Anglers hammer trout on coastline islands

Louisiana is known for its abundance of freshwater and saltwater marshes, bayous, duck ponds and inshore lakes. In fact, our state has three million acres of these coastal wetlands. What is talked about less often are our barrier islands of which we have dozens. They were formed by the Mississippi River and got spread across 200 miles of coastline as the river delta wandered along the coastline for more than 7,000 years. 

True to their name, these features of our coastline provide a barrier to the erosive forces of the Gulf, but that role is also damaging to the islands as they take the brunt of waves, tides and storm surges. It is estimated that the 5,000-year-old Chandeleur Island chain is now being pushed northward by the Gulf of Mexico at 300 feet per year. Many of our other barrier islands are being cut through and portions submerged on a seasonal basis. Even though these islands have survived for thousands of years, their rate of erosion is increasing because they no longer receive heavy sediment from the river. 

Louisiana is known for its abundance of freshwater and saltwater marshes, bayous, duck ponds and inshore lakes. In fact, our state has three million acres of these coastal wetlands. What is talked about less often are our barrier islands of which we have dozens. They were formed by the Mississippi River and got spread across 200 miles of coastline as the river delta wandered along the coastline for more than 7,000 years. 

True to their name, these features of our coastline provide a barrier to the erosive forces of the Gulf, but that role is also damaging to the islands as they take the brunt of waves, tides and storm surges. It is estimated that the 5,000-year-old Chandeleur Island chain is now being pushed northward by the Gulf of Mexico at 300 feet per year. Many of our other barrier islands are being cut through and portions submerged on a seasonal basis. Even though these islands have survived for thousands of years, their rate of erosion is increasing because they no longer receive heavy sediment from the river. 

Coastal restoration

Tens of millions of dollars in restoration projects through the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act have been spent and up to $80 million per year is planned to stave off the disappearance of our barrier islands. This constant pipeline of projects will likely be required to maintain the islands, otherwise the Gulf will consume them. 

Our most visited barrier island is Grand Isle and it is now the only inhabited barrier island in the state. Many of the other islands have vegetation such as mangroves and marsh grass, but other islands are just sand spits which are too fluid for even vegetation to survive.

Speckled trout fishing on the barrier islands is excellent during the spring and summer and on certain islands even in the winter. (Photo by Jon Miller)

Our neighbor to the east, Mississippi, has five prominent barrier islands, which are Petit Bois, Horn, East Ship, West Ship, and Cat Island. All but Cat Island are protected within the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Like the Louisiana barrier islands, the Mississippi islands are also in a constant state of motion due to the forces of the Gulf of Mexico. 

What I like most about the barrier islands is the excellent fishing they bring whether that is epic spring treks to the Chandeleur Islands, hammering trout on the Empire jetties, or winter wade fishing around the Grand Isle and Caminada Headlands area. Several other important fish species also use the islands and passes between islands to spawn in the late fall and winter. These include redfish, sheepshead, mullet, croaker, and others. In the summer, speckled trout will swarm the islands to spawn because of the high salinity and the abundance of food.  

Shrimp and specks

My friend Don Balius has likely spent more time fishing barrier islands than anyone else I know, so I had to get his perspective on island fishing. His dad was a shrimper and Balius and his brother spent many months working the boat in waters from Biloxi to beyond the mouth of the Mississippi River. 

Balius’ time wasn’t spent only shrimping, because once the nets came in for the day, they would launch a 15 foot skiff and go speckled trout fishing. The shrimp boat often anchored behind the Chandeleur Islands letting Balius and his brother run the entire chain from Curlew Island to the Chandeleur Light. There were days when 5-7 pound trout were as common as a 16-inch trout is today.  

The barrier islands provide excellent wade fishing options, such as on the Chandeleur Island chain. (Photo courtesy Cayce Causey)

Balius still fishes the Chandeleur Islands, but these days most of his island fishing is off of the Mississippi barrier islands, especially Cat, Ship(s), and Horn Islands. I asked him if some islands are better than others for trout fishing and surprisingly he said not really, “if you know where to fish they can all be good.” 

Balius said the fishing may be different between islands but most islands have features that attract speckled trout during the right time of the year. For instance, on Cat Island there are many grass flats and several bayous that hold trout even in winter. On the Ship and Horn Islands there are gullies on the Gulf side and lagoons on the sound side, all of which can be brimming with fish. 

I got to experience that on a trip with Balius to Ship Island where we fished a gully on the Gulf side. The speckled trout and blue fish were packed into a small area between sand bars and it was a feeding frenzy. I have never had FatBoy lures get shredded in minutes, but that can happen when you get five ferocious strikes on every cast. The fish were so wild on the line that our friend David ended up with a treble hook in his hand from handling a fish. He pushed the barb through making a new hole, I cut the hook off, and David was back on the fish. 

These features are also found on the Louisiana barrier islands, and looking for trout around these features is a good place to start. It is well known that the troughs off the Elmer’s Island beach are excellent habitat for trout and the Chandeleur Islands have many grass flats and bays. The Freemason Island just north of the Chandeleur Islands delivers many limits of trout from deep water on the south side and from a shallow bay on the protected side. 

Surprises

Balius finds that during typical years, spring and summer are the peak seasons for his barrier island fishing. However, each year can bring surprises such as in 2023 when it appeared that less trout moved out to the islands because the drought kept the inshore salinity high and thus more trout stayed on the coastline. 

One feature of barrier islands I enjoy is the ability to wade fish. In fact, in most of Louisiana, the barrier islands are the only places you can reasonably wade fish. Wade fishing on the Chandeleur Islands is legendary in our region and it is possible to stand in one place catching trout on nearly every cast for an hour. I have also caught trout wading on West Timbalier Island, and the Grand Isle area.   

My barrier island fishing tends to be in spring and summer except on Grand Isle and the Caminada Headland where winter fishing is also excellent. Caminada Headland is really just another island these days and it offers some excellent winter fishing spots along Highway 1. These spots can be fished from the roadside or you can put on a pair of waders and venture into less pressured areas. I spent New Year’s Eve 2023 in my waders off of Highway 1 absolutely murdering the trout on jerkbaits and Softdines.

Tripletail are one of the prized species of fish you can catch around the barrier islands. (Photo by Jon Miller)

Elmer’s Island, which is part of the Caminada Headland area, offers excellent beach fishing for speckled trout from May through July. Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries is running a free shuttle service along the beach in the Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge. This allows anglers to spread out along the beach and to access the southwestern point of Caminada Pass. 

A typical summer launching point for me is the Port Fourchon public launch, officially called the Irvin P. Melancon Parish Public Launch. From here I can fish the beaches of Port Fourchon and Elmer’s Island and as far west as West Timbalier Island. You will enter the Gulf through Port Fourchon’s Belle Pass which is itself a productive trout habitat. Another productive habitat in this area are piles of rock armoring along the Fourchon Beach called the Barges. These are best fished when the Gulf is calm or when there is a north wind. 

Inshore techniques

I find that my inshore artificial bait techniques are effective also when barrier island fishing. Just like inshore spots, the islands provide a variety of habitats from rock shorelines and jetties, deep channels and gullies, submerged rocks, oil and gas platforms, and shallow flats. Therefore, I bring my skills using jerkbaits and twitchbaits, soft plastics tight lined or on a popping cork, and topwater baits to island fishing and I am typically quite successful with artificial baits even in summertime. 

Balius is also an artificial bait angler, and I asked him what baits he prefers at the islands. He said for spring and summer his go-to baits are topwater, Slick lures, tight lined soft plastics, and Paul Brown lures such as the FatBoy and Softdine. He really likes the Slick lures in the grass beds and will generally start with a topwater bait unless there is too much floating grass. 

Anglers can be quite successful with artificial baits when barrier island fishing in the summer. (Photo by Jon Miller)

It is necessary to mention the need for safety when fishing barrier islands. Some of our islands require crossing as much as 25 miles of open water and so an analytical eye on the weather forecasts is necessary to ensure you return safe and under your own power. I highly recommend a Sea Tow membership because the cost of a tow from distant islands is astronomical, and when you are so far from shore, you cannot expect the average fishing boat to tow you back. 

As mentioned above, these islands are in motion and sandbars are everywhere, which includes sandbars you did not encounter last year. If you are running a deeper draft boat, slow down when running close to islands, and idle where you are not sure of the depth. There are several islands, such as East Timbalier Island, where failed rock armoring has left submerged rock barriers that will destroy an engine.

We are fortunate to have our barrier islands not just for the excellent fishing they provide, but also for the protection they give the inshore marshes. Where we can, we should support the continuing restoration and maintenance of our barrier islands. 

About Jon Miller 62 Articles
Jon Miller is an engineer, lifetime fisherman, and host of the YouTube channel Jon Miller Fishing.