November 02, 2020
By John N. Felsher
Bordered by Lake Salvador to the north and Barataria Bay on the Gulf of Mexico about 40 miles to the southeast, Louisiana’s Barataria Estuary offers anglers some of the best inshore saltwater fishing in North America, all in a beautiful wilderness setting just southwest of the Big Easy.
"We're about 19 miles south of New Orleans," says Theophile Bourgeois IV of Bourgeois Fishing Charters, based out of the town of Barataria. "We can see the city across the marshes when we're fishing. Just outside that metropolitan area, we have such a lush natural environment with so many fish, bird and animal species."
As the son and namesake of a legendary, now deceased, fishing guide from this area, Theophile grew up fishing these rich waters. Between Lake Salvador and Barataria Bay, anglers can fish unlimited ponds, bayous and other waters for various species. These delta marshes create ideal nursery grounds for redfish, speckled trout, flounder and more that feast upon shrimp, crabs, small fish and other briny morsels.
North of the estuary near Luling, the Davis Pond Freshwater Diversion Project diverts some Mississippi River water into Lake Cataouatche in an attempt to restore the habitat to how it looked a century ago when the northern part of the estuary was largemouth bass country. In fact, Kevin VanDam won a Bassmaster Classic by fishing Lake Cataouatche, which flows into Lake Salvador. In many places, particularly north of the town of Lafitte, anglers frequently catch bass and redfish on the same lures in the same places.
RUN UP ON REDFISH
At times, sportsmen can see huge schools of redfish ravaging mullets and other baitfish in the deeper waters of Lake Salvador, Barataria Bay and other places in the estuary. In the fall, though, redfish generally move into the shallow marshy ponds. The spot-tailed marsh marauders habitually get in water so shallow that their coppery backs protrude from the surface. In the ponds, reds gorge themselves on shrimp, fish and crabs before winter hits.
"The fall is a great time to fish for redfish in the Barataria Estuary," says Bourgeois. "Any of the ponds and bayous north of Barataria Bay should hold good redfish numbers. Some better places include the Bayou Dupont area, Airplane Bay, Round Lake and Lake Laurier. We look for good, clean moving water draining the ponds out of some trenasses (ditches). We also look for baitfish. On a falling tide, I like to fish a drain where it's coming out of the marshy ponds or work the grassy points."
Anglers can catch redfish many ways. A popular method, dangling live shrimp or soft-plastic shrimp imitations under popping corks, has filled many limits over the years. Spoons, jig heads tipped with plastic trailers and spinnerbaits all work in the shallow ponds, too. As the water cools, redfish turn more aggressive, and nothing excites south Louisiana anglers like big redfish erupting on topwater baits.
"Sometimes we spank the redfish on gold spoons," Bourgeois says. "Silver or bronze colors also work. I always keep a topwater bait tied to one line. There's nothing better than watching a big redfish explode on a topwater bait."
Known more for producing big numbers of speckled trout than big-bodied fish, the Barataria area does hold some good-size specks. Most trout weigh between one and three pounds; bigger trout generally come from deeper waters, such as bays and lakes closer to the Gulf of Mexico.
Trout spawn multiple times from late spring through early fall in the saltier bays, and within the Gulf itself, but move farther inland after spawning. As water turns sweeter in the northern part of the estuary near the diversion, trout don't go quite as far inland as they did in recent years, but still thrive throughout most of the system.
"With the diversion project reducing the salinity in the northern part of the Barataria Estuary, trout don't migrate as far north as they did a few years ago, but we still catch a lot of them around the Little Lake area and the bays east of Lafitte," says Mike Helmer with Capt. Phil Robichaux's Fishing Charters in Lafitte. "Most of our better trout trips in recent years have been in late October or early November."
Shrimp also migrate in the spring and fall. When a cold front hits, shrimp start leaving the marshes and inland lakes to head to the deeper Gulf waters where they spawn. It might take them weeks to reach the Gulf … if they make it at all. When shrimp start moving, predators follow. In the spring, young shrimp migrate northward where they hide in shallow lagoons and flooded marsh grass to escape from a multitude of predators. By the time fall returns, shrimp that didn’t get eaten reach adulthood and make the southerly journey.
Where people find shrimp, they usually find trout, but the spotted snaggle-toothed predators also eat menhaden, mullets and other baitfish. Many anglers fish live shrimp under a popping cork or on a free line. Under a cork or on a jig head, soft-plastic shrimp or baitfish imitations in translucent colors with chartreuse tails also work well all year long.
"A popping cork with soft plastics or live shrimp is hard to beat for catching trout at any time of year," Helmer says. "We also fish soft plastics on the bottom. One of our guides, Capt. Lane Zimmer, has his own line of baits: Captain Lane's Ghost Minnow and Mad Mullet (ghostminnows.com). They work well on trout. Fall is also a good time to fish topwaters for bigger fish. The water is still fairly warm, and fish are aggressive."
Although anglers can catch specks, along with redfish and flounder, in shallow marsh ponds, trout typically prefer deeper waters. In the fall, look for them in the passes, larger lakes and deeper bayous, particularly where two streams intersect or a bayou connects with a lake.
Few anglers leave the dock intentionally planning to catch flounder, but nobody objects when they land one of the tastiest fish anywhere. In recent years, though, flounder catches have dropped off all along the northern Gulf Coast.
Flounder also migrate twice a year (though some stay inshore all year long) and generally leave the marshes, bays and estuaries in late October or November when water temperatures drop. After spawning and spending the winter in the Gulf, they head inshore in March or April.
"Flounder have been pretty scarce in the past few years, but the better catches usually come in October and November when they are on their way out to the Gulf of Mexico," Helmer says. "We don't normally target flounder, but we catch them sometimes when fishing for trout or redfish."
The flatfish hit natural baits, but the surprisingly agile, oddly shaped fish also regularly strike soft-plastics, spoons, spinnerbaits and other lures thrown by redfish or trout anglers. Drifting a live shrimp or minnow, or a shrimp imitation, under a popping cork along a weedy shoreline works effectively. Another technique is to hook a live cocahoe minnow to a jig head and drag it along the bottom to get a flounder's attention.
THE 'OTHER' FISH
Besides redfish, speckled trout and flounder, Barataria anglers also catch sheepshead, black drum, croakers, white trout and other species. On any given day, anglers may land seven or more different species in the same general areas on the same baits, particularly if fishing with shrimp.
"We don't usually target drum and sheepshead, but we'll catch them when fishing for redfish with shrimp," says Bourgeois. "If we're fishing with shrimp on the bottom in a hole, we'll often catch many different species. People used to consider sheepshead trash fish around here, but attitudes are changing. People used to think the same about redfish. Sheepshead are difficult to clean, but very tasty. They are hard-fighting fish."
Typically held in destain by local anglers, black drum can grow huge and put up a tremendous fight. The biggest sport fish in the marshes, a black drum can exceed 70 pounds and offer fantastic action on light tackle. Smaller drum make excellent eating. As water cools, big drum and sheepshead frequently drop into deep holes in the main channels.
Black drum will occasionally hit soft-plastic baits, but normally prefer fresh meat such as shrimp or baitfish. However, nothing appeals to a drum or a big redfish more than a lively crab. Some people fish small live crabs hooked through the back near the rounded swimmer fins. For larger drum and redfish, remove the top shell of a crab and break it into two halves. The succulent juices oozing from a half crab drive drum and redfish wild.
Whether loading a boat with speckled trout or battling monster drum and redfish, anglers can always discover something biting most days in this fertile delta wetland wilderness system. The scenery here is beautiful, and it is just a stone’s throw from one of the nation's most historic cities.
Bringing your own tackle? Here’s what to pack.
Most guides provide all the bait and tackle their clients will need. If you want to bring your own, most tackle used for largemouth bass will work on the majority of Barataria's saltwater species. Medium to medium-light spinning or baitcasting tackle with 8- to 14-pound monofilament line or equivalent braid for trout and redfish work well.
For larger bull reds and black drum, anglers need to upsize. Most fishermen fish for these giants with 20-pound test monofilament or 50-pound-test braid. Your best bets for lures include GULP! Shrimp and a popping cork, MirrOlure Top Dogs, Top Dog Juniors, Heddon Zara or Super Spooks, Rapala Skitter Walks, Johnson Silver Minnows, Strike King Redfish Magic with gold Colorado blades, H&H Cocahoe jigs and GULP! Swimming Mullets with a 1/4-ounce lead head jig.