"The conditions won't be great, but I believe we'll still be able to catch some fish," said Capt. Gordon Matherne (985-758-2824) the night before our trip.
I'd called to make sure our trip was still on after hearing that weather forecast. Matherne was undaunted.
"It'll be cold, and the water will be draining out of the marsh with the hard north wind. But we can usually catch fish in the Sulfur Mine under those conditions," he said.
I liked the confidence in his voice, and I was overdue for a fishing trip anyway.
That's how I found myself at Bason's Marina in Cut Off just after daylight on what had to be the coldest day of the season.
Matherne backed his 22-foot Blazer Bay boat into the water, and I stowed my tackle aboard and put on all the winter gear I brought.
But I quickly realized I didn't bring enough. I dressed in layers - long johns, T-shirt, flannel shirt, thermal socks, jacket, gloves - knowing that is the best way to stay warm, or at least fairly comfortable, on a cold day. Then as it warms up, you can peel off the layers and stay comfortable.
But my teeth started chattering shortly after we got under way, and I was thankful that we wouldn't have a long run to the Sulfur Mine. It's been a long time since I'd felt that piercing kind of cold that bites right through your clothes, and I made a mental note to go buy some warmer stuff before my next winter trip.
Scant minutes later, we pulled up at an intersection of oil field canals, and Matherne dropped the trolling motor over the bow.
"I want to try a couple spots before we head into the Mine," he said. "The water is a little deeper at this junction, and it gets shallow by the shoreline. Trout can be deep or shallow, so we'll fish both ways."
The canals are still located within the boundaries of the Pointe Aux Chene Wildlife Management Area, as is the Sulfur Mine, and that is one of the main reasons the area is so consistently productive.
"No commercial fishing, trawling or crabbing is allowed in the management area, and that means the only thing taking bait out of here is the fish themselves," Matherne said. "You can crab recreationally here, but no trawls or commercial crabbing is allowed. So there is almost always a lot of shrimp in here, and naturally, where the shrimp are, the fish are."
The water levels were low and falling, and Matherne said that's really the best conditions to fish the canals and the Mine.
"If you want to fish the canals, anchor near the drains from the marsh and drop either live cocahoes or market shrimp to the bottom on a plain jighead," Matherne recommended. "Do the same thing on cold days like this in the Sulfur Mine itself in the deep hole in the middle of the Mine where the depth falls from 16 to 24 feet deep. It's a great way to catch reds, drum and sheepshead."
We put a few trout in the box and tossed at least a half dozen slightly undersized fish back, and decided to move into the Mine itself.
"This whole area was once so chock full of wells and pipes and equipment that you almost couldn't cross it. Now, except for some small wells, that's all gone," Matherne said as he looked over the watery expanse.
He dropped the trolling motor, and we fished both sides of the boat, he with tandem beetles in glow under a popping cork, me tightlining an Old Bayside shad in the new penny color.
It was Matherne who got the first bite, and then he got the second and third. I figured it was time to switch baits and tactics. I had a spinning rig armed with a big (make that huge) pink artificial shrimp under an Old Bayside Paradise Popper all ready to go, so I let it fly and fished patiently, popping the cork, and watched Matherne catch all the fish.
He was getting the action on beetles, which are a much smaller bait than I was using. I know from experience that sometimes, especially in winter, you get better results fishing with smaller baits. It's just the opposite of spring and summer when big baits are preferable. So I cut off the goliath shrimp, and tied on a much smaller artificial shrimp, this one in a glow color. The trout ate it up.
"The whole Sulfur Mine area is excellent throughout the winter," Matherne said. "If you look at the Mine, it's basically round, like a pie. And the bottom is shaped like a bowl with a very gradual slope toward the center.
"On the edges, it's only a foot or two deep, and then it very slowly and gradually tapers down. By 100 to 150 yards from the shore, it's 6 to 8 feet deep and falling, and when you get near the middle, it goes down to 24 feet deep. That's where the reds hang out on cold days."
For specks, Matherne says drift or troll in water 4 to 8 feet deep, and fish with plastics either under a popping cork or bounced off the bottom. He says he prefers to tightline when the water is clear, and chooses to fish under a cork under murky water conditions.
"By late January, you'll be able to catch some bigger trout over the flats on topwater baits," he said. "It's one of my favorite things to do in the winter when the conditions are right. You want to go on one of those days after a warm spell brings the nighttime temperatures into the 70s. If it's calm the next morning, go toss some topwater baits over the shallow flats in the Mine, and boy will you be surprised.
"Be sure to spool up with at least 14- to 17-pound-test because these are nice-sized trout."
Matherne also operates airboat tours in the marsh area between Des Allemands and Raceland just south of Highway 90.
"I love to take tourists out to show them the wonders of the Louisiana Marsh, where the wildlife is so abundant," he said. "We see everything out there from gators to eagles to songbirds and every kind of critter and vegetation imaginable."
Besides being a fishing guide and airboat ruide, Matherne is an amateur enthomologist, and has been collecting many different species of insects for almost 30 years.
"Because our climate down here is almost tropical in nature, we have a very wide variety of insects that are native to us, and they tend to be much bigger than the insects elsewhere," he said. "We have big dragonflies, beetles, waterbugs, banana spiders, grasshoppers - huge insects when compared to the rest of the country."
Matherne actually contributes a lot of insects to the New Orleans Insectarium, and almost all of the aquatic insects they have were collected by him.
We fished a while longer in the Mine, drifting and trolling, and whenever we got a hit, Matherne would slip the anchor quietly overboard to see if we could stay on some action.
We landed both speckled trout and redfish, most of the trout in the 13- to 15-inch size that is typical for this time of year. We also caught and released quite a few rat reds and kept some that made the grade.
"The Sulfur Mine is a prime winter hotspot, and that is no secret," he said. "I counted 137 boats out here one Saturday, the most I've ever seen. And they were all catching fish.
"When it turns on, it's on all over in the Mine. I think the fish tend to move around in circles out here, and if you're patient, you'll catch some.
"It's a well known spot, easy to get to, you burn very little fuel and the bait and fish congregate here. What's not to like about it?"
Capt. Gordon Matherne's Fishing Charter Service and Airboat Tours can be reached at 985-758-2824.