Manic May

The two faces of May are enough to drive most anglers batty, but this veteran guide’s tactics for finding fish work across the coast.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. …”

— Charles Dickens,

A Tale of Two Cities

For anglers, May is the month of paradoxes.

It is the season of the best fishing, it is the season of the worst fishing, the specks are everywhere, the specks are nowhere, the winds have the strength of Samson, the winds are gentle as freshly born lambs, abundant shrimp make the fish aggressive, abundant shrimp make the fish full, the water’s clean as bleach, the water’s filthy as sludge.

There is perhaps not a month that offers more hope to the fishing legions than May. But like a beautiful bride with cold feet, May can leave her suitors feeling jilted and empty. She teases with promises of warmth and serenity and non-stop action, but is prone to deliver wind and rain and frustration. Beneath the fair exterior, she’s a cantankerous nag intent on destroying our best-laid plans.

But we anglers are nothing if not gluttons for punishment. May uses and abuses us, but occasionally she delivers the goods, and when she does, it’s a flood of blessings. She sets a banqueting table, and beckons us for the feast. The ecstasy is sweeter than the gardenias her warmth brings to bud.

The memories are what give air to dying flames during grey winter months, bringing our hearts to glow like burnished bronze. We long for May like a parched castaway on a desert island with no well. We scratch and scrounge and crawl to her doorstep aching for an invitation inside, but capricious May, governed by the whims of her moods, is as likely to bar the door as she is to open it.

So here we sit on the perch of yet another May, hoping she will be the fair, gentle, abundantly generous lass of our dreams and not the contemptuous, disdaining, stingy witch of our nightmares.

Although everyone prefers the former version of May to the latter one, there are actually ways to beat the month at her game, no matter which face she presents over the next several weeks.

Capt. Tim Ursin has made a career of fishing the marshes, bays and sounds on the east side of the river in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. He’ll target trout stacked on the bottom of bayous when winter’s frigid fingers grip Southeast Louisiana, but he loves the summer months. Though the calendar doesn’t agree, May is the kickoff of the summer season, in Ursin’s opinion.

“When the conditions are right, May can be an even better month for specks than June,” he said.

Ursin does nearly all of his fishing this time of year in the outside waters of Bay Eloi, Black Bay and Breton Sound. Since the fish are just leaving the marshes where they spent the cool-weather months, they haven’t had time to venture very far out, Ursin has found.

He focuses on the rocks at the mouth of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, the islands in Black Bay, the Wreck and, especially, the near-shore rigs in Bay Eloi.

“The close-in rigs in 8 to 10 feet of water are the best for most of May,” he said. “You want to fish the rigs that have a hard bottom or a sandy bottom rather than a muddy bottom. The fish are looking for places to spawn, and they’re not going to spawn on a muddy bottom.”

Ursin finds that these spawning fish have a limited feeding schedule.

“They’ll eat once a day, and it’s usually in the morning,” he said. “They’ll eat like crazy, and then they’ll just quit. They need to beef up for the spawn, but they have a lower energy level from carrying all those eggs, so they get tired quicker.”

That adds further evidence to May’s reputation as being a fickle provider.

But Ursin said the bite, while it lasts, is usually good enough that anglers who are there for it have all the action they could ever want.

“The fish just get into frenzies in May,” he said.

That explains why May is most anglers’ favorite month to fish the birds. Frenzied trout go bananas trapping shrimp or baitfish against the surface, where they’re easy prey for sea gulls, and the sea gulls, in turn, are flying marker buoys for anglers.

Ursin seldom heads out on a charter with the intention of fishing birds, but he frequently finds them too tempting to pass up in May.

“If you see a flock of 50 to 60 birds diving, it’s well worth it to fish them,” he said. “If you catch 15 or 20 keepers out of that school, that’s a good start to the day. Most anglers just want to have action, and if you’re fishing under a big flock of birds, you’re going to have action.”

Though the fish under the birds may be feeding on shrimp, Ursin feels the bulk of the trout in the area in May key on baitfish.

“I don’t think the shrimp are big enough yet in May,” he said. “Before that first full moon, there just aren’t enough big shrimp around.

“The fish are feeding on mullet and pogies, especially pogies. I don’t think people realize how many pogies there are throughout Breton Sound.”

Still, Ursin will take live shrimp on his excursions whenever he can get them. Even if he’s fishing a rig that has no shrimp in the area, he’ll rig up with shrimp, and the trout will maul them.

“On this side of the river, you’ve got to have live shrimp in the summertime,” he said. “Nothing produces as well.”

This year, Ursin has been purchasing his shrimp from Campo’s Marina in Shell Beach, which has had them in stock since late March. Though there were no shrimp available in inside waters, the marina was able to purchase them from a specially rigged Gulf trawler.

Sometime in May live croakers also become available, and depending on the day, these can be nearly as productive as live shrimp.

“When the fish are spawning, live croakers are the best,” Ursin said.

But not just any croakers will do. The first croakers of the year are often tiny, and these aren’t worth spending money on.

“Big croakers are much better,” he said. “Little croakers just don’t do the job like big croakers do.”

Ursin rigs his live shrimp or croakers a number of different ways, depending on conditions and the type of structure he’s fishing.

Carolina and split-shot rigs seem to produce best at the wellheads and other metal structure in the bays, whereas corks are more consistent at the islands and other shallow structure.

But, of course, those rules don’t always apply.

“It’s best to have each angler fishing a different way until you find out where the fish are holding,” he said.

Case in point, last year Ursin and his clients did best at the rigs using corks with 6-foot leaders or Carolina rigs, but two years ago, the same areas would only produce when the anglers threw corks with shallow leaders.

It’s impossible to say where the fish will hold in the water column this May, but one thing is certain — the month will have some windy days. Winds are the bane of May anglers because the blows prevent them from accessing waters that are so certainly packed with fish, but Ursin esteems May’s action so highly that he’ll venture out in winds as high as 18 m.p.h.

“If the water’s not dirty, the fish don’t know it’s windy,” he said. “You just have to tolerate the wind.”

Anything stronger than 18 m.p.h., however, makes it too uncomfortable for the fishermen, so Ursin will either cancel his charter or turn his attention to the inside waters of the Biloxi Marsh.

These marshes that produce so well in the winter are but a shadow of their cold-weather selves in the summer.

“The marsh changes water-wise in the summer, and that affects trout more than anything,” Ursin said. “The water gets real clear and brackish to fresh, and the clearer and fresher it gets, the hotter it gets. It almost gets stagnant, and the trout just can’t live in that.”

But there still are some trout to be caught in the inside water in the summertime by anglers who target the bayous.

“The water doesn’t get as clear in the bayous, so it doesn’t get as hot, and it moves all day so that keeps it cooler,” he said. “You’re not going to catch big fish, and you’ll probably have a lot of throwbacks, but you can have some action in the bayous when it’s too rough to get outside.”

Some of Ursin’s favorite warm-weather bayous are Grande, Sue, Padre and St. Malo.

Also, Ursin said, the eastern shore of Lake Borgne can be very productive in May when east winds make it impossible to get out to Bay Eloi, Black Bay or Breton Sound.

As the month wears on, the schools of trout on the outside continue to migrate, moving from the close-in rigs to those a little farther out. For many of those fish, the destination is the rigs in the deeper waters of the open Gulf, like at the Central rig just outside of Chandeleur Sound.

This is when the action can get downright fantastic.

“The post-spawn is when the trout just go crazy,” Ursin said. “Before that full moon is the time to catch your big fish, but if you want action, the days after the full moon are the time to fish.”

But of course, as with everything in May, there is a caveat. After the opening of shrimp season, trawl boats can wreak havoc on water conditions in isolated areas. It’s kind of a Catch-22 because trout will be where the shrimp are, so that’s where anglers want to fish, but the trawl boats will also be where the shrimp are, which will make the water filthy and unfishable.

“If you’ve been catching fish on the flats behind the rocks, and you get there and there are trawlers dragging in the area, that’s going to mess up that spot. You’re probably not going to catch any fish there that day,” Ursin said. “But there are so many other places you can go that it really doesn’t hurt you that bad.”

It is the best of months, it is the worst of months.

About Todd Masson 741 Articles
Todd Masson has covered outdoors in Louisiana for a quarter century, and is host of the Marsh Man Masson channel on YouTube.