The Gulf Coast Redfish Recovery

Despite last summer's gigantic oil spill, the redfish action along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts had recovered by last fall. And here's what it's like today!

Though I was in the most southeastern reaches of the Bayou State where the predicted impact of the BP oil spill on the area's fishing was nothing short of dismal, I found my fishing experience to be quite the opposite.

For three straight months the Deepwater Horizon gushed oil, threatening the Gulf of Mexico's precious waters and coastlines. After it was all said and done nearly five million barrels or 185 million gallons of crude oil had seeped into the Gulf.

The full extent of the impact that the leaked oil will pose on the redfish population, whether slight or significant, is yet to be determined. But the apparently clean waters and the quality of the fishing I witnessed only days after the oil rig was deemed "successfully capped," gave me reason to be optimistic that the redfish and other species fared better than we had hoped.

On the other hand, it's obvious that the Gulf Coast fishing industry suffered a tremendous blow. During this period and for months afterward, tourism and fishing along most of the Gulf Coast was dramatically reduced, even though many of the Gulf's beaches and waters never saw a drop of oil. As a result the businesses and livelihoods of thousands were destroyed, many perhaps because tourists and fishermen were unnecessarily scared away.

Commercial fishermen and recreational fishing guides who were able to survive Hurricane Katrina's devastation in 2005 now had to contend with a man-made disaster: this one may have been the final straw for many.

A MISSISSIPPI PERSPECTIVE

Captain Sonny Schindler grew up fishing the waters of Mississippi's Gulf Coast. He guides for Shore Thing Charters out of Bay St. Louis, Miss. He guides anglers in western Mississippi waters and the Biloxi Marsh.

He said their business took a hit and in the months following the spill the guides had to take jobs elsewhere. But at this point they are hopeful the fishing business soon will be back to normal.

The good news, according to Captain Schindler, is the fishing is as good, if not better than, it ever was. This may be due in part to the fact that the fish basically had a year off from pressure from fishermen.

Right now is a great time for the fishing, as well.

"Some of the biggest redfish we see all year are in April," Capt. Schindler said. "They are in chasing the bay anchovies and shrimp. You can sight-cast to them and they will tear your tackle up. They are fun, but brutal!"

Schindler described the fishing as pure pandemonium. All those big reds in the water can be a problem for anglers who are after big trout this time of year, since the drum crowd out the seatrout. But then again what fisherman minds hooking into a 25-pound fish in 4 feet of water!

To know when it's the right time to go after the big bull reds, Captain Schindler relies on ladybugs! He admitted it's a bit strange, but when the ladybugs show up, that is his indicator that the reds are inshore spawning and feeding. He said it happens every year.

"The lady bugs show up and the fish go crazy and get careless," Schindler assured.

ON THE LOUISIANA SIDE

Capt. John Taylor lives in Buras, La. and is a longtime fishing guide Capt. Taylor lost his home and 3,000-square foot fishing lodge to Hurricane Katrina and again faced disaster with the oil spill. But the resourceful Louisianan managed to rebuilt his fishing lodge and 25-year guide business. But, the oil spill has made it difficult to fill his new, more modest lodge that comfortably houses and feeds up to 12 anglers.

Located down in the bayou country far to the southeastern of New Orleans, the town of Buras sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish. The town lies near the toe of the boot-shaped peninsula, rising no higher than sea level and surrounded by intricate waterways and rich estuarine habitats. With the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico so close, the very features that make it such a fishing mecca are the same features that make the area so prone to natural and man-made disasters.

Captain Taylor fishes for reds on either side of the peninsula, whether crossing the Mississippi River to marshes on the east side or cruising the grassy islands to the west of Buras. While spending a day on the water with him, we targeted several of the Roseau cane and grass islands, especially those with outlying oyster beds.

During low water conditions we drifted along grassy islands casting towards, but not into the grass. On a falling tide redfish lay in wait along the islands to ambush prey coming out of the protective root structure of the Roseau cane.

Be careful when idling in close to an island. The reds may be farther out from the grass than you first anticipate. It's not uncommon to spook a pod of redfish as you are easing in toward where you want to place your cast.

Alongside many of the grass islands were white poles marking the oyster beds. Capt. Taylor instructed us to cast to the areas between the poles and the grass. This proved successful for my fishing partner who was throwing a 4-inch dark-colored soft bait with a chartreuse tail on a 1/4-ounce jig. He was hooked into a 22-inch redfish in no time. The soft baits worked well, with Capt. Taylor having a lot of luck with a bright orange grub with a yellow tail.

Red drum are often found hanging out off or very close to points at the ends of grass islands. They are looking for mullet that run around these points. We especially targeted "slicks" or very flat areas of water that we could see around the points. Also look for "seams" in the water where opposing currents meet. These tend to occur off of points as well. These are good areas for trapping baitfish and attract opportunistic red drum.

Also target areas around grass islands that have any variance in the shore line terrain. Most anglers know to cast into indentions or breaks in the grass. Creek mouths are usually productive as well. Cast towards any small clumps or isolated blades of grass or cane. Just a blade or two showing above the surface can indicate a root system or mound underneath where bait and predators both hide. Any abnormalities under the surface can hold a fish, such as a slight drop-off or a patch of dead cane that still has a root system embedded in the bottom.

Capt. Taylor had me casting a popping cork rigged with a dead

shrimp hooked through the middle of the back. The hook was placed about 1 1/2 to 2 feet below the cork. I quickly learned from the captain not to set the hook as soon as the cork goes under. Instead, when the cork is pulled below the surface Capt. Taylor advised me to reel in any excess line until I could feel the tension of the fish -- and then set the hook.

That took some getting used to. If I got anxious and set the hook too soon, the fish was missed almost every time. I had to think about waiting until I actually felt the taut line before pulling back hard, even when it sometimes seemed like it took several moments before being able to set the hook. I learned that redfish hang onto the bait unless they felt something on the other end. I did have time to take in all the slack.

Conditions for us that day were fairly windy, especially after the mid-morning calm. There were a number of casts where I had quite a long "belly" in my line, but even then, if I patiently reeled it all in when the cork went under, the fish was still there.

The three of us boated and released several red drum in just a couple hours. The soft baits were working as well as the cork and shrimp.

There was one lull in the action when I decided to try a trick I had learned a while back. The water was a bit murky so I "pinched" the head of the shrimp to give it a little extra scent and with the first cast it worked.

Whether it really worked or was just sheer luck mattered little, because the screaming of my reel told me this fish was much larger than the others. The big fish took off away from the grass out towards open water. I managed to work it in towards the boat, but after about a three to four minute battle the hook was spit back at me and the big fish was gone. That was the proverbial one that got away --and we were all wishing it hadn't!

Weather conditions took a turn for the worse on our second day of fishing with Captain Taylor, so our tactics changed a bit as well. High tides and even stronger winds pushed the water up high into the cane islands. Along with the water being pushed inland were the baitfish and also the reds. With the high water the captain had us casting in as tight and close to the grass as possible. With the wind this was easier said than done. To compound the difficulty, holding the boat in position was a challenge, so the pressure was on to make an accurate cast.

If there was any type of opening in the bank of grass, Captain Taylor assured us there was a redfish holding back in tight. If our lure dropped a foot or two away from the grass a saltwater catfish took hold of it. This happened quite a few times. After a few misses on the "sweet spot" and having to move on to the next one, I had the captain take a shot and sure enough, when he hit the spot, the redfish was there. Eventually on the next opening in the grass that looked promising, I was able to put my cork in close and instantly it was pulled under. In spite of the strong wind causing a huge belly in my line I was able to set the hook and reel in a 24-inch red.

Needless to say, the reds have thrived and the fishing is prime right now in our Gulf waters. Time will tell whether the oil spill will have any affects on the red drum populations of future generations. But, Mother Nature has her way of culling the strongest and healthiest of all creatures. Take advantage of the good fishing the Gulf has to offer this time of year and keep an eye out for the ladybugs!

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