The Biloxi Marsh is truly one of our area's greatest assets. I always look forward to any opportunity to fish the area, even if just to enjoy the scenery.

But if you love marsh fishing, you'll be hard pressed to find a better place to ply your passion, especially in the winter.

This area, by its very nature and composition, has everything necessary to make it a prime habitat for speckled trout, redfish, flounder, drum and sheepshead.

Technically, it's the Biloxi Marsh Wildlife Management Area, located in upper St. Bernard Parish about 40 miles east of New Orleans.

The 39,583-acre tract is leased to the LDWF by the Biloxi Marsh Lands Corporation, and is accessible only by boat. The low brackish to saline marsh is lush with typical marsh vegetation — marsh-hay cordgrass, black rush, hog cane, smooth cordgrass, saltgrass, glasswort and three square. And there are several high ridges along old bayous where oak trees still live, though they are definitely a dying breed.

Numerous species of waterfowl are present during the winter, and many reside in the marsh year round.

Furbearers such as nutria, rabbit, muskrat, mink, raccoon, otter and opossum are also a common sight in the marsh, but it's the fish, shrimp and crabs that make the Biloxi Marsh a prime destination for Louisiana and Mississippi anglers.

A marsh maze

The whole area is a maze of waterways, bayous, sloughs and lakes that can confuse even locals, so those unfamiliar with it should keep to the main bayous, and explore uncertain ponds and sloughs with extreme caution. It's very easy to get lost or stuck on a shallow bottom, especially during low tides, and you don't want to have to spend the night out there.

Roughly speaking, it is bordered by Lake Borgne on the west, Mississippi Sound on the north, Drum Bay and Morgan Harbor to the east, and Bayou La Loutre and Bayou St. Malo on the south. And in between those borders lie some of the best winter fishing to be had anywhere.

So when Capt. Johnny Nunez (504-676-3317) invited me and my long-time fishing partner, Sal Scurria, out for a day exploring the Biloxi Marsh, I jumped at the chance.

On one of our famously warm autumn days, Nunez met us just before daybreak at Campo's Marina in Shell Beach. We loaded the livewell with some healthy looking shrimp, transferred our gear into his 24-foot Privateer, and headed across the Ship Channel toward Bayou Sue along the eastern shoreline of Lake Borgne.

The big 300-horsepower Yamaha purred behind us as we watched daylight begin to break across the horizon. About 15 minutes later, we entered through the mouth of the meandering Bayou Sue. Maybe meandering is too subtle a word to describe the winding, curvy, convoluted, contorted and twisting maze that is Bayou Sue, or "Bayou Hasouse" as it appears on many charts.

I've made the trip into the interior Biloxi Marsh through this circuitous route before (always as a passenger on someone else's boat), and each time I got thoroughly confused, which may have been the captain's intention. This trip was no exception, and the only clue I had as to where we were was the distant view I had of the new rig behind Stump Lagoon.

I calculated we were in a shallow pond somewhere on the west side of Stump Lagoon when Nunez slowed the big engine and idled slowly to within casting distance of a point, and stuck the Cajun anchor.

We loaded our hooks with live shrimp, about 2 feet under rattling corks, and began casting.

"Fish toward the bank for reds, toward the middle for specks," Nunez quipped. "The warm weather has kept the fish in very shallow water much longer than usual. They're up in the interior marsh, as you'd expect at this time of year, but they're not huddled in the deeper canals or bayous yet.

"They're close by, but just off to the side in the shallow ponds, lagoons and washouts. And they'll probably stay in these areas for awhile, at least until we get some really cold weather."

We fanned out our casts, trying to cover as much area as possible to locate the fish around us, and as per Nunez's instructions, we did a lot of popping with our corks.

"I find that you have to pop your cork a lot more in the fall than in the spring or summer," Nunez explained. "You have to call the fish to you, especially if you want to catch trout. That cork is designed to make a sound emulating the noise that trout make when they're feeding, and popping baits off the surface.

"So at this time of year, you can't just cast out and let your bait sit, even when you're fishing with live shrimp. Pop it, make some noise, get those beads rattling, and you'll catch more trout.

"On the other hand, if you're casting up against the bank fishing for reds, you don't have to make a lot of noise. Too much noise can do just the opposite when redfish are your target. It spooks them. I usually cast up toward the shore, preferably at a point, pop it once or twice, and then let it sit.

"If reds are anywhere around, they'll find it. They're roving predators, so they're always on the prowl. Make a little popping noise, and they'll come look. Make too much noise, and they'll spook."

I was fishing out toward the center of the pond, hoping to find some hungry trout, while Scurria and Nunez probed the shoreline for redfish. Scurria's cork began doing a slow bobble, and I could see his arms tense as he prepared to set the hook.

"Let him take it," Nunez instructed. "Don't set it yet. The water is very shallow over there, so it's not deep enough for them to pull the cork straight down. They'll drag it off to the side a bit, and then as the cork slides underwater, like it's doing right now, HOOK HIM," he shouted. "HOOK HIM NOW!"

Scurria whipped the 7-foot rod back, making a solid hookset, and the hefty fish took off with surprising speed.

"This thing is running like a big banana fish," Scurria quipped.

The redfish made the drag whine for seven or eight seconds before slowing down, and Scurria was able to turn him. The fish made several more short bursts of protest, taking out line each time, but the hook didn't budge and the braided line didn't give. Nunez grabbed the landing net, and I grabbed my camera to take a few shots of the action.

"The perfect size for the grill," Nunez said, as he plopped it in the ice chest. "Now cast right back to that very same spot because where there's one, there's usually two."

But Scurria was fiddling around trying to put another live shrimp on his hook, so I jumped in his place (what are friends for?), casting a beetle-spin in the exact spot where he caught the redfish.

WHAM! A fish immediately hit me, and as I began to fight him in, he got off!

"Dang," I cried, and as I began to retrieve my bait — WHAM! — he hit me again. And again he slipped the hook before I could get him to the boat.

"Unbelievable," I whined. "How are they spitting my hook like that?"

Then it dawned on me, and I realized the problem. I was fishing with a 7-foot medium-action casting rod, and being so limber, you really have to slam the hook home when a redfish takes it, or you just won't get a decent hookset. The fish were getting off because I wasn't setting the hook hard enough with this supple rod. I told myself that from now on I'll use this rod for specks and a medium-heavy rod for redfish.

The action never did turn back on in that spot, and after 10 or 15 minutes, Nunez decided to move us along to another point.

"The fish aren't all ganged up in any one place right now," he explained, "so you have to pick up and move quite a bit. You'll catch a few here, a few there, and as you keep it up, you'll wind up with a nice box of fish."

Nunez likes the shallow ponds that are close to the bayous. If you are unfamiliar with the ponds, troll into them slowly. That way, if you kick up mud, you can get out before you get stuck.

"Look for points where you find moving water. You have to have some tide to catch some fish. It doesn't matter whether the tide is rising or falling, as long as it's moving," he said.

"Drains are probably my favorite target at this time of year. Wherever you find a drain emptying from the marsh into a pond, fish there for redfish, almost guaranteed.

"And once it gets cold, fish the drains along the deeper bayous. Fish will hang out at such spots to ambush the bait that flushes out.

"And look for any sign of baitfish in the water. Mullet, minnows, shrimp … any time you find bait in the water, fish there. That's where the reds and trout will be."

We moved to yet another spot in a no-name lagoon, and began catching speckled trout almost immediately. Nunez had anchored to within casting distance of the shoreline, and we were casting away from the bank. The fish were not huge, but they were plentiful and aggressive.

And at the next stop, an inconspicuous point in an unnamed lagoon, we loaded the boat. Redfish after redfish came from the same small area. Almost every cast got a hit, if not a hookup. And I managed to yank my limber rod hard enough to actually bring some redfish to the boat.

Nunez says to try the shallow washouts and ponds off of Bayou Sue, Blind Bayou and Bayou Magnolia. Be extremely cautious when entering these ponds, especially on low tides.

The no-name lagoons to the west of Stump Lagoon and Mussel Bay are holding fish right now, and should continue to do so until temperatures drop.

Pete's Lagoon and all the shallow ponds around it, Brick Lagoon, Biloxi Lagoon and Grand Lagoon and, further north, Magill Lagoon are all great spots to try, and should produce both redfish and trout throughout the month and probably into the New Year.

Nunez says he'll stay with the same procedures as the temperatures fall, simply moving into the deeper bayous and fishing the ledges at drains, cuts and points. The fish will fan out over the flats and move into the shallows on warmer, sunny days, and hang along the ledges of the bayous at cuts and drains on cold ones.

Live minnows under a sliding sinker will do the trick in cold weather, he said. Until then, stay in the shallows, and of course, stay in the Biloxi Marsh.