Redfish Pandemonium

Louisiana has the best flyfishing for redfish in North America. Here’s how to get in on the action.

Webster defines pandemonium as ‘a wild uproar.’

I’m pretty sure that’s the best way to describe what was happening all around me.

Water was erupting everywhere around the tiny 17-foot Hell’s Bay. Three anglers, three fly rods and three redfish.

I though to myself, “God, its been so long, I almost forgot how much fun this is!”

Doubles happen all the time. But triples? Now that’s something to smile about.

Capt. Chas Marsh, Bill Belsom and I all came from very different fishing backgrounds. The one thing that connected us was sight-fishing for reds.

For us, nothing is more addictive than fly fishing for Louisiana’s most beautiful game fish.

Ironically, we all met for the first time two years ago, not in Louisiana but in Jackson Hole, Wy.

At the time, Marsh was a guide for a freshwater flyfishing trip that Belsom and I both took part in.

There we talked not only about fishing for trout but how it compared to sight fishing for reds. As we made our way up a mountain in his truck, Marsh told us of his plans to return to New Orleans in the fall so that he could begin guiding out in the bayou once again.

Marsh, who started fly fishing at age 7, has accumulated 26 years of fishing experience. His career as a professional fly fishing guide started a little more than seven years ago.

Marsh has guided fly fishermen in many different parts of the world, including Utah’s Green River, Argentina and Northern Patagonia, and he’s spent time working in the Seychelles.

For now, Marsh chooses to split his time between Jackson Hole in the summers and here in Louisiana during the fall, winter and spring.

“Louisiana has the best sight-fishing for redfish in all of the world,” he said.

Belsom, on the other hand, is a native of Louisiana, and currently lives in Baton Rouge. His passion for fly fishing is so strong, he routinely drives to New Orleans to work part-time at a local fly shop there.

“I started fly fishing a few years ago for freshwater trout,” Belsom explained. “I took lessons at Dave Whitlock’s Fly Fishing School in Arkansas, but my first redfish on the fly was with Capt Rich Waldner in the spring of ’05.”

Since then, Belsom has become addicted.

“In sight-fishing, there’s a sense of connection with the fish. You see it, put the line in the right place and see the take. There are few sports that give you that connection with your quarry.”

As for me, I have an entirely different background. A native of Pennsylvania, I also learned to fly fish at an early age. I know a lot about fly fishing for trout, salmon and steelhead, but my first experience with the magnificent redfish didn’t happen until the military stationed me in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina.

Before I moved here, Bill Humes, a close friend and retired fly shop owner, predicted I’d fit in quite nicely.

“You’re going to love it there, John,” he said. “Louisiana has some of the best fly fishing in the world. Hell, I wish I was moving there myself.”

At the time, I had no idea just how right he was.

As a going-away present, Humes gave to me his copy of Fly-Fishing the Gulf Coast by Tom Broderidge.

The book is chock-full of tips for successful fly fishing, and has a whole chapter devoted to redfish.

“Perhaps the most fun of all redfish fishing is ‘hunting’ for reds,” writes Broderidge, “that is, one person poling a flats boat quietly across shallow water while another stands on the bow, fly rod in hand, ready to cast to any redfish they see.”

It’s exactly what Marsh, Belsom and I had in mind.

It was Marsh’s first day back on the water following his summer hiatus in Jackson Hole.

“I have clients on Saturday so I need to do some scouting around,” he relayed to me in a phone conversation. “I can’t guarantee we’ll get into a lot of fish since it’ll be my first day back on the water, but we’ll see what we can do.”

I knew better.

For the next week, I sweated the weather reports. It had been non-stop sun for what seemed like ages, and the remnants of a low-pressure system were threatening our scouting mission.

I could only get one day off of work, and I surely didn’t want to spend it in the rain. Not only that, unlike other types of fishing where overcast skies are preferred, sight fishing requires sunlight, allowing the angler to see into the water.

We lucked out. As Marsh piloted us across the bayou, the sun was rising. Warm crimson, purple and orange colors filled the morning sky. It lit up the marsh grass as though it were on fire.

“This is my favorite part of the day,” remarked Belsom as he sat next to Marsh. “Everything is so peaceful.”

A little while later, Marsh killed the motor, and we drifted silently as he readied the pushpole.

I do all kinds of fishing — inshore, offshore, conventional, jigging, trolling and fly fishing.

You name it, and if it involves me, the water and a fish, I’ll love it. But there’s something special about the silence and solitude that comes with poling a flats boat through the water.

Most sight-fishing for redfish happens from a flats boat such as Marsh’s. Typically it’s done with two or at the most three anglers. These lightweight boats can draft water as shallow as 6 inches.

Poling the boat from a raised platform on the back, the anglers can slip into a pond undetected, and work the reds where most other boats just can’t get.

Usually solitude accompanies these trips as it is rare to see even one other flats boat.

I told Belsom he was first up. He picked his fly and readied his fly rod. I looked to see what he was tying on.

“I like heavy crab patterns in varying shades of brown,” says Belsom. “A lot of times, in the water, they can look like shrimp, crawfish, or other things that the redfish eats.”

Fly selection for redfish usually depends on the mood of the fish. I can recall days where I went through a dozen patterns before I found one that the fish would consistently take. Other days it seems like redfish will ferociously grab anything that moves in the water.

Time of year, the tides and water clarity can all affect just how picky the reds are.

I explained to Marsh and Belsom that my personal favorite is a variation of a spoon fly made by Capt Rich Waldner, another well-known Louisiana redfish guide.

“I love the way that it flashes as it comes through the water,” I explained. “You can fish it fast or you can fish it slow, pausing between strips to let it sink a little.”

Waldner’s spoon flies are made of epoxy and wire, and while some flyfishing purists would argue as to whether it is a fly at all, I have no such qualms about using it every time I’m out.

Belsom asked Marsh how long of a leader he should go with.

“I usually like mine right at about 5 feet,” he said. “There’s no need to go any longer with these fish.”

Belsom’s leader was regular nylon and tapered to about 20 pound test. He tied on a 16-pound tippet. In most water conditions, 16- to 20-pound-test is just right.

Marsh slid us toward the first pond.

“One o’clock, right by that clump of grass sticking out toward us!” Marsh called out.

Belsom cast his fly line. It wasn’t where it needed to be.

“No! No! More to the right.”

His vantage point from the poling platform allowed Marsh to see the red that was tucked in tight to the marsh grass.

“Now strip! Strip!”

It took only a second for the redfish to decide he should eat the fly that dropped into the water right in front of him. Belsom’s line came tight. The redfish broke the surface and turned looking for a way to escape its captors.

A few seconds later, Belsom’s line went limp.

“What happened?” Marsh asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t set the hook hard enough,” explained Belsom.

“We’re not in Wyoming anymore,” heckled Marsh. “You have to set the hook like a man.”

“I know, I know,” said Belsom dejectedly. “I won’t let it happen again.”

Losing fish is part of fly fishing. The strength of the hookset, the condition of your tippet, the angle of the fish and type water you are fishing can all impact your ability to bring a redfish to the boat. The bigger the redfish, the harder it is.

“It really does knock the wind out of your sails, especially when you know it was a big fish,” Belsom said. “A few seconds later, though, you have a big smile on your face. That comes from knowing it was a fight with a magnificent fish.”

I couldn’t totally agree with him. To this day, I have nightmares about big fish that have bested me at the last second. Still, his attitude was refreshing.

In either case, Belsom’s early take was a good sign. The water was particularly high and not particularly clear. But at least the sun was out, and that would give us the advantage.

As Marsh poled us into the next pond, Belsom had a chance to redeem himself.

Another hungry red cruised straight at the boat, and this time Belsom ‘really’ set the hook.

“That one’s not getting away!” I shouted.

I could sense the adrenaline running through Belsom’s veins. My own heart was beating as the fish peeled off line and headed for the shoreline.

From up on the platform, Marsh coached Belsom. He wasn’t going to allow him to lose another fish.

“It looks like a nice one. Keep his head turned. Move him back to the left. He wants to go under the boat. Stay with him. Let him take line. Don’t pressure him so much…”

After watching Belsom lose the first fish, Marsh was taking a personal interest in his success.

Before long, the first redfish of the fall season was in Marsh’s hands.

“That fish is beautiful,” remarked Belsom.

He was right. Of all the inshore species available in Louisiana, nothing glows as majestically as a redfish in warm sunlight of the morning. The tell-tale black spot was beautifully positioned. The fish was a perfect specimen.

“Redfish are my favorite fish to photograph,” I said as I greedily snapped away with my camera. “This is what I came out here for.”

“You mind if we eat this one?” Belsom asked Marsh.

“No, he looks to be just the right size,” Marsh responded. “Let’s put him in the box.”

I paused for a second, contemplating Belsom’s question and Marsh’s response.

You see, some fisherman are strict conservationists and believe in catch and release only. This attitude is even more prevalent in the flyfishing community. I think it mostly originates with those who also fly fish for freshwater trout where there clearly is a need for catch and release. It’s certainly what I learned growing up, and it’s definitely what Marsh practices in Wyoming.

While this topic has been debated ad nauseam, I personally was very excited all of a sudden. After all, redfish on the half-shell is my favorite dish.

If you don’t know what redfish on the half-shell is or if you’ve never tasted it, you are missing out.

The fish are cleaned and filleted with the scales left on. The fish are then placed on a grill over medium heat, scale side down. You then baste the flesh with a concoction of butter, garlic and herbs.

As the fish cooks, the scales harden and form a protective ‘shell’ that protects the flesh from charing and keeps the fish moist. The fish is done when the meat flakes easily with a fork. Usually, it takes about 20 minutes, give or take depending on the thickness of your filets.

“Mmmm, yes!” I added. “A few more that size would be perfect. And I don’t care what time I get home, tonight I’m eating redfish.”

Into the icebox the fish went.

Marsh, with upcoming clients to consider, wanted to try out a few more areas.

“You guys mind if we run out a little closer to the Gulf?” he asked. “The fish might get a bit bigger the farther out we go.”

Belsom and I both agreed, and before long the pole was put away and the motor rumbled as we tore off in search of some bulls.

Most fishermen have heard the saying “Never leave fish to find fish.” That’s what was running through my mind as I stared intently into the water along the shoreline.

“Surely, we should have seen a red by now,” I remarked. “This water is just so damn high.”

Even though I was on the very bow of the boat, I was having trouble seeing into the water. The sun was high above, but the wind forced us to work the side of the canal that kept it in front of us. The best light for seeing into the water comes from behind.

We were working a pair of side-by-side canals. They ran parallel to one another and were separated by a small strip of marsh grass. We were working that grass right in the middle.

I was beginning to lose faith, but Marsh, who had worked these waters before, knew that even though the water was high, there were redfish to be found.

We had poled about 150 yards of shoreline when I looked across in to the next canal. Marsh saw the same thing I did.

“Look at that!” he shouted. A pod of redfish was going crazy in the next canal. It appeared as though they were chasing shrimp up and down the shoreline.

“I guess this explains why we saw those shrimp boats working the inside,” Marsh remarked.

“Well what do we do?” asked Belsom. “We’re over here and they’re over there!”

“Not to worry,” said Marsh.

Marsh began to pole the boat against the current and back up the shoreline we had just fished. He was headed for a small break in the grass that would let us pass into the next canal.

“We’re only going to have one shot at this,” he explained. “We’re going to intercept them as they work their way up the shoreline.”

Marsh pushed hard, and tried to generate momentum. The wind had picked up a little, and poling against it and the current was difficult.

Alas, the pod of redfish was faster than we were. As we crossed into the next canal, all we could do was watch as the splashes, gurgles and tails moved farther and farther away from us. It was frustrating to say the least.

My adrenaline subsided, and I was once again convinced that I had missed my shot.

Don’t get me wrong: I knew for certain that it was only a matter of time until we found more fish, but at the moment, I was saddened to watch the hungry pod move upcurrent away from us.

There was about a half mile of canal shoreline below us, and I set my sights on finding at least one lone fish cruising up and down the grassline.

“John, John, get ready 150 yards down!” Marsh barked out to me.

I looked up expecting to see a single wake or the remnants of where some bait had been spooked. What I actually saw nearly caused me to drop my rod.

Another, much larger pod of about 20 redfish was greedily thrashing shrimp farther down the shoreline. They were headed our way.

“Quick, Bill, get another rod ready. John wait until you can reach them. Now! Put it right on the nose of that first one. Strip! Strip!!!”

All it took was three short strips, and I watched as one of the larger reds in the pod turned and snatched my fly like it was going to be its last meal.

“John, get down! Bill, get up there!”

Bill and I exchanged places.

By changing the angle of my fly rod so that it was parallel with the water, I was able to turn my fish’s head and get him to move away from the pod.

Belsom took his shot.

“Wooohooo!” he exclaimed as a second red from the school came tight to his rod.

While Belsom was getting ready to cast, Marsh had secured the pole to the platform and was climbing down.

“Keep them under control,” said Marsh, referring to the two reds that were fighting our drags — in opposite directions.

“We’re goin’ for the triple,” said Marsh.

He expertly dropped his fly in front of a third red.

I turned just in time to see Marsh’s fly get tagged after it had just barely hit the water.

We were now adrift, three rods, three redfish. It had all happened within seconds.

One at a time we brought our fish to the boat and released them. First Marsh brought his in. Then he helped Belsom land his. Finally mine came alongside.

We took a few photos and exchanged high fives.

It wasn’t even 10 a.m. yet. Can it really be this much fun?

Later that week, I sat across from Belsom at the fly shop in New Orleans.

I wondered aloud as to why more people from this area don’t flyfish. Many famous fishing celebrities have all endorsed the Louisiana marsh-lands as having some of the best flyfishing in the world.

And after all, Marsh thinks enough of this place to make it his home two-thirds of the year.

“Flyfishing does take practice,” Belsom said. “Casting a fly line is not incredibly difficult, but it’s not a natural movement either. You have to train yourself. Some people see that as a barrier to getting into the sport.”

That’s a shame, I thought to myself. Sight-fishing for reds with a fly rod has got to be one of the all-time greatest fishing experiences. It’s challenging, exciting and rewarding.

A day out with an experienced guide is a good way to start. A good guide can teach one the basics of fly-casting and how to spot the redfish in the water. Most guides will provide tackle, and some even provide the flies.

It’s a perfect opportunity to see if flyfishing is right for you without investing in new tackle. And who knows, with the right guide, the right weather and the right fly, you might experience redfish pandemonium yourself.

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