Jump Start

The pressure on Venice’s ample fish stocks is virtually non-existent, and the specks and reds have responded with a vengeance.

A blustery cold front roared through, bringing some welcome crisp air to the delta as three anxious anglers pulled up to Venice Marina.

Capts. Brandon Carter and Jeff Fuscia were about to make their first trip downriver to survey their home waters of Venice.

After witnessing the devastation on their drive down Highway 23 south through Port Sulphur, Empire and Buras, they stepped apprehensively from the truck to survey the destruction of the marina they and many other charter captains call home. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had dealt a severe blow to this tiny fishing community, and left Venice Marina a virtual boat graveyard.

As they put on jackets and loaded up their gear and supplies, the guides wondered aloud what affect the storms might have had on the fish.

“We really don’t know what to expect,” said Fuscia, who operates Delta Dawn Guide Service, as he cautiously backed the boat down the partially destroyed ramp of Venice Marina.

“I’ve heard some pretty good reports of redfish in the river, but we have also been told that many of the passes are silted in and nothing looks the same,” he added.

Only minutes after his 24-foot Champion got up on plane, Carter eased back the throttle and surveyed the shoreline in the Jump, an area that connects the bustling northern section of Grand Pass to the Mississippi River.

As Fuscia scrambled to the bow to set the anchor, angler Dennis Bardwell of Pontchatoula made the first cast into the swirling green waters that flowed from the river. A few moments later, his line went tight, and he set the hook hard.

“Looks like they’re here,” said Carter, who owns and operates Reel Shot Guide Service.

Fancy footwork soon began as four anglers took turns drifting plastics through the strong current, hooking fish after fish that tested their endurance and balance skills as nearby offshore supply vessels rocked the boat with their large wakes.

The redfish were aggressive, and readily took plastics bounced along the bottom. Suddenly, Fuscia hooked into something that acted a bit different. The fish started to surface, and moments later a 20-inch speckled trout hit the deck.

“Woooo-hoo! I thought it was a redfish — until it came up,” said an excited Fuscia. “I couldn’t sleep last night worrying about what we might find here in Venice. This action makes me feel a whole lot better about what to expect this winter.”

Fuscia’s fears were unfounded. Based on the quantity and quality of the fish landed, anglers are certainly in for one heck of winter season.

“This is the way Venice was in the old days of the 1980s,” said Carter as he set the hook on another bruiser hell-bent on testing his biceps. “The Mississippi River is extremely low for this time of year. Venice winter fishing has always been second to none, but I haven’t seen action like this for many years.”

According to Jerald Horst, LSU AgCenter fisheries professor, anglers can expect to see both short- and long-term transformations of the coastal areas and fishing patterns.

“Anytime we have a storm of this magnitude we can expect major environmental changes,” he said. “Long-term habitat changes create opportunities for some species and tend to set others back.

“In the short term, we can expect really good fishing.”

Good is an understatement.

“There you go — double action,” said Carter as he and Bardwell hooked two hard-fighting redfish in the strong current.

“This is kind of like tuna fishing when these fish go down and hang in that current,” he chuckled.

Current is both friend and foe to this style of fishing. Although fish tend to feed on baitfish, shrimp and crabs in the swirling water, it sometimes makes it difficult to position baits in the strike zone. Expect 5, 6 or even 7 knots of current when fishing in the river or in the many passes that intersect the river.

It is vital to get the baits down and have them drift naturally along the bottom and around structure. Fuscia and Carter use what they jokingly refer to as a “Venice Carolina rig,” which consists of a 3/8-ounce lead jighead with a ½-ounce egg sinker slipped just above it for added weight. At times when the current is especially strong, they suggest switching to a ½ ounce jighead and adding an even a heavier egg sinker.

Fuscia recommends if the fish get finicky and won’t hit the rig with the egg sinker right above the hook, switch to a standard Carolina rig substituting a lead jighead rigged with plastic at the terminal end. Bounce the rig slowly and sharply along the bottom. Expect plenty of hang-ups from storm debris, so plan accordingly with a good supply of sinkers and jigheads.

Hookup success depends on the ability to get the bait down to the bottom and keep it there as long as possible by letting slack out as the current sweeps the bait.

“Even though the river is low, those reds like to hold right against the bottom. They’ll nudge in behind any little ridge or hump that breaks the current. Anything they can use to keep from bucking that swift flow,” Carter explained.

As another line-stripping redfish peeled off line with a quick burst of speed, Carter grabbed the net in preparation to scoop yet another spot-tail bruiser from the deep. The fish surfaced, and then dove to safety only to be wrestled to the boat one final time by Bardwell.

“Look at that, there’s a remora attached to that redfish. I’ve never seen one of THOSE on a redfish or in the Mississippi River before,” he said.

Carter netted the redfish, and the unwelcome hitchhiker fell onto the deck, where it was carefully scooped up and returned to the water.

“Let’s go catch some trout,” Carter suggested. “I feel pretty confident I know where they’ll be.”

Tired of fighting and releasing over 40 redfish, the group agreed to head south to try for some of the fat speckled beauties that Carter and Fuscia specialize in. As they headed for the first spillway off of Southwest Pass, Fuscia noticed fish corralling mullet against the eastern seawall in the river.

All three anglers scrambled to their feet, and were cocked and ready to cast when one of them announced, “JACKS!!”

As quickly as they had jumped on the bow, each one retreated and returned their rods to the rod holders. It seemed no one wanted to do battle with the massive school of 20-pound-plus jack crevalles.

Continuing downriver, Carter spotted birds dipping near the rocks at Head of Passes.

Fuscia again handled the anchor duty and had the Champion on the hook securely once again.

The current was even stronger than it had been in the Jump, so Fuscia added a larger egg sinker, and soon was reeling in quality speckled trout.

“Just look at those huge schools of mullet,” he said. “There haven’t been mullet that plentiful in the river for some time.”

“There are thousands of them in that school,” said Carter.

While the speckled trout continued to hit the deck, Carter garnered the catch-of-the-day honors with a 4-pound bull croaker.

“Wow, would you look at the size of that sucker,” he grinned as he unhooked the golden-scaled fish. “These taste great,” he added as he placed the big croaker into the cooler.

Bigger and Better

The two recreational marinas that service Venice received a one-two punch from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Houseboats, sport fishing vessels and recreational boats were tossed into the surrounding woods like toys. Marina stores and offices were left in shambles, docks were destroyed and fuel pumps and tanks were set adrift by the high storm surge.

Cleanup and rebuilding efforts are under way at both Venice Marina and Cypress Cove Marina. Gigantic cranes are being used to hoist all sunken vessels from the marinas so that reconstruction can continue.

“Our B-dock really took a beating,” said Mike Butler, one of the owners of Venice Marina, Inc. “This dock housed most of the houseboats, and those were mostly destroyed.

“We will rebuild our facility, and have contracted with Rick Ryan of the Ryan Company based in North Carolina to do a land plan of the marina.”

On the drawing board are plans for 22 14-by-52-foot boat sheds with space above to build condos, a much-needed grill with food and beverage service as well as space for bringing in 30 to 40 pre-fabricated cabins to sleep guests.

“It is our commitment to maintain the same fisherman-friendly atmosphere that has made us so successful, while bringing the marina into the 21th century,” Butler said.

By the end of December, anglers launching from Venice Marina will find a temporary trailer serving as the marina ship store and office, a few limited supplies and hopefully a limited amount of fuel. The ability to dispense fuel depends on two critical steps taking place.

First in priority is that Entergy must restore power to the southernmost area of Plaquemines Parish that lies at the end of their run, and secondly, fuel pumps and tanks that have been ordered must be delivered and installed.

Cypress Cove Marina is also making great strides toward reopening their facility.

“We currently have the only spot in Venice to store boats,” said Sonny Eirich, owner of Cypress Cove Marina. “All the boats in our dry storage on the second, third and fourth racks are in great condition.”

The backdown ramp is accessible, but there are two houseboats currently blocking the dry storage area. A new forklift is on-site, and Eirich is waiting for the owners of the houseboats to remove them so they can launch the boats from dry storage.

“After the last houseboats are removed, we will no longer allow houseboats in Cypress Cove Marina,” Eirich stated.

Another major step toward reopening for business is a temporary fuel system on order from Retif Oil. Eirich hopes to have this operational by mid-December to provide fuel for customers.

He and his staff have received hundreds of calls since Katrina from people interested in purchasing condos at Cypress Cove.

“All of our units are sold. There seems to be a great interest in this property since it fared well in the storm,” he said.

Eirich indicated most of the units lost shingles and had other minor damage, but overall the design and construction held up well.

Lodging for those fishing from out of town continues to be one of the greatest challenges, and one that Joan Strohmeyer, proprietor of the Venice-based Lighthouse Lodge, is focusing on. She says that although they are unsure of the timeframe to rebuild the hotel, they do plan to offer other lodging options to anglers.

“Our eight brand-new condos that were under construction fared pretty well. We are gutting and restoring them as quickly as possible. I plan to give priority to fishermen who want to stay there, hopefully by the first of the year,” she said.

As for the Cypress Cove Lodge, materials are on site and plans are already under way to replace the roof. Estimated completion is 90-120 days, according to Eirich.

Access

The Plaquemines Parish Sheriffs Office (PPSO) maintains a roadblock just south of West Pointe a la Hache on Highway 23.

According to Col. Charles Guey of the PPSO, they now welcome back anglers. Each person desiring access to the marinas must present a valid driver’s license and fishing license and the proper equipment for fishing (i.e. rods, reels, boat, etc.).

“Charter captains must escort their clients in and out of Plaquemines Parish,” Guey said.

This may be accomplished either by having the charter customers ride with the guide or by meeting customers at the roadblock. No one will be allowed in before sunrise, so plan your arrival at the roadblock accordingly. Also, there is a 7 p.m. curfew in the lower parish, and everyone must vacate before that time.

Proceed with Caution

Although a float plan is always a good idea when boating, it is especially important when planning fishing trips post-Katrina. Most launches sustained severe damage, and fuel, oil and other necessities are not available.

When venturing out, it will be obvious there is a lack of traffic on the water, which could leave you stranded for hours or even days if you break down or lose a prop or lower unit to sunken storm debris.

Even though major restoration work continues in lower Plaquemines Parish, cell service is non-existent at this time from Port Sulphur south. Working VHF radios are a must, and if the unit is handheld, throw in a supply of extra batteries in a waterproof container.

It is suggested to re-check all safety equipment such as flares, life jackets, paddles and fire extinguishers to make sure they are in good condition and not damaged or wet from the hurricanes.

For those that have been wondering what to do with all those left over MREs, tuck a few inside your boat storage area. Having a hot meal if you are left shivering in the freezing marsh overnight could be a welcome treat.

Please be especially considerate if you launch at any marina where demolition and construction are under way. Park your vehicle and trailer well away from the activity, and leave a copy of your float plan visible on your dash. Upon your return or before departing please take a moment to pick up debris and lend a helping hand to those trying to rebuild their marinas.

The faster we can all get back to our beloved fishing routines, the better we will all recover from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Capt. Brandon Carter can be reached at 985-969-0810, and Capt. Jeff Fuscia can be reached at 504-382-5488. 

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