Reds on the Rocks

When the weather is cold and winds are contrary, this Lafitte hotspot reaches its prime.

I hope it’s going to be cold, with a good stiff wind blowing from the northwest,” Papa Joe Bush said, about the fishing trip I planned. “Thanks a heap,” I replied, knowing that such conditions spelled doom to almost any trip anywhere in Southeast Louisiana.

That’s the kind of remark I’d expect from one of my fishing buddies, if they knew I was going fishing without them. They’d pronounce it as some sort of curse or gris-gris on my trip.

“Oh yeah, going without me are you? Well, gris-gris on your trip. I hope the conditions stink. I hope you bomb!”

Maybe they don’t say it exactly like that, but you get the gist. And maybe they don’t really mean it. Then again, maybe they do.

Anyway, it was the last thing I expected from Bush, not just because he is such an amicable friend, but because he was taking me on this trip!

I mean, who expects to hear, “Yeah, let’s go fishing, and I hope the conditions are awful.”

But that’s what he said.

“I really mean it,” he explained. “The rocks where I’m going to take you really turn on when the conditions are lousy. Cold weather, hard winds from the north or northwest, low tides — that’s perfect!” he said.

It looked like Papa Joe got his wish. Conditions were very chilly, if not downright cold, as I made my way to Bush’s Camp in Lafitte.

Lafitte didn’t suffer as badly from Hurricane Katrina as some other areas did. There was significant damage to roofs from howling winds and falling trees, but the water levels actually dropped during Katrina, sparing them from the devastating floods suffered on the east bank.

Homes and businesses were mostly spared, and the marinas, though damaged, were able to reopen within a short time.

Then Hurricane Rita blew by, sending 7 to 12 feet of water everywhere below the Goose Bayou Bridge.

Many are struggling to rebuild, and numerous businesses, including Jan’s Restaurant (one of my favorite eateries), is still unable to reopen.

The marinas, battered again, reopened within a short time. Backdowns reopened almost immediately. Those with hoists reopened when electricity was restored and cleanup was completed. Fuel, ice and other accessories were available again soon after the storms, but almost all the boat storage sheds were blown apart. Progress is being made to rebuild those, too, and by the time this goes to press, some sheds may even be available.

I loaded my gear into Bush’s 24-foot Sea Pro, and after a quick breakfast of homemade biscuits and coffee, we bundled up and pointed the big bay boat down the Barataria Waterway toward our destination, Bay L’Ours.

“The bank all along the west side of Bay L’Ours was shored up with rocks several years ago for erosion control,” Bush said. “They made some cuts to allow for drainage from the marsh, but they didn’t follow up by pumping sand behind the rocks. So over time, the bank eroded, leaving the rocks sitting a good distance away from the shoreline they were supposed to protect.

“Plus, the rocks sank in some places, and an unwary boater might not even see them submerged just under the surface, which makes for a hazardous situation.

“So I don’t know if the rocks accomplished much as far as erosion goes, but they certainly have attracted redfish, and winter is the best time of all to fish them.”

After a bone-chilling ride, we entered Bay L’Ours, and I could see several sections of the rocks Bush was talking about. Bush idled the boat around one set of the rocks and parked the bow on the shallow shoreline. The tide was already low, and still falling at a steady rate.

The water, though not ugly, had a definite stain to it. The sky was grey with a winter haze; the temperature was high 30s to low 40s, and the wind was the nasty, wet kind that likes to bite you, even under your thermals.

“Well,” I thought to myself, “Papa Joe wanted a rotten day for fishing, and it sure seems he got his wish.”

I pulled off my gloves to ready my tackle, and wished somebody somewhere would invent a pair of gloves just for fishermen. Gloves that would keep your hands warm and dry, and still allow you the dexterity to tie lines without removing them.

I was wondering what color plastic Bush preferred to use here under these conditions when he pulled out his ultra-secret weapon. He swore me to absolute secrecy, so after you read this, tear out this page and swallow it.

“This is a sure-fire guarantee that you will catch fish,” he said, waving something briefly in the air. This was the voice of experience speaking and there was the certainty of absolute conviction in his voice.

“OK, what is it?” I asked. “Give it to me.”

And he placed in my hand … a dead shrimp.

“This is your ultra-secret weapon?”

“Just put it on a jig-hook. You don’t even need a plastic,” he said.

Bush slid a big, dead shrimp onto his hook, and made a cast toward the rocks.

“There’s a deep hole behind those rocks, and whenever the temperature drops, the fish huddle together down in there. Just cast toward the rocks, let the bait settle to the bottom, and keep your line tight,” he instructed.

I chose to fish plastics instead. I figured if they’ll bite an ugly grey wad of shrimp on a hook, they couldn’t resist one of my attractive baits. I have soft plastics in all shapes, sizes and colors — flecked, glittered and in hologram, straight-tailed, double-tailed, paddle-tailed, whale-tailed and curly-tailed, all guaranteed to inflict great damage to the redfish population.

I made my cast, placing an elongated glow/chartreuse plastic cocaho right beside Bush’s wad of lifeless shrimp. I reeled in just enough to keep the line tight as it settled to the bottom, and once it settled, I lifted the rod tip just enough to get a feel of the bait bouncing on the bottom. I wanted to be able to distinguish what was bottom from what might be a bite. I didn’t have to wait long before — WHAM!

But it wasn’t my rod that bent, it was Bush’s. He had a redfish on, and though it tried to fight, it was no match for the Okuma rod and reel in Bush’s hands.

The redfish turned out to be an inch or so over the legal size, so Bush dropped him in the box, hoping he wouldn’t get lonely in there. He re-baited, and cast right back into the same spot near the rocks.

My bait had drifted out of the strike zone, so I reeled in to cast again. Before my bait even hit the water — WHAM! — Bush had another one! This fish appeared to be about the same size as the first, and it too, went on ice.

I made half a dozen casts, changed baits and made half a dozen more, and didn’t get as much as a bump.

Papa Joe was casting dead shrimp on a plain jig-hook, and getting hit every cast.

Now, I may be stubborn, but I’m not stupid. On my next cast, there was a wad of dead shrimp “tipping” my soft plastic lure. Once it settled to the bottom — WHAM — it was my rod that bent double.

Bush says even redfish are affected by the bitter cold, and baits they’d usually pounce on at other times of the year — like gold spoons, spinners and soft plastics — they ignore in the colder months.

“They get lethargic in the dead of winter, just like trout. But reds will still bite if you soak a dead bait right in front of them,” he said. “The bait’s not moving, so they don’t have to expel any energy to chase it, and the dead bait just sits there on the bottom, exuding that shrimp odor that obviously the redfish can smell. Get it in front of them, and let it sit there; they’ll take it.”

It’s funny because I had just talked to Sid Bourgeois, over at Joe’s Landing (504-689-4304), and he said the same thing.

“We find that redfish always bite better on dead shrimp on those colder winter days,” he said. “Look at the big reds you catch in the dead of winter. Their underside is almost always crawling with those little leeches. They get covered with them from sitting dormant on the bottom in the cold weather.

“They just do not feed aggressively in the cold, and sometimes, when they do bite, they tend to nibble at your bait, rather than inhale it like they usually do. And they take it down slowly, more like a catfish than a redfish. If they get a taste of plastic, they’ll spit it out.

“Our experience has been that you need that shrimp stink to really get on the redfish action in the dead of winter. Now, if the weather is warm, then they’ll hit plastics and even spoons, because they’re feeding more aggressively.”

Bush and I sat in that one spot, and boated at least 40 redfish. No, we didn’t keep that many; we kept 10. But I’m sure that if we had stayed, we could have caught that many more.

“It’s incredible that that many fish can be all stacked up in one small hole,” Bush said.

I had to agree. Incredible! What was also incredible was the fact that I kept trying to catch fish on plastic. I’d catch a few by tipping my bait with shrimp, but then I’d try to nail one without tipping it. I succeeded once.

The rest of the time, I only caught a fish if I had a dead shrimp on my hook.

“Of all the fish that are caught here in the dead of winter, 90 percent will be caught with dead shrimp,” Bush said.

He didn’t have to convince me. I’m a believer.

It was time to go do some scouting, but we soon realized that the hard falling tide had left us almost high and dry, stuck on the bank in the mud. It took some finesse, and an outboard that didn’t mind eating mud, but Bush managed to maneuver us off the mud flat and back into navigable water.

Good thing. I was in no mood to spend a cold night in an open boat in the marsh, and I made a mental note to be especially careful where I anchor on a hard falling tide.

“On milder days, you’ll see anglers either anchored or drifting and trolling in front of the rocks, fishing for specks under a popping cork or tightlining,” Bush said, pointing to the long line of rocks along the western shoreline as we made our way through Bay L’Ours. “These rocks attract all kinds of fish, and the specks will hit soft plastics.”

There are more rocks on the west side of Little Lake, just north of the rocks in Bay L’Ours, and Bush says they are just as productive.

Besides the rocks, redfish will congregate at the Cloverly Canals, the Exxon Canals and the Texaco Canals in the winter months, and dead shrimp fished on the bottom, either under a Carolina rig or just strung on a plain jighead, is the bait of choice.

“You just have to be careful, because many of the canals in the different systems have silted in,” Bush said. “But the ones that didn’t silt in are holding fish.”

We made a pass through the Cloverly Canals, and tossed some plastics, hoping to find a few specks. But nada, not a single speck showed up on that chilly day. All we could catch was more of those pesky redfish.

Bush was right. The colder the weather and the lower the tide, the easier it is to catch those redfish.

One last note: If we happen to get some moderate temperatures, and especially if it extends over several days, don’t fret. The reds will still be there; they’ll just fan out over the flats and hunt along the ledges in the very same areas.

An added bonus is that then the specks will really turn on also. Fish the front of the rocks with soft plastics under a popping cork. Or you might want to try the Pen and Lake Salvador, where, reports are, the trout action has been excellent.

Capt. Papa Joe Bush can be reached at (504) 392-4409.

About Rusty Tardo 370 Articles
Rusty Tardo grew up in St. Bernard fishing the waters of Delacroix, Hopedale and Shell Beach. He and his wife, Diane, have been married over 40 years and live in Kenner.