It's a formula that works every spring.
Two days before the next full moon, I want to go fish the islands all around American Bay for some awesome speckled trout," the animated voice on the other end of the phone was saying.
The voice was speaking so rapidly I was certain it'd have to stop soon just to grab a gulp of air. But in a rat-a-tat machine gun style, the voice continued.
"Every year it seems like that area is the first place the big sows begin showing up to lay their eggs. It's right along the edge of the open water, salinity is good, the sun warms everything up real nice and the big mama trout move in and spread out around the islands in their highest concentrations of the year.
"It's the best month for really big trout, and I'm talking trout up to 7 and 8 pounds," the voice said as it finally paused to breathe. "So you want to go?"
"Of course I do," I replied to the voice, which belonged to Charlie Thomason, the hyper-active, animated charter captain whose home waters range from Hopedale to Delacroix to Pointe a la Hache.
So two days before the full moon, we left from Thomason's camp in Hopedale and pointed the bow toward those very islands. We crossed Lake Robin and Lake Calabasse into Bayou Terre aux Boeufs, and from there ran along the edges of Black Bay.
Thomason made a sweeping motion with his hand off toward his right side, and said all of the large outer bays will hold good concentrations of trout this month.
"Lake Campo, Oak River Bay, Bay Lafourche, Bay Gardene they all hold trout right now, and some of them will be nice-sized. You can catch them by drifting over the oyster reefs, or drifting along the shorelines, or under the birds. It's not too early to see the birds diving this month," he said. "Fish either with soft plastics under a popping cork, or tightlined, or you can toss crankbaits and topwater baits. They'll hit that too. Normally, I'd probably stop to fish these areas because you can virtually guarantee success. But on average, the trout will be smaller than the ones we're targeting today.
"We're on a mission! We might not catch as many, but we want to find the big trout," he said.
I certainly wasn't going to argue with that.
Thomason slowed the big, 24-foot Bay Stealth, and idled toward a small, familiar, broken island — Lonesome.
"My dad used to take me fishing here when I was a kid. Back then, the island was pretty big, and the cut dividing it was just a small channel. Now there's not much left to it, and I guess the next squall in the Gulf will wash it entirely away. But sometimes, you can get on some really nice trout here," he said as his eyes swept searchingly over the water.
"I'm looking for mullet. When you fish these islands, you want to find clean water, a moving tide, either falling or rising, and baitfish activity. When you can find that, creep in with your trolling motor or drift in so you won't spook them, and you'll find fish."
Only this morning, there was no baitfish activity to be found. There was, however, a moving tide, but Thomason said it was actually moving too hard.
"That's another misconception people have. They think that the higher the range, the harder the tide rises or falls, the better. But too high a range is just as bad as not enough. I think the optimum conditions are a rising tide and a 8/10-foot range.
"Falling tides are good, too, but the water running out of the marsh tends to make the water dirtier, especially when the Caernarvon Diversion is running. Incoming tides bring clean water in from the Gulf, and that 8/10 or so range is enough to trigger their instinct to feed."
Thomason dropped the trolling motor, and we tossed a variety of baits as he slowly circled much of the island. But our offerings drew no takers. They snubbed our Top Dogs, She Dogs, Catch 2000s and my usually productive 52Ms.
These are all the top baits for enticing big trout, Thomason assured. But even the gnats weren't biting. Undaunted, we moved on. We passed Stone Island and Belle Island, both of which are known to produce some nice catches of speckled trout and redfish, and headed toward the Whiskey Bay and Belle Pass Bay area.
On the way, Thomason killed the outboard at a tiny speck of an island, and we trolled around it tossing our MirrOlures.
"I've often caught some beautiful trout right here," Thomason said, and his confidence heightened my expectation.
He was tossing a bone/chartreuse topwater bait, casting it far from the boat and walking it in. I had two rods rigged up, one with a mullet-colored Catch 2000 and the other rigged with a red/white 52M. This combination has proved deadly for me on many a trip, and I changed back and forth between them, expecting a hook-up at any moment.
Thomason did have a nice trout explode under his She Dog, but it somehow managed to escape the dangling treble hooks. He slowed, then stopped his walk-the-dog action to see if he could provoke the fish to strike again, a tactic he usually finds successful.
"When a trout hits at a topwater bait without hooking itself, you want to stop walking it for a few seconds. Then move it in spurts, trying to imitate what an injured baitfish would act like. Usually it'll strike again, even more ferociously, to finish off the fish it thinks it injured. But if it doesn't strike again, toss your topwater bait right back to that spot.
"Better yet, have someone else aboard cast a sinking bait, like a 52M or a Catch 2000, right behind the topwater bait. Usually, they can't resist that combination," Thomason said.
But it just wasn't to be. We continued to work around the island, sometimes drifting out as much as 50 yards or more from it. Thomason said the fish don't always hold right against the bank, but will often hang that far out from the shore. We watched as another hefty trout, looking to be about a 3-pounder, followed Thomason's topwater right up to the side of the boat but wouldn't commit. Even Thomason seemed puzzled. The conditions, though not perfect, were decent enough.
I told Thomason that the fish must have heard the weather forecast for the next day — bone chilling Arctic cold was predicted to blow through within the next 18 hours, and the winds bringing the front down were already steadily increasing.
"These fish all headed for deep water," I suggested.
Thomason must've figured I was right, and we abandoned our game plan and headed for the deeper nearby bayous. His original plan was to fish the myriads of islands from Iron Banks to Whiskey Bay and on up to American Bay.
"There's Telegraph Point, Pelican Point and several great islands to fish in American Bay," he said. "And you fish them precisely the same way we've been fishing this island. Troll up to them so you won't scatter the fish. Big trout are very skittish, that's how they survived long enough to reach 5 and 6 pounds or more.
"If you drive right up to an island with your outboard running and splash your anchor in the water, it doesn't mean you won't catch any fish. But you won't catch any big fish. People who make a lot of noise still catch some fish, and then say it doesn't matter whether you're noisy or not. But they don't realize what they missed and could have caught — big fish, whopper trout, up to 6, 7 and even 8 pounds, if they wouldn't have been so noisy and chased the big ones away.
"So, if you're targeting big trout, I always recommend you keep your noise to a minimum. Then, cast topwater baits as far away from the boat as you can reach and walk them in.
"The reason for the long distance casting is that the water along shorelines is usually very clear and very shallow, and the fish can see your boat a long way off. They'll associate anything as big as a boat with a predator, and that will definitely spook them. So let one person toss topwater baits as far as possible, and let others on board try the shallow-swimming baits. That way you'll find out what the fish want, and everybody can then switch to that," he said.
Another technique that Thomason says has proved successful out here is to drift along the reefs near the islands. Some are marked with the traditional white poles, but others you'll have to find with your depth sounder. You'll see where the bottom rises up from 4 or 5 feet to a ridge just a foot or two from the surface.
Drift and troll within casting distance from the ridge, and fish on both sides of the boat. Sometimes the fish will patrol right alongside the reef, but other times they'll hang off it as much as 25 to 50 yards, just like they do the islands.
He says to use the same baits, because they are the best producers from now through May, and there is one other cardinal rule he insists on.
"Whether fishing the islands, shorelines or reefs, NEVER ANCHOR! The anchor is poison. The minute you put it over, you put the poison in the water and the bite stops. You have to drift and troll to get on these big trout," he insisted.
As we sped past them, Thomason said all of these islands and reefs are going to swarm with trout in April. I could tell he wanted to hit the Whiskey Bay islands. I could see it in his longing gaze in that direction. He was looking for baitfish activity, birds diving, moving water, anything that could justify stopping there for a short try.
"But the water there is pretty shallow, isn't it?" I opined, "and probably the fish all headed for deeper water to stay ahead of this front."
Reluctantly, he pointed the bow toward the deeper waters of Thorn Tree and Big Four bayous.
Thomason should never have listened to me. After all, what do I know? I'm just a writer, little more than an outdoor reporter. I don't know what these charter guides know. I just go along for the ride, write what they tell me, cast where they tell me to, use the bait they suggest and the technique they suggest, and we always manage to catch what they say we will.
Now we were in trouble. The shepherd was being led by the sheep, and that is always a sure recipe for disaster.
We did catch some trout, but not the big ones that Thomason sought. But the fellows who fished the area Thomason originally planned for us to fish that same day caught fish. Plenty fish. Big trout. Up to 7 pounds. Me and my big mouth.
You can contact Capt. Charlie Thomason at (504) 278-FISH.