Redfish Bay lives up to its name during the springtime.
Fog wrapped up the Mississippi River passes as sunlight slowly beat back the darkness. And so we sat at Venice Marina, chatting and watching workers repair hurricane damage to the facility. A breeze gave Capts. Allen Welch and Bobby Warren confidence that it was only a matter of time before the waters would clear of the opaque vapors.
“It can’t last long in this,” Welch said.
After almost two hours, the fog hanging over the cold river waters finally vanished, and Capts. Allen Welch and Bobby Warren declared it safe to be on the water.
“Let’s hope it’s burned off the river,” Warren said.
Soon, we were zipping toward the Jump in Welch’s Skeeter, dodging crew boats and tugs, and hopping over the rogue wakes for which this commercial stretch of waters is known.
“I think I can see the other side,” ReAction Lure pro Welch said, looking over his shades at a dark line just above the water as we approached the river.
Warren said that was the key to making a decision about running the river.
“Our rule is: If you can see the west side, you can run it,” he said. “If you can’t see the other side, don’t run the east side. Once you get down (to Head of Passes) what do you do? You’re stuck if you can’t see the other side.”
Besides, Welch said, the east side is more dangerous for recreational anglers.
“Ninety percent of your commercial traffic is along the east side,” he said.
I peered over Welch’s shoulder, and it looked to me like a solid layer of quilt batting had been plopped down on the river.
Welch throttled back, and we waited for a crew boat to move past us so we could judge.
The commercial vessel’s bow disappeared into the thick fog, and the rest of the boat soon followed, swallowed up as if David Copperfield had waved his hands over the big boat.
“Let’s pull out of the current and see if it breaks,” Welch said, wisely.
As he motored into a commercial slip, the wind kicked up as if on cue.
“That wind will take care of the fog pretty quick,” Warren said.
However, the wind had died more than an hour later, and fog not only remained stuck in the river: It had creeped into the jump.
The waiting game continued.
That’s how the day began: Just another spring day in Venice.
But by 11 a.m., we finally had lines in the water, working a stretch of bank in search of redfish.
Welch and Warren team to fish the Redfish Cup, and the fertile waters of Venice have drawn them from as far away as Mobile during those high-stakes events.
And while they know reds prowl throughout the Venice marsh, these skippers’ favorite springtime target is a bay located all the way at the bottom of the river, tucked between Johnson and Southeast passes.
Redfish Bay has grown exponentially over the years, with each succeeding hurricane chewing away at its boundaries. The strip of marsh between it and Garden Island Bay has long since evaporated, and Hurricane Katrina swiped away more of the roseau-cane growth along its western banks.
But it’s the location of the bay, the very reason it is so vulnerable to the effects of storms, that makes the area such a productive one for redfish anglers.
“It’s the accessibility to the Gulf,” Warren said. “The water warms up quicker there in the springtime, and the bait gets in there.”
“I think the Gulf waters are warmer, and when it pushes in there into the shallows, the sun warms it up more,” he said.
Sure, there are other large bays along the southern edge of the Mississippi River’s crow’s foot, but most of those are situated too close to the river’s main passes. Redfish Bay, on the other hand, is far enough east to dodge much of the influence of the cold, fresh water streaming into the Gulf during the spring.
“The predominant winds in the spring are out of the east, and the (Gulf) current moves from east to west,” Warren said. “So the water eddies in Redfish Bay. It moves parallel to the banks in a counterclockwise direction.
“It’s not pushing into the bank.”
The current draws with it clean, warm, salty water into the bay, and with it comes plenty of bait.
“The key is the bait,” Warren said. “The bait is pushed into the bay, and the redfish follow it.”
And if the wind switches out of the northeast and combines with a good outgoing tide, the entire bay turns pristine.
“It’ll stay clean in there for three or four days,” he said.
However, a westerly breeze can crash that party in a hurry.
“As soon as you get the least west breeze, it’s going to get muddy,” Warren said. “That muddy, fresh river water moves in.”
That being said, Warren and Welch don’t necessarily dodge the bay when the water looks muddy.
“We’ll stick our nose in and idle along, watching our prop wash,” Welch said.
The reason is simple.
“Sometimes there’s a layer of muddy water on top, and under it will be pretty, clean water,” Warren said. “Salt water is heavier than fresh water, so that fresh water can push in right on top of the salt water, and you might never know it.”
Fishing the bay is a matter of only a couple of patterns: working the shorelines and picking fish off the sandbar that runs across the mouth of the bay.
“We’ve worked some wellheads in the middle of the bay trying to catch trout or reds, and we’ve never done anything with them,” Welch said.
How the pair begins depends on the weather conditions.
If the water is calm, they head straight for the sandbar.
“If you’ve had calm weather for a week or so, you can get on the bar and throw topwaters,” Warren said.
The bar is pretty easy to find, since waves can be seen lapping on it. Even when the weather is calm, there will be a little nervous water over it.
Welch said finding fish on the bar is simply a matter of moving around and working the tide.
“They might be in the cuts, they might be on top,” Welch said. “It all depends on the conditions and how much water is on top.
“You want to fish on the down-side of the current.”
That means fishing the inside of the bar on an incoming tide, and the outside of the sandbar as water falls out of the bay.
Finding gaps in the sandbar is a good starting point. Often the fish will be situated on the inside of the bar, just on the edge of the cut.
“They’ll wait for bait to wash through,” Welch said.
If reds aren’t in the eddies of the washout, Welch recommended making a few casts down the center of the cut.
“They get in the middle of the cut sometimes, if there’s enough water in there,” he said.
However, Warren warned that anglers should be very careful because the bar isn’t a stagnant structure.
“It’s sand, so it’s changing constantly,” he said. “You don’t want to run up on the bar. You’ll get stuck.”
If it’s too rough to work the bar, or if a pass along the sandy ridge isn’t productive, Welch and Warren head farther into the bay to look for clean water.
An incoming tide can be absolutely fantastic.
“I like it on an incoming tide — right when it’s bottoming out and turning to come back in,” Welch said.
That might sound contradictory to Welch’s and Warren’s rule about avoiding muddy water, but it’s really not.
“You get that muddy water from the river when the wind’s out of the west,” Welch said. “As long as the wind isn’t from the west, you’re fine, even on an incoming tide.”
The two anglers focus on the wind-protected shoreline, following the clean Gulf water as it moves in the canes.
“You just have to fish farther out until the tide gets high enough to move within casting distance of the canes.
“The fish will just move up with the bait as the tide comes in,” Warren said. “You need to stay in 3 or 4 feet of water.”
The pair jumps from cove to cove, moving farther inshore as the tide rises.
When the tide flips, the trick becomes finding clean water pulling back out of the canes.
Warren and Welch take advantage of wind direction to help them in their search.
“If the wind is out of an easterly direction, we fish the eastern shore; if the wind is from a westerly direction, we fish the western shoreline,” Welch said.
That’s because the wind will magnify the effects of the tide, pushing water into the bay.
But they don’t fish the entire wind-protected shoreline, opting instead to narrow down their search for reds.
“You want to find the unseen ponds that you can’t get to and look for water pulling out,” Welch explained.
Water filtering through the canes from the ponds into the bay will be cleaner than the water flowing through the cuts.
“You’ll look down the bank and see clean water,” Welch said. “That’s what you’re looking for.”
Satellite maps are invaluable tools to help find these cane-encased ponds, Welch said.
But Warren worried that it might be harder to find clean water this year because of Hurricane Katrina.
“We lost a lot of grass — hydrilla, coontail — that was up in those canes that filtered the water,” he said.
While some might be tempted to spend time trying to catch fish where cuts empty water into the bay, Warren said that’s generally a waste of time.
“You don’t want a bayou or trenasse where the water’s flowing from the river,” he said. “It’s fresh, cooler and muddy.”
More water, even when it’s clean, can be thrown out of the equation if it’s too shallow.
“You’re going to look for a (small) cove with 3 to 4 feet of water, something that’s going to hold bait,” Warren said.
Productive lures are no big secret: blades, plastics and spoons. And, of course, topwaters when the bar is fishable.
“If I use a spinnerbait, I’d use something with that heavy wire,” Warren said. “The fish don’t tear them up: You damn sure don’t want to throw a $3 spinnerbait up in there.”
That’s the bait of choice whenever the water is clear.
“If the water’s halfway clean, you can go down the bank with a spinnerbait and catch fish,” Warren said.
The pair’s preferred plastic on the day after a front rolls through is the ReAction Bayou Chub fished on either a ¼- or 3/8-ounce leadhead, with the weight dictated by water depth and wind.
Plastics also are the key when the water is a little dingy.
“In that off-colored water, they don’t seem as aggressive,” Welch said.
If fish really get finicky, they add corks to their arsenal.
“You can throw a jig under a cork and let it sit there in that strike zone longer,” Warren said.
When the tide is up in the canes, it’s time to fish something that can be worked in tight.
“The fish will be in those little breaks in the cane,” Welch said. “You’ll see one pop out of the cane, swim up the shore, move back down the bank and then drift back into the canes.”
That’s when Warren grabs his spoon.
“If you’ve got real scattered canes, you can throw that spoon,” he said.
But no matter what, be prepared for fog.
“That river is still cold, so you can have some bad fog,” Welch said. “April is when you run that river in a light coat and long sleeves, and when you hit that Gulf and start fishing, you start getting undressed.
“When it’s time to head in, you put on your jacket.”
Allen Welch can be reached at (985) 960-1637, and Bobby Warren can be reached at (504) 382-8063.
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