By JOHN McQUEEN
|Photo by CAPT. TOMMY PELLEGRIN
|Early season doves, like this one
shot by Jessica Hutchinson of Central, are almost always residents.
Migratory birds don’t arrive until the second and third splits.
The early morning ride through a 2-foot chop was much shorter
than the crew had expected. Four anglers eager to do battle with
red snapper were prepared for the long boat trip indicative of
the species' deep water domain. But the targeted production platform
that September day came just 30 minutes from clearing Cat Island
Looks of puzzlement turned almost immediately to readiness and
satisfaction as they picked out rods and staked out corners of
the 30-foot Gravois High Life.
A pair of anglers curiously looked over Capt. Tommy Pellegrin’s
shoulder as he took turns observing his sonar and his boat's position
on the South Timbalier rig. The sonar unit showed a school of
fish near the bottom at 65 feet, fish identified as snapper by
the Houma charter skipper.
“Some of the best action of the year takes place this time of
year in as little as 55 feet of water,” said Pellegrin, owner
of Custom Charters. “Let's get some lines in the water.”
Anglers typically think of snapper fishing as an adventure entailing
long, choppy boat rides and action at the end of the line that
can reach depths of 200 feet. As water temperatures head south,
these tasty bottom fish do the opposite along the Louisiana coastline,
providing superb close-in action with a twist.
Seconds after the baits hit the strike zone, the pecking of
hungry predators registered through the rods, with a high percentage
of the instructed long, steady swings turning into hookups. The
relatively shallow water aided in the good strike-to-hookup ratios,
something that can be tough in the fish's summertime habitat.
“You've got a pretty good bow in the (monofilament) line when
fishing deep,” said Pellegrin. “I've tried the braided lines,
but most people like to set the hook.”
Circle hooks are the preferred weapon of nearly every bottom
fishermen these days. It is unusual to have a fish not hooked
in the corner of the mouth when fishing with the short hooks invented
by the Japanese.
Bottom fishing guides generally instruct anglers using circle
hooks to let the fish swim off with the bait and tightening up
on the fish by cranking the reel. Pellegrin takes a different
approach to the circle hook learning curve while satisfying his
customers’ instinct to rear back on a fish.
|Photo by TODD MASSON
|Chumming is a great way to fish for
anglers who want to put some snapper in their freezers before
the season closes.
“I use Snapper Snatcher rods for a few reasons. One is their
length (6 feet, 8 inches). People have a tendency to jerk shorter
rods, and the mechanics of circle hooks is the movement of the
hook, not jerking the hook into place,” said Pellegrin. “Ideally,
you want to make a long sweep on that rod to move that circle
hook enough to make it effective. The action of these rods makes
it so people can pretty much do it anyway they want, as long as
it's not that quick jerk.”
Pellegrin smiled as the fish came into view on his customers'
lines. Years of experience told him it was time. The additional
darting flashes of color shadowing the hooked fish confirmed it.
After the captain tossed over a handful of halved and quartered
Spanish sardines, the starboard side of the boat resembled a coi
pond as a half dozen trailing red snapper wolfed down the free
“It's something that happens this time of year,” said Pellegrin
as he flipped a fat keeper into the fish box and tossed another
handful of chum into the clean green water. “Usually around September
when we get some cool weather, the fish in the shallower water
start following the hooked fish to the surface.”
The number of fish at the surface soon swelled to double digits,
and the beauty of the bright-red fish took hold. Three members
of the party simply stood there, looking into the water at the
frenzy of feeding fish before the verbal salvos from the type-A
“Did y’all come out here to fish or just enjoy the scenery,”
roared a burly member of the party as an 18-incher showed its
strength in the close quarters.
The message received, the gawkers got back to business with
a rich tapestry of come-backs and insults concerning the mouthy
angler's catch. The next round of fish barely required free-spool
on the Daiwa Sealine reel. Baits were grabbed by the voracious
fish within spitting distance of the boat. A cane pole would have
been an effective weapon.
The hand-to-hand contact took some getting used to as excited
anglers quickly forgot their circle-hook education and yanked
the hook away from their eager quarry.
Soon, though, the fish box began to fill as the fishermen learned
to gently lean into the fish mere yards from the boat.
Though the fishing remains solid in the deep (100-foot) blocks
to the southwest of Wine Island Pass, Pellegrin often turns his
vessel toward the closer South Timbalier blocks when September's
cooler temperatures finally arrive.
“Generally speaking, shallow-water fish are going to be smaller,”
said Pellegrin. “That's not to say that we don't catch any big
ones, but sometimes they're a little shy about coming to the top.”
|Photo by JOHN McQUEEN
|Fluorocarbon leaders come in handy
when wary mangroves move up to feast on the chum.
Pellegrin typically fishes the Ship Shoal and Eugene Island waters
where but a select few charter skippers are willing to run. Fast,
heavy-duty boats and anglers willing to make a long boat ride
are rewarded with hefty catches of snapper, amberjack, lemonfish
Cocodrie's location makes it a manageable ride to the South
Timbalier oil and gas platforms, and the water depth typically
associated with the red snapper's comfort zone, but these waters’
proximity to Port Fourchon and Grand Isle ensure that they are
“The thing about Ship Shoal is that it's far enough from any
port that the rigs don't get picked over like the South Timbalier,
Grand Isle or West Delta blocks,” said Pellegrin. “There's not
too many boats that will make that long run.”
There's a good reason for Ship Shoal's namesake. A glance at
the depth finder on the ride out will show a seemingly endless
reading of about 55 feet. It takes a 40-mile-plus ride to reach
the productive platforms in the 200 blocks and even longer to
reach the blocks coveted by rodeo anglers.
Though the action in the Timbalier area takes place in water
depths similar to that of the closer Ship Shoal blocks to the
west, Pellegrin has found that the fish tend to be scarce on the
vast expanse of water around 50 or 60 feet.
“Right where it starts to drop off is where the biggest congregations
of fish are located,” said Pellegrin.
Snapper that are lured to the surface can be finicky if a crew
goes overboard in its chumming duties. Pellegrin says that it
is important not to feed the fish to the point where they are
reluctant to strike baits.
“We're not really chumming the fish to the surface. The hooked
fish generally do that themselves,” said Pellegrin. “You want
to throw out enough to keep them on the surface, but not too much
that you're feeding them.”
In extreme cases, simplifying tackle can put shy snapper in
the box. Tying a hook to one's main line and freelining dead baits
to fish can bring good results, though this technique is usually
only necessary in extreme cases.
|Photo by JOHN E. PHILLIPS
|The lemonfish get shallow this time
of year at rigs that are very near to the southern Terrebonne
“In all the time I've been fishing, there's only been one stretch
of days when I had to switch to fluorocarbon leaders,” said Pellegrin.
“And it only lasted three days before it switched back.”
LSU Ag Center biologist Jerald Horst says that it is a mystery
why the fish move to shallow water and act so aggressively this
time of year.
“I can't say that it is water temperature because the fish begin
their move before there is a real break in temperature,” said
Horst. “It well could be the amount of day-length, (like the way
certain) birds migrate.
“They're probably not fattening up for the winter, because the
fish feed actively throughout the winter. That's why many fishermen
feel cheated with the season. They miss some of the best fishing
all year in January and February.”
With the fish in plain sight, September angling is also an ideal
time to see just how strong the fish are. Tackle generally reserved
for trout and redfish are put to the test when the saucer-shaped
fish turn their bodies like bull bluegills. Bring plenty of tackle
if you choose this method, as there are plenty of toothy critters
to crash the party, and an out-sized snapper can easily take trout
tackle into the rig.
Fluorocarbon line can also aid in tempting gray snapper to bite
around the shallow rigs they call home most of the year. Commonly
known as mangrove snapper, these fish make up a nice portion of
the day's catch on many outings.
While frozen pogies are the most-popular bait for snapper in
any season, Pellegrin is adamant about his choice of bait whenever
the subject comes up. Spanish sardines shipped in from Florida
are the only choice.
“I think it's because sardines are open-water fish, while pogies
are more of a shoreline fish,” he said.
Pellegrin added that frozen pogies available in most bait shops
are processed to the point where most of the slime is washed off
the fish, cutting down on the smell the baitfish exude.
The 10-year veteran captain will gladly take fresh or live pogies.
A well-placed cast net can fill a livewell and cooler full of
comparable baits on the way to the fishing grounds.
“They have such a strong smell,” said Pellegrin. “You can find
them around the passes at the barrier island where there's plenty
of moving water.”
Since snapper are seldom, if ever, positioned on the surface,
a good depth-sounder is crucial to finding the location of the
fish on the rig. Most of the time during the cooler months, the
fish are positioned on the bottom, but can be very picky as to
where they relate to the structure.
“I always circle the rig to see on the sonar where the main
body of fish is located,” said Pellegrin.
If your boat doesn't have a fish finder, Pellegrin offers a
few tips to locating fish around the platforms.
“Usually, the fish will be located on the side of the rig, current-wise,”
he said, “not exactly upcurrent, but on the side of the structure.
“The fish are typically on the bottom in the shallow water,
but sometimes you will have to move up a bit. When you do get
them, these fish are like piranhas.”
A nice bonus to fishing the shallow rigs in the fall is the
return of the migratory body of cobia — lemonfish as they're known
locally — to shallow water as they make their way east. Scientists
say that some fish simply move out to deep water for the winter.
Pellegrin has a theory about the migratory fish's tendency to
be closer to shore on the second leg of the cobia's annual round
“This time of year, the lemonfish are following the coast back
east. They come back through following the coast from Texas,”
he said. “In the spring they come around the mouth of the Mississippi
River and make a straight shot offshore toward Texas. Now, they're
doing the exact opposite.”
Among the Gulf's most desired fish as far as tablefare, lemonfish
are maddeningly unpredictable in their eating habits. At times,
they will gobble anything in sight, with reports from oilfield
personnel indicating that they have taste for galley leftovers.
Just as often, they'll refuse anything with a hook.
For most encounters with cobia, action falls somewhere in the
middle. In addition to concentrating efforts on smaller platforms
and upcurrent of larger structure, Pellegrin has a few tips for
anglers encountering lemonfish.
“When you come across a finicky one, take half a baitfish and
put it where the fish can see it. When he gets about 6 inches
from the bait, take it away. Repeat that step until he's ready
to eat,” said Pellegrin. “When that white lateral line shows up,
you won't be quick enough to take it away from him.”
When you come to the realization that snapper fishing and its
myriad creel and seasonal regulations just don't warrant the work
required to make an offshore trip, wait until the evenings begin
to cool a bit and monitor the Gulf's water temperature. A drop
into the 70s is the signal to making that four-fish limit a bit
Keep the chum and a jig rod handy, and when the fish come up
and the water next to the boat resembles the Gulf of Mexico exhibit
at the Aquarium of the Americas, enjoy the show. Just don't forget
Capt. Tommy Pellegrin can be reached at (985) 851-3304.