Stalking the Thundering Herd

The marshes of Vermilion Parish hold line-stretching redfish that school up this time of year and feast on helpless packs of shrimp.

The water explodes when redfish school up to feed on shrimp. Like geysers, the water erupts with intense fury as hundreds of redfish wreck a helpless pod of bait. Shrimp blast out looking like shards of glass being shot out of the water. Red tidal waves push here and there. Fury unleashed in only 18 inches of water.

When anglers close the distance, pulse rates increase and sweat drips from the brow. There should be a Surgeon General’s warning for this type of action. A pulsing theme song should be playing like some intense action thriller. You swear that no amount of trolling motor power on earth can get you to them fast enough.

Stalking schooling reds in clear, shallow-water marshes is the most intense fishing experience on the Gulf Coast. They attack any lure, yet for the entire fast-paced, reel-screaming action that is had, it takes patience and discipline to tame them.

Redfish love to eat, and they will pulverize any hapless victim they come across. Crabs, shrimp and finger mullet take their toll. Factory-made baits like Zara Spooks and Top Dogs will look like factory rejects. The stuff of legend is when they gang feed. This is when it gets interesting.

Capt. Billy Broussard owns and operates Pecan Island Redfish Charters (337-652-4191), and he relentlessly attacks his inland redfish more than the reds do their own prey.

Ill-equipped anglers will shed tears trying to keep up with him as he stalks the thundering herds with ruthless conviction. He is lightning fast on the water, and his clients get a real treat when fish suddenly surround the boat.

After a life of living so close to the water in Vermilion Parish, Broussard has mastered his little piece of paradise.

“I was down in Texas talking to some guides who fish topwater all day long, every day,” said Broussard. “It’s a feather in the hat when they catch a redfish. When I tell them that on some days I can catch 60 in a day, they don’t want to hear about it.”

It is not every day that Broussard will nail down 60. He will try, though, just for the hunt. The majority of those run in schools that will range from 10-100 fish per school. Witnessing those numbers in water less than 2 feet deep is thrilling to say the least.

“The interior marsh we have over here is definitely unique,” he said. “They do whatever they need to do to eat. It’s definitely freakish to see 100 to 200 redfish schooling up in a foot and a half of water that’s crystal clear, and they’re drumming. They’re definitely pack feeders.

“I take people fishing with me, and as we get close to the fish on a calm day, you can hear them getting closer and you can feel that vibrating on the boat. It’s really a thrill.”

But for all their glory and spectacle, schooling redfish are not uncommon in coastal Louisiana, according to Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Finfish Program Manager Harry Blanchet.

“You’ll see reds in shallow water doing this all across the state,” he said. “It’s visible. It’s fun to watch, but it is pretty common. Predators will get very active if they get their prey to freak out. That increases their chances to get them. That flash response to run is instinctive and predictable.

“When you see these fish, it can make quite a scene.”

Frenzied action in shallow water. Not puppy redfish action either, but young and strong brute bulls that are hungry. It makes for quite a combination. Catching is not exactly the hard part. It is the stalk, the hunt that makes it so incredible.

Broussard, who was recently appointed to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, is an artist on the water. In his many years of fishing, he has learned that the strong school session for his redfish revolves around the new crop of brown and white shrimp that migrate into the estuary.

Shrimp spawn offshore. Tides and currents move the young larvae into the interior coastal marshes where they grow and later return to the sea. There comes a point in their maturing that they turn into the main course for redfish.

“Larval white shrimp start coming in late June and July,” Broussard said. “Normally by that time, the fishing will get progressively better as more whites mature into the size that’s more attractive to the fish. The fish will start getting a little more aggressive as they try to put on pounds for the winter.”

Two species of shrimp make up the easy meal for redfish between May and October, but each has its own unique way of trying to escape danger.

“Brownies tend to stay on the bottom, while white shrimp come to the top to try and flee from a predator,” Broussard said. “It’s a little bit more of a trick to spot a school feeding on brown shrimp than on white shrimp because they don’t tend to break the surface in the big tidal wave pushes you see. It’s a little more subtle, and you just see a tail poking up or maybe just a flick of a tail. It’s unique, and most people won’t see it.

“They’re every bit as aggressive as they are on the white shrimp. They just aren’t keen on going to the surface to chase shrimp. With white shrimp, (redfish) know he’s going to the surface to try and get away.”

There is no mistaking a white shrimp run. They snap and pop out of the water as reds breach like a fleet of Navy subs right in the middle of them.

The white shrimp action of hitting the surface as a flight response also helps anglers focus in on sea gull activity. Gulls will pinpoint the school, helping to give a course-bearing for anglers.

The Rockefeller Refuge along the Vermilion Parish coast between Pecan Island and Grand Chenier is an ideal hunting ground. Cuts and canals off of Rollover Bayou into Rockefeller put anglers in prime stalking territory. Looping out into the Gulf to enter the refuge’s many lakes and bays is a good way to start.

Broussard has also experienced this in the shallows in and around Marsh Island and western Vermilion Bay. He admits to hitting schools like this in Venice and Grand Isle as well. Since he loves the schooling action so much, he searches out those waters that resemble his own.

Broussard believes the lack of a major tidal movement in the area is the reason it’s so productive. Natural geography and man-made canals that deeply pierce an estuary and slow strong tidal movement is preferred. Slight currents and winds push the shrimp in, but reduced daily water movement keeps them contained and the reds can attack them easier in larger ponds and bays.

The bite is almost too easy in the white and brown shrimp scenario. Getting in casting range is the tough part. Schools move every which way, so an angler has to anticipate an intersect point and throw his lure ahead of the school.

To successfully stalk these schools, Broussard relies on patience, electric horsepower and tough tackle.

“I’ll drop step 150-200 yards away from a school. If you power down and the school disappears, then you got too close. The next go around you need to drop down 20-30 yards farther.

“If you see a boat on the school, they’re not going to catch them all before you get there. The worst thing you can do is run up, because it will break up a school and send them packing in every direction. It’s very important not to run up on a school.”

While a school is blasting away at shrimp, 200 yards might seem more like 200 miles. Whoever said patience is a virtue must have been a red stalker.

“It’s one of the biggest differences between me and a lot of other anglers,” Broussard said. “It’s not because I have a better boat, better tackle or anything else. You’ve got to have patience when getting to that school.

“When you’re coming up on the school from 200 yards away, the anticipation of getting to it within casting distance is 50 percent of the pleasure of pulling one in. Your blood is pumping and your adrenaline is kicking. Really once you’ve got the fish, it’s just the cream on the top.”

Getting close quietly is crucial. It can be nerve-racking, but silent propulsion is the key component in getting close to a school. Broussard is a fan of the Minn Kota Riptide trolling motor series. Its solid construction, stealthy silence and speed make it an essential part of his onboard gear.

“I’ve had better luck with the Minn Kotas than with any other brand,” he said. “I use a large trolling motor, about 70-80 pounds of thrust. I use a 24-volt tolling motor, and I’m about to go up to a 36-volt 101-pound-thrust motor.”

That kind of power is more critical than outboard size and power, especially on a light rig like the one Broussard runs.

“That’s one of the most important pieces of equipment that you can have on your boat,” he said. “With that big trolling motor of mine, I can get the boat surrounded by a school of fish.”

The right gear tops the equipment list for frenzied redfish. For big bruisers, bruising tackle gets the job done.

Broussard uses Shimano Curado reels on Fenwick rods. The 11 titanium guides and solid construction take on the wildest of feeding redfish. He fills his reels with 30-pound Power Pro braided line.

“The Fenwick is a heavy-action rod, and I like a rod with a little backbone,” added Broussard. “The hook sets are instantaneous. There’s no stretch in the line, and you’ve got a pole that’s a little stiffer than your typical speck rod. And that Curado’s got all the muscle you need for pulling fish.”

Still, the life of a Curado is short with Broussard, who, even with good care, usually wears the bearings out after a year.

“I don’t typically get more than a year out of my reels because of catching these fish in the 15- to 20-pound range on that tackle,” he said. “You’re going to wear some gears out. The only way you’re going to stop that is by moving up to some offshore tackle, and that takes a lot of the fun out of it.”

His bait of choice for the toughest crushers in town is the Top Dog. Its design and strength has hooked Broussard for years now. He has tried other baits, but none match up better to schooling redfish than the Top Dog.

“I keep waiting for another bait company to come along with something comparable,” he said. “Really, there are others with better action, but no other bait has the combined weight, size, action and two hooks. I’m a big two-hook fan.”

Broussard feels less is better for safety in the boat, and with two hooks, he achieves solid and sure hook sets.

Does color matter? Not when they are in the frenzied state. Broussard uses the hot pink Top Dog. They get chuckles at the landing, but laughs turn to gritted teeth when red and pink combine and the high performance spools start singing an angry tune.

About Marty Cannon 21 Articles
Marty Cannon is a teacher and varsity football coach in Iberia Parish. He enjoys spending time in the outdoors with his family and friends.

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