It was just after six o'clock. An orange ball was rising under the clouds on the eastern horizon. A pack of dolphins porpoised 100 yards ahead of us as David Draper and I zipped off from the mother ship, I'm Alone. We were trying to be the first of our group of seven fishing skiffs to make it about a mile away to the North Islands in the Chandeleur chain for highly anticipated redfish action.
"Which way did Charles say to go?" I shouted to Draper, referring to Charles Graham, owner of the ship that had taken us here, about 31 miles south of Biloxi, Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico. Moments before I had been loading gear in our 16-foot skiff and hadn't heard his comments.
The western horizon was a hazy blue-gray. It was hard to see for any distance in the dim early light. All the area was shallow, but somewhere ahead we needed to skirt an impassable grassy sandbar.
"We have to go around a pipe," yelled Draper.
We skimmed along until we spotted something upright in the distance, then headed right for it. Too late we discovered it was a stick, not a pipe, and the motor skeg nicked bottom. I hit the trim switch, but in seconds we came to a swift halt, nearly mired in marl covered by inches of water.
"Guess that's not it," said Draper, who moved to the bow to help balance us out as I tilted the motor up, creating a roostertail of black water with the propeller. Another boat was headed toward us. We waved it off, plodded through the shallows to get deeper, and then followed the other boat, which had veered away and circled the distant pipe.
A short time later we headed between two islands, settling into casting range of a marshy point. I tied a large gold Zara Spook to a baitcasting outfit that Draper and his colleague Ben Johnson had brought for use and testing. Both work for the outdoor-equipment merchandiser Cabela's and had invited me along.
On my first cast with a new low-profile Prodigy reel, I cast 10 feet into a backing that I hadn't known existed. The main line, which had been spooled on by someone else, was Cabela's Ripcord, a braided low-stretch Dyneema product, but it was tied to a monofilament backing. I sensed that this could be trouble because there was a very real opportunity to hook a large redfish among these islands.
I made another cast that went 20 feet into the backing. The topwater plug had barely touched down when it was attacked. But when I set the hook, the knot joining the braid and mono gave way and the fish took off with the lure and about 100 feet of braided line.
There was no telling the size or species of that fish, but we were momentarily stunned. We drove slowly around the area, hoping that the hook had not been set that well and the lure might suddenly surface. No dice.
I had a spinning rod with me, full of new line I'd spooled onto it the evening before, but my preferred outfit for surface plugging was a baitcaster and now the line on the narrow-spool reel was precariously low. And there was no extra line in the boat. Not a good start, I was thinking. Just then, Ben Johnson came by in another boat and gave me a spool of Cabela's 15-pound fluorocarbon line, which I used to respool my baitcaster.
Some 30 minutes later and about 300 yards away, drifting within casting distance of an island shore, my black-and-silver Top Dog plug was struck and missed by what had to have been an enormous redfish. It left a boil the size of a bathtub, made a swirling sound akin to a toilet flushing, and sharpened my hopes and concentration. A few minutes later the same lure was crashed by a good-size red that took enough line off the drag on its initial burst to make me momentarily consider turning the motor on to give chase.
The strike occurred in about 3 feet of water, and it was from 18 inches to 5 feet deep all around us. The fish had no deep water to run into. I got it coming my way, and eventually Draper deftly slipped the net under a coppery, stout-bellied 30-inch-long red drum, alias redfish, and exactly the kind of quality specimen we were hoping to encounter.
A Refuge for Birds, Fish, and Anglers
For years I'd heard about superb angling for seatrout and redfish in the Chandeleurs. Barrier islands situated about 60 miles east of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chandeleurs are located in Louisiana but primarily accessed by anglers departing from Biloxi, Gulfport, and Pascagoula, Mississippi. The Chandeleur chain stretches in a crescent for about 50 miles. It is part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which is the second oldest in the United States, having been created in 1904. The Breton Islands are located farther south in the Gulf.
Last inhabited in 1915, the Chandeleurs are continually reconfigured by tidal action and storms. Hurricanes--especially Georges in 1998 and Camille in 1969--have caused erosion and created channels, further diminishing the islands, which provide exceptional habitat for various species and types of birds. The refuge area has the largest tern colony in the country, the largest nesting population of brown pelicans in Louisiana, and many redhead ducks, canvasbacks, and scaup. It also has a good number of frigate birds. One afternoon I watched a group of perhaps 50 frigates--more than I've ever seen in one place before--hovering, dipping, and shaking their tails over an island head for more than an hour.
Access is only by boat. Airplanes used to land on island beaches, which no longer exist. Some seaplanes occasionally bring anglers to the region, off-loading them to wade in the shallows. Although sport-fishing charter boats can make a fairly quick run to these islands, the shallow nature of the sounds and marshes prevents many boats from readily moving around and getting into places where they can properly fish, so few such day trips are made. Most of the 2,500 annual visitors arrive on one of about a dozen mother-ship operations, which make three- or four-day outings here, bringing shallow-draft skiffs along for access to desirable fishing areas. For the most part, the action centers around fishing from skiffs, wade-fishing, and fishing on foot along the beaches; there's also associated primitive camping. This occurs from spring through early fall. I'm Alone is one of these mother-ship operations. Berthed in Pascagoula, built by Charles Graham in 1978, and named after a rumrunner sunk during Prohibition, it is 88 feet long and capable of sleeping up to a dozen anglers and crew. Seven fishing skiffs accompany the mother ship, three being towed and four hoisted atop. Hearty meals are provided onboard, and anglers fish early and late in the day. The mother ship moves as necessary if fishing conditions warrant.
Bullish for Big Fish
Seatrout are extremely plentiful in the Chandeleurs and a favorite here for anglers. Most of the fish are under 20 inches in size, but some run to 25 or more inches and into the 5-pound class. The same places frequented by seatrout also attract redfish, and there are good-size reds to be had that are rarely encountered elsewhere in the shallows. Some of these exceed 20 pounds.
We could personally attest to that after just a few hours of fishing, when Draper hooked into a giant at about 10:30 in the morning, after we'd caught a few spotted seatrout. He'd switched from a popping plug to a gold weedless spoon garnished with a soft curly-tailed grub. Weedless spoons are a staple for reds, especially in marshes and around shallow grassy areas, which are plentiful here. There are ample beds of manatee, shoal, turtle, and widgeon grass in the shallow bays.
It took Draper more than 10 minutes to subdue the fish on his 7-foot spinning rod. So much line left the reel spool at one point that I started the engine and slowly headed toward the fish to allow him to regain line and get a better fighting angle. When the big fish circled near the boat, I tilted the motor out of the water, so a sudden run under the boat would be a little less problematic. Up close, the fish appeared so large that I was afraid it wouldn't fit well enough into the medium-depth bag of the boat's landing net.
When it finally tired and came to the boat, it was facing away, and Draper stepped back to drag the fish a few inches closer to the outstretched net. I was able to reach out and drop the net over the head of the fish, grab the tail, and simultaneously lift the net up and push the fish in by the tail, causing the massive red to curl instead of using its tail as leverage. Then I grabbed the rim of the net with my left hand and lifted a fully expanded and overflowing net into the boat.
I was amazed at the deep girth of the fish. Draper and I high-fived, and a nearby boat came over to take a photo. His previous best redfish was about 6 pounds, and this, we found out shortly, weighed 25 pounds and had a 39-inch length. Locally they call redfish that are over 20 pounds "bulls." This more than qualified.
Our visit occurred in early November, about the time when mother-ship operators end trips to the Chandeleurs and turn toward the Louisiana Marsh, which is southwest of the Mississippi coast. Bull reds aren't found in the marsh, but sight-fishing for good numbers of smaller reds is common, and in winter frequent winds and fronts don't pose the problems that they do in the more exposed areas of the Chandeleurs. The month of October, and again in spring, is when the bigger redfish are caught most reliably in the Chandeleurs. Some are accidentally caught while fishing for seatrout.
Casting with plugs, spoons, and jigs is the norm here, and sometimes you can sight-cast to visible fish. The water was somewhat murky during our visit and made this impossible. Some in our group did well by fishing with chartreuse jigs 18 to 30 inches under a popping float; trout were fairly easy to catch in that manner, and some 15-pound-class redfish were also taken on this tackle. The corks are used to keep the jigs just off the bottom and are jerked hard to create a popping sound, which attracts fish.
It was peaceful and calm that first morning. Birds were active everywhere. The absence of other people and noises was a delight, and the only other sights in the distance were various oil-rig platforms and our own mother ship. When we returned to the I'm Alone at noon for lunch (delicious gumbo, incidentally), there were hundreds of birds working not far from the boat, with large jack crevalles occasionally chasing fish to the surface. Pelicans, gulls, and terns were diving everywhere. Draper and I knew where we'd be headed right after lunch.
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