One of the first things a person notices about the Louisiana/Mississippi Gulf Coast is its sheer vastness. Both the sky and water just seem to be endless, as are the fishing opportunities.
There is very little difference between Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s coastlines in terms of estuarine habitats. These transition zones, where one or more rivers flow into coastal bays, form brackish water habitats that are critical for inland fisheries. It is in these estuaries that spotted seatrout, redfish, flounder and black drum are the targeted species of game fish anglers pursue.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two states is simply quantitative in nature, as Louisiana has more square miles of marsh available to anglers.
Nonetheless, starting around May, the Louisiana/Mississippi coastal waters go through a migratory transitional period where sport fish move out of shallow, brackish water estuaries to deeper offshore waters to spawn. The question is, with boundless waters extending across these central Gulf coast states, where does an angler start?
According to Matt Hill, director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources’ Finfish Bureau the best place for saltwater anglers to start looking is the department’s website (www.dmr.state.ms.us/).
“Mississippi has a large artificial reef program, which includes inshore reefs, where we put down limestone and we’ve also used rubble from bridges,” said Hill. “We’ve used pylons, creating some keys to fish off of. And it’s all listed with actual coordinates and locations on our website.”
One popular spring location that reportedly produces 4-, 5- and the occasional 6-pound speckled trout is the Katrina Key Reef, located just south of Deer Island out of Biloxi Bay. Go to the MDMR website and click on “recreational fishing,” to go to inshore artificial reefs. By clicking on “reef locations,” then “inshore reefs,” it opens a whole world of Mississippi’s active program.
Katrina Key will show up as point 54. Sixty-nine total reef locations are listed on the near shore map, with the great majority of them less than two miles from the coastline.
Hill says that fall is the time of year when Mississippi’s coastline sees an increase in salinity, known as the salt wedge, pushing its way up into the bays and rivers. With it comes fish that have spent much of the summer offshore in deeper water. They will spend the fall and winter months in these estuaries.
During spring, fish leave the estuaries and migrate to the deeper inside coastal waters. As water temperatures increase during the summer, trout and other sport fish will push even further out to Mississippi’s barrier islands, such as Cat Island, Ship Island and Horn Island. Summer fishing really picks up in this part of the Gulf of Mexico and the MDMR website lists numerous offshore reefs from which to choose.
To the southwest of Bay St. Louis and east of New Orleans the community of Hopedale just might be the Mississippi/Louisiana epicenter of coastal inland fishing. It is here the vast marshes look like they extend for miles, for which there is no substitute.
The Delacroix, Reggio, Shell Beach, Hopedale and Biloxi Marsh areas, located in St. Bernard Parish, might arguably be the most productive inshore fishery in the state of Louisiana. These surrounding estuaries simply have incredible biomass consisting mainly of crustaceans and baitfish that support sport fish anglers’ targeted species, which for the most part tends to be speckled trout.
Capt. Ted DeAgano, with Scales-N-Tails Guide Service (www.scalesntalesfishing.com), knows being located literally in the core estuaries of this part of the state has its advantages, as he is an hour and 20 minute boat ride from Pass Christian, with Venice in another direction and the Causeway Bridge in a third direction.
“What we have fishing this area is selective choice, when it comes to putting clients on fish,” said DeAgano. “For example, if they’re catching giant — whopper trout — in Lake Ponchartrain, like out at Seabrook or the Causeway Bridges, we’re less than an hour away. But, we can also go the other direction and in that same hour be on one end of Chandeleur Island near the Light House. We’re 20 minutes from Bay Eloi and under 20 minutes from Black Bay. And, we’re also just 20 minutes from Biloxi Marsh Wildlife Management Area.”
DeAgano admits growing up fishing the region and being a charter captain has tremendous advantages, particularly when it comes to scouting and learning an area.
According to Capt. Sal Fontana, Sr., with Gotcha Hooked Guide Service (www.gotchahooked.com), most anglers spend more time pursuing boats than fish.
“You’ll see boats running up and down the bayou and they’ll see a boat, fishing on a particular point, where they’ll watch and see if that boat’s catching any fish,” said Fontana. “He has no idea. He’ll think those fish are there everyday, but they’re not. The fish might be there today, because of the way the wind and current is blowing. Or, the fish might be there because of structure on the bottom. They may be there because of the bait, or it just might be a fluke. But, anglers coming to this area need to explore, learn the bottoms and learn what fish are eating. We tell them all the time, ‘All you have to do is ask.’ We’re here everyday. We’ll tell them where to go, what they’re biting on, how to do it and sometimes to tag up with us and follow along – there’s plenty of fish to go around.”
According to Hill, both Louisiana and Mississippi fishing strategies are the same because by nature the fish are there — and not there — at the same times of the year.
What bait the fish are biting on is critical. There are many ways to find baitfish, such as using electronics, but one easy way is to follow the birds. Most shorebirds eat the same bait as sport fish, so if birds are diving on water, then baitfish are up, and so are the predators, such as seatrout and redfish. An excellent way to find the exact prey species that targeted fish are eating is by opening the stomach of a caught fish. Then, anglers can use that type of bait, or something similar, or even use lures that are the same size and color to “match the hatch.”
In many circumstances, the guides fish ponds, points and flats. They also take time to read the bottoms and study current lines.
“Every bayou is going to be different,” said Capt. Sal Fontana, Jr. (www.muddywatersguideservice.com) “Some of them are deep, some of them are shallow, and some of them have up and down bottoms all the way through. But, most bayous have flats on either side of them. In the cooler months of the year, like the spring when the water temperature is below 70 degrees, I’ll fish the deeper water where it comes up into the shallow water. I’ll fish ledges where it comes from 15 feet deep to 3-foot-deep water. The fish are hanging out on that embankment just swimming up and down and back and forth all day long.”
DeAgano is a master at reading waters. Guides are supposed to catch fish and the better ones will tell potential clients when they call what the fish are doing. If there is no bite, they are and should be reluctant to take groups out.
However, when the bite is on, charter captains have no choice but to fish if they wish to stay in business, even though they can’t control the day-to-day weather forecasts. Conditions along the coast are often windy. Luckily, windy conditions can be good for those who understand how fish react to wind, which creates waves that crash on shorelines.
All three guides agree on how to set up when fishing coastal inshore waters, recommending fishing with the wind to the back or coming off the side of the vessel to make casting easier. They also favor fishing current coming from the stern of the vessel or from left or right saying it makes it easier to control line, eliminates slack and reduces the possibility of entanglement with others in the boat.
Louisiana regulation allows anglers to catch a five redfish limit of which only one may exceed 27 inches. The other four must be 16 inches minimum in length, but not longer than 27 inches.
Mississippi’s creel limit for redfish differs from Louisiana, where saltwater anglers are allowed only three, which must be 18 total inches in minimum length to 30 inches in total length. Louisiana’s spotted seatrout limit is 25 in most areas with a 12-inch minimum length. Mississippi’s trout limit is 15 with a 13-inch minimum length. It’s important anglers check local regulations in the state they’re fishing.
Now fishing the central Gulf Coast and its vast marshes can be a bit overwhelming, especially running a boat in a region for the first time where the sky appears endless. But, by starting with these coastal locations and tactics, it won’t be long before your catching fish like marine managers and charter guides.
Chalmette National Battlefield
One point of interest when fishing the Hopedale region is the Chalmette National Battlefield, where perhaps the most important battle of the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain was fought on January 8, 1815, “after” the war had actually ended.
Outnumbered by superior, battle-tested British troops, Andrew Jackson assembled an American army that decimated the English during this battle. Visitors can stand where the battle was fought and read about its significance to American democracy.
After the fishing try to get to Hopedale, Louisiana, you have to pass right through Chalmette. Given its amazing saltwater inshore fishing, you have to know the seafood is good. For crab cakes that people talk about, Rocky & Carlo’s Restaurant & Bar has been around since 1965. Or try a plate of baked macaroni, piece of fried local catfish, oysters or bowl of seafood gumbo. —John Flores