Tchefuncte Trout

The Causeway holds a few fish this time of year, but the action’s far better at the mouth of the Tchefuncte River.

Duck hunting, as I constantly explain to greenies, is mainly bird-watching.

“I’m more of a bird-watcher than you,” I snort at them.

Consider the amount of time in a blind spent watching versus shooting. Even more lopsided, consider the amount of time watching versus shooting from a deer stand!

At any rate, for many hunters, this vigil makes the scenery an important factor when choosing a hunting locale.

Ditto for fishing, though at a different level. And you will find no more scenic — indeed, enchanting — backdrop to your fishing than the northwest shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Here the lake laps the edge of the famous Maurepas Swamp. Huge cypress trees mark the shoreline, mixed with swamp maple and tupelo gum. Osprey hover in search of mullet. In summer, jack crevalle and bull sharks rip into those same mullet from below, sending the schools leaping frantically.

Fish during sunset, and it’s a scene to shame anything on the Discovery Channel or even a postcard. Fishing this shoreline, you enjoy a classic Louisiana swamp panorama, but with salt-water fish as prey — instead of the hideous largemouth bass.

Could any fish be more abominable? Let’s be completely objective here. Look at a largemouth bass — a frontal shot, a profile and a rear view, like in a Victoria’s Secret catalog. Now try to imagine an uglier fish.

The thing’s horrific. The largemouth bass gags and disgusts. Everything about him affronts a normal sense of aesthetics. Next to a bass the symmetrical redfish represents the very picture of gratifying design. A red stands next to a bass as Angelina Jolie in an evening gown stands next to Rosie O’Donnell in a thong.

Imagine Jennifer Anniston in a sheer nightie next to Janet Reno in a string bikini, and you’ve imagined the contrast between the elegant Spanish mackerel and a bass.

The stately sheepshead, in his snappy striped tux and distinguished pout, next to a bass, in his lime-green polyester suit and loutish grin, reveals Mother Nature as more heartless a hag than Cinderella’s stepmom.

The bass is completely out of wack. Picasso or Goya, in their darkest moods, could never have painted anything half as hideous. The bass’s mouth is way to big for its body. Imagine a human infant with the mouth of 10 Mick Jaggers, and you get an idea of his proportions. Recall the stuff spouting from Linda Blair’s mouth in the Exorcist, and you’ve got his color. Recall Ralph Kramden, and you’ve got his physique; Ed Norton, his mind; Hillary Clinton, his charm; Fidel Castro, his code of ethics.

An imbecile and pig, he still crams things in his mouth that are way too big, and often chokes in the process. John Belushi in Animal House had better table manners.

In matters of class and style, a redfish compares to a bass as Cary Grant compares to Morgus the Magnificent.

And they get uglier and uglier with age — bloated, pot-bellied, misshapen, simply nauseating. And here’s the fish most people want on their wall! And the bigger (uglier) the better! And here’s the star of all the fishing shows! Go figure!

Any TV reporter babe who gains 4 ounces over the anorexic ideal of TV producers better start looking for a waitress job. Any model who starts showing any meat on her bones won’t be gracing any magazine cover without plastic wrapping.

But let a bass bloat to disgusting proportions, let him sport huge jowls and a beer gut, and you’ll see him on the cover of every outdoor magazine! And on every TV fishing show as somebody swings his disgusting bulk around by the jaw.

Go figure!

How’d it happen? When did the unassuming, unpretentious “green trout” become this bloated, big-headed media star? As an incidental catch during a quest for more noble and sightly fish like croakers, reds or sheepshead — which is to say, as a “green trout,” he was tolerable. No longer.

At any rate, the reports, as always this time of year, were coming in consistently good for the Causeway. So after launching at the mouth of the Tchefuncte, we headed that way out of habit.

Some say the Causeway area “turns on” in May and stays hot through mid July or so. Then it slows down a bit during the hottest months. Then it picks up again in September through November as the water cools. Then it slows down again in the coldest months.

This refers to trout. But I’d say it slows down less in the lake than in most other places because of the salinity factor — in Lake Pontchartrain, it’s close to the highest of the year in June and July. In fact, Lumcon has a monitoring station (http://weather.lumcon.edu) that let’s you check the salinity levels and turbidity in northwest Lake Pontchartrain.

Fishermen like Clay Prieto and Bill Hungerford catch trout all through the summer on nothing but plastic.

“Just work it around the legs, popping it,” Hungerford says.

It’s not rocket science, they stress.

“And cover a lot of ground, especially 8-12 miles out (from the northshore area),” Prieto adds.

There’s a sound reason for fishing the 8- to 10-mile area. Hungerford disclosed it to me in a moment of weakness at his Mandeville store, Bands.

“Look, Hom-Boy-da,” he winked. “I don’t want this getting around, ya unner-stan?”

“Of course,” I nodded. “I understand perfectly.”

“Last thing I need is a big crowd horning in on my secret fishing hole, ya unner-stan?”

“Perfectly understandable, Bill,” I nodded. “Your secret is safe with me. Iron-clad, my friend.”

“That’s good,” he smiled while extending his hand. “I always knew I could trust you.”

Then he leaned in close and whispered: “The reason for that area producing so many fish is — in a word (here he paused for effect) — structure.”

I nodded sagely, pretending to be completely familiar with this occult knowledge.

“It’s a shell reef,” he rasped with a conspiratorial wink while looking around as if fearing that the customers in his store might overhear him and discover one of the secrets to his fishing prowess. “The remnants of an ancient peninsula, mainly made up of shells that stretched from inside of Goose Point in the east to a little past the mouth of the Tchefuncte River on the west.”

Now Hungerford disappeared into the back room of his grocery store. I was left scratching my head, but shortly he reappeared with a rolled-up document of some kind.

“Check it out,” he said while unfurling it. “See?”

In fact, I saw nothing. So I leaned closer, and there it was, drawn on an ancient map.

“This reef, this old island, actually,” Hungerford rasped, “bisects the Causeway right at about 8 miles from the north shore.”

And sure enough, there it was on the yellowed map.

“The current moves better out in this area too,” he added. “That’s why I’ll usually be found fishing this area.”

“Don’t worry, Bill,” I nodded. “The place is still exclusively yours. Your secret is safe with me — though I might find myself out there from time to time. Hope you don’t mind.”

“No problemo, amigo,” Hungerford smiled. “But please keep it out of your magazine articles.”

“You bet, my friend!” I whooped while raising my hand in a high-five salutation.

In fact, we’d always noticed that current pattern while snorkeling along the pilings while spearfishing for sheepshead and the odd flounder. From about five miles to shore, there’s not much current; hence, the water’s clear along the bottom. Out farther toward the middle of the lake, the bottom gets stirred up by the current. But of course, a moving current’s what you want for fishing.

Also, the lake’s full of other species every bit as attractive to many of us as speckled trout, and much more cooperative.

We hadn’t been fishing 10 minutes near the 8-mile hump, only on the third set of pilings, when, “Check it out!” Pelayo yelled as he heaved a trout aboard. About a 15-incher. He’d hit the famous blue moon Dudley, probably the favorite lure for those who fish the most out here. Strangely, the fish also seem to favor it.

Chris, casting to the same area with the same plastic, quickly hauled in a smallish (but legal) speck.

“Now here’s a fish!” I finally bellowed and yanked back.

My pole was bucking crazily, and the drag wailed its sweet music. Minutes later, Pelayo netted my red, which went around 6 pounds. He had clobbered my dead shrimp, as did four big sheepshead in the next half hour. My favorite bait for the Causeway is plain dead shrimp threaded from tail to head on a smallish (No. 4) long-shanked hook, with a couple split shots about 2 feet above — a Carolina rig, of sorts. But I don’t like the real heavy sinker on the normal Carolina rig for lake fishing. The little split shots give me just enough casting weight to get the shrimp next to the pilings. But the rig sinks slowly.

And we know from diving that the sheepshead are often at mid depths; trout and yellow bass too. Often they grab it on the way down. The small amount of weight also allows me to feel the little taps as I reel in slowly along the bottom at every set of pilings.

Chris sweetened his jig with shrimp, started casting right on the downcurrent side of the pilings — and quickly scored.

“Told ya!” he beamed while swinging aboard a flounder.

Flounder rely on current to feed, the current that swirls around these pilings. Pelayo landed another flounder in short order.

Then things cooled down, and we headed west toward the sunset. On the way, we noticed several boats anchored in the lake near the mouth of the Tchefuncte, apparently fishing. Hmmmm. But we kept heading west.

First, we fished the power lines that run north south just west of the mouth of the Tchefuncte, where my shrimp offering quickly yielded two rat (but legal) reds and a couple of small yellow bass. Lures, on the other hand, yielded nothing.

Toward the shoreline, we could see a boat that could only belong to Hungerford himself. Bill’s dog, as usual, was aboard. He seemed to be catching fish (as usual). But we knew better than to crowd him.

The sun’s golden glow on the calm lake waters as it disappeared behind the cypress swamp had us mesmerized as we hauled in a couple more yellow bass and a few bull croakers (10-12 inches). These, by the way, are becoming the main catch near the mouth of the Tchefuncte lately (on plain shrimp). And that’s a very welcome development to those who remember how decades ago croakers were once the mainstay of lake fishing from the Chef to Pass Manchac and all points in between.

Darkness soon closed in, and we headed for the launch, where we finally felt comfortable approaching the legendary Bill Hungerford. He opened his ice chest, and we gaped. Gorgeous dark-hued reds mixed with specks he called “small” but seemed plenty big to us. He hadn’t limited out by any means, but the catch was mighty impressive. Hungerford was in an expansive mood, and was soon disgorging tips.

“I like topwater baits in that area, Hom-Boy-da,” disclosed the man regarded by many as the dean of north-shore lake fishermen — especially regarding the western portion of the lake. “You get a north wind for a few days, or no wind for a few days, and this is the area I like to fish. Say roughly from the mouth of the Tchefuncte river — even more specifically, the mouth of the Port Louis Canal — all the way over to the mouth of the Tangipahoa, but also extending to the mouth of Pass Manchac.

“During the spring, I catch big specks in this area, not like these (and he pointed toward his ice-chest). They’re spawning at the time along this shoreline. Right now, the spawn’s mostly over, and the specks — on average — are smaller. But they’re still schooling in this area, along with some beautiful reds.

“Plenty structure in this area. Hundreds of years ago the trees extended far into what is now the lake. Their stumps are the only thing that remains, and they make great structure for fishing. As you know, redfish love crabs. And crabs find these eroded stumps great places to hide in. The reds aren’t far behind.

“Lots of pilings extend out into the lake from the piers of some long-gone camps that used to dot this lakeshore. When the water clears up, as it has lately with the light winds, you can see the remnants of these pilings underwater. They’re my favorite places to fish out here.

“It’s mainly mullet and pogies that the trout, reds and stripers feed on in this area.

“Stripers?” I gasped.

“Yes, stripers. And these are bona-fide striped bass — not hybrids. I catch plenty of them near the mouth of the Tchefuncte during the spring. Most have moved upriver by summertime, but occasionally you get into one along this shoreline.

“Since the fish are feeding on mullets and pogies, I like topwater baits out here. They work best for me. The Top Dog, of course, is good, but so are the broke-back plugs. Any of those floating or slow-sinking MirrOlures work well for me out here — basically anything that mimics a small mullet.”

I could imagine the thrill of watching a blow-up and slugging it out with a 10-pound red with the setting sun and the gorgeous swamp backdrop. Heck, one such catch would make a trip out here a resounding success. Throw in a few trout, croakers and sheepshead, and you’re in for some banner fishing without the long trailer haul to the coast.

Just then two of the boats we’d seen anchored docked up at the boat ramp. Both had partly filled boxes of bull croakers and rat reds — beautiful fish.

Pelayo, Chris and I looked at each other snorting. We were all thinking the same thing. We woulda done better forsaking the Causeway altogether and traveling out a couple hundred yards from the ramp, or a couple miles west like Hungerford.

Alas … Alas.

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