Speckled trout anglers look both ways

Stanley Semeon with a late summer trout caught in Black Bay on croakers.

It is helpful to look back at where we have been as a clue to where we are going.

For instance, this is very practical advice when traveling through the marsh, because if there is a lot of mud in our wake, then we may be calling Sea Tow if we do not turn around quickly.

It is also useful advice for fishery managers and anglers who are regular observers of the environment and the fishery resources.

I fished less frequently in 2022 than in past years due to personal and work obligations, and so I averaged around two trips per month instead of four. Less fishing trips in 2022 was a commonly mentioned occurrence for others across social media with high gas prices often stated as a cause. The times I did fish, I caught numbers of legal speckled trout around my average or below average as compared to 2020 and 2021. That is not a scientific analysis of trout numbers because the infrequency of my trips would have impacted my ability to find them quickly on a given day. However, I can remember a time when schools of legal sized trout were easy to find, whether or not I had fished that area a week before.

I know how the year was for me, but I wanted to know what other anglers experienced in 2022 and how they feel looking ahead to 2023, so I asked four top speckled trout anglers to get their opinions. Following are their thoughts.

John Pucheu

One of the most successful anglers I know is John Pucheu, and I asked him for his observations about 2022. Pucheu has his boat hanging in Delacroix and that is his base of operations. Unlike me, Pucheu’s trips did not diminish in 2022 and so he can make a better judgement of how fishing was in 2022 compared to previous years.

Cliff Hall, on left, had a great spring of 2022 catching nice speckled trout in shallow lakes.

For the last 15 years, Pucheu has kept a running record of the number of trout harvested from his boat. In the first nine months of 2022, he and his friends harvested 1,750 trout. His boat’s average annual harvest is around 2,100. He expects a better than average fall season, and believes his harvest for 2022 could reach as much as 2,500.

Pucheu releases trout over 20 inches and while his overall trout numbers are as high as ever, he has released fewer 20-inch and over trout in 2022 than in the previous year. He released around 20 trout over 20 inches in the first nine months of 2022. However, Pucheu caught many trout in the 18- to 19-inch range over this period of time, he said.

Chad Gonzalas

I also talked with a rising star in inshore fishing, Chad Gonzalas. Gonzalas got his own boat in 2020 and with that purchase he began fishing regularly. He has become well known on social media for his catch numbers and the size of his speckled trout. Gonzalas attributes his rapid growth in fishing knowledge and expertise in part to the courses on LAFB Elite, which is a local business created by Devin Denman.

In 2022, Chad Gonzalas taught his mother Victoria how to catch big speckled trout on topwater baits.

Gonzalas has his boat at the Hopedale Marina in St. Bernard Parish and fishes about three days per week, mostly around Hopedale, Shell Beach, and further south. For Gonzalas, 2022 has been his best year so far. He thinks this is partly due to his increasing growth curve in knowledge and skills. For one, he has become proficient with hard baits such as jerk baits and topwater baits, which he believes led to catching even more large trout.

Cliff Hall

I then talked with Cliff Hall, who has fished most of his life in South Louisiana, including years of experience fishing inshore waters. Hall had the joy of getting a new boat in 2022, but like me he was not able to fish as much as he would have liked. He mainly fishes around Bienvenue, the MRGO (Mississippi River Gulf Outlet) and out from Hopedale Marina. For him, the trout fishing in 2022 did not feel as productive as previous years. That stems in part from lackluster winter and early spring fishing around Bienvenue and the MRGO rocks, where the trout did not show up in the same numbers as the last two years. In the spring, his success improved with trips from Hopedale Marina, but he was not able to fish the summer season.

Don Balius

I talked with Don Balius whose home port is Biloxi, Miss., and he primarily fishes the Mississippi Gulf Coast Islands and the Biloxi Marsh in Louisiana. While Balius has not seen any tagging or tracking data supporting this, he believes that some of the trout on the nearby Mississippi Islands of Cat and Ship Island originated in Louisiana because of the islands’ proximity to the Biloxi Marsh. Similarly, I also believe that trout growing up in the Biloxi Marsh find that the closest high salinity habitat is at Cat Island and Ship Island, and as they mature, they will gravitate toward high salinity habitats. Therefore, what happens on those islands can tell us something about what is happening in Louisiana. Balius had an average year at Cat and Ship Islands and in the Biloxi Marsh. He reports that 2021 was a better year for numbers of legal trout.

To better analyze 2022, I also asked the anglers to break down their experiences by season, their observations of bait fish, numbers of fish other than speckled trout, and observations of water quality and habitat changes. It is worth mentioning that these anglers almost exclusively use artificial baits.

Winter

Like many other islands, Martin Island in the Chandeleur Sound is badly eroded and only a small portion of the island is above the waterline.

With the exception of Chad Gonzalas, the others said they experienced a below average start to 2022. I also found myself falling into that group. Gonzalas was more enthusiastic about the start of the year, but he is possibly also the most enthusiastic person in the group, so any day on the water is a good day. Hall and I found the numbers of trout around Bienvenue and in the MRGO to be quite depressed compared to the previous few years. Balius and Pucheu said they struggled to find concentrated trout in January and February in Mississippi and Delacroix. Pucheu suggested that Delacroix fishing suffered from unusually cold water temperatures that dropped into the mid 40’s.

Spring

Once March and April came, we all saw the trout fishing ramp up. Pucheu was slaying trout on oyster beds in Delacroix and Balius was finding success every trip at Ship Island. Hall, Gonzalas, and myself were fishing from Hopedale with good catches across a wide area from Lake Robin to Lake Borgne.

Summer

Balius had an incredible start to the summer, catching big spawning females in early June on Ship Island. For example, on June 4 he caught 21 trout, of which the smallest was 19.75 inches, and two were over 6 pounds. The largest trout was 6.5 pounds. Likewise, Pucheu found good numbers of trout in Breton Sound, and Gonzalas had his best summer for larger fish using jerk baits and fishing around rigs in the large lakes. I was most successful catching trout over oyster beds south of Hopedale or in the Biloxi Marsh. I also found more legal sized trout under flocks of birds this year than I have for several years. My biggest problem were dolphins, who would rush to me whenever I found a school of trout, which of course scared away the school.

Fall

James Helmer and his daughter, Allie, 10, with a nice trout caught out of Sweetwater Marina in Delacroix.

Everyone I talked with had a slow September and found the trout to be quite scattered, allowing us only a few catches, if any, at each spot. That is so typical of September that I would worry if it was different. Gonzalas did limit out one day in mid-September, so even that was possible if you worked hard enough. In October, the fishing was beginning to improve and everyone was convinced that the signs pointed toward an excellent rest of the 2022.

A little lagniappe

Bait fish — By everyones’ observations, 2022 was a banner year for the bait. We were all amazed by the vast numbers of shrimp, pogies, mullets and other species. I think the high numbers of white shrimp in the summer was the cause of my increased catches of legal sized trout under flocks of seagulls. I also attended a spectacular event in the MRGO put on by bull redfish, large jack crevalle, and dolphins. They where crushing large pogies across an area 200 feet in diameter while I floated on top of them. The large numbers of bait is one of the reasons this group is enthusiastic that winter of 2022 will be better than average for trout fishing.

Other species — Many anglers have noted a lack of redfish in 2022, and that was mentioned by Pucheu and Hall.

I also believe that the numbers of redfish are significantly reduced, especially the slot size. I rarely caught a redfish this year while trout fishing and that was affirmed by Pucheu and Hall.

Many anglers have noted that the numbers of redfish seem much lower in 2022.

Strangely, I found 2022 to be an unusual year for large numbers of bull black drum. I could catch several drum per day in the 30-35 inch range along the MRGO rocks while fishing jigs for trout. Those are massive fish to land with medium action gear, but I was glad to see their abundance. However, like the redfish, I did not catch many smaller sized drum.

We all noted that we caught many more flounder this year as well. Hall said he caught more flounder in 2022 than he caught in total from the last five years.

Similarly, but with less celebration, the Louisiana anglers observed a spike in gafftopsail catfish, aka gaff top. These slimy rascals were roaming the marsh and lakes in large schools and often in the three to four pound size range. There were so many times when for the first 10 seconds of a hookup I was hopeful that I had found a 5-pound trout, only to get the slimed line treatment instead.

Environmental changes — All the interviewees noted that the water quality in the later half of 2022 was better than normal, most likely due to the low Mississippi River flow. The river condition is also allowing the salinity to increase, which will make the upper estuary more comfortable for trout this winter. Conversely, I hope that it doesn’t kill off too many marsh bass or the salinity sensitive grasses.

A number of us noted that some of the named inshore islands appear badly eroded this year. We observed that Brush Island, Martin Island, and Deadman’s Island all appear to be half the size they were in 2021. This destruction may have been another result of Hurricane Ida. Pucheu mentioned that he is seeing the most marsh loss in Delacroix around the Lake Batola area.

Predictions for 2023

As a group, we are feeling enthusiastic about a great start to speckled trout fishing in 2023 because of the low Mississippi River and the abundance of bait species. For myself, I am looking forward to starting 2023 by throwing jerk baits and corkies along the MRGO and floating the shallow lakes with topwater baits.

About Jon Miller 39 Articles
Jon Miller is an engineer, lifetime fisherman, and host of the YouTube channel Jon Miller Fishing.

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