Flat Out Easy Fishing

The grassy flats near Lake Pontchartrain’s Goose Point offer outstanding action whenever the wind’s out of the north or east.

Three notes into the hail call, and they turned. They did a little jig in fact, wagging their wings frantically for a second, then dipping. Looked almost like they’d hit an invisible net.Pelayo nudged my shoulder and smirked.

I looked at Pelayo, pursed my lips and winked. We diehard duck hunters get all puffed up when we see this.

“I’m some hot stuff!” we beam. “I’m a virtuoso on this double reed! Mike Smith, watch out!”

By the time I’d blasted out the sixth note, the ducks had turned completely. They’d pulled almost an about face, and were zeroed in on the dekes, still flapping their wings but barely. They were doing more gliding than flapping.

We hunkered down in the ’rogue, and watched them close the distance through the cracks in the bamboo and palmetto shroud. Their wings beat steadily. Their path was unwavering. The bright sun had hit them squarely as they turned, revealing their dark bellies and white underwings.

These were mottled ducks, among the wariest of waterfowl. Even crazier, it was a group of five, not the pair we usually see in our marshes — the pair, need I mention, that invariably snubs us, regardless of the virtuosity of the calling, regardless of the number of dekes and their expert placement, regardless of the ingenuity of our blind construction and camouflage.

So now we were REALLY pumped. We were snookering the sharpest of the waterfowl clan! I startled chuckling — softly now, afraid to blow the whole thing. Pelayo chimed in with a few mellow quacks.

I grabbed his elbow in alarm but no need. The combo calling was like magic. The ducks locked up completely and started gliding down, like on strings.

We could see their long necks craning as they swerved from side to side. Here’s a 3-pound bird turning to our beckon from a little plastic whistle, slowing his wingbeat, cupping his wings, and slowly cascading toward some molded plastic shapes bobbing in the water before us — and we’re giddy with anticipation and glee, our hearts pounding. You figure it out.

Finally the landing gear started coming down. Those big orange feet gleaming in the sun. No, I was thinking. Can it be? I mean, how often do mottled ducks actually LAND in your spread? It didn’t seem possible, but finally …spliiissshhh! Right outside the dekes. All five of them.

Pelayo and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. You guessed it — teal season. Never fails, does it? In seconds, the bamboozled mottled ducks started that looking around bit. Whoops! You could see it in their faces, in their jerky motions as they looked around at their bogus brethren. Finally, “YIKES! We been HAD! And … QUACK! … QUACK! … QUACK!” A flurry of startled quacks and furiously beating wings.

I know, I know. These sights are what waterfowling’s all about. The shooting is mere icing on the cake, lagniappe, right?

Tell it to the Discovery Channel. I’ll take the Outdoor Channel, where they show ducks — BLAM! — folding and dropping from the skies. We’d have loved to OPEN UP, to have BLASTED away mercilessly and riddled every last one of those mottled ducks like that Pointe Coupee sheriff riddled Bonnie and Clyde.

“The hunter is death dealer,” Hemingway wrote.

No pussyfooting around by old Pappa Hemingway in his day.

“The prospect of the kill is essential to the hunt,” wrote Jose Ortega y Gasset.

Those guys didn’t give a flying flip about political correctness in their day.

But still, watching those mottled ducks WAS a treat, a nice thing to see. I’d bet even Ernest and Jose would have enjoyed it.

For us the treat was made even more special because we SURE AS HECK won’t see anything like it come November! You can bet your sweet bippy on that.

I take that back. You MIGHT see it on opening day — but only for the first hour or so.

We’d just sat back down and were recovering from the glorious spectacle when “SWOOOSH!” from behind. A pair of bluewings almost decapitated us. They blew over the decoys, banked sharply and plopped into the dekes before we could even react — which took about five seconds.

We stood, and they exploded into the air — BLAM! BLAM! Our two shots went off as one, and both bluewings plopped back into the water, riddled, motionless, a few feathers skittered over the water.

I was preparing to retrieve them when Pelayo grabbed my arm and pointed left. Ah yes, a small band appeared, zig-zagging over the marsh to our east. They were looking for a place to land, and we let fly on the calls again.

Amazingly, they turned, and we started hunkering, getting pumped again. They were about 200 yards out, and it looked like blasting them would be another cakewalk.


Two shots rang from our left. Pelayo and I both jumped as the teal skyrocketed and scattered.

“What the…?”

Hard to tell who was more startled, the teal or us. We had no idea other hunters were set up so close. For all we knew, WE’D been the interlopers. They mighta set up before us, but we hadn’t seen them.

Alas, these things happen on Big Branch NWR. That was it for the shooting too — heck, that was it for the teal sightings, though we stuck it out until 11 a.m., mostly because of the glorious weather.

The year’s first cool front had pushed through the day before. You know what THAT does to us in South Louisiana, even to wives and golfers. For us hunters and fishermen, the effects are almost stupefying. Hunting’s in the air, the best fishing of the year’s in the air, football’s in the air. Time to get seriously pumped, to strut around with a perpetual smile.

“Man, but I hate to leave,” Pelayo blurted, almost like he’d been reading my mind. We’d been watching an osprey dive for mullet. He finally nabbed one and flapped off with it in his talons, holding it parallel to his body, like those Japanese planes carried their torpedoes at Pearl Harbor. Soon he’ll perch atop a nearby cypress or pine and rip the mullet apart, eating it alive. Why doesn’t PETA get mad at him? “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” right? We’re all the same, right?

We’d even seen a bald eagle earlier. Nothing but “a glorified buzzard,” according to Teddy Roosevelt.

During the big duck season you often see geese out here too, some actually close enough for shots. That’s something you don’t get very often in Southeast Louisiana.

Alas, hunting is only until noon out here. So despite the glorious weather and panorama, it was time to pack it in. We eased Pelayo’s flatboat out the little slough and into the lake just west of Goose Point, looked down around us and gaped.

“Where are we?” Pelayo chortled. “Chandeleur Island?”

“No, man,” I blurted. “Looks like the Florida Keys! Break out the bonefish gear!”

“And the permit rod,” Pelayo laughed. “Unreal, huh?”

“Heck, I honestly think it’s CLEARER than on our last Chandeleur Island trip.”

I looked at Pelayo wide-eyed then around us at the grass beads shimmering two feet below the surface. It was a gorgeous sight. Arriving before light for the duck hunt we hadn’t noticed it, though we’d heard the fishing had been good in the area.

Like I said earlier, a front had come through. So we’d had a couple days of north winds, prior to that, winds were northeast. Look at a map of this area, and you’ll see it serves as a lee coast for those winds. The water clears up dramatically.

On top of that, in September lake salinities are highest and northshore rivers their lowest. All this comes together now for the cleanest, saltiest water — and hence the best fishing — on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

And we had no fishing gear. We just didn’t think about it. Sure when we’re teal hunting in Venice and Delacroix, it’s second nature. But we figured this as a quickie morning hunt, then head home. But no way, not with this weather, not with this water.

“Here,” Pelayo said, “I got two rods in here from when I took Junior to the Parish Line Canal last week.”

The one he handed me had tandem chartreuse beetles, and Pelayo’s had a little floating Rapala. No tacklebox on board. No replacement. But what the heck; we started drifting along casting. I found a battered popping cork under the flatboat’s floorboards, and started my little casting/popping routine.

Pelayo was casting his little Rapala over the grassbeds in about 4 foota-wawda, twitching it back, when — WHAM! A blow up!

“Saw that?!” Pelayo yelled, looking over with a crazed grin. “Sucker BUSTED it! But I missed him.”

Just then I felt a lunge, looked over and my cork had plunged.

“Yeah!” I howled while raising the rod tip. School trout I’m thinking, when — WHOAAA! — the sucker turned on the afterburners.

“RED!” I howled. “Ain’t no mistaken a red!”

Junior’s pole, as you might imagine, was a light-action spinning outfight. Not exactly of brand name. But what the heck. I was savoring every sizzling second of the red’s berserk runs, wondering when the groaning, grinding, screeching reel would explode in my hands, or at least disintegrate. But it held up manfully.

With my polarized glasses, I could look down and see the gorgeous copper son-of-a-gun blazing through the grass as I pumped away at the reel. Finally I had him alongside.

“Get the net!” I raved.

“The WHAT?!” Pelayo laughed.

This was a hunting trip, I forgot. Of course we had no landing net.

“Bring him over here,” Pelayo motioned while putting down his rod. “Leader on those beetles is pretty strong … think I can….”

And he lunged in the water. INDEED! He jerked the red aboard.

“What ya think?” I beamed. “Six pounds — at least!”

He was a beaut, a gorgeous dark copper in these clear waters. Four casts later, Pelayo howled again. Another blow-up, but this one took.

“WHOOOEEE!” he grimaced as his rod bowed beautifully. “Gotta — GOTTA! — be another red, the way he’s fighting!”

But it wasn’t. It was an extremely handsome trout in the 3-pound range. Then I nailed two reds in the 18-inch range.

In two hours of drifting the gorgeous crystalline water, over shimmering grass beds, under a bright blue sky and with an invigorating fall breeze in our glowing faces, we nailed nine beautiful fish.

The teal bust was quickly forgotten. We sat there munching out on sardines on Doritos, sipping brewskies, and the crack was inevitable: “You know…” he started.

“It don’t get no better than this,” I finished.

And I knew we coulda done better. So we stopped to see Clay Prieto at Rip’s On The Lake Restaurant in Mandeville.

We wanted to show off the catch — but mainly I wanted to glean some expertise from Clay, who has a boat with a platform in back specifically designed for poling over these flats. This type of fishing is an obsession with Clay. He’s been at it for about 35 years now. He’s picked up a thing or two in the process.

“Right now, Humberto,” he says. “Right now’s my favorite time to fish the area. No two ways about it. Those first few fronts come through and make this side of the lake calm.

“But even when the winds shift to northeast a couple days later, you’ll see from the shape of this coastline that it stays calm. So the water gets clear, and to me that’s the key to fishing out here. Tides aren’t that important. Water clarity is the key.

“Also, in September that lake’s still full of jackfish and sharks. So trout like to bunch up along the coastlines and especially in this grassy area, because that’s where the shiners and pogies are hanging out to hide from the jacks and sharks.

“Now, within this Northshore area, my favorite stretch is between Goose Point and the mouth of Cane Bayou. There’s a line of old tree stumps out about 200 yards from shore. The tree line used to got out that far, years and years ago. You can see the old stumps underwater.

“So here you’ve got all those lush grass beds acting as nurseries for the little crabs, shrimp, shiners, etc. On top of that, you’ve got the structure of the stumps. Perfect combination. Hard to find better habitat than that.

“And let me tell ya, I grew up in Mandeville. I grew up fishing the lake, and I’m here to tell you that there’s more and bigger fish available out here now than ever in my lifetime. I ain’t kiddin, man.

“Me, I like to flyfish out there too, using the tiny weedless gold spoon designed for flyfishing. It’s the perfect bait for gliding through that grass. I’ll fish water as shallow as a foot, see those reds tailing and just ease on over and cast out 5 feet in front. They explode after it. You talk about exciting!

“If I’m bait-casting, I like the old reliable Top Dog — basically anything that resembles a finger mullet. That’s what the reds and trout are smashing on the surface out here. In a little deeper water — say 4-5 feet deep — I like the old reliable silver/blue Rat-L-traps. Resembles the pogies they hit too.”

Not to be outdone, Northshore fishing legend Bill Hungerford of Mandeville had plenty of advice when we showed up.

“A regular Johnson Sprite spoon is what I like to cast over those grass beds, Humberto. Trout — and BIG trout — love it. Reds too….”

“But doesn’t it get caught in the grass, Bill. I mean they’re not….”

“I make them weedless. I customize. I’ll take off that treble hook and attach a little squid tail through which I’ve threaded a single hook. This hook will point upwards as the spoon wobbles through the water.

“Man I’ll cast it through water barely a foot deep. Lots a times, that’s were the reds are rooting for little crabs. Trout will be in there too; you’d be amazed. And me, I start around the mouth of Bayou Lacombe and start working my way west, looking for baitfish on the surface. Not necessarily baitfish that are getting busted up, now. I just need to see some schools of finger mullet or pogies finning along the surface.

“Chances are, there’s gonna be some trout or reds under them.”

Hungerford ought to know. He’s only been at this for 50 years.