Stars and Spots at Eugene Island

Wait until after sunset to get in on the best action at this offshore speck hotspot.

When the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, Chris Hebert stopped fishing and just watched the day fade to night. No words were spoken because none could do this sight any justice. He just sat, rocking with the small swells, watching the beauty of a sunset unfold before him. Above and to the east, the stars started to trickle.

Darkness swept over the Eugene Island 51B rig, and only its lights illuminated the area.

Earlier that day, I received the call from Hebert to go fishing for speckled trout. No problem, I thought.

“We’re just going for a quick trip,” he had said. “I’ll have you back early.”

Hebert’s heavy Cajun accent and jocular nature can be quite deceptive, as I learned. He’s the kind of fisherman who gives the rest of us a bad name because of his zealous enthusiasm for trout waters.

But when I pulled up at his house, I learned that early apparently meant early the next morning, so on a secret phone call to my wife I told her that my calculation on Hebert’s time frame was off and that I’d see her a little later than expected.

Most people would be apprehensive about an afternoon fishing trip to remote Eugene Island with a return to port somewhere around sunrise. From the Delcambre landing, EI 51 is a long boat ride (60 miles one way) with little in between for shelter if nature makes a sudden change.

I shrugged it off as Hebert called out for us to leave his home with bay boat in tow. He had a report from his friend Joey Russo of Lafayette that a three-man limit was had in about an hour the night before.

Vermilion Bay might be a big stretch of water, but Hebert’s experience as an able-bodied boat captain rested my fears. He has circled the globe to drive boats, and has moved million-dollar rigs through the Suez Canal and others places east and west of the Prime Meridian. So an all night boat trip in his 21-foot Pro Craft to a distant offshore rig was of little concern to me in regards to safety.

As for fishing, he is a walking reference book for the Vermilion Bay area. His career prior to the oil industry was in seafood, either as first mate aboard his father’s shrimp boat or on the family’s oyster boat, and he has been from one end of the bay to the other.

By far, Eugene Island is his favorite destination, and night fishing is his favorite tactic.

“We hardly ever scratch there,” said Hebert. “The area is a series of shoals, hard bottom that attracts trout. We like to tie up and wait for the fish to turn on. Sometimes you get your limit right away, and sometimes it takes a long time. Some fishermen get discouraged real easy and won’t wait. EI51 is a place where when they turn on, you catch your limits in an hour.”

Day trips will do just fine, but Hebert prefers the solitude of the evening and the big flood lights that shine down through gaping holes in the rig platforms that lure trout. And he waits for the fish to turn on. Sometimes it is immediately, sometimes it takes all night, but when they do, madness ensues. Driving an hour and a half one way across open water cuts down on your options, so you go and stick with the plan.

“We were there one night and we didn’t do very good until 5 o’clock the next morning. Then we caught our limit like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.

The Eugene Island area lies southeast of Lafayette and in a direct line of the mouth of the Atchafalaya River.

“The reason that Eugene Island is so good, especially in the spring and summer, is because it’s far enough offshore that it doesn’t get dirty,” Hebert said. “The Atchafalaya River pours out north of there, but the tides push the muddy water into Cote Blanche. I used to drive boats through the Eugene Island channel to go to a rig offshore, and it didn’t take long to hit blue water.”

Late spring and summer are prime times for trout off of the coast of Louisiana after the March/April spawn. Eugene Island’s strength seems to stem from its location near the mouth of the Atchafalaya Delta and the Wax Lake Outlet, which pumps out a whopping one-fifth of the Mississippi River’s flow.

The new delta region, growing at an amazing rate, is thick with sediment and nutrients, and is a grand buffet for all sorts of species. Instead of getting choked with that sediment though, like Vermilion Bay might on a strong tide or east wind, the Eugene Island fields are far enough removed yet shallow enough to attract the specks.

These combinations topped by the numerous shell pads, rigs and reefs from Pointe Au Fer Shell Reef to Eugene Island make fishing there unavoidable. What has been evolving over the past few decades is a feasting ground for trout spurred by the growing delta and the numerous surface and subsurface feeding places.

Russo credits the oil industry’s shell pad creations.

“What happens at 51 is that there is a trough off the coast, but the oil companies built up a shell pad to put those platforms,” he said. “The baitfish sit on top of those pads, and the lights on those rigs shine down on them. You really need to be on the right side of the tide to hit it right. On a moving tide, there’s a steady stream of bait, and the trout just attack them in those lights.”

On our trip, just an hour before sunset, Hebert pulled back on the throttle and moved cautiously into position near the 51 rig. The mammoth EI platform beckoned to have lures thrown at its feet. The underside of the rig offers a perfect ambush site because of the huge vertical, horizontal and diagonal configuration. The floodlights that point down from the deck through the steel grate floor give casters a target to pinpoint all night long.

“Throw it right back into that corner. When they get here, the water will be bubbling from the trout,” chimed Hebert.

On Hebert’s first cast, the line went tight, and he started howling.

“Here we go!” he proclaimed.

He began reeling in the line, and the fish surfaced and did its best imitation of a tarpon. Upon seeing it, though, he realized that it was a hardhead catfish.

“What?” he yelled in disbelief. “A catfish!”

Hebert let the line go slack, and the frenzied cat came unhooked and scurried off. A few more hardheads had Hebert wondering.

Then a solid tug forced Hebert to bend his knees and lean back on the fish. His Penn real started screaming. This was definitely not a hardhead. The spotted mule blasted out of the water then scurried left and right before storming into the net.

For 10 minutes we were in a dusky Eugene Island madness. And as soon as it started, it was over. Five trout were doing the death dance in the ice chest. Hebert just sat back and let the time pass. No use in scurrying off considering he had driven 60 miles to get here. He fumbled with some of his gear, tied on some different baits and just relaxed. Soon enough, the trout started to trickle in.

The schools came in waves, and none were truly large in size. On our visit, the tides were slight, going against a steady southwest wind.

Hebert and I took turns casting while the other rested. One wave of fish would come and a brief period of insanity would ensue, rods flying around, specks dancing on the deck before going to ice chest. Then silence would fall again.

Hebert’s favorite bait for EI 51 is a Texas Tackle Factory Lil’ Speck Killer ( tandem jig. The first lure glows and the second is a bright pink.

Wind can wreak havoc on the lightweight lures, but Hebert’s Penn saltwater reels and medium/heavy action rods with 10-pound-test get them out and bring the fish back in.

He also tries heavier yellow lead-head jigs with chartreuse, red/white or white soft plastics, particularly Gambler’s 6-inch Flappin’ Shad. The Flappin’ Shad has been a big hit at the Eugene Island rigs, especially at night when the trout cannot get enough of it.

Hebert was adamant about the Flappin’ Shads in 2003.

“I went through every store in Lafayette trying to find some more of these baits,” he said. “The one’s that had them were cleaned out. I finally called Gambler and had some delivered to my house — a case of them! The lady there said she couldn’t just sell me one pack. I don’t think she understood that I wanted a lot of them.”

Some time past the midnight hour, Hebert was whooping it up again. He was already boating a nice 20-inch speck when I awoke. Anglers on another boat nearby were also hooked up and giving their own war cries. That back corner was hot.

And so goes it in Eugene Island. Once the fish show, the headaches, sore eyes and fatigue are squashed.

The return trip is something of an adventure in itself. Landings dot the eastern shore of Vermilion and Cote Blanche bays, but Hebert still prefers to take the longer, but more direct saltwater road.

“Most guys will go to the point (landing just north of Point Chevreuil at Bayou Sale) and put in there,” he said. “I like taking the boat. If you were coming in at three or four in the morning, I’d rather be pushing a boat than driving in a comfortable truck. At least when I’m driving a boat I stay awake and alert because of the wind and waves.”

His rationale at 3 a.m. made perfect sense, especially considering the risk of running through the back roads of St. Mary Parish and Highway 90.

On the return trip, Hebert handled the boat with precision and care. He navigated via a Magellan 330 unit mounted on his center console. The electric blue screen showed the details of his path, waypoints like the rigs he fishes and all of the exposed landscape.

Still, small oil platforms are scattered everywhere, and he takes no chances in trusting that all their automatic safety lights will work. There’s also the danger of shoals surfacing at low tide. For that reason, Hebert keeps a Q-Beam handy, and every few minutes he scans the waters before him.

Lightning, hundreds of miles off to the west, gave us a show on the way in, but the memories of trout breaking the water like crazed beasts kept smiles on our faces, even as the first touch of sunlight crept over the eastern horizon.

As we pulled into Delcambre, I could not help but laugh at us, another two crazed beasts, just finishing our fishing as the rest of the world was rising to a new day.

About Marty Cannon 21 Articles
Marty Cannon is a teacher and varsity football coach in Iberia Parish. He enjoys spending time in the outdoors with his family and friends.