Many years ago a ladder stashed inside a 20-foot boat in coastal Louisiana waters could mean only one thing: a weekend of camp maintenance in a dwelling only accessible by water deep in the marsh.

Of late, the redfish sight-fishing craze has brought new guesses to such sightings. Coonass engineering can turn a step ladder into a makeshift, if not awkward, casting or poling platform for getting a bird's eye view into marshy redfish haunts. But for one coastal enthusiast, the ladder is used much more for reading water containing spots than dots.

Joseph Charbonnet, 38, gets out to Last Island on the far western Isle Deniere chain several times a year in search of speckled trout.

Other family interests preclude him from being a regular at Boudreaux's Marina in Dulac, so keeping up with the forever-shifting bottom structure of Raccoon Point is difficult. Making an assessment on where to concentrate his surf-fishing efforts is near the top of his priority list on the morning of his typically two-day trips.

"It doesn't do much good to just wade out there and start fishing. Except on those times when the trout are just everywhere, you've got to be able to read the water and give yourself an idea of what's under the water," said Charbonnet.

The veteran angler from Gray says the ladder helps him get the best view of the terrain from a vantage point that only anglers with beachfront dwellings possess.

"Eight feet goes a long way in getting to know how the bars and guts have changed since the last trip," says Charbonnet of his ladder, which is ideally placed on the land's highest point, but because of distance is often placed near the water's edge. "The island has eroded so much that you can hardly see from back where the grass and the real solid ground is."

Unlike Charbonnet, Capt. Chad Billiot of Marsh Rat Guide Service is very happy in his 24-foot Blazer Bay and happily leaves the surf fishing to others, thank you very much. That said, reading the water is every bit as important to his success as it is to surf-bound anglers.

Having the advantage of almost daily access to the whims of the surfside topography, he doesn't depend on it on a daily basis as those such as Charbonnet do. He does, however, keep a sharp eye out for other beach features less to do with sand and more involving the staggering loss of beachfront due to the coast's erosion.

"One of the only positive things about the loss of beach in Fourchon is what is left when the marsh grass is washed away," said Billiot, referring to the "mud humps" left behind. "They always seem to leave behind a good place for baitfish to relate to, and game fish are usually there right along with them."

The location of sandbars and their accompanying bottom structure on Fourchon and on West Timbalier Island — more of a traditional barrier island than its rock-strewn neighbor to the east — becomes almost second nature to guides such as Billiot, but current, wind and surf conditions keep him on his toes in his quest for the ideal locations where hungry speckled trout entertain customers.

Though clear water is always taken into consideration first, proven spots determined by bottom contour are given a try anyway despite dirty water.

"Everybody likes to see and fish in crystal-clear water. I like it because it allows me to find new mud humps and other things. But it's not something that will always determine if you catch fish," said Billiot. "I'll work areas that have produced in the past even if the water is filthy dirty."

Amazingly, Billiot says these mud humps can be found in as much as 5 feet of water depending on the tide. A large number of them were born when Tropical Storm Bill threatened to ruin the 2003 Fourth of July celebration. That blow chunked a bunch more land off Fourchon Beach, and made a few new fishing spots.

Charbonnet is much more picky about his fishing spots. Enjoying the scenery is a large part of what draws him to racing his boat 45 minutes in the dark before parking it on the backside of the island, hopping out of it with a step ladder and other assorted surf-fishing gear in tow and being wet all of the time.

"I've seen too many sharks — not the big ones that most people are scared of — out there to go into dirty water," said Charbonnet. "I've got the same fear that those people in Florida had a few years ago: In dirty water, a shark can be confused and take a swipe out of you. They don't target you, they're looking for something that looks like your leg."

Upon reaching the island, Charbonnet holds off on setting up the ladder. If things have gone right, he and his companion will be there before sunrise, and will be looking for the first trough just off the beach. It's this specific area where they'll fish until the sun ascends a good deal.

"You can't see anything in the dark, of course, so we're looking for a good-sized gap between the first sandbar and the sand," said Charbonnet.

Experience has taught the crew to be patient in finding fish this way. Charbonnet says many anglers read or hear about how they are supposed to work the first trough from dry land early in the morning, but few have the wherewithal to follow through on the plan.

"What people don't understand is that there isn't going to be fish on every square inch of beach. What I usually see is people getting distracted and going on in the water to get to the deeper water," said Charbonnet. "And they catch fish doing that. There's no rule saying every fish is in between the bar and the shore that time of day. But the bigger fish most often will be."

Charbonnet makes systematic long casts with a Bomber Long A in chrome/black down the shoreline of a stretch of beach with the characteristics mentioned above. Though he's looking for bait, he's mainly interested in covering territory along his favored first trough.

"I've come across my share of bunches of fish that never showed themselves, even in that shallow water, before they were hooked," said Charbonnet. "No bait, no swirls, just your regular ripples from the surf."

The bait he uses for his exploration allows him several things: 1) It's heft makes him make the longs casts he prefers with the worn equipment he uses for surf fishing; 2) he can work the bait without looking at it, allowing his head to stay on a swivel in reading the water; and 3) it's a lure that can effectively be worked rapidly.

"It's not at all a bait that I would use in the surf. Those trebles are messy to deal with in the water. And I'm not walking all the way to the beach each time I catch a fish," said Charbonnet, explaining that besides being a hassle, that much movement can chase a school away or that much inactivity can allow a school to move on.

"There's a reason some of these guides are in such a hurry when they get in a school of fish," said Charbonnet with a grin. "It's not that they are wanting to get their limit and go on home — though I'm sure that has something to do with it. It's more about keeping that school at the boat."

Once the morning bite has died off and the sun is up, Charbonnet retreats to his ladder and, with the sun at his back, climbs up and has a look at what he has just sampled, in addition to guessing where to fish next.

"You'll learn a lot by examining the water you've just fished. All the stuff you read about fish staging here, and bait being funneled there makes a lot more sense when you take some time to see why it just happened," he said.

A lesson is not the only reason he's up there. Charbonnet is also looking at the next stage of water he'll fish, specifically the location of sandbars and the "interruptions" in them as evidenced by breaking surf.

"A different color of water is a sure sign of an interruption in a sandbar when it's calm. When there's a break in the bar, it doesn't take long for nature to find it and exploit it," said Charbonnet. "Soon there'll be current carving a channel through the bar."

Such places are good structure for fish to stage. Charbonnet believes trout will ambush bait on the "dumping side" as they are pushed through the gap on a strong tide. Weaker tides will have them more apt to cruise the troughs, though they will concentrate for short periods of time on the upcurrent side of the gap.

"The bait will be drawn to the gap on a weak tide, but will be able to swim away (from the current running through the gap) for the most part," he explained.

An ideal day is a flat calm morning that still has a large ground swell coming off of the Gulf, says Charbonnet. The bottom's contour is nicely exposed, and the hordes of bay boats advancing on the island on weekend mornings are mostly kept at bay.

"I've got nothing against guys with trolling motors. For the most part, they keep their distance from surf fishermen. But there are always a few who can't stand to see you catching fish," says Charbonnet. "Sometimes they start dragging bottom when they come across a bar, and panic and gun their big motors to get off of it.

"And as a surf fisherman who has worked to find that bar and the fish that are holding just to the inside of it, it makes you mad."

Billiot is one of those bay boat fishermen who is not reluctant to fish in high seas. Quality trolling motors and deft boat handling go with the job. The practice of getting his and his customers' baits close to the shoreline is also a big part of his gameplan.

"Especially early in the summer, I'll throw my bait up onto the sand and drag it back into the water," said Billiot. "That's where the bigger fish are going to be."

Billiot says the best way to locate good areas along a beach is to go on a rough day. There are few secrets of a beach's bottom terrain when set after set of waves roll up on it. Making mental notes of the location of bars can be an invaluable tool for future trips.

Current lines and color changes — many times going hand in hand — are also dead giveaways to fishy territory on a beach. Billiot says that which side the fish will be holding is not always so obvious.

"Sometimes they'll be on the clear side and sometimes they'll be on the dirty side," he said, explaining that there are theories for both.

The surf contains all kinds of baitfish cruising its waters. Billiot says his favorite species are mullet and glass minnows because they seem to hang out in shallow water where early morning big trout are feeding. Pogies and shrimp are frequent targets of trout, but tend to school in deeper water farther offshore.

Contrary to popular belief, dolphins are not always the death of trout action, according to Billiot. Their presence indicates a target-rich environment, even if the target is often the trout itself. Larger mullet often cruise with smaller ones underneath, providing meals for both predators.

"I've caught trout one after another with dolphins or porpoises all around the boat," said Billiot.

The next time you see a ladder in a boat, don't automatically assume it's a makeshift poling platform or the poor sap's got roof work to do on his place. It could be just the edge he needs for turning a good surf fishing trip into a great one.

Capt. Chad Billiot can be reached at (985) 632-8156.