When everything else failed me, when my winter hotspots turned cold, when my honey-holes curdled and my sure-spots soured, "Mr. Reliable" always seemed to come through.
There are several memorable winters indelibly etched in my mind of incredible trout action, huge fish, day after day, week after week, all winter long.
The hotspot was Oak River, just alongside Adema Pond, and the secret was to drift with the tide, throw upcurrent, and make sure your soft plastic bait got all the way to the bottom. It didn't really matter much what kind of bait you used — beetle, cocaho, shrimp worm — or what color it was, as long as you got it to the bottom and retrieved just enough line to keep the slack out as the boat drifted.
The bite was light, as winter-time bites are, but the fishing was amazingly consistent. For three winters in a row, dozens of boats would line up in that section of Oak River to make the drift. Some boaters anchored to see if they could sit on the action awhile, but invariably, that backfired, and stopped their action altogether.
It's like one old angler once told me: "Dropping the anchor is like putting poison in the water. Everything dies." Obviously, that is not always true, but most of the time, especially in winter, it is. You simply have to drift (or troll) to catch fish consistently.
Unfortunately, that area never did turn on the following winter, or the winter after that. And since then, I haven't caught much of anything along that stretch (although, to be honest, I haven't tried it much either). Variables in temperatures, salinities and who-knows-what-else might account for the change. But the fish didn't disappear. They simply moved. And in winter, they like to move up and down Oak River, a.k.a. Mr. Reliable.
Recently, I called Roy Williams, over at Nevalost Maps (504-831-2170), to see if he could put together a composite map for me, one that showed the entire stretch of Oak River from where it intersects with Orange Bayou to where it pours into Oak River Bay.
As usual, Williams came through. By the way, he can do the same for you. If there is an area you currently need two maps to fish, call Williams and ask him about making a composite chart of that area.
Next, I called an old fishing buddy, Capt. Brian Epstein (504-284-3316), to see if we could get together to make a trip. I've fished Oak River several times with Epstein before, always successfully, and he was happy to accommodate me once again.
We met at Epstein's dock, loaded our gear into his 23-foot Kenner, and headed out just as day was breaking. Huddled against the cold, Epstein's companion, Luna, the fish-finding wonder-dog curled up at my feet as the 225 Mercury EFI sped us toward Oak River.
There are eight specific spots or stretches of Oak River where Epstein concentrates his efforts.
1. The mouth of Oak River at Oak River Bay.
"This is a great spot to catch big redfish, especially on milder days," Epstein said. "If the wind is not blowing too hard, you can move out just a little into the bay, or move over toward the shoreline just inside the bay and fish shallow under a Cajun Thunder popping cork.
"Specks will often hang out there also, but bull reds, almost all 27 inches and above, sometimes move in and carpet the bottom.
"Fish with live cocahoes either Carolina-rigged, under a popping cork, or on a plain jighead on the bottom, or with soft plastics bounced off the bottom."
2. The stretch of Oak River just above Adema Pond.
"I call this the big-trout section of Oak River," Epstein said. "It's not always consistent here, or as productive as other stretches of the river, but when they're in here, they're big, generally averaging between 2 and 3 pounds.
"I like to fish along the north shoreline of that section. Generally, I'll drift along it, looking for a concentration of fish. If I catch a good fish or get several bumps in one area, I'll slip the anchor over and see how many we can put in the boat.
"My technique is to anchor about a cast and a half from the north bank, and toss soft plastics as far as you can, and then dribble your bait down the drop-off.
"In most cases, the fish are hanging suspended along the ledges, but on really cold days, I suggest you fish the middle of Oak River, right on the bottom of whatever section of the river you're in, because the fish will huddle up in the deepest spots."
3. Between the Spider Canal and Bay Jack Nevette.
"This is probably my favorite stretch to fish in Oak River," Epstein said. "Do you remember the last time I took you to this spot?" he asked.
I remembered. I had just put a nice trout in the box and reached over the side to wash the fish slime off my hands. Unfortunately, I forgot I'd put my cell phone in my top pocket, and it splashed overboard the minute I leaned over. The worst of it was, that was the second cell phone I dropped overboard in just one week. Try explaining that to your cellular carrier.
To fish this stretch, Epstein says he prefers to drift right down the middle of the river, and cast toward the north shoreline.
"Then just let your bait slowly bounce down the ledges into the deeper water, because that's where the larger fish will be. The average wintertime trout is probably about 16 inches, and you can catch them that big and bigger in this section of the river," he said. "And I often catch some nice redfish mixed in among them also."
Epstein suggests following the same technique — drift until you find the fish, then anchor about a cast-and-a-half from shore, and toss toward the north bank.
His favorite baits are shrimp worms, Salt Water Assassins and H&H cocahoes, in typical dark winter colors.
"Be sure to use a heavy enough jighead to get your bait all the way to the bottom," he insisted, "because that is the only way you'll catch fish.
"You can also cast into the middle of the river along this stretch. The fish are usually a bit smaller, but they're sometimes more plentiful. And sometimes it helps to fish the middle with tandem rigs instead of a single jig."
4. Oak River at the cut into Bay Jack Nevette.
"It's very deep at that intersection, and you'll often see boats lined up at the corners during cold spells. The fish go deep, and wherever fish gather, fishermen will congregate above them," he said. "The best tactic here is simply to anchor and fish the bottom.
"Live cocahoes either Carolina rigged or fished on a jighead produce well at this spot, as do soft plastics bounced slowly off the bottom."
5. The stretch where Oak River turns almost due south.
"I like to drift and work the west shoreline in this section of the river," Epstein said. "Follow the same technique — cast toward the bank, let your bait trickle down the ledges, and keep the slack out of your line. You can also fish on the bottom, right in the middle of this stretch."
6. The section between Little Crevasse west to the next bayou.
"On this stretch of the river, I like to fish the south bank. The river slopes off pretty good along this section, and the fish hang out along those ledges. You can usually catch plenty small trout in here, ranging between 12 and 14 inches if you fish the middle of the river on the bottom, and the slightly larger fish, both specks and occasional reds, hang along the drop-offs," he said.
7. The small stretch between the Pencil Canal and the first bayou to the east.
"This is a short stretch, but it can be very productive," Epstein said. "Fish the north and south sides, bouncing your bait down the ledges, and try bouncing your bait off the bottom in the middle of the river," he said. "The fish are definitely smaller along this section, but they are very numerous."
8. The stumps on the south side of Oak River near the intersection of Orange Bayou.
"This spot is productive when the weather is cold and the water is low," Epstein said, "and it's strictly a redfish hangout. But when the fish are there, they'll be plentiful. It'll be one-stop-shopping.
"But there are a lot of snags and stumps on the bottom, so be prepared to lose some tackle. I recommend live minnows hooked on a plain jighead, fished on the bottom, right around the stumps. It won't take long to find out if they're there. And if they are, you'll catch your limits in no time."
I could add to this list a favorite wintertime spot of my own in Oak River. It's the spot just east of the Twin Pipelines where a section of Lost Flat Bay has washed through into Oak River.
I like to anchor up near the bank on the east side of the wash-through, and cast toward the middle of the river. I'll quickly admit that the fish are not always there. But when they are, you'll have one of those one-stop trips.
Use live minnows Carolina-rigged, or soft plastics bounced off the bottom, and be patient. Winter bites aren't usually as fast and furious as it gets in spring and summer.
Oh, and our trip? Specks, specks and more specks! Almost all caught using live bait Carolina-rigged. And while none of them were huge, they were feisty, and they sure made some fine fillets.
Capt. Brian Epstein can be reached at (504) 284-3316.