Black Gold, Yellow Mouths
September 28, 2010
Crude oil and speckled trout do mix! Take to the oil fields of southern Louisiana for a chance at some first-rate trout fishing. (August 2008)
Whether inshore, in the Gulf of Mexico or somewhere in between, Louisiana's coastal oil fields are excellent bets for some great action for speckled trout.
Photo by Pete Cooper Jr.
Ever been able to fish on the job?
Nearly two decades ago, before I became a full-time outdoor writer, I had a very rewarding career in the south Louisiana oil field. At first it involved operating a production facility; later I became a supervisor of drilling and remedial projects.
Almost all of my time in both positions was spent in the waters around the Mississippi River Delta, the South Timbalier area and Vermilion Bay, and I must avow that I thoroughly enjoyed my work and remain quite proud of some of my accomplishments in both roles. But I also received a fringe benefit of sorts that was beyond the raises, promotions and all the time off that went with the job -- I learned how strongly the oil field influenced the fish -- and especially the speckled trout -- around and within it.
Back in those days, if the operation was progressing smoothly, the bosses didn't say much if I occasionally slipped away for a short while "to test bottom" -- in south Louisiana oil-field vernacular, "to fish." Early on, some of those bosses would appear at lunchtime to share in the results of those tests. It didn't take long for me to begin applying what I learned from those lunch breaks to the trips I made during my days off.
INSHORE OIL FIELDS
For the purpose of targeting speckled trout, Louisiana's coastal oil fields must be separated into three types. The first is best described as "inshore." Here, the reservoirs lay beneath marshlands too unconsolidated to support the heavy equipment required to drill and service a well. Canals are dredged from the nearest navigable waterway to the site at which the well will be drilled so that tugs can move equipment to and from the spot.
Initially, some attempt was made to isolate natural waterways from the canals to prevent possible saltwater intrusion into the area. That worked for a while, but over time, the canals' banks subsided and shorelines eroded. Also, wooden bulkheads and clamshell dams constructed for isolation purposes washed out around their ends. Because of these and other factors, the salinity in some canals increased greatly. Likewise, some canals intersected large bayous and bays that were not isolated. All of this allowed any fish that inhabited the adjacent areas free run of the canals.
An inshore oil field typically consists of numerous wells drilled at individual locations -- therefore requiring different canals -- and connected to an often-distant production facility via small-diameter pipelines. Here, the wells and facilities are not usually the primary form of speckled trout structure; unconformities in the numerous canals are.
Among the best of those speck-holding unconformities is an intersection with a natural bayou; almost as good is an intersection with another canal. Tidal currents in these areas tend to concentrate various minnows and shrimp, which can be prolific in these waters, and that draws the specks. Another form of prime structure is a canal's "dead-end" -- either the point where it terminates or where it is spanned by a dam or a bulkhead. Either can concentrate prey.
Inshore oil fields, while providing a great fishing opportunity for specks at times, typically present some drawbacks to anglers. Many of these fields are subject to turbidity from the effluent of nearby rivers. However, this is usually less of a deterrent during the dryer months of autumn, which happens to be the time when specks make their annual move inshore. Autumn is almost always the best time to fish these waters. Still, finding reasonably clear water remains a major factor even then in this fishery. If it is not present at intersections, try a dead-end. If it isn't clear there, try another canal.
Current -- also an important factor here -- is most easily determined at canal intersections. While the falling tide has proven to be best in my experience, water moving either way is much better than when it's not moving at all. Finally, unless a gang of specks has hemmed up a concentration of prey in a confined area, they will usually be on the move. Once a hot bite cools, don't wait for it to begin again -- try to relocate its source.
Speckled trout found in most of the oil-field canals that I have fished during autumn can be best described as skillet material, with very few sizable specimens in the mix. Most range from less than a pound to 2 pounds. Unless I was fly-fishing at the time, my steadfast enticers were either chartreuse or purple soft-plastic grubs threaded onto a 1/8-ounce jighead and suspended around 2 feet beneath a 3-inch weighted popping cork. Grungy water may demand a small shrimp sweetener be added to the jig, but that's generally a better solution for redfish than for specks.
Some good examples of productive inshore oil fields are "the Wagonwheel," near Venice, the Chauvin field, north of Lake Boudreaux and the Deep Lake field, on the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge.
The second type of oil patch found along the Louisiana coast is commonly known as a "bay field." Those are located in large bays and sounds usually near the seashore, and are typically developed similarly to inshore fields. Here, though, the best structure often consists of the field's wells and platforms -- the production facilities and smaller manifold platforms. The best of these is usually determined by how much iron is in the water around them, and the older and more dilapidated it is, the better!
These fields are typically found in water that is much saltier than inshore fields, a factor that leads to corrosion. Although both the wells and the platforms are normally equipped with cathodic protection devices, rust is unavoidable, and some of it falls apart over time and finds its way to the bottom of the bay. Oysters flourish in many of these bays, and the combination of oysters and benthic junk creates ideal structure for attracting and holding prey.
On a day-to-day basis, specks will most often be found where the most iron is in the water, and that concentration is usually near points where small-diameter pipelines -- the "flow lines" -- from the individual wells approach a platform. Their visible parts, called "risers," extend like fingers nearly vertically from that part of the line that lies on the bottom of the bay up through the water column and the surface to a manifold on the platform's deck. The lines are frequently in a convoluted jumble on the bay bottom near the platform, and there they can hold the largest
A marked exception to this rule is an individual well that was drilled through a reef or in water deep enough to require a clamshell "pad" for safe drilling operations. The first of those scenarios must also be determined by prospecting. Tightlining with a quarter-ounce jighead dressed with a grub in one of the aforementioned colors is a good choice here, but since there can be as many as 100 or more wells in such a field, the odds of discovering one on a reef are rather poor.
Another prime example of bay-field structure is rock used to protect shorelines near complexes of a field's office and support buildings. I know of a number of those "breakwaters" -- some through work, others through off-day fishing trips. One of them deserves review.
This particular breakwater lined the northern shoreline of an island that housed the offices and supply buildings for the South Black Bay field where I worked as a production facility operator. Eventually, those buildings were removed, and a stipulation in the island's lease required that at such time, the island would be reverted to its original condition as much as possible. The rocks were removed -- but not all of them!
A decade later, while I was ramrodding a remedial operation on a well in that field, I conducted a "bottom test" along that stretch of the island, which, not surprisingly, had receded a considerable distance because of wave-erosion. The remaining rocks lay scattered in 2- to 3-foot depths about a 50-foot cast from the present shoreline, and for two days -- standing calf-deep in the bay while clad in steel-toed boots, company coveralls and a plastic hardhat -- I provided lunch for the crew.
Admittedly, those rocks would be very difficult to locate these days. Others that lie scattered across the coast in similar fields -- like the rock jetty off Deepwater Point across the river from Venice that protects the facilities for the Coquille Bay field -- are much easier to find, and every one of those that I have fished has given up specks.
Bay fields are quite productive from late summer into autumn, and they typically hold specks that average much larger than those found in inshore fields. They also tend to hold bull redfish and large jack crevalle, and the potential for hooking one of those beasts is great enough to warrant gear a bit stouter than that which suffices inshore.
Any decent reel -- spinning or casting -- that will hold more than 150 yards of 14-pound line should be sufficient. However, a slightly heavier leader is much more important here than it is inshore. I suggest at least 2 feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon tied to the line with an Albright knot -- no snaps or swivels. Also, the jig-head should be a bit stouter -- one of those round-headed models with a short-shank size 3/0 hook highly recommended. Again, quarter-ounce jigheads should be enough, except for around the shell pads in the deeper parts of these fields; there, 3/8-ounce is usually a better bet.
Some of the most acclaimed of Louisiana's bay fields are Black Bay, southeast of Delacroix Island, Breton Sound Block 21, north of Venice, Timbalier Bay, west of Leeville, and a scattering of smaller fields south of Houma from Cocodrie west to Theriot.
OFFSHORE OIL PATCHES
The final type of Louisiana's coastal oil patches to offer fine opportunities for specks is found offshore in depths up to approximately 25 feet. Seemingly a late-spring-through-early-autumn affair, targeting these areas can produce top-quality fish.
These fields are developed either by individual wells that flow to a few processing facilities scattered about a particular area or by a number of wells drilled from individual platforms. The various structures in either type of field can be equally productive, though the presence of benthic structure can render some better than others. Here, the specks usually hold deep and near the structures. Add to that the current, which is often present, and getting even a fairly heavy jig down to them before the current sweeps it away is no easy task. But on days when current is minimal, it can be done easily.
Begin by securing your boat to the downcurrent side of the structure, ensuring that you haven't tied it off to a part of a well or a piece of production equipment. Then, make about a 20-foot upcurrent cast parallel to the structure. Allow the jig to sink as you retrieve it slowly with short twitches alongside the structure -- that being just enough to maintain contact with it.
Typical of any coastal oil field, those found offshore have some structures that are regularly productive and some that aren't. Approach and leave any structure that you intend to fish as quietly as possible! That includes the time that it takes to secure your boat to one of them.
Remember that the fish are probably less than 25 feet from you, and any revving and gear-shifting that you must do during that time in order to hold the boat's position is guaranteed to turn off the fish -- at least for a while. Give your competitors a break by leaving the structure in a reasonably quiet manner, too. Who knows? The next angler who comes along may know something about the spot that you don't.
If the idea of fishing for specks around an offshore platform intrigues you, try West Delta Block 27 west of Venice, Bay Marchand Block 2 out of Fourchon and the smaller Eugene Island blocks 29, 51 and 57 below Morgan City.
One note on coastal oil fields in general: Their structures are usually equipped with lights to prevent collisions and to facilitate working on them at night. The production facilities are usually lit the brightest, and those lights tend to draw prey, which, in turn, draws specks.
Night-fishing around such structures, especially during late summer and early autumn, can be nothing short of phenomenal, especially in the bay fields. If the weather's conducive to an after-dark trip, consider it. The "strike zone" is frequently the transitional area between the darkest water and the brightest-lit. As a rule of thumb, smaller and lighter jigs work better than larger, heavier ones.
Of the various types of oil fields found in these waters, I must admit that bay fields are my favorites. One reason for that is they are easier to fish for a longer period of time than the other two. You can take this to the bank: Anywhere the water is a bit salty along the edge of the Louisiana coast and there's black gold beneath it, there is a very good possibility that there are yellow mouths within it!