The Camo Man

Wilkinson Canal regular Ronnie Mercandal doesn’t need a big boat to fill his cooler with fat speckled trout this time of year.

A solitary loon swam gracefully across the surface of one of the narrow cuts that intersected the Wilkinson Canal. Darkness obscured the hoist at the nearby Myrtle Grove marina as a steady stream of boats idled slowly down the long canal. Brothers Ronnie and Bobby Mercandal of Metairie quietly huddled in their 12-foot flatboat as a biting north wind stung their faces.

The morning silence was soon interrupted by the sound of a 2-pound speckled trout as it thrashed across the surface, its big yellow mouth open wide and head shaking. Ronnie quickly swung the fish into the small boat, unhooked it, tossed it to the floor, and cast his line out again.

Mercandal’s actions were so quick that the boaters nearby failed to notice the commotion and continued their journey down the canal.

Many of the regulars who frequent the Wilkinson Canal jokingly refer to Ronnie as “camo man” because he always dresses in camouflaged clothing in addition to having a camouflaged boat, motor and ice chest.

The truth is that the Mercandals’ first love is duck hunting, although it’s a fact that they consistently catch more fish than most who fish the deep winter destination.

The brothers have fished the Myrtle Grove area for the past 15 years. Bobby has spent plenty of time in the usual spots such as the shorelines of Lake Laurier and Bay Round.

During the past couple of years, they have become especially proficient at catching their limits of trout in the Wilkinson Canal even when many other anglers come up empty-handed.

Their technique is simple.

“I use the smaller-size (chartreuse) sparkle beetles double rigged on small yellow jigheads,” said Ronnie. “You have to reel them VERY slowly.”

I watched as the Mercandals cast and slowly retrieved their lures. They held their rods high and watched for the line to twitch ever so slightly or sometimes it would just stop and they would rare back and set the hook.

“I prefer the larger H&H green sparkle beetle, and I fish it 3 feet under a cork,” said Bobby.

One of the brothers will usually start out fishing the bottom with the double rig, while the other tries his luck with the cork rig to locate specks holding closer to the surface or along the bank. When one hooks up, the other changes his technique. They bring multiple rods, allowing them to quickly adjust to the fishing pattern.

Fishing out of such a small boat requires balance as well as communication between the anglers.

One cold morning, Ronnie brought a buddy along as his brother couldn’t make the trip.

“I told him to set the anchor, and when I turned around to shut down the motor I heard two splashes,” said Ronnie. “He stood up and threw the anchor off one side, and the momentum sent him backwards out the other side.”

The Mercandals methodically work many areas of the canal, and say it is important to take your time as sometimes the bite doesn’t happen right away.

One day last winter, I watched as Ronnie and Bobby approached the marina in the early afternoon with a box of fat speckled trout on a day when the north winds were howling in excess of 20 knots and most of the other fishermen had headed home.

“Forty-six trout on my 46th birthday!” said Mercandal as he hoisted the ice chest out of the flatboat and into the bed of his truck.

The brothers unloaded all of their fishing rods, PFDs and equipment, then unfastened the 5-horsepower motor from the back of their boat before hoisting it into the truck bed.

“We don’t need a trailer to launch our boat,” Bobby chuckled as he tightened the straps and secured the boat.

Deadly technique

Nick LeBlanc of Belle Chasse is another Myrtle Grove diehard. He primarily fishes the northern shorelines of Lake Laurier, Bay Round and Bayou Dupont during the frigid months.

LeBlanc has fished the vast area that stretches from Myrtle Grove to the Jefferson Lake canal for the past 35 years. He has witnessed the disintegration of the marsh that he fishes and hunts especially since the wrath of the hurricanes of 2005.

“When I acquired my duck lease, you could almost walk from Jefferson Lake to Lake Hermitage through the marsh,” LeBlanc said.

Sadly, he laments what is left of the land would fit in the back of his pickup truck.

As for the fishing, LeBlanc feels it is still as good as ever, but it varies from year to year.

“All in all, it is no different than it was years ago in that we have some good years with high numbers and quality of fish and then we have some off years,” he said. “Salinity is the main factor that determines the quality of fish. The saltier the water, the more plentiful the bigger trout you will find around here.

“Katrina and Rita inundated the marsh with salt water from the Gulf, and following that, we had one of the longest and worst droughts in history.”

That has resulted in a bumper crop of fat speckled trout this year in the marshes surrounding Myrtle Grove with plenty of fish topping 2 pounds.

What he says has changed is the amount of boats and anglers he sees in the area.

“There is a lot more pressure put on the fish due to the number of boats and people fishing,” he said.

LeBlanc, who retired in 2004 and spends as many days as possible fishing, swears by two plastics.

“I use only smoke or avocado spade-tail H&H Salty Grubs or Bass Pro Scrub Grubs rigged on 1/8- or 1/16-ounce jigheads,” he said.

He has perfected a very effective cold weather technique that he refers to as ‘dead sticking.’

“Basically, I just cast the grub, let it sit on the bottom then ever so slightly lift the rod to barely move it every once in a while,” he said. “I have found that most of the time if you bump it and let it lie on the bottom they’ll pick it up.”

The technique is also a proven one when targeting redfish when they are cold and lethargic and hugging the bottom.

“I’ve watched them in my duck ponds. They’re so sluggish when you let it drop in front of them and just let it sit there in front of them, they’ll suck it up,” he said.

In the winter, specks often lie in the mud to keep warm. This is evidenced by the number of leaches found on the fish in the colder months of December through February.

“When they’re cold, they don’t want to chase bait down, but if you move it slowly by their nose, they’ll pounce on it,” said LeBlanc.

LeBlanc proved his point by landing three trout to every one that I boated. Once I perfected his technique though, I quickly evened the score. Our tally was 40 beautiful speckled trout that filled LeBlanc’s 48-quart ice chest to the brim.

Pumping station

The reds, which usually stack up around the Wilkinson canal pumping station, have been few and far between lately at this hotspot, possibly because the direction of the outflow from the pumps was recently changed.

Reports are that boaters were anchoring on top of the pipes, which caused damage, so the discharge pipes that for years have dug a deep hole at the base of the pumping station, had to be cut off. The outflow now pushes straight out into the canal.

Look for reds in the ponds just past the pumping station as well as along the rocks in the canal. Best baits are sparkle beetles tipped with shrimp.

Lake Laurier

The shorelines that surround Lake Laurier hold plenty of redfish during the winter. The majority of the area is shallow, and since redfish can be easily spooked, boaters should shut down their big motors and get on the trolling motor well ahead of the area they plan to fish.

Drifting along the banks can be an effective way to locate fish. Generally, they will school up, so once redfish are located, quietly deploy an anchor and enjoy the action. Best spots are along the northern banks and near the mouths of cuts.

Bay Raquette

Tucked away just to the southeast of Lake Laurier is Bay Raquette. This small, circular bay is accessible through the southern end of Lake Laurier via Bayou Francis or by following Bayou Wilkinson as it snakes north from Barataria Bay.

When temperatures hover in the 30s, this area, which is dotted with deep holes, attracts hordes of speckled trout, black drum and redfish.

Those unfamiliar with the area should idle in to avoid getting stuck on one of the mud banks. It’s a good idea to start out by tipping jigs with market shrimp to get the bite started.

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