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OUTDOORS: Anglers find their slice of heaven in ‘Sportsman’s Paradise’
THE RECENT annual Southeastern Outdoor Press Association Conference provided an excellent excuse to flee Washington’s political theater and, as a mental health professional might say, “Go to my happy place.”
One of those happy places is the Louisiana Gulf Coast, where Lake Charles was hosting the conference.
Fishing was magnificent in the glorious network of bayous and channels in saltwater marshes of southwest Louisiana and east of New Orleans.
Early October in Louisiana typically heralds the start of some bodacious angling for both speckled trout and redfish—better known around here as red drum.
We can catch big specks in many Chesapeake locations, especially down around the Elizabeth River. Juvenile “puppy drum” are also found in many Chesapeake tributaries while big bull reds run in the main bay.
Both fish are among my favorites to eat. While Virginia restricts anglers to keeping just one redfish within an 18–26-inch slot size, Louisiana lets you keep five redfish between 16–27 inches with one fish longer than 27. Their speckled trout limit is 25 with a 12-inch minimum size. Virginia limits anglers to 5–10 trout, depending on the season, with a 14-inch minimum.
BLACK BAYOU BONANZA
Fellow outdoors writer Jeff Dennis of South Carolina joined me aboard Capt. Tom Parks’ boat in the nippy predawn air at Calcasieu Point Landing.
Parks (fishingtom.net; 318/675-9114), navigated around huge barges pushed by tugboats during the brisk 20-mile run down the intercostal waterway before detouring in Black Bayou. We were just a few miles from Texas’ Sabine River in an area where Parks sees sparse competition from other fishermen.
A magnificent sunrise bathed the marsh grass as we began fishing in 2–3 feet of water with light spinning tackle. Although topwater artificial lures also may have performed, we used green popping corks about 18 inches above 1/0 kahle hooks baited with shrimp.
“Ring the dinner bell,” Parks encouraged as he forcefully worked the rod tip to create a commotion with the cork.
Working the shallow water shorelines, we took turns catching redfish and speckled trout. At one productive point, Dennis also hauled in a small flounder. I missed a bite as we rounded the corner and Dennis followed up with a cast in the vicinity. A solid hookup ensued and we guessed a redfish was on the line. To our surprise, a hefty sheepshead, big by inshore standards, was brought to the boat.
Dennis laughed as he remarked he had caught a “Sheepshead Slam,” which he defined as catching sheepshead, redfish and speckled trout all in the same area. Parks opined, “Where there’s ’heads there’s reds!“
Overall, it was a good mixed-bag trip. I even caught a needlenose gar, a fish often found in shallow waters around speckled trout.
A second opportunity came to fish south of Slidell, very near the area where the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina blasted through
levees and slammed New Orleans in 2005.
Texas outdoors writer Jim Darnell, his wife Beth and I fished with Capt. Mike Gallo (Angling Adventures of Louisiana: aaofla.com; 985/781-7811).
The run from Gallo’s lodge took us first across a 7-mile section of massive Lake Ponchartrain through Chef Pass, then across Lake Borgne to an opening on the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a controversial 76-mile channel built as a shortcut for ships to the Port of New Orleans. Miles of new, massive concrete surge barriers topped the levee system a short distance from us.
Some channel opponents believe the man-made shortcut destroyed protective wetlands and funneled Katrina’s storm surge into the city. Gallo said ships rarely use the channel, but trout and other species sure seem to like stacking up in the 30–40-foot water.
Anchored in the channel near the right side of the inlet opening, we enjoyed an incoming tide all morning, although northeasterly winds created perfect “bucking the tide” conditions.
Several young men aboard a boat on the other side of the inlet whooped it up as they steadily hauled in trout. Within minutes, we were joining in the fun.
Gallo likes light tackle. Our medium-action Falcon Coastal Series rods had Shimano 2500 reels spooled with 12-pound Berkley monofilament. He began tossing an H&H TKO artificial shrimp while we pitched single-hook bottom rigs baited with live shrimp.
It took me a while to get the feel for the bite and I initially fed fish more than caught them.
“Wait for him to take it,” Gallo said. “It’s easy to pull the bait from the fish.”
He explained a speckled trout first hits the shrimp to kill it and then tries to eat by folding the shrimp over and swallowing it from behind. “The horns on a shrimp are sharp; so is the tail. They can flick you with that tail and draw blood,” Gallo said, and I found out soon thereafter.
We all began landing keeper trout. The Darnells each boated a redfish as well as some small black drum. At midmorning, I had a forceful bite that clearly wasn’t a trout and after a short but powerful fight, a nice redfish was in the landing net.
A later aggressive bite fooled me into thinking another red might be on the line; instead a large gafftopsail catfish was hooked. These fish have long, venomous spines and their wounds can be very painful. They’re also the slimiest fish going. Although they’re good eating, Gallo prefers them out of the boat and used a hook remover to deftly release the fish over the water.
In between bites, Gallo shared from his lengthy repertoire of Cajun jokes. By noon, it was clear a major league fish fry was in the making. We called it a day.
I fished opposite ends of coastal Louisiana, and the state lived up to its “Sportsman’s Paradise” nickname.
Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia Street, Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or email