September 28, 2010
Lying generally south of Morgan City, the platforms and structure of the Eugene Island region of Louisiana's Gulf Coast offer up some of our state's best angling opportunities for speckled trout. (May 2009)
Much of Louisiana's coastline is defined by islands, and it's no secret that they can provide outstanding fishing for several popular species of saltwater game fish. Names like Chandeleur Island, Breton Island, Grand Isle, Timbalier Island, Last Island and Marsh Island -- among others -- have become almost synonymous with these fish, especially speckled trout. Yet there is another "island" that is not as well known or highly touted as those, though the fishing it offers -- also primarily with specks -- can be as good or better than any of the others. It is Eugene Island.
Louisiana's Central Coast specks are susceptible to anglers' offerings whether they're delivered by traditional tackle or fly rod and reel.
Photo courtesy of Pete Cooper Jr.
Ever heard of it? I'd imagine most readers have not. That's because it is not actually an island but a section of the Gulf generally south of Morgan City that was given that name by the old U.S. Geological Survey (now the Minerals Management Service or MMS). The purpose therein was to differentiate the area from others like South Marsh Island and South Timbalier for petroleum-leasing purposes, and I've been told the name originated from a prominent seamount within it some 80 miles offshore.
Such benthic structure lying that far offshore is not a subject for this article. What is of interest here is the veritable plethora of platforms in the northernmost "blocks" -- subdivisions of the Eugene Island region -- that at times can be loaded with speckled trout.
I first became acquainted with this part of the Gulf in 1964 on a three-hour crewboat ride from Morgan City to a drilling rig where I was to have a summer job as a roustabout. Still, almost 45 years would pass before I cast a line across those waters.
The first trip to do so was compliments of Chip Metz of Morgan City -- a fly-fishing friend and life-long prospector of the nearshore reaches of the area. And on that note, let me clarify that all of "Eugene Island" lies in federal waters -- the Exclusive Economic Zone or "EEZ." Therefore, the possession of redfish -- which can occasionally be caught here -- is prohibited, even if they were taken in state waters. Don't forget that!
There was a third member of the crew on that enlightening morning -- Emmett Galloway of Houma. That might tell you something about the productivity of the platforms in this area, since Galloway chose to fish with us there rather than in the "super spots" around Cocodrie and Theriot that are much closer to his home. Upon arriving at our destination -- a platform in about 12 feet of water in the northeastern blocks -- we discovered some competition working the particular spot that Metz wanted to fish.
And the current, which can be pretty stout hereabouts, prevented us from securing our boat near enough to the spot to work it without interfering with the guys in the other boat, who were clearly catching fish.
Too bad, we thought, as Chip used the trolling motor to fight our way to the upcurrent side of the apparent hotspot. There, we set the anchor and drifted back toward the structure to a point perhaps 20 feet from it and began prospecting -- a little half-heartedly, I must admit.
It didn't take long to realize that the upcurrent retrieves necessitated by the boat's position quickly lifted our jigs out of the strike zone.
After 10 minutes or so of fruitless retrieves against the current, I made a short cast directly away from the platform. That allowed the jig to sink and remain near bottom as the current swept it toward me and allowed retrieving line only fast enough to keep contact with the lure. On my second or third such effort -- again, casting away from the structure -- I was rewarded with a solid thump. And that thump initiated a 2 1/2-hour melee that resulted in 64 gorgeous specks, all taken by casting away and upcurrent from the platform.
There's little doubt that speckled trout around any given offshore platform -- anywhere along our coast -- will not be holding to bottom all the time. However, on occasion, they will, and one of those occasions is in strong current. Then, if your jigs are too light to sink into and stay within their zone, your action will be slow at best.
And don't be reluctant to work the upcurrent side of a structure with your casts made both toward it -- if the current is light enough to permit doing so -- and away from it. That is, indeed, an uncommon practice with offshore speck-slayers and most often requires anchoring rather than securing the boat to the structure, but it's something that will be beneficial, if not today, then maybe tomorrow.
Then again, there is another setting in which specks can be found.
I was reminded of that on another trip with Metz a couple of weeks later. We had found the structure that had been so good to us on that first trip to be in river water with a strong current. A short but thorough test proved that nobody, if at home, wanted to come out and play, so we headed west, seeking to cross the fresh effluent of the Atchafalaya and find some salty, clearer water. And we soon did.
The first platform we tried quickly yielded a half-dozen or so good fish, but either those were all that were present or those that may have remained quickly learned to avoid our jigs. Farther west and still in fine water, another structure yielded nothing, so west we went again, eventually arriving at a rather unimpressive, scantily-dressed, four-legged structure.
The Gulf was slick that morning, so Metz dropped the trolling motor and began working around the platform, beginning on the south (downcurrent) side of it and continuing around to the east. About midway along that side, he made a cast to a point well within its legs -- underneath its deck -- and hooked a fine fish!
By the time we had netted it and relegated it to the cooler, the boat had drifted back some distance, so it took a few minutes to regain position. Once there, Metz again tossed his jig beneath the platform and hooked another fine speck.
Since I was in the back of the boat, I wasn't quite reaching position to make a cast before my partner hooked up. I complained pretty loudly about it, and after we took care of the second fish, we moved into an "equal opportunity" position and set the anchor. And there, after each of us had contributed a dozen or so fish to the ice chest, we both broke out our fly rods and proceeded to finish our limits. Need I say that led to a glorious day?
Several points about that experience should be stressed. The first is that, once again, the action occurred somewhere other than on the downcurrent side of the structure. Sure, if you so choose, begin prospecting the water on the "easy" side, but if strikes are slow to come, don't give up on the entire platform without speculating it more thoroughly.
If sea conditions allow that to be done with a trolling motor, then good. More often, though, you will need to idle from point to point and set the anchor to hold your positions. That should pose no real problems, since the water around most of the structures in the northern Eugene Island blocks is less than 20 feet deep. In most cases, a scope of "two" is sufficient.
Understand that if you choose to limit your fishing to the downcurrent side of a platform, you may thereby limit your exposure to potentially productive structure. By being a bit more flexible, you can target more consistently productive forms that are often present -- particularly, the point where the "risers" of the individual flow lines (small-diameter pipelines) enter the platform from the seabed. Remember that the more iron concentrated in the water, the better the platform draws and holds specks.
There are a few safety measures you should follow if you decide to work the water around these platforms. First, do not move your boat beneath a platform whose legs are supported by horizontal or near-horizontal beams. Likewise, if wells penetrate the water beneath the platform's deck, then keep out! Work the water beneath such structures from outside their perimeters. And finally, never climb onto a platform! That's private property. If you do, you are trespassing!
While specks holding to offshore platforms are often found in the top half of the water column, they are almost as likely to be near bottom. Therefore, your jigs -- without question the lures of choice for the latter scenario -- must gain and hold that position in order to be effective. On the other hand, one that is too heavy will not dance about in such an appealing manner as one that is a bit lighter.
For most occasions, I prefer a 3/8-ounce head. However, in light to non-existent current, I'll step down to 1/4-ounce sizes, and if the current demands it, I'll go up to 1/2-ounce. If that's not heavy enough, I'll try to find a platform with less current around it -- or one in water that is a bit shallower.
Deep-fishing in current is an exercise with which many of Louisiana's coastal anglers are not altogether experienced. It demands a lot of "feel," since even if your jigs do reach and remain in the strike zone, the current may create a slight belly in your line that masks the specks' tentative strikes.
Here, I have found that a slightly shorter and stiffer rod than most folks generally use for saltwater purposes is best, a 6-foot freshwater "worm rod" being a favorite. While it is a "casting" type, similar spinning sticks are just as good, as proven by Metz and Galloway. And while reel-particulars are not especially important here, the line is.
To put it simply, braids excel! On either type of reel, 8/30 is highly recommended because of its thin diameter, which makes it less resistant to the force of the current, and because of its lack of stretch, which allows you to feel soft, deep strikes. Around 3 feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon should be attached to the braid with a double uni-knot. Use no snaps or swivels in your terminal assembly.
While I almost invariably carry along a fly rod when I go speck-fishing offshore, I have seldom used it -- the current and the often deep-holding fish being the reasons why. Still, the time can become right for one, so if you are prone to fly-fishing, here are some helpful hints.
Use a 9- or 10-weight outfit with a Class III sinking line. That, combined with fairly heavy flies, will work both when the fish are up and when the current is stronger but still allows the technique. Flies such as size 2/0 Clouser Minnows are all you need; chartreuse over white or solid purple are favorite colors. Fluorocarbon leaders of 4 to 5 feet in length and tapered to 16-pound-class line with a foot of 30-pound for a shocker are enough. After the cast, use increasing counts before beginning the retrieve until you reach the productive zone.
As far as individual hotspots go, I am sworn to secrecy. However, I can safely say this: Any platform -- often the bigger the better -- found across the northern blocks from the 50s down to the 70s can offer the best speck fishing you could ever imagine during early summer. And that goes for quality as well as quantity!
You can create your own map of the area by searching "Gulf Leasing Maps and Protraction Diagrams" on the Internet. Then, scroll down and click on the same title -- the exact same title! Next, scroll down through "Central Gulf of Mexico" to LA4. Click here, then enlarge the image to 66.67 percent. Print it out; then on your trip you can pencil in and label the platforms where you catch fish for future reference. They all should have their respective blocks on signs at deck-level or thereabouts.
The Eugene Island area can be reached from two locations, both requiring a fairly long run. From the public landing in Berwick, take the Atchafalaya River south through its delta and follow the channel markers past the channel-stabilizing project. You'll see the rocks to the east there along with possibly a few barges. This route requires a run across Atchafalaya Bay, as well as at least five miles or so of Gulf, so watch the weather. One good thing about it, though, is if the Gulf turns lumpy, you can head back and fish the reefs around Point au Fer.
The run from Burns Point -- south of U.S. Route 90 on state Route 317 between the Calumet Cut and Franklin -- is sheltered for a short distance from an east breeze down to Point Chevreuil, but from there on it will be exposed. However, this is a shorter run to the platforms in the western blocks, and you can always stop by the Nickel Reef, south of Marsh Island, on the way back. In both cases, the launch-site fees are a buck or two on an honor pay system. While the concrete back-down ramps are entirely adequate, no amenities are available at either site, so come entirely self-supported.
And if you are so inclined, you could reach the western blocks from Cypremort Point. However, at this writing, it's doubtful that the bridge on state Route 83 north of Weeks Island that was wrecked by one of last September's hurricanes will have been repaired. That will demand accessing the point via Route 83's lower loop from Baldwin through Louisa. In any case, gaining the Eugene Island blocks from the Point will require a lot of gas and a lot of time getting there and back. Plan your trips accordingly!
Wherever you choose to launch, I'd recommend a craft no smaller than a 20-foot bay-boat -- Metz's choice -- for working this area, and a little bigger could end up being a whole lot better! Use common sense in navigating, and don't forget your safety gear. The fishing at Eugene Island can be too good to mess up a trip there by being careless!