Protected from wicked spring winds and loaded with hungry redfish, the Intracoastal Waterway offers Bayou State anglers more than a convenient travel route. (April 2008)
Along the Intracoastal Waterway, big reds often hold on flats bordering deeper water.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Spanning the entire Louisiana coastline and intersecting brackish marshes and salty bays along the way, the Intracoastal Waterway supports some of the best spring redfish opportunities in the world -- and two primary factors account for that bounty.
First, spring is extremely windy along the Louisiana coast, and the Intracoastal Waterway offers protected areas that are easy to fish in even the strongest winds; second -- and perhaps more important -- it's simply loaded with redfish.
The Intracoastal Waterway and its surrounding marshes are so full with redfish that they've become one of the most popular areas for anglers fishing the prestigious Redfish Cup tournament circuit. In 2007, Texas anglers Tim Young and Jason Catchings took first place at the circuit's Sabine Lake, landing two fish totaling 15.84 pounds by targeting marsh ponds just off the Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana.
"Our fishing just kept getting better, and to tell the truth, even if we hadn't won the tournament, we would have had an unforgettable fishing experience," Young said. "We caught probably 150 fish. There were just tons of fish in there."
Young fished with a 1/2-ounce Hopkins spoon, while Catchings used a Johnson Spoon. Both anglers used weedless rigs attached to braided line. "We wanted to get those fish in the boat and stress them as little as possible, so we were using 30-pound braid," Young explained.
Catchings, who located the fish during pre-fishing excursions, said that the number of fish in the area was just amazing. "There were just tons of fish in the 16- to 18-inch range all over the place," he observed, "but there were some nice ones too. The key in fishing these shallow marsh ponds is to spook the fish and get them moving -- but not really spook them. It's a fine line you walk, and once you figure it out, it makes a big difference in your fishing."
Perhaps the most interesting detail of Catchings' and Young's experience on the Intracoastal Waterway was that most of the anglers fishing that particular tournament had a hard time finding fish because of wind and murky water. These two anglers knew of a hotspot along the Intracoastal Waterway (also known as the "Intracoastal Canal"), so they went home with more than $60,000.
The marshes they fished are loaded with redfish, and many times the action is literally within a stone's throw of the canal itself. Catchings and Young targeted areas midway between the Sabine River and Hackberry. I frequently fish this zone of the waterway during the spring using trophy flounder tactics, and I've found that most of the big fish come from the shallow flats along the Intracoastal Waterway that border deep water.
I prefer the Sabine River Cut-Off, Shell Cut and the last half-mile of canal west of the Hackberry Bridge. Targeting these zones requires electronics. There are, after all, no openly visible markers to go by. Underwater, however, there are plenty of signs that point to possible redfish "holds," or areas in which the fish congregate.
The ideal hold is a small spot or shelf on the edge of a steep dropoff. This hold might be a 20-square-foot area in 15 feet of water that borders a 30-foot dropoff. In most situations, the 15-foot zone will gradually get shallower as you move toward the bank, but then drop off suddenly into the main channel. Such shallow-to-deep scenarios provide a specific zone in which reds, much like flounder, can feed on baitfish that might also move to this spot. Likewise, areas like these provide reds with a place in which to trade between the deeper main channel and the shallower shoreline.
Locating zones like these is only half the challenge; once you find the habitat, you're faced with the added hurdle of devising a strategy for getting the fish out of the water and into the boat. Position the boat so that the anchor is right on the edge of the hold, which makes it easier to fish vertically.
Use a stout casting rod and a high-caliber baitcasting reel spooled to the brim with a "superline" such as Berkley Fireline or SpiderWire braid. The terminal rig is simple. It consists of only a 1 1/2- or 2-ounce jig head. Finding such specialized jigheads may require a visit to a top-end tackle store, but the trip will prove well worth the effort.
I tip my jigheads with live mullet up to 8 inches long or larger croakers that can be purchased from bait camps. Remember: Big reds have a big mouth that can swallow big bait. I discovered this method for targeting big ship-channel reds by targeting channel flounder -- so don't be surprised if you catch a few of those as well!
Capt. Buddy Oakes of the Hackberry Rod and Gun Club declared the Intracoastal Waterway near Calcasieu to be a great standby spot in the spring. "It's almost always fishable and is a great spot to find reds when other spots aren't producing," he said.
On the eastern side of the state past Lake Pontchartrain, some of the best fishing is around the rigs docked for repair in adjoining channels and marker buoys. As most anglers know, structure is a key component in any fishing venture, and these massive constructions are great places for catching redfish at night under green lights.
I've had some experience fishing these types of buoys in recent years and have learned that it's vital to position yourself exactly where the fish are holding. For example, a couple of years ago I was fishing one of these rigs and there was another boat tied off on the opposite piling. We had the same kind of light and were using the same kind of bait. As the other team of anglers hammered trout, I watched haplessly, catching only a couple of stragglers. When the other boat departed, I targeted their spot and ended up bringing home a limit of fish to grill the following day. The same scenario often plays out with reds, and in most cases, they will hold even tighter to a particular structure -- and often deeper -- than will trout.
Many times the rigs will create small eddies behind them, and these usually mark the location of redfish. The current in the ship channels can be intense, and a lot of the small baitfish end up in the eddies. Hungry predators, including reds, pay close attention and follow suit.
I prefer using mud minnows for bait and have also found success using live croakers.
Any of the buoys in the Intracoastal Waterway can hold go
od numbers of fish, but it seems the best action is around those closest to deep holes. It is best to let the anchor down up current and release enough line to put you fairly close to the structure. Be careful not to make too much noise, especially if you are fishing in an aluminum boat like mine. Reds can be skittish at times, and you certainly do not want to scare away any potential catches.
If you are fishing close to the mouth of a bay, bring along some popping corks for fishing live shrimp or shad, as they seem to be more effective than free lines in many scenarios. Also, do not be afraid to put out a couple of rods in holders with big live bait such as a whole mullet off the back of the boat to draw the strike of a big trophy redfish or trout. It doesn't hurt to have as many rods in the water as possible.
Many of the areas along the canal are filled with brackish water that doesn't appear to be typical redfish habitat. You will encounter lots of cypress trees and Spanish moss where the canal intersects the confluence of the Atchafalaya River. Don't be fooled: These brackish areas are loaded with reds.
"Trotliners will catch reds way up in the basin sometimes," said avid Intracoastal Waterway angler Ron Hatcher of Breaux Bridge. "Those fish are very tolerant of fresh water, and especially when we have a dry spell, the fish will be up past what is normally the freshwater line."
On outgoing tides, look for reds around the points at the mouth of the river and canal. Many of these spots contain washouts created by current that can be several feet deeper than surrounding waters. Reds will often bunch up in these holes, which are also havens for baitfish and blue crabs. And on outgoing tides, look to small, flowing marshy drainages for consistent redfish action. As baitfish leave the marsh, reds will gather at key junctures such as sloughs that wind into the marsh and the mouth of the drainage itself.
"I find that crab works best," Hatcher said. "If you can get crab, use it -- because that is what reds like to eat best."
Fish small pieces of cut mullet or fresh, dead shrimp on the bottom. When fishing with Capt. Robert Vail, a ship-channel redfish expert, I'm consistently surprised at the small chunks of cut bait he uses, but I'm often equally impressed with the results. Use 1/2- to 1-inch pieces and change your bait frequently. These brackish reds seem to dislike bait that has been used for long periods. They want fresher bait than do their counterparts in freshwater systems.
Another proven tactic for catching these reds involves drifting chunks of cut bait on a free line over dropoffs in the river channel. Use a depthfinder to identify large, suspended fish around ship-channel structure. These may be reds, and they can be caught with similar tactics to those employed to land suspended freshwater stripers. A free line consists simply of a hook and bait. Sometimes this rig won't sink quickly enough, so do not hesitate to modify it by pinching on a split shot as a weight. Rig your weight about a foot above the hook.
Anchoring on top of the dropoffs and pitching the free-lined bait into the deep water can result in some great catches. If your boat is equipped with a trolling motor, you might simply set it on low and slowly troll through the same spots to catch fish. Either method can work, but one may produce more or better fish on some days than will the other.
The prime time to catch true trophy reds is during the winter when the big fish hold over ledges and dropoffs in deep water. Redfish hang around some of the same locations during the summer, though it can be harder to get them to bite.
Other spots frequented by big reds are mussel beds that form in tributaries draining into the river channel. To catch these fish, try freelining chunks of cut mullet in a chum slick created by throwing out mashed-up pieces of menhaden, shrimp and squid or menhaden oil. When you first arrive at the spot, you may not immediately get a bite, but once you put the chum out, the fish should respond quickly. It doesn't take long for them to find the chum. If the fish don't show within 20 minutes, try another spot.
As spring turns into summer, target areas in the canal with good water flow such as large cuts coming out of the marsh and the intersections of rivers. Cooler water temperatures usually mean a higher content of dissolved oxygen, which benefits reds twofold: First, it gives them more oxygen, which they need to be effective predators, and, second, it attracts more baitfish. Scientists are learning that one of the reasons that certain fish species feed less aggressively during summer than they do in spring and fall is decreased levels of dissolved oxygen.
Most of the Intracoastal Waterway is influenced by tides, so it's important to remember that rising or falling water can dictate the feeding habits of redfish. On a fast-falling tide, they move in close to the drainage in tight schools. When it's falling slowly, they might scatter out around the mouth of a drainage or up into the marsh. They will exhibit the same behavior during the first hour or so of an incoming tide; then the reds will usually move into the cuts. I have always had more success on incoming tides during summer months. I usually check the tide charts and mark off the days with the highest tides to concentrate on them.
Remember that a strong southerly wind pushes a lot of water into the marshes, causing unusually high tides, even during periods when moon or solar patterns call for low tides. Often what are supposed to be low tides end up being more than a foot above normal because of a constant, pounding south wind. Conversely, north winds will push water out of an ecosystem. Proof in point: Louisiana often experiences lower tides during the fall. In early spring, late cold fronts in conjunction with a strong tidal pull will drain an area and help to cleanse coastal marshes.
It's very important for anglers to understand that tidal strength at points away from the immediate coastline won't be as strong as those at a pass near the Gulf. For example, in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, what is a 3-foot tidal change in the mid lake area at the pass may be reduced to a single foot of change 10 miles up the river at the intersection of the Intracoastal Waterway. The tidal wave weakens as it moves farther inland. Don't expect a huge water exchange on the northern fringes of the intracoastal corridor.
Tides drive redfish feeding patterns for many miles inland, so ignoring them could be a mistake. Large movements of water stir feeding reds, whereas small movements generally have less impact in these tidally influenced areas.
Anglers should not look at the Intracoastal Waterway as simply a convenient travel route. The waterway deserves serious angling consideration for its redfish attributes. In recent years, I have changed my attitude on this manmade navigation system and found the fishing is often better -- and more convenient -- than what can be found in other areas.