Cajun Crawlers – Marsh Fishing For Reds in Louisiana
By Mike Conner
“There goes another one!” I shouted over the motor’s roar, surprised that a redfish would wait until the last second before scooting out of harm’s way. In a few popular Florida locales, flats reds start to get antsy when you back your rig down the ramp. But not here.
Barely five minutes from the launch, we had entered a cut in a low levee and voilà! Louisiana marsh as far as the eye could see.
Given the advanced warning from the high-pitched primal whine of a 24-horse Go-Devil, it wasn’t like we were sneaking up and surprising these guys. As we skimmed over dense mats of milfoil and hydrilla, reds, mullet, and the occasional sheepshead and gar rocketed away, only to plunge right back into the jungle.
“Looks like there are enough reds to toss flies at right here, Jay!” I yelled over the motor.
“There’s always a few here,” Capt. Jay Bunch replied. “But I’m headin’ for a couple of ponds where I’ve found finners and a few big crawlers this week.” I took that to mean redfish rubbing their bellies.
Fish continued to part like the Red Sea as we made our way deeper into the interconnected duck ponds of the Barrataria estuary at Myrtle Grove, just southwest of Belle Chasse, Louisiana. Up ahead, a fat, glistening coal-black nutria slithered from the water onto a muddy bank. Pairs of ducks rose from the marsh well ahead of us from time to time, but with the bulk of migratory birds north for the summer, redfish are by far the undisputed king of the ponds.
As we negotiated a bend, a formidable wake bulged up ahead and I was finally able to lock eyes with a big-shouldered, golden red before it tunneled back into the salad. Now I was really itching to pull the trigger and get some loops in the air.
We came off plane in a sea of mud-banked grassy islands, and Jay cut the engine. There is no quiet like the quiet that follows the wail of a Go-Devil. As we prepared to fish, the sun burned through the morning mist, and the dew-soaked marsh went from gray to gold and green.
“This stretch has been good for tailing and finning fish lately, and before the water gets too high, we might see some big crawlers up real shallow,” claimed Jay, who went on to explain that the tide might be higher than normal today due to forecasted strong southerly winds.
“If the wind comes up strong on the heels of this rising tide, it’ll flood this place pretty good, so let’s hope it lays for as long as possible,” said Jay, as he grabbed his pushpole and climbed atop the poling platform. For now, the wind was fairly light. We worked our way down the edge of an island and a couple of reds tipped their tails up immediately.
“See there? Like those fish, most of ’em will be tight to the shorelines in here,” Jay predicted. “That’s where the fiddler crabs are, so these fish will tail more and stay put for your cast a lot longer than those we see out in the open, well off the banks.”
After another pole stroke or two, I signaled to Jay that we were plenty close for my cast. Though I don’t cast spoon flies for Florida reds, Jay’s black-and-red spoon fly turned over smartly and plinked in within a foot of the fish’s business end. I made one slow strip, and the red’s tail went down. After a second strip, the water humped, then a jolt. I dug the fly home and my first bayou red awoke its neighbors with a showy, splashy surge. The 6-pounder got into my backing a bit, after which I hand-stripped it in, while watching another half-dozen or so unseen fish wake off a short distance before settling down.
Richard Kernish kept tabs on their whereabouts while I plucked the fly free and released my fish. We traded fly shots for the next half-hour, landing a few more medium size reds and losing a couple more before somebody switched on the fan. The weatherman was on target—the winds had arrived. The tidal current picked up noticeably within the hour. By midmorning, wind-foam lined the surface in rows, a high veil of clouds scudded the sun, water piled into the marsh, and the marsh was a gray world again.
Boat handling and fly casting became tricky. It was lights on, then lights off, and all but the occasional waking fish was extremely tough to spot in time to present a fly. I stayed on the bow with my fly rod, holding hope that a fish would tail up, while Richard hooked and landed a couple of waking fish on a gold spoon tight against the grassy bank. After that, we hit a dry spell, with Richard jokingly suggesting that we troll. But Jay had a much more sane idea.
“We need to fish the points with topwater plugs,” he said.
“You mean blind-cast?” I asked. That was the game plan. With a 20-knot wind and rushing tide tag-teaming us from the rear, Jay would not be able to slow the boat much, so he instructed us to cast to as many grassy points as we could as we whizzed along. This brought me back to Florida, where we routinely cast for snook at mangrove points in the Everglades backcountry, a particularly good plan when wind blows out flats fishing. Snook are classic ambush feeders, but reds I usually equate with roving about and grubbing for their food.
“My rule of thumb is just figure that there is a red on every point,” said Jay. “And since one of you is left-handed and the other right-handed, you can both fish from the bow.” He went on to explain that with strong wind-driven current, the points of the grass islands create eddies where the reds hold up and pick off baitfish in the flow. The fish might not park there for long, but by peppering these lies with our casts, we stood a greater chance of hooking fish we could no longer see. Noisy plugs are better for this work than soft baits or spoons because they call fish in from a greater distance down the shoreline.
We did manage to hook and land a couple of reds on both chuggers and walking plugs with rattles, and had a few more big fish make a beeline for our plugs from 10 to 20 feet away, before turning off or seeing the boat. So it was a great call on Jay’s part to salvage the morning.
The next morning brought breathless conditions until 9 a.m., after which the strong winds returned. The fish tailed well up until that point, so we enjoyed classic fly fishing before turning to plugging the points. And I did get a chance to cast at a couple of the crawlers Jay talked about. The fish were in about six to eight inches of water over bare mud at the back of a small cove off a grassy pond. The fish moved along slowly, so I had numerous shots, and even time to change flies. I got one fish to track a bit, but not commit, after which it dropped out of sight.
Like sight fishing anywhere, what you see is what you get. I was impressed by the number of fish we saw, while the seeing was good. We caught enough fish to determine that Louisiana reds are indeed aggressive, and not as spooky as they can be in waters near major population centers. The duck ponds certainly hold good numbers. Our trip was in early April, and from most accounts, it seems that late May through July is prime time for big numbers, and when you can expect ideal conditions for fly casting.
Duck ponds are basically safe haven for redfish. Redfish can be found in the shallow ponds practically year-round, though they pretty much vacate the ponds in January, taking to the deeper water of nearby bays and pipeline canals.
“To catch reds in deeper winter haunts, I do some ‘search fishing’ with gold spoons, then it’s possible to switch to fly fishing, with heavy flies tied to light tippet to help them sink faster,” says Jay. “The spring fishing is more dependable, with May being a top month due to moderate water temps. From late July through early September, water temps approach 90, and reds get lethargic. In October, shallow pond fishing is as good as May, and holds steady through December.”
As far as fish size goes, 10- to 12-pound fish, and some larger, are most common in summer. And since the water is on the fresh side in much of the marsh, there are always a few largemouth bass around, though saltwater intrusion during dry periods moves them farther inland. Flounder, trout, black drum and sheepshead mostly stick to deeper bay and canal waters, but do enter the ponds as well. In fact, we spotted a decent number of sheepshead mixed in with redfish, though we did not target them specifically. SWA
If You Go
Capt. Jay Bunch runs fly and light-tackle charters for up to two anglers out of his customized johnboat, and his partner, Capt. Tony Barousse, of Big Easy Fishing Charters, specializes in light-tackle trips for redfish, seatrout, flounder, back drum, sheepshead and largemouth bass.
If you prefer to travel light, Bunch and Barousse do provide fly and light tackle, lures and flies. To book a trip, and for further information about Louisiana fishing licenses and lodging in and around New Orleans, visit Capt. Jay Bunch’s Web site, flyfishingneworleans.com or call (866) 254-3973.
Tackle, Flies and Lures
Fly rods in the 7- to 8-weight range are ideal for duck pond reds, depending on fly weight. There is no need for sinking lines, and leaders can measure 7 to 9 feet, tapering to 12- to 16-pound tippet. Lighter tippet is not advised because hooked reds tend to twist and roll around in the vegetation.
At Capt. Bunch’s suggestion, I had tied on one of his black-and-red spoon flies. I don’t fish spoon flies where I fish for reds in Florida; I find that most of these concoctions cast like…well, let’s say that they are aerodynamically challenged. However, this one was small and light. Bunch ties his flies, and ties like any experienced fly caster. In other words, his spoon flies cast well, and wobble and flash like crazy with short strips. “No spoon fly goes in my box until after it passes the bathtub test,” Bunch said with a wink.
Spoon flies must have weedguards, and that goes for other patterns, too. We also took fish on brown-and-orange Clouser Minnows with light bead chain eyes, and Bendbacks are a logical choice over the heaviest grass, and black with gold flash is a top choice. Poppers and deerhair divers can be used when fishing the points.
Spin and plug rods rated for 10- to 12-pound test are ideal, and top sight-fishing lures include gold spoons, soft-plastic jerkbaits and smallish topwaters.