With its rich soils and nutrients, few regions produce like the Delta
By Alan Clemons
VENICE, La. — Spending time in a boat with skipper Herb Sale is like fishing with a Louisiana historian who has a little cayenne in his gumbo.
“That’s our state bird there, the pelican,” Sale said as he idled his 25-foot bay boat, Saucy, through the canal to Yellow Cotton Bayou. “We see them year-round, but they also migrate through in winter. A quite amazing bird.”
Sale opened up the throttle outside the canal and the early-morning chill erased any final cobwebs not dissipated by the hot coffee in my mug. The sun was creeping over the marsh, bathing in a faint orange light a vast bay dotted with a few dead trees and eroding islands here and there.
Coots sat on the water. A few mallards winged by, along with gulls and cormorants. Gadwalls flew overhead.
A flock of scaup went zipping past. Sale called them by their Cajun nickname — “dos gris” — and translated that into “gray back” for the out-of-town visitor. He didn’t have to do the same for the coots; poule d’eau is pretty well known among Southern duck hunters.
Sale, like the amazing Mississippi River Delta and its ever-changing marshes, is one of a kind.
For more than 30 years he’s plied the flats in search of trout and redfish, occasionally tangling with the offshore tarpon or tuna. Today, he’s trolling toward an unseen flat that goes from two or three feet into a deep canal that attracts fish in winter.
“ Sometimes they won’t hit a thing; other times, you can drop a jig down there and catch them one after another. ”
— Herb Sale
“This is an old barge canal that was dredged years ago,” Sale said. “Over time it has filled in some due to erosion, but it’s still the deepest water in the area. Whenever the first hard cold front comes through, usually in December, the trout and reds will move off the flats into the deeper water.
“During the day when the sun warms up the flats, they’ll move up and feed with the tides. But in the coldest months, they stack up in those deep holes and just sit there. Sometimes they won’t hit a thing; other times, you can drop a jig down there and catch them one after another.”
Catching a bass in the marsh is one thing. The BASS Masters Classic has been held in the Mississippi River Delta two of the last three years. Anglers love the opportunities provided in the vast marshy backcountry, where a jig or tube flipped along a patch of Roseau cane might result in a chunky 4- or 5-pounder.
But the trout — speckled sea trout to be precise — are what gain much of the attention from Lake Pontchartrain south throughout the Delta. They’re one of the most popular game fish along the Gulf of Mexico, from south Florida’s mangrove-covered Ten Thousand Islands to the shifting sand inlets of south Texas.
There’s nothing quite like the Delta
Few areas produce like south Louisiana, though.
The Delta is a rich conglomeration of alluvial soils and nutrients from 28 states and three Canadian provinces, flowing along the Mississippi River and deposited in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans.
The river parallels the narrow parish to the east, splitting a maze of marshes, lakes, bays and canals that blanket the area like an emerald patchwork quilt.
The delta was formed more than 700 years ago when the river shifted 50 miles east from its original route.
Today, annual storms, tidal influences and hurricanes obliterate marshes, change landmarks in bays and create new areas — some accessible for fishing, some inaccessible but used by wildlife as nurseries and feeding grounds — that anglers notice every year.
“Oh, it’s changed tremendously in 30 years,” said Sale, who lives in Slidell on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain and has a camp in Venice.
“Camp” is a general term for whatever a person has in the marsh — house, trailer, shack, spit of land. No matter what, it’s a “camp.”
“It changes every year. There used to be an island out there,” he said, pointing toward open water, “a pretty big one, and it had a tree growing on it. Everyone knew where it was. But eventually it disappeared, too. Everything changes.”
Topwaters, grubs, shrimp
In his wonderful book, “Specks,” native son and avid trout angler Todd Masson sums up the Venice experience this way:
“In a stretch of coast full of exotic and intriguing areas, none compares to Venice … trying to define Venice in one word is like trying to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with one brush. It’s like no place else.”
Ask five speckled trout anglers the best bait to use and they’ll all say “live shrimp.” Using shrimp for trout is like putting a big chocolate bar in front of someone with a raging sweet tooth.
Ask those same anglers what the best artificial lure to use and you’re likely to get five different answers. Brand names, mostly. But the basics are the same: topwaters, grubs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits and hard or soft twitch baits.
Colors vary as well, though most anglers favor shades of black and silver, pearl, avocado or chartreuse.
“When I’m going after trout with topwaters, I usually stick with a MirrOlure Top Dog,” said Bobby Warren, who runs Adventure Charters out of Venice Marina.
“The big steel ball inside the lure makes a loud clack when you work the lure slowly and those trout key in on the action and the sound. It reminds them of a croaker, which they love to eat.”
More than 68 percent of Gulf coast anglers target speckled trout, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The fish have a delicious, flaky white meat.
Anglers hunt them by looking for oyster beds, flats near deep water, sandy points or bars with current washing over or along vegetation lines where water is flowing from a marsh and bringing crabs, minnows and other food.
For numbers of small fish, a plastic Cocahoe minnow on a leadhead jig or live shrimp can’t be beat. Worked under a popping cork, the baits hang in the water and flow with the current.
The pop of the cork provides the noise to get the fish’s attention. When trout gang up to feed on baitfish, the resulting activity often creates an oil slick on the water. Anglers who can discern the sheen often can ease up to the slick and do well. Diving seabirds also are a good indication of activity.
And there is the “watermelon” smell.
“When they’re feeding on bait, it smells like watermelons,” Sale said. “If you ever smell it once, you’ll never forget it.”
Anglers may keep up to 25 trout a day that are at least 12 inches long. For redfish, the limit is five per day measuring at least 16 inches with not more than one exceeding 27 inches.
For trophy gator trout, considered anything over 5 pounds, anglers turn their attention to bigger lures. That theory holds up with trout.
Big artificials like a Top Dog or Super Spook topwater, Producer or broken-back Rapala stick bait and crankbaits like the Swim’n Image worked with a steady retrieve are deadly. A stop-and-go retrieve often seems to work best for big trout, which may follow the lure just under the surface and then whack it when it stops.
Plastic grubs are productive in winter when the trout and reds stack up in the deeper holes to escape the chilly weather.
Standard bass tackle does the job, with 12-pound test advisable for specks. Warren uses 30-pound test Power Pro braid, which has an 8-pound test diameter and is resistant to abrasion from barnacles or tough Roseau cane.
“The braid is great in windy conditions and in current around the rigs, too, because you can feel the subtle bites,” Warren said. “Fishing can be good in winter and then you hit a transition period between late winter and spring when it’s tough.
“But things pick back up in spring. May is great, especially around the full moon, to catch a trophy.”
With its rich soils and nutrients, few regions produce like the Delta