Ship Shoal Slammers

These big trout will bloody your knuckles, giving you sweet wounds of victory.

Three anglers admired the all-too-uncommon spectacle of a gently rolling half-foot open Gulf swell at the same time they readied their long Carolina-rigged leaders in anticipation for the captain to give the OK to drop baits to the bottom. The targeted production platform had transformed from a faraway hope seven miles to the south to the enormous feat of engineering now mere feet from the boat. Warm sea water gently lapped at the steel beams in between warning beacons.

The water was a beautiful shade, with blue having mostly taken over green a few miles to the north and offering a mesmerizing 10 feet of visibility to the crew of fishermen used to the dirty green shade germane to inshore fishing in Louisiana. Spadefish up to 5 pounds greeted the vessel with a curious swarm, and the order was given.

“Let it drop straight down all the way to the bottom, and bring it up a few cranks after it’s hit,” instructed the captain, taking advantage of the slight current and gently maneuvering the boat around the corner of the platform of his choice.

One-ounce lead sinkers hurried the 40-pound leaders and wiggling baits to the bottom, and didn’t have to wait long for action.

“There’s one,” said the first of the anglers to reach bottom.

The fish bent the medium action rod into a tight U as it dug for the bottom. The angler’s aggressive rod-handling soon had the fish on its way topside, and the other three participants eagerly eyed the first hook-up for ID.

“That’s what we’re looking for,” said the captain, as the silvery fish tiredly shook its head as it appeared from the cool shadow of the platform.

“‘Bout a two and a half. Nice trout,” he grunted as he scooped the fish with the long handled net and dumped it free of a tangle onto the boat’s floor. The dull thud of the fish’s solid torso and subsequent rhythmic tail beating was music to our ears.

White trout are a frequent incidental catch during offshore bottom fishing trips, but this fish had the prominent black dots running the length of its body and the stunning iridescent purple when turned at the right angle in the sun, not to mention the bright yellow hue dominating the inside of its mouth. A 5/0 kahle hook was popped from the tough cartilage in the corner of its mouth. The depth finder read 26 feet.

Speckled trout anglers are used to casting baits to likely spots, often with little regard for accuracy. Distance from the boat is seen as the most important factor so that the fish aren’t spooked, though at some point, water depth allows that fishermen may position themselves directly over a concentration and get into a snapper state of mind.

The numerous oil and gas structures south of the typical speckled trout hotspots to the west of Raccoon Point are an ideal location to “go vertical” and give yourself a chance at the trout of a lifetime when the right day with the right bait presents itself.

Capt. Bill Lake goosed the trolling motor, bringing the 23-foot Kenner close enough to the piling to touch, and instructed another drop. This time there was a double hook-up, but disappointment on both ends as a pair of 3-pound undesirables took turns showing off their aerial acumen.

“That’s not a good sign,” he said, helping rid Rob Radke from the violently snapping bluefish while his partner fished the hook from the slime-coated and exceptionally foul-smelling ladyfish. Both leaders were frayed badly, and the box of hooks on the console received its first assault.

“I usually fish the Blue Point rigs (Ship Shoal 33) out of Morgan City, but there’s something about this croaker fishing over here,” said Radke. “It’s just about my favorite way to trout fish.”

“You will go through some hooks out here,” said Lake as he pointed the trolling motor in the direction of the corner to the south. “They’ve got everything out here. Sharks, bluefish, mackerel, ladyfish, they all tear up tackle in one way or another.”

Bull redfish are another frequent catch at the rigs, which include Ship Shoal 70, 84 and the ancient Ship Shoal Lighthouse. Per federal regulations, these fish must be released.

The next corner produced a few nice trout, though none of the 4-pound-plus fish making the area a favorite for Lake. Bayou DuLarge/Cocodrie is a superb place for numbers of trout up to 3 pounds, but the area takes a decided backseat to other destinations relative to catches of truly big fish. These rigs tip the odds in anglers’ favor, though it’s certainly no guarantee.

“These rigs give up a lot of big fish, but there are plenty of days where it’s this grade of fish, the 2- to 3-pounders,” said Lake. “But there’s always the possibility of that 7-pounder, which around here is a trout of a lifetime.”

The next platform served up the kind of action making the long boat ride worth it. Almost as soon as a croaker reached the bottom, a hungry trout would pounce. Lake tied up to the hot corner and manned the net as fish after fish was dragged up from the depths. I had inquired about artificials earlier, and gave them a try as the frenzy continued.

“I don’t know what it is, but these fish won’t take anything other than a natural bait for anything in the world,” Lake had said earlier, and it was proving true. Repeated casts came up empty as 18- to 22-inch specks tore into our live bait supply.

Capt. Alex Gravois had provided us with the bait earlier in the morning at the Enstar platform en route from Cocodrie with his charter, and a good many baits had been used by the time the frenzy ended.

That, combined with a similar run of smaller fish at Enstar and all of the hardheads, undesirables and incidental catches, ran our supplies into a precarious situation: Do we make the long run back north for more bait, burning time and knowing that there was a chance that none was available, or make due with what we had?

The decision was made to conserve as best we could and let the chips fall where they may.

“Normally, 200 croakers will get you sixty or seventy trout,” said Lake.

The trawler Tracey Macey is usually situated in the Caillou Boca area northeast of Last Island, and is licensed for bait sale, the likes of which is absolutely essential for any trout not considered school size.

“The second week of June is when I really start focusing on the bigger trout (to the south and west),” said Lake. “For those fish, you’ve absolutely got to have croakers.”

The Tracey Macey is a good option for weekend anglers, but Lake says he often takes off the middle of the week to replenish his supplies. Other options for bait call for “cold calling” trawlers as they pick up their nets. Lake says that while it can be intimidating to approach a large vessel, many are happy to see anglers and have not become nearly as jaded as those in the Florida Keys who now demand cash for a bucket of dead by-catch.

“Lots of them just want some beer, a loaf of bread or even medicine,” said Lake. “I had a guy tell me one time, ‘You bring me a six-pack and some Benadryl, and I’ll set you up with bait for a week.’”

Most trawlers, Lake says, make two-hour pulls and time them so that they pull up their nets at sunrise, making an exchange possible.

Lake uses leaders specially made by John Eschette for croaker fishing, made up of 50-pound Triple Fish line and 5/0 kahle hooks. The beefy terminal gear is necessary in dealing with all of what the rigs offer. Weights, of course, vary depending upon the current, which Lake has found to be darn near impossible to predict.

“I’ve tried everything (to predict the current),” he said. “I’ve also found that the current can be ripping to the point where you can’t fish it at one rig and you go to another one and it’s fine. If you have to use more than 1 ½ ounces to get to the bottom, there’s usually just bull reds and few, if any, trout.

“I’ve been out there with a 2-foot tide — and this goes for the Picketts (SS 26) and 28 (a.k.a. Mardi Gras rigs) — and it’s been fine. And I’ve been out there with .6 tide, and it will be ripping so hard that you can’t fish it.”

The next destination was the 145-year-old Ship Shoal Lighthouse. Situated 17 miles due south of Grand Bayou DuLarge, it serves as an ideal fish attractor, sitting in 12 to 14 feet and surrounded by deeper water as well as its obvious draw as an artificial reef.

Shrubs — whose seeds were likely brought to the structure by birds — grow on the structure, providing a fascinating contrast to the ancient, 125-foot rusting edifice.

We anchored on the east side of the lighthouse, and chose this time to cast toward it. Lake explained that the relatively shallow water necessitated a more stealthy approach than around the deeper rigs.

“This is more like fishing the structures closer in,” said Lake.

But the similarities to the structures such as Ship Shoal 26 and 33 — besides being an outstanding speckled trout producer — end there. The proximity to deeper, clearer water brings in species such as mackerel, bluefish and everybody’s favorite, cobia.

“There are times, especially about midway through July, that the lemonfish get so thick out there that you have to get away from them,” Lake said.

Specks were few on this side of the structure, but small lemonfish eagerly attacked our small live baits, and everybody felt the pain of tossing back such a fine slab of meat. As if taking their cue from the trout, the small cobia ignored our jigs.

Sharks also began making their presence known on the eastern side, and claimed a few of the trout we managed to tempt. A renewed burst of energy as the trout neared the boat was a sure tip off that a toothy critter was nearby, and several trout heads were hustled aboard and secured in the boat instead of being thrown back.

“You don’t want to give those things any more incentive to get excited out there,” said Lake.

A quick move to the other side of the structure proved to be a wise one, seemingly giving the sharks and sublegal lemonfish the head shake and putting us into position for another solid run of thick specks.

“Sometimes the angle is very important. We’re not but about a cast or so away from where we were fishing at first,” said Lake, adding that the water clarity was more than enough for the fish to find the baits and that nobody else was drawing the fish away from our boat.

There was no doubt, however, that the fish were relating to something on the west side of the structure. Fan casts located a sweet spot not even necessarily situated near the base of the structure, and for the most part the fish were seemingly huddled in a random place on the sandy bottom.

The specks, lemonfish and sharks further depleted our croaker supply, but Lake still had one last card to play at a nearby platform. Lake says that he doesn’t even bother making the run to these far structures if he’s unable to locate croakers.

“The croaker is a natural food out there. The (cocaho) minnow isn’t, and the water is often crystal clear out there,” said Lake. “I’ve been out there enough where there was another boat at the lighthouse right next to me with minnows and catching nothing but trash fish.”

Our final stop was one to remember. At a rig just west of the lighthouse, it was back to vertical fishing. The trout started slowly, but quickly grew into a frenzy, slamming croakers the second they reached the strike zone.

Big blacktip sharks patrolled the rig as well, running off with our rigs at lightning speed before taking to the air in a spectacle that would rival any tarpon.

With precious few live baits left, everybody began using croakers as long as they had the slightest wiggle left in them. The trout didn’t mind a bit, and even eagerly gulped dead baits sent to the bottom. Still, even the most realistic looking artificial bait was completely ignored in the clear water, and once the bait was gone, so was the action.

It all has to come together, but the right bait, plenty of it and a little luck with the current can put you on big numbers of beautiful trout. At the same time, trout anglers can satisfy that bottom-fishing urge and simply get into a snapper state of mind.