The boats are completely dark except for their red and green running lights and small white stern light. Their crews are out of sight inside. I imagine them sitting in the dark, thinking of their upcoming day, clinking and clanking their culling hatchets on oyster clusters.
It is comforting that this has remained the same, because not much else in Hopedale has, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. Thomason's lodge is now 18 feet off the ground. The massive storm took out his old one, a building that had been around since 1949. Earlier that morning, Thomason lugged eight 5-gallon cans of gasoline from his truck to his boat. Six years after the storm, you still can't buy gas in Hopedale.
It's transition time in St. Bernard, he explained while he was gassing the boat. Speckled trout are moving from their wintertime haunts in the interior marsh out to the open waters of Breton Sound, where they spend the summer, feeding and spawning. The operative word in discussing transition time fishing is "moving" — the fish are moving.
"Transition periods [both spring and fall] can be humbling," explained Thomason. "You go out one day and catch the heck out of fish. Then you go out the next day and catch almost nothing under the same conditions. It's humbling.
"You know there are speckled trout around; locating them is the key. You have to move a lot and use baits that cover a lot of ground. Popping corks with plastics are just too slow during transition, except when drift fishing."
As he gasses up his 24-foot bay boat, I look down the length of his boat shed. It's a "murderers' row" of four sleek bay boats for his business, Capt. Charlie Thomason's Bayou Charters. It's an impressive sight.
Once out of its stall, Thomason's 24-footer bolts to a gallop, like a stallion that's been confined too long. In the slowly gathering light, he courses it through Hopedale Lagoon, down East Bayou, across Lake Robin, and then across Lake Calebasse. He's heading toward Black Bay, perhaps the most famous speckled trout fishing bay in St. Bernard Parish.
First stop is the "Wreck," the algae-slimed and rusted machinery ruins of a sunken crane barge. He is chunking big paddletail Texas Tackle Factory (TTF) Killer Flats Minnows, his favorite soft-plastic lures.
"If this was the fall transition period, I would be throwing live croakers at this spot," he says with a wistful note, adding, "but they are hard to get in the spring."
He calls the Wreck a "great spot," noting that "a lot of good fish have been caught here." During transition he says that one of the things that he likes about it is that there is not a lot of competition.
"During the summer, there are often four or five boats on it."
The wind-driven tide is really sucking hard, so he picks up his trolling motor to head to Stone Island.
"When the tide is running hard on the outside," he shouts over his snarling 225 horses, "fish look for shelter from water currents. I find that I always do better around land than in open areas."
Stone Island is half of its pre-Katrina size and has been cut into two pieces. Little remains of the oilfield crew quarters and landing facilities that existed there. He stops 150 yards out and trolls in, casting a chartreuse He Dog the whole time. He explains that he likes to fish the windy side of islands because he believes the wave chop gives predator fish like speckled trout an advantage over their smaller prey.
"Why topwaters in March?" I ask, expecting some profound revelation.
He glances over his shoulder and flashes that patented Dennis the Menace grin that he perfected for his television show.
"I'd rather catch 10 fish on topwaters than 100 with shrimp under a cork. They are going to be better sized."
He picks up one trout, then another. But it's too slow for the hyperkinetic guide. He begins tossing plastics again, with the same result as before. Now, it's back to topwaters, this time it's a chartreuse He Dog with an orange throat. He nabs one fish in the gap between the islands, then another, then another.
"In transition periods," he grunts as he makes one of his outlandishly long casts, "I like offering something like a mimic of a mullet. It can pull action from the more aggressive fish out there.
"In the spring transition there just isn't much bait available to the fish. During the fall transition, much of the bait has moved inside ahead of the trout and left these areas. Finding baitfish is always important for finding trout, but it may be even more important during the transition.
"Topwaters allow long casts. That means that you have enough space to slow the boat when you get a hit, before you run over the fish. A lot of times when I fish, I use topwaters as my fish finder. When I locate fish, I shift to something with a higher hook-up success ratio. I will use plastics, hard lures like Catch 5s or live bait either under a cork or free-line."
He works the two windward sides of the island intensively using his trolling motor and picks up a couple more fish, then bounces to two un-named islands. The two islands yield four more fish.
Time to move again. He cranks up and heads to the outlying islands of American Bay. He swaps rods to pick up one rigged with a bone-colored Mann's Baby 1 Minus, which he describes as an "awesome trout bait, especially during transitions." The lure is a fast retrieve and covers a lot of water. He believes that the high-pitched rattles and the fact that it displaces a lot of water allows fish to feel it before they see it.
But today, they either don't feel it or they just don't want it. So it is back to topwaters, which he delivers with vicious two-handed chopping swings. He is off-and-on picking up singles and doubles, never stops grinning and never stops coaching.
"During transitions, you have to deal with a lot of winds that make the water dirty," he says. "Remember to used darker baits that will create more silhouette."
After picking over the island's shorelines and throwing a few more specks in the box, he heads north again to Black Bay, this time to the rock-reef and pipe debris that is all that is left of the southern end of Iron Banks. A remnant of what was once a substantial crescent-shaped island is still above water to the north. The spot to be fished is marked by three pilings and just a jot away an island of tall pilings surrounding a sunken barge.
Thomason thows everything at the famous fishing spot but the kitchen sink, but it produces the same as the other open water spot, the Wreck — nothing.
He moves to fishing shoreline shallows along the edges of Black Bay and its major islands. And he surprises me. He clips a weighted, egg-shaped cork on the line above his Killer Flats Minnow. He sees me eyeing the cork and probably remembers that he told me he never uses corks during the transition, and quickly cuts me off with another lesson.
"I don't like the wire-style rattling cork," he said. "It makes a lazy fisherman. No one ever changes the leader. If someone is using an 18-inch one here and moves to spot that needs a 30-inch leader, he will just fish the 18-inch leader and wonder why he didn't catch any fish. I can change the depth with these," he taps the cork with a forefinger. "This is the rig, in Who Dat color, that I use 80 percent of the time when I'm chartering during transitions. Other good colors are Texas roach, plum/chartreuse and east beast."
Conditions have changed. The wind has slackened and he is able to spot mullets, something he loves.
"I am a mullet person," he says. "I am always looking. I'm looking for mullet," he reiterates.
The box already holds a surprising number of fish. Picking at them all morning has added up. With the plastic, he finishes the day, concentrating his fishing on coves and indentations on the fronts of islands swept by strong currents.
While he fishes, he explains why finding fish in the spring transition is harder than during its September-October counterpart. "In the fall, if fog becomes persistent outside, it is a real good indicator that the fish are inside. In the fall, bird activity is also a good clue. When sea gulls are diving on schools of speckled trout feeding on shrimp where passes and major bayous empty into shallow bays or lakes, you know the fish are in the interior."
"In the spring, you just run on hunch, experience and persistence," he says with a toothy grin.