Chandeleur Island Fishing

Solitude & Shallows – Chandeleur Island
Louisiana’s famed barrier Islands are the place for sight-fishing adventure.
By Robert Sloan

About 90 minutes south of New Orleans the road comes to an end in Venice, Louisiana, a fishy-looking place that leads the way to the southern end of the Chandeleurs, a 40-mile stretch of barrier islands offering nothing more than endless white sand beaches, gin-clear bays and surf. You’ll find solitude that many did not know exists, a bezillion birds and all the trout and reds you could hope for.

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For the shallow-water angler the Chandeleur Islands are it, period. These deserted islands belong to the birds, literally. It’s one big federally protected bird sanctuary that just happens to be surrounded by endless flats teaming with gamefish.

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Here’s a nice day’s work for a wader. This stringer of impressive seatrout fell for an array of jigs and plugs, fished with lightweight casting tackle.
Getting to the Chandeleurs can be done by boat or sea plane. Years ago I began making the trip with a few buddies from Houston, Texas. We would trailer boats from Houston, through New Orleans and on down to Venice. From Venice we would travel to the southern end of the Chandeleurs. It was a rough trip. We camped on the islands, cooked fresh fish, lived like natives, wade fished from dawn ‘til dusk, and dreaded the thought of heading back to civilization.

Later on I would fly in to fish with various outfitters, mainly with the late Rudy Grigar, a.k.a. The Plugger, who touted the Chandeleurs as the greatest wade-fishing location on the Gulf coast. “They’re not overrun or overfished, and the water stays clear year-round, regardless of wind direction. The fishing is always good, even when it rains.” That’s the way Grigar would sum up his favorite stretch of water.

I’ll never forget the day I was coming in via float plane to fish with Grigar. We circled low and there he was, white hair glowing in the bright sun. And he was butt-ass naked, hitting golf balls off the top of his crew boat that had been converted for fishing. He loved to play golf, but fishing was his passion. Grigar was crazy about shallow-water angling. He began fishing out of Galveston, then moved south to Port O’Connor, Texas to escape the crowds.

Later on, he packed his gear and headed to the Chandeleurs, once again to escape civilization. That’s where he found big numbers of reds and trout. And that’s where he fished out his life.

Not much has changed on the islands since Grigar’s days there. He started fishing the islands in the 60s and finished up in the late 80s. Sure, there have been hurricanes. And they have reshaped the islands. But they always seem to bounce back. Having fished these islands for the better part of 20 years, I can say from some very salty experience that the fishing is as good as ever.

Via boat, you can reach the southern tip of the islands by heading out of the jetties at the mouth of the Mississippi River. From there it’s about 18 miles to the islands. The southern tip includes the Breton Islands, Grand Gosier Islands and Curlew Island. I’ve fished the entire 40 or so miles of the Chandeleur chain of islands, and the southern end is, without a doubt, the best.

The great thing about a do-it-yourself trip to the Chandeleurs is that you can easily move from one island to the next. If the fish disappear, move on. In years past we communicated via radio. If part of our group finds fish at, say, Curlew, we pack up and head that way. Conversely, hooking up with an outfitter, based out of a 50- to 100-foot boat, gives you protection from the weather, provides meals, showers, a/c, and, well, good old-fashioned down home southern comfort. Plus, guides usually have the inside scoop on the whereabouts of trout and reds.

I’ll never forget one particular morning while at Curlew Island. Six of us had been camping there for about three days. And we had been catching arm-length trout in the surf like there was no tomorrow. One morning we had gotten up well before dawn, and caught a lot of small trout on the bay side of the island. Once the sun began to light up things, we moved to the surf full of 4- to 6-pound trout that hammered our topwaters on every cast. It doesn’t get much better than that. After the bite, we gathered back at the boat for coffee and breakfast. Right about then a big guide boat pulled into the bay. He had seven anglers on board. They enthusiastically hit the water and instantly began catching the small “bay” trout. Not one of them made the 50-yard hike to test the surf. We got a kick out that.

When fishing these islands you have two options–fish the protected bay side or wade-fish the surf. Always check the surf out first. If it’s running clear and green right to the beach, chances are good it’s full of fish, the biggest trout and reds, in fact. If the surf water is silty, stick with the bay side where smaller but numerous fish reside.

Sight casting to trout and reds on the bays is big fun. But it can take some leg work. Hiking is a big part of success along the Chandeleurs. Quite often you can walk and wade a mile or so from the boat, while searching for fish. One morning I was having a tough time finding anything more than “cigar” trout, fish in the 10- to 12-inch class. I was fly fishing my way along the eastern tip of the Breton Islands, eventually coming upon a pool of blue-green water about the size of a backyard swimming pool. Upon further scrutiny, I noticed that there were some big trout feeding on finger mullet moving in and out with the waves. I stood in that one spot and used a No. 1 white deerhair diver to catch seven of the pretties trout you’ll ever see.

Fly fishing the islands is a great thrill. Most of the water is crystal-clear, or turquoise colored. It’s not unusual to see tailing reds in 8 inches of water. Stalking Chandeleur reds is a hoot. It’s just you and the fish, most of the time. One of the best flyfishing experiences I’ve ever had on the Chandeleurs was on the northern tip of the islands. I was with Grigar. We had left the mothership in a 14-foot john boat, powered by an old Evinrude. Grigar yanked on the cord, and the motor coughed and sputtered with a plume of blue smoke.

“I’ve got a beer can reef that’s loaded with oysters, up here about a mile or so,” said Grigar. “It’s on a ridge next to a gut. Big reds will come up out of the gut to feed shallow on the reef in the afternoons, with the incoming tide.”

Sure enough, when we arrived there we some awfully big wakes being pushed by reds feeding over the beer can shell reef. Grigar wasn’t one to waste anything. He was like a pirate. He raided the resource, but recycled everything. This reef was formed by a line of empty beer cans secured to bottom. Grigar would collect live oysters and mix them in with the cans.

Within a year or so he had a fine fish-attracting reef. They were all over the place. I bailed out of the boat with fly rod in hand–to which was attached a No. 1 white-and-silver deerhair popper–and made a cast to a big red feeding around a pod of oysters. I began working the popper aggressively and the red charged and ate it like a starved coyote. Then it felt the sting of the hook and bolted in a spray of water.

“What did I tell you?” yelled Grigar. “Wall to wall reds!”

Variety is the spice of life. And when you hit the right tide that’s the way it is in the islands. On one trip to the Gosier Islands, we found a point that was a big feeding area on an outgoing tide. Trout, reds, sharks, jacks and Spanish mackerel would swarm. We probably caught 200 or more trout and reds off that one point in two afternoons. It’s been a consistent producer for years.

The surf along the Chandeleur Islands can offer world class fishing on clear, flat tides. That’s when the topwater bite for trout is splendid. It’s also a time when some rather awesome and bold sharks will be on the move and looking for an easy meal. More than one bug-eyed angler has backed out of the surf along these islands. The Chandeleurs are notorious for attracting sharks. However, very few anglers have been attacked. Those who have probably got between a shark and a stringer of fish. A favorite edge of Curlew Island turns into the surf, and that’s where friend Mike Barnes and I had found a big school of trout and reds. We stringered a few fish for dinner. I looked over my shoulder just in time to see Barnes get yanked over into the water. A big shark had latched onto his stinger of fish and was heading south. The fracas only lasted a second, but it was enough to back us up to dry sand.

The peak times to fish the islands are from April through October. That’s when the currents are warm and alive with fish. You can wade-fish miles of water without ever seeing other anglers. It’s kind of strange to stand in the bay or surf and catch trout and reds till your arms give out, and enjoy solitude. That’s a rarity in this day and age. But it’s one that is pretty much the norm at the Chandeleurs.

Survival on the Islands

As you can imagine fishing the Chandeleurs for days at a time can be taxing. The mid-day sun will fry your brain. Big shady hats are mandatory. Long-sleeved shirts and pants and good wading shoes will keep you comfortable for days. Polarized sunglasses keep you from going blind. Sunscreen is a must. And water, lots of it, should be consumed throughout the fishing day.

Gearing up to fish

Light spinning and baitcasting tackle is perfect for catching Chandeleur trout and reds in the 2- to 6-pound class. Reels should be spooled with 10- to 14-pound-test line. An 18-inch-section of fluorocarbon leader is helpful. When using soft-plastic jigs you’ll need to tie on a No. 10 black barrel swivel between the leader and line to prevent line twist. Best lures will be 1/2 – or 1/4 -ounce silver-and-chartreuse or silver-and-yellow spoons. Gold spoons with pink teasers are best for reds. Soft plastics like Assassins, Stanley Jigs Wedge Tail Flats Minnows and Mullet are very good, when rigged on 1/4- or 1/8- ounce lead-head jigs. The eel-shaped plastics are good, too. One of the all-time favorites along the Chandeleurs is the H&H Cocahoe Minnow. Top colors are red/shad, white/chartreuse, pumpkin/orange, avocado/red and rootbeer. The topwater bite can be awesome, too. Take along plenty of mullet-imitating plugs. Some of my favorites include the Heddon Super Spook and Super Spook Jr., Top Dog, Yo-Zuri Mag Popper and Mag Darter, and the Rebel Broken Back Red Fin. Proven colors are bone, chrome, chrome/blue, mullet and clear.

Fly fishing

Seven- or 8-weight fly rods are best. The 8-weight is probably your best bet.

The wind usually blows, so you’ll need the extra strength of the 8-weight to push bulky hair bugs through the air. Top fly patterns for both trout and reds are No. 1 deerhair divers or poppers and streamers such as Clouser Minnows and Deceivers in white, chartreuse, white/chartreuse or white/blue.

Seven- to 9-foot leaders are ideal and tippets should test 10- to 14-pound test.

Outfitters

There are many. Most are docked in Biloxi, Miss. My advice is to type Chandeleur Islands fishing into a search engine on the internet. You’ll find most of the outfitters that way. Some offer day trips, but most offer multi-day full-service trips. The multi-day trip outfitters will take a group of anglers out on boats in the 50- to 100-foot class. They carry small outboard powered two-person skiffs that are off-loaded at the islands.

A few of the outfitters are:

Southern Sports Fishing – (866) 763-7335. Biloxi, Miss.
Southern Belle Fishing Tours – (228) 897-1317. Gulfport, Miss.
Due South Fishing Charter – (228) 872-8422. Biloxi, Miss.
Joka’s Wild – (228) 769-5000. Biloxi, Miss.