When summer winds blow, Cocodrie’s Madison Bay offers hot action that is unaffected by the conditions.
You only turn 26 once.
That line of reasoning was enough incentive for Leslie Owens to plan a blowout birthday bash.
Some women might opt for a night out with the girls at a swanky restaurant or hopping nightclub.
Others would prefer cheese and wine with close associates at an art gallery.
But Owens, a transplant from Savannah, Ga., appears to be assimilating quite nicely to the South Louisiana way of life.
Girlfriends at a nightclub? Kinda passe’.
Wine and cheese at an art gallery? Too stodgy.
Owens had something bigger in mind, something on the polar extreme of the Sweet 16s and debutante balls of her formative years.
So she asked Capt. Bryce Michel, a co-worker at Louisiana Sportsman magazine, to take her and some girlfriends on a bloodlust-satiating meat haul out of Cocodrie.
Somewhat stunned, the unfailingly generous Michel agreed, and the date was set.The fishing excursion actually began the evening before when Owens, marketing director for Louisiana Sportsman, and her friends, Toni Vinterella and Bridget Ory, arrived at Michel’s camp on the bank of Bayou Little Caillou. The sun was melting into the sea of marsh grass on the western horizon, while the full moon in the east was soliciting croaks from sleepy-eyed frogs and chirps from grateful crickets.
Michel served his guests ribeyes and family-recipe crawfish ettouffee, and regaled them with stories of that morning’s action.
The Houma native, who sells advertising for Louisiana Sportsman and guides in his free time, had had a group of rookies on board who boated 65 trout, while fellow skipper John Pellegrin had guided a group of more-experienced anglers to 125 specks by 9 a.m.
The fisherwomen couldn’t wait to see what their final counts would be, and were so sure of their acumen and that of their guide, they made a friendly wager with Capt. Joey Seeber about whose boat would catch the most fish.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans…
Though conditions had been ideal for fishing the entire previous week, the anglers awoke to a 10-knot wind blowing without interruption out of the west.
By the time Michel and his rookie crew had made it to the Tracy & Macie to load the livewells with croakers and shrimp, the winds had increased to 15 knots.
Seas in the bay were a solid 2 feet, and Michel was concerned.
He turned his stern to the breeze, and pointed the bow to the wellhead in Lake Barre that had delivered for Pellegrin the day before.
Owens, Ory and Vinterella shared the cushioned seat on the fore side of the console, and were doused by spray whenever Michel cleared a rogue wave.
“It’s going to be tough fishing in these conditions,” he said, and then looked down at the surface of the green, salty sea. “But at least the water isn’t dirty yet.”
He arrived at the wellhead, and motored around to the east side before lowering his anchor. A couple of waves came menacingly close to delivering an inch or two of water onto the false floor, but the freeboard was just high enough.
Pellegrin was already positioned, and all four of his charges had baits in the water.
“What you got?” Michel radioed.
“Four or five bites. No fish,” Pellegrin answered.
Just then, one of Pellegrin’s clients set the hook, and all eyes watched for the fish to make a showing.
It finally did.
One by one, Michel baited Carolina rigs and sent 3-inch-long croakers to the shell-topped sea floor before handing off the rods.
Owens quickly set the hook with hers. The fish avoided the surface, and dug characteristically.
Another of Pellegrin’s clients hooked another stingray.
Tough conditions don’t seem so bad when the fish are biting. When they’re not, those same conditions are miserable.
“Let’s go,” Michel said.
He weighed anchor and made a quick stop on the way in at the old Texaco camps in Lake Barre because they’re protected by a seawall.
The conditions were indeed better there, but the action wasn’t.
So Michel gave up on the outside waters and opted for plan B — fishing for whatever would bite in the shallow ponds around Madison Bay.
As far as plan B’s go, that’s not a bad one to have. In fact, for many anglers, who don’t suffer from the myopia of trout fishing in the summertime, Michel’s plan B is their plan A.
And it’s not hard to see why.
“This whole area — from Bay Tambour and Bayou Dufrene all the way up to Madison Bay and Wonder Lake — is just full of redfish in the summertime,” Michel said. “When you go in there with live shrimp in the summertime, you always catch them, no matter what the conditions are.”
Michel wound his way through some twisting bayous and across open-water lakes, and within minutes arrived at a broken-marsh area at the tattered edge of Madison Bay.
He trimmed up his Honda four-stroke, and eased the big Blazer Bay into a cove within casting distance of two points before sticking the Cajun anchor.
“Let’s see what’s on these points,” he said in a hushed tone that was uncharacteristic of the vociferous salesman.
Michel bit the Carolina rigs off the spinning rods, and re-tied the leaders — sans the weights — to the monofilament. Above each swivel, he clipped on a lemon-yellow rattling cork.
He dipped up three live shrimp, pierced a kahle hook below the horn of each, and cast out the popping baits for his crew.
After five actionless minutes, Owens hooked up with a birthday sheepshead that ripped line from her reel like it was a hammerhead shark.
Many anglers would have thrown the fish back, but Michel tossed it in the ice chest.
“I don’t know why people don’t keep sheepshead,” he said. “They’re not that hard to clean. They’re really not. And they’re great to eat.”
He rebaited Owens, and she hooked up again within seconds.
Soon, Ory and Vinterella were getting in on the action, bringing in a constant line of sheepshead that was interrupted by the occasional redfish, black drum, flounder and even speckled trout.
As soon as the action would slow or peter out on one point, Michel would move the boat to the next one.
His crew of rookie anglers had a ball, and took home bags of fillets from 45 fish of mixed varieties, enough to win the bet with Seeber.
That’s a typical day in the marshes just east of Cocodrie, according to Pellegrin.
“The fish are always there in the summertime. I love the marsh. It’s like my backyard,” said Pellegrin, who grew up in Chauvin and has been fishing the area for nearly all of his 38 years.
He said the fish will bite in any water conditions, but given his druthers, he likes it to be clean.
“You’ll catch them when it’s muddy, but you don’t catch quite as many,” he said. “You want to find that good, clean, moving water.”
But clean in that particular area certainly doesn’t mean clear.
“If the water gets too clear, the fish are too spooky,” Pellegrin said. “They can see you before you can see them.
“I like the water to have about 6 inches of visibility.”
Pellegrin will motor around to find water that’s to his liking, and then he’ll work the points in those ponds.
Fishing the points, he said, is the key to consistent catches. Fish can certainly be had in the coves and along flat banks, but the greatest numbers are on the points.
“The fish run those points looking for baitfish and crabs,” he said. “They might leave for a little while and run along the shoreline, but they’ll keep checking back at the points.”
Pellegrin fishes his live shrimp about 12 inches below a rattling cork, and he hurls the bait as close to the point as possible, sometimes even casting into the cordgrass and working the bait back out.
Most strikes come with the cork no more than 2 or 3 feet from the tip of the point.
The points are especially productive on falling tides, Pellegrin said. When tides are rising, the fish tend to push into smaller pockets and inaccessible puddles.
But some can still be caught on the points.
“We limited out on redfish one day last week with a rising tide,” Pellegrin said in late May. “It’s just easier when it’s falling.
“Either way, you never strike out back there.”
Michel agrees. He says the fish are always biting somewhere in the marshes, and they’re never hard to find. Consequently, he doesn’t waste a whole lot of time at any one spot.
“I only give a spot 15 minutes,” he said.
On the other hand, it isn’t wise to give a spot any less than that.
“The fish get each other all lit up,” he said. “There might be fish on a point, and you can’t get them to bite, and then all of a sudden one bites, and you start catching fish on every cast.”
Michel and Pellegrin agree that live shrimp is the best bait for consistent action in the marshes. Dead bait will work, but not nearly as well.
Live cocahoes can also be productive, Pellegrin said.
“There are days cocahoes are just as good (as live shrimp),” he said.
But live shrimp are attractive to everything that swims in the area, including speckled trout.
“There are a lot of days I go back there when it’s windy, and I come back with 40 speckled trout,” Michel said. “Everybody thinks you’re a hero because you were able to catch so many trout in terrible conditions.
“The fish won’t be big, just 12 to 14 inches, and you’ll have a lot of throwbacks, but any time you can come back with trout on a windy day in the summer, you’ve done well.”
The spectacular action in the area for all species lasts until November, Pellegrin said, and it doesn’t slack off at all in the blistering heat of the late summer.
“You come out here any time of day in July and August — I don’t care how hot — and you’ll catch fish,” he said.
Owens and her girlfriends proved that on her birthday trip.
Although she’s not exactly sure yet how she’ll spend her 27th birthday, she’s already begun to make out a wish list for gifts.
No. 1 item: white shrimp boots.