After taking a beating from Hurricane Katrina, the redfishing on Lake Borgne is returning to its former glory.(July 2006)
: Photo by Ron Sinfelt
At the time of this writing, there were still lots of question marks regarding the issue of accessing parts of Lake Borgne after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area.
The fishing doesn't seem to have been affected at all, at least not in the short term. And anglers wanting to score on summer reds can find plenty of opportunities.
Lake Borgne offers a variety of ways for anglers to fill their redfish fixation -- in the lake itself, and also in surrounding marshes and channels.
A word of caution, however, to anglers who want to run the lake as they did before the hurricane: Katrina deposited quite a bit of debris throughout the New Orleans area, so be careful when navigating the lake.
This is especially true for those not familiar with the system. Make sure and err on the side of caution. Time spent slowly running the lake is worth the price of a new motor.
As far as the fishing goes, let's start with the main body of the lake first. During mid-day "slick-offs" when the water gets as flat as a mirror, reds will school heavily on Lake Borgne.
Watch for the obvious splashing of feeding action and also sitting birds. If the reds have their prey corralled below them, the birds will sit on top and nab any of the escapees. Many angler pass by sitting gulls, but they are likely passing lots of fish.
"Sitting gulls are one of the real red flags that I pay attention to during the summer when targeting schooling reds," said longtime angler Kriss Stephens of Slidell.
"They are a key indicator at Lake Borgne, especially during the latter part of summer going into fall."
Look for the area on the main lake about a mile in front of some of the big cuts on the eastern shoreline on strong outgoing tides.
Stephens said that when the bait is coming out with full force in spots like Bayou St. Malo and Padre Bayou, you can often find the reds feeding on top, just out of the main line of tidal influence. They're easy to find this way, but not so easy to approach. (Continued)
These reds are notoriously spooky, inspiring many anglers who seek them to carpet their boats so as not to make any unnecessary sounds. Feeding reds are sometimes not as easily spooked as solitary ones, but they can be. The best advice is to approach slowly with a trolling motor. Stay within easy casting distance, but get no closer. Close boats can give them lockjaw.
When the tide slows down, look for reds to be bunched up around small to medium-sized schools of baitfish, attacking the remnants of its purge.
Lipless crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap are good to throw into these, as are soft plastics that drop slowly, like a Wedge Tail or ChatterTube. These baits allow you to cover lots of water and are proven redfish-getters.
Another good choice is a DOA Shrimp fished on the bottom and crawled at a snail's pace. Reds like to hit the bait as soon as it hits the water. But if they don't, be patient and fish slowly for best results.
Sometimes these reds will be feeding with small trout, which are very easy to locate. Simply locate gulls feeding over the feeding fracas and throw in a soft plastic. The strike of a smallish speck will likely ensue.
More challenging, however, is catching the big redfish that dwell below the small ones and on the outside of the school.
Start by trying a heavy, fast-sinking bait like a one-ounce gold spoon. Begin by chunking the lure past the schooling action if possible and simply drag it along the bottom, all the way up to the boat. I like using spoons because I can throw them far, and when I use a large one, very few small trout bother with it. If you don't get hits by dragging it slowly, then try ripping it through the water as quickly as possible.
Another good lure is a Hoginar, which basically looks like a hunk of useless lead. But it can really do a number on the reds. Use the same pattern for it as you would for the spoon.
If you're having a problem finding the reds, back off from the school a bit and start casting on the down-current side of the school. This is where any wounded shrimp or baitfish will end up, which is why the reds like to hang around there. Trout are messy eaters, which works to the reds' advantage.
For anglers who prefer fishing with live bait, chunk a whole crab on a Carolina rig and drag it along the bottom. I am usually a proponent of using crab with a cracked shell, but in this instance, use the whole crab (with pincers removed) and drag it slowly across the bottom as if you were fishing for flounder.
While these reds may be feeding on shrimp, they can't resist a crab, and leaving the shell on will help you avoid strikes by smaller fish. The point here is to catch the big reds and avoid any other scavengers that might come along for the ride.
The most exciting way to score on reds in the Lake Borgne system is by topwater fishing, according to Capt. Billy Bucano of Tightline Charters.
"Fishing these bad boys and girls of the marsh on topwater baits will make your heart race when they explode on the line," he said.
The best topwater action is located within the marsh on the east and west sides of Lake Borgne, and also along the shorelines where sight-casting to them is possible.
I have fished Lake Borgne twice, both times along the southern end of the ecosystem and both times with Stephens. We caught reds on topwaters in the Shell Beach and Bayou Dupre areas early in the morning.
We scored by using key topwater redfish principles instilled by my late mentor, veteran outdoor writer Ed Holder.
His most compelling observation was what he calls the redfish "cone of vision" -- the zone that any angler should try to work 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 on the dial. The fish can basically see "back" to 4 o'clock on the right side and to 8 o'clock on the left. But from 5 to 7 o'clock is its blind spot.
An angler should always make a point to throw the b
ait 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 says the combination of seeing and hearing the action of a topwater plug is what will drive a redfish to hit most of the time.
With this in mind, it's worth noting that it's almost a miracle of physics for a redfish to strike bait 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 they can strike the bait. Either the reds have evolved this ability over the years or Nature just goofed up somewhere down the line.
These feeding red schools will leave trails in the water that you can follow. By wearing polarized sunglasses and paying attention to subtle changes in water clarity an angler can make out these trails and use them to pursue the reds.
When they get to feeding in frenzy, a school of reds may look like more like an emerging submarine than a bunch of fish. In summer, this isn't always the case.
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. And if you find a solid line of mud weaving its way along a shoreline or on the main lake, reds are not far behind.
A popular area to find reds during summer months are the gas wells on Lake Borgne. There are bunches of them and all of them have the potential to hold reds.
These wells make up their own mini ecosystems in the same way they do offshore.
The first thing you need to do is check to see if the poles have many barnacles on them. Those spots are good ones to fish because they are likely to draw in lots of baitfish and crustaceans, which reds of course dine on.
In addition, the wells located near shorelines with shell deposits are great places to fish.
Chunk one line in the shallowest spot and another in the deep and there is a very good chance will score on redfish.
In my experience, a live croaker ranging from 8 to 12 inches is the very best big redfish specific bait. The croaking sound gives reds an audible target and a large live bait keeps away most gafftops and hardheads. Croaker is not well-known bull redfish bait, but I have had far better luck on it than anything else. If I cannot get croaker, I use a whole crab with the top shell broken off.
Although they do not look like they are useful for much of anything productive, circle hooks provide anglers with a higher chance of actually hooking a fish and not hooking the fish in the throat. This increases the chance of survival upon release.
Daiichi has a hook called the Tru-Turn that acts in much the same way as a circle hook but it looks a lot more like a standard hook. I use it and standard circle hooks exclusively while seeking bull redfish.
Most of the time Tru-Turns and circle hooks lodges themselves in the corner of the red's mouth. If you have never used these kinds of hooks, I would recommend setting the rod in a rod holder in the boat and allowing the fish to hook itself.
Do not try to set the hook as you would with a regular j-style hook. After the rod starts bending over give the rod a slight tug and start reeling in.
Another great way to score on reds around the rigs here is by fishing them with green lights at night. Green lights have soared in popularity among Lake Borgne fishermen over the past five years. Green lights come in two basic types: floating and submersible. Most of my green light fishing is with a floater, and it works great. Submersibles seem more popular and may be a tad more effective since they penetrate deeper into the water. A 12-volt battery powers these lights for many hours.
Effective night fishing requires knowing where to fish, proper boat positioning, and bait selection. When fishing a wellhead or rig, position the boat at the corner of the down current side if possible.
Get as close as possible and face the bow into the current. In mild current and no chop, try hooking up backwards with the transom to the rig.
Positioning is also very important over more subtle structure like oyster beds. Lower the anchor up current and let out enough line to put you over the structure.
An overlooked area in the Lake Borgne system are the ship channels running along the north and west quadrants.
Anglers targeting the marker buoys along the channel can catch some big reds many anglers quite simply never think about fishing.
"Vertical Trapping" is a method I am experimenting with in such areas. It involves using a Rat-L-Trap and dropping it down over deep holes and simply reeling it up. This is something anglers use for smallmouth bass in channels along the Great Lakes, and I am experimenting with it for redfish and other coastal predators in Gulf Coast waters.
What is appealing about this method is that it allows for targeting various depths of the water column. If you do not have electronics and have no means of telling where the fish are this can allow you to hit all areas of the column with a lure that mimics what they are feeding on this time of year and one that is hard to ignore.
Another method that works well here is a method typically employed for trout on nearby Lake Ponchartrain -- trolling.
Consider targeting these redfish by trolling medium-running crankbaits like the Fat Free Shad through these zones.
The beauty of trolling is that it is easy and covers a lot of water. You simply rig your crankbaits in rod holders, let the line out so you can reach the desired depth and move your boat slowly. The hardest part will be learning the correct trolling speed. Start as slow as you can go and then gradually increase speed.
"Breakaway rigs" are also effective for trolling and will allow you to use live bait.
This requires using two rods and reels: one is to fish with and the other is to get your bait down to the depth at which you fish. Now, you can use this for trolling lures as well, but it is pretty much the easiest way for live bait.
Hook live bait like finger mullet through the lips with a small circle hook rigged on braided line. Then take a rod rigged with a one-ounce weight attached to a good swivel and attach it to your line with a thin rubber band tied to the swivel and to the braid. Let the baited line out first and then attach the rubber band and weighted line out once you have say 20 yards of line behind the boat. This will allow you to troll your bait freely a good distance behind the
boat and you can adjust the depth.
Once you have a fish on, the pressure will cut the thin rubber band on the sharp, braided line and let you fight the fish freely.
Anglers should troll live baits slowly. You might want to start by using your trolling motor, and if that is not doing the trick, then switching to the big motor to speed things up a bit.
The main thing to keep in mind while fishing Lake Borgne is not to let its vastness overwhelm you.
Yes, there's a lot of water -- but if you target the bayous feeding into the lake, the oyster reefs, wells and the markers in the channel, you can decrease the amount of water you're fishing and increase your odds of catching reds.
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