Transition specks aren’t hard to find out of this Southeast Louisiana port.
It happens every year. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but inevitably it happens.
Those Canadian fronts that stalled just north of us all summer long now begin to push far enough south to actually affect us. The still and stifling hot August air is shunted aside, however briefly at first, as the first wave of cooler temperatures invade.
The cooler air brings along another welcome treat — lower humidity — making the thought of outdoor activity much more pleasant.
And all of it sends a powerful message of change. Change is in the air. The season is transitioning from summer to fall, and like all change, it often comes with resistance.
Powerful storms barrel through the Caribbean turnpike, seeking entrance to the warm Gulf waters, threatening the tranquility and safety of everyone living anywhere near the coast. That combination — cool winds from the north, storms from the south — makes for an interesting time, and for the most part, it all happens in September.
That change in the weather, along with the increasing appearance of marsh minnows, triggers another instinct — the urge fish feel to migrate into shallower marsh waters. It’s not a panic that causes them to rush madly into the deep interior, but a subtle push, a nudge, along with some feeling of urgency, to seek forage in the marsh.
It’s a gradual transition. At first, they move from the offshore islands and structures to the big bays and lakes close to the outside waters. They’ll feed on shrimp and the abundance of baitfish in the water, over reefs and along shorelines.
As the fronts come with more frequency and colder weather settles in to stay a while, the fish gradually seek out the deeper canals and bayous of the interior marsh and set up housekeeping for the winter months.
It is a scenario repeated in nature every year. It can be a frustrating month for anglers who head out to their summer hotspots, where they’ve consistently caught fish for the past few months, only to find the fish absent. That “honeyhole” rig or island or wellhead that you’ve counted on all summer is now dried up.
And after bouncing around to several surrounding rigs and coming away without a bite, it can be puzzling.
“Where did they go?” becomes the question anglers ask most in these transition months. Oddly, our instinct urges us to hunt farther outside, in deeper and more faraway waters for the elusive fish.
“Maybe the next set of rigs will have some fish, or the next set after that,” we reason.
So we burn more time and more fuel, moving farther away from where the fish are all the while. Their instinct was triggered by that very first cold front to move closer in.
And while you can still find some occasional quality fish at the outside spots, they’ll be much more scattered and less concentrated. Your trips will be “hit and miss,” likely with more misses than hits.
The key to finding good concentrations of fish from now until winter is to work those transition area bays and lakes where the quarry you seek will be foraging. According to Capt. Warren Dudenhefer, Hopedale has an abundance of such waters.
Dudenhefer operates out of his camp next to the Hopedale Marina. He invited me to fish along with him and an old banking buddy, Andy Lamont, on a foray into some of these transition bays out of Hopedale.
We met before daybreak at Dudenhefer’s camp, virtually next door the Hopedale Marina. Old timers will remember it as Dudenhefer’s Marina, as it was named by Warren’s father, Gene Dudenhefer, back in the early 1970s when he first built and opened the marina.
Warren literally grew up on the shores of Hopedale, fishing with his father and his grandfather since he was old enough to walk, and “loving every minute of it,” he says. Though his family now leases out the marina, Dudenhefer continues to hold his affinity for the Hopedale waters, and has been a guide for several years.
Our plan was to head outside first and fish the closest-in rigs and structures we came to. Dudenhefer said he’d been nailing some sizeable trout at those structures over the past several days, and he wanted to see if they were still there.
His 23-foot Fishmaster got us there in short order. Our first stop was a large rig in Black Bay that produced nothing but hardheads and sailcats. Both species were sent back overboard, and after fifteen minutes or so, we moved to another rig
Dudenhefer had us fishing with live bait, either shrimp or croakers, both under a popping cork and under a sliding sinker. We figured if they started hitting one rig rather than the others, we would all switch over to what worked.
We caught a couple of nice trout almost immediately, and then the action died.
“That’s just the way it is right now,” he explained. “They’re scattered. We might catch a few here, a few there. We’ll just keep looking until we find them.”
The anchor hardly had time to grab before Lamont caught a trout. These were even nicer fish than those from the previous rig, and we managed to put several in the boat before Dudenhefer hooked a monster redfish.
The fish fought for at least 20 minutes, running, diving and doing its best to pop or shake the line. Dudenhefer managed somehow to keep it out of the legs of the structure (the 30-pound braided line he had spooled on his reel helped immensely), and we eventually netted the brute.
High-fives were exchanged all around, and we posed with the big fish for several photos before returning it to the water. We were all glad to see it swim immediately away, to spawn and fight another day. The big red tipped Dudenhefer’s scale at 30 pounds, and easily looked and felt like it could’ve weighed 40 pounds or more.
With our craving for a few monster fish satisfied, we headed into Lake Fortuna to pursue some of the schools of foraging trout that were marauding up and down the shorelines of Fortuna, Lake Machias, Lake Calebasse, Lake of Two Trees and Lake Coquille.
These bodies of water, according to Dudenhefer, are the places to ply your baits not only this month, but from now until winter.
“All the islands, points, pockets and cuts are the prime places to try,” he said. “The water is generally 3 to 4 feet deep along the shorelines, so you’ll want to fish live bait, either shrimp or minnows, under a Cajun Thunder popping cork.”
We followed his advice, and got instantly into a good school of trout. These were nice fish, too, not the kind you have to measure.
“I look for several things to indicate the possible presence of fish,” Dudenhefer said. “I look for baitfish or bait activity on the surface, especially along shorelines, at corners and cuts. Wherever you find bait, you’re likely to find trout or redfish, so fish there. Pop your cork, make some noise, and give a spot 10 or 15 minutes to produce. If you don’t have a bite after 15 minutes, the fish just aren’t there. Move on.
“I also look for clean, moving water. If the water is all muddy, or if there is no tide, you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding fish. The only thing you can do is to try to fish on days with a decent tidal range, 6/10 of a foot or better. You can catch fish on lesser tides, but not as consistently.
“And if the water is dirty, look elsewhere. You might have to run farther in to more protected water. Or you can hang a dead shrimp on a hook and fish up snug to the shoreline, at a cut, cove or point, for redfish. I find they will still bite even in dirty water conditions if they can find your bait. Dead shrimp seems to produce best for me under those conditions.”
Another of Dudenhefer’s techniques is to fish the lee side of a shoreline, rather than the windy or rough side.
“Think about it,” he said. “If the wind is blowing water through a cut, you want to be positioned so that you can cast your bait right where the cut empties into the bay, and that will be the lee side. The fish will be waiting there to ambush any baitfish that gets caught in the sweep of the wind and current. And that’s where you will more likely catch fish.”
Dudenhefer marked a number of spots on a map I handed him, all of which he says have been productive for him in the past.
“All of these spots are liable to hold redfish, trout and flounder this month,” he said. “Just take your time, fish the spots on the map with live shrimp or live minnows under a popping cork, and you will catch some fish.
“Generally, I like to stick a spot with my Cajun anchor and give it a few minutes to produce. But you can also troll or drift these areas, casting your baits. In fact, trolling and drifting will become the preferable technique once the weather begins to chill.”
We were still putting trout in the boat. Virtually every cast resulted in a solid strike, and our tally for the day was quickly mounting. We were all having visions of fish frying, hush puppies and tartar sauce.
Another boat was anchored some 50 yards away from us, and we could tell by all the whoops and yells that they were onto a good school of trout as well.
But that was about the same time we started to hear the ominous rumble of not-too-distant thunder. Nobody likes to leave a spot when the fish are biting as fast as these were, but our conditions were quickly deteriorating. The sky had suddenly darkened and the cool wind of rapidly falling temperatures warned us that bad weather was near.
A dark, wide thunderstorm was moving rapidly in our direction and spreading so fast it threatened to shut off our escape route. Lightning bolts repeatedly sent thunderous claps echoing across the bay, and we upped anchor to high-tail it to the dock.
We should have left five minutes earlier. The wind and the rain weren’t the problem. We have rain suits and storm anchors for just such occasions. But lightning is another matter. On a boat in an open bay, or even hiding from waves behind a marsh island, you are still the highest point around, and lightning generally strikes the highest point.
Dudenhefer had the 225 Honda wide open when another, even more ominous event occurred. Right alongside of us, a dark funnel descended from the thunderstorm, and headed in the very direction we had to travel to get home. This was no tiny waterspout, but a genuine tornado, reaching down from hundreds of feet in the air.
I managed to shoot a few photos before the driving rain got to us, and Dudenhefer was able to keep us far enough away from the dangerous funnel cloud to keep us safe.
As we left it in the distance, it slowly ascended back up into the clouds. We arrived back at the dock wet, but with a good box of nice fish, and an experience none of us will soon forget.
Now, if September will spare us from tropical storms and hurricanes, we’ll all enjoy some of the best fishing Louisiana has to offer.
Capt. Warren Dudenhefer can be reached at (504) 676-3724 or (504) 813-FISH.