Redfishing in the Big Easy

New Orleans’ moniker more aptly applies to the ponds and bayous to its east known as the Biloxi Marsh.

We launched the boat in the sleepy bayou town of Hopedale, no more than 45 minutes from downtown New Orleans.

Had we not just come from the bustling streets and glitzy hotels of the city, one would never have imagined that it was just out of sight.

As our guide, Capt. Gregg Arnold, snaked his Hell’s Bay skiff through the winding tidal channels of the sprawling Biloxi Marsh, dodging crab traps and stickups as he went, images of the wild ride we had experienced in the French Quarter the night before ran through my head: Felix’s Oysters, Bourbon Street, Pat O’Briens, Tipitina’s, a whirl of great food, friendly folks, sizzling music and Creole “bonne temps.”

But as we pulled up to the first flat that we would fish that morning, the city could not have seemed farther away. There we were nearly in sight of the Big Easy’s skyline, a night on the town fresh in our memories, smack in the middle of the most vast and productive redfish marsh in the world.

Backing up a couple of months, the seeds of this trip were planted when my father and one of his longtime fishing buddies, Ken Korth, started kicking around the idea of a fly fishing trip. Korth had fished the 40,000-acre Biloxi Marsh a few times in the past with fly guides Arnold and Barrett Brown (E-Z Fly Guide Service).

Arnold and Brown are among the most experienced fly guides in the area, and have an almost world-record fly-caught redfish to prove it (42 pounds).

Considering that New Orleans is an easy-to-get-to destination from almost anywhere in the nation, offers a variety of non-fishing activities, and is conveniently located 30 miles from the Biloxi Marsh, we agreed that everything looked right for a weekend fishing trip down on the bayou.

By the time our trip arrived, our fishing party had grown to four strong. Friday after work we all jumped flights to New Orleans International Airport, and from there hopped into cabs headed for the Hotel Monaco, located a block away from the French Quarter.

En route to the hotel we drove right down Bourbon Street, and it was alive with the electricity of a holiday weekend. Bright lights flashed from every direction; jolly party-goers crowded the streets; upbeat jazz rang out from all the bars and clubs. Festivity and celebration were everywhere, as the Big Easy was upon us.

Weary from a long week at the office and fully aware that our guides would be picking us up at 5 o’clock the next morning, we resisted the urge to wade into the fun on our first night. Instead we checked into the hotel, made a few last-minute tackle preparations and turned in early.

Five a.m. came as early as always. Brown and Arnold met us in front of the hotel, both pulling fully-rigged skiffs complete with GPS, poling platforms and casting platforms. Only in New Orleans, where very few things are considered odd, did it seem fitting to see two full-sized trucks pulling flats boats past the downtown area skyscrapers as the last stragglers made their way home from the bars in the predawn twilight.

As we neared the Hopedale launch southeast of town, the bustle of the big city gave way to rustic bayou communities. Lazy pelicans perched here and there along the canals; ageless docks crowded the banks poking out from beneath weathered boat houses, silently attesting to those generations past and present whose livelihoods have been completely interwoven with this magnificent ecosystem.

Barnacle-encrusted shrimp and oyster boats lined the bulkheads, swaying rhythmically with the breeze as locals slowly emerged from their modest homes to inspect the morning and attend to the day’s business.

In addition to its unique beauty and air of calm, the Biloxi Marsh is also known among redfish enthusiasts as the spot for sight-casting to big fish in skinny water. The massive salt grass marsh is a combination of open mud flats, tidal lakes, oyster reefs, backwater sloughs, potholes and protected grass flats.

During the two days we fished the area, the amount of prime water we prospected was staggering, and if you can believe it, on a holiday weekend we only saw three other sport fishermen in the marsh.

The diversity of wildlife was remarkable as well. We saw everything from red-tail hawks to alligators to blue-winged teal, and plenty of big reds.

Arnold and Brown specialize in sight-casting to 10- to 40-pound bruisers in 1-2 feet of water, the season running from October through mid June with the biggest fish found in late fall and early winter.

You can imagine the anticipation as we launched the boats, readied our tackle and began the quick run to the flats.

Tactically speaking, Arnold and Brown follow a few fundamental guidelines that over the years have proven to be extremely successful.

First and foremost, they are keying on falling tides, which tend to be the most active feeding periods for the marsh reds. On a falling tide reds will use shallow points, pockets and necks as ambush points, picking off baitfish as falling water levels push them out into deeper water.

“Above all else I’m looking for places that hold bait on a falling tide,” Arnold said.

The second cardinal rule is finding clean water. Without clean water, spotting fish can be tough, and for Arnold and Brown sight-casting is the name of the game.

“I will fish clean water regardless of where it is in the marsh,” Arnold said.

According to Brown, when it comes to spotting fish, a fly guide’s two best friends are light winds and sunshine. However, both Arnold and Brown will tell you that sight-fishing isn’t always an option.

“Conditions don’t always allow us to sight cast, and we have to resort to blind casting if we want to catch fish,” Arnold said.

Regarding flies, both guides spend the majority of their time fishing various crab patterns and spoon flies.

Arnold is a fan of purple and white, and says the Haley’s Comet crab pattern (purple and white antron) has been a real winner for him.

Brown is a spoon fanatic, and ties his own special version (epoxied gold and silver mylar), which is available on their website: www.e-zfly.com.

The final key to success in the marsh is switching it up, especially locations and techniques. If the fish aren’t over shell, go try grass. If they aren’t taking crab patterns, tie on a spoon.

Arnold and Brown believe the worst thing you can do when you’re not finding or catching fish is to keep doing what hasn’t been working. If you’re willing to fish hard and test a number of different approaches, on almost any given day in the marsh there are fish to be caught.

“Hit and run until you find some fish,” Brown said.

The first fish that Barrett found for me was between 15-20 pounds. It was laid up in a bowl-shaped pocket about 120 feet out, nosing around in the inches-deep water. Its coppery-gold dorsal fin and tail protruded high above the surface, catching the morning sun as it worked the rim of the pocket.

The setup was perfect, but the fish was in such skinny water that even in his shallow-draft Maverick Brown couldn’t get back to him.

I tried wading within casting distance but found myself knee-deep in authentic gumbo mud before I could take a second step. While I worked on freeing my legs from the mud and pulling myself back onto the bow of the skiff, the fish decided it was time to move on, and came cruising out of the pocket not 20 feet from us.

I only had an instant to take one quick shot at it as it passed by. I landed a poor cast right on its head, and it spooked, blowing off the flat in a boil of mud.

My next chance came not long after the first, and was another ideal shallow-water setup. The fish was working a grassy shoreline, coming right down the bank toward us. It was pushing a broad wake, running glass minnows and shrimp out of the way as it came.

Brown held the boat about 50 feet off the bank and quartered me toward the fish. My gold and red spoon fly landed a couple feet in front of the fish, settling to the bottom just as it got on it.

A moment away from a sure take, I gave the fly a 6-inch strip…then another and another. The fish passed the fly without notice; the blind brute had missed it. I picked up and put another cast on it. This one fell a bit short, again failing to draw its attention. I took one last desperation shot as it moved out of range. Nothing.

At this point I started wondering when redfish had gotten so difficult. Where were the aggressive gluttons that I grew up fishing with my father down on the Texas coast? Somewhere between slapping them on the head with the fly and sneaking it through the grass I was going to have to find some middle ground of presentation. Luckily, there was no shortage of targets to practice on.

Only moments after the second fish had passed, we spotted nervous water 50 yards ahead on the same bank. This time it was a pair. They pushed down the bank at a lazy pace, stopping every so often to nose around in the mud.

At 50 feet, I put a cast just ahead of them. Both fish must have spotted the fly at the same moment, because they charged together, side-by-side. They were in about a foot of water, and when they rushed the fly, both reds cut wakes that pushed their broad shoulders out of the water.

I can’t remember a more picturesque take than these two redfish bearing down on my offering, backs out of the water, fighting to get at the fly first.

Then my line came tight. An instant later the fish on the right exploded out of the skinny water with my fly line tracking close behind. Finally, I was on.

I think anyone who’s familiar with hooking into reds will agree that no matter how many you’ve fought, they always surprise you with their power and dogged tenacity. Even in skinny water where the fish couldn’t run deep, it still found my backing a couple times, and had me pretty well beat by the time Brown put the net under it.

The fish weighed in at 11 pounds, an average fish by Biloxi Marsh standards but nonetheless a gorgeous trophy.

Our morning continued this path for an hour more, spotting singles and doubles feeding along shallow grass flats. According to Barrett, it was a very slow day, but I must have thrown at 10 fish in only a couple hours’ time. Apparently, when the marsh is fishing well, anglers can expect anywhere from 25-50 shots a day.

Unfortunately, a stout wind had been building all morning, and by 1 p.m. was gusting between 25-30 knots. With the water turning dirty and fly casting conditions all but impossible, we decided to call it a day soon after lunch. I say call it a day, but in some respects it had not even begun.

Much to everyone’s disappointment, the next day was nearly unfishable in terms of spotting fish and fly casting. Even at daybreak the wind was blowing sustained at 20 knots.

We gave it a go anyways, fishing until midday, but with the wind climbing to around 30 knots to stay out was pointless. Between our two boats the few fish caught that day were on conventional tackle blind casting at bait. Under those conditions, I was impressed that the fishery produced anything at all.

The tough conditions on our last day were a bit of a disappointment, but being fishermen, we all knew that was and always will be fishing. That evening we had a wonderful time exploring the French Quarter, complete with oysters and blues. The next day we all headed out of town as quickly as we had come, back to work, back to families, back to home.

As I sit at my desk up here north of Pittsburgh, summer is in full gear. The long, nasty winter that we just weathered seems very distant amidst all this sunshine and lush greenery.

Everyone who likes to use a long rod is enjoying a great trout season. Stream conditions are perfect; we have lots of hold-over fish; and they’ve been happily feeding on sulfurs for almost a month now.

But I’ve got a naughty secret…I’m thinking ahead to a time that will find this area again covered in snow and frozen to the bone. As much as I love the warm, sunny days, great local fishing and general lack of bitter cold that summer brings, I can’t wait for the winter to roll back around, so I can slip back down to the Big Easy to chase bull reds on the flats of the Biloxi Marsh.

 

Capts. Gregg Arnold and Barrett Brown can be reached through their webpage at www.e-zfly.com.

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