The marshes of St. Bernard Parish offer countless areas that are great for drift fishing and are within easy reach from a variety of popular locations. Many of the same areas that are productive in the spring and summer will produce winter fish — you just have to go at them a little differently.
Chet Held has been fishing the waters of St. Bernard for as long as he can remember. He was a lifelong resident of the parish until Katrina destroyed his home and forced him to move to nearby Pearl River. Held is not a charter captain, but you wouldn't know it by the trout he regularly brings home.
When it comes to wintertime drift fishing, Held has it down to a science. He uses this method to put trout in the boat on cold winter days when others won't even venture out.
"One of my favorite areas is the Twin Pipeline in Delacroix," he said. "The water is deeper and the fish stack up in there once the water temperature drops."
The Twin Pipeline runs north and south, and is perfect for drifting with a prevailing wintertime north wind.
"When the wind is coming out of the north, it's easy to just drift straight down the pipeline," Held said. "I usually start around Lake John and drift past Four Horse (Lake) all the way down to Round Lake."
Soft plastics are pulled behind the boat using 1/4- or 3/8-ounce jigheads depending on how fast the boat is moving.
"The key is that the jig must bounce on the bottom as the boat pulls it along," Held said. "If you're not feeling the oyster shells on the bottom, you won't catch a fish."
The speed of the drift will determine the weight of the jighead, and letting out more line will help get the bait on the bottom and into the strike zone.
Once a productive drift is made, the trick is to ease back upwind and repeat. You may only pick up a few fish on each drift, but they will quickly add up. Held advises to resist the temptation to throw the anchor once a few fish are located.
"More times than not, you will do better by making several drifts through an area than by sitting in one place. These fish are not active and won't come to you; you have to go to them," he said.
The bites will generally be subtle, and you should set the hook anytime you feel something different on your line. Holding your finger on the line will help feel when a trout strikes.
Due to the influx of fresh water in this area from the Caernarvon Diversion, submerged grass is common. If you quit getting bites, check your bait as it may be fouled with grass.
In addition to tight-lined soft plastics, Held also uses popping corks and a variety of suspending hard plastics.
"MirrOlures are great baits for drift fishing," he said. "They are great for locating fish while drifting across a lake because they can be worked in all directions around the boat."
Working the baits slowly and paying attention to any slight changes in feel will produce more successful hook-ups. A soft-plastic under a popping cork can also be a deadly combination for drift fishing. However, you won't work it as aggressively as you do in the summertime. Oftentimes, the trout will hit a plastic tail under a popping cork while it's sitting dead still in the water. Held advises adjusting the depth of the cork so that the bait sits at or near the bottom.
Held says the reason drifting is so successful is that it puts the bait right in front of fish that might otherwise not expend the effort to chase it down.
"You'll notice that these fish are muddy and have marks on their bellies," he said. "They're just lying on the bottom, but can't resist a bait that's dragged right in front of them."
Although winter trout can be found in deep holes during the coldest of temperatures, they regularly move into all but the shallowest of lakes and bays throughout the Delacroix area.
The Twin Pipeline is only one area that lends itself to good wintertime drift fishing. Nearby Four Horse Lake, Round Lake and Branville Bay all offer good drift fishing on any wind direction. Most of the popular spring and summer fishing spots will also produce trout during the winter.
Held also likes to drift through the many short passes and cuts between lakes and bays.
"It won't take long to drift through them, but if you catch fish, you can do it over and over again," he said.
Reggio and Hopedale also have unlimited areas to successfully drift fish. Reggio's Lake Amadee and Petain Lagoon and Hopedale's Bayou LaLoutre are perennial drifting favorites. The techniques used are the same, and drifting these areas will make you a successful wintertime fisherman.
Drifting winding bayous is more difficult than down a pencil-straight pipeline or a vast lake, but can be very productive. If your boat doesn't steer well while under only wind or current power, it may be necessary to intermittently use a trolling motor to maintain proper boat control. If you don't have a trolling motor, you can quickly start the main motor to get back in the right position.
On larger lakes such as Four Horse, it may take several drifts at various points across the lake to locate which runs are most productive.
"When you get to the end of your drift, quietly idle or troll widely back upwind and repeat. The last thing you want to do is run the boat through the area where you just caught fish," Held said.
Drifting is more than simply letting the wind blow you where it will. You want to control the boat so you can precisely cover certain areas and, more importantly, repeat the same drift if you locate fish. Held regularly uses a drift sock to slow the drifting speed and maintain proper boat position.
"A slow drift is especially helpful when using a popping cork," he said.
After a stretch of a few warm days, the fish will move into shallower water and feed more aggressively. It's on these days that Held says not to rule out fishing topwater baits.
"Most guys won't throw a topwater bait in the winter, but you would be surprised at the fish you can catch," he said.
I remember a couple years back when Held was showing off two limits of mule trout that he and his son Brad caught in early February. All 50 of them were caught on topwater baits.
One advantage of winter fishing is that you can leave a little later and not miss any action.
"A lot of times, I'm just going out while others are already coming in. A lot of them from an unsuccessful trip," Held said. "I'll drift a shoreline along a flat at midday with suspending MirrOlures and simply tear them up."
If you haven't tried drifting, you're definitely missing out on some great wintertime fishing. So instead of staying home on those windy days or coming back empty-handed, try setting up for a day of leisurely drift fishing — you will catch fish.