The Waiting Game

If you want to catch bull reds, you’ve got to put in the time, but that makes it all the more special when the rods double over.

“Get the net” is the phrase most often heard echoing across the waters that surround the beach community of Grand Isle this time of year. Monster red drum, or bull reds as they are often referred to locally, roam the passes throughout the summer. Redfish rodeos, such as the ones staged at Caminada Pass and Bridgeside Marina, kick off the season as boats armed with oversized rods head to the coast to try their luck at catching a trophy fish worthy of rodeo recognition.

Although the sweltering summer months of July through September are considered prime time, Capt. Theophile Bourgeois has a hunch they can be caught year round in the passes that empty into the Gulf.

Bourgeois, Capt. Darryl “Poncho” Hertz and Eileen Tessitore took a busman’s holiday, and headed out to test their luck and their biceps with the bulls last month. Tessitorre, who handles the phones and boat bookings at Bourgeois Charters, grew up along the winding bayous of Barataria. Surprisingly, she admitted that she had never caught a bull red.

“I’ve caught a lot of smaller ones, but never one of the big ones,” she said.

The boat was already loaded with tackle as well as plenty of food and drink when I arrived at the Cajun Vista — a 101-year-old, restored school house nestled on the bayou in Lafitte. The lodge can accommodate 50. It is here that Bourgeois and his dozen or so full-time guides offer clients a taste of Louisiana with fishing trips, Cajun feasts and seafood boils.

As I approached the dock, Bourgeois hoisted a large ice chest aboard that was brimming with jumbo blue crabs.

“My neighbor picked these big boys out for me when he went trawling. Man, they look too good to use for bait!” he exclaimed as we all peered into the ice chest.

Bourgeois cranked up his shiny new Mercury Verado, and pointed the boat south. He carefully skirted the remnants of many small islands that dot Barataria Bay as the sun peeked above horizon.

Fifty-five minutes later, Bourgeois throttled back as we entered Barataria Pass — the largest of the passes that flows to the Gulf.

As he slowly idled the 24-foot Champion along the east side of the pass, he kept a keen eye on his depth finder watching as the screen showed a slope and the numbers steadily decreased.

“All right Poncho, we’ve got 14 feet of water on this ledge,” Bourgeois said as Hertz uncoiled the rope and slid the big anchor overboard.

Bourgeois selected a jumbo crab, peeled back the top shell and cracked the crab in half.

“I like to take both claws off too,” he said as he prepared the tasty offering in hopes of attracting a bronze brute.

“When I put the crab out there, I don’t like to leave the claws on because those fish might be munching that claw and miss the hook,” he explained as he hooked the crab through the joint of the back flipper.

The Carolina rig consists of a 3/0 Mustad kahle hook rigged on 2 feet of 30- to 40-pound leader tied to a swivel. A 1-ounce egg sinker is placed on the braided line above the swivel with a split shot crimped above the egg sinker to keep it from sliding up the line.

“C’mon bro, where they at?” asked Poncho as he reeled in and threw again and again toward the edge of the pass.

“They ought to be coming in on this rising tide,” replied Bourgeois as he lob-casted another cracked crab toward the ledge, and handed the rod to Tessitore.

“Girl, you have to soak a lot of crabs and just put in your time sometimes before a school moves through,” Bourgeois warned her.

Fishing for trophy-sized bull redfish — those weighing over 20 pounds — is not for everyone. It takes patience and sometimes many hours of waiting before the fish show up or start to feed.

“But when they do come through, you had better be ready because they’ll hit every rod at once, and all hell breaks loose,” he grinned.

“Throw it out there and just let it sit,” said Poncho as he settled in for the wait with a sandwich in hand.

Tessitore did as she was told, but the boredom quickly set in as she drifted off to sleep in the comfortable flip up seat on the rear of the Champion.

“Tighten that line up, girl. You gotta be ready when he hits,” Poncho joked, startling Tessitore from her cat nap.

Fort Livingston

On the eastern shore of Barataria Pass sits Louisiana’s only coastal fort — Fort Livingston.

“Visitors like fishing here, even if the bull reds don’t cooperate,” said Bourgeois.

Fort Livingston, which is listed on the National Register of Historic places, dates back to1841. The fort was constructed near the Gulf to protect New Orleans from an attack through Barataria Bay. Prior to that, the pirate Jean Lafitte roamed the waters and was rumored to have used the island of Grand Terre to store his stash of stolen treasures.

“The walls are about 15-20 feet thick and made with oyster shells and mortar and bricks,” Bourgeois explained.

Oh if these walls could talk, the stories they would tell.

Poncho, who kept the mood light at every stop, shared some stories to help pass the time.

“About 30 years ago, we would go to the fort and walk the whole island on a calm night looking for flounder, and we would just spend the night there. We would catch plenty of them from here to Four Bayou Pass and all around the wildlife camp over there,” he said, pointing to the LDWF Lyle St. Amant Marine Research Lab.

He recalled one unforgettable night there.

“One night when we were sleeping in that old fort, some big ol’ cows came lumbering in and scared the living daylights out of us.”

“You can’t stay there now though,” he warned.

During another of his adventures there many years ago he climbed to the top of the fort at night. From his vantage point, he could see the blinking light at Estelle, which is far to the north almost to New Orleans.

Four Bayou Pass

Capt. Clay Boudreaux of Bayou Log Cabins (504-656-2569) often fishes the passes in late summer with guests staying at his Bayou Log Cabins on Lake Hermitage. From there, Boudreaux heads southwest across the bay to Four Bayou Pass.

“A directional tide is needed. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming in or going out — that water has got to have movement to get those reds to feed,” he said.

It is his opinion that redfish feed differently than speckled trout.

“While speckled trout just hang out and wait to ambush a meal, a redfish will go on the prowl and actually look for a meal,” Boudreaux explained.

Redfish frequent the shoals and sandbars looking for food, and as a rule shy away from the deeper areas, he says. Bull reds are routinely taken along the shallow edges of the passes.

A large sandbar that was located about 2 miles out of Four Bayou Pass was a popular place to anchor, but over the years numerous storms have taken a toll on it.

Many times in summers past, Boudreaux and a group of friends would head out and plan on spending their evening fishing for bull reds and maybe gig for flounder, then camp out on the island.

“We would sit there for hours without a nibble and then a school would come through and bow up all four rods and then it might go dead again for hours,” he said.

The main reason bull reds are found in numbers in and around the passes is because of the vast amount of bait that must pass through the area. The narrow, deep areas create sort of a funnel effect.

“Any kind of a bottleneck from deep water into shallow water piles up the shrimp and bait,” Boudreaux explained.

Often less experienced boaters use a long rope and anchor in the middle of Barataria Pass. Boudreaux cautions this is not a good idea as the area is still over 150 feet deep and can be dangerous. The pass is bustling with trawlers pulling nets, offshore supply boats, Coast Guard cutters and other marine traffic.

When Boudreaux was young, his dad would anchor out in the deepest part of the channel in 180 feet of water, but Boudreaux reminds anglers that it is not common to catch redfish on the deep side.

“Back then, believe it or not, we were looking for gafftop catfish to try and win the Grand Isle Rodeo,” he chuckled. “There were some monsters that hung out in Barataria Pass on the bottom — plenty of them pushing 15-18 pounds.”

Boudreaux also prefers crabs over cut bait for targeting bruiser reds.

“I don’t like cut mullet as it draws the sharks. I use cracked crabs, and every 15 minutes you have to pull your crab in and check to make sure the hard head catfish don’t suck the meat out of the shell,” he said.

Second time a charm

After fishing several other passes and having no luck, Bourgeois returned to Barataria Pass later in the afternoon. The tide was falling hard, evidenced by the line of foam that steadily flowed out of the pass. Bait flipped on the surface, and canes and marsh grass floated by as they were flushed from the bay. Conditions looked promising, and excitement filled the air once again.

Bourgeois used the big motor to position the boat about 30 yards above and to the right of the red No. 12 channel marker, where Poncho once again got the boat on anchor.

“Whenever you have a tidal range greater than 1 foot, you’ll need to double up on the amount of weight used to get the bait to the bottom and keep it there,” Bourgeios explained as he added a heavier sinker to his rig.

A 6/10-foot tide is ideal, but the captains say they are confident fishing any tide up to 1 ½ feet.

Barataria Pass is wider and deeper than most of the others nearby such as Coup a Bel, and Four Bayou Pass allowing for more bait, such as shrimp, crabs and pogies, to pass through.

“The current got strong, yeah. Just look at that channel marker moving back and forth,” said Poncho as he pointed to the swaying piling.

Three lines were baited with cracked blue crabs, cast out of the back of the boat and placed in rod holders.

“Good cast like that I know I’m gonna catch a fish — get da net boy,” he said kidding with Bourgeois.

Unlike the waiting game that occurred earlier in the day, only a few minutes had passed when one of the rods arched, and Poncho sprung to his feet.

As Poncho pulled tight to set the hook, the rod bent double, and then went limp. As he reeled in the slack line and inspected the curl at the end, minus the hook, he joked, “What kind of knot you tied there boy!”

“I tied a good one, but you know you have to wrap this braided line a bunch of times before you cinch it down or it won’t hold,” Bourgeois explained.

Shortly after putting his line out, Bourgeois noticed one of the rods in the rocket launcher steadily bending. He grabbed the rod and reeled tight as the line streaked in the direction of the channel marker. Bourgeois fought the fish cautiously, and eased up as he gingerly led it away from the piling.

“Now I can fight you,” he said as the fish cleared the obstruction.

“That’s what we’re looking for,” said Bourgeois, as Poncho grabbed the landing net and scooped a 30-pounder from the emerald-green water.

“Customers really enjoy catching a big fish like this,” said Poncho, who has been guiding full time for Bourgeois for eight years. “A couple of years ago, we were out in Barataria Pass and we hooked four at one time. The customers were whooping and hollering so much I thought everybody on Grand Isle was gonna hear them.

“We caught and released about 15 that evening, and every now and then we’d catch a bull black drum.”

Another memorable trip occurred when a little girl fishing with her dad became bored and dipped her rod up and down, splashing the water.

“The line got wrapped around the handle of her reel, and a big bull hit her bait and pulled her across the boat. Her daddy had to grab her quick before it pulled her out of the boat,” he said.

What next?

Once a bull red has been landed and photographs and measurements have been taken, Bourgeois suggests clients release the fish.

“These are our breeding stock, and they are not good to eat, so I try to convince the customers to let them go and order a fiberglass replica,” he said.

Large bull redfish, like most fish, contain parasites. The rule is, the larger the redfish the bigger the diameter of the parasite. Picture parasites the diameter of a pencil, which is not too appetizing.

If customers insist, though, Bourgeois will bring one in, keeping in mind only one red over 27 inches is allowed in possession per angler.

Taxidermists recommend those who wish to have their catch skin mounted keep the fish moist, wrap the entire fish in plastic and freeze it.

Another option that is gaining in popularity is the Japanese art of Gyotaku (pronounced gee-o-tah-ku), or fish printing. This process of coating the fish with ink or paint and pressing rice paper or silk against the fish dates back to 1862, and was used by Japanese fishermen to record the size of their catch.

For the angler whose spouse frowns on having a 40-pound redfish adorn the walls of the living room, this is an ideal option that makes everyone happy, and adds a beautiful piece of artwork to the home to boot.

Nancy Harris of Picayune, Miss., is trained in the Gyotaku process, and comes highly recommended. She may be reached evenings at (601) 798-7499.

But remember, you have to play the waiting game before making too many plans for that trophy fish.

Capt. Theophile Bourgeois can be reached at 504-341-5614.