Summer Trout in Winter

Even though the temperatures get cold, the trout don’t leave East Timbalier Island

At the entrance of the open water, all thoughts and hope of a pleasant ride across the open water disappeared like last summer’s submerged oyster-grass islands. A strong will quickly gave in to an unmistakable force.

Capt. Chad Billiot and I both knew that the sweeping, randomly sized and shaped areas of densely packed ripples in the lee shore were more meaningful to the ride ahead than any mangrove bush or even a flag could foretell.

Our destination was 25 minutes to the south, and the northerly wind was going to make it interesting to say the least. The good news was that East Timbalier Island’s land mass would protect us from the bay’s swells. The bad news was that only a shrinking line of boulders would buffer an angry Gulf of Mexico, and no such protection was available en route.

Late winter and early spring are often times when speckled trout anglers concede that it’s best to pack it in for a few months and renew their quest when the last of the tax returns are filed.

There are, of course, exceptions, and one of them is the huge pile of rocks and sand known as East Timbalier Island. Fortified many years ago by man and whose contours are now governed by nature’s engineering response, the island not only holds fish during the warm weather season, but plenty of fish during the cold months as well.

“There a lot of fish that are caught out there during a time when a lot of things around here are pretty slow,” said Bobby Gros of Bobby Lynn’s Marina in Leeville. “Many people know that it’s a good place in the summer, but the trout and redfish fishing is great for those who can get out there.

“The fishing has actually gotten a lot worse the past five or six years.”

Billiot explained that while the island remains one of the best options for mid winter and early spring fishing for speckled trout that can approach 8 pounds, the constant pounding on the rocks has caused many to sink out of effectiveness.

“Every year it’s a different place,” said Billiot, who owns Marsh Rat Guide Service (985-632-8156). “Storms push these rocks around so much and the erosion is such that there’s less and less protection for the bait.”

The outside of the Gulf-side wall of rocks has been a favorite haunt of summertime anglers for years, but in the winter, colder water and rough weather necessitate fishing the relatively protected cove in between the island’s largely rip-rapped land mass and the wall of boulders bordering the Gulf itself.

While the Gulf’s pounding hampers the early spring mid-range pattern Billiot has developed over his many years of fishing the island, it’s actually helped create plenty of deep cover for the cold months when sportsmen decide on the long trip to the island.

“There are holes inside the rocks that are probably 20 feet deep and plenty of others that are 12 feet or more,” said Billiot. “The more current that is allowed in, the deeper the hole is carved out.”

That makes 3/8-ounce jigheads a mainstay for Billiot in the winter. He teams them with 5-inch Bass Assassin straight tails in either strawberry/white or morning glory (black with tiny flakes) with a chartreuse tail. The baits contrast well with the wintertime water, which often has a sandy-green tint to it.

Incoming tides are crucial for both the winter and early spring patterns. Outgoing currents bring in nasty water from Timbalier Bay, rendering the area nearly unfishable.

“The real clean water lines are pretty far offshore in the winter, but the shoreline water is still good enough,” said Billiot. “In the spring, an incoming tide will bring in really nice water even when the wind is blowing.”

The ugly ride through the thoroughly churned Timbalier Bay last winter took a little less time than normal, though I’m not certain if it was merciful or not. In a ride reserved only for friends and longtime customers who he knows can take it, Billiot decided to show off just what his new 24-foot Blazer Bay could do in the tight, following, 2-foot chop.

We hit 55 a few times on Billiot’s GPS, which he relies on much more than you would think for someone born and raised in lower Lafourche Parish.

Soon, the island’s details came closer into focus, and the larger, rounder swells of the Gulf met the bay chop and easily overtook it. We slowed to meet them, and Billiot took a mental reading of the breeze at our back.

“It’s blowing about 18,” he said, pointing to the speed of the boat on the GPS and noting the stillness as wind speed and the vessel’s speed cancelled each other. “Not the roughest I’ve ever been out here, but choppy enough to make us go back another way.

“Back when these rocks were in just about a complete circle, I’d fish in there with 7- or 8-foot swells breaking. There are so many breaches now, it’ll be rough on the inside even with this north wind.”

We idled into the large gap on the eastern side of the island and toward the petrochemical facility and the radio tower positioned next to it. Clean, green water was hidden by the dawn’s broken clouds, but was revealed by a fleeting glimpse of a small boulder under the surface as a swell swept over and white water announced itself with its signature crash.

Billiot pointed out obstacles big and small, old and new, one after another as we neared our starting point. Three- and 4-foot swells pounded the outer wall of rocks, current raced through gaps in unseen piles of rubble and a general sense of chaos seemed out of place in this sheltered harbor of sorts, though it reigned regardless.

Billiot shut off the big Evinrude and hustled up to the front to loose the trolling motor, while I tried in vain to untangle a braided line mess. I soon realized that the breeze wouldn’t allow it, and picked up a rod with a Strike King Wild Shiner hard jerkbait on it, a new toy found the summer before on a trip to the Bass Pro Shops in Houston.

Billiot had his silver mullet Bass Assassin on a Bayou Buck weighted hook and made a few casts before swinging the boat and placing the anchor.

“Ninety percent of the time I don’t anchor out here,” he said. “It’s not that the bottom is covered with rocks, but there are enough that get tossed around that you never know where you might lose one. This is one of the only places where I know there aren’t any.”

A strong trolling motor is a must for this area. Heavy winds associated with the time of year are often trumped by current and chop. A good burst of power is essential in avoiding the boulder you’re about to crash into.

The boat swung hard in the current, and Billiot was satisfied enough with the positioning to begin casting with purpose. I followed and launched the jerkbait into the churning water, which looked no different than any other patch around us. The first cast revealed the structure as the bait dug 3 feet deep and latched onto a string of slimy algae that was clinging and waving amongst the rocks below.

“This is kind of a rocky flat,” said Billiot, pointing out its dimensions and explaining that the mild winter pattern for the past several years has had him fishing the 3- to 5-foot depths for all but about two or three weeks of the year.

“The deep holes are good for when it really gets cold, but it hasn’t been down here — and there’s a big difference between here and where we launched — for any length of time for many years,” said Billiot. “The more rocks we lose, the more deep holes we have, but it’s also less shallow structure you’re going to have to hold the bait.”

The main bait in the rocks this time of year is mullet. The staple of the trout’s diet is evident in the early spring months, but much less so when fishing deep. Fishing big baits is often a wise move as fish are looking for large prey to help sustain themselves through the cold months.

Though many are convinced that fish in other parts of the state almost take a break from eating during the harsh winter months, Billiot is certain that in certain pockets of his home waters, East Timbalier and the Sulphur Mine lake to the north, the trout have largely become accustomed to the cold by the time January’s fronts reach the coast.

“I’ve gone out into the Mine when there was ice at the launch, and caught big trout in 2 feet of water,” he said. “They might go into a little shock during the first cold snaps, but soon they’ll get used to it and eat.”

My third cast with the hard jerkbait gave me the exact reason I’ve come to enjoy fishing them so much. A 2-pounder nearly jerked the rod from my hands 15 feet from the boat, and expertly used the surf and lack of stretch to quickly loose itself from the three sets of treble hooks.

Redemption came soon after as at the end of a long cast and between waves, that slight tick was met with a sweeping hookset, and the thrashing battle of a slightly larger fish began.

We took a half dozen more fat fish before I hung a runaway freight train on the bait that was fast becoming a favorite. The large jack crevalle took me through about seven rounds as I tried in vain to get my only bait back.

As often happens, I neglected to loosen the drag, and the line was broken close to the boat. Later, as we examined a submerged rockpile on the island’s western edge during a 30-minute break in the wind, a pack of 15-pound jacks were seen in the clear water patrolling the structure.

We next tried a couple of spots that are some of Billiot’s favorites. A submerged line of rocks about half a cast away from the main line of rocks extended for a few hundred yards and left a trough in between, which Billiot says can be often packed with trout waiting for a jerkbait to flutter down.

“You can use a jig, but a jerkbait, either unweighted or with a little bit of weight when there’s a lot of current, is a much more natural presentation, and you won’t hang up near as much,” he said.

Any way you fish it, the island and its rocky structure is the final resting place for many baits, and anglers should be prepared.

Working the line of submerged rocks resulted in us plucking a few more trout from their rocky ambush spots, including a few that revealed themselves with a quick, silvery flash in the green water now illuminated by a mid-morning sun.

Billiot says one of the reasons he likes fishing the cold-weather months is that the tides are almost always much lower as a general rule. This not only allows him a sneak preview of how the configuration has changed since the previous summer, but it also gives him, most likely, one last chance to fish those areas with success.

Next year or even in the late spring, as the water level rises, that area will be bereft of fish due to the depth of water.

“Today’s 3- to 5-foot depths will likely be too deep for those same fish under the same conditions next year,” said Billiot. “Pretty soon, they’ll be another deep hole.”

If you just can’t stand sitting around for a few more months and have a sense of adventure — either getting there or staying afloat once on location — try a trip to the big rockpile.

As long as you come prepared, you’ll return home with the most-earned box of fish you’ve ever caught in your life.