It was still dark in the pre-dawn hours of a Thursday morning when I shook hands with Capt. Chad Dufrene and we sat down for breakfast at Rose's Café in Golden Meadow. Rose's is one of those colorful local eateries that offers good food (especially breakfast), hot coffee and lots of local banter.

I chatted with Dufrene, munched on a couple of fat biscuits and enjoyed overhearing the conversations around me, relishing the thick Cajun dialects of the clientele and observing the simple good-neighborliness of the patrons.

It's a thing not to take for granted. Not when you live in harm's way, when one storm can erase an entire community and displace the population over a dozen states.

The restaurant was warm and the coffee was hot, and it felt good just to be out of the truck and out of the wind and cold.

I had almost cancelled this trip the night before. The weatherman said it would be cold and windy, and for once he was right on target. I was met that morning the moment I stepped outside by winds in the 20-knot range — small-craft advisory kind of winds.

But Dufrene was on even a tighter schedule than me, and our fishing trip had to either be today or not at all, so here we were.

I didn't notice much hurricane damage on the ride down Highways 308 and 1. Dufrene said the two hurricanes passed on both sides of them and left Golden Meadow pretty much intact. There was wind damage to roofs and trees, but no flooding inside the protection levee.

Leeville, Fourchon and Grand Isle, however, fared much worse. They all lay outside the levee system, and besides severe damage due to hurricane-force winds, they experienced equally devastating flooding.

The coastal islands also took a heavy blow. Reports are that the Fornation Islands, especially the west end where anglers loved to catch hefty redfish, are gone. Only the bulkheads of the former pipeline remain, standing a lonely vigil, protruding above the surface.

Caillou Island is gone. Northwest Island is gone. Little or nothing is left of Casse Tete, and where East Timbalier Island was, only the radio tower remains, and it's standing in open water. Even the rocks are gone, probably present but now entirely below the surface.

The marshes also eroded severely. Besides the obvious recession of shorelines, most cuts are much wider, and there are many cuts where prior to the storms, there was solid shoreline.

Many points are gone or eroded, and many formerly navigable waters are now silted in. Unless you have run the area post-Katrina/Rita, use extreme caution. Better yet, go with a guide or with someone who has fished the area since the storms.

When we arrived at the launch, I saw at least a dozen anglers fishing off the bank behind the Oak Ridge Community Park Public Boat Ramp in Golden Meadow. As Dufrene backed his brand-new, yellow and white 22-foot Blazer Bay in at the back-down ramp, I watched as two of the anglers reeled in small trout.

"I wish I knew how many trout they caught out of that hole this winter," Dufrene said. "It drops down to about 18 to 20 feet deep right there, and the trout and redfish gang up in the deep water whenever it gets cold.

"This year they've caught a ton of fish right there, right off the bank, but don't even think about trying to get in there with a boat. Those guys will bombard you with heavy sinkers. It'll rain lead down on top of your head. They figure that's their honey-hole, and if you have a boat you can go fish anywhere. So stay out of their hole."

I made a mental note to come back and fish right there, off the bank, one of these days. It's a convenient place to fish if you are boatless because it's right next to the boat launch and you can get live minnows and dead shrimp right in front at T-Pop's Spur Station. It's the only place in town to get live bait right now, unless you make the drive down to Leeville.

Dufrene cranked up the Yamaha HPDI, and we headed for a place out of the wind, where he hoped to find some clean water and hungry trout or redfish.

We ran through the canals, crossed Catfish Lake, then up Grand Bayou Blue to the dead-end canals on the west side, where Dufrene killed the big outboard and dropped the trolling motor. It was time for action, and I was primed and ready.

I came prepared, as I almost always do, with at least two rod/reel combos, and sometimes I bring three. I bring one or two baitcasting rigs, and one spinning outfit, and a tackle bag that holds as much as a small store. Add to that a camera bag, cold-weather gear, lunch and a few cold drinks, and I can occupy quite a bit of space on a boat all by myself.

On a normal winter day, I'd probably fish exclusively with a baitcasting setup, but if ever I have to fish under a cork, I break out the spinning rig. Corks and baitcasters just don't mix.

The wind was blowing hard, and the tides were at a winter-time low.

"Perfect conditions for fishing these canals," Dufrene said.

He trolled the canal while we threw our bait toward the shoreline, letting it slowly drop off the ledge as we worked it back toward us.

Dufrene prefers to fish with Bayou Chubs, and only uses a few colors.

"Black/chartreuse, purple/chartreuse, root beer and glow/chartreuse. That's the only colors I fish with all year 'round," he said. "And I string them on a ¼- or 3/8-ounce jig, depending on the depth of the water and the strength of the current."

Dufrene pointed to a drain from a marsh pond just ahead, and said we should work the cut thoroughly.

"The redfish will sit in ambush right at the mouth or just off to the side of the mouth of these cuts," he said. "Bait is draining from the pond on this hard falling tide, and the reds are waiting to pounce. And when you catch one, there's usually more."

We worked the cut, and managed to get thumped a few times, so we knew the fish were there. But for some reason they weren't really swallowing our plastics.

Dufrene reached into the baitwell and hooked a fat live minnow through the lips, threw it out and let it sit on the bottom. In less than 30 seconds, he had a solid hit, a redfish hefty enough to have to net.

"I like to fish with 30-pound braided line, and I tie on a 20- to 30-pound-test monofilament leader, about 12 to 18 inches long," he said. "So, usually, with a 3- or 4-pound redfish, I don't even bother with the net. But this is an 8- or 9-pound fish, and I don't want to break a rod."

We put the fish in the live well, and soon had another one on the line.

Dufrene's technique in these low-water conditions is to work the deeper canals and dead-ends, especially near cuts and drains from the marsh ponds. He says the redfish are always in the ponds, even in cold weather, but the water levels fall too low to allow a boat to get in and chase them.

"So the next best thing is to ambush them at the drains as they wait to ambush bait," he said.

But if you work a drain and get no action in five or 10 minutes, move on to another cut.

"Either the fish are there or they aren't," he said. "If they're at that spot, they'll at least thump your plastics. You might have to switch to live minnows or dead shrimp to get something started. But if you get no takers after 10 minutes, move elsewhere. You don't have to run far, just up close to the next drain.

"Keep following that pattern, and you'll consistently catch redfish, and should have no trouble taking home a limit.

"If the weather moderates, as it does this month, and the water levels rise, try to troll into the ponds and work them with plastics, live minnows, dead shrimp, spoons and spinners."

We put two more reds on ice and moved on to another drain just up the canal.

Dufrene says fishing live minnows for redfish under a "Pogeaux popping cork" should be especially effective in the deeper ponds around Catfish Lake this month as well.


Transition trout

"But remember, now we're into March and the conditions are changing. It's that transition time in the marsh. We usually get those persistent blustery winds that muddy up the water, making it hard to get on a good bite. But weather-wise, we start warming up, and look for speckled trout to begin migrating into their spawning areas.

"To catch them, you'll want to concentrate your efforts in the bayous and lakes and larger ponds that the trout use as a corridor on their trek back to the higher-salinity lakes, bays and beaches.

"Your task is to find clean water and a moving current if you want to catch trout in Golden Meadow in the spring. All current lines in the major bayous, such as Bayou Blue, Bayou Courant, Bayou Tete De Ours, Bayou De La Ville and Bayou Laurier, will hold fish.

"Look for those intersections off the main bayous where they connect with small bays and where you see a good current line. Fish there.

"Deeper ponds will also produce this month, both specks and reds," he said. "Look for current moving around a point or current at cuts and drains, just wherever you find clean, moving water.

"I emphasize current because that will trigger a feeding instinct in predatory marsh fish. It's like ringing the dinner bell. These marsh fish are scattered all over, but when they find current, they'll sit and wait for an easy meal to wash by. You might not load the boat at a single spot, but you can usually catch fish at almost every stop. If you catch a few and the bite stops, move to another point or current line in the same area. All of them potentially hold fish.

"But don't sit and wait on the fish. Just because you caught them there yesterday or last week doesn't mean they'll be there today. Actually, I like to give a spot about five casts. That's all. If they have current, I'll give it five casts, and if I get no action, I'm gone.

"Either the fish are there or they aren't. Usually, the fish will bite on the first or second cast. If you've made five or six casts and found no takers, move along to the next point or drain. You have to find them this month.

"And whenever you fish, stay observant. You have to be opportunistic. Maybe your plan is to fish a certain point or pond, and in your haste to get there you fail to observe birds diving in a lake or pond just off to the side, or you miss those trout flipping on the surface feeding on bait. You're passing up a bonanza by not being observant."

Under such conditions, Dufrene said soft plastics, either tightlined or fished under a popping cork, are the ticket.

"Another of my favorite tactics this month is to break out the topwater baits, and toss them over the shallow flats in the Sulphur Mine and Catfish Lake," he said. "Suspending hardbaits, like the Catch 5 and the Catch 2000, work well this month in those areas also.

"Concentrate on the south and north banks of Catfish Lake, and in the Sulphur Mine, fish the flats to the north around the wellheads, and the flats on the west, southwest and the north sides of the mine.

"What you need is basically a calm day, and then look especially for signs of mullet or baitfish in the water, and wherever you find that, toss those topwater or shallow suspending baits. There are plenty of big trout caught this time of year like that, so when the conditions are right, go get you some."

Me? I will. You can bet on it.