Pontchartrain’s Trout Circle

Specks in Louisiana’s largest saltwater lake are easy to catch from now through October for anglers who follow them as they migrate.

For most people, bridges are a means.For Barry Weinstein, they are an end.

On a Friday afternoon last month, wave after wave of vehicles cruised eastbound on I-10 out of New Orleans and toward the Twin Span and Highway 11 bridges.

All but one — Weinstein’s — were destined to cross those bridges.

But Weinstein, 67, took the Irish Bayou exit — the last before the elevated roadways — headed half a block south, and stopped at a small, honor-system launch not far from the area’s most notable landmark — a weekend camp shaped like King Arthur’s castle.

Most of the commuters who cross the bridges every day probably feel at least a bit of gratitude to the government for providing them with a way to get from the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to the south shore, and vice versa. They view the bridges as a connection of the land over the otherwise unfordable water.

Weinstein sees the bridges entirely differently. He’s grateful the government has given him fishing reefs stretching all the way from one side of the lake to the other.

A native of the Gentilly area of New Orleans, Weinstein has been fishing these bridges, and other areas in Lake Pontchartrain, since the late 1950s. He speaks about the lake the way most men do their mothers or childhood girlfriends.

“Let me tell you, this place used to really be something special. It was full of fish from one side to the other, and there was very little competition for the fish. It’s not as good now as it used to be, but it’s coming back, and it’s getting close,” he said while putt-putting his 16-foot Skeeter bass boat down a camp canal leading to Irish Bayou.

After clearing the camps, Weinstein took a back route under I-10 that gave him entrance to the lake between the Trestles and Highway 11. He pointed his bow toward the Trestles, where he had been mopping up on the trout for weeks.

“The fishing’s been really good,” he said over the hum of his 88-horsepower Evinrude, “especially on a rising tide. I’ve caught fish on both tides, but the rise has been really good.”

The boat eased over the flat-calm water, and within minutes, Weinstein was easing back on the throttle. He looked at the bridge stanchions, and saw the current ripping from the southwest to the northeast.

“Yep, it’s still falling,” he said. “The water on the south shore of the lake gets squeezed here. It follows the South Point shoreline all the way up, so it crosses the Trestles at an angle.”

The phenomenon gets more pronounced closer to the shoreline, Weinstein explained.

According to tide charts, the tide was supposed to have bottomed out at 8:30 that morning.

“I tell you, I’ll never be able to figure out the tides in this area. They never make sense,” he said.

Weinstein theorizes that the tides along the bridges in eastern Lake Pontchartrain are so unpredictable because what anglers are viewing is not necessarily the tide but the current. So much water enters and exits the lake via the Rigolets that massive eddies are formed, not unlike what river anglers see in bends and behind obstructions.

In other words, the tide may actually be rising when the currents at the bridges appear that it is falling.

Weinstein was slightly discouraged but certainly not undaunted.

“We’ll still catch them on the fall, but it would be really good if it would rise,” he said. “A rising tide brings shrimp and larvae into the lake this time of year. The action is better, and it lasts longer (on a rising tide).

“Later in the year, the opposite is true. A falling tide is better because it pushes the bait back out of the lake.”

He looked at the water, which was beautiful by many measures, but only fair by Pontchartrain standards. Visibility was about 2 feet.

“In water like this, I like a darker color bait,” he said while reaching for one of his rods. “Sometimes the lake gets gin-clear, and then you want to fish light colors — clear, chartreuse. But when it’s a little stained, I like dark colors — avocado, black, dark green — and I like baits that have a lot of wiggle. These big trout are like bass; they can feel that vibration.”

Given his druthers, Weinstein would rather the water be stained than clear because the trout feel safer in off-colored water. It’s important to remember, he said, that in addition to being predators, trout are also prey.

“I like to be able to see my bait about a foot down, and if I’m fishing only for big fish, I don’t want to be able to see it more than a foot down,” he said. “The big trout are more comfortable (in stained water). They’re not as prone to hide.”

The rod he selected had tied on an avocado Crazy Shad, which had delivered for him on the previous day.

Weinstein made a cast toward the Trestles, but unlike many Pontchartrain veterans, he didn’t even attempt to get the bait far under the bridge. The lure plopped down adjacent to the stanchion closest to him.

“There’s so much junk under this bridge, if I cast up under there, I’d spend my whole day tying on new jigs,” he said. “Besides, unless the current’s real strong, I think the fish hold off the bridge a little bit.

“I want my bait to fall down right at the base of the first (stanchion).”

Weinstein let the lure settle, and when it was clear the 1/2-ounce jighead had taken it all the way to the bottom, he engaged the reel and hopped the lure back to the boat.

He repeated the motion until he had worked all the sets of stanchions all the way to the south shore, but had only one bite to show for his efforts.

“I’m going to head for Highway 11,” he said. “I didn’t catch many there yesterday, but they were nice.”

Just like at the Trestles, Weinstein makes no attempt to get his lure under the Highway 11 bridge, but it has nothing to do with potential snags along the waterbottom.

“I monitor my depth-finder all the time,” he said. “Ten feet off the Highway 11 bridge, the water’s 14 feet deep. Thirty feet off the bridge, the water’s 8 feet deep. The trout hang along the edge of that channel. I get a lot of my hits a good ways off the bridge when I’m fishing Highway 11.”

But on this day, the fish were tough to come by. A quick pass along the bridge resulted in two respectable trout — not enough action for Weinstein, so he picked up and motored for the jettied shoreline that runs between Little Woods and South Point.

“It’s a little early in the year to be in here,” he said. “The fish don’t usually get thick in here until late April or May, but we might be able to get a few early ones.”

The shoreline is about as unfishy looking as any in Louisiana — behind the rock jetty is a high levee that protects Interstate-10 from storm flooding — but it consistently holds fish, Weinstein said, and has for as long as he’s been fishing the lake.

“After Hurricane Betsy, they put in this levee, and they dug the mud (for the levee) right out of the lake, so you had this deep channel running all along the shoreline,” Weinstein said. “We’d come in here in April and May and just kill the fish. We’d run here from Seabrook, and we’d fill up boxes (with speckled trout).”

Storms, strong currents and time have conspired to fill in the channel, but the water off the shoreline here is still deeper than in most other parts of the lake, and that, according to Weinstein, is the key to its productivity.

“Anywhere in the lake, if you want to find fish, you need to find the deepest water you can as close to the shore as possible,” he said.

Within 50 yards of the shoreline between Little Woods and South Point today, the water is 8 feet deep.

“But from (Little Woods) on, you have to go a mile or mile and a half out to get into 8-foot-deep water,” Weinstein said.

But even with the deeper water between Little Woods and South Point, the fish are too spread out to fish them effectively by casting, so Weinstein and other lake veterans troll the area.

Weinstein typically uses four rods, and will troll any combination of soft-plastics, Rat-L-Traps and MirrOlure 52Ms.

Unlike many trollers, he doesn’t bother with lead-core line, relying instead on long initial casts to get his baits to the bottom. He also trolls as slowly as possible, frequently bumping his motor in and out of gear.

He watches his depth-finder constantly — keeping his boat in 8 feet of water — and has his anchor within arm’s reach.

“If three or four rods go off, the anchor goes over,” he explained. “Then I sit there and fish the school. A lot of times I’ll limit out without having to move the boat again.”

More typically, though, he’ll catch a few out of the school before it wanders off. Then he’ll resume the troll in order to relocate that school or find another.

But on this day, Weinstein’s guess that it was too early in the year proved true. After 30 minutes of trolling, the baits came back to the boat fishless.

“We’ll just have to go back to the bridges and see what we can do,” he said.

Following the same track that had given up two trout earlier in the afternoon, Weinstein made another pass on Highway 11.

But that one proved even less fruitful, delivering only a 2-pound flounder.

Weinstein, however, noticed a change in the conditions.

“The tide has quit. It’s going to be rising soon; let’s go to the Trestles,” he said while moving behind his console.

A quick run placed the Skeeter on the west side of the train bridge, between it and the sun, which was beginning to fade like a cheap paint job.

“We don’t have long left now,” Weinstein said. “I wish that tide had turned a little sooner.”

Weinstein soon showed why.

Thirty minutes after the tide change, the sun had melted into the horizon, the mosquito swarms had arisen from the Bayou Sauvage marsh, and 17 more speckled trout had been added to the ice chest.

It was a fast flurry that demonstrated the potential of the lake, a fishery that was the strongest in the state half a century ago.

Weinstein feels Pontchartrain is on the cusp of regaining its past glory.

“It’s close,” he said. “You hear all this talk now about how good Calcasieu is. Four or five years from now, Lake Pontchartrain will be better than Calcasieu.”

Weinstein feels he has the evidence to back up his bold prediction.

Primarily, the lake gets cleaner by the year, according to tests conducted weekly by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. One of the biggest reasons is the cessation of shell dredging in the lake.

Shell-dredging operations began in 1933, but were limited for many years by inefficient gear and light demand. Entrepreneurs became more adept at harvesting the clam shells just as demand was increasing in the 1970s and ’80s.

Anglers and environmentalists decried the practice because, while the shells were harvested, the black sludge that was sucked up with them was pumped back into the lake. The water stayed in a constant state of turbidity.

Even more troubling for the long-run, the clam shells had provided an important benthic base for the marine life in the lake, and with their extraction, the fisheries were being negatively impacted.

After a never-ending stream of complaints, shell-dredging was banned in Lake Pontchartrain in 1990.

Although the water began to appear clearer almost immediately, the proverbial horse was already out of the barn. With the loss of bottom structure, the entire food chain had collapsed for enormous sections of the lake.

For the decade of the ’90s fishing was poor to fair in Lake Pontchartrain, but it seemed to get better every year, thanks in no small measure to education about point-source pollution as well as improvements to sewage treatment facilities on both sides of the lake.

But also, the clams, those wonderful filter feeders known to scientists as Rangia cuneata, began a comeback that continues to this day.

In fact, a 1998 study by the United States Geological Survey found clam concentrations to be even higher than they were in 1954.

Weinstein has seen the evidence in recent years.

“If you drop your anchor, especially along South Point, when you pull it up it’ll be full of mud clams,” he said.

Will the fishing also again get to 1950-era levels? Weinstein thinks so, and even if it doesn’t, it’s pretty close now.

“I follow the (speckled trout) in one big circle from April through October,” he said. “There’s not one month in that time when the fishing isn’t great.”

Weinstein’s circle takes him from the bridges in March and April to the shoreline between South Point and Little Woods in April and May to Seabrook in June and July back to the South Point shoreline in August and September and the bridges in September and October.

Some nice bycatch along the way are flounder at the bridges and massive schools of redfish under diving birds along the shoreline between South Point and Little Woods.

But it’s the trout that Weinstein follows on their circle. The action’s starting now, and it won’t quit until little gremlins are knocking on his door asking for treats.

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.