Gear up -- and hang on! -- for some of the finest fishing to be had off the Bayou State's coast.
By John N. Felsher
After taking a ride down the Barataria Waterway, Capt. Bryan Carter of Lodge of Louisiana, my son Steven and I fished the rock jetties just off the beach at Grand Isle with little success.
"Want to catch something big?" Carter asked. "I think we can find something around those rigs. It's not far out. We can make it in this boat."
Calm green water glistening in the warm morning sun beckoned us toward the rigs about six miles offshore. Prepared to battle speckled trout and redfish in Barataria Bay, we hadn't carried any heavy tackle, but we ventured into the Gulf of Mexico anyway.
Not long ago, anglers in the Gulf used broomstick-like heavy-duty rods, winch-like reels and 80-pound-test cable to crank up boatloads of red snappers and other species. Without creel limits, sportsmen could catch all the snappers they wanted, filling many an ice chest.
Now, with reduced limits and shortened seasons for red snapper, people want more action in the angling. Instead of winching in fish after fish, many prefer to play their quarry on lighter tackle. Anglers can only keep four red snappers, so they have to enjoy the action while it lasts.
"Our frame of thinking has changed tremendously since the days of counting catches by the box, not the fish," said Mike Frenette of Teaser Guide Service in Venice. "People want more fun per fish. With light tackle, people enjoy the fight more. Every fish feels like a record. When a big fish bends the rod to the max and the drag screams - that's what fishing is all about."
Capt. Bryan Carter poses with a large redfish that he got near an oil platform off Grand Isle. Photo by John N. Felsher.
Any bass fisherman or inshore saltwater angler should already own tackle with sufficient backbone to catch snappers, triggerfish, tripletails, bonito, small grouper and Spanish mackerel, and perhaps king mackerel or cobia and many other species common to the northern Gulf. Heavy tackle really isn't necessary: When you hook a big fish, just ease the boat away from the platform to keep the line from rubbing against any barnacle-encrusted pilings or other cover. Fight the fish in open water; let it take all the drag it wants. If necessary, pursue the fish with the boat to keep it from stripping all the line off the reel.
You can catch big fish on light rods if the line's the right kind. Many offshore anglers prefer braided line, which they can get in 30- to 50-pound abrasion-resistant strength with 8- to 12-pound-test diameter. Even with light line, a heavy leader helps keep fish hooked. When big fish run toward the platforms or scrape against the rigs' barnacle-encrusted legs, anglers need quality line.
They also need reels that can withstand abuse, and rods with horsepower enough for playing big fish but flexibility enough for fun. A fast, flexible rod tip works best for detecting subtle strikes from offshore nibblers such as mangrove snappers, sheepshead or spadefish.
When we reached the first rig, we spotted several large sheepshead near a steel platform leg. We picked the corner of the platform, where the structure blocked the tidal flow to create an eddy. Even in water 70 feet deep, we still tossed our plastic-tipped trout jigs. Almost instantly, something grabbed Carter's jig. His line popped seconds later. Something toothy had cut it!
"I have some 30-pound-test fluorocarbon," Carter said. "No telling what's down there. We'll tie about 2 feet of leader material on our lines. With good leaders, we can catch big fish with only 12-pound-test line."
Soon a fish smashed Stevie's lure. The added strength of the fluorocarbon leader enabled him to land a 3-pound mangrove snapper after a lengthy tussle on light tackle.
"Mangroves!" the captain exclaimed. "I wish we had some live bait. If we had live bait or chum, we could bring the mangroves near the surface and really catch them."
Mangroves come closer to shore than do red snappers. Anglers in small boats can sometimes catch them in water 20 to 60 feet deep around nearshore structures; offshore anglers sometimes find them as deep as 450 feet. Promising venues for mangroves besides Grand Isle are found at platforms off Belle Pass, East Timbalier Island, south of Fourchon, Grand Chenier, Johnson Bayou, Marsh Island or around structures in the sounds east of the Mississippi River.
"In the winter, we catch mangroves at the rocks at Southwest Pass," Frenette said. "In the summer, we start looking for mangroves in 25 to 50 feet. Many shallow rigs that people often ignore hold plenty of mangroves. They like to get in the structures under the rigs. We have to work a bit to bring them out, but we chum them up near the surface. At Venice, the best rigs for mangroves are the East Bay rigs out of Joseph's Bayou or South Pass west of the Mud Lumps."
Notorious bait-stealers, mangroves eat almost anything that swims. Preferring hard structure, they often congregate in the mass of steel under platforms, but come out to sample tidbits in chum lines. For mangroves, many freeline bait using little or no weight or tempt them with Carolina rigs. Especially when swarming in a chum slick, mangroves also hit a variety of lures including flies, plastic-tipped jigheads and spoons. They might even hit an occasional topwater popper.
"For mangroves, my No. 1 bait is a live croaker about 2 to 4 inches long," said Capt. Tommy Pellegrin of Custom Charters in Cocodrie. "Mangroves also eat cut pogies, sardines, cocahoe minnows, squid or finger mullets. But they are smart enough to be line-shy. They won't bite if the terminal tackle is too large. Fluorocarbon leader is almost a must. Keep the hooks small enough to hide inside bait when chumming. With live bait, it's obvious you can't hide a 2/0 hook. But live bait attracts fish on its own."
We carried practically an entire tackle store of artificial baits of every sort to tempt redfish, flounder and speckled trout, but as we hadn't brought any live bait, we tried to tempt mangroves with plastics. We received several more hits - and pulled up plastic tails neatly severed just behind the hook.
Unfortunately, the strong current carried our jigheads away before they ever reached bottom, 70 feet below. We tied on our largest jigheads to find fish, but still they didn't weigh enough to reach bottom. Fortunately, the baits didn't need to sink all the way: On nearly every cast, something big grabbed one o
f our baits.
Stevie connected with the next fish - and this one didn't mess around with snipping the edges of the lure. The whopper nearly jerked Stevie from the boat, bending the rod like a horseshoe. About 20 minutes later, he pulled up the largest fish of his life up to that point: a 10-pound redfish. A little later, he caught a 25-pounder after about a 35-minute fight. Our captain caught a 30-pounder.
As we were beyond the three-mile state boundary, we released the redfish. (Anglers in federal waters may catch all the redfish they want, but can't keep even one. If you legally catch and keep redfish in inshore waters but venture beyond the three-mile line, you could find yourself in trouble with game wardens.)
Big redfish spawn offshore from August to October. Males begin breeding at 1 to 3 years old. Females mature sexually between 3 and 7 years old. The big redfish swimming in the Gulf of Mexico produce the reds that prowl the inshore estuaries. Each of the big females in the Gulf - typically misidentified as "bull reds"! - can produce up to 3.2 million fry and live for more than 36 years. So release big spawners. (Smaller fish make better meals anyway.)
"Pump it!" the captain instructed as Stevie hooked another big redfish. "When the fish runs and the drag screams, let it run. Use the rod for leverage. Hold it as high as you can, and don't let it go down to the gunwale. When the fish turns and swims toward the boat, pump the rod and reel in whatever slack you can gain."
Stevie did as he was told for more than 30 minutes. For every few inches he regained, the big red pulled off several more feet, but eventually, drag and rod combined to tire the beast, and Stevie began gaining more line. After two or three more runs, the spotted monster came to the surface and still full of fight, resisted several attempts to net it. Finally, Carter put it in the boat.
"It's a lot of fun fighting big fish on light tackle," Carter said. "Anybody can come to a rig and winch up fish with a heavy-duty rod, a huge reel and 80-pound-test line. It takes more skill to bring in a big fish on light tackle."
Whipped, Stevie took a break while I fought another monster redfish. This one only weighed 21 pounds, though, so Stevie retained family bragging rights (something he won't let me forget).
Redfish hit our baits on almost every cast. We tossed avocado red metalflake plastic minnows with chartreuse tails on minnow-head jigs; some fish hit white and pink jigs. The reds would probably have hit anything that crossed their noses.
"People catch a lot of bull reds around the near-shore platforms," Pellegrin noted. "A bull red will eat anything that passes in front of it. We've caught bull reds out to 300 feet of water. Fishing for them with light tackle is a lot of fun, but people need to decide if they want to fill a box with food or just enjoy the sport of it. When fishing for fun, if a big fish breaks off, it's not a tragedy. Anglers only lose 50 cents worth of tackle. Tie on another jighead and try again."
Tired of redfish and wanting to try for different species, we hustled over to a nearby structure a couple of miles away. Something kept crashing into baitfish at the corner of the platform, and Carter quickly landed a Spanish mackerel on a jighead. Vigorous sportfish, Spanish mackerel will hit almost any shiny lure worked near the surface.
A school of jack crevalle moved in to terrorize the area, and presently, a couple of them grabbed our baits, instantly popping our lines. Carter hooked a big jack. Sufficiently rested and recuperated, Stevie wanted back in the action with a different species, and after another brutal fight, he landed a 12-pound jack that hit a jighead. We lost several other jacks. Just for the fun of it, I caught a small jack on a topwater bait, but time grew short. Sharks moved it to investigate all the commotion and we headed back to the Lodge of Louisiana.
Although seldom specifically targeted, few fish in the Gulf of Mexico fight harder than a jack crevalle. Not especially desirable for the table, their excellence lies in the sport offered by their fast, powerful runs and shocking power; they never tire. Anglers frequently see them ravaging baitfish schools. They might hit nearly any lure either trolled or thrown as they roam over the entire Gulf. Often, they penetrate far inshore into shallow brackish marshes, lakes and passes, devouring anything they see.
Similarly, bonitos bring tremendously stimulating action to the light-tackle aficionado. Small, compact cousins of tuna, bonito don't taste very good, but they fight with muscle and speed that would impress any Olympian. Anglers often see them swarming like frenzied piranhas around oil platforms. More often used as bait than in human cookery, they demolish a variety of lures, including any shiny spoons, jigs or crankbaits. For the ultimate thrill, throw topwater baits to them.
On our Barataria trip, we never went more than six miles from shore, but anglers can also use light tackle for other species in deeper water. Besides the ones mentioned, tripletails, triggerfish, spadefish, bull croakers, black drum, white trout, flounders, gafftopsail catfish, pompano, bluefish, sailfish, hardtail jacks and several other species are out there. Lucky anglers might even tangle with king mackerel or cobia.
"When anglers pull up on a rig and drop baits down, they never know what's going to bite," said Richard Miles, a fishermen from Lake Charles who frequents the waters off Cameron. "A lot of different species hang around the platforms. When people blast out to the deeper rigs, they pass through some great fishing water. When anglers use light line and tackle, they chance losing good fish, but the whole idea of using light line is to battle with a fish for a while and have fun. Just dragging one up from the bottom kinda takes the fun out of it - especially if doing the same thing over and over."
WHERE TO GO
Off Venice, anglers encounter deep water rather quickly. Anglers in bay boats can reach many structures fairly easily without covering much open water.
"An area off Main Pass has platforms in eight to 30 feet of water that hold large concentrations of trout in the 3- to 8-pound range," Frenette observed. "We also catch a lot of redfish in these areas. West of the river out of Red Pass and Tante Phine Pass, the Sandy Point area is full of small satellite wellheads. Between South Pass and Southeast Pass in East Bay, there are probably more than 150 satellite rigs in a four-square-mile area. It's awesome to take kids to these nearshore rigs, because there are so many fish, they won't get bored."
South of Cocodrie, Pellegrin suggests, fish the Mardi Gras rigs or the Pickets. Other rigs off Timbalier and Last islands offer sharp action for anglers in smaller boats. Most sit about three to five miles offshore and harbor an assortment of fish. Some rigs inside the three-mile line have big reds that you can legally keep.
Anglers leaving Delacroix or Hopedale can find rewarding action around rigs in Breton Sound or Black Bay, according to Capt. Jeff Dauzat of Fin and Feather Guide Service. He recommends fishing the Central Rig, the Black Tanks and or Battledore Reef for reds and specks. However, anglers might also catch sheepshead, drum, Spanish mackerel, triggerfish, sharks and possibly mangrove snappers in deeper water. Inside the Chandeleur Island chain, anglers may keep redfish.
"We catch some 30- to 35-pound redfish," Dauzat said. "We also catch jacks. Jacks are a great sportfish if people want to fish for something big and release it to fight another day. It takes about 30 minutes to catch a 30-pound jack on 12-pound-test. When they come through, they maul everything in sight. Jacks prefer cut baits, something bloody or flashy. They like bigger baits."
To book trips, call Frenette at (504) 341-4245, Lodge of Louisiana at (504) 689-0000, Pellegrin at (985) 851-3304 or Dauzat at (504) 818-2176.
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