Thomas, who has operated RunAway Charters for four years, welcomed the first hint of refreshing fall air after running hundreds of trips during the broiling summer heat.
"Just look how good and healthy everything looks," said Steve Shilling, a high school buddy of Thomas, as he gazed across the area of thick canes, bull whip grass and water hyacinths that blanketed the sandy shoreline.
Although Katrina and Rita severely damaged and flattened the roseau canes that lined the banks of the pass, Mother Nature's healing hand has restored them, and they stand even taller than before the storms.
"Guys, we're headed to the spillways to target flounder," Thomas announced to the crew consisting of Shilling and his friend John Caldwell, both of Franklinton.
"Cade and I have been friends since high school, but we just picked Caldwell up on side of the road like a stray dog," Shilling joked.
Thomas zig zagged south along a row of pilings that marked the narrow channel that crosses Zin Zin Bay, as he navigated the back route to the first spillway off of Southwest Pass.
"We have a great tide range of over 2 feet today, and it's falling all day," said Thomas.
"Ooh wee! How clean do you want your boat at the end of the day, 'cause we plan on slinging some fish in here today," said Schilling as he picked up a rod in anticipation of catching the first fish.
"I expect it to be very clean AFTER you two guys wash it," joked Thomas as he lowered his trolling motor, which was outfitted with a concept-model steering mechanism.
Thomas watched his bottom finder as he worked along a sharp drop-off lined with rocks, where the swirling waters of the Mississippi River enter the first spillway. Using a 3/8-ounce jighead tipped with market shrimp, he slowly raised and lowered his 7-foot Challenger rod, causing the jig to dart enticingly along the bottom.
"You've got to take your time to feel the bite in this deep water," he said.
"A swing and a miss — this isn't normal," Shilling lamented a he reeled in to inspect his hook.
Caldwell, who was quietly fishing from the stern of the boat suddenly hooked up, but didn't say a word.
"What ya got there, Caldwell?" inquired Thomas.
After a few drag-stripping runs, Thomas was certain this wasn't what we were looking for, and he was right.
"Black drum," Thomas announced, as he unhooked the 6-pound striped fish, and tossed it back into the salty green water. "This place has been stacked up with those rascals — you could sink the boat with them."
I was able to snap a few photos of the drum, and Shilling took notice.
"As a kid I was struck by lightning and those flashes from your camera kind of scare me," he warned. I was uncertain if he was telling the truth.
"That's why they nicknamed me 'Sparky,'" he grinned.
It quickly became apparent that Shilling was a jokester, so I braced myself for his next barrage of one-liners.
Shilling, who owns the Bait and Tackle Barn in Franklinton, says his claim to fame is his boiled crawfish.
"And my good looks," he interjected, flashing a big smile.
The tide was finally starting to fall hard, and action in the spillway picked up. It wasn't long before Thomas felt the familiar thump of a flounder, and set the hook.
As a brown spotted outline came into view beneath the clear water, Shilling grabbed the landing net and scooped the first flounder of the day into the boat.
"Sweet," said Thomas as he tossed the fish into the ice chest.
Unlike with trout and reds, which anglers often flip into the boat, a landing net is a necessity when fishing for flounder. Many times, a flounder will come off right at the boat, so having a net accessible and making sure everyone helps with the task is essential to a successful trip.
While most captains are in agreement that flounder can be caught with any good tidal movement, a falling tide of 1 to 2 feet is preferable to get the flatfish on the feed.
"When that tide really starts to fall, the flounders will station themselves on and off the flat as they feed, and sometimes they'll even hang right on that sharp drop-off," Thomas said. "At times all you'll feel is a little peck, while other times a flounder will annihilate it."
Unlike most species of fish that chase down a bait, flounder are ambush predators. They stage along the edges of passes or points with a good current or along drop-offs waiting for a meal. When a fish or shrimp comes close, the flounder pounces on it.
Most times when you catch one flounder, chances are there are several others lurking nearby. Keep working the area slowly, and you may be rewarded with a bounty of the tasty flatfish.
On fall or winter days when the wind kicks up or action is slow on the outside, many boats head for the spillways, where, in addition to flounder, there are always plenty of redfish, black drum and speckled trout to be had.
Thomas suggests if you don't find the fish in the main open area of the spillway, don't hesitate to investigate the maze of canals and trenasses nearby.
"You could literally fish these canals off the spillways all day and not hit the same spot twice — there's lots of real estate here," he explained as he trolled toward an area where four canals intersected.
Facing into the current and casting ahead of the boat into the opening, all three anglers' rods suddenly bowed. After a short battle, Shilling impatiently swung his 6-pound redfish into the boat, while Thomas and Caldwell, who both had flounders, netted their fish.
"This is some of my favorite fishing, where these canals intersect, because the flounder really stack up here in this current," said Thomas as he carefully unhooked the toothy, brown spotted fish. "Plus, the beauty of flounder fishing is that you will catch redfish too."
Another bronze brute that Caldwell hooked headed for the canes, ripping Power Pro from his spool.
When asked if the hurricanes of 2005 had changed the spillways, Thomas confidently replied, "Nah, they're just like they used to be."
There are, however, a few changes to the approaches to the area. Those navigating the back route to the first spillway need to do so with caution, as there is plenty of workboat traffic in the area due to the relocation of a nearby oil facility. Dredging operations are under way, along with the relocation of a pipeline, which is marked by floating plastic drums. This entire stretch is idle speed — no wake — and can add several minutes to your trip.
Anglers may not know it, but there are 18 known species of the left-eye flounder found in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Research has demonstrated, however, that the southern flounder is the one most commonly landed by anglers across the Louisiana coast.
According to Harry Blanchet, finfish programs manager for LDWF, what some refer to as the fall "run" actually equates to the migration of flounder to offshore waters, where spawning occurs. This migration is in full swing usually between the months of October through December. Blanchet says flounder spend much of their summer in shallow marsh areas, where plenty of food is readily available.
There are, however, always exceptions to the rule. Back in the summer of 1998, I assisted a local charter captain with the process to certify the No. 1 Louisiana state record southern flounder. The fish, which was several inches thick and weighed a whopping 13.06 pounds, was caught in 200 feet of water at one of the rigs out of South Pass. It still holds the No. 1 spot in the books today. Imagine the angler's surprise when that fish surfaced from the depths.
Usually, flounder do not show up in large numbers until October. This year, limits of the flatties were being hauled in by anglers fishing the spillways as early as June, and some of these were really nice fish weighing up to 5 pounds. Blanchet says it could be a combination of a number of things.
"There have been significant salinities in the bottom waters of the Mississippi River throughout most of the summer, which has encouraged the flounder to remain in those areas," he said.
In Louisiana, Blanchet says most flounder harvested by recreational anglers are females. Males are seldom found inshore once they mature, which on average is around 6.5 inches. Females, on the other hand, reach the same maturity at around 9 inches.
"Flounder are typically short-lived, with the oldest fish found in samples from Louisiana fisheries being 6 years old," Blanchet said.
Many times, small flounder-like fish show up in the bycatch of shrimp trawls. Because of their flat, brown appearance, they are often misidentified as flounder.
"Whiffs, soles, tonguefishes, hogchokers and other flounder species that never achieve the size of the southern flounder are often mistaken for 'baby' flounder," says Blanchet.
As the day wore on, Thomas suggested a move farther south to the second spillway.
"I'm going to run the river because the back route gets kind of hairy at times," he said as he put the Skeeter on plane and turned right into the river.
Entering the second spillway from the river, Thomas veered to the left and set the boat down, idling to an area where the tide was moving against a row of canes.
"I saved this spot just for you, Shilling. Cast along the edge here," Thomas instructed, pointing to a small pocket along the edge as he slowly bumped the trolling motor to hold the boat in place.
"There he is!" Thomas exclaimed as he set the hook hard.
"Yeah, you saved it for me all right — AFTER you threw in it and pulled that big doormat out," scoffed Shilling.
"After that move I'm ready for a beer," Shilling said as he watched Thomas unhook the big flounder.
"Well, you know, my uncle has a saying: 'Have one beer by eleven and eleven by one,'" laughed Thomas.
Shilling enjoyed his brew as the crew readied the boat for the hour-long ride back up the river to Venice Marina.
"We've got a good mess of fish here, and I'm looking forward to having one of these suckers stuffed with crabmeat when I get home," said Thomas.
Another way to prepare a smaller flounder is to remove the head, use a wire brush to scale it and then gut it. With a sharp knife, make shallow diagonal cuts in both directions across the back, which form diamond shapes. Salt and pepper the fish to taste. Use corn meal, and coat the fish by pressing it into the cuts, and drop the whole fish into a deep fryer until golden brown.
This is a delicious and easy recipe I learned from Capt. Mike Patrick, skipper of the Coonie-L. As with any whole fish, watch out for the numerous bones.
With the river at an incredibly low level, and expected to stay there, anglers wanting to experience the white tasty flesh of flounder should grab a supply of fresh market bait, and head south to the spillways for non-stop action. Just remember to bring a net — you'll need it for these doormats.
Capt. Cade Thomas can be reached at 985-515-0687 or www.runawaycharters.com.