Robert Campo, over at Campo's Marina in Shell Beach (504-239-6377), says it's been one for the record books.
"The trout action turned on right here in Lake Borgne in late October, and it's been red hot ever since," he said. "It's probably the combination of a year with virtually no pressure on the fish and no pressure on the shrimp.
"The BP oil spill closures shut the fishing down, and by the time it all reopened all the shrimpers and fishing guides were working for BP. So nobody fished earlier this year, and all the bait and the fish are stacked up in the lake, and really, all over the marsh."
Campo says the fish stacked up in the Shell Beach Canal in numbers he's never seen in his lifetime.
"According to my dad (Frank Campo, Jr), that's the way it used to be here 40 years ago before the Ship Channel," he said. "The shrimp swept through the canal right there every year at this time whenever the tide flowed, and of course, the canal and the lake stacked up with trout and reds until the MRGO changed all the tidal flow patterns.
"Now with the dam in Hopedale, the old patterns are reestablishing themselves, and we're seeing the shrimp and the trout stacking up in here again, like the old folks say they used to."
Campo said the action is not limited to just the area right in front of the Shell Beach Canal.
"St. Malo, Dollut's Canal, Bayou Sue and all along the new rocks along the eastern side of Lake Borgne — all that area is full of trout, and I really think the action will continue until it gets really cold, and then the action will shift to the back of the Biloxi Marsh: Stump Lagoon, Bayou LaLoutre, Mack's Pass, Lake Eugene, all the areas back in there."
On what had to be one of the coldest days of the season, Capt. Frank Moore (504-881-9966) made some room for me and a friend, Vic Rodrigue, to jump aboard his boat on a recent trip he made with his friend, Yvette Hruzek, and a couple of dentists — Kenneth Nash from Vicksburg and Charley Lester from Shreveport. Add Eric the deckhand to that number, and it made for a full boat.
We all climbed aboard at Moore's dock in Shell Beach, and braced ourselves against the winter cold for the chilly boat ride into the Biloxi Marsh. The sky was typical winter grey, and the winds were cold, blowing out of the northwest and much harder than predicted. What was forecast to be 8-15 mph was more like 18-22 mph, and the tide was low and falling.
"Nothing like a challenge," Moore said as he pulled the throttle and the 300-horsepower Yamaha roared, quickly pushing the big boat onto plane.
But Moore didn't turn toward the Biloxi Marsh as I expected. Instead, he crossed the Ship Channel and idled to a stop just inside the Shell Beach Canal.
"Believe it or not, we've been catching plenty of trout right in this canal, and just into the south end of the lake," he said. "But on a windy day like today, it'll be way too bumpy to get into the lake."
Moore positioned the boat fairly close to the bank so that we could all cast into the falling tide of the canal, and we loaded our Carolina rigs with live shrimp. Within a minute, we were reeling in specks, and the action was fast and furious! These weren't huge fish, but they were mostly keepers, and they are my favorite size for eating.
I asked Moore about the speck action in the canal so close to the launch, and he echoed Campo's remarks.
"I don't ever remember catching fish in here like this," he said, "but it makes plenty sense that the trout would stack up in here; it's deep, it's a natural channel that sweeps a whole lot of bait through between the lake and the Ship Channel, and with the new dam stopping the tide from all flushing out as fast as it used to, this will be something to monitor, to see if it's just a short-term phenomenon or a new pattern establishing itself or reestablishing itself right here.
"Traditionally at this time of year, we focus most of our attention in the Biloxi Marsh," Moore said. "We run straight across the lake and make our way inside Bayou St. Malo or Bayou Sue, and from there the sky is the limit. You can head east more toward the interior and fish all the usual winter hotspots like Stump Lagoon, Muscle Bay, Pete's Lagoon, Cut Off Lagoon and farther east down Crooked Bayou to Lake Eugene. Or you can head farther north into Poodle Lake, Bob's Lakes and the Lakes of Bayou Marron.
"But if the wind is blowing out of the north with any speed to it, we won't cross Lake Borgne because it'll be too rough, and we'll head down the MRGO to Bayou La Loutre and then up to fish the same areas, as well as in Bayou La Loutre itself, which is almost always a good bet in the winter months."
Moore says the plunging water temperatures send the trout out of the shallow waters and deeper into bayous, canals and holes with more depth.
"We usually always catch fish in January and February in Bayou La Loutre, between Stump Lagoon and Bakers Canal," he said. "You can drift it and drag baits along the bottom until you get a hit and then drop the anchor, or just anchor and fish the bottom. If you drift, you'll probably need a drift sock to slow you down because between the tide and the wind you'll probably drift too fast for winter fishing.
"Remember the bite is much slower and lighter in winter, so you need to slow down your presentation. And remember that on those colder days, the fish will snug the bottom real close, so you have to use enough weight to get your bait all the way to the bottom. Too little weight, and you're wasting your time because your bait will just flow up in the current.
"But we don't usually get real cold winters down here, and even when it does get real cold it only lasts a day or two, and then we get a warm-up. The best bet is not to fish the day of the front or even the day after, but if you can arrange to fish the second or third day after a front comes through, it gives the fish a chance to stabilize and the water has time to clear up. Then go fishing, whether it was a warm front or a cold front.
"And on the more moderate days, that's when you fish the shallower waters of the interior bays and lakes, and you can snap on a popping cork and fish either plastics or live baits. Just look for some decent water with some good current movement, and fish there."
Moore says drifting or trolling usually works pretty good on the warmer days as you try to locate the fish, and once you get a couple hits, drop the anchor or stick the pole and try to put some fish in the boat. Moore says you'll also probably catch some reds and black drum in the mix, but if reds are your specific target, the best bet is to fish closer to the shorelines where the bronze predators like to hunt their prey. Moore says a lot of anglers like to troll the shorelines and toss spoons, spinners or soft plastics, or you can anchor near a likely point and fish live or dead bait under a cork.
Meanwhile, we played the action out at that spot in the Shell Beach Canal, and moved to a spot closer toward the lake. The winds were now actually howling, and a cold, grey winter dampness set in that you just couldn't shake. With few other fishing options to choose from, several other boats began to line up in the canal, and most seemed to be catching fish. Trout were the target species, but we were also landing a variety of other fish, including reds, drum, flounder, sheepshead and channel mullet, and the other boats were doing the same.
As cold as it was, the fishing action was so good that no one complained, and no one even seemed to notice the cold unless you stopped and thought about it. I was thinking about it, but I didn't want to stop fishing. So I figured I'd stir the pot a little.
"Capt. Frank," I said, loud enough for all aboard to hear. "Let's leave this spot and make the run into the Biloxi Marsh. We'd all probably enjoy a brisk boat ride."
No one knew whether I was serious or not, but they all looked at me like I was crazy. Nobody wanted to make a run in that cold! That's when a big redfish slammed my live bait, and gave me a short but serious fight before surrendering to the braided line. We netted the big fish, a red that weighed 6 or 7 pounds or so. We handed the prize fish of the day to Kenneth, so he could strike a pose with it for me to photograph. However, he let the brute slip from his grasp, and back it plunged into the deep canal. I missed the picture of the day. No, not the picture of Kenneth holding the big fish, but the picture of the expression on his face when he dropped it overboard. Now that would have been a picture!
A short time later, with five limits of fish in the boat, we pulled anchor and made the short ride back to the dock. Moore said the action in the Shell Beach Canal is unprecedented in his lifetime, so there's no way to know how long it'll last, or even whether it'll happen again. But the Biloxi Marsh action is a sure thing this month.
Back at the marina, Campo said he suspects it's the new reality, as the falling tide returns to the older patterns before the MRGO, and flows down the Shell Beach Canal into Lake Borgne. And where the tide goes, the bait and the trout go with it. I hope it is the new reality. That's a reality I can definitely live with!
Capt. Frank Moore can be reached at 504-881-9966.