Jean Lafitte’s redfish: Barataria estuary’s fall currency

This redfish fell for a soft-plastic shrimp imitation in the marshes near Lafitte, La. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Redfish now preside over Jean Lafitte’s old stomping grounds in the Barataria estuary. Here’s how to put them in your treasure chest.

In the early 1800s, notorious pirate Jean Lafitte used the labyrinthian waters of the Barataria estuary to smuggle his ill-gotten goods into New Orleans and gold from his customers out of it.

According to legend, Lafitte stashed his cache somewhere in the estuary. Nobody ever found it, if it exists, but he did lend his name to a town in Jefferson Parish and other entities. From the town of Lafitte, people can find gold of a different sort, more like copper, to be precise. Some of the world’s best redfish action is in the estuary, and the best time all year to target them is the fall.

“October is a great time to catch redfish in the Barataria estuary,” said Mike Helmer, co-owner of Capt. Phil Robichaux’s Fishing Charters in Lafitte. “When the weather cools, the fishing gets better in the fall, and the redfish get more cooperative. They feed up before the winter hits.”

The Barataria estuary generally includes the wetlands from Lake Salvador to the Gulf of Mexico and between LA 23 and LA 1. It roughly follows the Barataria Waterway, a straighter, dredged version of the old Bayou Barataria, once a wide Mississippi River distributary eons ago. At the south end, Barataria Bay connects to the Gulf through passes near Grand Isle and Grand Terre islands.

North of the estuary, the Davis Pond Freshwater Diversion Project diverts fresh Mississippi River water into the wetlands through Lake Cataouatche, which connects to Lake Salvador. In parts of the estuary, anglers often catch largemouth bass and redfish, as well as other mixed species, in the same place at the same time.

“The Davis Pond Diversion affects the salinity around Lake Salvador,” Helmer said. “People can also catch bass in the Bayou Rigolettes area, the Pen and the Bay L’Ours area. Once we go 6 to 8 miles south of the marina, the water gets too salty for bass. A redfish will eat anything a bass will eat and vice versa. Redfish hit Texas-rigged worms. Bass hit gold spoons when we’re fishing for redfish.”

Kim Norton of Bomber Baits shows off a redfish he caught while fishing with Bourgeois Charters in the Barataria Estuary near Lafitte. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Ponds and sloughs

At times, sportsmen can see huge schools of redfish ravaging mullet and other baitfish in Lake Salvador. However, since water becomes saltier the farther south one goes, the best redfish action typically occurs in the countless ponds and marshy sloughs between Lafitte and the Gulf.

“In the summer, redfish stay in the main lakes because of heat, but in October, they generally move back into the shallows as the water cools,” Helmer said. “In the fall, we fish the duck ponds in water about a foot deep. People can find redfish in any shallow, marsh ponds they can get a boat in to fish, but this area has a lot of posted property. People need to watch where they go, especially during duck season. We catch mostly slot reds in the marshes, but sometimes, the bull reds come inshore with the trout in the fall because they feed on smaller specks.”

The shallow ponds make great hunting grounds for marauding redfish. In the fall, hungry reds gorge themselves on shrimp, minnows, baitfish, crabs and other morsels to prepare for the coming winter. Spot-tails commonly get in water so shallow their coppery backs break the surface. Many anglers enjoy sight-fishing for reds, especially fly-rod enthusiasts. Reds regularly dip their heads to munch mussels while flagging their spotted tails above the surface.

“The fall is a great time to fish for redfish in the Barataria estuary,” said Theophile Bourgeois IV of Bourgeois Fishing Charters in the town of Barataria. “Any of the ponds and bayous north of Barataria Bay should hold good redfish numbers. We look for good, clean moving water draining the ponds out of some (ditches).”

If people can’t spot actual fish, they frequently see the large, V-shaped wakes reds make while cruising or chasing prey. Many anglers drive through prime waters looking to spook reds. If they see good activity, they might let that spot settle down for a while and return to fish it later.

“When I’m scouting for redfish, I look for any fish activity, especially fish pushing wakes or moving around,” Helmer said. “We move bigger fish while we’re running around in the boat. Once we can find where they want to stay, we can catch them.”

Mark Davis, a professional angler and television show host, lands a redfish he caught while fishing in the Barataria Estuary near Lafitte. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Shrimp migration

Also watch for shrimp or small baitfish popping the surface. Shrimp migrate in the spring and fall. When a cold front hits, shrimp start leaving the marshes and inland lakes to head to deeper waters offshore. When shrimp move, predators follow. A shrimp migration could kick off a major feeding frenzy. During a shrimp frenzy, use live shrimp, fresh shrimp or soft-plastic imitations.

A popping cork rig tipped with live or fresh shrimp makes an excellent presentation for redfish, trout, flounder and other species. Anglers can also use live cocahoe minnows or pogies, mullet chunks, crab pieces and some artificial temptations to put spot-tails in the boat.

“A popping cork rig is a great way to catch redfish for people with any skill level,” Helmer said. “Normally, we bait a popping cork rig with fresh shrimp. Sometimes, we use the whole shrimp. A popping-cork rig with plastic shrimp also works very well.”

When jerked, the cork pops the water, simulating a fish striking prey on the surface. A soft-plastic shrimp, like Gulp!, Vudu or similar temptations flies up to the surface when the angler pops the cork, exactly what a live crustacean would do to escape danger. Fish hear the commotion and then see the bait falling and attack.

Gerald Sansoni shows off a redfish he caught on a spinnerbait while fishing in the Barataria Estuary near Lafitte, La. Spinnerbaits provide flash and vibration, making tempting targets for redfish. The blades flicker in the water like the swimmer fins on crabs, and redfish love nothing better than eating a crab. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Pop it, but slowly

“There’s art to working a popping cork effectively,” Helmer said. “With a popping cork, we want to make noise, but not move the rig very far. Fish react to the noise. Just pop it and let it stay in its area. That’s the secret. Many people make the mistake of popping and then reeling it too fast. They keep popping and popping, but fish it slowly. Pop it and let it sit for several seconds. Then, pop it again.”

Popping-cork rigs work especially well around shallow, weedy shorelines and points. Watch how the water moves and cast so the prevailing winds or tidal current carries the cork parallel to the shoreline or across a point tip. Anglers can also drift corks over reefs or next to vertical structures such as pilings or bulkheads.

“I particularly like to fish windy shorelines with popping corks in the fall,” Helmer said. “I put the wind at my back so we can make long casts and let the wind or tide sneak the bait down the bank naturally.”

Drains on falling water

During a falling tide, small ditches drain marsh ponds. Falling water levels force minnows, shrimp and other prey to leave their protective cover and seek deeper water. Redfish and other species frequently gather at the drain mouths to wait for the flow to deliver their breakfast. Cast a popping-cork rig as far upstream as possible. Let the current carry the bait naturally downstream, but occasionally pop the cork.

“Tide is critical for finding redfish,” Helmer said. “As long as the water is moving, it’s good, but I prefer to fish a falling tide. Fish position themselves to face into the tide or wind current, because that’s how they feed. During a falling tide, redfish stack up around the mouths of openings and little cuts in the marsh, waiting for the tide to bring them something to eat.”

A soft-plastic shrimp under a cork also works well around little ditches. Anglers can also fish a shrimp imitation without a cork, weightless if possible. Attach a small split-shot to the line for casting heft if necessary. Cast the shrimp upstream so it tumbles along with the tide like a crustacean rousted from its protective cover. Lift the bait off the bottom as needed to keep it in the flow. Use the reel only to take up slack line.

Mark Davis shows off a redfish he caught on a Bomber Walkie Talkie topwater bait while fishing with Theophile Bourgeois Charters in the Barataria Estuary. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Jigs, spoons

Anglers can catch redfish many other ways. Of course, the old standby, a 1/4-ounce jighead sweetened with a plastic trailer and tipped with a piece of shrimp works well. Also, hook a live cocahoe to a jighead and drag it over the bottom. Spinnerbaits, swim jigs and topwaters also produce good action.

One of the oldest and still most effective redfish baits, a gold spoon, gives off considerable vibration and flash. Many spoons come with weed guards so anglers can run them around weeds or over oyster beds.

“Sometimes we spank the redfish on gold spoons,” Bourgeois said. “Silver or bronze colors also work.”

Areas across the Barataria estuary can produce excellent fall redfish action. Some better areas include the marshes around Little Lake, The Pen, Bayou St. Denis, Bayou Perot, Bayou Dupont, Bayou Rigolettes, Turtle Lake, Lake Laurier, Long Bay, Round Lake and Barataria Bay.

People may never find Lafitte’s legendary golden cache, but they certainly could enjoy rich action from a different sort of treasure every day in the Barataria marshes.

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About John Felsher 4 Articles
John N. Felsher is a professional freelance writer and photographer with more than 1,700 articles in more than 117 magazines to his credit.

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