Pickin’ marsh punkins — Sight-fishing tips for redfish

Yeah, blind casting will put redfish in the boat. But this accomplished tournament fisherman has a lot more fun watching his reds eat lures.

It really did look jes’ like a big ole orange punkin in the water — except for those two big, black eyes staring back at me. I knew it could see us standing high up on the boat’s platform, just as well as we could see it.

We were eyeball to eyeball 15 feet apart in 18-inch-deep water. Clear water — really clear water.

He had to see us when he casually took the gold spoon; he ate it anyway.

I couldn’t believe it.

I was with redfish tournament angler Stevie Nick. From Delacroix, we ran from Bayou Terre aux Boeufs, up Oak River in the direction of the Chalmette refinery on the horizon. Any more detail he wouldn’t give me.

Let him explain.

“I’m very secretive about exact spots,” Nick said. “The rest of it (shallow-water redfish sightfishing) I’m very willing to share. Other people taught me; I believe that we are all put on this earth to help each other.

“I like to fish near the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion. It’s all fresh water there. It has big, male crabs and lots of mullets. The redfish don’t leave here like at Biloxi Marsh. There they have to move more.

“Here they are like a fat man on a couch. The fish are fatter — the right type of fish we are looking for in a tournament, where you need the two heaviest fish under 27 inches long to win. We find these fish high up Delacroix and West Pointe a la Hache.”

Redfish thrive in the marsh habitats created by the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion project.
Redfish thrive in the marsh habitats created by the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion project.

Fat fish

Finding the “right fish” is important to competitive redfish anglers. Unlike bass tournament competitors, where the bigger the fish the better, no redfish 27 inches long or longer can be entered, so two fat fish that weigh a few ounces more than the others will make the difference between winning and not.

Nick likes the “fat fish” of Delacroix.

He explained that he would soon be running from a tournament location in Grand Isle all the way to “high up Delacroix” for his fish. The two-hour run each way would leave only three and a half hours to fish.

Sightfishing for redfish competitively demands alterations both to the boat and the fisherman’s way of thinking.

Nick’s boat set-up

A fairly shallow-draft boat is needed. Nick uses a Blazer Bay.

“The boat shouldn’t draw over 12 inches sitting (still),” he explained. “Some tower boats draw only 4 inches of water, but they are hard boats to travel with. Also, having trim tabs will help you get the up in shallow water.”

A tower or elevated platform on the bow of the boat is also necessary. Nick’s platform is roomier than average and 4 feet tall. Some tower boats have towers towering 10 feet high. On these boats, controls for the big motor are placed in the tower.

Platforms can be collapsible or permanently mounted in the boat. Taller ones are always permanent. Nick’s is permanently strapped into place.

He cautioned that platforms and towers can interfere with a hull’s performance. Air flow under these fishing stands can create lift, which can result in propeller cavitation.

Stevie Nick’s tournament boat is rigged with an elevated casting platform, twin shallow water anchors and a remotely controlled trolling motor.
Stevie Nick’s tournament boat is rigged with an elevated casting platform, twin shallow water anchors and a remotely controlled trolling motor.

For good reason, a wireless trolling motor control is necessary.

“You want to be high,” he explained. “The higher you are the better you can see.

“But any movement up on the platform will spook the fish. If you can see them, they can see you.”

Nick uses a Minn Kota I-Pilot.

Nick stalks his redfish after sighting them, making high-quality polarized sunglasses a necessity.

Repeatedly throughout the morning, he stressed how much he hated “blind casting;” hooking and fighting redfish too large or small not only wastes time, a precious commodity in a tournament, but it can spook the right fish nearby.

When fishing in a tournament, he actually picks the fish he wants to catch —what he calls the “right fish.” These are defined as redfish as close to 27 inches long as possible, but not a millimeter longer. Not only do the right fish have to be exactly the right length, they have to be fat — thick-bodied specimen that weigh the most for their length.

Tournaments can be won or lost on fractions of an ounce.

Stevie Nick says it is a must for a sight fisherman’s boat to be equipped with two shallow water anchors.
Stevie Nick says it is a must for a sight fisherman’s boat to be equipped with two shallow water anchors.

The best time of day

On this morning, fishing was a struggle. By 9:30 a.m. he had caught only two small reds, each far short of 27 inches long.

That didn’t bother Nick at all. The best sightfishing, he had explained earlier, occurs between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. because the sun penetrates the water better and the boat throws less of a fish-spooking shadow, an important consideration because Nick always attempts to fish with the sun to his back.

His third fish was a largemouth bass, which seemed to delight him.

“Bass mean redfish,” he quipped as he released the fish.

He stood stoically on his casting platform without casting for what seemed like hours. One hand held the remote control for the trolling motor; the other hand’s thumb was on his casting reel’s release bar.

He stayed on his toes. His head moved back and forth as his eyes scanned the water for sign of a redfish on the prowl. Then he saw mullets moving. Immediately after that he spotted a pair of reds.

They followed his lure closer to the boat, and then turned away. It was obvious they could see us. He made four or five short casts with a gold spoon to tease them into action.

Finally, one grabbed it. The 9 ½-pounder was 28 ½ inches long —too long for a tournament, but fun to catch on an outing with an outdoor writer.

In the groove

After that, the pace picked up. Still holding a rod rigged with a weedless gold spoon, Nick slipped the boat along a scum line. Another brilliantly orange fish popped into view.

Nick struck as soon as the fish took the spoon to keep the fish from swallowing the lure and deep-hooking itself. But he struck a moment too soon, and the bait came out of the fish’s mouth.

But this fish wanted to eat and kept following the lure closer and closer to the boat with each cast. Meanwhile the boat was gently drifting toward the fish.

Finally, not more than 15 feet from the boat the fish opened its mouth and ate the spoon again. It was 25 ¼ inches long and weighed 6 ½ pounds.

Netting a strong redfish while fighting it demands Nick’s concentration.
Netting a strong redfish while fighting it demands Nick’s concentration.

Tidal movement was almost slack, yet the bite heated up. The fish were feeding aggressively.

The next one Nick judged a perfect tournament-sized fish. He got excited.

“That’s a tournament fish! That’s a tournament fish,” he repeated. “It’s a monster! It’s a monster!”

He alternated between whispering, pleading and panting. He wanted it, and he got it — one over 26 ½ inches, but under 27 inches long.

This one took a NetBait Baby Paca Craw, Nick’s favorite lure.

One fish followed the other after that. Nick was in a zone.

“This water is beautiful. It’s black water,” he exclaimed several times between fish. “There is no way it would be possible for me to find these ponds without using the Standard Mapping E-card on my Lowrance GPS unit.”

Nick’s enthusiasm was contagious, but after several more catch-and-releases, I asked him to call it a day. He grinned broadly as he put his rod up and gave me a perfect quote.

“The coolest thing about sightfishing is seeing the fish eat the hand-picked bait you are presenting,” Nick said. “There’s nothing like seeing that fish turn on your bait and chomp on it.”

How Stevie got in his groove

A relative youngster at 34, Stevie Nick wasn’t always interested in redfish. As a kid, the Lacombe resident started fishing for speckled trout in the Biloxi Marsh in St. Bernard Parish.

Good-natured, but competitive, Stevie Nick has a passion for sight fishing for “marsh pumpkins,” as he calls black water redfish.
Good-natured, but competitive, Stevie Nick has a passion for sight fishing for “marsh pumpkins,” as he calls black water redfish.

“I used to tell Chad Dufrene, one of the top 10 redfish tournament anglers in the state, ‘I don’t know why you choose those stupid redfish. Why not go out and catch 100 trout?’

“Then Todd Fitzmorris started taking me sightfishing for redfish. From there, Keith Bird hooked me on tournament redfishing. Now, I only fish trout in the off season (November to February), when I can‘t get in my (redfish) ponds.

“I think of myself now as a professional tournament angler, and (I) compete in all seven of the Louisiana Saltwater Series events and Inshore Fishing Association events (called the ‘Redfish Circuit’). I won a $30,000 Ranger boat in the May 2013 IFA tournament. I fished in the Faux Pas Tournament last year and won all five redfish categories.

“My partners in 2013 tournaments were Josh Hall, Matthew Whitman, Kris Robert and Bennie Sanchez.”

All this gobbles huge amounts of time. Last year, he fished an incredible 208 days. Believe it or not, the previous year he fished more — 256 days.

Obviously, he has job flexibility. He works part-time as a salesman and field tester for Standard Mapping Services, the company that produces up-to-date, laminated fishing maps from satellite images, as well as their new line of map E-cards that plug into HDS GPS units.

Nick has taken 2014 off from the competitive circuit to finish course work in pursuit of his goal of becoming a substance abuse counselor.

What to look for

Accomplished tournament angler Stevie Nick doesn’t just pick a pond and put his trolling motor down. Instead, he has very exacting requirements for fishing areas.

“I’m looking for grass — the right kind of grass,” Nick explained as he quietly trolled over a huge shallow flat.

The right kind of grass is coontail or water milfoil. He doesn’t want duckweed, which he said interferes with bait presentation.

“Scum,” as Nick called dense mats of algae, is also undesirable, although he will work his boat along the edges of a scum line.

“The best grass is broken into clumps enough so that I can work a trolling motor and bait through them,” he explained. “If the grass is piled up, it’s a waste of time.”

Large mats of dense grass prevent effective boat maneuvering and bait presentation.
Large mats of dense grass prevent effective boat maneuvering and bait presentation.

He also looks for the perfect sight-fishing water.

“I want black water — very clear water stained brown,” Nick said. “If you look at the trolling motor head and it is stained yellow, it is the right water.

“Redfish will light up like pumpkins, and they are easy to see. They are golden.”

Perfect conditions include a bright sun and clear skies to make sighting fish easier. Naturally, the less wind the better; wind creates ripples on the water’s surface that make lure presentation difficult.

“That’s why we use rods with mico guides,” he said. “They allow precision casting.”

And he actually prefers water to be pushing in.

“A lot of people prefer falling tides,” Nick said. “I disagree: You don’t have to worry about getting stuck on a mud flat (with a rising tide), and I still catch fish.”

Ideal tide ranges are .4 to 1.3 feet.

The rule is to follow the fish, he explained. Wind and tides move the fish out of the shallows as the water falls out.

“The bait moves out and the redfish move out behind it into deep ponds or Oak River,” Nick said.

Ideally, the best conditions in the area include an east wind. Because of Nick’s strong preference for fishing with the sun behind his back instead of in his face, an east wind allows him to drift more and use his trolling motor less, creating less noise in the shallow water.

“I am also looking for areas that haven’t been burned through — those are areas that have been run through with a big motor,” he said. “It makes dirty water. Some tower boats are run through shallow areas to move the fish. (Boat operators) can count the fish and check their sizes so they can come back in a tournament and fish them.

“I always start fishing inside, in water shallower than crab traps are set. Crabbers stir the water up regularly when they run their traps. It takes three or four days with good tides to clear up the water in shallow ponds.”

Sightfishing for redfish in shallow water ponds is best from April through October.

Rigging up for sight-fishing redfish

Stevie Nick has a simplistic approach to sight-fishing.

“You don’t need a hundred different lures for this,” he said. “There’s baits to catch fish, and there’s baits to catch fishermen. The three baits I use catch fish.”

His No. 1 bait is a NetBait Baby Paca Craw in Alabama craw color, rigged on a ¼-ounce Rockport Rattler jighead. He fishes the lure with a slow to moderate steady retrieve around and over vegetation.

The three lures Stevie Nick uses exclusively are (top to bottom) a 1/2-ounce gold Johnson Sprite spoon, an Alabama craw-colored NetBait Baby Paca Craw on a 1/4-ounce Rockport Rattler jighead and a lemonhead-colored Matrix Shad on a 1/4-ounce Goldeneye jighead.
The three lures Stevie Nick uses exclusively are (top to bottom) a 1/2-ounce gold Johnson Sprite spoon, an Alabama craw-colored NetBait Baby Paca Craw on a 1/4-ounce Rockport Rattler jighead and a lemonhead-colored Matrix Shad on a 1/4-ounce Goldeneye jighead.

When the water is deep or when fishing in heavy grass, he chunks a ½-ounce Johnson Sprite gold weedless spoon.

When using the latter lure, Nick slams the hook home as soon as the fish grabs it to prevent the fish from swallowing it.

“Deep-hooking can kill a redfish,” he explained, “which is fine for the ice chest, but dead fish can’t be entered in a tournament.”

The third lure he uses is a soft-plastic Matrix Shad on a ¼-ounce Goldeneye jighead. These are best where not much grass is present, and is fished with a jigging motion. The best time of the year to use the jig is March through May, before water grass growths becomes dense.

He presents his lures with 6 ½- to 7-foot medium-heavy extra-fast-action Falcon Bucoo rods. He favors Shimano Curado reels spooled with 40-pound-test PowerPro braided line tied dirctely to the lures.

“I’ve never had a problem doing that,” he said.

Tournament sightfishermen need other stuff, too. Nick insisted that the boat be equipped with twin shallow-water anchors.

“If you have only one (anchor), the boat will swing,” he said. His choice is Power-Pole brand.He also always keeps a 15-pound Boga Grip handy.

“It doesn’t produce puncture holes, and is accurate to a fourth of a pound.”

Once the fish is boated, the fisherman needs an angled, hands-free measuring board with a tail pincher to evaluate the size of the fish immediately with the least stress on the fish. Fish are measured with their mouths closed and their tail tips pinched toward each other by the bracket-like tail pincher.

Using the exact equipment (made by Delaney Fabrications in Semmes, Alabama) as used at tournament weigh-ins eliminates a lot of controversy, Nick said.

Fish are placed carefully to the livewell to keep from injuring them.
Fish are placed carefully to the livewell to keep from injuring them.

Finally, a tournament angler needs a good livewell that is properly managed. Dead fish cannot be weighed in.

“You got to have a recirculating pump,” Nick said. “Pump the well full of good water, shut off outside access and recirculate the water in the well. Add ice to keep the temperature in the well at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

“An insulated system will hold its temperature all day.”

Nick carries a simple aquarium thermometer to monitor livewell water temperature.

As a final tip, Nick encouraged the use of Rejuvenade Livewell Formula made by Outdoor Specialty Products. The manufacturer recommends using a capful for each 20 gallons of water in the livewell.

“One dose will last for 25 hours,” he noted.

“Oh, don’t forget: Bring a push pole,” Nick grinned. “You never know when you might get stuck fishing in shallow water.”

About that e-card

Stevie Nick’s enthusiasm about the Standard Mapping E-card doesn’t stem from his employment with the company. Rather, he works for the company because he is a big fan of the e-card itself.

Of course, it helps that the job is flexible enough to allow him to fish more than most people can imagine.

Standard Mapping Services has long been known for producing detailed, laminated fishing maps from high-altitude aerial photography. The maps were, and still are, updated every two or three years because of Louisiana’s ever-changing geography.

E-cards, also called “GPS chips,” put the same information on fishermen’s GPS units, with the added benefit of allowing a fisherman or boat operator to zoom in electronically on any spot.

“The zoom-in feature is what allows me to pick out the small drains and lee shores that I could never see by any other means,” Nick said.

The Standard Mapping E-card allows anglers to zoom in from area coverage to such detail that even individual trees are visible on the screen.
The Standard Mapping E-card allows anglers to zoom in from area coverage to such detail that even individual trees are visible on the screen.

Standard Mapping Services owner Glenn Schurr said the problem in the past has been that the state’s coastal waters change so quickly that the only GPS screens available to boat operators showed their boats traveling over land masses that in actuality no longer exist.

“(Other company’s) software is based on government charts,” he said, “that are outdated. You can’t get lost with the E-cards. You have the confidence to go to new areas and explore. It broadens your horizons.

“You can bounce in and out of the card to see the old GPS display. The old, eroded islands are now often submerged reefs that offer good fishing.”

The mapping information is contained on an SD card that is inserted into a compatible GPS receiver. Schurr noted that the cards will work with Lowrance HDS, Simrad and B&G Marine Electronics.

Available for less than two years, Standard Mapping E-cards can be purchased anywhere that sells Standard Mapping Services traditional maps, such as independently-owned tackle stores and marinas.

Prices, according to Schurr, range from $79 for smaller cards up to $299 for the areal equivalent of what is now on a laminated map. Standard Mapping Services, he added, will take trade-ins of outdated cards when updated ones are purchased.

Glenn Schurr can be reached at 985-898-0025 or his cell 985-807-3765 to answer questions about his E-cards.

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Jerald Horst
About Jerald Horst 959 Articles
Jerald Horst is a retired Louisiana State University professor of fisheries. He is an active writer, book author and outdoorsman.