The cold air cut through me like a Ginsu as I steered my flats boat out of Delacroix's Bayou Gentilly and into Little Lake.
Thick, gray clouds capped the atmosphere, diffusing the low-hanging sun and blanketing in the chill. I glanced down at the horizontal rod holders and the four fishing rods that rattled rhythmically against the vibrating hull. I was definitely going fishing, but the thought crossed my mind of how great a day this would be for duck hunting.
Right on cue, a group of gadwall reluctantly broke from their morning feast on a patch of widgeon grass, and jumped in the air before flapping their mighty wings and taking flight. With staccato quacks, they barked their displeasure at my intrusion.
I continued down the lake's eastern bank, surveying the cordgrass marsh. Its Christmas-tree-green color belied the cold that was drying my eyes, chapping my lips and biting my fingers.
Though the calendar said Dec. 7 — late fall — this was a winter day, no doubt about it. It could be seen in the gloom and felt on the wind.
But the season's first frost had not yet kissed the marsh, burning the cordgrass and thinning the matted hydrilla. Fancying myself a trout sleuth, I should have read the clues and adjusted my fishing plans for the day, but my chattering teeth were sending signals to my brain that contradicted what I was seeing.
Surely, on a day this cold, the fish would be stacked up in deep water.
"We're heading to Oak River," I told my wife, who was facing me with her back to the wind. She was dressed like Admiral Peary on the way to the North Pole.
I was more thinking aloud than offering information. I could have told her we were heading to Toledo Bend, and she wouldn't have known any different.
"Is it close?" she asked.
I shrugged off the question, and continued into the Spider Pipeline, passing the access routes to many of my favorite fall spots along the way.
Finally, we were over a community hole in Oak River, and I handed rods to my kids and offered one to my wife. She declined.
"I need to thaw out first," she said.
This spot, a favorite of mine, has water that's 15- to 17-feet deep, and the hole is adjacent to a shelf that falls off sharply from the north bank of Oak River. To the west is a wide cut that drains a 200-acre pond that holds trout in the autumn.
It's the perfect winter set-up: Cast your bait onto the shelf, slowly drag it off, let it fall down the drop-off, and set the hook on even the slightest tap.
Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.
On this day, we got nary a bite. The tide was moving, the water was pretty, but the fish just weren't there.
Over the next few hours, I motored to several different wintertime spots — some were community holes, others were known only to my closest friends and me — and we had a grand total of one 20-inch speck to show for our efforts. Throughout the day, I thought a few times about trying some of my fall spots, but the air was just too cold. The fish couldn't have been on the flats.
I trailered my boat, and passed the camp of a good friend on the drive back toward civilization. He was at his cleaning table turning that day's catch into that night's dinner.
I told him about how our day had gone.
"But it looks like you did pretty well," I said.
"Yeah," he replied. "Can you believe we caught all the fish in Lake Campo under a popping cork? The fish aren't deep; they're still shallow."
It didn't seem possible, but the evidence was right there before me eyes — and this guy shoots as straight as anyone I've ever met. The fish were indeed still shallow.
That's because fish couldn't care less what the air temperatures are. It's water temperatures that influence the behavior and motility of cold-blooded species like speckled trout, and the water temperatures hadn't yet been impacted enough by the chilly air to force the fish into the warmer holes.
Delacroix guide Capt. Billy Bucano becomes a water-temperature fanatic this time of year. He lets the temperature readings he gets from an underwater thermometer dictate where he casts his baits.
"Fifty degrees is the magic number," he said. "Trout won't be active in water that's less than 50 degrees."
The shallow-water flats where Bucano likes to focus his attention seldom fall below that threshold in November, and they're as likely to be above 50 degrees in December as they are to be below it.
That's because December's weather in Southeast Louisiana is about as fickle as your average 3-year-old. December can't decide if it wants to be winter or summer. Santa could just as likely show up on Christmas Eve wearing shorts and a tank rather than his traditional heavy red coat.
That makes the fishing patterns tough to predict, but a wise angler can greatly up his chances for success by being observant of environmental conditions.
"Even if you don't have (an underwater) temperature gauge, you can still make a pretty good guess where the fish will be simply by paying attention to the air temperature for the days leading up to your trip," Bucano said. "If lows are consistently in the 40s, those fish are going to be in deep water in the mornings."
That's because the temperatures on the flats will likely be in the 40s as well.
But as the day wears on, and the sun heats the flats, the trout will again move shallow to feed.
"The fish will be on the shallow flats as long as it's physically possible for them to be there," Bucano said.
Although the temperatures are more stable and consistent in the deep holes, the fish look to leave them whenever possible to fill their bellies. There just isn't a whole lot to eat in the deep water.
"If they're holding on oyster beds in deep water, they might find a crab or two, or maybe an occasional glass minnow, but that's about it," Bucano said.
So the trout "push the envelope" to get onto the bait-rich flats whenever water temperatures will let them.
When I made my fruitless trip to Delacroix, the fish were actively feeding in 52-degree water on the flats because white shrimp were still very abundant.
"Normally, once the water gets cold, those white shrimp are gone," Bucano said. "But (that) year, they stayed around for so long — and there weren't just a few, there were plenty. Temperatures stayed mild, so we were still catching the bulk of our fish shallow in January."
But in some years, the opposite proves to be true. Harsh fronts in November will drive the white shrimp out of the marsh and push trout off of the chilly flats.
"This is an unpredictable time of year, but it's also my favorite time of year to fish," Bucano said. "In the summer, you sweat bullets, you have to run an hour or hour and a half from the launch, you have to use live bait, and you may catch fish or you may strike out, but (in December), all the opposites are true — the air has a good feel to it, the fish are close in, you don't need live bait and you can pretty much always find the fish."
Bucano does most of that finding with Bass Assassin Sea Shads, either 2 feet under a rattling cork if he's fishing the shallow flats or tightlined in the deep-water holes.
He teams the soft-plastic baits with 1/8-ounce jig heads whenever possible.
"If I'm fishing deep water and the current's too strong, I'll go with something a little bit heavier, but there's no doubt in my mind you get more hits with a 1/8-ounce (jig head) than with a 1/4-ounce," he said.
That's because the lighter head allows the bait to flutter when it's twitched rather than falling straight back down, Bucano explained.
Bucano's favorite color this time of year, by far, is alewife.
"There are other colors that will work, but you absolutely can't go wrong with alewife," he said.
The light color, he said, is highly visible in most water clarities.
Bucano lets the conditions of the day tell him precisely where to fish, but in December he'll always be fishing the lakes and bayous that have deep water very near to shallow flats.
"Those fish will move into that deep water when (the water) is cold, and they'll run back out when it's warm, so the flats near deep water will be much more productive (than extensive flats)," he said.
Consequently, Bucano does most of his fishing this time of year in Wreck Bay, Third Bay, Bakers Bay, Grand Pointe Bay and along the edges of Bayou Boue. All of these areas have a deep channel that runs through or adjacent to them.
You'll find me in one or all of them this December.