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Forgotten No Longer

Forgotten No Longer

Once labeled the "forgotten bay," southwest Louisiana's Sabine Lake has earned a reputation as one of the finest spots in the state for chasing runaway redfish. (July 2008)

Lou Marullo caught this massive redfish near the Sabine jetties. Reds this size are beginning to show up in Sabine Lake itself.
Photo by Chester Moore Jr.

In Louisiana, Sabine Lake and redfish might as well be synonymous.

Known along the Gulf Coast as one of the top spots for targeting big redfish, this fertile estuary once called "the forgotten bay" is gaining national attention. For the last two years, Sabine has served as a key stage in the Redfish Cup tournament series, and its redfish production is so strong that fishing guides travel from across Louisiana and Texas to get in on the bounty.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Jerry Mambretti, who has surveyed this body of water since the mid-1980s, declared last year's crop of reds to be one of the best ever. "The catch rate for reds (nearly one) per hour," he said, "which is the fourth-highest since Coastal Fisheries started collecting gill net samples during the fall season 22 years ago and the highest seen since the 2002 season."

According to Mambretti, redfish numbers in Sabine Lake have been consistently high, bans on gillnets and purse seines having combined with stocking programs to create a truly vibrant fishery. "Redfish are definitely back and in really good shape on Sabine Lake," he asserted.

One of Sabine Lake's top areas for large reds is the northeastern shoreline of Coffee Ground Cove. Having grown up fishing Sabine Lake a minimum of 30 days a year, I always knew that this zone held fat, rod-bending reds -- and nothing much about that has changed since then.

The hot zone, which stretches from the midway point of the Coffee Ground Cove shoreline up around the Pines Bayou, is a perfect spot for starting a trip early in the morning with a topwater lure like a red/white Super Spook or a chartreuse Skitter Walk. Look closely for nervous baitfish and reds pushing the water along the shoreline.

If topwater offerings don't get results within the first 30 minutes, switch over to a glow-colored Gulp! Shrimp fished on a 1/4-ounce jighead worked along the bottom with a medium-to-fast retrieve. Pay attention to any activity on the surface, but be aware that reds may be present even if the water's relatively calm. Sometimes a slight mud boil or a tiny swirl in the water can signal that reds are in the area.

The most exciting game in town during the late summer is the schooling redfish phenomenon. Reds feed in big schools here starting in the summer and continuing into the fall, but there's an art to locating the schools. Watch the tide charts and look for low tides and calm waters. If the winds aren't blowing, you have a good chance of scoring.

"Watch for the obvious splashing feeding action," offered veteran guide Capt. Skip James of Sabine Lake Guide Service, "and also sitting birds. If the reds have their prey corralled below them, the birds will sit on top to target any escaping food. Many anglers pass sitting gulls, but they are likely passing lots of fish.

"The key is timing -- it is the midday slick-offs you are looking for. I have rarely gotten into the schooling action in the morning. It's usually after a midday calming around 11 (a.m.) or so. In fact, my best advice is for you to leave the dock when everyone is returning."

Top redfish locations lie around the mouth of the Neches River, Coffee Ground Cove and the midlake area about three miles west of Johnson Bayou. "All of those areas are really good for reds," James said. They hold big schools of menhaden, and that is what these reds feed on."

Another worthwhile spot --overlooked, and only producing during the absolute hottest part of the day -- is the midlake area just east of the Pleasure Island Yacht Basin. In 2007, many of the top anglers in the Redfish Cup scored well in this zone, as some of the larger reds tend to congregate here. Bring binoculars and focus on small groups of birds hitting the water or sitting. If you're lucky, you'll find the reds feeding full-on, boiling the water like offshore bonita. Chances are good that they'll be willing to hit virtually anything you throw at them.

As summer wears on and the menhaden are coming out in force, you can often find the reds feeding on top. They're easy to locate, but not so easy to approach. Reds are notoriously spooky, frequently inspiring anglers who seek them to carpet their boats in hopes of eliminating unnecessary sounds. Feeding reds are less easily spooked than are solitary ones, but they can still be cautious. The best advice is to approach slowly with a trolling motor and stay within easy casting distance. Boats that get too close often give them lockjaw.

Lipless crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap are good for throwing into these areas, as are medium-running crankbaits typically designed for bass fishing, such as the Fat Free Shad. Proven redfish-getters, these baits allow you to cover lots of water. Another good choice is a DOA Shrimp fished on the bottom and crawled at a snail's pace. Sometimes these reds will hit the bait as soon as it hits the water; if they don't, be patient, and fish it slowly for best results.S

The jetty system south of Sabine Lake will hold redfish throughout the summer. The action ranges from mediocre to excellent, depending on the presence of tidal flow. Typically, at the southern tip of all jetties is an area in which the current washes out a large bowl. When the tide is strong and, in particular, going out, eddies form, and lots smaller baitfish gather in these spots. Redfish will stack up there and gorge themselves.

The all-around best bait in these scenarios is a live mud minnow (the bigger, the better) hooked through the tail and fished on a drop-shot rig. Hooked through the tail, the fish will swim upward and struggle, drawing the attention of redfish. The disadvantage of tail-hooking bait is that it makes it easier for the red to take the bait without getting hooked; the advantage is that it tends to draw more strikes. Freelining a mud minnow with a split-shot rigged 6 inches above the hook is also a good bet, but sometimes currents can make it difficult to get the bait down to the fish.

Another spot to try at the jetties are the boat cuts. They are productive on both outgoing and incoming tides, and redfish like to hang out from around 30 to 40 yards outside the cut itself. Live mud minnows or finger mullet fished on the bottom are good choices, but you might also catch a lot of small sharks, as they start movi

ng in this month. For a shark-free experience, try a 1/2-ounce gold spoon dragged across the bottom or slowly trolled against the current. Reds are suckers for gold spoons and will sometimes hit them despite turning their noses to other offerings.

Wade-anglers might try the new islands formed northeast of the Louisiana boat cut near the LNG plant. The spoils from the plant's dredging operation have cut a few large barrier islands perfect for wade-fishing and catching redfish. In 2007, anglers tangled with 30- and 40-pound redfish on typical trout fishing gear. In most cases, the gear suffered more than the fish, but the occasional brute got boated. Hit this locale with stout casting rods rigged with 40-pound braided line, and use 1/2-ounce gold spoons; make long casts to intercept reds you see feeding along the shorelines of the islands.

Moving back inland, anglers can find great topwater action just north of the jetties along the Louisiana shoreline. If you can find anything related to inshore fishing that's more exciting than catching a redfish on a topwater plug, call me: I'll have to see it before I can believe it. The raw force and determination behind the average redfish strike on a topwater lure is the kind of thing that keeps many of us on the water for hours when the fishing is good.

The marshes in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge are topnotch sites for topwater redfishing this month. My mentor, the late Ed Holder, taught me about fishing this hotspot and shared what may be the most important thing to keep in mind about reds on top.

Holder counseled redfish anglers to be mindful of their quarry's "cone of vision," as he called it: the zone to try working around when sight-casting to reds. If a redfish's head were a clock face, its eyes would be at 2 and 10 o'clock; the fish can basically see to 4 o'clock on the right side to 8 o'clock on the left, but 5, 6 and 7 o'clock are blind spots. An angler should always try to throw the bait directly in front of the fish or even with its head. The fish may strike at the bait if it hears it hit behind the eyes, but, Holder advised me, the combination of seeing and hearing the action of a topwater plug is what will drive a redfish to hit most of the time.

This in mind, it's worth noting that it's almost a miracle of physics for a redfish to strike baits on the surface. The mouth of a red is designed to descend downward to feed on crustaceans on the bottom, not extend outward to gulp up schooling fish. If you watch closely, you can see the fish turn slightly to the side so it can strike the bait. Either the reds have evolved this ability over the years or Mother Nature goofed up somewhere along the line.

Another point of interest shared by Holder concerns the movement of schools of redfish in marshy lakes like those in the Keith Lake Chain slightly southwest of Sabine. Holder, who was a veteran airplane pilot, said that, while flying over these areas, he could easily make out long mud trails in the water that reveal where schools of redfish are rooting up crabs and small baitfish.

By wearing polarized sunglasses and paying attention to subtle changes in water clarity, an angler can make out these trails and may actually be able to follow the schools. As fall cold fronts begin to move through, redfish schooling activity may be such that almost anyone can find them. When aggressively feeding, a school of reds may look like more like an emerging submarine than a bunch of fish. This isn't always the case in late spring, but it can happen.

Look for subtle signs. A small mud boil may mean a lone redfish on the prowl; a ripple in the water can lead to a large school of aggressively feeding reds. Think small in early fall to find big numbers of redfish.

On windy days, the buoys along the Intracoastal Canal from Lighthouse Cove all the way to the Hackberry cutoff are prime for red action. Thousands of marker buoys and barnacle-encrusted channel marker poles stud the Intracoastal Canal, and each marks a good spot for targeting reds at this time of year. Like oil and gas platforms offshore, each creates its own mini-ecosystem -- one of a magnitude obviously far smaller than a rig's, but still capable of drawing in fish.

The first thing you need to do is to check if the poles have many barnacles on them. Those spots are likely to draw lots of baitfish and crustaceans on which reds dine.

In addition, channel markers near shell-covered shorelines are marvelous places to fish. The markers typically indicate the point at which channel and shallows meet, so setting up between the shell along the shore and the marker puts an angler in an advantageous position.

Throw one line in the shallows and another in the deeper water, and you'll have a good chance to score on redfish. Live baits like mud minnows or finger mullet work well in the spring, but so do crankbaits like Rat-L-Traps or even freshwater plugs like the Bomber 9A and the Fat Free Shad.

If you launch in the Vinton Drainage Ditch -- a popular area for locals -- or in Hackberry at the Intracoastal Canal, a convenient spot to fish is the island in the middle of the Sabine River in front of the port of Orange. This island has a lot of variation in depth and all kinds of dropoffs and flats around it, and can hold huge redfish in the summer -- the kind you usually catch at the jetties or on offshore trips. Live baiters would do well to fish with mullet about 6 inches in length on the bottom in the deep water and also cast along the edge of the shoreline on the east side. Another surprisingly good live-bait method is to use a finger mullet under a popping cork with the bait rigged about 3 feet deep. Pop it frequently, and be ready for it to submerge quickly if the reds are around.

Artificial enthusiasts should use crankbaits of the diving variety or Rat-L-Traps trolled slowly around the island's deeper points. If that doesn't do the job, switch over to a glow/ chartreuse Cocahoe Minnow rigged on a 1/4-ounce jighead and pitched around the dropoffs. On plastics, you'll probably catch a fair number of sand trout, as this island is known for harboring them, but if you can get past them, monster reds are to be found.

Sabine Lake is a unique system, one that offers many different kinds of fishing from the schooling reds of the lake itself to its jetty system, vast marshes and the virtually untapped action in the Sabine River. Few are the places that can boast that kind of variety, or such impressive numbers of redfish -- and that's the heart of Sabine's status as a special place for both first-time anglers and veterans.

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