A Taste of Spring

Every year, the speck season kicks off right in the bays just out from Empire and Buras.

“You cast that bait right over that reef, and I guarantee a fish,” said Buras fishing guide John L. Taylor, pointing his 7-foot Shimano V-series rod toward a small spit of land near a sun and rain-scrubbed white PVC pipe leaning at a 60-degree angle. I heaved the oddly colored MirrOlure She Dog in the direction of the slowly sloping strip of shells, hoping the building breeze would allow it to reach its target. The mark was met on the second try, and the lure danced cockily in the slight chop for a few seconds before being flushed.

“Yes sir! Do I have these fish trained or what?” chuckled Taylor as the fish made a quick, violent head shake and began its swift lateral run. The morning clouds made the air still chilly as we egged on the sun to warm the shallow reefs enough to trigger the area’s magnum speckled trout.

It mattered not that the victim turned out to be an 18-inch redfish instead of our targeted trout (plus 5 to 9 inches, if you please). The Louisiana inshore fishing equivalent of the nuclear winter was officially over. The calendar’s third month, with its increased photoperiod and scheduled warming rays, had done its thing. Things were happening in the shallow bays west of Buras and Empire.

Though March usually has one or two cold snaps in it, there are generally enough warm days in between to stimulate fish into preparing for the spawning season. Heavy feeding on the spring crop of mullet, pogies and other finfish not only helps the fish with the rigors of the procreation process, but gives anglers in the deep delta outstanding opportunities to catch big trout relatively close to the two jumping off spots in the area (Joshua’s Marina and Yellow Cotton Marina) in addition to the major Venice launches.

“The fish will turn on when the water temperature — and I’m talking about bottom temperature — stays at 58 degrees overnight,” says Taylor, owner of Capt. John L.’s Charters and Lodge in Buras (985-657-9739). “That range will top out at around 62 degrees during the day.”

Biologists say that speckled trout can go four to six weeks without feeding in the winter stage, perhaps explaining why many areas experience such a dearth of action in the late-winter months. The Buras Canal provides plenty of deep water for this dormant stage, but Taylor says the size for which the area is known (3- to 8-pounders make a fairly regular appearance through June) comes from another source.

“I think the big fish that we see in the spring season are mainly those coming from the Gulf,” says Taylor. “There are some big fish in the canal, but not enough to support the numbers we catch.”

Those quality numbers are what really get attention. In an area where there are dozens of fishing guides, the conversation hurtling through the mobile airwaves on a given day seldom is highlighted by numbers of fish. Size — particularly on speckled trout — is the thing that separates those whose voice trails off and those whose smirk one can feel through the phone in their report.

Venice anglers generally have the edge on their acquaintances preferring waters to the north most of the year. But come spring, Buras comes alive with bigger average fish, good numbers and enough hawgs to give staunch Buras supporters like Taylor plenty of days when they go head to head with those who point their vessels down the Mississippi River.

“Spring is the time when the big fish migrate from the Gulf and the smaller fish are coming out of the canal and kind of meet in the middle. You’ll catch them sometimes side by side,” he said.

Buras is known for its huge numbers of fall school trout to keep anglers happy, with a few big fish mixed in when targeting other species.

“The big fish in Buras — the ones that don’t go back to the Gulf — feed back in the marsh in the fall. They’re mainly loners,” explained Taylor. “You’ll catch a 5-pounder every now and then in Yellow Cotton Bay, but the area that everybody fishes in the fall just doesn’t hold big fish. Sometimes you’ll see them running around with redfish in the duck ponds.”

The fish in Buras do much to keep Taylor’s October and November customers content with enough “eaters” to last the long winter. But when March rolls around and it’s time to open the camp again, he says it’s always nice to have the chance of a trout of a lifetime on any given cast.

Taylor says that like most areas, the first run of fish — usually just prior to the March full moon — are the biggest. Both sides of the moon are good for taking a lunker if an angler is fortunate enough to be in the right spot and make it out there when March’s tempestuous winds don’t blow him away.

One of the best things about these fish is their willingness to take topwater plugs. The ideal water temperature characterized by the time of year makes the fish extremely active, and their urge to fatten up for the stress of spawning make for fantastic topwater action.

Local favorites include the MirrOlure line of walking baits. Top Dogs and She Dogs have become instant classics across the state, and the Buras area is no different. The popularity of the “wake the dead” racket of the She Dog has spawned the He Dog. The same size as the Top Dog, the He Dog is certain to make waves for those adhering to the “bigger is better” theory of lure selection relative to size of fish.

The popularity of black and chartreuse as a soft plastic bait is not lost on the folks at MirrOlure. The dab of wildly contrasting chartreuse is put in the head of the She Dog instead of the tail, but the results have been more than favorable. The red head/white body models of Top Dogs and Excalibur Super Spooks and Super Spook Jrs. are also good choices, along with the natural mullet color and the chrome/black back.

For guides like Taylor, many charters preclude the use of topwater plugs with their flying treble hooks. The need for discipline in hooking fish on these baits understandably escapes many beginners, forcing the application of alternatives when fish show a preference for floating hard plastic.

“It’s tough when fish are eating up the topwater baits,” says Taylor. “If you catch one on it, everybody in the boat wants one and pretty soon you’ve got six treble hooks flying at the boat.”

One of Taylor’s go-to techniques for tempting these early fish is what he calls a “Topwater Chub.” Simply taking his favorite Bayou Chub minnow and threading it onto a 1/8-ounce jighead (instead of his standard 1/4-ounce) and holding his rod around 11 o’clock with a steady retrieve places the bait up in the water column and takes the same fish that would strike a walking or chugging plug.

“It makes it kind of a difficult hookset, but it’ll take fish that would normally only eat a surface bait,” said Taylor, adding that it’s much easier on the guide when a bull redfish takes a liking to baits.

“I can usually see a big red coming up on the bait and I’ll have somebody cast a chub to it instead of me hooking it,” says Taylor, adding that valuable “bite time” for trout is lost with fighting a big redfish and dislodging the hooks that sometimes find their way in the back of the fish’s throat near their crushers, out of reach of many pliers.

While most of the year Taylor sings the praises of the smaller Bayou Chub minnow for its incredible fish-catching ability with just a steady retrieve (very customer-friendly) and remarkable durability, the spring signals the time to break out the Magnum Chubs for both ¼- and 1/8-ounce applications.

“Purple and black with the chartreuse tail — I can’t say enough about those colors on that Bayou Chub minnow,” says Taylor, warming to one of his favorite subjects. “You can hold it still in the current next to the boat and the tail is so thin that it will work itself.

“You can almost catch an entire limit of trout on one plastic tail, which makes it my absolute No. 1 bait. Both the regular and the bigger one catch almost all of the fish on my boat.”

No doubt the continued effects of coastal erosion have made this area a great fishing area in the short term. Islands that used to dot the area on old maps have long washed away. These reefs have supplemented natural cover, providing structure for baitfish and game fish and plenty of options for anglers informed of the location of these hotspots.

“All of the oyster beds marked by leaseholders with PVC pipes are what used to be land,” says Taylor. “The hard land is what the oysters seed on. I would imagine that the islands that are eroding away now — and there aren’t that many left — are the ones that will be dredged in the coming years. It is those reefs that are holding fish in the spring.”

The flip side to subsurface structure is twofold. With less land serving as protection from winds, open water can turn into a muddy mess sooner and take longer to settle. Also, this area is quite treacherous to beginning fishermen. There are few landmarks to go by, and maps are nearly useless after a few years, serving mainly as indicators of where land USED to be.

“Most of the maps on the GPS units still show land over much of where we fish and even run now,” said Taylor.

Also, there are no maps available marking the location of leftover structure from the oil patch. It’s one thing to be stuck on a mud flat. That’s a walk in the park compared to losing a lower unit to a pipe 6 inches under the water.

Likely areas to try for Buras’ lunkers include newly formed reefs in Bay Jacques, Scofield Bay and English Bay. Taking a recent map of the area and finding out which islands actually still exist is a good way to find a likely spot. Submerged islands with old wooden structure attract oysters and provide good areas to try.

“The very best way to find good spots — and I tell my guides this all the time — is to go out on a calm day when the water is clear and look for these reefs,” says Taylor, indicating that there are many more fish-holding spots that nobody knows about, in addition to coming across dangerous hazards just waiting to ruin a prop or put some unwanted “racing stripes” on the hull.

As for fishing these areas, Taylor always positions his boat upwind and broadside of a location — regardless of tide — to give his customers the easiest cast. Things do change when customers are not in the equation.

“I want the bait to be able to go with the current for a while and ‘sweep’ at some point in the middle or toward the end of the cast,” said Taylor. “It’s when the bait changes direction that I get a lot of hits.”

Taylor’s combination of content for the present and worry for the future is shared by Pass Christian resident Lorne Nichols. An avid saltwater angler all his life, Nichols used to make the long open-water trek from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to the Louisiana Marsh east of Hopedale/Shell Beach. Spring winds made this trip too bumpy for his taste, so one April he made the trek to the Buras/Venice area.

“Venice had great fishing, but that boat ride to and from the area was too cold for me,” said Nichols. “When I met my guide in Buras the next day, I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear him say that we’d be running about 10 minutes to the first spot in the morning.”

Having great success in the Bay Jacques and Scofield area of Buras, the retiree was hooked and now gladly makes the ride down Highway 23 to what he calls the best fishing in the world.

“You’ve got to be careful running around out there. There is plenty of stuff just under the water that can ruin your day, but if you put in your time there are just so many fish in those waters,” he said. “I’ve caught plenty of speckled trout in my day, and usually when the first run begins around the first quarter of the March moon, I’m ready for just about any size fish. But when you get on a bunch of those big ones, it almost makes those days in February worth it.”