A great start to the trip with Capt. Kirby LaCour had fizzled into an embarrassing string of angler errors, and my horrid flycasting form had my right elbow stiff. Now the reds were bolting right and left with no tolerance for our stealthy approach. They were even less impressed with the switch to a 1/4-ounce gold spoon on 8-pound spinning tackle.
A small french fry worm threaded Texas style onto an offset 2/0 worm hook became Plan C after some thought and discussion. The weightless offering slithered across the grass after a pillow-soft entry and after a few casts, the table was set for my introduction into the world of soft plastic jerkbaits.
LaCour kept his mouth shut upon spying a 6-pound red staked out on the edge of a grass bed we were working. He just smiled that guide smile from the poling platform, knowing what was about to happen as my bait continued its inexorable path to contact.
The depth charge hit just when I was at my most vulnerable, far from highest alert.
"Whoa!!!" was among the many exclamations and the only one proper for polite company as the fish launched itself into the worm and headed for the middle of the grass bed and out the other end.
The grass and fish bent the line at a 90-degree angle, and only good fortune allowed us to land the beauty after some creative weed-eating.
The bait, carrying various monikers such as Slug-Gos, Do Nothing worms and twitch baits in the bass angling fraternity, can be a superb asset in cold-weather months when coastal fish's diets consist almost entirely of finfish. Soft plastic jerkbaits (SPJB) just happen to fit the size and profile of a finger mullet and come in dozens of colors to match water and sunlight conditions in the state's inshore waters. When rigged weightless, they can serve as a tool whose action and ability to stay in the strike zone make them irresistible to trophy trout and redfish.
One of the pioneers in the application of SPJBs is Capt. Chad Billiot of Marsh Rat Guide Service. Plying the waters of both sides of Bayou Lafourche from Cut Off to the Gulf of Mexico, one of Billiot's favorite waters is the old Sulphur Mine in the Pointe aux Chenes WMA.
"I grew up about five minutes from the Mine and never even fished it until well after they jerked all the pipes out of it," said Billiot of the myriad structures that dotted the waterway left from the production facility. "The thing that makes it a great area for all sorts of fish is the deep holes and channels dredged when they built it."
Speckled trout take to SPJBs as well, and it was a cold December morning a couple of years ago with Billiot and fly-fishing buddy Jeanine Gesser when I made their acquaintance with the funny little baits. We arrived at the Mine with the idea of taking specks on the flats with fly gear and then heading to the ponds when the sun came up to sight-fish for reds.
I was "allowed" to take the spacious back deck of Billiot's 22-foot Pathfinder, and soon a pair of rhythmic backcasts from the front deck were whizzing through the air. It was clear the airspace didn't need another one.
"You know, if y'all are gonna do this, I've got to bum one of your rods," I said, looking over my options in the rod locker.
"You break it, you buy it," said Billiot, strip-setting a schoolie speck and chuckling at its lunging efforts for escape. Billiot's intimate knowledge of the Mine's underwater intricacies had put us on fish almost immediately.
I picked a nice Calcutta and Falcon combination with a Top Dog tied on and endured snide "Commie tackle" comments from Gesser as the plug sailed far and true on the windless morning.
A few casts and some half-hearted slaps from trout had me rummaging again. An Opening Night Bass Assassin on a 5/0 Mustad worm hook piqued my interest and met the approval of our guide.
"That's a great bait when they're not quite in the mood for topwater," said Billiot, "Just work it like a topwater but a little slower. And you've got to set the hook on these fish."
The calm conditions and quality equipment accentuated the learning curve when it came to casting and working the bait, and after a few casts, a bucket-sized swirl broke the placid surface. I forgot to gather in all of the slack, but the boat-rocking hookset did the job. The trout's head-shaking machinations sent the Texas-rigged plastic body 3 feet up the line, a favorable aspect keeping the lure's weight off of the hook and its skin-tearing energy out of the fish's mouth.
The purists didn't offer a net, but the extra-wide-gap hook had grabbed hold of plenty of the trout's cheek, and the strong Maxima line held as the 21-incher came over the side. Instantly, I was sold on SPJBs as an alternative to topwaters.
SPJBs use the same principle as the popular Texas-based Corky and the popular MirrOlure Catch 2000, two tantalizingly slow sinkers proven deadly on outsized trout. With no built-in action, the baits mimic a struggling baitfish when twitched and paused, a favorite meal for big trout slowed by winter's chill and their own lethargy.
This action creates and depends upon slack in the line, so the baits are often frustrating to anglers using them for the first time. It's easy to give in to the temptation of watching a topwater do its dance or popping a cork, but anglers who put the time into learning the bait's nuances are often rewarded with hefty fish boxes and, on the right days, fat paychecks.
"It's the bait we used in the redfish tournament," said Billiot, referring to the Lafitte event held in September, where he and fellow guide Chad Dufrene took 11th place. "The fish we had patterned were caught sight-fishing, and this is a really good bait for thoroughly working the skinny water."
Working the baits is not the only difference anglers face in dealing with SPJBs. Those used to firing off lengthy casts with leadheads and hard-plastic lures may need to adjust and even scale down to lighter tackle. Though the difference may initially seem insurmountable, a little practice, familiarity and experimentation with gear can make the transition worth it.
"This is really different from most any other technique," said Billiot, referring to the foreign notion of finesse casting and working of a bait that one cannot see and sometimes cannot even feel. "The payoff is catching bigger fish on days when they won't pull the trigger on topwater baits."
Billiot uses the Bass Assassin 5-inch Saltwater Shad jerkbait. Though the baits come in over 60 colors, he depends mainly on three for his assaults on Sulphur Mine trophies. Morning Glory (black with red and silver flecks) and Gold Pepper Shiner work in low light, and the popular Opening Night gets the nod when the sun shines overhead. Offset worm hooks such as the 5/0 Mustad Ultra Point Mega Bite do the job in grabbing hold of the fish's meaty cheek rather than the soft lips.
Rigging these baits depends largely on the situation, but keeping the bait straight is a common theme in their application.
In areas with lots of grass, these baits have a distinct advantage in working thicker areas where reds and bigger trout roam. Texas-rigging them like bass worms works wonderfully. Other options include the technique of "skinning" the bait using hooks featuring an inverted point. This is accomplished by bringing the point all the way through the other side of the body and then hooking it slightly on the surface so that the point is protected from vegetation.
Either way, it's important to try to "cross their eyes" when setting the hook, a far cry from the hooksets accomplished by most trout anglers.
"You've got to forget all the things you've learned about setting the hook on trout," said Billiot. "When you're working the bait with the hook buried in the plastic, you've got to really drop the hammer on them."
In areas devoid of vegetation, anglers can either Texas rig the bait with the point exposed or thread the hook onto the bait the way one would thread a regular jighead. Most hook shanks used for this purpose are much longer, and care must be taken in keeping them straight. The slightest kink can send the bait into a spin when retrieved, negating its designed "non-action" and causing line twist.
The Sulphur Mine offers anglers superb fishing in a relatively small area. Featuring a deep hole in the middle and numerous natural bayous, the Mine has clean water most all of the time. In fact, Billiot is a bit spoiled when deciding whether to fish the area or not.
"A lot of people think I'm crazy when I say that I don't like the looks of the water," said Billiot. "I like it to be that deep black color."
Good areas to start are the numerous flats surrounding the Mine's perimeter. Getting out of the wind is crucial not only in finding concentrations of bait, but for keeping contact with one's lure.
The Mine has many tree-lined banks protecting fish-filled areas. Some of the best fishing of the season can be found the day prior to a front's passage when southerly winds blow through. Maps of the area show several protected flats on the south side, and fishing them can pay big dividends when mixed with a flooding tide.
Take care to steer clear of the large flat on the extreme south side on the backside of the downed power line. Billiot warns that the area is extremely shallow and full of stumps. Other areas to avoid while running are the extreme northeast side (a popular entrance to the area from Bason's Launch in Galliano) and the second gap from the western bank near the numerous wellheads. Both areas contain submerged pilings sure to ruin a good day on the water.
Perfect water color and relative calm are not nearly as important as other things in fishing the area. Good tidal movement and baitfish are certainly not original thoughts in the search of speckled trout, but the wild card in taking a trophy fish from the Mine is to reach down and find the introvert within.
"The Mine can get crowded in a real hurry, especially on the weekends," said Billiot, noting that area launches are busy very early in the winter months with duck hunters using the WMA and adjacent leases. "The best advice I can give is to get here early, find an area with some bait working, and get as far away from others as possible."
Big trout are known for their lack of tolerance for anything unusual in their environment, even when their feed is on. Even disturbances such as smaller fish feeding and being brought in by anglers are enough to run off larger specimens. Thrashing school trout sounds and vibrations are not natural to bigger fish. SPJBs can be an ideal weapon for these fish with their soft entry into the water and slow, erratic action. Just be quiet about it.
"Don't ever forget that big trout are a completely different animal than the smaller ones in the way that they feed," said Billiot. "It's tough to pull away from 20-inch fish, but if you want a shot at a really big one, that's what you have to do."
With the season's conditions being predicated on the parade of cold fronts that move through he area, it's important to recognize the impact of the cold weather on fish as the season progresses. Fish that experience a strong cold front in late November and early December are going to act much differently than the same fish later in the year when they've had time to adjust. Early fish will stack in the deep holes after the front's passage, while late fish are much more tolerant of the cold conditions.
"My favorite time of the year is probably late January and February," said Billiot, "I've caught fish on the flats that time of year in two feet of water when it was 34 degrees."
Cold-water fish demand a slow presentation and will rarely rise to a walking topwater bait. Lures such as Catch 2000s and SPJBs were made for these applications. Billiot is a big believer in the Catch 2000, but points out a key advantage that soft plastics have.
"The Catch 2000 has a lot of weight on its hooks," said Billiot of the hook-freeing energy produced by the plugs. "I'd really rather have a single hook when she comes out of the water shaking her head."
If you've taken the plunge and learned the intricacies of the Catch 2000, pick up a pack of Saltwater Assassins and some worm hooks for your next trip. Same principles, more colors, lower price per bait, and fewer lost fish. Just be sure to get away from that boat catching the schoolies.