My fishing buddy, Perry Frey, and I opted to spend last Mardi Gras with our families at his camp in Delacroix rather than waving our hands in the air for trinkets along Veterans Boulevard. We figured it would be a lot more fun to fight speckled trout than drunken mobs.
Our plan was to arrive at the camp around noon on Lundi Gras, unpack, eat lunch, and then head out for some afternoon action.
The month of February is loathed by most anglers, but it is my favorite month to fish. A couple of days at a camp in Delacroix at this time of year would be my ideal vacation.
But Mother Nature, hag that she is, was hell-bent on wrecking our plans. Frey and I watched the forecast on Sunday, and the weathermen all agreed that a stout cold front would sweep through the area around noon on Lundi Gras.
Since that was the precise hour we were planning on arriving at the camp, the timing couldn't have been worse. Frey and I discussed it, and decided to go anyway. Our kids were looking forward to the trip, and if the weathermen had the timing off by a few hours, we could get in a trip on the afternoon of Lundi Gras.
We got to the camp at noon on Lundi Gras, opened the car doors and were hit in the face by calm, muggy air — the kind that is hated in August but adored in February. Frey and I smiled; it looked like the front had been delayed, and we would, in fact, be able to get in a good afternoon trip. We unpacked like we had just returned from a business trip three minutes before the Super Bowl, and grabbed pieces of lukewarm chicken from a grease-blotched bucket that sat on a table in the raised camp's kitchen.
With half-chewed chicken still in our mouths, Frey and I changed into our winter garb, just in case, and instructed two of our kids to do the same.
We kissed our wives, and pushed our kids toward the front door. Upon opening it, our countenance fell harder than an imploded building. An Arctic blast pushed the door wide open and cut through our clothing like a tailor's sheers. The front had arrived.
We sulked down the stairs, and with forlorn faces, loaded into the boat, which was moored at the dock in front of the camp. It was probably pointless, but we were going anyway.
With the protection of the tree-lined portion of Bayou Terre aux Bouefs, the wind didn't really feel all that bad, but when we cleared Bayou Lery, a northwest blow straight from the lips of Jack Frost pummeled the bay boat.
This would be a trip to forget about, we figured.
We headed to Lake Campo, one of our favorite wintertime areas, and fished a slight dropoff nearly 75 yards off the lee shoreline. For about 30 minutes, we trolled along and worked our MirrOlures without a bite.
But then Frey caught one — an actual speckled trout. Less than a minute later, I caught one. It was only 15 inches, but Frey netted it anyway. We didn't figure we could risk losing the few fish that would bite.
Frey handed me the net, picked up his pole and made another cast. Two cranks into it, a battle was engaged by yet another trout.
We caught a dozen on that sweep of the area, but we apparently had drifted out of them. So we motored up, and made the same drift. The action was comparable.
Always more interested in why fish are holding in an area than actually catching them, I surveyed the landscape to determine what about this spot so attracted the trout in the post-cold front conditions when the rest of the section of lake we fished was devoid of trout.
I think I found the answer. The spot where we were catching the fish was adjacent to a trenasse that drained a large pond. The water in the pond had been heated all day by the sun, and while we were there, it was being pushed out into the lake by the harsh winds and falling tide. The fish that were holding along the shoreline of Lake Campo during the day pulled back to the slight dropoff when the temperatures fell, and they congregated at this point of the dropoff because of the warm water being pulled from the pond.
Using temperature to predict trout activity is one of the secrets to Capt. Billy Bucano's success. A Poplarville, Miss., resident but New Orleans-area native, Bucano has fished Delacroix for 30 years, the last three as a licensed captain.
During that time, Bucano has learned to let a thermometer tell him where to fish.
"Fifty degrees is the magic number," he said. "Trout won't be active in water that's less than 50 degrees.
"Now keep in mind, that's the water temperature, not the air temperature. The air may be a lot colder than 50 degrees but the water's warmer, or the air might be a lot warmer, and the water's colder."
Relying on the knowledge gained from his many years on the water, Bucano can usually guess where the warmer water will be on any given trip.
For instance, if air temperatures are in the low to mid 50s but skies are cloudy, trout will likely be in the deep holes all day long.
But if the temperatures are in that same range — or even colder — and the sun is out, Bucano knows that the best action, at least at some point during the outing, will be on the flats. And that's precisely where Bucano most likes to target his prey.
"If I've got a group of inexperienced fishermen out, I kind of like for the fish to be in the holes. You can tell your clients exactly where to cast, and they can let the bait fall to the bottom and bump it along, and they'll catch some fish," he said. "But if I'm fishing on my own or with some friends, I like to fish the flats. That's where the bigger trout are, and (the flats) are just so much more fun to fish."
Though many may not have understood the exact reasons why, local anglers have learned the importance of water temperature in dictating trout activity and location this winter. Though air temperatures have been consistently chilly, South Louisiana has been spared from any harsh Arctic blasts. This has kept water temperatures from falling consistently low enough to force trout into normally productive winter holes. Well into January, anglers from Shell Beach to Cocodrie were still catching trout on the flats in a typical fall pattern.
"We've only had one trip so far this (winter) when the fish were in a hard winter pattern. We caught our limits in the deep channel in Pointe Fienne. But other than that, we've caught at least some fish on every trip on the flats," Bucano said in early January.
Being cold-blooded, a trout's body temperature will be the exact same as the water surrounding it. Consequently, its metabolism is only as high as the temperature of that water will allow it to be. In cold water, a trout will be physiologically incapable of any activity that requires more effort than breathing. A trout, obviously, can't live very long in such conditions.
As such, trout seek out the warmest water in the area to allow themselves to be as active as possible. During a typical winter, that water is often found in thermoclines toward the bottom of deeper holes. Thermoclines are formed because, unlike air, warm water sinks and cold water rises.
Thermoclines are the life-blood of trout on days when air temperatures are frosty and strong winds pound the surface of the water, dirtying the water over the flats and making it less penetrable for sunlight.
But thermoclines are not suitable places for long-term survival. During a cold wave, a thermocline in a productive area will be stacked with trout, but bait resources will be quite limited. Because of that, a trout is always looking to "push the envelope," and get out onto the flats to feed as quickly as possible.
And, Bucano has found, the trout have an opportunity to do that as soon as the water temperature on the flats passes that magic 50-degree mark.
"My rule of thumb for the flats is to look for fish there on the second day after a (cold) front passes," he said. "The winds will be starting to calm down and (the silt) will be settling out of the water. The flats will warm up, and especially in the afternoon, the trout will move up to them and cruise them to feed."
Even without a submersible temperature gauge, an angler can tell when conditions are right to fish the flats, Bucano said.
"A couple of days after a front, the wind will switch around to the northeast, then the east, then the southeast. That east wind blows warm sea water in, and it pushes back the cold fresh water," he said. "If it's sunny and the wind's got some east in it, you can bet the trout will be on the flats."
On that second day following a front, Bucano will often begin his trips fishing the deep-water holes.
"The flats won't start heating up until 9, 10 o'clock, when that sun gets high in the sky," he explained.
Sometimes he can finish off his limits before then. But when fish are tough to find or sluggish in the holes, Bucano just bides his time until the flats heat up.
His favorite flats all have a couple of things in common. First of all, they're adjacent to productive deep-water spots.
"You don't want to fish the middle of a shallow lake," he said. "You want to fish a flat that's near to the trout when they sneak out of that deep water. If you were catching fish in a deep hole one day and it's a little warmer the next day, check the flats around that hole."
Secondly, the best flats will be carpeted with oysters.
"Those oysters are good for two reasons. No. 1, they hold baitfish, and the trout are primarily moving onto the flats to feed. If they don't find any bait, it doesn't do them any good to move to the flats. No. 2, the oysters reflect sunlight and heat up the water around them better," he said.
Most of the flats Bucano fishes are 2 to 3 feet deep, but he's caught fish on flats that are 4 to 7 feet deep, and often does well on big trout in water that's less than 1 foot.
"Those big fish will get in that real shallow water and become shoreline-oriented," he said.
One of Bucano's favorite ways to fish the flats, especially for big trout, is with a MirrOlure 52M. He retrieves the slow-sinking bait steadily and twitches the rod tip intermittently.
"To do well with a MirrOlure, the water has to be pretty clean, but 10 inches of visibility is plenty," he said.
Bucano's favorite colors are purple demon, red/white, mullet and crawfish, and he also likes chartreuse in very clear water.
When the water's too stained or rough for MirrOlures, Bucano will throw soft plastics, both tight-lined and under rattling corks. He has a definite preference in that arena, as well.
"I really like Bass Assassins," he said. "Now, when the fish are stacked up in the holes in the hard winter, any bait you drop on their heads will catch them, but when the fishing's tough, those Bass Assassins make a difference."
His favorite colors are white, alewife, space guppy and blue/white.
Anglers who want to target the flats during the wintertime need to keep several things in mind, Bucano said. First off, although 50 degrees is his magic number on the flats, it is the minimum required for trout activity. Higher temperatures increase that activity.
"If the water is 54 to 55 degrees, you're going to have really good action on the flats," he said.
Secondly, trout won't be active on any flats that are dirty or covered with fresh water.
"Fresh water, whether it's from rain, a diversion or northwest winds blowing in (diversion) water, will force trout deep because salt water is heavier than fresh water," he said.
Thirdly, clouds are both friend and foe for flats fishermen. Clouds that blanket the sky two days after passage of a cold front will keep air temperatures low and won't allow sunlight to warm the flats. On such days, anglers will likely have their best action in the holes.
But clouds that precede a cold front work in the angler's favor because the flats have probably already warmed up from the sunlight and moderate temperatures on the one or two days before. So the trout should already be on the flats, and as any bass fisherman will tell you, cloudy skies allow fish to be more aggressive and less wary.
The sun worked in our favor that day for Frey and me, and the fried trout on Mardi Gras tasted better than any king cake ever has.