More than just a buffer from tropical storms, the Chandeleurs offer some first-class fishing opportunities.
It was the eve of Feb. 1 in the year 1700 — a day long celebrated by Europeans as “Candlemas,” a day when their religious clergy blessed the candles that would be used in their religious services for the remainder of the year.
On the eve of that holy day, French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville dropped anchor alongside a long chain of uninhabited islands off the border of the Louisiana/Mississippi coast and christened them Les Iles de Chandeleur (Translated in English a “The Chandeleur Islands”) in honor of the event.
At the time, the main island may have stretched for 100 miles or more — at least double its length today — and included Breton Island, Grand Gosier Islands, Curlew Island and Breton Island.
The 2,000-year-old remnant of a former Mississippi River delta, the Chandeleurs have a long and rich history. President Theodore Roosevelt was so impressed with their rare beauty, almost pristine water and abundance of fish and wildlife that he made them the United States’ second national wildlife refuge dubbed the Breton NWR.
Fishing the Chandeleurs
Fishing the islands has long been on the top of my fishing “bucket list,” but getting there can be a challenge.
They’re located a mere 30 to 40 miles off the coast of Biloxi and about 60 miles east of New Orleans, so whether you make the run from Louisiana or a Mississippi port it requires a 30- to 50-mile run into the Gulf of Mexico, mostly through open water that necessitates a sturdy boat and good winds and seas to make the trip.
But if your boat is too big, you’ll be challenged to navigate around the shallow sandbars and grass flats on the coast side of the island.
Plus it’s just so easy to fish areas far closer, so I just never made it out there to fish.
Or at least I never did, until now.
Capt. Robbie Thornton III, who operates Southern Sportfishing (866-763-7335) out of Biloxi, called and invited me to come along on a multi-day trip to fish the Chandeleurs off of his 127-foot boat, the VI.
Thornton is one of a half dozen or more such outfits operating mostly off the Mississippi coast that bring big boats, motherboats, out to the islands, and then drops small skiffs over for their customers to fish out of.
“It provides the best of both worlds,” Thornton explained. “You go to the islands in a big boat, so rough seas and winds aren’t an issue, and you have a virtual motel to fish out of: air-conditioned staterooms, each with private bath, hot meals, a huge living area, TV, etc. All the comforts of home, yet, a skiff to fish out of in the Chandeleur Islands.
“Fish all morning, come in for lunch, rest and fish the afternoon and evening. Hot dinner, TV, magnificent sunset, sleep and we’ll wake you for breakfast so you can do it all over again.”
Who could refuse such an offer?
I arrived at the dock, located behind the Isle of Capri Casino in Biloxi, late on a Monday evening as instructed. Thornton is a third-generation charter captain, after his father and grandfather, who operated similar boats to the Chandeleurs.
“I grew up fishing the islands,” he said. “I was a deckhand at age 12 and got my captain’s license at 18. I bought my own boat at 25, and I’ve made these trips to the Chandeleurs 30 to 40 times a year ever since.”
Thornton wouldn’t be accompanying us, however, on this excursion, so he introduced me to the full-time captain of the VI, Capt. Dennis Marshall, and then showed us to our stateroom. Small, as expected, but comfortable, with a pair of bunks, a place to store our personal stuff, and a complete bathroom.
Marshall said the boat would leave the dock around midnight, so we had time to go get a bite to eat, or if you get a thrill setting your cash afire and reducing it to ashes you can always gamble at one of the nearby casinos until departure.
We chose the former option and made it back to the boat with a full belly by 9:30 p.m., mingled with the crew awhile (Capt. Bobby Lewis, who would be deckhand, and Marshall’s wife Julie), and we met most of the other customers filling up the six staterooms on the trip. We hit the sack early, but heard the big diesel engines crank up at midnight to start us on our journey to the Chandeleurs.
Bacon, sausage, eggs and grits greeted us for breakfast, and each stateroom had a 15-foot skiff awaiting off the stern. Each skiff was outfitted with a 25-horsepower Yamaha, a 48-quart ice chest loaded up with our favorite beverages and snacks, and each crew was handed a GPS loaded with dozens of waypoints where reds and specks were known to prowl. We also got a radio to keep in touch with the VI.
We all brought our own tackle and gear, so after loading it all aboard we headed out to see what we could find.
The VI was anchored in Big Smack Channel, a deep ditch with an average depth of 12 to 20 feet that runs between the main island and New Harbor Island.
Skiffs could travel north or south along the main island and fish any of a myriad of grass flats or points, or you could choose to fish the surf side of the island. To do that, you’d head as close up to the main island as possible by Redfish Point, anchor your skiff in about a foot or 2 of water, and then walk across the remaining sand (about 100 yards) to the beach.
You couldn’t beach the skiff because the tide was falling and by the time you walked back to it you’d be high and dry.
The beach/surf option wasn’t too appealing that Tuesday morning because the winds were blowing pretty stiff, and we figured the surf would be too rough and the water dirty. As it was, the water behind the island had a pretty good chop, but our little skiff took it in stride and we opted to try fishing around a nearby point.
Capt. Bobby had suggested we simply drift over one of the many grass beds where trout and redfish lurked, and where soft plastics fished under a popping cork should attract their attention. So, we drifted and tossed myriad baits.
I tried topwater baits in several colors and styles, and managed only one hit on a big mullet-colored Tsunami, but that fish somehow managed to avoid the hooks.
The action was slow getting started, but as the morning wore on we did land some trout on DOA glow-colored shrimp and on the Billy Bay shrimp in pink under corks.
My fishing partner, Vic Rodrigue, also caught a nice flounder.
But I think I enjoyed riding around in the skiff and simply taking in the surroundings as much as I did the fishing. The long-anticipated trip was living up to my expectations.
The water, despite being fairly rough, was pretty clear, especially over the grass. It was easy to look down 3 and 4 feet to the bottom and watch fish glide along the grass.
Reds, sheepshead, drum and mullet regularly darted away from us as we drifted along in the shallow water, and we’d also occasionally see large sharks in the 5-foot range swim lazily alongside.
We made a few moves that morning, and wound up fishing at one of the waypoints titled “Sunken shrimp boat,” where we managed to put a couple more fish in the skiff before heading back to the VI for lunch.
After a hot lunch of roast beef sandwiches and fixin’s, we compared our success to that of the other skiffs and found that some did quite a bit better than us, coming in with some 3- and 4-pound trout.
The surf fishermen struck out, and a couple of the other skiffs pretty much matched what we did.
So we took a short siesta, and then headed out for some afternoon action.
This time we headed farther out for some deeper water, and we came to a heavy line of grass on the surface and a distinct current line and delineation in the water color and clarity.
We decided to drift along it and see if anything was on patrol beneath us.
We had immediate hits and hook-ups, and were consistently nailed by everything from speckled trout to Spanish mackerel, and a whole slew of acrobatic lady fish. Several times I had my No. 30 leader bitten in half by what I suspect were sharks, but the action kept us busy and entertained until it was time to head in for the night.
While all the skiffs were out fishing, Capt. Bobby took a skiff to the beach and used a landing net to scoop up a dozen real nice crabs, which he boiled and picked and used in a crab-dip concoction that was memorable.
After a shower and change of clothes we sat down to a shrimp pasta and garlic bread dinner, coffee and dessert, and hit the sack to get an early start on the water in the morning.
Day 2 started with pancakes and bacon, and we jumped into our skiff and headed back to see if our grass line was still there. Unfortunately, the winds had increased and that nice current/demarcation line had vanished in the choppy seas.
We went back to the sunken shrimp boat to find muddy water and few fish, and then decided to cross the island to try the surf. We knew the winds would make it tough to fish the surf side, but our trip would somehow be incomplete if we didn’t at least try.
We motored the boat along Redfish Point as close to the bank as we could, grabbed what gear we could carry and waded ashore. We walked across about 100 yards of sand, careful to avoid grassy areas where shorebirds were nesting and creating a loud protest if you walked too near.
The surf side stretches the length of the main island, for 25 miles or more, and is Capt. Bobby’s favorite place to fish.
“The surf has produced some great catches this year, but the water can’t be too rough or dirty or it shuts down,” he said.
Fishing the surf
You can see where the water breaks over a sandbar some 20 to 30 yards or so off the beach. Capt. Bobby said the trout and reds will hang just on the other side of those breaking waves, especially in the early mornings and late evenings.
“You can stand at the edge of the water and cast across that first sandbar and catch some fish,” he said. “You want to look for decent-colored water, not muddy water, and you want to look for channels that run out from the beach toward the sandbars.
“The continual wave action made deeper channels in the sand, where it’s anywhere from 12 inches to 3 feet deeper than the rest. You can see the deeper, darker water when the water is clear. That’s where you want to fish.”
Unfortunately, the water was far from clear, and though we walked a ways looking we were unable to distinguish any deeper channels.
Capt. Bobby also said waders could walk out past the first sandbar and fish between it and the second sandbar, a distance too far to reach from the bank. The second sandbar is where lots of speckled trout like to lurk, along with a variety of other species, including sharks.
“To get to the second sandbar you’ll have to wade in water that is at least chest-to-neck deep, and if you happen to step into one of the deeper channels it can be over your head,” he said. “But once you reach the sandbar you’ll only be standing in water waist deep. From there, you can cast past the second sandbar and get into some great action.”
Naturally, you’ll want to have a long stringer on a float to keep your bleeding catch away from you in case some toothy critters swim by.
Despite the poor conditions, we managed to catch junk fish in the surf, and imagined what it’d be like on a gorgeous day under good conditions.
We headed back to the VI for lunch and to plot our afternoon strategy.
We decided to change tactics for the afternoon, forgetting about chasing trout and go hunting for redfish over the vast grass beds on the island.
We punched in Stripe Bar on the GPS, a huge grass flat where we saw clean water and caught a few fish the day before. Once there, we drifted and tossed gold weedless spoons.
The water over the grass was almost crystal clear and the grass was thick, and every now and then we’d cross a section of bare sand bottom forming what would appear to be stripes — which we assumed was how the flat got its name.
But redfish lurked in the grass, and they were not reluctant to strike our spoons. We had a blast, reeling in red after red as they pummeled our gold spoons, and wished we had figured this out from the beginning.
Just before dark we went back to the VI and cleaned up for an appetizer of grilled redfish covered with a rich shrimp concoction, and then dinner of thick steak and baked potato.
As the big engines fired up to take us back to port and we all talked about our experiences on the trip, I couldn’t keep myself from grinning.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve stopped grinning yet.
Editor’s note: Capt. Robbie Thornton III’s Southern Sportfishing can be reached at 866-763-7335.
When to go
The best time to fish the Chandeleurs depends on who you ask.
Capt. Bobby Lewis said he prefers April through May and September through October.
“The weather is cooler, and though the conditions at that time of year can be iffy, the trout are often bigger,” he said.
Capt. Dennis Marshall said he likes the summer months best.
“June thru August are usually the easiest months to fish out here,” he said. “The winds and seas are usually calm, this year being an exception so far, and the trout and redfish are abundant. It’s not at all unusual for each boat to catch their limits each day during the summer months.
“And my next-favorite time is September thru November. We always get a great fall run of speckled trout and redfish action.”