The Gulf's Red-Hot Redfish Action
September 28, 2010
When you talk about Venice, Lafitte, Cocodrie and Lake Charles, you're talking Louisiana redfish. Get these experts' advice to make sure you're speaking the right language.
Photo by Tom Evans
Thousands of fishing hotspots dot the Louisiana coastline, prompting inshore anglers to argue that the finest fishing for redfish is smack in the middle of their personal honeyholes. The particulars notwithstanding, few would argue that any better redfish angling can be had than that found in the neighborhood of the communities of Venice, Lafitte, Cocodrie and Lake Charles.
These four centers for sportfishing cater not only to anglers on the hunt for redfish but also to those who come here from all parts of the country seeking cobia, speckled trout, tarpon, red snapper, flounder, king mackerel, amberjack and other game fish. Still, it's the reds that seem to garner most of the attention. After all, they provide quality fishing action on all types of tackle - from baitcasters to spinning rigs to fly rods, and on light- to medium-action outfits as well.
Essential to these bountiful sportfishing areas are the estuaries that surround them - the lakes, ponds, canals, passes and seashores of the Louisiana marshlands. They combine to form a rich nursery for the production of redfish. About five years ago, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries enacted a multistage program for the elimination of purse seines and gill nets from the state's waters. Today, gill nets are legal only for purposes of commercial fishing for mullet and pompano. The program has been credited for rebuilding Louisiana's redfish population.
Fishing guides from east to west report that they see no generation gaps in their local red drum fisheries. Rat reds (to 16 inches) and juvenile redfish (16 to 26 inches) are plentiful in the marsh, and broodstock - bull reds, commonly caught in weights up to 40 pounds - have grown in offshore waters to numbers that most anglers have never seen before.
Federal law, which imposes a ban on the possession of redfish in federal waters (three miles or more offshore), has also aided the recovery of the bull reds. Louisiana anglers, too, deserve some credit. Those who practice catch-and-release fishing have contributed mightily to the recreational and economic value of the red drum fishery.
The Mississippi River plays a particularly strong role in the fishery surrounding Venice, where only 25 miles south of the community the big river empties into the Gulf of Mexico by way of a number of passes. Fishing in the vicinity of Lafitte is affected by the Davis Pond Project, which diverts a large volume of fresh water into nearby Lake Salvador. Anglers in Cocodrie enjoy large expanses of brackish marsh as well as the open water of Terrebonne Bay. And fishing in the vicinity of Lake Charles centers on the bounty of Calcasieu Lake.
Local anglers' methods bear a considerable resemblance to one another, but from place to place, hot fishing techniques and lure choices sometimes separate the anglers as much as does the distance between them. For example, Calcasieu Lake is growing in popularity as a destination for flyfishermen, while the spinnerbait tactics common to bass fishing figure among the most popular fishing strategies for anglers in the Venice area. Many Lafitte-area anglers simply like to cast and retrieve a jig armed with a soft-plastic grub or minnow. And at Cocodrie you'll find few anglers in the marsh or on the bay without a gold spoon hanging from at least one rod.
The tactics that fishermen employ with artificial lures do best, however, in clear water. Mind you, "clear water" means that with visibility of about 8 inches or more - and, at least in the spring, clear water can be elusive. The estuaries that support the outstanding redfish action found around Venice, Lafitte, Cocodrie and Lake Charles can muddy quickly. High springtime water levels combine at times with high tides and a predominant southeast wind to create poor water visibility. At other times, high northwest winds driven by passing cold fronts stir the waters into a chop that raises the silt from the bottoms of canals and bayous.
Muddy water doesn't signal the end of redfishing, however. The worst of water-clarity conditions can occur in springtime, and their onset is often as predictable as the change in the weather. At these times, baitfishing will turn out limits of redfish. The redfish's keen sense of smell will lead them to live shrimp and cocahoes straight-lined on a Carolina rig, as well as to fresh-frozen market shrimp added as an enticement to a jig suspended a couple of feet beneath a popping cork.
No matter where you live along the Louisiana coastline and no matter your preferred style of fishing, redfish are in abundance and ready to strike.
VENICE Sixty miles south of New Orleans, state Highway 23 terminates in Venice. Here, where land ends and the marsh of the Mississippi Delta stretches southward, the familiar silhouettes of the oil and gas industry's infrastructure punctuate the skyline; gas flares, oil and gas transfer facilities and thousands of wellheads shadow fishermen in pursuit of redfish. Bayous, ponds, canals, passes and broken marsh accentuate the estuary formed by the Mississippi River.
Area water conditions, and thus fishing conditions, are vulnerable to the influences of the Mighty Mississippi, which commonly reaches high-water marks in springtime. The Mississippi River often carries silt-laden freshwater into the Gulf of Mexico.
"It's an angler's ability to find clear water that can make or break a day's fishing," said local guide Brent Ballay of Venice Marina. "In the marsh you want to find clean pond water, and most of it will be in places far away from the Mississippi River. That's where you can find plenty of small reds - juvenile redfish up to 26 inches and about 10 pounds."
The local spring hotspots include the northwest side of the Wagon Wheel, a network of canals collectively shaped in a circle several miles in diameter. The canals, bayous and ponds found here are those that lie farthest away from the river water. Redfish can lurk just about anywhere in this maze, but canal points and grassy edges produce the best catches.
One of the most productive redfish lures in clear water is the spinnerbait. Snap a 1/4-ounce jighead onto a size 2 or 4 gold safety-pin style spinner and arm it with a chartreuse soft-plastic body. Other color patterns - such as clear sparkle or purple/white - will draw strikes, too, but no one who fishes the Venice area will argue with you when you reach for chartreuse/glitter, solid chartreuse and chartreuse/black patterns. Cast the spinner in shallow water - 1 1/2 to 4 feet deep - and parallel to grassy edges, into the backs of pockets and anywhere the tidal current breaks around points, canal inters
ections and bulkheads.
Stretching the meaning of the term to explain that the marsh is not the only place to catch red drum, Brent Ballay says that fishing for reds out of Venice can also take fisherman "offshore." He points out that the hotspots sited at the far fringes of the area known as the Mud Lumps (at South Pass) and the jetties at Southwest Pass can produce phenomenal catches of redfish. At both sites, soft-plastic 1/2-ounce jigs are cast to the clear water that's often found on the outside of the jetties.
For more information about fishing for redfish in the Venice area, phone Ballay at Venice Marina, (985) 534-9357, or check out the marina Web site at www.venicemarina.com
LAFITTE For New Orleans-area fishermen, Lafitte serves as a gateway to close-in fishing opportunities for those who find day trips a bit more comfortable when they don't have to spend a few hours of their day on the road. About 20 miles south of the Westbank Expressway at the end of state Highway 45, Lafitte stands at the northernmost point of the Barataria estuary. Many of the local guide services are centered upon the facilities of C-Way Marina.
"The estuary is huge, and there are many places to fish down here," said Capt. Ray Griffin of Griffin's Charters. Topping his list of places for catching springtime redfish is brackish Lake Salvador, which, stretching northward from the Intracoastal Canal to the chutes that connect it to its smaller cousin, Lake Cataouatche, is a focal point for both redfish and bass fishermen, who frequently catch both species on back-to-back casts.
"There is so much bait here in springtime that we don't go fishin' - we go catchin'!" Griffin says, echoing his motto, which speaks volumes to the anglers who find tremendous schools of redfish in the lake. "I'm talking about hundreds of reds in the 5- to 7-pound range."
Key to Lake Salvador's fishery is the vegetation that has grown substantially since freshwater flows into the lake were improved by the Davis Pond diversion project, which delivers Mississippi River water into the estuary. Griffin says that gold spoons fished with a steady retrieve lead the way to good catches of redfish nosing along the edges of vegetation in search of small crabs, cocahoe minnows and shrimp. The lake's north shore is among the most productive stretches.
"Throw the spoon tight against the grass banks, where you're going to find just a little bit of water. Pull the lure slowly 3 to 4 feet off the bank; then drop the rod tip and start a medium speed retrieve," Griffin explains. "Work the lure only about halfway back to the boat, because only about one-third of the distance of the cast is likely to produce redfish."
During falling tides, Griffin also looks for redfish on the "hard points" along irregular shorelines. He likes those that stick out 5 to 10 feet from the shoreline; there, he says, redfish congregate in large numbers. He casts the lure beyond the point and makes a slow retrieve that causes the spoon to wobble seductively.
"The best water quality is found when the wind blows lightly from the south and southeast," Griffin added. "Spring winds dominate from that direction, but watch out when a north wind blows. Those really tear up the water and lower the lake's salinity."
For more information about fishing the Barataria estuary, contact Capt. Ray Griffin at Griffin's Charters, phone: 1-800-741-1340, or visit his Web site, the address for which is www.neworleansfishintours.com.
COCODRIE Fishing stories flow freely out here in the Sportsman's Paradise, and those starring redfish exert a special hold on anglers' imaginations - and are attested to by an example in the record books: David Weber caught the largest red drum caught on rod and reel in the Gulf of Mexico - a 61-pounder - in June 1992. A fiberglass replica of the monster sits inside a glass case under the thatched roof at CoCo Marina.
State Highway 56 terminates just beyond the center of this sportfishing community located 35 miles south of Houma. Among the hottest varieties of springtime fishing enjoyed by Mike Glover of CoCo Marina and his team of fishing guides is the redfish action found over the oyster bars scattered west-southwest of the open water of Terrebonne Bay.
"Pelican Lake, Bay Antonia and Bay Charlie hold a lot of shell bottoms where redfish root around for minnows and crabs," Glover noted. "The oyster pits are both leased and recreational sites. Some are marked with stakes and pipes; others you need to find."
Glover prefers fishing the oyster reefs with live cocahoes, but he won't hesitate to use cracked crabs and market shrimp. To help guard against the abrasion of the shells he uses a Carolina rig that includes a 20-pound leader 18 to 24 inches long. A size 5/0 Kahle hook completes the leader, and a barrel weight of up to 1 ounce is strung onto the main line above a quality stainless-steel swivel.
"Where the reefs are especially heavy or the current is strong," he explained, "I'll use a weight that's a bit lighter to keep the rig down but moving in the current just above the reef and out of the shells." He tightlines the offering while following the bait closely across the oyster bar in anticipation of a strike.
Glover says he also watches marsh cuts and points for fish that give themselves away by pushing water to create swirls in the mud or by exposing their tails as they root around. These are especially good locations whenever some current is created. Four-Mile Dome, due west of Grand Caillou Bayou, is a favorite spot. A popping cork and jig will prove an effective rig here.
"I use popping corks more when around these points. Sometimes the redfish will even hit the cork," Glover said with a laugh, "especially in clear water. When they nudge it like that, I move it just a little, which lifts the cocahoe off the bottom and into their face. It usually doesn't take long for them to find it."
For more information about fishing the estuary of Terrebonne Bay, call Mike Glover at CoCo Marina, 1-800-648-2626, or check out the Web site www.rodnreel.com/cocomarina.
LAKE CHARLES It's been years since I've visited Lake Charles. During that time, it seems, Calcasieu Lake, which is the primary draw in the area for inshore anglers, has grown into something special for flyfishermen who set their sights on redfish.
No doubt anglers of other persuasions find plenty of action with the red drum in this huge brackish lake that spreads north to south across Cameron Parish. But the huge schools of redfish that roam the open water and the marsh behind the weirs present exciting challenges for flyfishermen. Perhaps no other angler out here knows more about fly-fishing than does Capt. Jeff Poe. He's a legend among Louisiana long-rodders. Poe shares the load at Big Lake Guide Service with his wife, Mary, and currently holds the state fly-fishing record for speckled trout, after boating a 9-pound, 3-ounce specimen in December 1996.
"Spoon-flies are among the best patterns - especially those that have weedguards - for fishing in the marsh behind the weirs at the lake's edges," Poe offered. "The weirs help keep saltwater intrusion into the marsh at a minimum, which helps preserve the marsh vegetation. The water is very clear in the marsh, offering great action for sight-casting to redfish that root around on the bottom."
Poe's tackle setup includes an 8-weight fly-rod-and-reel combo, usually spooled with a floating line for fishing in the marsh. A 9- to 11-foot leader, tapered from a 50-pound butt section to a 12-pound tippet, delivers his cast. Along with the gold epoxy-bodied spoon-flies, he enjoys casting Bendbacks and Clousers. These are tied in olive-over-white and chartreuse-over-white patterns; weedguards are usually added to keep the grass off the fly.
"Sometimes I combine all three colors," he said, "and I usually add a bit of crystal flash in the fly. Keep the fly moving on top, where you can see it, and watch the fish bite it. Seeing the take is part of the fun."
According to Poe, there are more redfish in Calcasieu Lake now than at any other time he can remember. In 2000, he explained, drought across southwestern Louisiana scattered the fish around the lake and the surrounding marsh ponds, canals and bayous. As a result, relatively few redfish were caught that year. As the salinity returned to normal, big schools of juvenile reds in the 5- to 15-pound range began pushing bait and rooting out crabs on the oyster bars scattered around the lake. Poe's biggest redfish on the fly? "About 15 pounds," he responded modestly.
For more information about fishing for reds - with conventional or fly tackle - phone captains Jeff and Mary Poe at Big Lake Guide Service, (337) 598-3268, or check out their Web site at www.lasmag.com/ biglakeguideservice.
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