Fish on the Fringe

The edge bays hold easy limits of schooling redfish this time of year.

Blame it on the river.

Summer trout fishing, the passion of thousands of Southeast Louisiana anglers, has been inconsistent. And maybe inconsistent is too nice a word.

“It sucks,” is the way I’ve heard it most often described. Action has been spotty at best, and at times, virtually non-existent.

But the high river fell in late July and salinities rose, which usually makes trout action much more consistent by late summer, even though trout sizes are smaller.

And September? Action should be red hot this month, just as hot as the mid-day temperatures.

Isn’t it amazing how hope springs eternal in the mind of a fisherman? Think about it. Who do you know who is more optimistic than a fisherman? He could have a dozen fruitless trips in a row yet still be raring to go again, convinced he’ll do better this time.

The reality is, however, that trout action might not be what we hoped for this month either, because nothing has been “normal” about this season (or the last one for that matter). Besides, September is considered a “transition” month, and roughly translated, that means “trout are going to be hard to find.”

Add to that the tropical features we often face in September, and it doesn’t paint too rosy a picture.

Consider: Summer heat grips us with a fiery fist, and even when the wind blows it feels like you’re sitting in front of a furnace. That heat blast collides with those early initial cold fronts poking their way south, and wherever the two meet we have tumultuous weather.

Then there’s the Atlantic and Caribbean tropical storms roaming in our direction and the potential threat from the Gulf, all of which leaves those of us who live along the vulnerable Louisiana coast holding our collective breath until November.

But then again, such things are a part of our life down here, and we’ve simply learned to deal with them.

And here’s another way to deal with potentially spotty trout action, avoid the stormy weather, and still ply your passion for fishing: Chase redfish in the early mornings.

I made a trip recently and did just that. We had our limits by 7 a.m., and were back on the dock by 7:30 in the morning.

I heard through mutual friends that Capt. Brian Epstein (504-284-3316) was catching quick limits of redfish in the early mornings, and getting back to the dock early enough for his customers to still go to work.

I decided I wanted in on that action, so I called to see if I could persuade him to take me. After some arm-twisting, we planned a quick trip, and met on his dock in Delacroix a solid hour before sunrise.

Epstein stopped at Serigne’s Marina long enough to put some live shrimp in the baitwell and ice in the chest, and we headed for the big bays on the edges of Black Bay.

Epstein says there are small schools of redfish patrolling the shorelines of the large outside bays, virtually all the ones that are right on the edge of Black Bay and Breton Sound.

“Lake Campo, Oak River Bay, Bay Lafourche, Bay Gardene and American Bay all are holding schools of redfish right now,” Epstein said. “The schools aren’t huge; in fact, most of them seem to hold only a few fish — three, four or maybe five fish per school. But the small schools are plentiful, and if you can anchor at the right spot, you’ll have one-stop-shopping.”

Epstein’s 24-foot Kenner meandered through bayous and lakes, and as we made our way toward our destination, I asked him about the absence of a trolling motor on his boat.

Keep in mind, I’ve fished with Epstein for quite a few years and made more trips with him than I can remember. It seems like I do vaguely remember him having a trolling motor on an ancient Bay Quest he used to charter out of, many years ago.

I also remember that the constant pounding that boat took after several seasons plying Black Bay basically disintegrated it and all the gear and hardware attached to it, including the trolling motor.

Epstein replaced everything else, but he never replaced the trolling motor.

I know how successful he is as a charter guide, I know he consistently puts his customers on fish, and I simply found it odd that a fisherman today would not equip his boat with a trolling motor. I mean, it’s basically considered a necessity these days, ain’t it?

Little did I know that my question would be answered with a history lesson, and a demonstration.

The history lesson

I learned that Epstein started his fishing career in 1978, when as a teenager, he spent his summer working as a deckhand on a New Jersey offshore fishing boat. He worked on offshore boats every summer thereafter, and in 1986 he got a captain’s license and began chartering off the Spray III, an 80-foot head boat.

These are boats, like the old Miss Mississippi, that a single person can fish on as a walk-on. You don’t have to charter a whole boat and try to put together a crew; you simply show up at the dock, pay your fare and walk on.

I’m sure many of our readers remember the ancient, ponderously slow Miss Mississippi that ran out of Empire. Twenty-five bucks would book you a spot to fish, though you might have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other anglers and spend more time traveling to the rigs and back and untangling lines than actually fishing.

Man, I’ve often wondered if a modernized version of a head boat could make a go of it out of Venice or Empire. I wish someone would try.

Anyway, that’s the kind of boat Epstein captained. He chased reef and wreck fish, and came back to New Jersey’s Belmar Marine Basin Shark River docks with bluefish, tuna, fluke, cod, black fish and black sea bass.

“That’s where I learned to fish,” Epstein said, “and that’s where I learned how fish behave, how they relate to structure and bottom features, and how to catch them under varying conditions.

“Once you learn that, you can catch fish anywhere, because fish are the same everywhere.

“For instance, do you think if you transported a Cajun shrimper from here to Australia that he’d be able to catch shrimp over there? Not only could he go over there and catch shrimp in their waters, he could probably even teach them a thing or two. I know he could.”

The short version of how the New Jersey offshore charter captain became a Delacroix Island guide is simply, “I fell in love with New Orleans.”

Epstein visited the Crescent City on a vacation, and when the hotel bellman found out what he did for a living, he exhorted him to try Louisiana fishing. “The best in the world,” he told him.

Epstein tried it, and fell in love again.

“I found New Orleans to be the most unique city in the country, and it had the best fishing in the country. I was hooked. I had to move here,” he said.

Incidentally, that hotel bellman is now one of Epstein’s closest friends, and a frequent fishing partner.

The fishing lesson

“Why don’t I have a trolling motor? Because when I was first learning to fish on those 80-foot boats, the captain who taught me said that the best way to catch a boatload of fish is to find them and stay on them. Period. Don’t go running around all over from place to place, wasting time.

“Fish relate to the bottom structure. Find the structure, and you’ll find the fish. That’s what I learned reef and wreck fishing, and the same principle applies as much here as it does in New Jersey.

“People think that when they troll they are hunting for fish. I was taught that when you move away, you’re leaving the fish. That is basically my philosophy of fishing, and it works for me,” Epstein said.

We pulled up to within casting distance of a broken shoreline, and Epstein slipped the anchor overboard. Daylight was just beginning to peek over the horizon, and we loaded our hooks with live shrimp about 18 inches under Cajun Thunder popping corks, and cast them toward shore.

“You want to look for coves, flats, points and the little broken islands just off a point, anywhere in these large outside bays,” he said. “Two other factors are very important indicators as to whether or not the fish will be there:

“One, a good moving current. I like to see that current moving and swirling around those points. That moves a lot of bait, and the reds will stack up wherever the bait is.

“Two, signs of baitfish in the water. If you see minnows, mullet, or shrimp, fish there.”

We fished for about 10 minutes, popping our corks occasionally, and probing several spots within casting distance of the shoreline before the first strike.

“Got one,” Epstein said, as he reeled in an 18-inch redfish, the perfect eating size.

The fish was caught midway between a jagged point of land and a tiny island about 30 feet off the point, created by erosion. I threw my shrimp there, and within just a few minutes was rewarded with a slam dunk. I put an almost exact duplicate of Epstein’s redfish in the box.

“They tend to hang together like that,” he said. “Usually when you find a little school of them, they’ll all be almost exactly the same size.”

Surprisingly, we didn’t get another bite for at least 10 minutes. This is where Epstein’s “wait-them-out” theory comes into play.

“You can’t get antsy and fidgety out here. We know there are fish relating to this point because we caught some. These small schools are patrolling up and down the shoreline foraging for food. Just wait a few minutes, and another school will pass through,” he said.

How long should you wait before you pull up the anchor and move?

“Depends on what’s happening, depends on the conditions… if we got to this spot and fished for 15 or 20 minutes without a strike, yes, I’d pull the anchor and try another spot. But if you get a hit and especially if you catch a fish, then I’d give it another 15 or 20 minutes before I’d move. We have good moving water here, we had some action, let’s not leave the fish,” he said.

So we didn’t. And within minutes, we both had redfish on. That’s how it continued for the next hour or so. We’d catch one or two fish, and then there’d be a lull in the action for 10 minutes or so. Then we’d catch one or two more.

We played by Epstein’s rules, and by 7 a.m., we had our two-man limit of redfish. By 7:30, we were back at the dock.

“Not all of our trips are as easy as that,” Epstein admitted, “but the redfish are definitely out there and willing to cooperate.

“With live shrimp or market shrimp under a Cajun Thunder cork, fish the big outer lakes and bays, and look for the signs I mentioned — moving water, baitfish, points, flats, coves, and the small islands off points — and be patient.

“Remember too, that the fish are not always right up against the shoreline. Sometimes they’re hanging out from the bank as much as 30 feet. So don’t limit yourself by just casting toward the bank.

“And once they really turn on, you can start throwing plastic. I’ve been doing real good with curl-tail Salt Water Assassins on a ¼-ounce jig, either tightlined or under a cork, in chartreuse or glow.”

Epstein says he prefers to fish a rising tide, but falling tides can be productive as well. In fact, he says the larger fish are generally caught on falling tides, while rising tides are yielding reds mostly in the 17- to 22-inch size, with an occasional 8-to-10 pound fish thrown into the mix.

“Those same spots are producing reds all over 27 inches on falling tides,” he said. “And now that September is here, you should begin picking up some specks and flounder in those very same spots.”

What a way to spend a morning! No heat, no thunderstorms, back at the dock early, and some excellent table fare for the grill.

It’s going to be a good month after all.

About Rusty Tardo 372 Articles
Rusty Tardo grew up in St. Bernard fishing the waters of Delacroix, Hopedale and Shell Beach. He and his wife, Diane, have been married over 40 years and live in Kenner.