The days have grown longer and consistently warmer. The persistent, water-muddying, blustery winds of early spring have waned, and coastal anglers start thinking of hitting the islands in the bays for big sow speckled trout and marauding redfish.
The broken islands in the big bays just south and west of Black Bay, such as Bay Lafourche, Bay Crabe, Bay Gardene, American Bay and California Bay, are going to produce some exceptional catches this season, just as they do every year.
And best of all, May is the very best month of the entire year to target those big trout with topwater baits. In my mind, nothing can match the thrill of seeing a big fish explode under your topwater bait.
Certainly, I enjoy catching fish under a cork and tight-lining. I love watching a popping cork disappear beneath the surface under a swirl of motion, and I love to feel the thump and pull of a red or speck on a tightlined plastic.
But few things will get the old adrenaline pumping through your veins as quickly as a vicious hit on your topwater plug by a monster trout.
And right now, anybody with a floating bait can catch fish with it like an expert. That is, if you know where to cast it.
I knew my old friend, Capt. Charlie Thomason (504-512-3474), would know where to cast topwater baits because I've fished with him before and caught some spectacular trout on MirrOlure Top Dogs and She Dogs in May. So I gave him a call and set up a trip, and met him at his newly redone dock in Hopedale.
The quickest way to fish these big bays would usually mean launching out of Pointe a la Hache. From Beshel's Launch, it's less than a 15-minute ride to the prime fishing grounds. But like so many of our marinas, Beshel's building and hoist were destroyed by Katrina. Beshel's backdown is accessible, but since I was jumping aboard Thomason's boat, we'd just make the run from his dock in Hopedale.
The fact is, today's high-powered bay boats easily cross all the old border-lines we once considered boundaries. You don't have to launch at Delacroix to fish that area. Hopedale, Delacroix, Reggio, Pointe a la Hache and Shell Beach are all just a quick hop away from any of those launch sites.
I stowed my gear aboard Thomason's 24-foot Triton, and the 225 Honda zipped us down the bayou in pursuit of speckled quarry.
Five minutes from dockside, we bumped into an underwater obstruction, but seeing no harm done, we pressed on.
This was my first run through that section of marsh since the big storm, and it was comforting to see that most of the marsh looked pretty much the same. Naturally, many cuts were wider, points were smaller, and signs of accelerated erosion were obvious.
Nevertheless, most places were still recognizable, and in short order we pulled up near an island between Bay Lafourche and Bay Gardene.
"The most important thing I can tell you is to fish islands with shells around them," Thomason said. "I'll concentrate on points that are near coves, because mullet will gather in the coves, and they'll become the chief source of food for big spawning trout.
"Right now, the marsh and bays are still loaded with shrimp, and the specks are fat from all the food. Even the fish under the birds are larger than usual this year.
"But spawning trout will gravitate toward a finfish diet this month, and mullet, croakers or pogies become their prime food supply. These predatory fish are looking for three things: bait, current and good spawning conditions. So if you want big trout, fish around the finfish."
We tossed our topwater baits and began the walk-the-dog retrieve that has proven so effective through the years, and didn't have to wait long for the action to begin. Thomason had a good fish on, and the rest of us were trying hard to duplicate his success.
Thomason's modus operandi is to keep trolling along the shoreline of islands with shells, working all points thoroughly. When someone gets a good hit, he drops the Power Pole and tries to stay on some action. If nothing more transpires, up comes the pole, and he resumes trolling.
"I don't spend much time trolling along a plain marsh or beach shoreline," Thomason said. "I fish points; I look for irregularities in the shoreline, I search for baitfish activity in the water, those are the places that will most likely hold fish.
"And now, I'm also looking for something else. The hurricane really churned up the bottom of these bays, and I see quite a few new reef masses just under the surface where the storm pushed the bottom up. They are visible, and look like a white streak across the bottom, just about a foot below the surface. They are hard as rock, so they're bad news to props, skegs and lower units, but they are excellent places to cast a topwater bait or something like a MirrOlure Catch 5."
In the course of the morning we found just such a reef, and like Thomason said, it looked like a white streak across the bottom of Bay Gardene, near a small island. We trolled within casting distance and picked up a few nice fish hanging just on the other side of the reef.
"These new reef formations will hold fish for a few years, until they sink in the mud or get buried by another storm. So when you find one, mark it on your GPS, as your own private mother lode," he said.
The farther we moved into Bay Gardene and then down into Bay Crabe, the more I realized how much the storm did change things out there. Many small islands are completely gone, and the larger ones are only fractions of their former size.
Belle Island took a hard hit; the beautiful cove is gone, and the island looks like it was chewed up by earth-moving equipment. A big piece of a platform, apparently from Stone Island, is protruding from the surface in the middle of the bay. I almost shuddered to think about what was out there that we couldn't see, perhaps lurking just below the surface, waiting to tear out the bottom of a hull.
Thomason suggested that everyone aboard should wear a good lifejacket whenever the boat is traveling. Take it off to fish, but wear it whenever the boat is moving. You never know when you might come to an abrupt stop that could propel you overboard. Even good swimmers drown when conked on the head or knocked unconscious when colliding with underwater obstructions. This is a post-Katrina world, and all precautions should be taken.
The closer we moved toward Stone Island, the more birds we saw diving over swarms of shrimp. Birds were everywhere! We couldn't resist the urge to stop and peck under them, just to see what we'd find. What we found was speckled trout — by the boatload. They hit everything we threw at them — plastics, topwaters, shallow swimming hard baits — and few things match the sheer frenzy and excitement of immediate strikes under the birds.
Most of these were keeper size, and Thomason says most of the fish under the birds are larger than usual this year, due to the abundance of bait in the water. He also believes the bird action will continue through May because the trawling pressure just won't be there this year.
"The commercial shrimping boats were decimated by the storm, and they just haven't begun to recover yet," he said. "Those that are out there will hit the equivalent of a gold mine. Meanwhile, the trout fatten up fast on the abundance of shrimp, and the anglers reap the benefit.
"That happened once before, I think it was after Hurricane Georges. They had a lot of shrimp in the water that season, too, and we caught 16- to 18-inch trout all month long under the birds.
"So if you want quick limits, just come out here and fish under the birds. You'll be heading back to the dock in an hour or less."
We didn't stay long with the birds because we were chasing bigger quarry, and wanted to get back to casting topwater baits for big sows.
We resumed our pattern, jumping islands, picking points, searching for reefs and signs of baitfish, and adding sizeable fish to the box.
After we put a few "croaking" trout aboard, Thomason offered another tip.
"If you start catching trout and they make that croaking noise, you're catching males," Thomason said. "Males are smaller than the females, and if you're satisfied with smaller fish, stay with them.
"But if you're targeting big fish, the big spawning sows, 4-, 5- and 6-pound fish, you'll have to move away from those males, because the sows don't hang with them."
We moved. We were still looking for the big 4- to 6-pound sows, but we hadn't found them yet.
As the morning wore on and the sun grew bright, we noticed a dramatic decrease in the success of our topwater endeavors. It was time to switch baits.
Thomason and I switched to chartreuse Catch 5s, and Capt. Kerry Audibert, who was fishing with us, switched to a Salt Water Assassin Swimmin' Shiner in the pogie color. The Shiner is a wider, heavier bait than the normal Salt Water Assassin, designed to imitate croakers. Thomason says to fish it on a 3/8-ounce jig in all the spots you'd usually cast live croakers, and he says he's caught some really hefty trout on the bait.
"The one drawback, if you want to consider it a drawback, is that redfish love it," he said.
Within minutes, Audibert had a monster redfish on the hook. The red looked to go about 20 pounds, and it ran Audibert in circles around the boat. Unless you are fishing with braided line, you don't want to try to horse these big fish in. Besides, it was a fun day, a day to let the big fish run and fight. We eventually netted the trophy, shot a few photos and released it to fight another day.
We trolled from point to point, putting trout, occasional redfish and one pretty flounder in the box. Then Audibert hooked up with another monster redfish, this one even bigger than the first.
As Audibert fought the fish, Thomason postulated: "Big redfish have been hanging along the edges of almost all the big bays, around points and coves. To target them, pick a bank where the water is running parallel to it, not crashing straight against it.
"Reds like to roam the shorelines, and they'll usually cruise a bank against the current, because they seem to like it in their face. Baitfish are carried along the shorelines with the current, so the reds are constantly cruising toward them.
"The best way to fish them is with ½- or 5/8-ounce gold spoons or topwater baits either in the early mornings or late evenings. The most sure-fire baits are live croakers or shrimp, fished about 1 or 1 ½ foot under a popping cork."
Audibert finally managed to wrestle the big red to the boat, and the net quickly put him on the deck. This was a huge bull red, weighing almost 35 pounds, and after photos and high fives, he was released to make babies.
Unfortunately, we didn't find the big sow trout, but we knew we were hunting them a bit early in the season. But by the time you read this, they'll be there.
Thomason says the absolute premium time to find the biggest sows will be three days before the full moon.
"I suggest you take some vacation time and go fishing on that day," he said. "The big sows will be there to greet you. Just remember what to look for — a hard shell island, bank or subsurface reef, moving current, signs of baitfish — and concentrate on points. Toss those Top Dogs, and wait for an underwater explosion. The conditions are all so perfect this year, I fully expect someone to catch a top-five speckled trout this season."
And who knows, that could be you.