Drive out of New Orleans for redfish and trout action unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
By Jeff Weakley
A spoke off elevated Highway 90 strays through the suburbs of Jefferson Parish, then abruptly bores deep into the marsh for Lafitte.
The town was named for the pirate Jean Lafitte, who sided here with the U.S. against the British in the War of 1812. It’s pronounced “la-feet.” Natives are referred to as “Lafittian,” which sounds a whole lot like “lil’ feeshin’” and a little fishing is precisely what a visitor does in Lafitte.
It’s the kind of place where a guide wakes you at 4:30 a.m. with a pot of hot coffee and warm biscuits.
Where you return to the dock at noon, with a boxful of reds and trout to be fried, sauteed, broiled and devoured at a local restaurant.
Where you might fish again in the afternoon, or just lie around in a hammock, pondering quirks of geography.
“Papa” Joe Bush has lived in southeastern Louisiana since 1971. He moved down from Connecticut with Pat, his high-school sweetheart in Camden, New Jersey. They raised three boys here. Pat teaches physics and chemistry at a local college. Joe is retired from a career with a firm that made radioactive materials used in the Louisiana industrial complex.
Thankfully, Papa Joe’s eyes don’t glow and he doesn’t have an extra arm growing out of his head. Nothing like that. But, with his hybridized Jersey/Cajun accent, big nasal laugh and knack for story-telling, he could fill in on “Car Talk” for a Tappet Brother on sick leave.
When we arrived at the Bush’s waterfront home, I was a little let-down to see a 23-foot bay boat. I had a hazy mental image of poling after skinny-water redfish. Twenty minutes down the Barataria Waterway, which runs a full 34 miles to the Gulf, the reason for the big boat quickly became clear.
Fishing southern Louisiana is all about long runs, spells of merciless weather and, increasingly these days, open water.
And then there’s the mud. Oh, the mud.
An 18-foot pushpole pressed into the bottom keeps going until it disappears. You’d do the same, too, if you stepped out of the boat.
“If you fall in, be sure to spread your legs like this,” Papa Joe advised.
Boaters who are either very savvy or utterly oblivious churn their props right on through the soup. In southern Louisiana, a dependable outboard is fondly referred to as a “mudder,” defined by the bore of the cooling water passages, the ability to suck up and spit out decaying organic matter sloughed off the North American continent over thousands of years.
Coming from South Florida, where you can be fined thousands of dollars for a thin stripe on a grassflat, this takes a little getting used to.
We fished two days with Papa Joe and Mike Daigle, another local captain. Daigle also runs a 23-foot bay boat. Both have bow-mount trolling motors, which get a lot of use here.
Trout fishing had been fantastic before we arrived, with many anglers “getting their limits”—25 apiece. Turned over by strong southeast winds, dirty water moved in on Barataria Bay. I asked what “dirty” means.
“For reds, I like to be able to see the foot of the trolling motor,” said Bush. “For trout, even a little more visibility.” Moving into the protective filter of creeks and ponds may reveal better conditions. By the time we could see a few inches down, a huge storm ran us out, lightning bolts dancing all around.
In warm months, a popular approach for seatrout is drifting and casting soft-plastic shrimp rigged on 18 inches of 30-pound mono beneath a popping cork. Bush favors bright orange Old Bayside Paradise Poppers, with concave tops that go “Sploosh!” when you whip the rodtip. That sound gets the attention of trout, and the soft bait seals the deal. White, glow and chartreuse are popular bait colors, rigged on 1⁄4-ounce jigheads.
Sunrise is the best time for trout, and many a fishing day is broken down into the following routine: Leave the dock in the dark. Head to salty water closest to the Gulf of Mexico. Look for birds, other boats, share intel with buddies on the cell phone. Catch a limit of trout. Return and hit the redfish ponds on the way home. Try very hard to avoid wrecking your lower unit along the way.
Some of the trout fishing takes place around grass islands, where mullet skip and you’d expect there to be trout. Out in open water, birds diving on bait over submerged oyster bars is another good sign. Then again, a lot of trout are landed beneath nightmarish assemblies of wooden pilings, huge tanks, metal pipes, wheels, dials, hissing nozzles—the ubiquitous infrastructure of the oil and gas industry. Manmade shellbeds form the foundation, attracting fish much like natural oyster bars.
Submerged pipes connect a lot of this structure—and those who laid the pipes weren’t too concerned about public navigation. After all, technically much of the Mississippi River delta is privately owned land, despite the fact that much of said land is sinking inexorably beneath the Gulf. Locals may not think twice about burning an outboard through the gooey mud, but the pipes are a whole ‘nother subject.
“If the water was clear, from the air you could look down and see junk all over the place,” warned Daigle, as we weaved through a tight channel. Bush led the way in his boat. Being second in line seemed like a good bet, I thought.
A good chart is essential. Both our hosts had GPS chartplotters with electronic data cards. Because of erosion and subsidence, the landscape changes from year to year, leaving you scratching your head. Bush downloads chart card info from Lowrance MapCreate version 6.0. “I like older versions of charts,” he said. “They show you where the land was.” That can lead to good fishing reefs, and clue you in on submerged dams and other hazards.
Seeing all this for the first time, it was obvious to me there’s no substitute for caution and time on the water. I noticed a lot of areas through which we ran on plane were either attended by shrimpboats, or dotted with crab trap floats. Commercial fishers can’t afford destroying motors, so that tells you something.
Safely back in the marsh, redfish seem to be everywhere. Typical for a nursery, they range in size from 16-inch keepers to 27-inch adults; bigger than that, they transition to the open Gulf spawning population.
Bush and Daigle like to work shorelines under trolling motor power, casting small spinnerbaits. A safety-pin- style spinner blade snapped to a 1⁄8- or 1⁄4-ounce jighead, with a soft-plastic minnow tail, is a good choice. Bush likes the inexpensive gold H&H brand, stainless steel wire, No. 4 blade. No leader is needed; only thing with teeth here is an occasional alligator. Purple-and-white, black-and-chartreuse or all-white are three productive redfish patterns.
“Keep the rodtip up, so the spinner is turning right under the surface. If you let it drop, it gets hung in the grass,” he said.
There’s very little tidal current deep in the marsh. The range is seldom greater than 6 inches, and only 2 feet at the Gulf.
“Which way the wind is blowing, is which way the tide is going,” Bush said flatly.
We were fishing way up in the dizzying reaches of the Bayou DuPont Duck Ponds, near Papa Joe’s hunting camp.
“You’ll see some movement where the ponds nozzle down at the entrance,” Daigle added. “But generally, I like to run the trolling motor upwind—the fish are facing into that current.”
A big wind out of the north, as follows a winter cold front, can blow the water out of the ponds, making them all but inaccessible.
Winter is a time when fish and anglers seek refuge from the cold. Reds often hunker along rock wiers, especially near openings where tidal current brings forage. Trout hole up in dead-end canals, which housed old oil and gas wells.
“Where canals were dug into marsh, there are spoil banks on both sides,” Bush explained, “with trees growing on the banks now, they were dug so long ago. You can get in there out of wind, and because it’s deeper, 8, 9 feet, and the water stays clearer and warm, it fills with trout.”
Haven for seatrout, haven for pirates. Harbor for industry, home for anglers seeking big fish and empty spaces.
That’s a Lafittian trip.
Just about all roads radiating out of New Orleans lead to great fishing. Lafitte, on Barataria Blvd, State Route 45, about 45 minutes from downtown, is one on a solid list of fishing ports. Delacroix (1 hour), Hopedale (1 hour), Myrtle Grove (45 minutes), and Venice (2 hours) are some others.
We stayed with Papa Joe Bush, in his small waterfront camp that offers two downstairs rooms fitted with bunk beds and separate baths. C&M Marina, one of four marinas in Lafitte, has cabins and bunkhouses, in addition to ramp, fuel and bait-and-tackle sales (504-684-2013; www.bayoufuel.com). Seaway Marina (504-689-3148) is another spot to launch, buy gear and get some advice. A Taiwanese firm is said to be building a hotel at the end of the road.
It seems practical to stay in New Orleans and simply drive out to meet one of the dozens of guides working in the delta. In town there are numerous hotels, legendary dining and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, refurbished (as with much of the town) since Hurricane Katrina. The French Quarter nightlife speaks for itself. When in doubt, start with a hand grenade at Tropical Isle and go from there.
Drive out of New Orleans for redfish and trout action unlike anything you’ve ever seen.