Barrier Islands in the Gulf offer great opportunities for kayak-bound anglers. Make the arrangements for a trip of a lifetime.
Louisiana and Mississippi have several barrier islands, the most-famous being Grand Isle, the only remaining inhabited one. It is a popular fishing destination and can be accessed by vehicle. It is frequented by kayak anglers and is the closest thing to beach fishing many can get.
However, several other islands dot the Gulf coast and provide excellent fishing. Kayak anglers with a yearning to ply these remote waters need to plan a mothership trip to get their kayaks to these fishing spots.
The barrier islands are dynamic, changing in size and shape every year due to tides and waves, and particularly, tropical weather events. The number and strength of recent hurricanes and tropical storms have reduced most to a fraction of their historical size. While some are still sizable, others are more like overgrown sandbars or are completely submerged.
Restoration of these islands is high on the list of coastal planning projects in order to preserve their role as barriers to reduce the strength and destruction when these storms make landfall. They also provide critical nesting habitat for many species of birds.
Making the trip
However, “going to fish the islands” is a dream for many anglers, and kayak anglers are adding these trips to their bucket lists. It is not as difficult as you might think and also provides some distinct advantages. The vast majority of fishing around the islands entails wading, so many anglers wait until late spring or early summer, once water temperatures are warm enough to comfortably and safely wade. However, a few savvy anglers beat the crowds by using lightweight waders while the water is still cold. Kayak anglers have realized they too can get in on this early activity without having to get into the water.
All of the islands require relatively long trips over open water, and caution needs to be taken to pick the best weather days. A suitable boat that can handle the extra loads of the kayaks and gear must be available. Secure the ’yaks well so they don’t bounce around, risking damage. The bigger, overnight operations often allow customers to bring a kayak as long as it is pre-arranged. A couple specialize in kayak island adventures, and there’s always the private-boat option.
The typical practice is to anchor close to the island in water shallow enough to wade without swimming but deep enough to account for tidal drops that could strand the vessel on hard sand until the water returns. However, if you are bringing in kayaks, anchoring in a water that’s a bit deeper is not an issue.
If most anglers wade-fish around the islands, what is the advantage of going through the trouble of bringing kayaks?
When you leave the powerboat to wade, you are limited in the tackle and supplies you can carry, and you can’t get very far from the boat. Typically, you can carry one rod and a few lures. Food and drink must be carefully planned and is limited. On the other hand, the kayak serves as a mobile base of operations and allows you to travel as far as you want, be self-sufficient and carry everything that you want — too much in many cases — including fish storage by way of a hard or soft cooler, food and water, plus several rods and tackle trays.
A second reason for a kayak is for those not comfortable wade-fishing. I love the experience of wade-fishing but am never truly comfortable. Sharks and stingrays are common around the barrier islands, and you will undoubtedly see them. Sharks also regularly take swipes at fish stringers hanging off the hips of wading anglers, precariously close for comfort. Also, if you want to fish live bait, you must also tow along a floating bait bucket, which adds to your load as well as providing additional shark-attracting scent. Fishing from the kayak allows you to ply the same waters and keep everything that might attract a shark in the kayak instead of in the water.
Plus, a kayak doesn’t prevent you from wade-fishing. A stake-out pole allows you to hop out whenever you want and anchor the yak. It provides you a floating base that goes wherever you want. The stake-out pole should be firmly set in the sand to prevent wave action from pulling it out. One trick I learned from the late Capt. Theophile Bourgeois is to waddle the pole tightly back and forth as it sinks further into the sand. He used this method to stake out his seaplane on his many island adventures.
Another advantage of the kayak over wading is that the fish are sometimes out of wading range. Wading waist-deep or less is most comfortable. Any deeper, and you risk dunking your reels constantly, and on rougher days, getting face-splashed numerous times. And you may simply be out of casting range. A kayak can go in water shallow enough to wade but has no upper depth limits. Wherever the fish are, or move to, you can get to them.
As they do anywhere, the gamefish often follow closely to the schools of bait. These schools can move quickly, and most times, you can’t wade fast enough to stay with or reach schools that are moving on. Being in a kayak allows you to quickly and stealthily keep up with the action. The same applies when you spot birds working in the distance.
Barrier island chains
The main barrier island chains from west to east are the Isle Dernieres, Timbalier, Breton and Chandeleur. All were part of an entire chain of islands that once blanketed the coast. Though some are generically referred to by the singular term island, they are all part of the barrier chain and are broken up into many smaller islands and spits. Their makeup changes on an annual basis. That cove where you found fish last year could be a sandbar or open water this year, but there are usually some fishable areas, except in extreme conditions. The Gulf-facing sides are naturally rougher, but there are days when both sides are slick as glass. Many have spots where you can walk or even drag a kayak across the island and fish either side.
Chandeleur is by far the most-popular. It is the farthest east of all of the island chains. It is uniquely positioned, easily accessed from several places in Mississippi and Louisiana. There are several operations that offer guided fishing, as well as overnight accommodations for anglers wanting to extend their time on the island. Seaplanes regularly land, bringing fishermen in by air so they have more time to wade and fish. It is also a regular destination for several charter boat day trips.
When conditions are right, Chandeleur has clear water right up to the shore and numerous grass beds. The shoreline is interspersed with deeper channels, expansive flats as well as large sandbars. Fishing habitat is unlimited, and you can’t fish it all, even over the course of several days.
Breton Island has changed dramatically over the years. It has received significant hurricane damage, and a restoration project was begun in December 2020 to pump in sediment to restore large areas. Breton is most easily reached out of Shell Beach or Hopedale through the MRGO — a detour around the MRGO rock dam is necessary — from Delacroix, through Bayou Terre aux Bouefs into Black Bay and Breton Sound and from Venice out of Baptiste Collette into Breton Sound. North Breton once had an oil-field facility in a large interior bay, but it was destroyed by a hurricane. Breton offers great fishing, and its proximity to several popular fishing ports makes it a great choice for day trips.
The Isle Dernieres and Timbalier chains have also undergone various protection projects over the years. Besides pumping in sediment for land-building, large sections of rock jetties were placed in hopes of offering wave protection, some which are now submerged. The rocks provide island protection, fish attracting habitat — unseen hazards for powerboats. Several areas are also littered with sheet pilings and oil-field related debris.
Another advantage the kayak offers is the ability to get close and even behind some of these structures and find fish. From Raccoon Island to the west and East Timbalier to the east, these chains are popular for anglers fishing out Houma, Dularge, Cocodrie, Leeville and even Grand Isle. Some see more attention than others, but even the tiniest of island remnants can offer good fishing.
While beautiful and often eerily peaceful, the islands are alive with the soothing sounds of waves lapping or even crashing the beach and the calls and cries of various bird colonies. They are fragile, and their future is uncertain, but the fishing is often fantastic. If you have a kayak-angler bucket list, this is one you should check off sooner than later.
Keep an eye peeled
One tip for newcomers is to watch where the large mothership boat and barge operations are located. Although most provide small skiffs for their customers, they position themselves in generally calmer waters, close to the daily action. They have many years of experience fishing the islands under all conditions, and they get daily intel on where and how fish are caught. While this certainly is not an invitation to crowd them, it can give you a general idea of what to look for and where to look to find fish on your own.