A LAST, BEST PLACE

IN­SHORE AND OFF­SHORE, LOUISIANA OF­FERS PLENTY OF EX­TRA­OR­DI­NARY FISH­ING

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - BY JOHN BROWN­LEE PHOTOS BY JES­SICA HAY­DAHL RICHARD­SON

The fish­ing in Venice and Hope­dale, Louisiana, is as hot as Ca­jun cook­ing, with plenty of big red­fish and yel­lowfin tuna. By JOHN BROWN­LEE

As the skiff sped through the labyrinth of marsh chan­nels, I gave silent thanks for mod­ern elec­tron­ics. Ev­ery time I’m lucky enough to fish in the vast sys­tem of wet­lands along the bor­der of Louisiana and Mis­sis­sippi, I have a vague feel­ing that I might never find my way out. At the very least, I might spend a night on the boat. Such con­cerns con­sti­tute para­noia, of course, be­cause an­glers plied th­ese waters for many decades be­fore GPS came along. As far as Iknow, they all made it home in one piece. Still, the sheer size and scope of this area can be in­tim­i­dat­ing, es­pe­cially to those of us from places where nav­i­ga­tion re­quires less skill.

Hope­dale, Louisiana, sits at the end of state road LA 624 on the west­ern edge of this wild sea of grass and wa­ter, known both as the Mis­sis­sippi Marsh and the Biloxi Marsh, de­pend­ing on whom you ask. I’ve sought clear def­i­ni­tions of bound­aries, and although I sus­pect they ex­ist, I’ve yet to have them ad­e­quately ex­plained to me. Not that it mat­ters. A huge num­ber of tro­phy fish call this place home, and the fish­ing pres­sure re­mains light on most days. That’s what counts. Capt. Alex Mur­ray — whose elec­tron­ics worked well when I was aboard with him — calls the myr­iad small bay­ous that dot the marsh “duck ponds” be­cause dur­ing the win­ter, water­fowl flock to this area in in­cred­i­ble num­bers. “My fa­vorite thing about Hope­dale and why it’s such a spe­cial place is the en­vi­ron­ment that you are fish­ing,” Mur­ray says. “It’s a maze of marshy shore­lines, duck ponds and small is­lands on the ex­te­rior of the marsh. It gives you a di­verse fish­ery and many places to fish dur­ing any sea­son and weather con­di­tion.”

Fish­ing the Ponds

The waters offhope­dale dif­fer sub­stan­tially from the marsh far­ther south, around Venice, Houma and Grand Isle. Those ar­eas of­fer out­stand­ing red­fish ac­tion, as well, but the wa­ter tends to be clearer east of Hope­dale, cre­at­ing spec­tac­u­lar sight-fish­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. “I love sight fish­ing for red­fish in the fall and win­ter in the Biloxi Marsh,” Mur­ray says. “The big red­fish will school up on the ex­te­rior of the marsh and in duck ponds, mak­ing a per­fect sight-cast­ing op­por­tu­nity with lures or flies.”

As Mur­ray used the elec­tric trolling mo­tor to nudge our bay boat around the perime­ter of the first bayou we en­tered, we could see tell­tale puffs of mud up ahead. A school of 20 or more red­fish ner­vously moved along the shore­line. Our day had dawned calm and clear, and in such set­tled condi-

tions it can be dif­fi­cult to sneak up on wary fish us­ing a trolling mo­tor. Pol­ing a skiff can work bet­ter, but we didn’t have that op­tion.

We stopped to let the fish set­tle, and soon they came to us. We cast soft plas­tic baits and picked off fish af­ter fish. The school would scat­ter when a fish got hooked, but af­ter the re­lease, the lot of them tended to school up again and af­ford us an­other shot. My fish­ing com­pan­ion on the trip, Capt. Jared Cyr of Key West, Florida, pulled out the fly rod af­ter we’d caught and re­leased sev­eral on spin.

On the Fly

“Let’s see if we can get a lighter pre­sen­ta­tion with the fly,” Cyr says as he casts a crab fly that Mur­ray had tied. It landed near a group of red­dish backs feed­ing next to a mud bank. Cyr got maybe two strips into his re­trieve when the rod bent hard. He found him­self se­curely but­toned to yet an­other chunky red­fish. Over sev­eral days we re­peated this sce­nario again and again in dozens of bay­ous and along the edges of grass is­lands lin­ing the Gulf of Mex­ico.

The ex­panse of habi­tat sup­ports a va­ri­ety of for­age species for red­fish and other game­fish, and the fish­ing op­tions seem al­most lim­it­less. On an­other trip to Hope­dale, Capt. Ron­nie Daniels took me to a dif­fer­ent sec­tion of the marsh. Dur­ing that win­ter trip a stiff, cold wind blew from the North­east, cre­at­ing chal­leng­ing con­di­tions. The wa­ter had been blown out of some bay­ous, and we were un­able to get into places Daniels wanted to fish. Far­ther into the marsh, we found a deeper bayou where the wind pushed wa­ter hard into a cor­ner of the bay that was lined with tall stands of roseau cane. We staked off the boat with the Power-pole and be­gan cast­ing down­wind into the pocket, where waves bat­tered the mud bank in the breeze. Red­fish struck our baits on nearly ev­ery cast, and we spent the bet­ter part of 45 min­utes re­leas­ing fish. The magic ended as sud­denly as it had be­gun, but only af­ter yet an­other spec­tac­u­lar episode of Louisiana red­fish­ing.

End of the Road

Venice sits at the end of the road south of New Or­leans and gets a lot more at­ten­tion as a fish­ing mecca than Hope­dale. Venice af­fords ac­cess to in­shore and off­shore species that’s vir­tu­ally un­ri­valed any­where in the con­ti­nen­tal United States. You can tar­get red­fish and speck­led trout in­shore, then jump off­shore for red snap­per, yel­lowfin and black­fin tuna, wa­hoo, king mack­erel, blue marlin and more. The fish around the Louisiana Delta run big and are usu­ally plen­ti­ful, adding cre­dence to Louisiana’s self­de­scribed sta­tus as the “Sports­man’s Par­adise.”

Af­ter our first Hope­dale ex­pe­di­tion, Cyr and I made our way south to Venice for a fish­ing-and-hunt­ing trip. Bart Had­dad,

“You have the chance of catch­ing a qual­ity yel­lowfin off­shore of Venice 365 days a year.”

man­ag­ing part­ner of the Dog­wood Lodge in Hope­dale and the SWC Sports­mans Lodge in Venice, set up ev­ery­thing for us, and we spent a morn­ing in a blind just off the Mis­sis­sippi River ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an epic duck hunt. Af­ter shoot­ing our limit, we re­turned to Venice for an af­ter­noon of in­shore fish­ing.

Capt. Dan Sk­er­metta picked us up, and we headed off into the marsh in search of reds. We came around a few cor­ners to see some­thing that dis­tin­guishes Venice from Hope­dale: awe­some nat­u­ral beauty com­bined with the re­mains of the oil in­dus­try, which dom­i­nates this part of the world. You can be run­ning in pris­tine con­di­tions, round a bend and find a dozen aban­doned well­heads and a gnarled for­est of old pipes jut­ting from the bot­tom. Such is the na­ture of south­ern Louisiana.

One More Spot

Sk­er­metta took us south to where the marsh meets the Gulf, and we worked the edges of sev­eral bay­ous with mod­er­ate suc­cess. We had caught and re­leased per­haps a dozen red­fish in a slow pick and still had a long run ahead of us to get home when Sk­er­metta sug­gested try­ing one more spot.

We came upon a shell beach where waves crashed from a per­sis­tent southerly breeze from the open Gulf. It took a minute to realize what we were look­ing at, but the three of us soon made out the backs of gi­ant red­fish cruis­ing back and forth in the surf, smash­ing into schools of ter­ri­fied mul­let along the beach. Sk­er­metta po­si­tioned the boat just out­side the surf break, and Cyr and I po­si­tioned our­selves to make long casts into the melee.

Cyr con­nected first, hook­ing a red­fish of prob­a­bly 25 pounds on a spin­ning rod with a shrimp-tipped jig. The boat pitched in the surf, cre­at­ing dif­fi­cult con­di­tions and the need to be aware of on­com­ing waves while try­ing to make an ac­cu­rate cast. But as we fig­ured out the feed­ing pat­terns, we di­aled in our casts and be­gan steadily hook­ing big fish.

We en­joyed this ter­rific ac­tion un­til the sun sat just above the hori­zon, and Sk­er­metta fi­nally made us pull up and head for home to avoid run­ning in the dark. That in­tense burst of ac­tion, though brief, re­mains the sin­gle best day of red­fish­ing I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced. Our small­est fish weighed about 20 pounds. The largest eas­ily pushed 40.

Rig for Suc­cess

Such sto­ries abound in south­ern Louisiana. A lot of folks pre­fer the off­shore ac­tion in the Gulf of Mex­ico, where thou­sands of oil and nat­u­ral gas rigs at­tract bait­fish and preda­tors — lots of preda­tors. Although a va­ri­ety of fish call the north­ern Gulf home, the yel­lowfin tuna reigns supreme for most off­shore an­glers. If you spend much time hang­ing around the fish-clean­ing ta­ble at Venice Marina, you might won­der how there can be any tuna left in the Gulf. On fish­able days, boats un­load dozens of big yel­lowfin, and cus­tomers go home with cool­ers packed tightly with hun­dreds of pounds of fresh sushi. It’s an im­pres­sive ri­tual, one re­peated at many mari­nas scat­tered through­out the area.

There are thou­sands of tuna around the rigs, cre­at­ing what may be the best op­por­tu­nity for hook­ing yel­lowfins any­where in U.S. waters. “You have the chance of catch­ing a qual­ity yel­lowfi­noff­shore of Venice 365 days a year,” says Capt. Trey Pique of the Voodoo Sport­fish­ing fleet. “You might have to move around to find them at dif­fer­ent times of the year, but they’re al­ways around some­where.” No other place I know of can cred­i­bly make that claim.

I filmed an episode of An­glers Jour­nal TV with Pique this past spring and en­joyed awe­some ac­tion around one of the “floater” rigs in 5,400 feet of wa­ter. Th­ese rigs re­main in po­si­tion thanks to so­phis­ti­cated dy­namic positioning tech­nol­ogy, which uses GPS guid­ance sys­tems tied into pow­er­ful un­der­wa­ter thrusters. The fish love it.

Pique and I drifted chunks of cut bait up­cur­rent of the rig af­ter mark­ing large schools of fish down deep. We picked off fat tu­nas be­tween 70 and 100 pounds. The sheer force of a large tuna fought on con­ven­tional standup gear con­sti­tutes one of the more in­tense fish­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. There’s noth­ing quite like the pull of a pow­er­ful fish on stout tackle to test one’s an­gling met­tle.

Among the other things I ap­pre­ci­ated that day was the speed our boat of­fered. In the off­shore fish­ery of Venice, cen­ter con­soles ca­pa­ble of a 50-mph cruise have be­come the norm be­cause of the dis­tances you must typ­i­cally cover to get to the fish. The open Gulf lies about 26 nau­ti­cal miles south of Venice, down the Mis­sis­sippi River, and the rig your cap­tain wants to tar­get may lie an­other 60 or 70 miles off­shore, or more.

As I lay in the bean­bag chair while streak­ing for home that af­ter­noon, I had time to re­flect on all the qual­ity fish I’ve caught in Louisiana over the years. And I sus­pected that the full fish­box aboard Pique’s boat might just make us high hooks back at that fish-clean­ing ta­ble.

Wrong. That day a 74-year-old man stay­ing with us at the Sports­mans Lodge caught a 236-pound yel­lowfin at a spot more than 70 miles west of where we had fished.

That’s Louisiana, a unique place with big fish and lots of them, an awe­some land of an­gling op­por­tu­nity with lit­tle or no equal.

South­ern Way Char­ters pro­vides a wide range of ser­vices through its two lodges, Dog­wood Lodge in Hope­dale and Sports­man’s Lodge in Venice (south­ern­way­char­ters.com). Jour­ney South Out­fit­ters pro­vided lodge and fish­ing ser­vices for pho­tog­ra­pher Jes­sica Hay­dahl Richard­son, who took the pho­to­graphs for this story (jour­neysouthout­fit­ters.com).

Cast­ing to tro­phy red­fish along the edge of the Gulf.

Take your pick: Both the in­shore and off­shore fish­ing can be ex­cel­lent.

Fast cen­ter con­soles are the norm in Venice, mak­ing long runs to off­shore oil rigs fea­si­ble.

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