An increasing number of anglers look forward to breaking out of the winter doldrums with an eye on quality speckled trout on flats or stalking redfish when their favorite ponds hold enough water.
But to a select few, several weeks of consistent spring conditions around the latter part of March and into April means making an island run to a spot shared by a number of ports.
Breton Island on the extreme southern end of the Chandeleur chain has long been associated with wade fishing for specks and reds in summertime, when the stultifying heat makes jumping into the water almost seem like the only sane option.
But there's good reason for taking the plunge when the dogwoods are still in bloom, and it doesn't just have to do with catching fish.
"The most fun thing about the first trips out to the island is finding out what has changed since the past year," said Capt. Brent Ballay, who works the island chain almost exclusively before summer arrives. "Most times it's a lot different than it was the year before. You've got to start hunting all over again."
Ballay is referring to the constant state of flux Breton experiences. Even in years without tropical systems battering it, the island's proximity to the heavy current coming out of the Mississippi River via Baptiste Collette and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet help to reshape it constantly.
Charter captains generally like to have as many absolutes in their back pocket as possible before setting out with paying customers. The nature of the business is wrought with the unexpected relative to equipment, fish behavior and weather.
One of the constants is the location of fishing areas and the dynamics of reefs, rigs and other structure being intact when they get there. Breton Island and its smaller neighbors of Grand Gosier and Little Gosier to the north hardly live up to this, especially after several months of neglect.
Many years ago, a group of Venice captains began making trips out to the islands as kind of a kick-off to the spring and summer season. The group has swelled to around 25 now, using the day usually around Tax Day as a time to relax and fish before the busy season, in addition to a little friendly competition.
"It's a good time to fish the islands before the houseboats get out there," said Ballay, referring to the three barges usually docked on the backside of Breton Island. "I've been doing the trip for seven or eight years."
Capt. Scott Avanzino has been a regular on the trip for several years now as well, and he says island wade-fishing trips begin being worth the trip across the six miles of open water right around the time it gets bearable to jump in without waders.
"The trout start showing up in numbers around late March," said Avanzino. "The reds are pretty much always there out front (surfside). Later in the summer, you also get a lot of shrimp trawlers that can muddy the water."
Fishing the lagoons on the backside of the islands is Avanzino's preferred tactic for finding schools of trout. Because of the constantly changing bottom contour, finding fish takes a bit of effort in the form of walking and casting. Even spots that were red-hot only a year ago might be devoid of fish or even no longer existing after a season of winter storms.
"A few years ago, there was a great spot where there was about an 8-foot hole that had been washed out by the current. The next year it was about a half-foot deep," said Ballay.
Ballay indicated that though the islands are great spots to fish with plenty of fishable water, the schools of trout are most often concentrated in very specific areas, another reason he has pretty much given up on the islands when the summer rolls around.
"The bigger fish don't show up until later, but by then you've got three houseboats anchored out there and a lot of other people showing up as well," said Ballay. "A lot of times, you've got to go through a lot of 'dead water,' maybe a half hour of casting before you come across a school."
Though the time of year wouldn't seem to be the best time for surf fishing given the way spring winds blow along the coast, the island does offer some protection for anglers choosing speckled trout as their quarry. Contrary to most barrier-island fishing, Breton provides by far the best trout angling on the backside of the island, while the surfside is the unquestioned best for redfish.
"Breton has more of a mud bottom with some oyster shell and grass roots. Just like the guys in Texas who look for mud bottom when they're wading in the colder weather, Breton tends to hold trout earlier because that mud holds the heat better than the sand," said Ballay.
The time of year before summer is an ideal time to hit the islands for a group of anglers originating far to the north. Though it's a much farther journey across a lot more open water, Henry Savoy finds the spring trips to be therapeutic after a long winter offseason.
"I don't fish much in the fall and winter, though I've got some buddies who do real well. The fish seem to be a lot smaller and, I don't know, somehow it just doesn't seem to be right, fishing in the marsh like that," said Savoy.
Like many who make for the marshes and sounds out of St. Bernard Parish, Savoy finds fishing without live shrimp or croakers hard to manage. His boat is set up for, well, setting up on structure and on anchor as opposed to a mobile bay boat capable of a more search-and-destroy method of catching specks.
"Some of those same guys have tried in the past to get me to go with them in the spring for trout by the islands on the edge of Black Bay," said Savoy. "They catch some nice fish, but to be honest, I wasn't very good at it."
Savoy discovered the cure for his fishing needs during the springtime about three years ago. An old-school fishing buddy turned him on to a much-different kind of island, and Savoy hasn't given any other method a thought since.
"He's got back problems that have really limited his fishing in any kind of rough water," said Savoy. "Wade fishing is a lot easier on his back, and I've got a good boat to get there, so it's worked out well."
The trip from Hopedale is much longer than it is from Venice or Riverside Marina in Buras, but Savoy finds it to be a welcome introduction to the fishing season.
"It's a nice, cool ride that time of year. I don't mind it at all the first couple of times I do it," said Savoy. "Just getting the boat out on the water is enough to get me ready for the year. If you get a nice, calm morning in the spring, there's nothing better than that ride out there."
Thinking back on the days when he tried to fish on the inside in the spring, Savoy rolled his head back when he recalled the thing that he despised the most when he and his younger fishing partners found themselves with a nice spring day: gnats.
"Those things would absolutely eat us alive, and there wasn't hardly anything you could do about it. We tried everything, too," said Savoy. "Out at Breton and Gosier, you don't get any gnats and even if you did have them, there's most often a nice breeze coming off the Gulf."
Savoy is an admitted amateur artificial lure fisherman. For this reason, he says the best baits for him out at the islands are the ones that don't require much technique. He's recently switched to Bayou Chub minnows for this reason.
"They've got a real skinny tail that creates a lot of action just by reeling in," he said. "You don't have to jerk it or twitch it or anything."
The popular black/chartreuse or purple/chartreuse are good for the more stained waters around Breton, while lighter, more natural shades are appropriate for the clearer waters to the north.
Finding the lure that suited him took some time, but it only took him a few months of wading to figure out that tandem-rigged baits, while effective at catching trout and keeping a school interested, are a problem waiting to happen when landing a fish.
"I had a fish on that wasn't but about a pound and a half, but it was going crazy right at my waist, and the fish slung that top jighead right into my ribcage," said Savoy. "It didn't turn out to be that bad, but it was bad enough to send us home early."
Savoy doesn't care much for redfish, but Ballay and Avanzino both enjoy getting wet on the surf side of the island for the packs of "baby bulls" prowling the sandbars.
"The reds out there can be thick as thieves. They're 27-30 inches for the most part," said Avanzino. "They're very aggressive, and if you hook one and don't move too fast, there'll be three or four following behind it.
"Sometimes you can toss a handful of sand at them and they'll dart after it."
Ballay counts Grand Gosier as his favorite for similar-sized redfish on the surfside. The bigger of the two in the Gosier chain (Little Gosier — at last report — was little more than 100 yards long and 30 yards across) is located about 10 miles from Breton, and offers much harder, sandier bottom to wade in, though its proximity to the Chandeleurs can make it almost too clear to effectively fish for trout. Redfish are almost a sure thing.
"Work the bars on either end of the island with ½-ounce gold spoons. You always want to fish around slicks and current lines," said Ballay. "The fish will mainly move in packs. They're very seldom single fish."
Though at least the backside of the island is protected from a stiff breeze in a generally easterly direction, all agreed that the island needs a few days' rest following cold fronts of any consequence. West winds are disagreeable as well, as they not only dirty the water but also freshen and chill it from the usually high Mississippi River.
A good thing about the islands, if you've got enough boat, is the relative proximity to the Chandeleurs, whose gin-clear waters are often in stark contrast to Breton. Simply traveling north along the chain until you run into good water is often the key to success.
"If it's brown water, keep going. If it's gin clear, go back," said Avanzino.