Louisiana'™s Backwater Trout
September 28, 2010
The marshes and bayous of Louisiana are chock-full of speckled trout. You just need to know how and where to find them. (August 2007)
The author shows off a marsh-caught speckled trout.
Photo by Eric Chaney.
The Louisiana coastal region provides what is arguably the best speckled trout fishing to be found anywhere. The Bayou State's trout are plentiful, grow to impressive sizes and can be found everywhere from the short rigs just off the beach to near the Interstate 10 corridor. One of the most productive areas for finding high-quality fish from late summer into early fall is the vast marsh system from Big Lake all the way to down south of the Big Easy in Venice.
To bag good numbers of big marsh trout consistently during summer, concentrate on the widest and deeper parts of cuts in a marsh system. The largest concentrations of trout are usually in the first eighth of a mile of these cuts during the dog days of summer, because they have more tidal water exchange on each tidal movement, which keeps these areas somewhat cooler than the shallow backwater.
I'm not saying that these areas hold any more trout than other cuts do, but I've caught more larger trout in them than in other locations on the main body of bay systems in summer, so that's where I go to catch them. Cooler water temperatures usually mean a higher content of dissolved oxygen, which benefits trout both by giving them more oxygen, which they need to be effective predators, and by attracting more baitfish.
Scientists are learning that one of the causes for certain fish species in bay systems not feeding as aggressively during summer as they do in spring and fall is decreased levels of dissolved oxygen. Trout-fishing expert David Kinser believes that the link between trout and oxygen is at its peak in August and September.
"Dissolved oxygen levels in the bayou and bay systems are critically low during this time," he explained. "Just remember: When you see the mullet gathering at the top of the water with red lips, that means they are trying to get oxygen from the surface. In other words, the water itself is depleted. The areas in which you have more water flow will have a little more oxygen." These areas experience daily ebbs and flows in oxygen levels, he added, noting that the absolute worst period is at dawn.
"The crack of dawn is when oxygen levels are lowest, and if you start talking with a lot of the anglers on the coast, the bite improves during the day. As oxygen levels improve, so does trout metabolism, which makes them want to feed."
A good strategy for fishing these areas is to fish a live croaker or finger mullet on a fish-finder (Carolina) rig, which consists of an egg weight rigged above a swivel attached to a leader. Fish these rigs around breaks in the current and in the main channel of the section of the marsh emptying into the bay or cuts going into the marsh.
Make sure to pay special attention to all of the drainages in these marshy areas. It's important to remember that tides dictate how trout will be feeding. On a fast-falling tide, they move in close to the drainage in tight schools; when the tide's falling slowly, they might scatter out around the mouth of a drainage or up into the marsh. They'll do the same thing during the first hour or so of an incoming tide; then they'll usually move into the cuts. I have always had far more success on incoming tides during summer months. In fact, I usually check the tide charts and mark off the days with the highest tides to concentrate on them.
And when these tides are running high, break out the trolling motor seek trout along the main shorelines of open marsh lakes. Channelization of Louisiana's marsh has left a lot of it open to erosion, and that has created shallow, grassy lakes in areas that were once pristine marsh. Just because they're not the optimum habitat doesn't mean that they won't hold trout. On the contrary, some nice fish are to be found along the shorelines of these sometimes-vast backwater lakes.
Attacking vast shorelines would be a waste of time ending up in dogged frustration, so you've got to have a strategy. Instead of looking over eight miles of shoreline, narrow your search down to about 200 yards. You must eliminate water to bag these trout successfully.
The first step I take while eliminating water amid a strange ecosystem is to look once again for a shoreline that has stands of roseau cane. Roseau cane's intricate root system (somewhat like a smaller version of the mangrove's) gives baitfish a place in which to linger, hide and dodge larger predators. It's best to fish these areas during the first couple of hours of a falling tide. As the water recedes, the baitfish are dislodged from their cover, and the predator/prey dynamic kicks into gear.
As summer segues to fall, go back to the marshy cuts to find trout. The difference between fall and spring in this regard is that trout are usually concentrated more heavily at this time of year -- so if you find one trout, you're liable to find a whole bunch more. I've had more success by spending little time in the interior of cuts and concentrating on the first 30 yards of them and then working my way 100 yards or so into the cut. This is especially effective after the first cold fronts of fall, when baitfish are seemingly pouring out of the marsh. If a flat lies adjacent to a cut or leads out of one of these lakes, spend plenty of time working it over.
These are great spots to fish with large topwater plugs like the Skitter Walk and the many variations of the Top Dog. I learned most of my topwater marsh-fishing prowess from the late Ed Holder, a popular coastal outdoor writer who spent most of his time in the backwater.
In the course of one day of fishing we both limited out on reds by fishing with topwater plugs. The best part for me was listening to Holder share his intimate knowledge of saltwater fish and, in particular, of how to catch them on topwaters.
His most compelling observation was what he calls the "cone of vision." He was specifically talking about reds, but I have found the same to be true for trout. If a trout's head were a clock, its eyes would be at 2 and 10 o'clock. The fish can basically see to 4 o'clock on the right side and 8 o'clock on the left, but 5, 6 and 7 o'clock are blind spots.
An angler should always make a point to throw the bait directly in front of the fish, or even at its head. The fish may strike at the bait if it hears it hit behind the eyes, but in Holder's view, the combination of seeing and hearing the action of a topwater plug is what will drive a fish to hit most of the time.
for trout to cast to, watch for subtle signs. A small mud boil may mean that a lone giant sow trout is on the prowl; a ripple in the water can point the way to a larger school of aggressively feeding trout. Think small in early late summer and early fall to find big numbers.
As fall comes, remember that fall is a period of migration for baitfish, so focus on areas in the marsh where drains meet open water or where drains may crisscross. These spots often hold the most trout. One of the best spots I've ever fished is found where a long, winding cut feeds into open water over an oyster reef. This spot is always good for trout in the fall, because the shrimp come out of the marsh on outgoing tides, and lots of baitfish are around the reef.
If you're fortunate enough to find such a reef in the marsh, then by all means fish there. For targeting such a specific structure, live baiters can do well by chumming. Chumming inland is popular in the flats in Florida, and it can work miracles for specks over backwater shell.
Take a can of jack mackerel (available at most large grocery stores), punch it full of holes and put it in a minnow bucket over the side of the boat. It will create a large and environmentally safe oil slick that will grab the attention of trout in the area. Live croakers, pinfish or finger mullet are great choices for this application. Once again, use fish-finder rigs. Anglers who prefer fishing under a popping cork will find that a rig like a Paradise Popper with a live cocahoe or finger mullet under it can also yield results.
THE X FACTOR
A somewhat unusual factor to consider in the summer trout fishing equation is barometric pressure. I've always had much better luck on gloomy, overcast days than when the sun is bright and winds are dead calm. Research conducted by fish biologist Dr. Gary Van Gelder sheds some light on this.
"One explanation, based on observations made by scuba divers -- and that's consistent with fishing experience -- is that there is an active feeding period as the cold front moves into an area," he noted. "The theory is that the fish gorge and are less active during the post-front 'bluebird-sky' period. The second explanation is that the higher levels of ultraviolet radiation adversely impact the smaller life forms in the food chain and infrared radiation associated with sunlight under very clear sky conditions. It's possible the bigger fish have 'learned' that feeding success is lower during these periods and thus maintain a lower level of activity until the food chain gets active and becomes more readily available."
Many anglers seem to prefer the pressure to be around 30.00 and 30.10 inches. Many professional fishing guides feel that this is the peak biting period, and that anything higher turns the bite off. And there may be some science to back this up.
Researchers in Florida put several species of fish, including speckled trout and trout, in a large observation tank with a controlled atmosphere to study how pressure would affect their feeding habits. Between 30.00 and 30.10 inches, the fish started to feed; when the pressure was turned up to 31.30 the fish died. The scientists surmised that the confined tank allowed the fish insufficient depth to equalize the pressure on their body.
Picking a marsh trout hotspot in Louisiana is sort of like picking a good Cajun restaurant: They're everywhere!
Starting in the east, the marshes around Venice probably hold more trout per acre than any other system in the world. A stunning number of fish in the 3- to 5-pound class swim there, and occasionally it produces a real head-turner. My experience in Venice has been that the fishing is either feast or famine, with most of the best fishing taking place when things otherwise look dismal outside.
Some truly respectable catches have been reported in recent years at Port Fourchon, another top area for specks. This is a good spot for finding trout around shell in the marsh, as the little lakes in the area have plenty of clams and oysters, which are magnets for marsh-dwelling specks.
Big Lake (Calcasieu) is the top pick in the state for catching a wallhanger in the backwater. On the east side of the lake, the best spots are the little lakes and weirs around the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, which have been excellent in recent years. On the west side, lots of fish will be found around the cuts in West Cove and to the north around Lake Charles in the marsh surrounding the Intracoastal Waterway corridor. Don't let the developed look of this area fool you. Some of the most non-pristine looking areas hold the most fish.
Over on Sabine Lake, anglers have dozens of miles of shorelines and hundreds of thousands of acres of perfectly pristine marsh to fish. When it's open (up until Oct. 15), the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge is a top pick with areas like Bridge and Willow bayous holding nice fish up until just after the first cold fronts. Johnson Bayou is another great spot that is not under the control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it gives anglers access to lots of shallow lakes and cuts and during the summer has the best tidal flow on the entire Louisiana shoreline. To the south, target Green's Bayou, which has become one of my personal favorite hotspots. It has everything a trout could want: tidal flow, shell and lots of baitfish.
As you can see, anglers in Louisiana have many choices on how and where to catch the trout that dwell in their home state's magnificent marshes. Sometimes anglers overlook the skinny water in exchange for easier fishing on the main body of bay systems -- but awaiting those seeking both solitude and something that doesn't just tug their lines but bends their rods, however, are the backwaters.
Find more about Louisiana fishing and hunting at: LAgameandfish.com.