September 28, 2010
Got what it takes to tackle a Cajun-country blast-and-cast? The arrival of December signals the convergence of first-quality waterfowling and unbelievable redfishing In southwest Louisiana. (December 2008)
By Peter Cooper Jr
Although much more open water is to be found in Delta NWR and Pass-a-Loutre WMA than was the case prior to Hurricane Katrina, the duck hunting in both places can prove second to none even today.
Photo by Pete Cooper Jr.
It's no secret that the Mississippi River Delta -- even now, in its post-Katrina days -- offers some of the finest waterfowl hunting in the country. So fine, in fact, that the day's hunt can be extremely abbreviated, with limits coming quickly. In that case, having made the effort to get down there, you've still got the greater part of the day remaining to you. So what are you going to do?
Well, you could head home, clean your birds, and catch up on a few honey-dos. Or you could go back to the camp/motel/lodge, clean up and relax over tales of the morning's hunt while sipping some canned adult beverages.
Or -- you could go fishing!
Indeed, "double-dipping" -- "blasting and casting," as some folks are inclined to call it -- is a popular option, at least for folks in the know. And fishing in the Delta can be every bit as good as the duck hunting when high winter settles in.
Two areas offer public hunting opportunities, both accessible only by boat from Venice. The first -- and in my experience the easiest to hunt -- is the Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
Established in 1935 primarily to provide habitat and sanctuary for waterfowl, parts of the approximately 490,00 acres of prime marshlands are open to hunting during specific hours on specific days. The designated hunting areas lie north of Main Pass and south of Raphael Pass and are shown on the (free) regulations brochures that must be possessed and signed by hunters. Those are available at the marinas in Venice or by searching "Delta National Wildlife Refuge" on the Internet. Hunting is allowed only on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 30 minutes before legal sunrise until noon. No guided hunts, airboats, mud-boats or "go-devils" are allowed.
Most of my hunting on the refuge has taken place around Romere Pass. That's not to imply that the hunting there is any better than it is elsewhere -- it's just sort of my tradition. I made a discovery there that also applies to other areas and should make hunters quite happy: Much of the marsh there is accessible by wading -- very out of character with the remainder of the Delta. Still, I'd recommend carrying along a paddle to use as a probe if you must wade to set and retrieve your decoys and ducks.
While it's always best to make a scouting run on the day prior to your hunt, those typically take place in the afternoons. Remember that the tides here have a big effect on where the ducks will be, and a pond that has good water and loads of ducks in the afternoon may be dry and barren the next morning. On the other hand, if your scouting run reveals a pond that was a bit too deep to appeal to the ducks, it may be just right for them on lower water the next morning. Having a plan with at least a couple of water-influenced options will greatly improve your chances for a good hunt.
Once you find a favorable spot -- or three -- scope them out for the best "hides." It's of utmost importance that these natural blinds conceal you and your pirogue as well as extend at least slightly above and across the boat. Almost as important is that they be on the upwind side of the pond. And remember that a spot found on your afternoon's scouting run that was suitable for the warm southerly breeze will have been rendered worthless by first light if a norther cracked through during the intervening night.
As I've suggested, I can propose a few options.
In the Delta, winter's low tides are much better exploited by fishing for reds in places like the canals of the Venice Dome oil field than by hunting ducks while you're fighting the mud.
Photo by Pete Cooper Jr.
In many areas within the refuge, roseau cane provides a reasonably good hide. I prefer lower cover like elephant ears, but enough roseau is around to complement many of your options.
For the best setup from a roseau hide, begin by setting your decoys a bit further away than you would if your hide was a bit lower. Ducks don't like a high "wall" just ahead of their landing zone. Your spread should also be set opposite a spot in the brake where the canes on the edge of the pond have not yet reached their fullest height, yet remain adequately thick. Next, slide your pirogue behind that "low cover" from the side, not across it or you'll break down the canes. Finally -- and only if you absolutely must do it -- break over only the fewest number of canes that will allow you to shoot, and only the shortest length that will suffice. Why? Because 12-foot stretches of radically broken-over roseau cane along the edge of a pond just ain't nat'ral, son! And a pintail that's had its posterior peppered a couple of times from such a spot will have learned that fact thoroughly.
Since no camping is allowed on the refuge, and since your hunt must end at noon, that leaves the entire afternoon to fish. But before I reveal some really good scoops about that, the second public hunting opportunity -- Pass-Ã -Loutre Wildlife Management Area -- demands a few words.
Owned by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, this WMA bounded roughly by South Pass, Pass-Ã -Loutre and the Gulf encompasses more than 115,000 acres, though that acreage contains much more open water now than it once did, owing to the effects of several severe hurricanes between 1995 and 2005. Nevertheless, it plays host to a tremendous number of wintering waterfowl, and the hunting it offers can rank right up there with the best.
Like the refuge, Pass-Ã -Loutre WMA is reachable only by boat. On the other hand, camping and houseboat mooring here is allowed by permit in designated areas. (The permits can be obtained at the headquarters building between Cadro and Johnson passes as well as at the particular areas.) At present, no restrictions other than those for the general season limit the days and timeframes that can be hunted here. However, some private property lies within the WMA, primarily along Pass-Ã -Loutre and Southeast Passes, so be aware. (And don't trespass!)
One might think
that effective hunting procedures on the WMA would be similar to those for hunting the refuge, and that's basically correct. Two significant differences are notable: The first, mentioned above, is that much of the WMA consists of "big water" -- not nearly as many small ponds are here as in the refuge. Therefore, locating some promising spots will take a little effort.
Secondly, the water bottom in the WMA is typically considerably softer than it is in much of the refuge, so slogging across a low-tide mudflat while pushing a decoy-laden pirogue is a distinct possibility if you're determined to try to hunt during the first hour or so of daylight. And the possibility increases if you're impelled to hunt at that time, but a shrieking norther is driving all the water in the marsh towards Yucatan.
Granted, a lot of folks who hunt the Delta -- especially the younger, more physically fit ones -- find daybreak and "cracking norther'" hunting simply a part of the exercise. Me? I got enough of fighting low-tide mudflats around age 45 and since then have made things much easier on the ol' body -- and still enjoyed some great sport -- by hunting the rising tides of afternoon.
Unless you discover a spot that holds water during low tide, you might consider following my lead. Going that route will also give you a chance to enjoy some of the great fishing that the Delta offers -- just before the hunt, instead of after it.
Without a doubt, lots of places hereabouts can give up fine catches of redfish, speckled trout and even bass at this time of year. Some of note: the Buras Canal at its termination in Hospital Bay behind Boothville, the jetties at Southwest Pass and during years when the river remains low and clear, the spillways down Southwest Pass and even the Jump. If you have hired a guide for a blast-and-cast trip, he will assuredly take you to others.
My all-time favorite winter redfishing spot is the Venice Dome oil field, otherwise known as "the Wagonwheel." Once classed as a "giant" among Louisiana's petroleum deposits, its reserves were developed and produced by means of wells drilled in canals that resemble a wheel complete with spokes.
Prior to Hurricane Camille in 1969, the field was operated by crews who lived with their families in a neatly laid-out camp at the end of the Tidewater Road. After the storm, the crews went on a seven-days-on/seven-days-off work schedule and moved their families to less-threatening grounds, and the houses were eventually sold and moved away.
Petroleum resources aren't renewable, and it finally came to pass that those in the Dome began to show signs of depletion. It went through a series of owners as both its overall output and number of producing wells declined, and prior to Hurricane Katrina, its marginal profits depended on a handful of wells and a very small contract crew.
Why this brief history of what was once such an influential part of the Delta? Well, if you look at a map or chart of the "Wheel," you'll plainly see the canals that once provided ingress and egress to the wells. Many of those wells have now been plugged, and the valves and flow regulators that complete the well at the surface -- the "Christmas trees" -- removed. After that, little or no oil-field traffic entered those canals, thus allowing the silt from the effluent of Red Pass to fill them in at least partially. You can't see that on a map.
You also can't see many of the changes in the marsh around the canals, which is their defining factor. Once you enter the Dome from Red Pass at the old docking area, maps are mostly good for rough reckoning of the canals' whereabouts; more precisely establishing their locations will require a depth recorder and your outboard's lower unit. However, the "main drag" -- the circular canal from which the others were dredged -- is fairly obvious. So motor along it at a careful speed until you come upon a spot at which your map indicates that a canal should be present. And lo and behold, some low, narrow, parallel myrtle-topped ridges will as often as not signal its presence.
Nevertheless, it's likely that the mouth of the canal is quite shallow. Therefore, trim up the outboard and idle into it -- you shouldn't get stuck -- and soon the water should deepen. And as you idle towards the end of the canal (where the wells once were, and, generally, the best spots), you'll notice a slight increase in clarity. At this time, though, that should have little effect on the fishing. Supplement your jigs with small dead shrimp; that should sweeten them up enough to entice the reds that are the Dome's primary target species. Suspend the jig around 2 feet beneath a 3-inch weighted popping cork, and you're ready for action.
The strike zone in these canals usually lies along the shoreline dropoffs. Since the banks of virtually all the canals have receded from their original locations because of subsidence and wave action, that dropoff may be 10 feet or more from the present shoreline.
Your jig -- and the angle of your popping cork as it sits atop the water -- will indicate just where the drop-off is. Make your cast to a point 5 feet or so from the bank. There, the jig will rest on bottom, and its weight -- a quarter-ounce is preferred -- doesn't influence the way in which the cork floats.
As you work it back with soft pops between 5 to 10-second pauses -- and you just might get bit here, so be alert -- the jig will reach the point that it comes off bottom, and its weight will cause the cork to sit much more upright in the water. Remember that relative spot along that particular shoreline, since that will be where you should -- should -- get most of your action.
The canals on the north and west sides of the field have given up most of the reds I have caught here. How many might that be? Oh -- I'd be reluctant to say. I do recall a December morning between the duck-season splits during which I tallied 73 of them. And how could I ever forget the priceless (and frigid) days I spent in the Dome's ice-rimmed canals with my dear old friend, Ralph Chastain; on these, I'd catch reds until it reached the point of becoming obscene.
And while I'm reflecting: I must admit that I still smirk a little when I recall an episode not long ago that found me showing some upcountry friends a little aprÃ¨s-hunt action. A small sign that had apparently been placed at the one-time edge of some grass was now in the center of a narrow cut between a canal and a pond. I suggested that my friends bump that stump, but the first two casts were wide.
Still too wide.
"Like this!" And almost immediately upon its impact at the very base of the sign's stake, the cork dived -- the first of seven lovely fish taken right there. I have no intention of revealing where that sign is, or why I knew of its potential. Let's just say that during high winter, the Dome's redfish become rather localized, and can remain "localized" at the same spot year after year.
And while that can assuredly lead to feast or famine, the former is often the case. Just be sure you cover the water thoroughly or you might j
ust barely miss that dinner fare.
By noon, once the tide often begins to rise, you still have plenty of time to return to the motel/lodge/camp, swap out your fishing gear for guns and decoys, and make an evening hunt down the river -- or the other way around, should you have made a morning hunt. Then, once you get home just before dark, you still have ample time to clean your fish as well as your ducks before you crash for the night. Supper? Oh, yeah, that too -- but eat fast: Double-dipping the Delta doesn't often leave much time for creature comforts like eating and sleeping. But, man, the action it can lead to! Get yourself some of it.