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Bicyclin'Bill
This angler finds remarkable success by pedaling his way to the trout on Grand Isle.

By JOHN McQUEEN

If you see Bill Jack in the surf catching trout, his bike will be up on the beach.
If you see Bill Jack in the surf catching trout, his bike will be up on the beach.

Technology has launched just about everyone into an age of change. Fishermen have been inundated with things such as satellite navigation, advanced outboard motor carbeuration and boat hulls made of space age materials, not to mention advancements in rods and reels. ‘The only constant is change' is a cliché for a very good reason.

Bill Jack has seen change in the equipment sportsmen use almost as much as his beloved Grand Isle. The Baton Rouge resident, a retired civil engineer with the Department of Transportation and Development, owns two “rides” for chasing the island's speckled trout population. One has been part of a relatively recent trend in boat design. The other has been around much longer.

“I've got a bay boat like most everybody else down there,” said Jack. “It usually ends up taking too much of my time.”

Though it is a necessity for fishing the reefs and islands to the north, the boat doesn't hold a candle to his bicycle as his favorite way of patrolling the surf in search of conditions suitable for wetting a line.

Much the same as when he first purchased a camp back in the mid 1970s, wading remains his favorite method of fishing. The way he gets around the island, off road and on, hasn't changed very much, though technology has made the ride easier. Just don't look for tight spandex.

“I'm not really what you would call a bike person,” said Jack. “I've guess I've got what you would call a mountain bike, primarily because of the difference in the texture of the sand. It’s a lot different from the old single-speed cruiser I used to have.”

Like many people with minds for things mechanical, Jack finds plenty to do to a dwelling not inhabited full-time. His bike provides plenty of opportunity to satisfy the need for fish on the stringer and order in the camp.

“I think it's got a lot to do with the fact that the camp usually needs something to do to it,” says Jack.

The 18-speed mountain bike looks a bit out of place for a man in his 60s with a long-sleeve fishing shirt and a self-described funny looking hat. It looks even more out of place on the beach of Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island.

Jack finds it to be the ideal vehicle for quick jaunts to the beach to see if the fish are biting. Once the soft sand and other obstacles of the hurricane levee are negotiated, it's usually an easy ride down the hard, wet sand along the water's edge.

“It's easy to get on the bicycle, ride down to the beach, fish a couple of hours and then come back and work on the camp,” he said.

Also, his camp's location on the island's western end prevents him from conveniently reaching some of his favorite areas on foot.

“There are a few areas on the east end of the island I like to fish,” says Jack. “Getting on the bicycle gives me more versatility to watch for birds or people catching fish.”

Bill Jack shows two of his most productive surf baits — a motor oil-colored split-tail beetle and a weightless Slug-Go.
Bill Jack shows two of his most productive surf baits — a motor oil-colored split-tail beetle and a weightless Slug-Go.

Seeing bent poles and other tell-tale mannerisms of anglers on a school of trout is a good sign, but is also one that Jack sometimes struggles with in his quest for the perfect bite.

“It's kind of a Catch 22. I do have a tendency to do a lot of moving around, looking for the fish away from other people. Maybe I'd catch more fish if I stayed around people catching them,” he said.

In addition to being one of the only bikers on the beach, Jack carries another proud distinction known by many who fish among him: He almost always catches fish.

Years of experience fishing all sorts of conditions have taught him the ways of the surf and how to improvise his way to a decent catch, even in water that would dishearten most surf-dwellers. Jack points out that you never know what might come from a jaunt into the water if you don't give it a try.

“The thing about me, if I decide I'm going to fish, it doesn't matter if the conditions are ideal or not,” he said. “My level of success might have something to do with how long I stay out there, but it won't have anything to do with whether I go.”

Getting out there is a good first step, but there are certain things that Jack does that he believes make a big difference in his success. One thing that will warm the heart of many fishermen, especially those driving in to the island in the morning, is Jack's reluctance to hit the beach when there is just the slightest hint of light in the eastern sky.

“I don't find that it pays off often enough,” he said. “I can usually catch them at 9, 10, 11 or whenever. My favorite time is just before dark, when the air is starting to get cooler.”

Also taking somewhat of a backseat in Jack's game plan is the tidal movement. Louisiana's maddeningly unpredictable ranges and schedules may have something to do with it, and his practice of fishing when the mood strikes makes it easy to de-emphasize the whims of the earth's gravitational pull.

“I don't think I'm as sold on tidal movement as a lot of people,” said Jack. “I think that the clarity of the water and baitfish are more important, and if you find those things, you'll find fish whether the tide is moving or not.”

Light spinning tackle is another of Jack's tricks. Most anglers consider 12-pound-test to be the limit in the unforgiving surf. Bull redfish, sharks and jack crevalle cruise the beach, and sometimes take baits intended for smaller targets. Once hooked, surf anglers don't have the ability to follow fish in an effort to get their line and bait back.

Still, Jack prefers 8-pound-test most of the time, and believes it is one of the factors that gets him more strikes. At times, a length of heavier leader serves as a shock absorber. Jack has been experimenting with fluorocarbon lately, and has given it positive reviews thus far for its abrasion resistance.

As for the surf bullies, Jack takes his chances with the light stuff.

“I generally fish reels with large line capacity,” he said. “I've found that there aren't as many big fish out there as in the past, especially sharks.”

There are plenty of surf anglers who have their favorite lures, which they use almost exclusively. Bill Jack is not one of those, keeping with a pattern that has served him well in his years in the surf.

“I've got a lot of lures I rotate in and out,” he said. “There are a lot of lures I carry in a fanny pack when I'm out there. I like to experiment.”

Some of Jack's favorites are a bit different than the standard walking topwaters and plastic-minnow imitations.

“I've had a lot of luck with Corkies,” he said, speaking of the Texas-made mullet imitation lures made of a tough soft plastic and a pair of treble hooks.

Extremely popular in its state of origin, Corkies are strange-looking baits with a well deserved reputation for tempting out-sized trout. The Texas state record of 13.69 pounds was taken with a Corky.

“It's hard for me to understand exactly why it's effective,” he said. “It's a bait that I use to catch fish when they won't hit anything else.”

Jack rides up and down the beach looking for diving birds or any other sign of baitfish on the surface.
Jack rides up and down the beach looking for diving birds or any other sign of baitfish on the surface.

The lure is worked similar to surface baits with a rhythmic twitch-and-pause technique. Color schemes for the bait are similar to most Jack uses. Various shades of green populate his tackle box.

Many anglers prefer it and other sub-surface walkers to surface baits because of the high strike to hookup ratio. Unlike surface baits, the Corky will not pop out of the water when hit by a trout. Rather, when a fish strikes it from below, the water above cushions the blow, allowing the bait to stay in the fish's mouth.

Another Jack favorite is the popular freshwater soft plastic jerkbait called the Slug-Go. Looking much like a plain plastic worm, the Slug-Go is one of the original soft plastic jerkbaits. With no built-in action, it falls tantalizingly when left alone, and twitches erratically when given a little action.

“I really like to use it without any weight. I'll walk them just like the Corkies, except with these baits, you can make them jump out of the water, so I'll work them a little closer to the surface,” says Jack.

Those who regularly fish the surf, or any trout terrain for that matter, will occasionally experience a time when conditions are ideal and there is simply nothing happening. For these and other tough times, Jack has an ace in the hole.

“Sometimes when I can't seem to find a combination that works, I'll fall back on that old motor oil color in either a grub or a cocaho minnow, and it will produce,” he said. “The split-tail grub in that color is a good one, too. It's like a sparkle beetle without the sparkle.”

The experimentation theme continues with Jack's approach to fishing bottom structure scoured by the Gulf's current and waves.

“What I like to find is some kind of discontinuity, like where the sandbar breaks,” he said. “Sometimes you can see what I call ‘troubled’ water where the water is flowing out of that break.

Techniques for fishing these areas are not difficult to follow.

“I start out with my idea of what makes the most sense, like throwing the bait upcurrent and working it with the current, but many times I end up trying a bunch of different things to see what works,” said Jack.

Persistence and simply trying areas where one would not think of fishing are examples of Jack's wandering way of doing things. Following a set of rules, logical as they may be, can prevent fishermen from unexpected success.

“I've found that it often pays to stick with artificials when the water is dirty. You might not catch as many fish, but it's possible that you'll catch bigger fish,” he said.

There are plenty of dangers in the surf that do have hard and fast rules to which Jack adheres. The merciless summer sun and all-around reflection from the water behooves anglers to take care of themselves when it comes to choosing clothing and sunscreen.

“I've got a funny-looking hat that I wear in the water,” he said. “It's hard sometimes to put on due to the heat, but I've already had some things frozen off.

“Of course, those long sleeve fishing shirts are not that big of a deal because you can always bend down in the water and get cool.

Feeding birds are a dead giveaway to trout activity. Jack’s bike makes it easy for him to move between flocks of birds.
Feeding birds are a dead giveaway to trout activity. Jack’s bike makes it easy for him to move between flocks of birds.

Also, Jack takes no chances when dealing with hardhead catfish, one of the most reviled inhabitants of the surf. On the occasions when he uses live bait, these bottom-hugging predators frequently help themselves to an offering. Jack disposes of them with utmost care.

“When I do use live bait and catch a catfish, I'll wade back to shore to take care of it,” he said.

When conditions dictate, Jack will deprive himself of his multi-hooked baits.

“A lot of times in the surf, I try to use single-hook baits,” he said, “especially if it's a little rough out there and you get beat up by the waves. I try to use single-hook baits with the least possible chance of getting hooked out there.”

Jack makes a point to say how important it is to take care of the numerous cuts and scrapes one receives when in the surf. Much different from fishing from a boat, wade fishing involves direct and repeated contact with salt water and all things that inhabit it. The Vibrio bacteria, seen last year in a Louisiana Sportsman feature, is ripe for generation in the waist-deep water.

“I had a brother-in-law who got a little cut on his hand years ago when he was visiting us,” said Jack. “He went back to Austin and spent a couple of days in the hospital. There's no way to be certain, but from what I've read and what I can remember, that's probably what it was.”