Think you need cracked crab and deep water to catch bull reds? Think again.
The sultry morning air enveloped the pair of anglers even before the 24-foot bay boat skidded to a stop. Both smiled as they realized that the small but intense rain squall seemed intent on keeping its distance a few miles offshore. Their full attention could be directed toward on jerking a few predawn speckled trout from the slowly rolling surf.
Angler one — we’ll call him Joe — quietly lowered the trolling motor and put it on high to reach the small pod of menhaden flickering 70 yards in front of the vessel.
Just as the angler on point was to fire his first cast with a topwater plug, the unmistakable “flush” of a hungry trout was seen and heard near another school of bait well past their intended target. Angler two — Kyle — fired up the big Honda and put it in gear.
“Don’t do that, man. Just let it happen,” said Joe, perturbed but knowing that his buddy had made up his mind. He’d misjudged the current anyway and knew the trolling motor battery — the one he’d neglected to charge the night before — didn’t need such a strenuous early workout.
The four-stroke engine whispered the boat ahead and well around the shimmering mass of trout candy. The gently rolling swells bucked the slight east breeze in between Scofield Bayou and the Empire Jetties, and a horsefly’s tenacity for the sweet meat around their ankles made both wish for long pants.
Both being the superstitious types, neither spoke for fear of jinxing this morning that screamed success on paper.
“Let’s do this thing,” said Kyle as the boat swung broadside of the action.
Another, bigger strike on the bait came as the anglers simultaneously launched their lures toward the target. Joe’s recognition and reaction was quicker, and he abruptly thumbed the spool and jerked back on the rod. That strike was no trout, he thought. I’ll let him mess with that fish and help him get him in so that we can get back to business.
“You know what’s about to happen, dontcha?” chuckled Joe.
“Yeah, I guess it will,” said Kyle, somewhat hurriedly retrieving the bait with the rhythmic side-to-side retrieve, silently hoping a trout’s slashing strike would rescue him and give him the clear win on all cards in this first round of friendly competition.
The redfish, a beefy 30-pounder, recognized the lure as a crippled baitfish almost immediately and moved in quickly, appearing as a watery bulge behind the lure, bull-dogging it the way a marsh red charges a spinnerbait or spoon fly. The glancing blow moved enough water to feel like a strike for a moment, but Kyle knew better and kept up the cadence. He figured he was too far gone to abort now.
Through playing, the red went over the top of the lure, burying it in a sudden depression in the glassy Gulf. The concussion of the displaced water reaching skyward and settling into a foamy space the side of a washtub made even these veteran anglers chuckle in amazement. Kyle felt the violent headshake before 15-pound line began racing off the baitcaster, cutting the water like a Ginsu knife slices through a tomato on late-night television.
Turning away from the action, Joe kicked the trolling motor toward the beach and readied another toss.
“Do me a favor, will ya? Try and keep that fish on that side,” muttered Joe, knowing how a big fish can scare trout out of an area as readily as any dolphin. A few weeks prior, he’d had a few smaller trout attacked by bull reds as they neared the boat.
Summertime is no doubt the most popular season for Louisiana coastal anglers. Winds typically calm and speckled trout congregate on the coast’s beaches, reefs and shallow-water platforms, ideal for rhythmically walking the dog. Bull redfish also populate these areas, taking advantage of the abundant bait supply on either side of the delta needed to build their bodies for the coming fall spawning season.
The anglers above typify the attitude of many, and illustrate the overwhelming affinity for speckled trout in this state. Out-of-state anglers might consider such attitude heresy, spurning large redfish with such enthusiasm for the most exciting of all inshore baits.
The truth is, late summer can often be a tough time for trout, and bull reds can turn a beautiful day on the water into a productive one in terms of great theater, if not fillets.
“We’re really spoiled here, especially we who do this day in and day out,” said Capt. Shane Mayfield of Adventure South Guide Service. “I can’t tell you how many people catch one of these big fish and are so excited, saying ‘This is the biggest fish I’ve ever caught.’ And for them to catch them on topwater baits is really amazing.”
Mayfield bases his operation out both Empire and Venice, giving him a huge area to choose from on both sides of the Mississippi River delta. Both sides of the river have their moment in the sun when it comes to producing big reds.
“On the west side, the biggest thing you want to look for is a falling tide. I think it has a lot to do with the bait being pushed out of the cuts and passes,” said Mayfield. “That flushing action really seems to get the ambush instincts going.”
Though he does an increasing amount of sight fishing out of his new 16-foot Mitzi in the marsh, Mayfield says there’s a similar kind of sight fishing when the bulls are really thick on the beach and sea conditions are just right.
“If you’ve got a little roller coming off the Gulf, you can actually see them almost surfing in the breakers,” he said.
Though he likes to fish structure, Mayfield says fish can be most anywhere along the beach where bait such as mullet and pogies happen to be. But his most favorite time to target reds is when crabs periodically are pulled out of the bay and into the Gulf in correspondence to the extremely high tides of the summer season. When the water falls out, that’s when redfish action reaches epic proportions.
“They don’t even have to be small crabs, though when they are you can catch trout right along with the reds. Generally as the season goes along, (the crabs) will be bigger and you’ll find bigger reds,” says Mayfield.
This phenomenon is mainly contained to the west side of the river. On the east side around the Pass a Loutre area is similarly superb action, though it seems to be best around the numerous sandbars such as the ones around Redfish Bay and North Pass. Mayfield cautioned against getting too close to the often turbulent waters, but said the payoff for working the area is often spectacular.
“Downriver, the fish are generally more likely to be concentrated on the points of sandbars, but again, they could be anywhere where the bait is,” said Mayfield. “This is more of an area for mullet and pogies as opposed to crabs. And these fish can handle any size mullet. If you see big mullet jumping, that’s a sign to check things out.”
Capt. Brian Epstein is known for his ability to put quality speckled trout in the boat out of Delacroix during the warm months, but few things get his heart beating faster than watching a giant redfish explode on a topwater plug around one of the many islands sprinkled throughout Black Bay.
“It’s really one of the most exciting kinds of fishing that’s available to us,” said Epstein. “Watching those fish move through a school of bait — I call it spraying, like a hose being sprayed on the water — is amazing.”
Epstein brings up a good point. This kind of fishing is nothing at all like the traditional way of bull-red fishing done in other parts of the state, where heavy tackle and cut bait on the bottom is the modus operandi. Though the pull of the fish is the same when it comes right down to it, the initial strike and run is what keeps people coming back for more.
When he’s targeting reds, Epstein favors large baits such as the original Top Dog by MirrOlure. The reason for this is that the fish are typically feeding on large mullet. Also, the full-sized version can be thrown farther, can be seen better and put up more of a racket when retrieved.
“They also don’t seem to be lost in the waves when the water is a little choppy,” said Epstein.
Still another reason that surface lures are among the best for attracting big reds is time.
“Topwaters stay in the strike zone a lot longer than a jig or a spoon. You can really whip those things, and sometimes that’s what it takes to get the bait in front of a fish,” said Epstein.
The combination of long casts, noise from the bait’s rattles and the water disturbed by the surface lure’s motion serves as an unbeatable combination.
“You can also work the bait a lot slower than you can with another bait without taking it out of sight of the fish,” he said.
Finding fish is often as basic as locating concentrations of baitfish. Because these reds are plus-sized, any size mullet is fine, even the 2-pounders the region is famous for.
If sizable speckled trout being reeled in are fair game, it stands to reason that mullet are no problem.
A few notes regarding the catch and release of these fish: Redfish are among the toughest fish in the Gulf, but their determination very much works against them when they’re captured on light tackle. Proper tools are crucial to not only the fish’s survival, but your safety as well.
Reds often take a plug way down in their mouth where only a good set of needle-nosed pliers or long-handled hook-outs can do the trick where Leatherman-type multi tools fail. Sticking one’s wrist into the fish’s mouth is asking for scarred knuckles from the sandpaper-like top teeth or a fistful of trebles when the fish decides its been still long enough.
Taking proper care of the fish upon its return to the water is crucial in ensuring that your release efforts are not in vain. Fish should be able to swim off under their own power and always right side up. Any fish released upside down will stay that way.
It only takes a minute or so to have a fish return to its normal state and for you to be back into the one of the greatest shows on the Gulf.
Capt. Shane Mayfield can be reached at (504) 382-2711. Capt. Brian Epstein can be reached at (504) 284-3316.