When baseball’s top managers are mapping out series strategies, large schools of speckled trout are moving onto rigs and reefs along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
Game six of the National League Championship Series. Eighth inning. Cubs lead 3-0.Cubs ace Mark Prior hurls a 95-m.p.h. fastball toward the plate. Marlins switch-hitter Luis Castillo sticks out his bat, and knocks a lazy fly toward foul territory in left field.
Cubs left-fielder Moises Alou’s instincts take over, and without a split-second’s hesitation, his brain triggers his feet to start moving. The veteran major-leaguer makes a bee-line toward the stands, and times his jump perfectly to nab the rapidly descending ball.
That ball, however, never makes contact with Alou’s glove. A Cub-capped, turtleneck-wearing Walkman-listener named Steve Bartman raises both hands in a failed attempt to gain a souvenir.
No out. Foul ball. Castillo is still alive at the plate, and Larry Frey, sitting in his living room in Metairie, is ecstatic.
Frey isn’t a die-hard Florida Marlins fan, and though he’s been known to spend an hour or two here and there at the Treasure Chest Casino, he didn’t have any money riding on the game.
In fact, Frey couldn’t have cared less who won. His unbridled exuberance while watching the game was the fruit of something far more predictable and exceedingly more enjoyable.
The next morning, Frey would be heading into Lake Pontchartrain to throw plastic baits to what he calls “World Series trout.”
Dawn broke late, one of the many features that make October the most-glorious month of the year. It was already 6:15 a.m., and there was not yet in the sky a hint of the rising sun.
Frey and his long-time buddy Sean Doody pulled into the Bonnabel boat launch parking lot, Frey’s glittery blue bay boat in tow.
A 12-m.p.h. northwest wind blew salty lake air across the landing.
“Where’d this freakin’ wind come from?” Frey asked as he hopped out his truck to remove straps, insert the plug and otherwise prepare his boat for launching. “*%^&$ weathermen! They pull these %^$*& forecasts out their freakin’ *@#^%!”
Indeed, the forecast had been for 6- to 12-m.p.h. winds, so the weather prophets were actually correct. But it was breezy.
Save for a boatless trailer attached to a white SUV, the parking lot was empty — a sure sign that either the action had been slow or the winds would be up.
Frey continued with the task at hand. He clearly had an outboard on the back of his bay boat, but he was cursing like a sailor.
With the boat launched and the truck parked, he, Doody and another guest motored out of the harbor and turned into the teeth of the wind. They were met by near-whitecap waves.
“You think it’s bad now, wait ‘til we get on the other side of that *$%^# bridge,” Frey yelled over the roar of the big Johnson. His speech was staccato and interrupted by the back-breaking pounding of the boat riding the crest of each wave and then cracking back down into the next gully. It was a painful, filling-jarring ride.
Frey grunted and lowered the throttle further, as if to punish the waves.
The still-unseen sun began to throw rays that curled around the eastern horizon at the anglers’ backs. The hint of a glow formed a beautiful backdrop that silhouetted the New Orleans skyline.
Up ahead, bright headlights flickered among the guardrails as sleepy commuters made their way across the Causeway before the predictable morning gridlock.
If the boat ride had been less painful, Frey and Doody might have felt sorry for them.
They crossed under the bridge, and headed for a rig that was lit-up like George Burns’ last birthday cake.
The waves on the west side of the Causeway were indeed worse than those that were broken by it on the east side.
Frey eased back on the throttle, and made the short trip to the rig as comfortable as possible.
Upon arriving, the lake veteran ordered Doody to anchor duty on the bow. Frey moved his head back and forth as if watching a tennis match. He was at least two-casts’ distance from the rig.
“I’m trying to get things lined up,” he said. “There used to be a catwalk with a bunch of pilings that came out into this area. That’s where the shell pad is.”
He motored upwind of what he determined was the shell pad, and told Doody to drop anchor.
It bit in the muck below, and Doody tied off the rope to a cleat. The bow bobbed up and down like a kiddie ride at Jazzland.
Frey cursed the weathermen again as he and Doody made cast after cast toward the shell pad. Each effort brought back nothing but wet baits. It looked grim.
But given the circumstances, Frey was remarkably subdued. He looked around, surveyed the conditions and began to grin.
In the light of the now-rising sun, he could see that the northwest wind hadn’t dirtied up the water, and the wind itself, it appeared, was beginning to diminish.
“That’s how the lake is. You can’t go to one spot and expect to find fish. You have to earn these fish. Let’s make a little run,” he said.
Anchor was weighed, and off the crew went to a different rig.
The results there were the same, so the crew made a stop at one of three artificial reefs the state had just installed. There, the first trout of the day was caught. It was a nice one — about 20 inches — that fell for a candy corn-colored Salt Water Assassin eel on the back side of a double-rig.
But by 8 a.m., after a good hour and a half of fishing, it was the only fish in the box.
Frey suggested a move to another rig — what he calls the Donut Rig — and there the crew successfully added some weight to the boat.
After settling in 75 yards or so away from the structure over another unseen shell pad, Frey and Doody began catching fish almost immediately. The action wasn’t non-stop, but it was action, and the crew wasn’t complaining.
After about a dozen more fish, the bite quit. The trout seemed to have vanished.
“That’s how these lake fish are,” Frey said. “This is the most fickle, finicky place in the world to fish. We can’t catch another fish here right now, but we could come back in an hour and catch them on every cast. We could go back right now to the rig we started at this morning, and load the boat right there.”
Frey feels that even on shell pads where he can’t get a bite, the fish are there simply looking at his baits. On those shell pads where the action stops, the school is still there, but the fish — because of the whims of nature — just aren’t feeding, in Frey’s opinion.
Whenever fishing the lake, he’s a big believer in moving frequently to locate feeding fish.
And that’s what he and Doody did. After leaving the Donut Rig, they made another stop, where the action was relentless before stopping abruptly, and then another, where they easily rounded out their limits and left the fish feeding.
It’s become an annual tradition for Frey, one he looks forward to like an 8-year-old boy in November who’s getting his first BB gun for Christmas. While the rest of the state is glued to the TV watching the finals of the national pastime with the windows open and a jack-o-lantern on the porch, Frey is casting dreamy glances north toward the lake he’s been fishing since he was a teen-ager wading the shoreline just west of West End.
“I love the lake,” he said. “I just love this type of fishing. It makes me nuts. It makes my heart beat.
“You have to catch the fish. You have to make them bite. If you’re not doing it right, you’re going to get outcaught 10-2.”
Frey has learned a few things about “doing it right.”
First of all, he doesn’t bother fishing the rigs and reefs in the lake until conditions are right.
“The earliest I’ve ever done well out here is late September,” he said. “You have to wait until the water gets into the mid to low 70s. If September’s cool, you could catch them (in late September), but usually it’s not until the baseball playoffs start.”
But even when the temperatures are right, the lake is too vicious a beast for Frey to head out on just any day. He carefully monitors weather conditions for days leading up to a trip.
“This time of year, you get the northwest blow from a front, and then the wind starts switching to the northeast, then the east, then the southeast or southwest. That’s when you want to go. You want the wind to have some type of southerly component,” he said.
A southerly wind makes the rigs and reefs, which are within a couple of miles of the south shore, more fishable, but more importantly, Frey said, it makes the fish more aggressive.
“I’m sure it has to do with the barometric pressure,” he said. “But the fish just bite better when the wind’s out of the south.”
Frey said it takes the water of the lake a mere two days to clean up after a big blow from a cold front.
“Back when the (shell) dredgers were in the lake, it’d take four days, but now it only takes two,” he said. “It’s amazing how dirty the lake gets after a blow. It looks like the Mississippi River, but now it cleans up quick.”
He likes the water to have a minimum of 2 feet visibility.
“You want to be able to easily see your prop,” he said.
Given those conditions, good action is almost a guarantee.
“I’d say I limit on seven or eight out of every 10 trips,” he said. “(In 2001), I limited on five trips in a row to the same rig. I didn’t even try to fish any other rigs.”
The shell pads that support these rigs are the key to their productivity. Baitfish hold to the rough bottoms, and Pontchartrain trout find easy meals there. But, as mentioned, finding a shell pad — or at least a productive shell pad — isn’t as simple as merely pulling up to a rig.
So Frey and other lake veterans hold a distinct advantage over newcomers to the area in that they have been fishing the lake long enough to know where the good pads are and, more importantly, where in relation to the rigs the good pads are.
But even lake rookies can mop up, if they use their time wisely and fish hard, Frey said.
“You just have to do what anybody would have to do — move a lot,” he said. “You have to go to a rig, fish all around it, and then move if you don’t catch anything. If you do catch something, there’s probably a pad there. Drop your anchor, keep fishing it and see what happens.”
Even on pads holding feeding fish, bait color is much more important in the lake than at other areas, Frey said.
“There are certain colors that won’t get bit at all, while others are getting torn up. I’ve seen it too many times: One guy on a boat will be fishing one color and can’t get a bite, while the other guy is getting bit every cast on a different color,” he said.
The colors that are most consistently productive, Frey has found, are chartreuse curl-tail Bass Assassins, glow green beetles and avocado/red flake beetles. He likes each teamed with a bright orange 1/4-ounce jighead. Another productive combination is a glow-white curl-tail grub with a pink jighead.
He sometimes fishes single baits, but more frequently combines bait colors on double rigs.
“I’m a firm believer in having contrast,” he said.
Even when fish are clearly preferring one of the colors of a double rig, Frey won’t switch out the unproductive bait.
“You put two of the same color on, and it seems like you can’t get a hit,” he said.
Frey likes to cast the baits over the shell pads or reefs and let them fall to the water bottom. Then he begins a slow retrieve that is interrupted by frequent pops of the rod tip.
“I like to twitch it a lot,” he said. “As the water cools off, the fish get more aggressive, and the twitch becomes more important.”
What also happens as the water cools off is that the fish start hitting MirrOlures.
In November, Frey throws the hard-plastic baits almost exclusively when the conditions are right.
“The water’s got to be almost gin-clear,” he said. “You need at least 5 or 6 feet of visibility.”
Frey likes chartreuse, silver side/blue back and red/white 52MRs. He casts the bait, lets it fall for an eight-count, and then twitches it back toward the boat. He’ll work the bait as deep as a 15-count until he finds the fish.
“They’ll hit it on the fall of a twitch,” he said. “They won’t just hit it; they’ll take the pole out of your hands.”
The MirrOlure trout are especially big — ranging up to 6 1/2 pounds — but even those that hit the soft-plastics are bigger than what most anglers are used to catching this time of year.
“I’d say 18 to 22 inches is about the average. You don’t catch many under 18, and you don’t catch all that many over 22 — unless you get in a school of real big ones,” he said. “It’s an awesome place to fish so close to home.”
And that, of course, means the area can get crowded at times.
“On an average weekday, you might see about 10 boats, but on the weekend, it’s ridiculous,” Frey said.
To get away from the pressure, Frey will sometimes fish when winds are strong out of the south.
“You can have a 20- to 25-m.p.h. south wind, and if you want to fight it, you can catch fish out here. I like it because it makes most people stay home,” he said.
Other times, he’ll delay his trips to the afternoon.
“There seems to be a morning bite and an afternoon bite out here. A lot of people only fish the morning bite,” he said, adding that the afternoon bite usually starts at noon and quits like somebody has flipped a switch around 4 p.m.
But if the only window he has to fish is in the morning and the crowds are running all over his favorite rigs near the Causeway, Frey will continue on to the less-pressured rigs west of Williams Boulevard.
“Those rigs don’t seem to hold as many fish, but the ones you catch are much bigger,” he said. “They’re a lot of fun to fish.”
The action at the lake’s rigs and reefs stretches until Thanksgiving most years, but Frey’s caught fish there as late as Christmas in mild years.
“The fronts usually get too frequent by then,” he said. “The fish are probably still there, but the water’s dirty. I’m too busy duck-hunting to worry about it.”
Where the fish go in the heart of the winter is anybody’s guess, but a contingent of them show up again before moving out to spawn.
“There’s another run in the spring that starts in about April, but the fish are never as plentiful (as they are in the fall),” Frey said.
But that’s a half a year away. Right now, the leaves are getting as crisp as the air, and the sounds of the boys of summer are building. It’s World Series time.
And Larry Frey knows what that means.
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