If you can’t find the fish out of Golden Meadow, bring them to you with innovative technique.
An old, Middle-Eastern proverb says, “If Mohammed cannot come to the mountain, then the mountain must come to Mohammed.”
That’s what came to mind as I watched Capt. Steve Shook take out a bag of chum he’d been preparing since the night before, slosh it around in the water, and then let it sink, suspended almost to the bottom of Catfish Lake.
A widening, oily trail peppered with chum particles immediately began to spread out downcurrent from the boat.
“That’s where you want to cast your line,” Shook said, pointing to where the oily slick vanished beneath the surface. “That menhaden oil will attract fish from all over the area, and the chum particles will keep them there. You’ll see, in just a few minutes, they’ll turn on.”
He was right. It wasn’t more than a few minutes before a hefty trout inhaled the chartreuse DOA shrimp I was suspending beneath a Cajun Thunder popping cork.
Shook and his long-time fishing buddy, Kent Fisher, were tightlining a couple of their favorite, tried-and-true lures, the H&H Cocahoe tails in purple/chartreuse.
Tightlining is, without question, the best way to consistently catch fish in the winter. The logic is that since the water is cold, the fish hang snug to the bottom and exert as little energy as possible. They will bite, but rarely will they bite aggressively during the winter. Generally, it’s more like a very slight tap, or perhaps just a gradual, almost indiscernible stretch of your line.
So, on cold days, you “tightline.” That is, you tie a jighead, usually a ¼-ounce size, directly to the end of your line. No swivel. No leader. No extra weights. No cork. You cast out, allow your bait to sink all the way to the bottom (where the fish are), and then you slowly bounce the bait back in toward you. The colder it is, the slower you retrieve.
In fact,” retrieve” might not even be the best word to describe the retrieval process on those very cold days, because it makes you think of “casting and retrieving” the way you fish during the rest of the year — fast.
Winter fishing can be excellent, but you have to slow your motions way down. Maybe it’s more like “jigging,” just lifting your rod slightly, letting your bait slowly rise and then fall back to the bottom again. Each time you repeat the process, you wind in just enough to keep the slack out of your line.
The point is, tightlining is the preferable way to fish in the winter. Hopefully you’ll find a deep hole where they’re all ganged up, you’ll bounce your jig right on to the top of their heads and aggravate them into biting.
However, when the weather warms up, as it frequently does down here in the winter, the fish move. They seek warmth in the shallower waters over flats and reefs, along ledges and shorelines. On some of those warmer winter days, you can even catch fish on topwater baits or, fishing like I was, under popping corks.
This particular winter morning started cold, but was quickly warming up under a bright sun. We had all already stripped off the heavy outer coats we needed for the short boat ride out of Golden Meadow, and the conditions looked perfect to try fishing under a cork.
Once I saw Shook set that secret-weapon chum bag over the side, I knew if there were any fish anywhere near us, they’d get the scent and come running. And they did.
The warm weather put these trout into a much more aggressive mode, and they jerked us around like spring and summer trout. Or, maybe it was the chum that sent them into a hunger-driven frenzy. Whichever it was, we caught trout and redfish, tightlining soft plastics, dangling DOAs under a popping cork and even chunking MirrOlure 52Ms.
Shook is a long-time professional angler, and he’s competitive by nature. (When he’s not fishing, he’s out racing his dragster down the quarter mile.) He and his wife have fished the Southern Kingfish Association tournament trail for years, logging about 100,000 miles a year on their 3500 Ford Dually, dragging a 36-foot, triple-engined Contender behind them.
They run hard, fish hard and win often — over $1 million in prize money, and enough trophies, awards and plaques to literally cover the walls of their entire camp in Golden Meadow.
I know these competitive types use every trick they can to gain an edge over their competition, including those super-fast boats to propel them to the prime fishing grounds before anyone else can get there.
But once you’re there, you still have to get on the fish, and that’s where an angler’s own keen powers of observation and instinct have to kick in and lead him to the fish. Or, you can chum them to you, and sort of “bring the mountain to Mohammed,” you might say.
So chumming is no secret to kingfish and tuna anglers. But when you break out a chum bag for trout and redfish, that’s interesting. And when the guy breaking out the chum bag is named Steve Shook, that’s very interesting, indeed.
“You don’t need much to put this together,” Shook said. “A bag of Puppy Chow, a lingerie bag, a hefty weight, a 5-gallon bucket and some menhaden oil.”
Shook buys the fish oil by the drum load from a processor on the Gulf Coast. He uses the stuff mostly in a gel-like concoction he brews himself and spreads over his plastics baits, once again, for that extra edge such competitors seek. But he also uses the smelly fish oil for chumming.
His procedure is very simple. Pour some fish oil in the bottom of the 5-gallon bucket. Pour the Puppy Chow in the lingerie bag, and set the bag into the bucket overnight, letting the chow absorb the oil. Oh yes, and be sure you do this outdoors!
Take the whole bucket fishing with you and when you get to the spot you want to chum, slip the weight into the bag, slosh the bag up and down in the water to get a good slick going, and let it sink. Shook ties it off just short of the bottom, but says you could let it sink all the way to the bottom. Then simply fish the oily chum line, and the mountain will come to Mohammed, he says.
Shook says he prefers to fish the northwest bank of Catfish Lake for two main reasons. One, it has a good, hard oyster bottom, the kind of habitat attractive to fish at this time of year, and two, it is out of the main traffic area.
“Most of the traffic is along the southeast side of the lake,” Shook said. “The fishing is good there, but it’s really hard to maneuver due to the constant boat traffic, and when you get onto fish, boats will move in and huddle all around you and either obstruct your fishing or they’ll drive the fish away with all their noise.
“This is a shallow lake, averaging about 3 feet deep on low tides, and 4 or 5 feet on high tides. Noise really travels in shallow water, and with all the traffic and movement, motors running all over, anchors crashing… I just choose not to join the mayhem.
“I fish the opposite side of the lake, from Bayou Monniae over to Grand Bayou, concentrating along the various drains into the lake, which I find especially productive on a north wind.
“This lake drains a large portion of the marsh and has a lot of bait flowing through it. You can position your boat near a drain, set out your chum and cast into or around the slick. I like to tightline plastic cocahoes in dark colors on overcast days and in the early mornings, and then switch to bright colors as it warms up and the sun comes out.
“If it’s cold, naturally I fish on the bottom. If it’s warm, I’ll often snap on a cork. Otherwise, you can drift the oyster reefs, using a slow cast and retrieve, bouncing your bait along the bottom or under a popping cork, and if you get into some good action, anchor and see if you can put some in the boat.
“Bayou Monniae is another of my favorite winter spots. It has a good oyster bottom, which is an essential element for a good winter hotspot. It’s deep, and has some real deep holes in the turns and cuts, and the water is almost always clean. It’s a great place to anchor on a cold day, set out a chum line, and fish into it, letting your bait bounce off the bottom.”
The Sulphur Mine is another cold-weather favorite. While the average depth is around 6 or 7 feet, there are plenty of holes and drop-offs where it drops down to 18-foot depths, Shook said.
“I prefer to fish the north side of the Sulphur Mine, because it has so many channels and drains, and because I usually do better when I concentrate on the north end.
“But I tell everybody if you are going to fish the Sulphur Mine, you need a good anchor, about 60 feet of anchor line, and a friendly manner because you’ll usually have a lot of boats surrounding you.
“I’ve counted hundreds of boats out here on weekends at times, and amazingly, most seem to be catching fish. That should give you some kind of an idea about how great a hotspot this is.
“When I fish it, I like to use the depth sounder to find a good ledge because that’s where the fish, both trout and redfish, like to huddle. Once you locate a good ledge, drift or troll along it. I also watch the fish finder to see at what depth along the drop-off the fish are hanging, and that’s where you’ll want to cast.
“Bounce your bait along the ledge, and when you get into some action, anchor. Once you anchor, you can set the chum bag over to try to keep the fish right there, until you catch your limits or they play out. Then you can repeat the process.”
We moved around a couple of times, drifting and trolling, and whenever we found fish, we anchored and dropped the chum bag. The fish were cooperative. Shook and Fisher reeled them in tightlining their plastic baits. I did the same, never switching from my chartreuse DOA shrimp under that cork. In fact, I caught more than they did. And when you’re fishing with Steve Shook, that’s saying something.
Capt. Steve Shook’s Gulf Coast Fishing Charters can be reached at (985) 475-7626.