes along the jetty wall. My favorite bait is a large live croaker rigged with a circle hook or Daiichi Tru-Turn hook. Using croakers means that smaller trash fish won't bother the bait, and the circle hook virtually guarantees a lip-hooked fish, in turn all but assuring the live release of the fish. Anglers shouldn't be afraid to use the largest croaker they can catch. I've caught bull reds using foot-long croakers. The bigger the bait, the bigger the fish.

For most of the year, bull reds dwell in spots like the mud lumps and hang around oil platforms and other structure in the Gulf of Mexico, but during the late-summer/early-fall period, the urge to spawn draws them toward high-salinity waters like those found in the surf in spots like Grand Isle.

According to a redfish profile created by Jerald Horst of Louisiana State University for rodnreel.com, "During this period, male red drum stake out, in large numbers, the prime spawning areas in and near the passes, being ready to spawn virtually every night. There they form large schools at night, called drumming aggregations, because of the drumming sound that they make with their air bladders to attract females.

"Females on the other hand, tend to appear at these areas only when immediately ready to spawn, which seems to be once every two to seven days. This means that the large majority of redfish taken during this time by recreational fishermen are males, rather than females."

During this period, these male reds feed voraciously, giving anglers an excellent shot at catching them. I prefer to fish for them with heavy tackle in the 30- to 50-pound class. Baitwise, I use blue crabs if croakers aren't available. Broken in half and hooked through the carapace, the stuff has a long hook life and is irresistible to reds. Large shrimp also rank as high on the list of bull red bait; it's best fresh and, preferably, peeled.

The advantage of using shrimp is that they're readily available, whereas croakers or crabs can be tough to come by. Shrimp have one serious drawback: Everything in the ocean eats it, so often the reds don't get a chance.

I generally put out several lines with a slip egg weight and swivel finished off with a wide-gapped hook to target guts and troughs in the surf.

Another area to consider for top redfish action is the Intracoastal Canal, southeast of New Orleans.

Most often, the ideal setup is a big flat and a piece of shoreline or island nearby. Start fishing the secondary point of the island or the one submerged, as this is a classic staging area for fish to travel to and from the deep to shallows. Consider targeting these redfish is by trolling medium-running crankbaits like the Fat Free Shad through these zones. While giving seminars along the coast I've talked about using crankbaits for numerous applications, and always get bizarre looks from a few attendees. Then, when I mention that hundreds of thousands of coastal anglers use lipless crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap and Spot, attitudes change.

The beauty of trolling is that it's easy, and covers a lot of water. You simply rig your crankbaits in rod holders, let the line out so that you can reach the desired depth, and move your boat slowly. The hardest part will be learning the correct trolling speed. Start as slow as you can go, and then gradually increase speed. Breakaway rigs, also effective for trolling, allow you to use live bait.

This requires using two rod-and-reel outfits: one to fish with and the other to get your bait down to the depth at which you fish. You can use this for trolling lures as well, but it's pretty much the easiest way for live bait.

Hook live bait like a finger mullet through the lips on a small circle hook rigged on braided line; then, take a rod rigged with a 1-ounce weight attached to a good swivel and attach it to your line with a thin rubber band tied to the swivel and to the braid.

Let the baited line out first and then attach the rubber band and weighted line out once you have, say, 20 yards of line behind the boat. This will allow you to troll your bait freely a good distance behind the boat while still being able to adjust the depth. Once you have a fish on, the pressure will cut the thin rubber band on the sharp, braided line and let you fight the fish freely.

Anglers should troll live baits slowly. You might want to start by using your trolling motor; if that's not doing the trick, switch to the big motor to speed things up a bit.

Whether you choose to troll on the east side of the state or drift over oyster reefs on the west, your chances of catching a redfish are great. Louisiana's experiencing a redfish renaissance, with world-class fishing within a short drive of any city along the coast. If it's redfish you want, Louisiana really is the Sportsman's Paradise!

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