September 28, 2010
Redfish abound in Louisiana's coastal marshes. Here's what you need to know to get in on the action.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By John N. Felsher
The spot-tailed brute guarded the entrance to the marshy lagoon like an old cannon-studded fort blocking passage to a river channel.
With a falling tide, water poured from the shallow lagoon into the chute. An old rusty iron barricade made from pipes prevented us from entering the pond, but didn't keep delectable morsels from exiting. Funneled into the constricted area and driven by the powerful tidal forces, any mullets, crabs, shrimp or other baitfish seeking refuge in the pond would pass near the beast as the currents flushed them into deeper water.
I tossed a purple and chartreuse plastic minnow just under the barricade. Suspended by the divergent forces of gravity versus the water flow, it presented a target too tempting to ignore. At the foot of the rusty fence, the monster hammered the plastic-tipped jighead and headed beneath the barricade and into the pond.
"Got him," I said. "This one's a hoss. I'm not sure if I can hold him. If he rubs the line against that rusty pipe, he's a goner."
The brute stripped line from the reel as it thrashed in the shallows. Bubbles erupting from the bottom combined with weeds ripped from the mud to mark his forward progress.
"He's going under the barricade," I yelled to Toby Duet, who operates Cajun Resort in the marshes of Golden Meadow with his brother Danny. "I don't know if I can turn him. He's got a lot of beef and the line is scrapping against the pipe."
Toby worked the trolling motor, putting the boat square up against the steel barricade. When he closed the gap, I passed the rod beneath the lower pipe as the fish continued to strip line. Just when I found a good angle to fight him, the leviathan reversed course. Finding shrinking water in the pond, the monster headed for open water in the canal.
"He's heading back this way now," I yelled. "He's going under the barricade again. I don't know if the line will hold."
I frantically reeled slackened line to avoid giving the fish any help. Aided by the tidal flow, the fish shot through the channel like a torpedo and surged into deeper water. With the light rod pinned and bowed against the pipe, I feared something would break. Again, I fed the rod under the pipe while the great fish began stripping out line once more. Eventually, the strain began to take a toll - on man and fish! Finally, the spot-tailed beast tired enough for Toby to net the 18-pounder.
"Man, I didn't think you were going to land that fish," Toby said incredulously. "When he bowed that rod against that pipe like that, I thought, 'That's all we're gonna see of that fish.' I can't believe you got it in."
Similar scenarios replay throughout the vast Louisiana marshes each day. With marshes loaded with food and cover, Louisiana offers some of the best redfish habitat anywhere. Cajun Resort sits on some of the best redfish waters in the state. Anglers launching in Golden Meadow might fish the grassy flats along Bayou Blue, Bayou Lafourche, Catfish Lake, East Canal, West Canal and smaller unnamed bayous. The main channels connect a labyrinth of shallow lagoons, broken marshes, potholes and bayous.
"We've had some days where we caught 400 to 500 redfish," Danny Duet said. "We caught and released fish until we got tired. Redfish are temperamental, though; they don't always bite. I've had them pass under the boat and hit them in the head with a shrimp, and they wouldn't bite. Sometimes they'll hit almost anything."
Like linebackers with bad attitudes, redfish cruise marsh ponds, picking fights. They prowl grassy shorelines searching for crabs, mussels, shrimp, mullets or anything else foolish enough to cross their paths. They often hunt in water so shallow that their backs or tails protrude from the surface.
Anglers can often spot them by slowing moving along shorelines looking for tails, fins or other activity. When people see bait jumping or telltale "V" wakes near shorelines, they toss plastic minnows, grubs, topwater baits, spinners, buzzbaits, spoons and even crankbaits at them.
"Stalking redfish in shallow water is almost like hunting," Toby Duet said. "Redfish wait in ambush under cover with their backs up against the grass. They wait for something to kill and eat. Seeing a redfish in the shallows and throwing near it so it blows up on the bait is a lot of fun and a heck of a fight."
Increasing numbers of people prefer to tempt redfish with light fly rods rather than heavy tackle. They target specific fish in shallow ponds and may spend long periods casting to one fish.
"Many people get into saltwater fly-fishing because they like the challenge," said Theophile Bourgeois, who guides in the marshes near Lafitte at the northern end of Barataria Estuary south of New Orleans. "They've caught plenty of fish in the past and need more excitement or enjoyment per fish."
With polarized sunglasses, Bourgeois poles through flats looking for fish. He uses tiny red and gold spoons or flies attached to a tapered, weight-forward line. The weight-forward line allows anglers to cast light lures greater distances.
The Bayou St. Denis area near the Barataria Waterway offers excellent places to fish for redfish with either fly or conventional tackle. Other honeyholes include Little Lake, Turtle Lake, Bayou Rigolettes and The Pen, Lake Salvador, Bayou Dupont, Bay Maurice, Bayou Pirogue, Fisherman's Reef, Bayou Cuba, Cat Island and St. Mary's Point. East of the Barataria Waterway, many anglers fish Bay Round, Airplane Bay and Bay Five.
While smaller redfish remain in marshes and estuaries, "bull" reds prefer the open water of bays or the Gulf of Mexico. The beaches and passes of Grand Isle, Hackberry Bay, Caminada Pass, Cooperbell Pass, Four-Bayou Pass and Barataria Pass provide good fishing. Other excellent bays include Atchafalaya, Barataria Bay, Timbalier Bay, Terrebonne Bay, Lakes Raccourci, Felicity and Barre.
Barrier islands separate shallow bays from the Gulf. Redfish up to 40 pounds often herd baitfish and shrimp toward shore and devour them when their prey runs out of room to flee. Anglers may see reds crashing into baitfish schools in water as shallow as one foot.
Farther east, the vast Mississippi River Delta created outstanding redfish habitat south of Venice. The awesome flow of the mighty river keeps the Delta well supplied with nutrients that encourage growth. Many bayous, canals, ponds and bays provide
thousands of acres where redfish feed.
Near the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Mud Lumps constantly change. As the Mississippi River deposits tons of silt every hour, new silt piles atop old silt. Like someone sitting on a waterbed, enormous pressures created by depositing silt in one place force mud up in other places. These lumps surface about three miles west of the mouth of South Pass. The lumps remain for a while, then wash away only to reappear again.
"The lumps build up like small volcanoes," said Mike Patrick, a guide from Cypress Cove in Venice. "One day, three or four lumps will be out there. A week later, there might only be one. They come and go."
The last spits of land in North America, the Mud Lumps often surrender huge fish. Monster redfish, some approaching 50 pounds, move in from the Gulf of Mexico to devour mullets. With heavy tidal and river flow, reds lurk behind the Lumps to dash out and gobble baitfish disoriented by the currents.
A stout south wind might push clean Gulf water inshore, kicking fish into a feeding overdrive. Just as quickly, tides or winds might change, submerging the Lumps in chocolate-colored river water. Sometimes, brown river water might float atop green brine like chocolate topping on mint ice cream. Game fish hide under this coating of fresh water and in eddies created on the leeward side of lumps. Entice them with anything that rattles with bright colors.
The marshes east of the Mississippi River from Venice to Lake Borgne also harbor untold numbers of redfish in places like Empire, Pointe Ãƒ la Hache, Delacroix and Hopedale and along the southern edge of Lake Borgne near Bayou Biloxi. Southeast of New Orleans, numerous bays open into Breton and Chandeleur sounds. Redfish often congregate around small grassy islands in such shallow bays as Black Bay, Lake Campo, Bay Gardine and Lake Robin.
Across Lake Borgne, the Chef Menteur and Rigolets passes connect Lake Pontchartrain with the Gulf of Mexico through Lake Borgne. The marshes bordering the Chef Menteur and Rigolets hold good numbers of redfish. Deep holes in Unknown Pass can produce redfish breaking 20 pounds. Bridges and railroad trestles provide cover. Many anglers troll parallel to the bridges spanning Lake Pontchartrain with spoons, grubs or other lures
To the west, the Atchafalaya River carries about 30 percent of the flow of the Mississippi River, creating the fastest growing and one of the richest delta systems in North America. Dominating the south-central Louisiana coastline south of Morgan City, people can almost see the Delta enlarging itself daily.
That enormous volume of fresh water brings mixed blessings to anglers. The river carries huge surpluses of nutrients that fuel a thriving, fertile ecosystem. Nutrients spawn abundant plant growth, which encourage population blooms for baitfish, shrimp and crabs. Redfish gather to feed at the banquet.
Down the river, the land gradually changes from cypress and willow swamps to open marsh dotted by abundant green and brown channels spreading out through a sea of lush delta reeds stretching for miles in all directions. Hundreds of tributaries, some manmade, some designed by nature, create a huge, wet, constantly shifting spiderweb. And, trapped like flies in that web, a low archipelago of weedy islands provides superb hunting grounds for redfish.
To the west, the Mermentau River sits in the shadow of Sabine and Calcasieu lakes, but it provides bountiful redfish action. The channel drops to about 20 feet deep in places, but numerous flats and oyster reefs provide ample cover and hunting grounds for redfish. In addition, trees, canebrakes and levees break the wind, allowing fishing when anglers cannot risk crossing the larger lakes.
Grand Chenier State Park off state Highway 82 offers one of the few public boat ramps allowing access into the lower Mermentau River. The state Highway 82 bridge pilings provide structure that breaks the tide. Other anglers catch big redfish near the rock revetments by the park. Other people head to nearby Hog Bayou, which starts south of the bridge and runs somewhat parallel to the highway.
"An oyster reef runs the entire length of the bridge," said Vince Theriot of Grand Chenier. "On the east and west wings, the water rises from about 12 feet to 8 feet deep. Often, redfish stack up on the backside of the bridge. Either an incoming or an outgoing tide produces fish because the structure blocks the tide in either direction. The best time is right when it starts to move. It's a good place for fishing live bait, especially finger mullets."
More known for trophy speckled trout than redfish, the Calcasieu Estuary provides good catches of spot-tails as well. The Calcasieu Ship Channel generally follows the old Calcasieu River channel for 40 miles from Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico. The 40-foot deep channel passes near Lake Charles, Prien Lake and Moss Lake and skirts the edge of Calcasieu Lake.
The old Calcasieu River channel makes a horseshoe bend at the Haymark Terminal and hits the ship channel again at Buoy 106. Head north from the terminal in the horseshoe and fish five or six grassy islands with jigs or topwaters. The water drops from 1 foot to about 20 feet. Docks along the western channel edge buttress against deep water and attract redfish.
Many anglers leave the channel and head west up Kelso Bayou near Spicer's Landing. Kelso Bayou opens into Black Lake. Myriad oil field canals penetrate vast stretches of marsh. The Amoco Dock off Kelso Bayou borders a deep hole that holds redfish. Numerous canals and bayous traverse this area, creating grassy islands.
"I like to fish the cuts and grassy islands," said Tim Constance of Black Lake Lodge in Hackberry on the Calcasieu Estuary. "If there is any kind of current moving through and bait around, redfish are there. Bait comes out of the marsh and redfish hang around those cuts waiting for something to eat."
Numerous oil field structures in Black Lake, many submerged, provide additional redfish cover and ambush points, but make running the shallow lake quite challenging. Because of the danger to boat bottoms and outboard lower units, much prime redfish water remains largely unfished.
"Black Lake has lots of islands and cuts coming in from the marshes surrounding it," Constance said. "The whole lake is good, but the key is knowing where to go without tearing a boat up. Many pipelines and structures cross the lake. Many canals feed into the lake, but some of those canals only have 6 inches of water in them. I would recommend going with a guide or somebody who knows the lake well."
Parallel jetties lining the mouth of the Calcasieu Ship Channel hold huge redfish. Tides often push baitfish against the rocks marking the ship channel edges. Often, these channels form a shelf along the rocks and then drop rapidly into deep water. Redfish hunt along these shelves and drops. In addition, anything flowing into or out of the Calcasieu Estuary must pass between those mile-long rock jetties.
"Jetties attract a lot of bait," said Kevin N
atali of Lake Charles who often fishes jetties at the mouth of the Calcasieu Ship Channel. "Rocks grow algae. Small fish, like menhaden, go there to eat algae. Crabs crawl around the rocks. Redfish come to eat the menhaden and crabs. The biggest redfish we've ever caught by the Calcasieu jetties weighed about 35 pounds. My brother fought a redfish for two hours on light tackle once. It was huge, probably about 50 to 60 pounds. I touched its tail, but it got away."
To catch monster spot-tails, hook live finger mullets, mullet chunks or cracked crabs on a Carolina rig. Depending upon the strength of the tide, slip a 1- or 2-ounce sliding egg sinker on 20- to 30-pound monofilament or braided line. At the end of the line, tie a barrel swivel directly to the line. Tie about 18 to 24 inches of a 50- to 80-pound shock leader to the swivel. Attach a 5/0 or 6/0 circle hook to the leader.
On the Louisiana-Texas line, the Sabine River flows into Sabine Lake and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. Jetties here also provide excellent redfish habitat. Upstream, many anglers fish the oyster reefs of the lake. The Texas shoreline provides more cover from docks and other industrial structures. Bayous and marshes create excellent redfish habitat along the Louisiana shoreline.
For trips, call Cajun Resort at (985) 475-5179, Bourgeois Charters at (504) 341-5614 or Black Lake Lodge at (337) 762-3157.
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