Back in the earlier days of American history and due to the lack of ministers and the far distance between churches, some preachers, called circuit riders or saddlebag preachers, would journey long distances on horseback to rural churches to preach.

They traveled with few possessions, carrying only what could fit in their saddlebags. They traveled through wilderness and villages, preaching virtually every day and often several times a day at any place available (barns, cabins, courthouses, open fields, church buildings or meeting houses, or even basements and street corners).

Unlike the preachers of settled denominations, these pioneer preachers were always on the move, and some covered over 200,000 miles on horseback during their lifetimes, riding the circuts. It was grueling, demanding and sometimes dangerous, but they did what needed to be done to reach souls.

That's what I thought of when Capt. Tim Ursin (504-512-2602) said we could "ride the circuit" to try to find some fish.

Most trout and redfish anglers know that the late-winter months are usually the most challenging of the year to find fish, especially with any consistency.

"The problem is the dramatic fluctuation of our temperatures," Ursin explained. "Winter has a hard time fully arriving all the way down here. It comes in spurts — a front moves through and gives us a few cold days, but then it warms up into the 60s and 70s for several days before another front moves in.

"The temperatures are up and down, and that sends the fish scattering all over the place. You might nail your limit in one place today, and tomorrow won't be able to find a single fish in the same exact spot.

"We catch fish under a cork in 2 feet of water one day, and have to fish dead on the bottom in 10 feet of water the next day. And the warm fronts that blow in from the south or the east heat us up into the 70s, and while we welcome the relief from the cold, it really scatters the fish.

"That's why people have so much trouble catching fish on some of the prettiest days of the winter. The warm-up pulls them out of the deep holes and sends them scattering all over the flats and reefs. That's when you really have to work hard and cover some ground to put together a nice box of fish.

"If it got cold and stayed cold, the fish would slow down, but they'd settle into all the deep canals and holes, their bodies would adjust to the temperatures and they'd start biting again. You'd just have to park over the deep holes and pull them out. You might have to move some from one deep spot to another to fill a limit, but you know where they'll be — deep.

"But it doesn't work like that down here. It's hot and cold from one week to the next, or even one day to the next. And when the fish come out of the deep spots and scatter during those warm spells, they go all over from the outside fringes of the sound and big bays to the shallow inside ponds. That, too, is part of our blessing when you get to fish down here, but part of our problem, too — the fish have so many places to go! We have so many lakes and bays and lagoons and ponds and rivers and canals — the places for them to scatter are almost unlimited.

"And they really do scatter. You'll pick up one here and one there, and sometimes you might pick up five or six in a spot, but that's about it. You have to keep moving and keep covering ground to put together a box of fish."

Even after hearing all of that, I told Ursin I was ready to run the winter circuit whenever he was, and just a few days later, we met at his boat slip in Shell Beach to undertake our journey. Ursin says he'll mostly run to the Delacroix side for the remainder of the winter unless the bite in the Biloxi Marsh area is really on, or the diversion in Caernarvon muddies everything up in Delacroix and forces him to fish elsewhere.

We made the five-mile run from Shell Beach to the Hopedale Canal, and made our way toward the Delacroix side. Normally Ursin would turn left at the second canal past the Breton Sound Marina (not the Spoil Canal just across from the BSM), but he wanted to try Lake Ameda, which can be very productive on warmer days, so we headed there first.

Once we got there, I counted at least 20 other boats that had the same idea, but the lake is large and the boats were scattered from one end to the other, so no one really crowded anybody else.

But nobody seemed to be catching any fish, either. We trolled around and drifted and moved a couple of times to different spots in the lake, but nothing paid off. The whole time we were there, I saw one person catch a fish, and it was undersized. And we tried everything from live shrimp to soft plastics.

"Some days you slam the trout in here, especially on these warmer days," Ursin said.

"Apparently not today," I replied.

Ursin fishes the same way most professionals do — in hyper-drive — so when six or eight casts produce nothing, he's ready to move. And on this day, he was destined to move plenty.

The circuit

"We'll start in Four Horse Lake and work our way south and west from there," Ursin said as he piloted the big 24-foot Blazer Bay into the Delacroix Island side. We passed through Lake Robin and straight down a pipeline canal into Bayou Terr Aux Bouefs, where he hooked a left and then almost immediately turned right into the Four Horse Canal. It seems like a long run but it isn't, and today's powerful bay boats make the trip in mere minutes. Once we entered Four Horse Lake, Ursin traveled along the north side of the lake almost to the east end, and then cut the outboard and dropped the trolling motor.

"This is the side you want to fish," he said, "so we'll start our drift here. For some reason, this side is always the most productive."

The weather was unseasonably warm and had been for days, so while running the circuit, we bypassed the deeper holes and concentrated on the areas we figured the fish would be. Four Horse Lake is normally a productive spot on days such as this, and as we drifted the northeast side, we caught plenty of trout, but all were undersized. We tossed soft plastics both tightlined and under corks, and I even tossed live shrimp under a cork, but all we could catch were schoolies too small to keep.

We made a couple of moves in the lake, but got more of the same results. The weather was sunny and mild, the winds were relatively light, the tide was moving and the water clarity looked good. The conditions were perfect, but the keeper trout were in hiding.

"Let's go," Ursin said, and we returned to riding the circuit.

We went south all the way to Grand Point Bay, where we turned west and went into Thorn Tree Bayou, a perennial winter favorite. Hook says Thorn Tree is one of the best places to fish throughout the cold months because it is deep in the center and the sides fan out and run shallow to the shoreline.

"The fish have it all in Thorn Tree, deep water for cold mornings and shallow water for when the sun warms things up," Ursin said.

And there were fish in there.

"Finally, a good one," Ursin exclaimed as he reeled in a nice trout.

We thought we had finally located some fish but surprisingly didn't catch another keeper, only tiny tots.

"Let's move," Ursin said, and we continued running the circuit.

Next stop: Bakers Bay, where we fished the east end in slightly deeper water. From there, the circuit took us to Little Crevasse, Oak River, Skippy Lake, Pointe Fienne, Bay Jack and Ponton Bay. And yes, we actually did stop and fish in all those places, even if only to make five or six casts before moving on. And we picked up keeper-sized fish with more consistency as the morning wore on and the sun warmed things up.

"That's another good thing about fishing in the winter," Ursin said. "You don't have to get here at 4 a.m. and run in the dark to get on the early morning bite. It's actually usually better to let the sun warm the water up a bit and then go fishing."

"I expect that by 1 or 2 p.m., the bite will be excellent."

Some of the places we fished were definite cold-weather spots to hit when the temperatures are low and the fish go deep. Ursin says the key on cold days is to fish along the ledges and drop-offs of deeper canals and bayous.

"The trout are generally hanging out on the ledges, suspending in 5 or 6 feet of water," he said. "You might be fishing a deep hole with 10 or 12 feet of water in it, but the fish are not usually flat on the bottom in the deep. Sometimes they are. That's when you see their bellies covered with those little worms. But typically, they suspend along the ledges and hunt bait in the furrows."

The other spots we fished were only 2 to 3 feet deep and favorite haunts of winter trout trying to warm up on milder days.

"The sun will heat them up, and they come up over the shallow flats and reefs to warm and to feed," Ursin said.

We managed to boat some more keepers, and we picked up a few reds along the way as well.

I stayed with the live shrimp, and caught some of the larger trout of the day, but the most trout and the biggest trout came from plastic.

Ursin mostly tightlined a curl-tail Salt Water Assassin in opening night on a white jighead, and it was very productive. He says that for some reason, the white jigheads are especially effective during the winter months. And he also caught some nice fish on the Billy Bay Halo Shrimp in white/glow under a popping cork.

"This shrimp bait has been very effective, and it holds up good," he said. "I probably caught 20 trout on this one bait, and it is still not torn up."

Hook says there are several other spots on the circuit he likes to try, but we just weren't able to fish them all.

"Oak River by Adema Pond is a great cold-weather spot, and so is the canal between Four Horse and Pato Caballo," he said. "The Twin Pipelines are good between Lake John and Crooked Bayou on cold days, and Round Lake is good on mild days."

The bottom line is, there are simply more areas to fish than you'll have time to fish them. But don't let the winter keep you off the water. Whether its cold or mild, just ride the circuit until you find them.

Capt. Tim Ursin can be reached at (504) 512-2602.