April 27, 2021
I posed this question to Capt. Mike Frenette as he leaned over the side of his boat to rinse fish slime off his hands in the warm, turbid Gulf waters southwest of Venice, La. It was our second day of fishing—my first with Frenette—and in the short time we’d been on the water, he’d already brought three big bull redfish to the boat. Meanwhile, I had yet to hook one, and I simply wanted to know if the fish gods were displeased with my offering.
We were both throwing a 3/4-ounce Strike King Red Eyed Shad. Mine had a little bit of color, while Frenette’s was mostly silver. He said that the slight difference shouldn’t matter, but he offered to swap lures anyway, and I went ahead and took him up on it.
Naturally, a few casts later, another bull pummeled the bait I’d just traded him and started peeling line off his reel.
"Guess it wasn’t the color," I laughed to the sound of his drag screaming.
He just smiled and shook his head. Sometimes in fishing that’s how things go.
Thankfully, about 10 minutes after he landed his third fish, I ended my schneid. I bombed a cast off the starboard side of the boat toward the distant shore, slowly turned the reel handle five or six times and felt something hammer my bait, nearly wrenching the rod from my hands.
I was finally tied into my first big redfish of the trip. It would not be the last.
Gateway to Giants
Situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River, the small community of Venice represents a terminus of sorts. It’s the last town accessible by vehicle along the Mississippi. The Great River Road—a collection of state highways and local roads tracking the course of the Mississippi through 10 states—concludes here. It dead-ends unceremoniously at a loading dock on the edge of a canal, and a humble sign announces the spot as the "southernmost point in Louisiana." About 20 miles southeast of there, however, is the real last stop of note: the mouth of the great Mississippi River emptying into the vast Gulf of Mexico.
These attributes have led many to refer to Venice, perhaps unflatteringly, as "the end of the world." While it might offend residents, it’s not a totally unjustified moniker.
Driving toward Venice on Louisiana Highway 23, you can’t help but feel a certain liminal quality about the area, a vague sensation of passing through the remnants of one world and teetering precariously on the edge of another, wilder one. The Mississippi River delta’s flat greenery extends mystically into the horizon to the west, while the river itself runs parallel to the road on the eastern side, often obscured by a levee. It seems the farther you put New Orleans in the rearview on 23, the closer you feel to leaving.
Of course, Venice goes by several other epithets, and the one that probably draws most anglers to town each year is the much more exciting "Redfish Capital of the World.”
If there’s any correlation between the amount of love people have for something and the number of nicknames they give it, Sciaenops ocellatus, or the redfish, has a devoted following. Alternatively called red drum, channel bass, puppy drum, spottail bass, pumpkins, swamp donkeys or simply reds, redfish are popular inshore targets from the coast of Virginia to south Texas. However, they are especially cherished and elevated to legendary status among the southern reaches of Louisiana.
While locales in other states also claim "Redfish Capital" standing, Venice represents one of the most highly regarded destinations to pursue big bulls, usually describing fish more than 27 inches or 10 pounds. What makes this fishery particularly special, however, is that giant reds can be consistently caught here year-round.
Around the Wheel
A trip to Venice for redfish had been on my list for a while, and last March—just before the COVID-19 pandemic began unfolding in the U.S.—I had an opportunity to make it happen and fish with a great group of fellow anglers. After a flight to New Orleans and an hour-and-a-half drive through the lowlands, I came upon the entrance of the Redfish Lodge of Louisiana. Owned and operated by Capt. Mike Frenette and his family, the lodge has been a part of Venice lore in some capacity since the late 1980s.
The most recent iteration, a neat little double-decker home connected to the Venice Marina dock system, has been around since 2005, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the previous lodge.
Frenette has guided here since the early ’80s, but he started fishing Venice about a decade before that. His extensive experience and knowledge have led him to quite a few professional redfish, and offshore, tournament successes. During that time, he’s also guided clients to four world-record fish and to 28 others that have claimed top 10 spots in the Louisiana state records. Frenette has worked hard at his passion, becoming a highly respected guide, and something of a Venice legend, in the process.
While the Redfish Lodge would be home for the next three nights for some of our group, another couple houses on stilts in the marina would serve as auxiliary sleeping accommodations for others, including me. I unpacked and quickly ventured back to the main house where we all chatted and started getting gear ready for tomorrow’s fishing. In the meantime, Frenette and his wife, Lori, were busy readying a crawfish boil, a perfect Cajun welcome to kick off two days of redfishing.
Early the next morning, I stepped onto the balcony of the house I was occupying and into the crisp March air. Bad news greeted me. Overnight, a dense fog had rolled in and settled over the delta. The hazy mist cloaked everything in obscurity, and from my elevated position, I could barely make out boats docked in the marina about 50 yards away. This was less than ideal.
At the main lodge, Frenette and the rest of our group were sitting comfortably in easy chairs or kicking back on couches while chatting and drinking coffee. Their relaxed demeanor confirmed what I already suspected: We weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, as it turned out, we’d be waiting two more hours for the fog to lift so we could safely depart.
I’d spend the day fishing with Blair Wiggins, a former Florida fishing guide and current television-show host. While the others would check out the action downriver, our plan was to fish Venice’s famed "Wagon Wheel" west of the marina.
Clearly distinguished on a map by its visual similarities to—you guessed it—a wagon wheel, this area takes its strange appearance from a circular network of canals dredged back in the ’50s and ’60s. Drilling operators at that time were exploring around the edges of a circular salt formation called the Venice Salt Dome. They were searching, naturally, for oil. Today, this area is a maze of dredged canals and roseau cane where anglers can easily get turned around, or run aground, if they aren’t careful.
After Wiggins and I made our way along the main canal, we tucked into some shallower water and started exploring. We remained at idle speed in most places to ensure we didn’t go too shallow or run into one of the many oil company pipes tracing across the marsh like veins. Often, we’d reach a shallow impasse, requiring us to back out and search for a new route to our destination. Fishing proved difficult as a result, but even just experiencing this unique area was incredible. The mental image of fishing vessels navigating an expansive marsh alongside pipes and other oil infrastructure almost perfectly captures the two industries at the heart of Venice.
In all our exploring, we did manage to catch one fish. As we drifted through water a few feet deep and came upon a pinch-point opening into a larger pool, Wiggins said he saw a fish tailing. He called out the direction, and I dropped a popping cork with an artificial shrimp along the edge of a swath of cane. After waiting a moment, I gave the cork a single pop. Moments later, it plunged below the surface, and I was hooked into my first redfish of the trip. Wiggins pegged it at about 26 inches, meaning it fell within Louisiana’s 16- to 27-inch slot limit—a nice fish, but not exactly what we were looking for in Venice.
Unfortunately, some unexpected boat trouble that day sent us hustling back to the docks, so we didn’t get a chance to investigate the Wagon Wheel much further. But I was still satisfied in experiencing a beautiful place full of remarkable plant and animal life. It was interesting to hear Wiggins, who hadn’t fished the Wheel for several years, talk about just how much the area had changed since he’d been away from it.
Running of the Bulls
While Day 2 brought with it the same fog as the previous morning, it also contained more promise. As Wiggins and I were struggling around the Wagon Wheel, the others had been catching big bull reds farther south near the mouth of the Mississippi. And that’s exactly where we’d all be fishing on this day. Each angler swapped boats, and I climbed aboard with Frenette.
As the fog began dissipating, we idled out of the marina and through a canal, and started buzzing down the churning waters of the Mississippi River. I was grateful I had a comfortable jacket, as the ride downriver proved a little cold. That is, until suddenly it wasn’t. Almost out of nowhere it seemed, we hit a palpable wave of warmer air that overtook the chill.
"What is that?" I asked Frenette. "Is that the Gulf?"
He nodded in reply. He said that at this time of year in particular, the Mississippi runs cold due to melting snow and runoff in the northern states upstream. This explained the sharp temperature increase we felt upon hitting Gulf waters, which must’ve been at least 10 degrees warmer. We would, of course, experience the opposite—a burst of frigid air—coming back at the end of the day.
After following the river to its conclusion, we pulled off and motored a quarter mile or so to our immediate left and started a drift several hundred yards from shore. We had apparently arrived at our destination.
Over roughly an hour, I proceeded to watch Frenette catch three big bull reds, each one seemingly more impressive than the last, before I’d get on the board myself. When I finally hooked up, it was spectacular. Although reds are not, generally speaking, fast-moving fish, when they decide to grab a bait, they seem to do it while summoning every ounce of aggression and energy they possess. I didn’t even get the chance to set the hook into my first bull red. It handled that for me, striking with authority and making the first and longest of several runs.
As I brought the fish to the boat and we were able to get a grip on him, the slight disappointment of the previous day melted away in an instant. The fish was around 36 inches long and hefty. We took some quick photos, and then I held him beside the boat until his powerful tail thrashed in my hands and sent him back down into the stained waters.
We would spend the next few hours catching several more, each of which seemed just as big, if not bigger, than the first. All provided a dogged fight that had me eager to toss out the next cast.
While we caught most of the fish by blind casting off either side of the boat—the water was too deep and too murky for sight-fishing—there was one instance in which I cast toward a specific spot. I had seen something break the water quartering off the right side of the boat about 60 or 70 yards away. By the time I was ready to throw out, the disturbed water had calmed, and I had to guess a bit on placement. Somewhat desperately, I fired off a cast close to where I thought I had seen it. I must’ve guessed well, though, as I had barely turned the reel handle twice before I was tied into another big redfish.
In roughly four hours of fishing, I caught a number of bulls, all more than 35 inches, as well as one smaller speckled trout. Frenette bested that effort by a fair margin. Even with a shortened fishing day due to the morning’s fog, it was a striking display of the exceptional action possible in Venice. After returning home, it would be several weeks before the excitement of the trip would dissipate. However, the desire to tangle with Venice’s big bull reds … I’m not sure that will ever go away.
Tools for Bulls
Take tough gear to Venice.
Big bull reds in the salt are tough customers. Because of this, anglers need similarly tough gear to get—and stay—in the game. While fishing around Venice, I used both baitcasting and spinning rods from Lew’s Inshore Series Speed Stick line ($139.99; lews.com). You need a solid backbone in your rod to turn big, stubborn redfish, and the premium HM40 graphite blanks these rods utilize proved up to the task. The rods’ durable stainless steel guides with aluminum-oxide inserts also stand up to corrosive saltwater.
Baitcasting and spinning models both incorporate Winn Dri-Tac material to ensure comfort and, perhaps most importantly, a solid grip for fighting strong saltwater fish. Spinning rods use Lew’s patent-pending CT-1 ComfortTouch grip with an extended foregrip for added leverage over fish, which I benefitted from several times on the water. Meanwhile, baitcasting rods utilize the patent-pending G-Clutch handle system with Midas Touch, which offers direct contact with the blank for improved sensitivity, balance and a more compact profile.
With spinning rods, we used Lew’s Custom Inshore Speed Spin Series spinning reel ($129.99). We paired baitcasting rods with the Custom Inshore Speed Spool SLP Series baitcasting reel ($199.99).
The Speed Spin performed admirably in Venice, courtesy of its saltwater-ready attributes—premium stainless steel bearings, a flush-and-drain port, a sealed carbon-fiber drag system and precision-cut Speed Gears with a passivation treatment for corrosion resistance. The drag system, capable of generating up to 24 pounds of drag, worked perfectly on the big reds we encountered.
The Speed Spool SLP, likewise, has a sealed corrosion-resistant stainless steel ball-bearing system (with 10 bearings), and it features a Zero Reverse one-way clutch bearing. Casting is smooth and controlled due to a Multi-Setting Brake dual cast-control system with both an external adjustment for the magnetic brake and an internal centrifugal brake with four individually disengaging brake shoes. Both reels use Winn Dri-Tac material on handle knobs for added grip.
We spooled up with Strike King’s Tour Grade Braid and Fluorocarbon ($29.99 to $79.99; strikeking.com). We ran 30-pound braid as the main line with a 3-foot leader of 17- or 20-pound fluorocarbon. In terms of baits, Frenette and I almost exclusively used the 3/4-ounce Strike King Red Eyed Shad ($8.49 to $10.49)—either the standard version or the Tungsten 2-Tap. It proved enticing to the many big bull reds we found and durable against repeated abuse.
Other anglers on the trip caught fish on Strike King’s new Thunder Cricket ($13.99) and the company’s time-tested Redfish Magic Spinnerbait ($4.99). If you’re planning a trip to Venice, consider bringing along these baits or something like them, and make sure you pair them with a quality rod and reel and appropriate line.