If you can beat the heat and humidity, the summer months are a great time to target redfish in New Orleans. Sure, you can catch redfish everywhere from Virginia to Texas, but few ports offer the history, charm, culture and class of the Big Easy. And where else can you get a beer "to go?"
Louisiana guide Gregg Arnold has been luring huge Louisiana redfish out of the skinny waters of the bayou for decades, and while the "greatest guide," argument in any region will never be settled, leaving him out of the conversation when talking about New Orleans would be a mistake. We grabbed Gregg and talked summer redfish, guiding in an increasingly pressured area, recipes, restaurants and an increasingly fragile resource.
From the moment you meet Arnold, it is more than apparent that this is a man dripping with experience and wisdom about the Louisiana fishery. When I first sat down with Gregg (you'd better not forget that second 'g' if you're writing about him), I didn't know he'd been guiding in and around Oakdale, La. for more than two decades, but I could have guessed. He had the quiet assurance and bravado of a man that had spent countless hours underneath the Bayou sun, chasing his favorite fish, and helping to introduce so many more anglers to Louisiana reds.
Photos: Chris Senyohl, Seattle Guide (www.intrepidanglers.com
Arnold doesn't mince words or wax poetic about what exactly it is he loves about New Orleans redfish. 'They're bigger, ' he says simply, when comparing Louisiana redfish to those he's chased in Texas and Florida. While Texas and Florida guides might have a bone to pick with Arnold, there's no uncertainty in his voice when he makes the statement. He attributes the greater overall average size to the rich habitat and forage the fish have at their disposal. Louisiana's rich stretches of marshland provide no shortage of easy meals to help young redfish put some 'shoulders, ' as locals will say, on them.
Of all the areas associated with the popular game fish, it's unlikely any one city is more fond of redfish as New Orleans. Sure, you can catch 'spottails ' anywhere from the sandbars of Virginia to South Padre Island in Texas, but New Orleans is to redfish what Gloucester is to cod, what Cape Hatteras is to marlin and what Islamorada is to bonefish. A 10-pound redfish just seems bigger, more special, and more beautiful when it comes from the Big Easy. That fact also makes it a very hard place to start out as a guide.
When nobody else will
Arnold is very matter-of-fact when describing how he got his start in a cutthroat business. 'I went out when nobody else would, ' he says. On the blown-out, sopping-wet, cold winter days, when other guides kept their boat slipped, Arnold would be on the water in his 18-foot skiff with any anglers willing to fish. Those anglers didn't forget, and came back, even on those beautiful Bayou days when every guide was fishing. It sounds like some good advice for guides looking to get a start anywhere. Make your reputation on fishing when nobody else will. That's the kind of thing a client doesn't forget.
For the first three years he battled to establish a reputation, but he hasn't let up since. He's candid about what it takes to survive in a town with so many guides. 'You have to be out there every day, whether or not you have a trip. You've got to follow the fish. ' Twenty-two years after getting his start, this mantra keeps him in a business that is amazingly competitive and more so each year.
Louisiana's oppressive heat can make summer fishing a challenge between the months of May and September, but Arnold knows the adjustments to make to keep clients catching. In the summer, he explains, the water is likely to be murkier, making sight-casting to redfish a greater challenge in deeper water. This is the result of seasonal algae blooms that diminish water clarity. And, as anyone who has ever held a fly rod in a trembling hand as beads of sweat dripped off their forehead, struggling to put a lure or fly in front of a cruising redfish knows, once you've sight-fished for reds, there's no going back. The sight of a cruising redfish creating a V-wake in its path will make even the most experienced angler giddy and nervous all at once. These fish spook easily and often, and stealth and casting accuracy are of the utmost importance.
So, in the summer months, Arnold changes his approach. When the water temperature gets dangerously close to 90, he switches tactics, staying inside the marsh where there is shallower water and fish are more visible. Arnold regularly targets fish in as little as 16 inches of water, sometimes not even enough to keep the dorsal fins of cruising reds wet. Fellow guide Chris Senyohl, who makes his living targeting salmon and steelhead in Seattle, stepped outside his comfort zone to target redfish with Arnold this past year. Here, he holds a chunky redfish that fell for a fly.
Flashy Purple and Gold
Arnold is targeting summer redfish primarily with Clouser minnows on the fly and gold spoons for spin fishermen. When it comes to fly color, he doesn't hesitate. 'Purple and gold with a little bit of flash, ' he says. The gold spoons are more visible in the murky water, he says. A purple-and-gold Haley's Comet, a crab pattern, is another favorite fly in the summer. Clients are packing 8-weight rods so they've got the necessary muscle to put the brakes on the occasional big redfish. After all, Arnold has landed and released redfish to 50 pounds in the Bayou. He's hitting the water at first light in the summer, and guides clients until about 2 o'clock. By then the strong summer sun has likely brought the water nearly to a boil, and even the toughest southern anglers can take only so much heat.
'I love to see the eat. That's the whole deal, ' Arnold says. The 'eat,' he's describing is that magical moment when your fly disappears into a toilet-bowl flush of water and your rod doubles over. There are only a handful of game fish that grow to such sizes that can be consistently targeted by virtue of sight-casting and few if any are as exciting to watch 'eat, ' as the redfish. A process that lasts merely seconds seems to stretch for hours to the nervous angler. Here, Senyohl shows off a red that he definitely got to 'eat. '
First, there's the visual evidence of a tailing red: a flash of gold and perhaps a tail, creating a V-shaped wake across the water's surface. 'It looks like someone is dragging a fire extinguisher beneath the surface, ' Arnold says. Next, there's the crucial placement of your fly. It must be close enough for the redfish to detect, but not so close as to spook him. This requires a quick visual assessment of the redfish's intended direction, so as to place the fly in its path. Then you must slowly and naturally bring the fly across the red's path. Strip too fast and he'll spook, too slow and you won't entice him to chase. At any time in this process, and often seemingly for no reason at all and in spite of a perfect presentation, the redfish can turn on a dime and bolt in the opposite direction like a whitetail disappearing into the woods with a flick of the tail. Whether it was the quiet movement of the boat, a shadow or the seemingly indescribable sense of danger that allows big fish to get that way, you'll never know.
Catch and Release
But if all goes right, there's the thrill of the 'eat, ' as Arnold calls it. The redfish's pace picks up as he closes in on your fly with startling accuracy. For a fish biologically designed to forage along the bottom, the redfish won't hesitate to erupt on a fly on the surface. Just like that, your line is tight, your rod bent and the rest is icing on the cake. A quick picture and a safe release are almost always in order when catching redfish. They are a precious but fragile resource in the Gulf, and conservation among anglers is vital to keep it that way. I did, however, say almost always.
Redfish on the half-shell
Arnold is a man typically tight-lipped and brief when describing his years on the water and his wealth of fishing experience. But like any good New Orleans native, get him talking about food and he is far less shy. Arnold has a meticulous, but seemingly delicious recipe for redfish. After pleading and bargaining, we got him to describe it for us. He at first pressed for $100, but the editorial budget wouldn't allow it, so he settled for a 'pleeeease. ' 'Turn the grill on high, leaving the middle burner off and the two end burners lit. Season your fillets with sea salt and Zatarains (a popular Cajun spice.) Next, cover up the fillet with red onions sliced to about a half-inch. Then cover with a layer of Ro-Tel tomatoes. Cover this with chopped cilantro and cover it all with a thin layer of provolone cheese. Add lime juice. The cheese serves to hold the entire dish together. Add a strip of raw bacon to the top for taste. Grill the fish on the middle, unlit burner for about 18 minutes, ' Arnold says. He says the dish is called 'Redfish on the half-shell, ' and it sounds like something every fisherman should try. He prefers redfish of about 26 or 27 inches, saying they make the best eating specimens.
Elizabeth's on Gallier
If you're not the type to don an apron and light the grill, Arnold has some suggestions for where to grab grub when visiting New Orleans. He advises visitors to check out Elizabeth's on Gallier Street in New Orleans for anything from Breakfast to dinner. They feature a 'Corpse Reviver, ' for brunch (with no shortage of gin), which you can combine with a 'Hangover Helper, ' (shrimp n' grits) after a night on Bourbon Street. Their whole menu looks delicious, but whatever you do, don't leave New Orleans without trying a Po' Boy. The traditional Big Easy sandwich features one defining characteristic: crunchy French bread. Restaurants have expanded their offerings to make everything from Breakfast to Catfish Po' Boys, but you haven't visited New Orleans until you've tried one. Elizabeth's offers catfish, oyster, shrimp, roast beef and sausage Po' Boys.
I'm guessing Arnold isn't alone among New Orleans natives in his feelings on the most popular festivity of the year: Mardis Gras. Arnold might still fish amidst the mayhem, but he won't pick up clients in the city, as he normally might. The insanity is just too much. He'll typically meet his clients at a restaurant in the city, but not during the festivities. Here, Senyohl shows off another impressive red he landed while fishing with Arnold.
Book a trip
Fishing success is always dependent on a number of factors, but the years Arnold has spent on the water are easily discernable in his easy, honest opinion of any trip on the Bayou. 'You're coming to a beautiful piece of God's creation, ' he says. 'Enjoy it, it's vanishing fast to coastal erosion and manmade forces. ' Just recently we saw more than 6,000 redfish wash up dead, likely as a result of the oil spill. While tourists and fishermen are coming back to the Bayou after the shocks of the spill have worn off, the resource still suffers. Arnold's advice seems wise, more now than ever. So go enjoy the Louisiana redfish experience before it's too late. Book a trip with Gregg at wwww.giantreds.com