East Side Story

Several guides operating out of Empire and Buras spend the month of April fishing the east side of the river. There’s a very good reason for that.

Plaquemines Parish is renowned for its convenient inshore angling options. Launches at Myrtle Grove, Port Sulphur and Buras provide great opportunities to New Orleans anglers looking for speckled trout and redfish.

To many, the other side of the Mississippi River presents obstacles not worth the trouble given the choices on the west side. If one can forget the rules of the silt-laden surrounding marsh, a beach party is waiting.

The waters on the east side of the Big Muddy can afford tremendous dividends to those willing to try the hard-bottomed, deltaic marsh north of Baptiste Collette and south of California Bay. When breezes are favorable, spring can give up outstanding catches of bragging-sized speckled trout to anglers choosing to take in the five- to eight-minute adventure through the Ostrica Locks to fish these unique waters.

“It’s just a really neat area,” said veteran Buras guide John L. Taylor. “It’s unlike any other place we fish. And when it’s on, there are few places like it.”

Taylor has been plying the sand beaches east of the river for many years, and counts this season as his favorite for consistently putting his clients on trophy speckled trout. The fact that the fish are often taken on his favorite topwater lures is another reason for his almost rhapsodic affection on the east side bonanza.

“It’s just so different than the other side,” said Taylor, referring to the rapidly eroding region out of Joshua’s Marina in Buras. “It’s pretty cut and dried as far as navigating, so long as you stay well off the visible shoreline. You don’t expect hard sand just a few minutes from the river, and it’s a lot different than working around the mud on the other side.”

Fishing the area successfully does require cooperation from the river. Qualifying success relative to the New Orleans gauge is as follows: doable — 4 to 7 feet; best — 4 feet or less. Taylor says there is no such thing as the river being too low.

“When the marsh creeps into the river itself,” he said, “there’s no better thing in the world.”

Capt. Jay Friedman, a regular among Taylor’s fleet of guides, knows the east side as well as anybody, and counts the weather as the key to success in this volatile area.

“Any kind of wind from straight north to straight east can put the fish off,” said Friedman, a veteran guide of over 30 years. “When that chop comes off of (Breton) Sound, it can mess up the area for a bit.”

The enormous flag just off Highway 23 in Buras helps anglers make a call as to whether to give the east side a try. Lighted by the local government, it serves as an invaluable direction and velocity indicator not only to local fishing guides, but anglers traveling south to their launch of choice.

“That flag will tell you just about all you need to know,” said Friedman in regards to where he and his mates will launch their boats. Many anglers would cringe at the sight of a flag flapping furiously from the south or the southeast, but a glance at the map shows that those breezes are not nearly as damaging to fishing prospects as those at other locales.

“If you look at it, a southeasterly breeze travels over a good bit of marsh. The river makes a pretty severe turn to the north a few miles past Buras, and the marsh follows it,” said Friedman. “We’re set up pretty good with a southerly breeze.”

Locking through for the first time can be a bit unsettling, but following instructions and paying attention will go a long way in making it through, literally and figuratively.

“You’ll be in there with all types of boats,” explained Taylor. “Getting in and out with that river current is interesting for beginners, but soon it will become second nature.”

Though getting to the area is a unique experience, finding fish on the east side is similar to that of the surrounding area. Anglers quietly drifting oyster beds and working points can expect a chance at some monster trout.

“The trout will generally work the bait schools off of the major points. Reds will hang closer to the banks,” said Taylor. “It’s hard to get the customers’ attention off of those reds running the bank — that is until those big trout start coming over the side of the boat.”

Friedman generally watches the calendar for his signal to poke his boat through the Ostrica Locks. April typically signals the end of the period of time when fish congregate around the inside reefs out of Buras and open bodies of water such as Yellow Cotton and Hospital Bay to the south. The urge to make baby specks is an early one for out-sized beauties for which the east side is known.

“The trout are moving to the beach to spawn. The water is starting to warm, the bait is bunching up and the fish are getting real active,” said Friedman. “The fish on the west side of the river are moving toward the reefs on the outer bays. The water on the east side doesn’t have near as many reefs, so they tend to congregate on the beach.”

Speckled trout spawning theories are numerous among fishermen and biologists alike, but Taylor has logged his spring catch data for many years and tries not to pay attention to information such as moon phases and solunar tables.

“We have to produce fish every day. It’s not that it doesn’t make any difference, but we can’t have a built-in excuse like that,” said Taylor. “One thing we do try to stay away from when we’re fishing over here is too much tide.”

Taylor explains that a tidal range of over one foot can really put the damper on fishing. An incoming tide is always best for the beaches and reefs in other areas, and the east side is no exception. Strong current, however, can scatter bait schools and foul up water clarity.

Finding bait is likely the single most important step in getting a handle on the fish in this area. Fortunately, the process on the east side can be remarkably simple.

“The best way to find the fish is to come out of the Locks and into Quarantine Bay, take the channel markers toward Breton Sound, and hang a right once you clear Sable Island,” explained Taylor. “The shoreline to your south is going to be a nice, hard sand bottom. Start looking for fish at the major points off of the shoreline. Spend 10 minutes per spot until you come across them.”

Working these schools of bait correctly is an important step in getting the most out of one’s opportunity. Though they may seem ubiquitous, visible, vulnerable schools of bait eventually break up, negating an angler’s advantage. By placing casts to the edges and toward the rear of the bunch, fishermen imitate weaker and vulnerable individuals not able to keep up with the protective mass.

As well, fish can become wise to baits after a time, necessitating efficient work by anglers wishing to max-out their catch. Plopping a topwater bait into the middle of the bait not only wastes time in its inefficiency, but it simply doesn’t look right to a wily, trophy specimen.

Another good spot to try is the shell reef off of Sable Island. Raccoon Pass to the south of the island may look like a good place to cut through on the way to the beaches, but Taylor warns that the reef extends almost all the way to the point, and leaves those unfamiliar with the area very little room for error.

“Most people just swing wide to the left of the island when they’re on their way east. There’s some good fishing on the southeast side of the reef,” Taylor said of the spot closest to the area’s jumping-off spot. “Just drift quietly over the reef, looking for bait.”

In an area dominated by beaches and points as main staging areas, Taylor also pointed out that north of Quarantine Bay around Bay la Mer is a cluster of islands, the last of which is just southeast of Kelly Gap. This island supports a nice shell reef good for holding fish on a rising tide.

Also, most of the main platforms just offshore are lighted and can provide excellent early morning action for fish coming off of their nightly feed.

A good game plan for those wanting to hit the beach includes examining the water clarity. Though the ideal circumstances include everybody’s dream of clear, green water, Friedman says that it’s important to look at one’s wheel wash before becoming discouraged.

“If there’s any kind of a good color change coming out of the wash, you can still be in good shape,” Friedman explained, noting that any river water in the area will always be on top of the salt water.

“The trout will still be there if there’s some good water underneath,” adds Taylor. “Generally they won’t hit a topwater as good, but you can still take some fish.”

Many anglers theorize that the muddy, top layer of river water can act as a great equalizer for fishermen in the shallow water. It can be a way to get a real shot at a true trophy, as clear water can preclude the taking of sow trout in areas to the north.

“When we run to the north around Pointe a la Hache, we fish some reefs that hold some monster trout,” said Taylor. “There’s only one thing to these fish and being able to get ’em in the boat. You need to be able to throw that topwater bait a real long way, maybe 70 yards or more. You’ll twitch that bait three or four times and that’s when they’ll hit it. Any closer, and they won’t touch it.

“Most of our (customers) can’t make that throw,” said Taylor.

Dirty water fish are far less discriminating, but a little give and take is necessary for success. Taylor and his crew are big fans of the ReAction line of soft-plastic baits. The Bayou Chub minnow imitation threaded on an unpainted ¼-ounce jighead is a superb producer for reds and specks. By simply swimming it back to the boat with a steady retrieve, anglers can cover a lot of water.

Cleaner water leaves less room for angler error such as noise and space, but offers the allure of topwater action for these beach fish. Top Dogs and Top Dog Jrs. are outstanding choices, and Taylor stresses that confidence is much more important than any color scheme.

“I throw the same yellow Top Dog most every time the fish want to feed on top,” said Taylor. “I’m not saying it’s the best color they’ve got, though I’m sure it’s right up there, but it’s the one I’ve taken a ton of fish on and it’s the model I am completely confident in.”

The long winter months of sporadic feeding and the coming energy level needed to produce lots of healthy babies makes it imperative that specks gorge themselves on whatever baitfish is available. Brown shrimp are beginning to make their way out of their inner marsh sanctuaries, and pogies show up about this time, but they pale in comparison to the mass of mullet invading the area. These conspicuous schools of baitfish often signal starting points for anglers making initial trips to the area.

“We like to concentrate on mullet,” said Taylor. “There are a lot of different kinds of bait out there, but we’ve found that the really big trout like to hang around mullet.”

The affable Taylor doesn’t mind sharing one of his favorite tricks in enticing bragging-sized trout to bite his favorite chartreuse Top Dog.

“One of the advantages of braided line is the extremely low stretch it has,” explains Taylor. “This allows you to walk the dog very lightly and keep that topwater bait in just about the same place while still moving it side to side. It takes a little practice, but it can absolutely drive a big trout or redfish crazy.”

Those mean, old locks with their swift current can be a little dicey for the beginner, but they’re the gateway to a whole new world free of washed-out mud islands and other boat-sticking hazards. And it’s a trip well worth it for those among us who curse the season’s strong southerly breezes.