By JOHN McQUEEN
|Photo by TODD MASSON
|A trout will hold onto a soft-plastic
jerkbait for a long time because of the bait’s natural feel.
The stretch of shoreline looked like it was tailor-made for a
pack of redfish to be roaming for a mid-morning meal. But, it
wasn't really all that different looking than the others we'd
come across in the Myrtle Grove marsh that morning, and I was
more than a little frustrated.
A great start to the trip with Capt. Kirby LaCour had fizzled
into an embarrassing string of angler errors, and my horrid flycasting
form had my right elbow stiff. Now the reds were bolting right
and left with no tolerance for our stealthy approach. They were
even less impressed with the switch to a 1/4-ounce gold spoon
on 8-pound spinning tackle.
A small french fry worm threaded Texas style onto an offset
2/0 worm hook became Plan C after some thought and discussion.
The weightless offering slithered across the grass after a pillow-soft
entry and after a few casts, the table was set for my introduction
into the world of soft plastic jerkbaits.
LaCour kept his mouth shut upon spying a 6-pound red staked
out on the edge of a grass bed we were working. He just smiled
that guide smile from the poling platform, knowing what was about
to happen as my bait continued its inexorable path to contact.
The depth charge hit just when I was at my most vulnerable,
far from highest alert.
“Whoa!!!” was among the many exclamations and the only one proper
for polite company as the fish launched itself into the worm and
headed for the middle of the grass bed and out the other end.
The grass and fish bent the line at a 90-degree angle, and only
good fortune allowed us to land the beauty after some creative
The bait, carrying various monikers such as Slug-Gos, Do Nothing
worms and twitch baits in the bass angling fraternity, can be
a superb asset in cold-weather months when coastal fish's diets
consist almost entirely of finfish. Soft plastic jerkbaits (SPJB)
just happen to fit the size and profile of a finger mullet and
come in dozens of colors to match water and sunlight conditions
in the state’s inshore waters. When rigged weightless, they can
serve as a tool whose action and ability to stay in the strike
zone make them irresistible to trophy trout and redfish.
One of the pioneers in the application of SPJBs is Capt. Chad
Billiot of Marsh Rat Guide Service. Plying the waters of both
sides of Bayou Lafourche from Cut Off to the Gulf of Mexico, one
of Billiot's favorite waters is the old Sulphur Mine in the Point
au Chien WMA.
“I grew up about five minutes from the Mine and never even fished
it until well after they jerked all the pipes out of it,” said
Billiot of the myriad structures that dotted the waterway left
from the production facility. “The thing that makes it a great
area for all sorts of fish is the deep holes and channels dredged
when they built it.”
|Photo by JOHN McQUEEN
|Guide Chad Billiot especially likes
to work soft-plastic jerkbaits in the Sulphur Mine when the
water has a clear, dark color to it.
Speckled trout take to SPJBs as well, and it was a cold December
morning a couple of years ago with Billiot and fly-fishing buddy
Jeanine Gesser when I made their acquaintance with the funny little
baits. We arrived at the Mine with the idea of taking specks on
the flats with fly gear and then heading to the ponds when the
sun came up to sight-fish for reds.
I was “allowed” to take the spacious back deck of Billiot’s
22-foot Pathfinder, and soon a pair of rhythmic backcasts from
the front deck were whizzing through the air. It was clear the
airspace didn’t need another one.
“You know, if y’all are gonna do this, I’ve got to bum one of
your rods," I said, looking over my options in the rod locker.
“You break it, you buy it,” said Billiot, strip-setting a schoolie
speck and chuckling at its lunging efforts for escape. Billiot’s
intimate knowledge of the Mine’s underwater intricacies had put
us on fish almost immediately.
I picked a nice Calcutta and Falcon combination with a Top Dog
tied on and endured snide “Commie tackle” comments from Gesser
as the plug sailed far and true on the windless morning.
A few casts and some half-hearted slaps from trout had me rummaging
again. An Opening Night Bass Assassin on a 5/0 Mustad worm hook
piqued my interest and met the approval of our guide.
“That's a great bait when they're not quite in the mood for
topwater,” said Billiot, “Just work it like a topwater but a little
slower. And you've got to set the hook on these fish.”
The calm conditions and quality equipment accentuated the learning
curve when it came to casting and working the bait, and after
a few casts, a bucket-sized swirl broke the placid surface. I
forgot to gather in all of the slack, but the boat-rocking hookset
did the job. The trout’s head-shaking machinations sent the Texas-rigged
plastic body 3 feet up the line, a favorable aspect keeping the
lure’s weight off of the hook and its skin-tearing energy out
of the fish's mouth.
The purists didn't offer a net, but the extra-wide-gap hook
had grabbed hold of plenty of the trout’s cheek, and the strong
Maxima line held as the 21-incher came over the side. Instantly,
I was sold on SPJBs as an alternative to topwaters.
SPJBs use the same principle as the popular Texas-based Corky
and the popular MirrOlure Catch 2000, two tantalizingly slow sinkers
proven deadly on outsized trout. With no built-in action, the
baits mimic a struggling baitfish when twitched and paused, a
favorite meal for big trout slowed by winter’s chill and their
This action creates and depends upon slack in the line, so the
baits are often frustrating to anglers using them for the first
time. It's easy to give in to the temptation of watching a topwater
do its dance or popping a cork, but anglers who put the time into
learning the bait’s nuances are often rewarded with hefty fish
boxes and, on the right days, fat paychecks.
“It's the bait we used in the redfish tournament,” said Billiot,
referring to the Lafitte event held in September, where he and
fellow guide Chad Dufrene took 11th place. “The fish we had patterned
were caught sight-fishing, and this is a really good bait for
thoroughly working the skinny water.”
|Photo by JOHN McQUEEN
|Soft-plastic jerkbaits can be rigged
with the hook exposed to ensure easier hooksets or with the
hook buried to make the baits weedless.
Working the baits is not the only difference anglers face in
dealing with SPJBs. Those used to firing off lengthy casts with
leadheads and hard-plastic lures may need to adjust and even scale
down to lighter tackle. Though the difference may initially seem
insurmountable, a little practice, familiarity and experimentation
with gear can make the transition worth it.
“This is really different from most any other technique,” said
Billiot, referring to the foreign notion of finesse casting and
working of a bait that one cannot see and sometimes cannot even
feel. “The payoff is catching bigger fish on days when they won't
pull the trigger on topwater baits.”
Billiot uses the Bass Assassin 5-inch Saltwater Shad jerkbait.
Though the baits come in over 60 colors, he depends mainly on
three for his assaults on Sulphur Mine trophies. Morning Glory
(black with red and silver flecks) and Gold Pepper Shiner work
in low light, and the popular Opening Night gets the nod when
the sun shines overhead. Offset worm hooks such as the 5/0 Mustad
Ultra Point Mega Bite do the job in grabbing hold of the fish's
meaty cheek rather than the soft lips.
Rigging these baits depends largely on the situation, but keeping
the bait straight is a common theme in their application.
In areas with lots of grass, these baits have a distinct advantage
in working thicker areas where reds and bigger trout roam. Texas-rigging
them like bass worms works wonderfully. Other options include
the technique of “skinning” the bait using hooks featuring an
inverted point. This is accomplished by bringing the point all
the way through the other side of the body and then hooking it
slightly on the surface so that the point is protected from vegetation.
Either way, it's important to try to “cross their eyes” when
setting the hook, a far cry from the hooksets accomplished by
most trout anglers.
“You've got to forget all the things you've learned about setting
the hook on trout,” said Billiot. “When you're working the bait
with the hook buried in the plastic, you've got to really drop
the hammer on them.”
In areas devoid of vegetation, anglers can either Texas rig
the bait with the point exposed or thread the hook onto the bait
the way one would thread a regular jighead. Most hook shanks used
for this purpose are much longer, and care must be taken in keeping
them straight. The slightest kink can send the bait into a spin
when retrieved, negating its designed “non-action” and causing
The Sulphur Mine offers anglers superb fishing in a relatively
small area. Featuring a deep hole in the middle and numerous natural
bayous, the Mine has clean water most all of the time. In fact,
Billiot is a bit spoiled when deciding whether to fish the area
“A lot of people think I'm crazy when I say that I don't like
the looks of the water,” said Billiot. “I like it to be that deep
Good areas to start are the numerous flats surrounding the Mine’s
perimeter. Getting out of the wind is crucial not only in finding
concentrations of bait, but for keeping contact with one’s lure.
The Mine has many tree-lined banks protecting fish-filled areas.
Some of the best fishing of the season can be found the day prior
to a front’s passage when southerly winds blow through. Maps of
the area show several protected flats on the south side, and fishing
them can pay big dividends when mixed with a flooding tide.
Take care to steer clear of the large flat on the extreme south
side on the backside of the downed power line. Billiot warns that
the area is extremely shallow and full of stumps. Other areas
to avoid while running are the extreme northeast side (a popular
entrance to the area from Bason's Launch in Galliano) and the
second gap from the western bank near the numerous wellheads.
Both areas contain submerged pilings sure to ruin a good day on
Perfect water color and relative calm are not nearly as important
as other things in fishing the area. Good tidal movement and baitfish
are certainly not original thoughts in the search of speckled
trout, but the wild card in taking a trophy fish from the Mine
is to reach down and find the introvert within.
“The Mine can get crowded in a real hurry, especially on the
weekends,” said Billiot, noting that area launches are busy very
early in the winter months with duck hunters using the WMA and
adjacent leases. “The best advice I can give is to get here early,
find an area with some bait working, and get as far away from
others as possible.”
Big trout are known for their lack of tolerance for anything
unusual in their environment, even when their feed is on. Even
disturbances such as smaller fish feeding and being brought in
by anglers are enough to run off larger specimens. Thrashing school
trout sounds and vibrations are not natural to bigger fish. SPJBs
can be an ideal weapon for these fish with their soft entry into
the water and slow, erratic action. Just be quiet about it.
“Don't ever forget that big trout are a completely different
animal than the smaller ones in the way that they feed,” said
Billiot. “It's tough to pull away from 20-inch fish, but if you
want a shot at a really big one, that's what you have to do.”
With the season’s conditions being predicated on the parade
of cold fronts that move through he area, it's important to recognize
the impact of the cold weather on fish as the season progresses.
Fish that experience a strong cold front in late November and
early December are going to act much differently than the same
fish later in the year when they've had time to adjust. Early
fish will stack in the deep holes after the front's passage, while
late fish are much more tolerant of the cold conditions.
“My favorite time of the year is probably late January and February,”
said Billiot, “I've caught fish on the flats that time of year
in two feet of water when it was 34 degrees.”
Cold-water fish demand a slow presentation and will rarely rise
to a walking topwater bait. Lures such as Catch 2000s and SPJBs
were made for these applications. Billiot is a big believer in
the Catch 2000, but points out a key advantage that soft plastics
“The Catch 2000 has a lot of weight on its hooks,” said Billiot
of the hook-freeing energy produced by the plugs. “I'd really
rather have a single hook when she comes out of the water shaking
If you've taken the plunge and learned the intricacies of the
Catch 2000, pick up a pack of Saltwater Assassins and some worm
hooks for your next trip. Same principles, more colors, lower
price per bait, and fewer lost fish. Just be sure to get away
from that boat catching the schoolies.