Prior to Hurricane Katrina, this area was home to the state's largest oyster operation. Since the storm, a flurry of activity has returned, and oystermen and their dredges can be seen working the vast area to the west of the Empire Bridge.
As we idled out of Delta Marina at sunrise, small boats were already lined up just outside the Empire floodgates, and excited anglers swung speckled trout into their vessels two at a time.
"Most of our guys come down here in 15- to 16-foot Bass Trackers," said Capt. Jeff Johnson, who operates the J-Bar Sportsman's Lodge located nearby. "This is perfect for them."
Also along for the day was Darren Angelo, owner of the newly constructed Delta Marina, which sprang from the ruins after the hurricane.
"Looks like it's going be to another great day," he said.
Although we could have stopped right there in the shadow of the Empire Bridge and loaded the boat with fryer-sized specks, Johnson had other plans for the day.
"Empire is basically one giant oyster bed. This is what makes it such a great fishery," he added as he weaved his 24-foot Blue Wave around the PVC pipes and across Bay Adams.
Bay Adams is a vast area of shallow flats and oyster beds that stretches west and south of the Empire Bridge. Depths here average 4 to 6 feet, and fish will feed throughout the bay. This area holds fish year-round, and is less than a 10-minute run from the Delta Marina, making it accessible to even the smallest of vessels.
Birds could be seen dipping in the distance as Johnson selected a small point and began to cast an LSU Cocahoe rigged on a 3/8-ounce jig 2 feet under a popping cork. Johnson adds a small split shot about 8 inches above the jig to get the bait back in the strike zone quickly.
"This seems to work well for my customers, many of which are not that experienced at popping a cork," Johnson said.
Johnson and Angelo soon doubled up, and iridescent speckled trout danced across the surface trying to shake the hook.
"In January, any of our bays to the west such as Bay Atlas, Bay Au Fer and Bay Cheri can be drifted for trout," said Johnson.
One of Johnson's favorite methods is to fish No Man's Land when there is just enough water to float a boat.
"Look for signs of birds, and drift over the area with an LSU Cocahoe bumping off the bottom," he recommended.
During the winter months when fish are sluggish and the water is cold, it is important to slow your retrieve when fishing for both reds and trout. "Low and slow" is the ticket — fish the bottom, and fish it slowly.
On extremely windy days, Johnson says to move to the east side of Bay Adams around the old camps, and cast with the wind.
Angelo, who is a member of Gov. Bobby Jindal's Coastal Advisory Committee, shared some of the plans for marsh restoration south of Empire scheduled for the spring of 2008.
"The current plan is to take advantage of the sand that builds up along the banks of the Mississippi River," he said.
A large pipeline will be placed from the Mississippi River and will cross the levee just north of the menhaden plant. The pipeline will cross the existing borrow pit, and then be tunneled beneath Highway 23 and will end up in Bayou Fontanelle near Deepwater Cut and Scofield Bay, Angelo explained.
"It's going to be incredible fishing along the beaches," he said. "We will have about two years of change, but the result will be well worth it."
"People will complain about it at first when they can't find cuts they used to fish, but man, when that project is finished, they will be smiling," he said.
Johnson says that coastal restoration is a necessary evil.
In the short term, anglers will have to deal with mud lines, dredge pipes and basic changes to their current fishing areas. Once the barrier islands have been rebuilt, they should find fishing improved. There will be plenty of new structure to fish around. Tidal currents should be more defined instead of just sweeping across open water as they do now.
"Fish should stage around these new tidal-current areas, making finding them much easier," Johnson said.
"Let's make a move to Bayou Vacherie," Johnson said. "I want to show you some protected areas."
The meandering canals of Bayou Vacherie and Bay Vacherie are good choices for reds on a hard north wind as both have protection from the marsh and levee. Fish will stay here all winter, since the water is 12 feet deep, although Johnson admits a hard freeze can make them difficult to locate. On warm days, the fish will move over the flats to feed.
"If you are going to catch redfish consistently in the winter, you are going to have to move inside," Johnson said.
He suggests anglers take their time using the trolling motor or drifting while casting spinnerbaits against the banks.
Angelo slow-rolled a flashy, gold-bladed spinnerbait, which did the trick as several keeper-sized reds were boated.
In addition to the great fishing offered just minutes from the Empire Bridge, the east side of the Mississippi River offers more options for boaters with larger vessels.
The Empire Locks are manned seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and offer access to the Mississippi River. Boaters must have bumpers to enter the locks and have a rope handy to secure their boat while the operator opens the locks.
"Don't tie the rope to a cleat — just hold on and give it slack as the water rises and falls, or you'll get in trouble," Angelo cautioned.
He has seen the water drop out so fast that boaters are forced to cut their ropes to save their boats when they are left hanging precariously from the side of the cement lock.
It's also important to be careful in the river, says Michael Miller, a local river pilot who traverses the lower Mississippi River.
"When entering the river, watch for ship traffic and remember to cross behind and not in front of ships as the river pilots cannot see small vessels," he said. "Fiberglass boats make poor radar targets."
Once in the river, travel five miles south to the Ostrica Locks, which are located on the eastern bank of the river. These locks are currently wide-open, allowing nutrient-rich river water to flow into Quarintine Bay.
Johnson headed north across Quarintine Bay to Bay La Mer, which is an area of small broken islands on the edge of Breton Sound.
Mullet and other baitfish were plentiful, and only a few casts later, Angelo hooked into a line-stripping fish that turned out to be a 30-pound bull red.
Johnson and Angelo hooked bull reds on almost every cast, and fought them on light tackle as I watched. When I couldn't take it any longer, I cast a Gulp! Shrimp under an Old Bayside Paradise Popper, and a bull engulfed it as soon as it hit the water. Since I was using 6-pound-test, I knew I was in for a battle, and the guys just sat back and grinned as I gained and then lost line. Finally the bull came alongside, where we snapped a few photos of the 42-inch fish, then tagged and released her.
"My customers really enjoy fighting those," said Johnson.
After spending our afternoon tusseling with bull reds until all of our arms were sore, we headed back to Delta Marina.
As Johnson was putting his boat on the trailer, I noticed a neat gadget he picked up at Delta Outboards in Empire to support his motor while trailering. The simple rubber-trimmed PVC-looking device is a M-y Motor Support. Instead of struggling with a transom-saver, he simply trimmed the motor down while holding this small device in place.
A few minutes later, I noticed a man and his dog motoring up to the launch in a 16-foot flatboat, and struck up a conversation with him. John Ott of Gretna was returning from an afternoon of fishing in the shadow of the Empire Bridge. He eagerly flipped open his ice chest to reveal 30 white trout, 15 speckled trout and a limit of redfish that he and "Butterbean" boxed in just a few hours.
Ott swears by green sparkle beetles, which he calls "the cream of the crop."
"Just fish the beetle under a cork — it's a no-brainer," he said.
Ott, who has fished the area for 45 years, hoisted one of the reds for me to see.
"We left them biting," he said. "We would have had our limit, but Bean didn't carry his load today.
"I had to bring him along as he had his leash in his mouth this morning and was whining because he wanted to go fishing."
Ott shared that Butterbean doesn't care much for the specks, but when a redfish is hooked and thrashing at boatside, Bean springs into action poking his head over the side, grabbing the red by the head and dragging it into the boat. Who needs a net when you have a dog like Bean?