Bountiful Estuaries: Great Inshore Fishing on Gulf Coast
March 21, 2018
Redfish and speckled trout can often be seen in the shallows, if enough height is obtained. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)
Some of the best inshore fishing anywhere occurs on the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coast, but it is especially good along Biloxi and Pontchartrain.
This spring, anglers can find great saltwater action almost anywhere along the Louisiana or Mississippi coasts.
Although no secret to the thousands of people who fish them, two estuaries stand out for their excellent, incredibly diverse fishing opportunities.
LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN BASIN
Multitudes drive across it every day and hardly give it a second thought â€” unless storms churn the inland sea into a massive swirling menace. Sportsmen, however, know that "da lake" can produce outstanding fishing.
Lake Pontchartrain covers 631 square miles, or nearly 404,000 acres, making it the 11th largest lake in the United States; it is bigger than 69 countries and territories in the world. The entire Lake Pontchartrain Basin, including the 162,505-acre Lake Borgne and the 57,900-acre Lake Maurepas, plus associated waters and wetlands, totals more than 5,000 square miles, almost the size of Connecticut.
About 41 miles from west to east, and 24 miles from north to south, the brackish estuary indirectly connects to the Gulf of Mexico via Lake Borgne, really a bay off the gulf through two deep passes â€” the Rigolets and Chef Menteur. To the west, Pass Manchac and North Pass connect Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Maurepas.
In western Lake Pontchartrain, water stays fresher, but salinity increases as one travels eastward. The eastern part of the basin produces good catches of speckled trout, redfish, flounder, black drum, croaker, sheepshead and more. At times, tripletail, jack crevalle, sharks and other species move in from the gulf.
On a freezing, windy January day in 1999, Kenny Kreeger with Lake Pontchartrain Charters (www.lakepontchartraincharters.com) in Slidell landed the second largest Louisiana speckled trout on record, an 11.99-pounder on a large sparkle beetle on a 3/8-ounce jighead.
"For some reason, the fish were just slamming that day," Kreeger recalled. "I already had a bunch of 5- to 6-pound trout in the box when the big one hit. I thought it was about a 10-pound trout. I put her in the livewell, but she went belly up. I kept fishing and caught my 25-fish limit with five trout over 6 pounds, eight over 5 pounds and the rest over 4 pounds. I never caught a trout under 4 pounds that day."
Like Kreeger, many people fish the pilings of bridges crossing the lake. Besides the old Highway 11 bridge, a nearby railroad trestle dates to 1884. Both of these largely parallel I-10 as it crosses a narrow section of Lake Pontchartrain from Slidell to Orleans Parish. Another railroad and U.S. 90 cross both Chef Pass and the Rigolets.
"The trestle has way more fish than any other bridge, but they are mostly smaller," Guide Dudley Vandenborre (985-847-1924). Bigger fish are always right against the pilings. At the bottom of each piling is a bunch of moss. Where every piling hits, the mud is an indentation where the tide washed around it. Big females sit in that little gully."
The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway spans the widest part of the lake from north to south. At 24 miles, the longest bridge continuously over water in the world offers nearly 10,000 large, round fish-attracting concrete pilings. Water depth typically ranges from 13 to 15 feet, but some parts along the causeway drop to more than 20-feet deep.
"The causeway is a good place to catch trout because it offers fish almost 50 miles of cover with thousands of concrete poles in the water every few feet," advised Greg Schlumbrecht, angler from Lacombe. "Flipping the bridge poles is almost like bass fishing in flooded timber. Work the bait really slowly and keep it close to the bottom and close to the pole."
Anglers can also fish several artificial reefs in the lake. Established in 2011, the Dudley and Kim Vandenborre Reef spreads over four acres near Slidell. Another reef sits near the southern shoreline between Highway 11 and I-10. Several other reefs dot the lake, all of which hold trout, redfish, sheepshead, drum and more.
Construction of a new reef began in late 2017. Made from 4,000 tons of limestone spread over 10 acres, the Vincent Matherne Reef sits near where I-10 and I-55 merge in St. Charles Parish.
The oldest artificial reef in the lake dates back nearly two centuries, a hospital that once served soldiers assigned to Fort Pike, and built in 1826. After centuries of storms and erosion, the lake shoreline retreated. Now remaining rocks and other debris from the old hospital provide good cover for fish.
Sheepshead especially like bridge pilings and reefs, however, some of the best sheepshead action occurs on land, at a concrete stair-step seawall dating to the 1930s that runs for several miles along the shoreline in New Orleans. For decades, families enjoyed siting on the steps catching fish. In fact, the world record sheepshead, a 21.25-pounder came off the New Orleans Seawall near Bayou St. John in 1982. Another seawall in Mandeville also provides good bank fishing for various species.
Anglers catch redfish and flounder by any of these bridges or reefs, but the marshes between Chef Pass and the Rigolets create excellent habitat for them. Some better honey holes include the old railroad trestles, Unknown Pass near Lake Borgne and the Lake Borgne shoreline. Look for big black drum in deeper holes.
"All the passes bringing water to and from Lake Pontchartrain can be highly productive," said Mike Gallo of Angling Adventures of Louisiana (www.aaofla.com). "The Rigolets can produce a lot of good fishing. The old railroad bridge over the Rigolets is always productive."
Biloxi sits on a peninsula with Biloxi Bay, also known as Back Bay, to the north and Mississippi Sound to the south. A pass between Biloxi and Ocean Springs connects the bay to the sound, part of the Gulf of Mexico.
"We have gulf fishing, river fishing, island fishing, surf fishing and bay fishing all combined in one general area," quipped Robert Brodie of Team Brodie Charters in Biloxi (teambrodiecharters.com). "In late spring or early summer, the bay is full of white trout, ground mullet, drum and sheepshead."
The Tchoutacabouffa and Biloxi rivers, plus Bayou Bernard, feed into the western end of the estuary. Old Fort Bayou and its tributaries flow into the eastern end of the system. These streams create marshes that provide excellent habitat for flounder and redfish. In the deeper channel holes, anglers might also catch black drum.
"April and May is a good time to fish the bay for flounder," recommended Steve Perrigin with Strictly Fishin' Charters (www.strictlyfishincharters.com) of Ocean Springs. "Many drains and small bayous flow into Back Bay. A few grassy islands in the bay also hold flounder. When the tide falls, flounder hide on the downstream side of a point waiting to ambush bait."
Numerous bridges, dock pilings and other barnacle-encrusted structures throughout the bay system provide cover for sheepshead, drum, redfish, croaker and more. From February through April, sheepshead congregate around reefs and other hard objects to spawn. During spawning season, anglers typically catch the biggest sheepshead of the year.
"For years, many people considered sheepshead trash fish, until they discovered how good they are to eat," Brodie said. "Now, many clients book with me just to catch sheepshead. We've caught sheepshead exceeding 10 pounds. On light tackle, that's quite a challenge to bring in such a powerful fish."
One of the better places to catch sheepshead, trout and redfish, the Biloxi Bay Bridge carries U.S. Highway 90 over the pass. Tides move bait in and out of the pass, while pilings provide cover for fish to ambush bait. Anglers can also fish the old railroad trestle spanning the pass and numerous docks in the area.
For the best results, pull up to a bridge or dock and drop a bait as close to the piling as possible. Sheepshead eat shrimp, minnows, clams and squid, but they relish small crabs. Anglers can use small whole crabs or crab pieces. Many people fish with live fiddler crabs. Hook a small crab through the shell near its swimming flipper and fish it on a free line next to pilings.
Besides the bridges and dock pilings, anglers can fish many artificial reefs all along the coast. All reefs can provide good fishing for many species at times. Reefs provide cover that attracts baitfish, shrimp and crabs. Larger fish hunt these morsels among the rocks and concrete chunks.
Katrina Reef, or Katrina Key, protrudes from the water just outside the pass near Deer Island in Mississippi Sound. It stretches about a mile long and sits in 9 feet of water. Besides sheepshead, anglers might also catch redfish, speckled trout, black drum, flounder, bluefish, white trout, Spanish mackerel, tripletail, croaker, ground mullet, and several other species depending on season and conditions.
Anglers can catch speckled trout throughout the bay and in the pass, but as temperatures warm, trout start heading into Mississippi Sound. Averaging about 12- to 20-feet deep, the sound extends about 90 miles from Lake Borgne to Mobile Bay, Alabama. A chain of barrier islands separates the sound from the Gulf of Mexico.
"From the beaches to the barrier islands, we have a very good fishery, particularly from mid-spring through late fall," explained Ronnie Daniels with Fisher-Man Guide Services (msfisherman.com). "We catch several 6-pound specks each year, but the sound can produce some trout in the 7- to 8-pound range. The reefs are great places to fish with popping corks and live shrimp. Just off the reefs, we fish a Carolina rig with live bait or a jig."
Many anglers run out of Biloxi fish Petit Bois, Ship and Horn islands for bull redfish up to 50 pounds and large numbers of trout. Around the islands, people might also catch flounder, bluefish, pompano, sharks, cobia and Spanish mackerel. People without boats can also wade the mainland beaches and catch many species.
With such diverse fisheries in both of these locations, anglers should find something biting almost any day of the year. If the desired species doesn't cooperate, try something fishing for something else.