As summer gives way to fall, southcentral Louisiana’s specks get the signal it’s time to invade the bait-rich waters near the shore.
Lafayette’s Evangeline Steakhouse had a familiar air about it when I walked through the doors to meet with the Acadiana Speck Club.
I had spent many Sundays there as a kid with my family breaking down Father’s homily after church over a plate of crawfish half-and-half, a far cry from the type of sermons that I heard that night.
I was there to analyze exhortations told by men who fished, not like Jesus’ first four disciples, but anglers who cross their fingers when they talk to you and look to the ceiling when they tell you where they caught.
The Acadiana Speck Club is a conglomeration of speck addicts that hold tournaments throughout the summer months. Their tournaments stretch from point’s east to west along Louisiana’s Gulf coast with the majority out of Cypremort Point in St. Mary Parish.
There is a feeling of pride when they speak of the Vermilion Bay area as it is part of their regional landscape and where most of the members learned to fish for specks, redfish and other saltwater game.
The decade’s worth of valuable information that members bring to their events is clear, and their knowledge of Vermilion Bay’s secrets is inspiring. Their tournaments are also a good gauge of the bay’s potential, and if the summer of 2003 was any indication as to how good this fall will be, brace yourself for some awesome action.
The interior bay is still struggling to return to good form since Hurricane Lili bore down on it last October, so anglers in pursuit of great trout action need to point the bows south to find the mother lode.
“We don’t have the fish like they have in Big Lake, the Mud Lumps or the Trestles. We don’t have the 10- or 11-pounders,” said member Bill Landry. “What we do have by August is stringers (10 fish for tournaments) averaging over 40 pounds. When the Atchafalaya is low, we’ll be consistently catching 4- to 5-pound fish.”
Landry and fellow member Whitey Eschete have fished out of Vermilion Bay for many years, and both understand the difficulties and successes of fishing for speckled trout in these waters. With great pride, Eschete guided me through a crash course on speck fishing out of Vermilion Bay so I could learn more about this great trout fishery in Acadiana’s back door.
Above all, Vermilion Bay anglers must be mobile and students of nature’s impact of this vast fishery. Most fishermen have too little time to truly know every dimension of the bay to guarantee consistent success, but there are some key areas and statistics to monitor that will improve your chances.
Vermilion Bay is a big stretch of water combining East and West Cote Blanche bays, Weeks Bay, Southwest Pass, and the water south of Marsh Island. Tidal flow is important as it is with most fisheries, but the Atchafalaya River has a huge impact over the action there. High water conditions on the river mean brown, murky water non-conducive to productive trout fishing.
Hope is not lost though because the river does drop during the summer as its winter flow reduces, creating a cleaner, more predictable area.
The height of the Atchafalaya River at Butte La Rose in St. Martin Parish is the first thing that speck chasers should look at. When it dips below 9 feet, the river is flowing but not dumping thick, smothering volumes of silt into the bay area. Fishing will begin to turn on as the trout can access more real estate inside the bay.
Tidal flow is another critical aspect. The best odds for catching are when the water is moving, and the harder it moves the better. Rapidly moving water forces bait through passes, over and around structure, and around points where trout can lay in wait for their meals.
Rigging for trout in these waters is a matter of preference, but age-old rules are still the standard many follow. Eschete and Chris Hebert, both of Lafayette, guided me through their styles of rigging.
“I like to use a Carolina rig with a live croaker, pogey or mullet. That works the best out here for big trout,” said Eschete.
Eschete, a retired oil field worker, shrimper and trout devotee puts a ½- to 1-ounce lead egg sinkers on his fishing line, ties on a swivel and runs 3 feet of a heavy pound-test line from the swivel to a circle hook as his leader. He likes to hook big, live baitfish through the tail section so the fish can pull away from the bottom and swim.
Hebert will use live bait, but prefers soft plastic lures on lead jig heads. His favorite colors are cream, black/chartreuse, chartreuse and glow baits.
Particular brands may vary, but two winners in Hebert’s box are Saltwater Assassins and Yum’s line of saltwater baits like the Samurai Shad with a curl tail. Hebert is fond of yellow jig heads, but plain ones work as well.
With those two philosophies in mind, anglers who want to catch limits and trophies should learn to utilize both methods to maximize chances to do well.
Southwest Pass between Marsh Island and the mainland Vermilion Parish is a great hunting spot as the water depth rises and falls quickly over the oyster reefs. The navigational channel depth ranges from over 140 feet to 6 feet at some points near the main channel.
The fish move in for the attack when massive amounts of bait are forced over the reefs. Anchor near the navigational markers, and throw white and chartreuse soft plastics on weighted jigs and hang on.
Tee Butte is a favorite of many in Acadiana because of the ease of accessing it. The waters off of the Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Vermilion Parish to the horn across from Marsh Island are littered with oyster reefs, and when the conditions are right, trout move in to attack bait moving along the reefs.
The “right” conditions usually mean clean water, the green kind being the best, and a flowing tide across the reefs from Southwest Pass and Marsh Island. Live bait works great, but the Carolina rig or other bottom-bouncing setups can hang up and break on the oyster beds, so check often for line abrasions.
The southern edge of Marsh Island has its own oyster reefs that are great for trout fishing.
“Diamond Reef is real good for trout. If you can get your boat behind the reef, look for the birds. If they are there working, you’ll catch trout,” says Hebert. “There’s a path between Oyster Reef (off of Mound Point) and Shell Keys that is big enough for a shrimp boat to pass. When the water is running, you can catch trout there too.”
The South Marsh Island area oil fields are loaded with structure above and below the surface of the water. A large chunk of the best fishing real estate runs along a shallow stretch of water called Tiger Shoals. Some of the proven sections in the South Marsh Island area are 217, 218, 221 and 222. SMI 233 and 235 in deeper waters can sometimes be exceptional, as well as sections 244 and 253.
When at a rig or well head, it helps to know about the makeup of the bottom around the structure.
“When building these wells, piles were driven in the ground for crew boats and barges to tie on, and shells were put down for them to have something to work against when they were building. Fishing along these shell pads is good because the trout hold near them,” Eschete said.
He proved his theory on a recent trip as he quietly reeled in nice specks and white trout with little fanfare, while I let everyone in a 200-foot radius know I had fish on.
Hebert is also a veteran of oil-field service, and as a boat captain, handles the duties of moving rigs all around the world and knows the design of a rig under the water. Years of working in one area and playing in another have taught him lessons that help to fill his freezer.
“Look for the underwater valves coming off a well. They’re going to hold fish,” explained Hebert.
Sometimes anchoring away from the well over the pipeline, working bait over and along the length will separate you from the pack that might be fishing 50 feet away.
Eschete, friends John Dooley and Ron Best, and I watched in disbelief as three fishermen near us on that flow valve caught fish after fish for 45 minutes while our own efforts proved fruitless. We later found a well head with a similar layout, and soon other boats watched us tear into specks and white trout.
Our trip was a test of our fishing skills as we all started with Carolina-rigged croakers and pogies. After bumping from well head to well head watching other boats fill their ice chest while we scratched, we had to dig into the artificial lures and settled on Yum’s Samurai Shad baits, mainly chartreuse with 3/8-ounce yellow lead jig heads. The injected shad scent of the artificial bait and a tiny sliver of shrimp on the hook started making our reels sing. My live-bait purist partners quickly abandoned their slimy baits and used up bags of the fake stuff.
It may be many years before Acadiana trout anglers bask again in the glory days of the drought of the 1990s when trout were everywhere you dropped a baited hook. Regular rainfall has returned, and the remnants of Lili’s path still remind everyone of nature’s wrath.
There is some great fishing though, and diehards are latching on to nice trout, filling limits and making memories. For a few more dollars and a little longer ride, anglers can hook into some outstanding trout action that will only continue to improve through the fall months.
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