Louisiana Redfish

Captain Brian Esposito, my regular Florida Keys guide, had been insisting for a number of years that I should fish with him in Louisiana. A native Floridian, every year he heads to the Mississippi delta to guide for giant redfish and black drum, right at the end of the road in Venice, Louisiana. Further piquing my curiosity were reports from other friends and a number of videos of big bull reds eating poppers off the surface. So I finally relented, swapped my May tarpon slot for a November redfish slot, and headed over to New Orleans. I managed to convince my good fishing friend Kelvin Ng to join me and commenced preparations. Redfish have been a great success story in the US, testament to what a concerted effort by fishermen can lead to. In the late 1970s, in response to excessive overfishing of redfish and speckled trout in Texas, a group of recreational anglers got together and started the Coastal Conservation Association, aka the CCA. The association grew, and as a consequence more funds were raised, which ultimately allowed the CCA to fight for netting bans, additional protection by having redfish status promoted to ‘Game Fish’, and bans on the sale of wild redfish. As a result the redfish and trout numbers have increased, with anglers now flying to the USA to fish for them. Definitely food for thought and something Australia could learn a lot from. Of all the areas that harbour redfish, the Mississippi delta has built up a reputation for large numbers of big fish, with fishing zones being the Biloxi marsh area around Hopedale, and the bottom of the Delta around Venice. In the fall the larger bull reds and black drum move into the shallows to feed on the abundant bait, and although the weather can make life difficult the numbers of large fish make it very appealing. Whilst Biloxi is closer to New Orleans, Venice is literally at the end of the road down the Mississippi. The other advantage of Venice over Biloxi, especially in the fall, is derived from the different vegetation and the shelter it provides during the frequent cold fronts — tall rushes here reduce the effect of the wind and provide additional protection, which means a lot less cancellations for the guides and their clients. Feedback from Brian on the accommodation front was that there wasn’t much available at all, and by looking at Google Maps I began to understand why, as it is a narrow stretch of land with oilfield facilities and nothing else. In the end we selected the Sportsmans Lodge – a large houseboat anchored in the Venice Marina. The drive down to Venice is far from scenic. For many years the area has been a centre for oil and gas production, clearly visible by the succession of service yards and heliports. Venice Marina is not much better; it’s all about shrimping and tuna fishing charters out in the gulf, but the odd flats skiff here and there gives a bit more of an insight into the local fishing. Upon arrival we settled into our accommodation, and apart from the constant drone of Fox news it was pleasant enough. The US election was on during our stay, adding a different perspective to the experience. The first morning we woke to a calm but overcast day, and Brian was outside tied up to the jetty waiting for us. We loaded our rods, drinks and lunch and set off on his Hells Bay skiff, first running out to the main branch of the Mississippi and then further and further into the marsh through small backwaters and channels. Most channels were very straight, indicating a man-made origin, with numerous oil and gas wellheads dotting the landscape. A lot of the hardware was rusty and looked ominous, but the environment did not seem to have suffered as there were waterbirds in abundance and massive amounts of baitfish, comprising schools of mullet and pogies. There was no sign of any legacy from the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo spill in 2010, evidence of the surprising capacity of these salty marsh environments to recover. REDFISH We started off in a sheltered bay and Brian had barely begun poling when the first waker appeared. The water was around 30–40 cm deep, with numerous patches of weed. It was not very clear but this wasn’t an issue as the wakes pushed by the bull reds were visible from quite a distance. They tend to move with intent, tracking straight, so you have plenty of time to get ready for the cast. Because of the slight murkiness of the water there was no need for long casts, but feeding the fish proved rather counter intuitive. The best presentation for redfish is to cast the fly just behind their head and drag it across their line of vision with a longer steady strip. Once that got their attention the retrieve needed to change to short ‘bumps’ and the bite would follow shortly afterwards. Do this to most other fish and they will run a mile, but once mastered it proved effective. Redfish are very satisfying to fish for, as if you do everything right they eat almost every time. The weather wasn’t great on that first morning but improved steadily during the day. We had plenty of shots at reds, and caught plenty too. What was most impressive was the average size of the fish, easily in the 15–20 lb class. The first day yielded Kelvin’s largest fish of 31 lb, and I managed to land a 28-pounder as well. We landed fish in the high 20 lb range every day; my biggest for the week topped out at 32 lb and there are fish in the 40 lb range caught every season. Most of our fishing took place in East, West and Grand bays, as well as the aptly named Redfish Bay. Depending on the weather, we would move around to get away from the prevailing wind, and fish either for waking fish or laid-up fish near the reeds. When the sun was out they were relatively easy to spot. When clouds came over we had to rely on Brian’s sixth sense, but often the fish would swim close to the boat and not spook as much, so a short accurate cast was often their undoing. We also found schools of fish in the open water that were easy to spot because of the large numbers of pelicans dive-bombing the bait. We didn’t get to visit the outer barrier islands, where the popper fishing on big schools of bull reds is meant to be insane, but that will have to wait for a future trip. We mainly used EP fibre streamers and Redfish Bugs, but spent some time fishing poppers as well. Although not as effective as the subsurface flies, the surface strikes on the poppers made up for it. Colour did not seem to make much of a difference; if the presentation was correct the fly would inevitably get eaten. Water depth varied as we moved from backwaters to areas closer to the ocean, but the constant factor was the amount of bait. In some of the more sheltered spots with clearer water it was fascinating to see schools of mullet with big reds casually swimming below them. Every now and then there would be a loud splash and one less mullet, with the rest of the school carrying on as if nothing had happened. BLACK DRUM The other fascinating quarry we chased is the black drum – they are closely related to the redfish and can grow to considerable size. The second morning we had one swim past that would have been in the 50 lb class; the wake it pushed was visible from a few hundred metres away. Unfortunately that fish was not interested in our offerings. Brian said they don’t normally eat when they are on the move, and the best opportunity to catch them is when they are lounging around. Brian also explained that the cast for black drum is even less intuitive than the one for the reds: the best way to get them to eat is to cast the fly as close as possible and ideally let it drop down right in front of their eyes. Then, once they see it, wait for the gills to flare and strike. Apparently they have very poor eyesight and a number of strange worm-like feelers under their mouth — all suited to rummaging on the sea bed looking for any tasty morsels. Even though they appear dark in pictures, and are called ‘black’ drum, the first one we came across was surprisingly visible as it sat in about two feet of water. I made a quick cast, the fly almost slid down its nose and that seemed to wake it up. It moved forward ever so slightly, I saw the gills flare and after counting one ‘Mississippi’ (forgive the pun) I set the hook and it was on. It put up a dogged fight — shorter runs but more stubborn than a red — and Brian secured it with the boga-grip and lifted it up for a picture. That was when I was able to truly notice how ugly and smelly they are: the slime left a smell on my clothes that lingered for the rest of the day. This only added to the charm of a different but engaging fish. I managed to catch one more during the week but I need to go back for a battleship sized one. Being less than two hours from New Orleans has its positives as well — even though it is too far to base yourself there for the fishing, there is a good chance that at least one day during the week will be blown out, so after waking up to wind and rain and waiting for a few hours, we called Brian and he suggested a visit to the war museum in NOLA. The museum was quite easy to find and proved to be an excellent experience, as confirmed by its rating on Tripadvisor. From the museum it was a pleasant 20 minute walk to Canal Street and into the French Quarter, where we were able to partake in shrimp po-boys for lunch and beignets and coffee at the Café du Monde for dessert. The walk down Bourbon Street during the day was a bit confronting, but at night time it’s alive until well into the early hours of the morning. Kelvin and I managed to experience it on our last night after the week’s fishing was completed, and all I can say is that we did manage to catch our flights home the next day, just…

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