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Cocodrie Chums
Lure snapper and lemonfish to the side of your boat with this veteran captain's techniques.

By JOHN McQUEEN

Pellegrin gets so many snapper up to the surface that the water next to the boat resembles a goldfish pond at a Chinese restaurant.
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 Pass.

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.

Chumming is a great way to fish for anglers who want to put some snapper in their freezers before the season closes.
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 meal.

“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 personalities began.

“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.”

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 and grouper.

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 fished hard.

“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.

The lemonfish get shallow this time of year at rigs that are very near to the southern Terrebonne coast.
The lemonfish get shallow this time of year at rigs that are very near to the southern Terrebonne coast.

“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 trip.

“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 more entertaining.

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 to fish.

Capt. Tommy Pellegrin can be reached at (985) 851-3304.