Except for occasional duckhunters, the redfish think they own these skinny-water lakes.
On the chilly, early morning boat ride into the Lafitte marsh it dawned on me that summer was really over. I realized then that it was time to put away the shorts and T-shirts until next year, and break out the long sleeve shirts and jeans.
It wasn’t a teeth-chattering ride, being under-dressed as I was, but I got the message. Fall had arrived, and I had to adjust to the new climate.
And just as the weather changes our dress patterns, the new chill in the air was changing the fishing patterns. Obviously, fish can’t put on extra clothing to help them adjust to the cooler weather. Instead of changing clothes, they change locations.
The fish we chase are themselves busy chasing food, and the shrimp and minnows they pursue are on the move into the shallower marshes off our Louisiana coast. Driven by both hunger and instinct, trout and redfish are right behind them, and of course, where the fish are, there will be fishermen.
My son-in-law, James Evans, and step-grandson Blake accompanied me aboard Capt. Papa Joe Bush’s 23-foot Sea Pro. We were after redfish, and Bush headed straight for some of his favorite fall hunting grounds — the shallow duck ponds that lay just off several of the main Lafitte and Myrtle Grove canals.
With the wind blowing in from the east, Bush was certain there would be plenty enough water to float the boat so we could troll the ponds.
“The only thing that frustrates my pond plans is a hard wind bowing in from the north,” Bush said. “A strong wind like that will drop the water level by a foot or more in just five or six hours, making it impossible to get into the ponds.
It used to be, before everything eroded away so much, that the ponds had only a very narrow entrance. Back then, it might take two days for the water level to drop that much because everything had to flow out of that narrow pass. Now, the entrances into the ponds are as wide as the ponds themselves, and the water flushes in and out in just a matter of a few hours,” he said.
Bush slowed to just above idle, and put-putted into a large, meandering pond system just east of Lake Hermitage. The 225-horsepower Optimax kicked up a steady stream of mud in the shallow water, and Bush decided to kill the engine, tilt it up and troll us in with his Minn Kota.
“A mistake many anglers make is they come roaring into these ponds at full throttle,” Bush said. “Then they think they can cut the engine and catch some fish. But that ain’t gonna happen, because the noise from their outboard motor resonates through the shallow water and scatters the fish. You can’t make noise like that in here. These fish spook easily.”
I chuckled, knowing that some anglers would do precisely that. Even after reading this, somebody will pull that stunt, catch nothing, and then declare that there’s no fish in the ponds. And they know that for sure, because they tried fishing in them.
Bush says catching fish requires more than just going out on the water and casting a bait. It requires at least some minimal amount of knowledge regarding conditions, baits and tackle, at least a little bit of skill in casting (a little luck wouldn’t hurt, either), and if you’re going to fish Papa’s ponds, one more thing is necessary for success — stealth.
Bush speaks with the easy confidence of a seasoned authority. He’s been making his living at the fishing business for almost a decade now, plying the Lafitte and Myrtle Grove waters in search of trout and redfish. So when he recommends a particular bait or technique, I listen. On this morning, he recommended a weedless gold spoon.
“This series of ponds has a lot of grass in it,” he explained, “so go with weedless baits.”
It seemed to me like a good place to fish either plastics or shrimp under a popping cork. How could a redfish resist that? But Bush was adamant.
“If you toss anything else you’ll catch nothing but grass,” he said.
I tried. He was right. We all switched to Johnson weedless spoons.
And the ponds held redfish. We could see them working up against the shorelines, chasing baitfish and shrimp. Every now and then, a shrimp would jump right out of the water in front of us, spooked either by the trolling motor or some unseen predator. Several times we saw the whole back of a redfish protrude above the surface.
The four of us stayed busy casting to all of the activity surrounding us. Both Bush and I had good hook ups, but we lost the fish. Poor technique on Bush’s part. Bad luck on mine. Well, maybe the vice-versa was true. I have a bad habit of holding my rod low and vertical when I’m casting and retrieving. Bush said I had to keep my rod pointed up when I reel in, like at 11 or 1 o’clock. He said that would keep my spoon from burying itself in the patches of grass that were all over the place, and I’d have a much better chance of actually landing one of these shallow water reds.
It wasn’t comfortable at first, but I forced myself to practice his technique, and it worked. The next fish that hit me got hooked. He fought for all he was worth, but my rod tip stayed up and the hook stayed in, and we grilled him on the pit the next night.
Papa Joe’s technique is to drift and troll within casting distance of the shorelines, and work them thoroughly with gold spoons or, if the grass isn’t heavy, beetle-spins.
He likes to concentrate his efforts at points, cuts, drains, coves or any other irregularity along the shoreline, and he looks for a pattern.
“I’ll fish either the rough side or the lee side, but choose one and stay with it awhile,” he said. “If you don’t have any success, work the other side. Sometimes, fish will be only on one side. Sometimes, you’ll only catch them at drains or points. But you are looking for a pattern.
“If you catch one or two at a point, and nothing in between until the next point, but there you hook another, you’ve probably found a pattern. Fish only the points. Jump from one to the next and don’t waste your time in between.”
On this particular day, I couldn’t discern any pattern. I caught a nice one at the mouth of a small drain on the windy side. My son-in-law nailed a good one at a protruding grass point on the lee side. Blake caught one on a glow/chartreuse beetle-spin tossed right up at the grass line. The fish at times seemed to be everywhere. But just as quickly, they seemed to be nowhere. It was time to move on.
The next stop was a system of ponds just off Bayou Dupont. Bush followed the same technique, entering the ponds as stealthily as possible, and we worked our baits along each shoreline. The water was so clear you could easily see bottom, and the only way we could entice the fish to bite was to cast as far away from the boat as possible. We wanted them to see our baits before the sight of the boat spooked them.
We piddled for half an hour without much success, and Bush moved us to yet another system of ponds. I call them systems because that’s what they are — groups of ponds connected together rather single ponds. A boater can meander through them, moving from one to another, without having to re-enter any main waterway.
In the next series of ponds, we switched from spoons to spinner-beetles. There wasn’t nearly as much grass to hang up in, and Bush says you can keep a spinner-beetle in the strike zone for a longer period of time. Weedless gold spoons are the best baits for shallow ponds with heavy grass. But if you find a pond without grass, he advises you switch.
“The reason is, the strike zone extends from the shoreline to about 5 feet out from the bank,” he said. “You have to reel in a spoon pretty fast, so it only stays in the strike zone for a second or two. But you can work a spinner-beetle in much slower. They offer a lot more resistance in the water, and that slows them down and keeps them where the fish are for a lot longer period of time.
“I try to cast right to the edge of the shore, and then reel in as slow as possible, just enough to keep the blade spinning. Once you’re 5 to 10 feet from shore, you might as well reel in and cast again.”
And Bush has definite bait preferences.
“In the fall and winter, I like the cocaho tail or minnow-type soft plastic baits. Minnows will be their primary source of food from now until spring, so it only stands to reason that minnow-imitation lures will produce best. Basically, I like three of the old traditional colors — purple/white, glow/chartreuse and black/chartreuse. But I also really like the Old Bayside Skeleton Shads in the chartreuse/tomato core color. I’ve had some excellent results with that bait,” he said.
If you’re fishing in the ponds, attach that soft plastic to a gold No. 4 Colorado blade, Bush advised. Then, once winter fully arrives and the fish go deep, take off the blade and just fish the plastic on a ¼- or 3/8-ounce jig head, bounced slowly off the bottom.
I was having a ball. The weather was perfect. An overcast sky blocked out the sun, a gentle wind kept us cool, and the fish were more than cooperative.
“This is a very relaxing way to fish,” I told Bush. “I’m really enjoying just drifting and trolling through these meandering ponds, working the shoreline with my beetle-spinners.”
And it was true, in spite of one minor mishap. I have fished the past year with a Team Daiwa-X 103 HSD baitcasting reel. It has out performed anything I’ve ever used, and never once backlashed, until that day. And that wasn’t really the reel’s fault.
When I switched from the gold spoon to the beetle-spin, I tied a faulty knot. I guess these 50-plus-year-old eyes need reading glasses nowadays for knot-tying. I must’ve missed a loop or something, and when I gave it a hefty cast, the beetle-spin soared out into space and the spool on my baitcaster produced the hairiest bird’s nest I’d seen in a long time. Oh well. Still, I couldn’t complain much. It was too great a day and too productive a trip to let such a minor inconvenience mar it. But I did have a question.
“Papa Joe, what do you do this month if there’s not enough water in the ponds to get in?”
“I’d still fish the same area, but instead of fishing in the ponds, I’d fish the canals and bayous that pass right by them. That’s where the fish will be,” he said.
Back at the C-Way Marina dock, we unloaded the ice chest at the cleaning station, where a couple of guides were busy cleaning redfish from their day’s trip.
Capts. Bobby Beck and Mike Daigle of Cast–it Charters (985-331-8548) had a real nice pile of fish they’d caught in Lake Salvador. They were confident that the big lake would be productive throughout the month.
So, if you’re chasing redfish this month, head over to Lake Salvador. Or Lake Hermitage. Or Round Lake.
But stay out of Papa’s Ponds. So far, me and him, and maybe a few duck hunters, are the only ones who know about them. And we’d like to keep it our little secret.
Papa Joe’s Charter and Guide Service can be reached at (504) 392-4409.
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