Calm days are best, but even when the winds blow, there are spots to catch fish in the Grand Isle surf.
It was 5:30 in the morning, but John Engelsman was climbing off his bicycle after riding to the Grand Isle beach to check out the conditions as the sun’s first light leaked over the horizon and buddy Larry Langlois cooked bacon and eggs for breakfast. “The surf looks active,” the Baker angler said. “It looks a little choppy.”
That wasn’t good news: Engelsman, Central’s Langlois and Joe Self of Baton Rouge had found murky water in the surf the day before, with a stiff southerly wind sending breakers into the beach and roiling the sands.
“We ended up going to Fourchon, and fishing a cut in the beach to Bay Champagne,” Engelsman said.
That despite the fact that vehicular access to the beach is blocked at the bridge, which was damaged during Hurricane Katrina’s wrath.
But the retired Baker city judge is a diehard surf fisherman, spending as much time at his Grand Isle camp as his still-working wife can tolerate. He simply prefers the relative solitude and peace found when fishing outside a boat.
“It’s watching the sun come up, watching birds dive,” Engelsman said. “It’s beautiful. Even if I don’t catch fish, I’m happy.”
But there aren’t many times he comes home empty-handed.
“He always seems to find fish,” said Langlois, who owned a camp for years before letting it go several years back.
However, Langlois said the beaches are great opportunities for even those without a lot of experience.
“Even for the novice, it’s possible to catch fish,” he said. “You don’t have to be an expert. I’m living proof.”
One of the real attractions is the variety of fish species feeding along the beaches.
“Speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, redfish, bluefish, flounder: They’re all there,” Langlois said.
Engelsman said that’s due largely to the fertile waters in the area.
“The big (Mississippi) river is a blessing,” he said. “It brings so much nutrients down here from the north. It’s just a great fishery.”
When breakfast finished cooking, the anglers dug in and discussed the possibilities for the morning.
“Why don’t we go to the beach and see what we find?” Engelsman offered. “If we don’t do anything, we can go to the backside (of the island).”
There still was some concern about the choppy conditions.
“You want the water to have that greenish look to it,” Langlois said. “When that surf is breaking on the beach, you get that brown sand rolling in the water.
“Ideally, you’re looking for a very still morning and clean water. Usually on these mornings you’ll catch fish.”
Thirty minutes later, the anglers waded into the surf. The sun was moving above the horizon, but was still obscured by clouds. Even in the faint light, however, we could see the water actually was pretty, with visibility of about 8 or 10 inches.
“I think this is pretty good,” Engelsman said.
Grand Isle offers about seven miles of beach front, providing incredible opportunities for surf fishermen. Engelsman prefers the eastern end of the island, mainly because his camp is located pretty much smack in the middle of the stretch of sand.
“It’s close, so that’s where I usually go,” he said.
From about the island’s Post Office east, the beach has undergone a stunning transformation from the small, eroded beaches of the past to wide, healthy stretches of sand. The renovation included the placement of rock breakwaters and pumping of sand from offshore.
Engelsman wanted to fish the western-most line of these rocks.
“The water down there seems to be deeper,” he said. “There’s some really good fishing down there.”
Alas, there already were several boats on the outside of the rocks and half a dozen anglers fishing the inside waters.
So Engelsman headed into the water about half a mile to the east, fishing his way toward the nearest breakwater.
He said the rocks offer everything a speck or red could want.
“Right near the edges (of the rock piles), the current creates more water depth, and that creates more current,” he explained. “The baitfish have a harder time with that current, and the predatory fish have an easier time feeding.”
Engelsman works lures all along the rocks, where the current hits and moves along the edges of the breakwaters. He doesn’t simply throw right next to the visible rocks, though.
“The rocks aren’t just in the pile,” Engelsman said. “There are rocks scattered out in the water.”
After working the backside of the breakwaters, special attention is paid to the corners.
“That’s where the water is pouring around the rocks,” Engelsman said. “I want to work the lure with the current.”
On an incoming tide, that means casting outside the breakwaters and working inshore.
Outgoing tides call for a little different approach.
“I sometimes climb on the rocks and fish from there,” Engelsman said.
That allows him to work the offshore side of the jetties, as well as working his lure around the points of the breakwaters with the falling tide.
It also often allows him to find clean water when there is none to be had between the breakwaters and the beach.
“The water is sometimes very murky on the shore side of the rocks, but a little ways out, the water can be pretty and green,” he explained.
However, he said anglers should be very cautious.
“The rocks are slippery,” he said. “They’ve got algae and barnacles on them. You have to keep one hand free to catch yourself.
“That’s a lesson I learned the hard way.”
Langlois was probing a nearby jetty with a shad rig when he snapped his rod tip skyward.
The angler fought the fish away from the line-cutting rocks as he reached for the net hanging from his belt.
Soon a 14-inch trout was flopping around the angler’s waist as he reached to scoop it up.
“I missed a couple of other fish,” Langlois said. “They’re here.”
Some of the breakwaters, particularly on the eastern end of the island near Grand Isle State Park, are in water too deep to reach by wading, but he doesn’t give up on them.
“I use a kayak, and paddle out to them,” he said.
Although the water is generally deeper on this end of the island, Engelsman said it’s relatively isolated and provides great opportunities for solitude.
“There are fewer camps down there,” he explained. “You can bring a bicycle and ride that beach. You pretty much have the beach to yourself.”
While he really likes the breakwaters, there are times when focusing on underwater topography is the best approach.
Sandbars line the front of the island, and fish move between these rises in the bottom to feed on baitfish trapped between the shallow waters. There usually are at least two bars paralleling the beach, and there are troughs between each one.
“It’s to your advantage to have the baitfish have one way they can’t go,” Langlois said. “A fish will cruise those troughs because they have a better chance of catching baitfish.”
Langlois said he likes to wade to the first sandbar, and fish from there.
“You can stand on that first sandbar and fish toward the shore and outside, too,” he said. “The fish will be working both troughs.”
Engelsman said that, even if there aren’t actual troughs in an area, bottom contours can be very productive.
“If there’s a drop-off, the fish will be waiting along that ledge,” he said. “They will be waiting for baitfish to be swept by.”
One of the keys to Engelsman’s consistency is not to stay in one spot too long.
“If you fish for 30 minutes and don’t get a bite, move,” he said. “I do a lot of moving.”
To be able to be so mobile, Engelsman takes a different approach than anglers who carry several rods and large tackle box.
“My approach is simplistic,” he said.
That means keeping the tackle and accoutrements to a minimum.
“You’ve got to have a 5-gallon bucket,” he said. “You can carry everything in that.
“When you catch fish, you can carry the fish in it, too.”
Inside the bucket goes his few lures, extra jigheads, his stringer and some market shrimp. He then hangs that bucket on the handlebars of his bike, holds his one rod with his other hand and peddles down the beach.
What he and Langlois looks for is signs of life in the water.
“I look for birds,” Langlois said. “If you see birds working over a school, you can really catch some fish.”
He said seeing other fish feeding also is a good omen.
“You’ll have jack crevalle come in and splashing around while they feed,” Langlois said. “That’s a sign that there’s baitfish there.”
On this day, a huge school of birds worked near the rocks at our second stop. Hundreds of gulls plucked shrimp from the water, and the action attracted more feathered feeders for almost an hour.
Unfortunately, this was near the state park, and the water was too deep for us to reach the school. All we could do was watch the birds as they moved up and down the beach with the school of fish below.
While it was frustrating to know that fish were moving about only a cast or two farther than we could reach, Engelsman said it illustrated how cyclical the fishing can be.
“The fish will move in schools, so you’ll catch fish as they move past,” he explained. “Then they’ll move on.”
He said he sometimes simply waits for the school to move back through the same area, but at other times, he’ll hurry out of the water and try to get ahead of the fish. Birds working a school can tell an angler which way the fish are moving.
“Sometimes you can just wait it out, but sometimes the fish keep moving down the beach,” he said. “It just depends on what’s going on.”
Englesman said water movement is important because it dictates how active the fish will be, but he doesn’t choose to fish just on one part of the tide.
“I would rather fish right after a full (rising) tide when it’s just starting to move out,” he said. “But as long as it’s moving you can catch fish. You’re here and you need to fish, so it really doesn’t matter as long as it’s moving.”
If the surf is too rough, Engelsman said the backside of the island offers great fishing, as well.
“You can always get out of the wind on Grand Isle,” he said.
As with the front side, the rock jetties protecting the island from erosion are a key part of Engelsman’s plan.
“The water is sometimes shallow behind the rocks, but you can fish the outside and find some deeper water,” he said.
No matter where he fishes, he always starts with a shad rig.
“I like that 1/8-ounce shad rig by H&H,” Engelsman said. “I like the one with one silver and one gold bait.
“It catches everything out here.”
He often tips the rear jig with a piece of dead shrimp to offer fish more incentive to strike, and he sometimes works the rig under a cork.
“I’ll fish it under a small cork around those rocks,” Engelsman said. “That allows me to work it right near the rocks without getting hung up.”
Another bait also has become an important part of his arsenal during the recent months.
The Creme Lit’l Fishie is a small, minnow-like soft-plastic lure. It comes in three sizes, but Engelsman chooses the 2 ½-inch model that falls in the middle of the range.
“That Lit’l Fishie has small flaps on the side that give it a life-like wiggle,” Engelsman said. “I really catch some fish with that bait.
“I was only introduced to it in the past month or so, but it has captured my attention.”
Other lures he likes to throw include topwater prop baits and MirrOlure 52Ms, but most of the time he’ll be bouncing a shad rig.
“That’s my go-to bait,” he said.