Our fish box was crowded with speckled trout by 9 a.m., proving that Capt. Kenny Shiyou had made the right call, one he pitched at us at sunrise in the calm waters of Pass Christian Harbor before we hit the Gulf on a cool May morning.
“Guys,” he said, “I know you came down here wanting to chase redfish, and if you will indulge me, I think we will have time to get a bunch of reds, but we need to hit the speckled trout for the first couple of hours. We can fill the box with specks and have plenty of time left to get on the reds.
“All you have to tell me is what kind of reds you want to chase. Do you want to catch reds you can take home and eat, or do you want to catch reds that will try to pull you right out of the boat.”
His confidence, shared by other captains of the multi-boat operation that is Shore Thing Charters of Ocean Springs, Miss., was inspiring. We took the bait.
At 8:45, what had been an outstanding speck bite, with one bite seemingly right after another, ebbed as quickly as the tidal current. After 15 minutes without a bite, Shiyou pulled the anchors and told us to get where we wanted to be for a 30-minute run and hold on.
“You want redfish? We’ll go find redfish,” he said.
As he steered his boat south, deeper into the Biloxi Marsh at the west end of the Mississippi Sound, Shiyou explained his strategy.
It was a page right out of his May playbook.
“May is the time of the year (when) you really can see and feel the water beginning to warm more quickly during the course of a day,” he said. “That has an impact on fishing almost as much as the tides. It is the last month we have before it gets really tough over the summer where redfish are concerned.”
Summer can be brutal on redfish anglers, especially in the Mississippi Sound and connected areas like the Biloxi Marsh. Temperatures, biting flies and gnats can be treacherous without wind, and the redfish can disappear as they seek cooler water.
May is the last, best chance to slam the slot reds until the fall, when they return and provide the best action of the year.
“That’s why May is important for guys devoted to redfish,” Shiyou said. “The keeper fish are still plentiful in the bays, the sound and the marsh. The key to it, though, is the tide. I like a falling tide to fish for reds in May unless I’m after the bigger bull reds. Then, you just need some good water movement.”
Back to the strategy.
“Speckled trout bite early, but they don’t like the heat as much,” Shiyou said. “They are spawning throughout May. They spawn at night, feed heavily at sunrise and then rest. They generally peak at sunrise, and then it slows down after 8 and it shuts down around 9. It can be tough to get a bite, and that’s when you think redfish.
“If you got a (full-day) charter, that leaves us enough time to go get the reds,” he said. “They aren’t as impacted so much by the heat as they are the tide, and that’s when we start looking for a day when the tide starts falling in mid-morning or at noon and begins emptying the ponds and drains in the marsh.”
That’s an ideal situation, Shiyou said, because it puts the slot redfish that are legal to keep and great to eat— those fish between 18 and 30 inches in Mississippi and between 16 and 27 inches in Louisiana — in a vulnerable situation.
“A falling tide pulls them out of the shallow ponds and drains toward the deeper bayous or bays,” he said. “These can be drains so shallow you can’t get a boat in or out of, coming out of lakes or ponds in the marsh that you can’t fish on a low or falling tide. Just because you can’t get into a drain doesn’t mean they can’t.
“You just start hitting drains and fishing them until you find the hot spot. Or, you just hit as many spots as you can catching one here, two there or three over there until you get the limit.”
Finding hot spots like drains — cuts that create an avenue of travel from ponds in the marsh to the main bayous — is a never-ending process for Shiyou and all other coastal captains.
“I’m looking for drains that have shells, or I’m looking for a shell bed near a drain,” he said. “Those are prime grounds because bait like shrimp or small crabs stay around those shell bottoms to pick up meals hiding in the shells. The redfish come there for the shrimp, crabs or any small fish.
“The trouble is that the Gulf, the barrier islands and especially the Marsh, are constantly changing. Just because there were shells and redfish in a spot last year, or just last fall, doesn’t mean there will be shells or anything else that would hold redfish this year. So I’m always looking for shell beds and broken grass, even when I’m running. I never pass without checking a new spot, or at least I’m logging it into my memory so the next time I’m out, I can check it. It is amazing how many new good spots you can find, and you can’t have enough. There are a lot of days that your got-to spots may not be fishable because of conditions beyond your control, like wind or tide. When Plan A goes wrong, you need a Plan B or Plan Bs, especially in this business.”
Shiyou quit talking and began pointing to a break in the bank on the right side of the bayou we were cruising through. We could shells on the bank on both sides of the cut. Current was running out the small channel into the bayou.
Within five minutes we had a fat, 22-inch redfish in the boat and another hooked up and circling. Shiyou netted the first fish, rebaited the client’s hook and was ready with the net again when a 24-inch red came to the boat. He scooped up the redfish and broke into a broad smile.
“Oh, I love it when a plan goes off perfectly,” he said. The bite continued through three more stops and until 10 reds were in the boat at noon. All of them were between 20 and 26 inches and destined for the grill back home.
Shiyou had more good news: “Y’all got a couple of hours left. Want to try a bull red or two?”
Well, heck yeah!
Shiyou put the big engine to work, running back down the bayou toward the open water at the edge of the marsh. He was quickly talking again, describing the plan to catch bigger reds.
“We will try to find a major point in a big body of water, like a point at the mouth of a main bayou, or just a long point extended from the marsh,” he said. “We’re looking for one with a major flow, a big current line, running around the point. When you pull up to the point, if it’s right, you’ll see the current line. There may be a color change in the water or a small weed line, but there will be something that makes that current line stick out. Big bull redfish love current and will be sitting on the edge of that current line, looking for it to bring a meal by them.
“We set up on the edge; I like to use a 6- to 8-inch mullet or white trout, or half a blue crab, top shell and all, for bait. We cast them out with a heavy sinker along the current line and either put the rod in a rod holder or just stand or sit there holding it. Big bulls are usually in schools, and when they come through, it can be entertaining. If there’s a bait in the area, they’re going to get it.”
Bull reds are fished most often purely for sport, since they aren’t that good to eat except in a courtbuillon — Cajun pronunciation cou-bi-on — and the Mississippi limit is only one per person per day as part of a limit of three redfish per day. While 20- and 30-pound bulls are the norm, fish up to 40 pounds are often caught. Bass tackle will give you a workout, but Shiyou suggests otherwise.
“We use the 3000-class reels on slot reds, but I recommend a 4000-class reel with 40-pound braid and 50-pound mono leader,” he said. “You get a 20- or 30-pound fish in that current line, it takes more than a medium or medium-heavy trout rod to turn its head. And, besides, jack crevalle are well known to run those current lines, and that’s a 30-minute job on heavy gear. One thing about a jack: his last pull is just as hard as his first pull.”
Shiyou left the bayou on the east end of Biloxi Marsh and turned north toward home. About a mile up the marsh, he turned left and ran to a point on the edge of the grass line. A slight change in the color where the water ran around the point on the falling tide was immediately visible. It was the kind of current line he was seeking.
“We got an hour, so let’s get after them,” Shiyou said, handing out pieces of a blue crab that he had broken in half. “Bait up and try to get the crab right on this side of the current break.”
We managed, and he quickly added a live white trout that we had caught that morning. His cast was off the opposite side of the boat but right against the same current line. All our rods went into rod holders, we opened a few cold beverages and sat back.
It took about 30 minutes before all hell broke loose.
Our two crab-baited lines went off within a second of each other, and our heavy action spinning rods were quickly doubled over, line peeling off each reel. Shiyou was yelling at us to grab them as we flew across the boat to do just that.
As we bowed up against the two big fish, Shiyou eased his rod out of his holder and was ready when the school of fish reached his bait on the other side of the boat.
“Poor white trout,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to be you.”
Bam! We were all hooked up, and the dance routine we did to get those redfish to the boat was both difficult and hilarious. We managed, and one by one, we released the fish without ever taking them out of the water. Our best guess was that all three were between 25 and 30 pounds.
It was work and nobody complained when Shiyou cranked the engine, pointed the bow at the reading for Pass Christian and showered down on the throttle.
Redfish in May in the Gulf?
Count me in.
May reds: Big boats, long runs not required
Even fishermen without a bay boat or other big watercraft can get in on some great redfish action on the Gulf Coast.
“Some of my favorite few days of the year are any time in May that we have a really high, super tide,” said Capt. Sonny Schindler of Ocean Springs’ Shore Thing Charters. “That’s when we can catch redfish like crazy in the (Bay of St. Louis). It’s those days that I hate in the Biloxi Marsh because the high tide can make it impossible to get where the reds can get. They can get deep into areas of the marsh that a boat can’t get.
“But the high water works for you in the Bay because it opens up the water enough where we can get a boat closer to the bank that we can normally get. We can get within reach of the shoreline where the redfish will be feeding.”
Hence, anyone with a smaller boat can access the kind of redfish action that the bigger boats and charter boats find on a daily basis in the marsh. The same is true in the Back Bay Biloxi area and in the lower part of the Pascagoula River.
But that’s not all.
“You can get the same kind of action in May and even June on the man-made jetties built with some of the BP oil-spill money,” said Capt. Kenny Shiyou, also of Shore Thing Charters. “They’ve built a lot of those rock structures in Hancock County, all along the shoreline, and you can see them out of the water. They were designed to encourage nature to rebuild the marsh in some areas. The breaks in those jetties where water moves in and out, man the redfish love those spots. A lot of them you can see from the bank.”