HOPEDALE, La. -- Just over an hour southeast of The Big Easy, six anglers will take to the vast Delacroix marsh for an inshore shootout that promises as much diversity and flavor as a bowl of filet gumbo.
Paired for two days of Saltwater Series competition in what’s billed as the Inshore Big Fish Challenge, this field of seasoned lure slingers will target a quartet of briny quarry comprising of redfish, black drum, speckled trout and jack crevalle. A true big-fish event, the goal is to amass the most cumulative weight over two days. Any combination of the four eligible species – just go big or go home.
Hosting the event at his Silverside Lodge, Capt. Charlie Thomason joins long-time tournament partner Keith Hartsell of Corpus Christi, Texas. Their competition will be two teams of Florida brothers – Greg and Bryan Watts, and Travis and Bryan “Bear” Holeman.
The field would be hard-pressed to find a better venue, as the Delacroix area boasts some of the Mississippi Delta’s most diverse and productive habitat. Roseau cane, hydrilla, coontail moss, oyster reefs, coastal islands – the natural stuff abounds, while the rock jetties of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal (MRGO) offer yet another dimension.
“I think that the influence of the Mississippi River and all of the nutrients and bait that it brings into this area is what makes the fishing so productive,” Hartsell said. “This is just an amazing fishery. There’s so much in this one area that it’s like all the ingredients you need for an incredible fishery. You have crabs, you have crawfish, you have (several species of baitfish). I think the river has a lot to do with that – it’s just the amount of nutrients it’s pumping into this area.”
No doubt, the Delacroix waters abound with habitat and forage. However, weather patterns and tide cycles will keep these anglers on their toes. The impact player here is the cold front that arrived two days prior to the tournament and delivered the usual mix of clear, bright “bluebird” skies and plunging temperatures.
“We’ve had our first cold front of the year,” Thomason said. “Our water temperature has dropped 25-30 degrees within a three-day period. Our water temperature in the morning will be about 67 degrees and by the end of the day, it will be 72-74.
“Our fish are actually transitioning right now. A lot of our bull reds are actually moving out of the marsh to spawn right now, but our black drum are still on the inside and our speckled trout are starting to make their (fall) move on the inside. Jacks will be difficult because of the water temperature. If the water temperature was up, the jacks would be everywhere.
“The thing that’s going to challenge us the most is that the water temperature became so cool within a few days these fish are really lethargic. But we’ll fish a little later – we’ll start at 9 o’clock – and let the water warm up a little bit.
Speckled trout, black drum and jack crevalle round out the quarry.
Also, high water will force anglers into more of a hide-and-seek mode, as opposed to the ride-and-look tactics often called “sight fishing.” Essentially, the week’s tide cycles find a full sea packing the marsh each morning. Tides eventually fall, but prevailing winds will complicate the water’s progress.
“We have a northeast to east wind and in our area, anything northeast to southeast pushes our water into the marsh,” Thomason said. “So even though we have a falling tide (in the late morning), it won’t happen because the wind will be holding it back. When the wind dies down in the evening, that’s when the tide starts going out.”
As Hartsell noted, with high water in the morning, “I would imagine the fish are going to be a little deep and towards the end of the day, when the water starts to warm up, I imagine they’re going to push up closer to the edge of the banks. We’re going to have to go out there and see what happens as the water warms up. We’re putting a lot of hope into the belief that as the water warms up, the fish will move up and we’ll be able to get a few casts at them.”
Now, if a lot of high, cool water makes catching fish sound like a daunting task, consider that this is still one of the Gulf’s most fish-rich regions and our field of six is well-accustomed to convincing even the most persnickety of piscatorial opponents into chewing. That, of course, requires a blend of patience, perspective and persistence.
“We’re really going to slow it down quite a bit,” Hartsell said. “We’ll probably go with a heavier jig head and try to get it all the way down to the bottom and work the bait very slowly. We may throw some spinnerbaits later in the day if the bite speeds up, but in the morning when the bite’s slow, it’s going to be jigs with soft plastic jerkbaits. We’ll work them really slowly and bump them off the mud, sand and shell bottom.”
Despite the event’s four-fish format, redfish –the delta darling – will likely get most of the attention. Travis Holeman said the event’s timing could deliver occasional shots at the kind of reds that could boost his team’s score.
“We’re operating during the spawn and what’s happening is the males are all congregating in 18-25 feet of water and the females will drop off after the conditions have steadied,” he said. “They’ll stay in the marsh to load up on food, so there’s a pretty good chance we’ll have a shot at some pretty decent fish. We’re not going to see a bunch of big redfish, but we will have a shot or two at some 20-plus-pound females.”
Bryan Watts shares that optimism: “This front made the fish a little sluggish, but it didn’t necessarily make them go anywhere. I think what we’ll find is that there’s going to be a sweet spot in the day. That could be before noon, after noon or maybe real late in the day. That will be the time when those fish decide to go ahead and feed and if you’re there at the right time, it’s going to be wide open.
“We have to stay with it all day and find a concentration of fish. They’re gonna feed, they’re gonna bite – it’s just a matter of how long can we stay on them to get that done. We don’t wash anything out down here. You’re looking at Louisiana, which has the best redfishing in the world.”