A whole new trend is changing the way many anglers fish reds in South Louisiana.
Don’t say you weren’t warned. There’s a new “bug” going around to add to our rapidly growing list of concerns: mad cow, chicken flu, anthrax, smallpox, legionnaires, AIDS, SARS…. and now you can add to that “sight-cast mania.” I warn you, it’s contagious, highly addictive, euphoria-inducing, rapidly spreading and heading in your direction.
And as a direct result of this “fever,” you can expect to see some mighty strange craft plying our Louisiana waters in the months and years ahead. Designed specifically to fight off the mania, you’ll see barge-like flats boats that will float in 8 to 12 inches of water. Boats without freeboard. Boats with at least one and sometimes two platforms on the deck. Boats that could never ply outside waters. Boats that were designed with one purpose and one only: to take their owners into the skinniest water possible, and enable them to sight-cast to redfish.
But again, I warn you — if you yield to the mania, you’ll likely get hooked. I should know because, well, that’s the rest of my story.
The mania started innocently enough, with a simple phone call from an old friend. Capt. Charlie Thomason of Bayou Charters (504-278-FISH) invited me out on a redfish trip. But this would be a slightly different kind of trip, Thomason said, because we were going to fish the way the tournament anglers fish on the Redfish Tour.
“Cool,” I said, thinking all along, what could possibly be different about fishing for reds?
I mean, let’s face it — reds are like living vacuum cleaners. Throw something along a bank or over a reef, and if they’re anywhere near the vicinity, they’ll inhale it. Spoons, beetle-spins, soft plastics, crankbaits, topwaters, live minnows, crab, cigarette butts…. the bronze-backs aren’t particularly finicky. Fish along a shoreline, a grassline, a reef… how can you vary that? What could be different?
But the moment I saw the platform mounted on the front deck of Thomason’s center-console Triton, I knew this trip would indeed be different.
After we stowed our gear aboard, Thomason gunned the eerily quiet 225-horsepower Honda four-stroke, and the two of us headed toward some Hopedale-area ponds.
“March is perfect for this kind of fishing,” Thomason said, displaying his usual enthusiasm, as we made the ride out. “The weather is warming, water temperatures begin to rise, and big schools of redfish begin moving into the shallow ponds.
“That’s where a lot of the baitfish activity will be this month. Those ponds warm up fast, and they usually have some grass providing forage and cover for baitfish, small mullet, pogies, small crabs, minnows… they’ll all congregate in there, and the redfish will swarm in to feed on them.
“Redfish will seek out the skinniest water possible… sometimes water so shallow that their whole back is exposed above the surface. That’s where they’ll feed, and that’s where they’ll stay from now through April.”
Ponds to look for
Thomason says several factors make up the ideal pond for sight-casting.
One, it’s located just off a main bayou. Find a major bayou that connects to a lake or bay, and look for ponds that connect to it.
Two, look for a pond with only one way in and out, like a “dead-end” pond. They don’t get as much traffic, and the water in such ponds tends to stay cleaner. And to spot the redfish, you absolutely have to have clean water.
Three, try to find a pond with a ditch, a drain or a trenasse of some kind on the opposite side from the entrance. That’s where the redfish will gang up, Thomason said.
We followed a meandering path that I know Thomason intentionally chose to try to confuse me, and having succeeded, he pulled us up to one of his favorite ponds. He cut the outboard at the entrance and dropped the trolling motor over to ease us in as quietly as possible.
“Stealth is one of the key factors if you are going to fish successfully in these shallow ponds,” Thomason said. “I didn’t realize just how important it was until I started fishing the Redfish Tour and started sight-casting. Then I could actually see how quickly the fish spook in very shallow water.
“Almost any sound can scatter them. Start the outboard, and they’re gone. Actually, I try to drift into the ponds, using the trolling motor as little as possible, because not only does the trolling motor make noise, but it stirs up the bottom and makes the water cloudy.
“In Florida and Texas, they either drift or push-pole into position, but their waters have a sand bottom, which is a much firmer bottom than ours. In this area, the push-pole sinks into the muddy bottom and stirs up the silt. So we either troll in as quietly as possible or drift.
“And once you sight the fish, you should anchor as quietly as possible. I equipped my boat with that new Power Pole anchoring system. It works perfectly in these ponds, and it’s exceptionally quiet.
“Or you could use a Cajun anchor. But I’d advise against a standard-type anchor with a chain and rope because they’re too noisy and they stir up the bottom too much for this kind of fishing.”
We half-drifted, half-trolled across the pond, and Thomason mounted the casting platform on the front deck as we neared the drain on the opposite end.
From his vantage point 4 feet above the deck, Thomason could look into the water and see clearly under the surface.
He started pointing to redfish all around us, and I made a quick cast with a gold weedless spoon toward the first area he pointed. I made several casts, fanning out with each one, but found no takers. Thomason was tossing a Salt Water Assassin Salty Craw, and got nailed on his second cast.
Basically, Thomason only uses three baits in the ponds: a ¼-ounce weedless gold spoon; the Salt Water Assassin Salty Craw on a ¼-ounce or a 3/8-ounce jig or a MirrOlure Top Pup or Top Dog Jr.
“The key is to present the bait in such a way that it acts like a baitfish would,” he said. “When you are standing on the platform, you can see the fish and see what direction they’re facing. Throw your bait so that it swims across the vision of the fish, and not directly toward it. No baitfish would swim directly toward the mouth of a predator.
“And when you cast, cast far enough in front of the fish so you don’t spook it. Spoons and topwater baits crashing onto the surface right beside them can startle them and send them packing.”
Thomason caught several more nice-sized redfish from the casting platform while I was casting blindly, hoping for a hookup. I did get a solid thump, but the fish wouldn’t commit.
Then we exchanged positions and a whole new horizon opened before me. I could see! I could see under the surface! I saw redfish almost all around us! Some spooked when they saw us and zipped away in a flash. But many simply poked around, completely oblivious to our presence.
I tossed my spoon too close to the nearest fish, and it spooked. The next one made an initial lunge at my spoon and then stopped abruptly, like it changed its mind in mid-strike.
I figured I was retrieving too fast and slowed down for the next one, and that made the difference. Now it was Thomason’s turn to net a couple nice fish for me.
We kept several fish in the 22- to 25-inch size for the grill, but the majority of fish were over 27 inches, and we released them to fight again another day.
All the while we fished the redfish moved around, keeping us busy drifting and occasionally trolling to stay on them. Sometimes the trolling motor spooked them, but they usually didn’t run very far. It was incredible to actually watch the fish swim toward my bait, sometimes ignoring it, sometimes thumping at it without hooking themselves, but other times flashing toward it with tremendous speed and inhaling it in a split second of time. Your adrenaline gets to pumping to the degree that you start responding to the sight of them attacking your bait, and you have to be careful not to set the hook before they actually hit it.
The bare necessities
Thomason says if you want to get in on this sight-casting craze, you’ll need three basic ingredients:
1) An elevated platform to stand on. Three to 4 feet above your deck is enough to give you a bird’s eye view, Thomason said. The one he uses is professionally made for that application, and is rugged and sturdy enough to stand on without trepidation.
Thomason says if you can’t spring for one of those, you could simply stand on a sturdy ice chest, but be careful not to topple over.
I have also seen other improvisations recently. I saw one angler standing on a chair, and another one standing on a utility-type step ladder, the kind with only two or three steps. These methods have inherent dangers, and obviously if you choose to try them, you do so at your own risk.
2) A good pair of polarized sunglasses. Thomason recommends Costa Del Mar, H2Optics, Fathom or any other quality brand. The polarized lenses cut through the surface glare, and allow the wearer to see into the water, a necessity for sight-casting, he said.
3) Patience! This is not a hurry-up and get started method of fishing, Thomason said. It’s different from what we’re used to. This is a sneak attack. A stealth technique. Quiet is the name of this game, and to make a silent approach to the fishing spot takes time and patience. You drift, you troll, you study the surface for unnatural ripples or that tell-tale “V” wake, you search for baitfish activity, and when you spot redfish, it’s usually not just one or two, but a whole school. The school we were on must have consisted of a hundred fish or more, and Thomason said he calculated it to be over 200. I didn’t doubt it for a second.
Up until this point on our trip we had the pond entirely to ourselves. It was a secluded, no-traffic area, and we sight-cast all morning to dozens and dozens of hefty reds. But all that quickly ended with the arrival of a small flatboat.
Thomason cringed when the small craft turned into our pond and zipped straight across with its little 25-horse outboard cranked wide open. Even though the intruder was far away from our space, I watched the redfish vanish before my eyes, leaving muddy trails heading away in all directions. I witnessed first-hand what noise will do to redfish in very shallow water. The boat ran right up to the very same drain we started at, and splashed a heavy anchor overboard.
The pond had been so productive all morning, and so chock-a-block with redfish, that Thomason was reluctant to leave it. He decided to give the area about 15 minutes for the silt and the fish to settle down before we moved on.
Sure enough, after about a quarter-hour, we could see bottom again, and we began sight-casting to redfish all around us. But as soon as the action started, the small flatboat cranked up their engine, pulled up their anchor, banging chain and metal against their tin sides, turned around and ran out of the pond just as fast as they ran in a few short minutes before.
Naturally, the fish we were on scattered like ducks running from birdshot.
Thomason shook his head.
“Think about this,” he said. “They left a pond with hundreds of hungry redfish in it. They fished for 15 minutes, and didn’t catch a single fish. They spooked every fish in this pond. Now they’re wondering where the redfish are and why they’re not biting, and trying to decide where to fish next. The reds are all over the place! We can see them! But if you want to catch them, you have to be quiet.”
Since we had a nice box of fish for the grill, we decided to call it a day, and Thomason headed the big Triton toward home. It had been a memorable and enlightening trip, the kind you remember for a long, long time.
I called Capt. Eric Taylor of Titusville, Fla., who fishes alongside Thomason in the Redfish Tournament. Sight-fishing is the only kind of fishing he does, and he’s been doing it since he was a child. I asked him to compare Florida fishing to ours.
“No comparison,” he answered without hesitation. “They advertise my home waters around Titusville as the ‘Redfish Capitol of the World.’ But I’m embarrassed to tell you, on a good day, we catch six or seven redfish.
“On the other hand, I spent three hours sight-casting in Venice, La., not long ago, and we caught 127 redfish. In three hours! There is no contest, no comparison, and nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
“You guys have the redfish capitol of the world, and the speckled trout capitol of the world, and the offshore capitol…”
WARNING: Sight-cast mania has been entrenched in Florida and Texas for quite awhile, and it’s spreading all along the Gulf Coast and up along the East Coast states. Now it’s moving into Sportsman’s Paradise, and finding plenty of anglers willing and eager to give it a try.
But be forewarned: It is highly addictive, and it can become a very expensive habit. Lord help me! I can’t afford another addiction!
Anybody know the going price for a flats boat?
Capt. Charlie Thomason’s Bayou Charters can be reached at (504) 278-FISH.