Being able to adapt to water and weather conditions is the key to loading an ice chest with a limit of Hopedale trout this month.
Good fishermen watch the weather for days leading up to their trip.
They study the tide tables to time their fishing stops and take advantage of the current.
They consider the wind direction, and how it might impact tidal movement.
They check the sunrise chart, and leave home early enough to be set up when the first hints of daylight glow in the east.
Then, on the day of the trip, they resurvey everything to see if reality matches up with the forecast. If it doesn’t, they’re very adept at shifting on the fly to take advantage of the whims of Mother Nature. Like good little boys, they realize it’s not smart to fight your mother; a much more effective tact is to graciously use what she gives you.
Bad fishermen, on the other hand, take all reports as gospel.
Never mind the fact that anglers are notorious for their masterful skills of deception, never mind the fact that fishermen, as a group, would have to climb over trial attorneys, claw around politicians and sneak under traveling salesmen to get to the center of the truth spectrum, never mind the fact that an angler has quite a vested interest in telling absolutely no one exactly where he caught his fish, if a bad fisherman hears claptrap at a tackle store or reads a report on the Internet, he’s heading to that same spot.
He doesn’t pay much attention to the weather.
He doesn’t gauge water temperature.
He moans if the tide doesn’t move.
He has no Plan B if Plan A fails.
Fortunately, Shane Robin fits into the former category.
CastAway rods president Chris Williamson and freelance outdoor writer Robert Brodie came from out of state to catch fish in the Hopedale area last month. Both accomplished anglers, they were content to have anything stretch their lines, but each let it be known that they especially wouldn’t mind tangling with a big Louisiana bull red.
Robin, whose father grew up in the area, has been fishing Hopedale since he was 7. Now 33, the veteran angler guides fishermen to the schools of reds, trout and flounder that make this one of the most popular destinations along the coast.
But bull reds aren’t exactly Robin’s specialty.
“My favorite thing to do is to fish the reds in the ponds,” he said.
And, of course, reds in the ponds can get to be sizeable — sometimes measuring as much as 30 inches — but they’re seldom what you’d consider bulls.
So Robin asked around, and the day before the trip talked to another guide, a friend of his, who pointed out a spot where he’d been putting clients on tackle-busting redfish.
The next day dawned with the air surprisingly thick for autumn. Not a hint of breeze puffed from any direction, and a wispy fog tickled the treetops along the ridge on the south side of Bayou La Loutre.
Clouds of gnats, energized by the unseasonable warmth, emerged from the marsh with their gargantuan fangs bared, looking for human flesh to feast upon.
The dockside chatter was clipped and brief as the anglers looked to be doing their morning exercise video — the all-new “Richard Simmons Leg-Slappin’ to the Oldies.”
The normal “Hey, how ya doin’” was replaced with “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Robin steered his 23-foot Avenger down Dudenhefer’s Canal, and the relief was instantaneous. The gnats were left in the dust, and the rising sun in the east shone with promise.
Normal autumn weather would have called for light jackets, but short sleeves were more in fashion this day. Even the 40-m.p.h. boat ride wasn’t enough to raise goose bumps.
Robin soon had the crew at the group of small islands that had been hot with bull reds. The anglers began to cast different lures, each of which was sure to be as attractive as a junkyard metal magnet.
But the water was dead. Schools of mullet finned unencumbered along the flat surface, giving absolutely no indication of any danger below. Never a good sign.
Apparently the bull reds had taken the day off, resting somewhere else during a period when the maximum tide range would be .2 of a foot.
The early morning experience with the gnats, it seemed, would be the only bites the crew would get that day.
But Robin couldn’t have been any cooler if he were in an Eskimo’s freezer.
Plan A had failed, but like any good fisherman, he had a Plan B.
He surveyed the conditions — the hot, thick air, the warm water, the slack tide — and realized that reds would be lazy and trout would be spread out.
He could have beaten his head against the wall fishing all the spots that should have held trout in the autumn, but instead he went with an approach that was more reminiscent of summer.
He targeted the birds.
“The white shrimp are heading out of the marsh right now, so there’s plenty of them in the outer bays,” he said. “Even with the slack tide, there should be a few trout feeding.”
There were indeed.
A quick pass in Lake Callebasse revealed a flock of about 15 gulls diving and dipping along the western shoreline. Robin motored within 150 yards of them, and cut the power on his Suzuki 4-stroke.
Most of the birds were sitting on the water, too full from the morning’s feeding to fly comfortably and content to gorge themselves further on the popping white shrimp by merely dipping their heads underwater.
Casts from the boat led to instant hookups. Brodie was fishing a double-rig, and would set the hook after a strike but not reel in until the second bait also had been struck.
Though the fish were small — about 50 percent throwbacks — it was fast action that put sweet meat in the box.
After that school broke up, the crew moved on to find more birds feeding in Lake Coquille. The action was just as fast.
Robin’s versatility and adaptability turned a trip that started as a disappointment into a success.
Such character traits will be essential for anglers who hope to take advantage of Hopedale’s excellent autumn action this December.
Natives of South Louisiana know that they’re as likely to wear shorts for the pool-side company Christmas party as overcoats. December’s weather is just that unpredictable.
Although the averages for the month in New Orleans are a high of 65 and a low of 48, the record temperatures for the month are 84 and 12. In fact, the record high as late as Dec. 30 is a stifling 81 degrees.
So anything’s possible, and anglers who rely heavily on past December successes to direct them to this December’s fish may go home sadly disappointed.
“You’ve got to let the conditions tell you where to fish,” Robin said. “You never know with December. It might be cold, or it might be warm enough to wear shorts.”
The conditions will determine exactly where the fish will hold, but one thing’s for certain: December is one of the best months of the year to fish the area.
“December’s a great month,” Robin said. “The only time it can get tough is when it’s really cold for several days in a row, but that’s unusual.”
During more typical days — those in which the temperatures fall between the averages — Robin looks for fish in deep bayous and canals, especially Oak River, False River, the Twin Pipeline and the bayous leading into Bay Shallow and Lake John.
Under such conditions, Robin likes to anchor in the shallow water along the edge of the waterway and cast into the deep water.
“I cast into the current, and let the bait come back to me,” he said. “I like to pull the bait up the drop-off rather than down it.”
Fishing this way, it’s vital to keep the line tight, and just barely bump the bait off the bottom, Robin said.
“You’ll just feel a little tap,” he said. “Then you wait a second or two, and set the hook.”
Casting into the current is more effective than casting downcurrent, Robin said, because trout will usually face into the current to pick off any baitfish that are swept along.
“Trout are lazy,” he said. “They just hold in a spot and wait for the bait to come to them.
“If a trout can hide behind a current break, that’s what he’s going to do. He’s just going to sit there and rest, and when a baitfish comes by, he’ll shoot out and eat it.”
When fishing deep water on his own, Robin will throw dark-colored soft-plastics (strawberry/white, strawberry/chartreuse, purple/white, purple/chartreuse) rigged on 1/4- or 3/8-ounce jigheads. He especially likes curl-tail plastics.
“You can fish that curl-tail bait real slow, and the current’s going to be constantly wiggling that tail, so the bait’s not moving very far, but it’s got a lot of action,” he said.
If he’s got inexperienced clients on board, however, Robin will outfit them with live cocahoes on the same jigheads.
“If you know what you’re doing, you can catch just as many on plastics, but people who don’t fish much do better on (live) cocahoes,” he said.
Robin said there are enough deep-water spots that consistently stack up with fish that he can feel confident throwing out the anchor.
“That’s the time of year when you can put down your anchor, and when you pick it back up, you’ve got a limit of fish,” he said.
But occasionally he will drift or troll a likely area, and he recommends that technique for anglers who don’t know the Hopedale marsh well.
“After you get on the fish, then you can drop your anchor,” he said.
Weather that’s consistently cool but not bitterly cold makes for some of the most certain action in the area, but when the sun pushes the thermometer into the 70s or even 80s, water temperatures will rise enough to allow trout to flee the deep water and feed on the adjacent flats.
That’s when the fish become easier to find, but the action is more hit-or-miss because the fish spread out.
On those Indian Summer days, Robin will work the same soft-plastics about 18 inches under a cork. He’ll troll around or allow the wind to push him, and strikes often come sporadically, he said.
“The fish aren’t nearly as bunched up,” he said.
But what they are is aggressive, especially if they’ve been crowded in the lean conditions of the deep holes.
Robin often fishes the deep holes first thing in the morning, and then follows the fish up to the flats as the sun creeps higher in the sky and the water heats up.
“They’ll move higher up in the holes before they move onto the flats,” he said. “One degree of water temperature makes a big difference.”
After the bite in the holes peters out, the first place Robin looks for continued action is at the flats immediately adjacent to the deep holes.
“All those no-name ponds along the Twin Pipeline, those are real good,” he said. “The fish don’t go very far.”
That’s because, after a day of feasting on the flats, the evening’s chill may force the trout to crowd back up in the deep holes.
Or they may stay shallow if it’s warm. December’s all about adapting.
Good fishermen do that well.
Capt. Shane Robin can be reached at 504-278-3474.
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