The sleepy little town of Empire can provide outstanding inshore action for those willing to let the skilled hands of 41 years of experience take care of their boat hoisting.
"These guys have been around here doing this for as long as I can remember," said Capt. Shane Mayfield of Adventure Guide Service (504-382-2711) as we idled away from the bustling predawn hoist. "I'm not even sure if they fish, but they're the nicest guys in the world."
The sleepy fishing village is more known for the big bridge, a good restaurant and the pungent odor from the menhaden processing plant that makes travelers punch the accelerator when the right wind blows. The lack of a back-down ramp at the town's only launching facility, Delta Marina, keeps a lot of anglers from making it the jumping-off spot for the lower Plaquemines inshore action. But the catches of speckled trout and redfish by anglers in the fall months more than make up for it.
"The thing about Empire is its versatility. You've got good fishing over the flats and reefs above and to the west, and the great fishing of the Buras Canal and the surrounding area to the south and east," said Mayfield.
Fall generally means the propensity for more of a northerly flow with the parade of cold fronts running through the state. Much of what makes Empire an ideal destination is its geographical make-up. Mayfield says those in small boats can make due nicely by sticking to the north shore of Bay Adams early in the fall season and graduating to the deeper water to the south and east when the weather gets chilly.
"Basically, the whole stretch of shoreline to the north and west (of the jetties) is protected from a north wind," said Mayfield. "All the way to where the bay narrows into Bayou Maringouin and into First and Second Bay (getting into the Port Sulphur area) is good for trout before it gets too cold. When you get into more of a wintertime pattern, it's time to move south (toward Buras).
"One of the main things I'm trying to get across when I say 'small boat-friendly' is to encourage guys who come out here for the first time to do so in a small boat," says Mayfield. "You don't want to come out here in a 24-foot bay boat and check out the place."
The region's land loss as a result of coastal erosion is some of the most shocking in the state. On our tour of the area, Mayfield's conversation was a dizzying string of references of what used to be here and how much land used to be there.
Delta Marina general manager Jimmy Martinez, who's been at the hoist and convenience store for over 40 years, says that there used to be quite a recreational offshore business out of his facility that has dwindled quite a bit in the past years. Certainly, the emergence of facilities down the road has contributed to the fall-off, but he says another reason is apparent.
"With the coastal erosion, we've lost a lot of landmarks for getting in and getting out of the Gulf," Martinez said, adding that he thinks it makes people uneasy about traversing a place as established as the Empire Channel when there's so much open water surrounding it.
This combination of easily accessed inshore fishing that doesn't necessitate intimate knowledge of the area is part of what makes Empire the ideal destination for cool-weather fishing. But it's no good without the fish to go along with it, which Mayfield says are present in great numbers.
"On the Port Sulphur (Bay Adams) side, you've got a lot of oyster bottom. The bay is just covered with little patches of oyster reefs," he said. "From around mid October til the time when you get the good cold fronts coming down, it produces a lot of fish."
Mayfield says redfish can be caught along the shell banks into Bayou Maringouin throughout the fall season, but that trout make a somewhat puzzling exodus when the weather patterns turn from cool to cold.
Simply following the shoreline of Bay Adams as it narrows into Bayou Maringouin is all that it takes for anglers to put together good catches of trout.
The first quarter mile of the bayou itself is a productive area for trout and redfish. Mayfield's knowledge supported by his many years fishing here puts him ahead of the game, but he says anglers new to the area can find fish in the more open water by using the same technique he uses for working a productive area. Amazingly, it's not often utilized by those fishing this or any other area.
"I do a lot of drifting to find the fish. You'll do a lot better doing this and casting out into the open water than just beating the banks," he said.
Using the wind as an advantage instead of a hindrance is one of the things that keeps people in the guiding business, especially in South Louisiana. No professional likes to stay on the trolling motor all day and cast into the wind — there's not enough patience or battery juice in the world — and certainly the kind of fisherman hiring a guide will have very little chance of success bucking the stiff breezes hour after hour.
"I know the area pretty well — I've fished it all my life — so I've got a good idea of where the fish will hold, but that doesn't mean a guy can't come out here and catch fish," said Mayfield.
Many boats used in South Louisiana are not designed to be terribly stealthy in the face of even a light chop. Though no scientific evidence is available to support the theory, logic tells us that fish in shallow water will not react well to an aluminum bass boat pounding along in even a slight chop. Specks and reds in the Bayou State are much more tolerant than anything Florida has to offer, but are still affected by the sound of aluminum on water.
The trolling motor is used mainly as a steering tool and as a way to keep off of fish when they are located. Quick anchor work by a supporting member of the vessel's crew is often critical in a stiff breeze and can make the difference in putting a few in the box and significantly sliming it.
The first real cold fronts of the season spell a lot of change in the area. Mayfield says he can't figure it out for the life of him, but when the water gets chilly, speckled trout vacate the area around Bay Adams. The lure of the security of the deep water to the south may play a big role in how the specks simply disappear for several months from the area, but Mayfield has always been perplexed by the scope of the obvious migration.
"I've tried all of the techniques I've applied (to the south) in the same kinds of areas, and have never really found near the consistency and numbers that the area should produce. I know that the Buras area holds a lot more fish than the area to the north, but there should be more fish there based on what what we catch in the spring and fall," he said.
And Mayfield has a rooting interest in the area doing well. For one, it is practically his home waters, having grown up patrolling the marshes behind Port Sulphur. His insatiable desire for knowledge of the entire delta region fostered him spreading his wings to the vast Venice and Buras estuary as well, but the region will always hold a special place in his heart.
Selfishly, he would love to have a productive area where few other boats frequent, but Mayfield shifts gears toward the Buras area when the cold fronts begin their assault on the delta.
"When it gets cold and you get those first real cold fronts — the kind that really shock the fish for a while — it's time to move toward the area around the Buras Canal all the way toward Yellow Cotton Bay," said Mayfield. "There's just tons of fish down there, while (the Bay Adams area) just seems to dry up."
It's no big loss for area anglers other than a bit longer boat ride from Delta Marina. By picking up the Empire Ship Channel and taking the first left, you come to the very beginning of the Buras Canal. Unlike the territory to the north, a depthfinder comes in handy for this region.
"All of the fish are going to be relating to the deeper water of the Buras Canal," said Mayfield. "Whether they're on the flats, along the dropoff or actually in the deep water, the canal is what holds them there."
Finding the definite edge of the dropoff helps a great deal in working the area, and is as simple as turning on your depthfinder and making a zig-zag pattern just offshore of the shoreline. The ledge will be unmistakable and will prove invaluable as a reference mark for several months of good fishing.
Not only does it aid in catching fish when they are holding on the dropoff itself — though not necessarily holding in the deeper water — knowing the location of the ledge can help when working the tides to your advantage.
"When you've got water — and that's the main thing I want in the morning, whether the tide is rising or falling — the fish will generally be holding on the flat well off the dropoff," said Mayfield. "As the water falls, the fish will move closer to the canal."
As fronts approach, the fish often become very aggressive, even as southerly breezes pick up. Black/chartreuse and purple/chartreuse Deadly Dudley Terror Tails on ¼-ounce jigheads simply cast and retrieved are solid choices for tempting these fish as they prepare for a day or two of survival mode.
Though the 1/4-ounce jighead with a plastic tail is the dominant lure in the area for both trout and redfish, Mayfield says that sometimes spinnerbaits and shallow-running crankbaits such as Mann's Baby One Minus are outstanding producers for redfish, especially when working shallow shell banks.
Good, high water is also critical in dictating the water clarity. Mayfield says that high water can keep the area clean despite a good wind from most any direction. Again drifting these flats, which are actually residue from the area's shocking erosion, is the best way to cover ground and avoid spooking fish. Mayfield indicated that time is best spent elsewhere or doing other things when anglers are presented with wind and a low and falling tide.
"The problem you can run into is the low water (when the wind blows)," said Mayfield.
Paying attention to nearby crab traps or other landmarks when you hook a fish is a good way to keep track of a productive area, but a more exact method is to use a marker buoy.
Obviously, when the water is lower, more mud is exposed or close to being exposed by whatever chop is present, making the water conditions tough for locating fish, much less getting them to bite. Mayfield says that people would be surprised at how good the water would be in a stiff breeze provided the water is high enough to not be adversely affected by the mud banks and flats.
The Buras Canal runs along the shoreline from the area just to the south of Empire all the way to Boothville, and provides solid action for trout well into the cold season, generally in mid to late January and through February when the fish go into their almost dormant stage.