Fish the Jetties for Louisiana's Bull Reds
September 28, 2010
Jetty anglers like their redfish "on the rocks." Read here why that's so, and your next cast, too, just might be headed for the rocks.
By John N. Felsher
The twin rows of rocks squeezed the brown water, barely containing the awesome flow of the Mississippi River as it collided with the green Gulf of Mexico brine in a battle for dominance.
Frothy waves pounded the long rows of gray and slime-green rocks. Tides flowing northward smashed against the southward flow of the Mississippi River current at the tip of Southwest Pass, the last spit of North America. If they headed south, ships leaving the great channel would not see land again until they hit the Yucatan Peninsula.
Big ships struggled against tide, wind and river current; our bay boat bounced and rolled like a bobber suspending fresh meat in a piranha pool. Capt. Eric Nicotri of Reel 'Em In Charters out of Venice Marina maneuvered his boat across the churning channel to the leeward side of the rocks. The rocks provided some protection from currents and waves, but not as much as we would like.
"It's rough out here, but if you want to catch a big redfish, this is the place," the captain said. "The water drops off quickly away from the rocks. Use a lot of weight and fish near the bottom, about 30 feet deep. I've caught some big redfish along these jetties."
Howard Hammonds of Lindy's Old Bayside Lures wanted to try a new technique on big, deep redfish. He also wanted to test some Lindy No-Snagg banana-shaped sinkers against the rocks. Nicotri dropped anchor within casting distance of the jetties.
Howard Hammonds shows off an incautious bull red that fell for a soft-plastic shrimp imitation. Photo by John N. Felsher
I rigged a Carolina rig with a No-Snagg sinker, slipping the line through the eye of a sinker and attaching a bead. Then I attached a swivel and about 36 inches of fluorocarbon leader to the swivel. On the terminal end of the leader, I put a tomato-core (red injected inside chartreuse) soft-plastic bait.
Howard rigged a standard jighead with the same soft-plastic lure. He tried not to snag on the rocks, but lost more than a dozen jigheads anyway. I intentionally tried to snag my sinker by throwing as close to the rocks as possible or even casting over the rocks. Most of the time, I pulled the rig over the rocks with no trouble, losing only one sinker.
"The cylindrical banana-shaped sinker has a built-in balsa float that causes it to rise over the structure without snagging," Hammonds said. "The sinker has a smooth epoxy coating to allow it to slip over rock piles, logs or similar objects more easily than conventional bullet weights or jigheads. They also work well over oyster reefs."
We needed snagless equipment, as the big reds brushed close against the rocks. The Carolina rig allowed the plastic bait to float off the bottom, tempting fish to bite. Several big spot-tailed bruisers took the offering. A few speckled trout and sheepshead also accepted our morsels.
THE GIST OF JETTY FISHING Jetties often produce outstanding redfish catches. The rocks shelter fish from whipping currents and provide cover for baitfish. Crabs and shrimp crawl over the rocks, attempting to hide from roving bull reds, not always successfully. Reds often hunt right against the rocks, poking their noses into any holes or crevices in which they can fit.
"Jetties attract a lot of bait," said Kevin Natali. "Rocks grow algae. Small fish, like menhaden, go there to eat algae. Crabs crawl around the rocks. Black drum and redfish come to eat the menhaden and crabs. The biggest redfish we've ever caught was about 35 pounds. My brother fought a redfish at the Calcasieu jetties for two hours on light tackle once. It was huge - probably about 50 to 60 pounds. I got to touch its tail, but it got away."
Natali, of Lake Charles, won the Outstanding Angler title at the Southwest Louisiana Fishing Rodeo during three of the past four years. He also won the Outstanding Fly Angler award twice for an impressive five-year streak. He made many of those fabulous catches in those years at the Calcasieu Ship Channel jetties.
On either side of the Calcasieu Ship Channel, a deepened and straightened version of the old Calcasieu River channel, rock jetties thrust a nautical mile into the Gulf of Mexico. At coordinates 29Ã‚º 45Ã‚´ 24.42? N. by 93Ã‚º 20Ã‚´ 30.35? W., anglers may catch any fish species in inland or nearshore Gulf waters including speckled trout, massive black drum, flounder, croakers, sheepshead, gafftopsail catfish and even an occasional king mackerel, cobia or mangrove snapper. However, most anglers at the jetties seek monster tackle-busting redfish, some breaking the 50-pound mark.
Starting in March, rising throughout the summer and peaking in early fall, monster redfish congregate near the rocks to gorge on mullets, shad, croakers, crabs and anything else they can devour. Tides and river currents wash abundant forage to these rocks. From August to October, big bull reds spawn in and near this pass. They seek a certain temperature and water flow conducive to good reproduction since eggs must float to survive. As reds gather near the jetties, anglers tempt them with mullet chunks, live mullets, small croakers, cracked crabs or shrimp.
Between the rocks, the Calcasieu Ship Channel runs about 40 feet deep. Traversing its flow as they head to or leave the port of Lake Charles, about 40 miles upstream, are tankers and grain carriers from global ports. Besides serving as a commerce corridor, the Calcasieu jetties form the on ramp of a fish highway. Above the jetties, the Calcasieu Estuary opens into marshes, lakes, bayous and canals. Many fish and other marine species spawn in the estuary or the marshes and then return to the Gulf. Like the great ships, everything going into or out of the vast estuary must pass between those straight rows of rocks.
WHY JETTIES? "The jetties are kind of like a mecca for inland fish that migrate offshore," said Capt. Richard Miles, a Grand Lake guide who also fishes the jetties regularly. "At certain times, anglers can pick up a lot of trout and big redfish. Massive schools of fish come in from offshore on their way to inshore lakes. They'll look for finger mullets and large pogies. Tidal movements pull bait - like shrimp, mullet and pogies - in and out of the jetties. That attracts bigger fish. Trout and redfish will move up to the jetties to feed on the shrimp and baitfish. When finger mullets line up on the outside of the jetties, redfish will be there."
Outside the rocks, the bottom slopes from almost nothing to about 20 feet deep. Fish migrate up and down the Gulf shoreline and hit the jetties. They like what they fi
nd and stay as long as they find food. Tide movements concentrate baitfish, crabs, croakers and a host of other food items, making a prime feeding area for lurking game fish.
"A lot of people think it's really deep right at the rocks," Natali said. "A shelf runs out about 8 to 10 feet off the rocks. Some people don't realize it's there. I use the trolling motor to get close and anchor within 5 feet of the rocks. When the boat backs off, it puts me at the edge of the current and on top of the shelf. I fish right along the dropoff edge."
At the shelf, tides stir, disorienting baitfish hiding along the dropoff; boat cuts in the rocks further focus tidal flow. Water and bait flush through these openings in the rocks, whipping redfish into a feeding frenzy. Many boaters anchor near the boat cuts and fish the outside edges of the drops.
"When the water pulls through that boat cut, it creates a little eddy and pulls bait through the cut," Natali said. "Baitfish get caught in that eddy. Big game fish wait for that to happen and rush in to grab disoriented baitfish. On an outgoing tide, we'll fish the outside of the jetties because the water is going out into the Gulf. On an incoming tide, we'll fish the channel side because the water is coming in from the Gulf."
BAITS FOR THE JETTIES At the jetties, many anglers use modified Carolina rigs sweetened with juicy cracked crabs, mullet chunks, live mullet or pogies. Depending upon the strength of the tide, slip a one- or two-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 36 inches of a 50- to 80-pound shock leader to the swivel. Attach a 5/0 or 6/0 circle hook to the leader.
"For redfish, I hook a crab from top to bottom on the side with the legs attached," Natali said. "Redfish use their grinding teeth to crush the shells. When they start grinding, it exposes the hook - and I've got them. I don't use small crabs. I use eating size crabs and break them in half. Somebody's grandma might spank me if she saw me using crabs that size for bait. For live bait, we use mullets 4 to 6 inches long on a Carolina rig. I prefer monofilament because I get more bites. Redfish don't spot it as easily as steel leaders. I hook the live mullets through the eyes so they stay alive longer."
Use as little weight as possible. It must hold bait on bottom despite current, but allow fish to feed. A sliding egg sinker allows bait to suspend in the current, undulating naturally in the face of bull redfish. That drives the big spot-tailed bulls crazy. Few redfish can resist a tempting bait dancing in front of them.
"When fishing a Carolina rig, use only enough weight to reach the bottom and hold the bait there," Miles said. "Weight must hold bait on bottom despite currents, but not interfere with feeding fish. If a big fish swallows the bait, the line slips through the sinker and it might not feel the sinker weight. That's when you've got him."
THE TIDE'S THE THING Like water coming through a fire hose, jetties direct currents, often scouring holes at the ends of the rock piles. A jetty almost forms vortices like air flowing around the ends of jet aircraft wings. Large redfish drop into these holes to wait for tempting morsels to flow over them. Watch for mullets or feeding fish.
During a strong tidal movement, many anglers use drift lines baited with live mullets, pogies or croakers over scour holes at the end of jetties. Hook a live 4- to 6-inch baitfish through the eyes. Toss it into the current to let it drift tantalizingly behind the boat. Bull redfish can't resist a struggling live mullet or croaker.
"Flip the clicker on and take the drag system off," Natali said. "When it starts clicking with a good run, pick up the rod, take the clicker off and let it run a short time. Don't let it run too far because it will swallow the bait. Feel for the fish on the line and set the hook."
Action frequently comes in quick and furious spurts as a pod of redfish corner a school of baitfish against the rocks and annihilate them. Frequently, perhaps 500 or more giant redfish, most between 20 and 40 pounds, hammer baitfish from all sides and then disappear. As they rampage through an area, they either devour or chase off everything along their route. Just as suddenly, the action often stops - until the next pod rips through the area.
Anglers might keep baited lines in the water for long periods between spurts of action. To pass the time between frantic bite episodes, many anglers toss lures for smaller redfish, speckled trout or flounder.
Because the best fishing occurs during the strongest tides, jetty anglers need good anchors. A swift tide could smash a small boat against the rocks, causing extreme damage or possible injury. In contests between boat hulls and rocks, rocks always win. Some anglers use two anchors to hold boats in place.
Anglers may launch at the foot of the jetties in Cameron off state Highway 82. Hebert's Marina in Grand Lake and Dugas Landing in Hackberry also provide access.
For information on the Calcasieu jetties, call Dugas Landing at (337) 762-3944 or Spicer's Bait and Tackle at (337) 762-3170. For information about the Sabine jetties, call Causeway Bait and Tackle at (409) 985-4811. For information about the Mississippi River Delta, call Nicotri at (504) 453-7136.
OTHER JETTY HOTSPOTS Similar jetties mark the channel at Sabine Pass, the mouth of the Mermentau River and the Atchafalaya River. Smaller jetties line other channels at coastal rivers and bayous.
Forming part of the Louisiana-Texas border, Sabine Pass connects the Gulf of Mexico with Sabine Lake. To the north, the Sabine River flows into Sabine Lake, which measures about seven miles long by 20 miles wide and averages between 5 and 8 feet deep. Like the Calcasieu and Mississippi jetties, the Sabine jetties mark the ship channel and serve as a choke point for any fish entering or leaving the estuary.
Some anglers prefer to fish the channel "inside the rocks"; others head for the outside edges. On extremely hot or cold days or days with little tide, anglers might find better action in the deeper channel waters. As tides flow into the Sabine Estuary, anglers might find more action inside the channel between the rocks. On an outgoing tide, fish outside the rocks to catch fish flowing south into the Gulf of Mexico.
If fishing inside the channel, watch for big ships, which, unable to maneuver quickly in the constricted waters, can't stop fast enough to avoid crushing a small anchored boat. A large ship might take up a major portion of the channel. Moreover, ships and boats servicing the offshore oil structures may create powerful and dangerous wakes. For this reason, many anglers prefer to fish outside the rocks.
Not nearly as large as the Sabine or Calcasieu channels, the jetties at the mouth of the Mermentau River near Grand Chenier also attract
excellent redfish - and oftentimes fewer anglers. The river channel drops to about 20 feet deep in places. With finger mullet, mullet chunks, pogies, cracked crabs or lures, Mermentau jetty anglers can catch spot-tails exceeding 40 pounds on occasion.
"Probably the best place to start in the fall is at the jetties," said Vince Theriot of Grand Chenier. "Redfish start coming into the passes in the fall. When the water is pretty, anglers can catch them on plastic jigs. I use jigs with a 1/4-ounce leadhead, bouncing them on bottom. Tuxedo (black and white) is a good color. Avocado and chartreuse work well, too. Use a trolling motor to work up and down the jetties. When you catch one, stop and anchor. Redfish might be stacked up there."
Grand Chenier State Park off state Highway 82 offers one of the few public boat ramps that allow access to the river.
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