Capt. Tommy Pellegrin called them “junk trout.”
It’s not often that you hear speckled trout, the fish of fishes in Louisiana, called anything at all relating to junk.
But Pellegrin (with Custom Charters, 985-851-33040), besides showing his irreverent streak, was referring to where he caught the quicksilver predators.
“It’s a junk pile fishery,” the 59-year-old Terrebonne Parish charter captain grinned. “We are fishing over the remains of what was Caillou Island, north of West Timbalier Island.”
Back in the day, the once-sizable island was apparently the working headquarters for Texaco’s drilling in the area. The location featured living quarters, a galley and office and shop buildings — all powered by a natural gas-fueled electrical generator.
A canal bisected the island. Pellegrin’s fishing partner of the day and long-time friend Hugh LeBoeuf explained that this was where the company kept their barges loaded with drill pipe, production pipe, concrete, drilling mud and equipment.
“When they saw the island begin to disappear, they would dump old pipe and debris on the edges of the island to protect it,” Pellegrin said. “The last piece of the island went under water seven or eight years ago, but the junk is still there.”
It didn’t happen overnight, in spite of the current belief that coastal land loss is a very recent phenomenon. Arthur “Wootsie” Cenac Jr., Pellegrin’s father-in-law and a former independent drilling contractor who drilled many of the hundreds of wells in the original field, noted that by the mid-1960s only about an acre of marsh grass was still above water level beneath Texaco’s piling-supported buildings.
“It had been eroding for years and years and years,” he said.
Maps from 1839 show that Caillou Island was huge, nearly as large as the modern city of Houma. Apparently, much of the marshland loss was natural, occurring well before the Mississippi River was leveed.
The pink-orange smear of sunrise on a Maya blue sky colored the east as Pellegrin broke his brand new Skeeter SX 240 bay boat out of Petite Caillou Bayou into Terrebonne Bay.
“I fish Caillou Island from March to June, as soon as I can get live shrimp,” he said, as the boat scooted across the bay. After 23 years as a noted offshore fishing guide, he transformed himself into an inshore guide in 2014.
“The laws put me out of offshore fishing,” he grimaced. “I had enough of telling people, ‘That’s a good-eating fish. Throw it back.’
“Now I follow speckled trout, inside to out; outside to in. I am a trout fisherman. I like people on the boat catching fish. Specks offer those numbers.”
When Pellegrin neared the island’s shadow, he slowed the engine to an idle and eased the boat into his favorite spot. He stabbed his Power-Pole down, even though the boat was equipped with a Minn Kota I-Pilot.
Each man inserted one prong of a treble hook under a shrimp’s horn and gently lobbed it out.
The action was immediate and amazing. Before the sun peeped over the horizon, they had a half-dozen specks in the boat.
These were good fish, not schoolies, averaging 1 ½ pounds each.
Mixed in with them were enough Spanish mackerel to be worth keeping. “They’re good eating fish,” said Pellegrin, quite a chef in his own right. (See the Seafood Bible in this issue for some of his recipes.)
It was hard to imagine the bite being any better. When one got a bite in a spot, the other cast to it immediately and usually got bit. Lots of times, both men were hooked up. When the action slacked off there, they cast all around the boat to relocate the fish.
All the while they were laughing riotously.
“There’s another one.”
“That’s a good one!”
“Ooh, that was neat! I saw the fish eat the shrimp.”
When Pellegrin hooked one and LeBoeuf reeled in an empty hook, the captain ribbed him. “I catch fish because I use bait. You fish on credit!”
“Ugh” was the older man’s only reply.
At 9:05 a.m., it was over. The boat was limited out.
They looked at each other and Pellegrin shrugged. “You wanna go to the beach — you know; just to see if they are biting?”
A sliding cork kind of place
Pellegrin and LeBoeuf both use sliding corks to target trout with live shrimp over Caillou island junk.
“Before we knew how to use a sliding cork, we hung up a lot,” said Pellegrin dourly. “I can’t tell you how many hooks I’ve lost here,” agreed LeBoeuf.
The concept, as former guide Tim Stringer taught them, is simple. A fishing cork is loosely threaded on the line without a stopper. After the cast, the line slips through the cork until it hits a “bobber-stop” or obstruction on the line, in this case a single uni knot made of 30-pound test monofilament.
The knot can be slid up or down the braided mainline to set the maximum depth at which the baited hook will fish. Pellegrin threads a bead on the line above the cork since the hole in the cork is large enough to ride over the bobber-stop.
The beauty of the rig is that it allows the cork to slide down the line to the swivel above the leader, no matter how deep it is set to fish, making a rig that is much easier to cast than one rigged with a pegged or snap-on cork.
Typically, on Calliou Island, he sets his corks to fish 2 to 2 ½ feet deep.
Notes on rigging
Tommy Pellegrin is particular about the kind of hook he uses for live shrimp fishing, choosing a No. 4 Mustad UltraPoint treble hook. Because shrimp have spines on their bodies, trout don’t notice the extra points on the treble when they grab the bait.
The small size of the hooks means that speckled trout tend to be hooked deep in the mouth, compared to a the lip-hooking tendencies of kahle hooks. Deeply hooked fish don’t shake off the hook as often.
Plus he added, it’s a lot easier to swing the fish into the boat. “I hardly ever net a trout, unless he is big — 3 pounds or more,” he grunted.
“The drawback to trebles is that your boat gets filthy,” cautioned Pellegrin. “Deep-hooked fish bleed a lot.”
Both men prefer inexpensive, oval, foam corks. “The ones with just a hole in them and nothing in them are hard to find, believe it or not,” Pellegrin said.
The egg sinker on the line below the cork and above the swivel is either 3/8- or ½-ounce, depending on wind conditions.
The swivel between the main line and the leader is always black. Spanish mackerel, a common fish in the lower bay, will quickly strike and cut off a silver swivel.
For a leader, Pellegrin uses 2 to 2 ½ feet of 30-pound test Berkley ProSpec monofilament.
Tommy Pellegrin believes in fishing fast.
“The more people you have in a boat and the more bait you have in the water, the better the chance you have of getting a speckled trout feeding frenzy going.
“Rapid fire keeps the bite going,” he reiterated.
He doesn’t waste time running to the boat’s livewell every time he needs a fresh shrimp. Instead he scoops a bunch at a time and puts them in a 2 ½-gallon plastic bucket he keeps in arm’s reach.
Nor does he open the ice chest for each fish caught. Rather, they toss their catch into a plastic half-champagne shrimp basket until the basket gets so full that the fish are able to jump out.
Only then does he dump the fish into the ice chest, counting them as he dumps them. “I only count what’s in the box,” he clipped.
He considers building a new terminal rig from scratch while on the water the biggest waste of time of all. Most aggravating is trying to thread the limp braided line (all he uses on his reels) through the cork’s hole.
To get around that, Pellegrin makes what he calls, “pre-rigs” that can quickly be strung on his line. He makes pre-rigs at home on his days off. (He also makes pre-rigs to sell to the public for $4 each, with phone orders.)
It’s a community hole
The trout-attracting nature of the metal debris left on what was Caillou Island is so well known that Tommy Pellegrin refers to it as “a community hole.” The short morning the two men fished there, eight other boats worked various parts of the island’s ghostly footprint.
The coordinates of the former island are generally given as latitude 29º 06’ 39.6” North and Longitude 90º 28’ 32.1” West. Lying generally on the imaginary border between Terrebonne Bay and Timbalier Bay, it is northwest of Brush Island and west of Casse-Tete Island.
But knowing where the former island is doesn’t necessarily make it less challenging to fish. The iron “trash” isn’t everywhere. Pellegrin and Hughes, a former guide himself, know where the most fish-attracting junk is located.
They fished the island over the years as it gradually disappeared and retain a mental map of what is where. Newcomers will have to experiment to find the best spots.
Three to 4 feet of water now cover the island and there is little to mark it except single pilings and piling clusters that delineate the former canal that once penetrated the island’s heart.
Of more concern are many of what Pellegrin called, “short pilings,” ones whose tops are just beneath the water’s surface or just barely visible above it.
“Come in to the island at idle speed,” he advised, “or better yet with a trolling motor.
“Sometimes even that doesn’t help. A friend of mine broke the fiberglass shaft of his trolling motor on a submerged piling.”
Tip of the day
When your dip net turns a dead shrimp from the live well, don’t toss it overboard and waste it. Tommy Pellegrin simply hooks it in the last segment of the tail, rather than under the horn on top of its head, like he does with a live shrimp.
“You have to work the cork with a dead shrimp,” he instructed. “Pop it!”
When fishing with live shrimp, neither man popped the cork though, except to set the hook. They let the live bait do all the work.
When chased by a voracious speck, a lively shrimp would often jump clear of the water. Many of the strikes were visible, causing the two grown men to laugh like kids.
“Customers love to see that, especially people from way ‘Up North,’ he grinned. “They don’t get to see that.”