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Of Spring, Specks, and the Chandeleur Islands

by Peter Cooper, Jr.

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When my buddy, Dave Ballay, and I left the marina that morning last spring, I was boiling over with enthusiasm, feeling almost certain that the weather forecast, along with the trip's timing, would combine to produce some great action. Over two years had passed since my last trip to the southern Chandeleur Islands - our destination, and I was more than ready to renew my fond acquaintance with them and their big spring specks.

Upon reaching Grand Gosier the breeze had picked up, and the surf was too rowdy for us to even attempt to fish (Where do those TV weathermen get their information?), and a couple of hours of working the island's back-side flats and the pocket in its north end proved fruitless, so just before noon we moved up to Little Gosier.

After we had secured the boat, we split up, Dave opting to explore the waters behind the island while I chose to work its north pocket. There, at the top of the falling tide, I found a school of good specks, and by the time Dave appeared where I could wave him over to me, I had strung eight of them. After he joined me we caught 13 more before the fish moved out and commitments demanded we return to the marina.

While we were unloading the boat, Capt. Scott Avanzino - a young friend who guided for a while before moving out of the area - came over to visit, noticed our catch, and declared he was headed for the islands the next morning. Would I like to come along? Is a pig's butt pork?

The following day was picture-perfect for fishing the islands. We arrived at the south point of Grand Gosier to find a clear, gentle surf, the tide at peak high, and a gang of redfish along the outside of the bar. Always looking for a bull and a potential new state fly-fishing record (Yes, I was fishing with flies on both of these days.), we entertained ourselves for a while with a handful of very nice fish, but neither bulls nor specks seemed to be present, so when the tide began to fall we moved up to the pocket in Little Gosier.

 And there we found the specks on a tear again - same time, same place. We caught over 30 to about 22 inches long, even though we were disrupted for a while by USF&WS agents who stopped by to check our catch and licenses. And for you "Doubting Thomases" who question the productivity of fly fishing for specks, let me humbly avow I caught two more than Scott did on his plastics and which included the day's largest! But these lines are not intended to glorify the fun and profits of fly fishing. They are meant to describe the opportunity the Chandeleur Islands offer for spring specks, and it is truly a great one!

Admittedly, I know nothing but hearsay about the northern islands, but that - from very reliable sources - is quite inspiring. However, from my launch-site in Venice they are a long, long run across open water, and even on trips to Curlew Island - the fourth up the chain - I have always felt we were probably passing by more fish than we'd find there. So most of my time has been spent at the Gosiers - and a little at Breton - and I've never had any cause to complain.

While the main reason for that is the consistently fine fishing, especially in May and June when the potential for mega-specks is at its best, the islands themselves offer great appeal. Since they are always moving, always changing - bars shifting, some building, others washing away from the pounding they take from winter storms - they are "new" places every spring and are therefore ripe for the excitement of discovery. In being so, old hotspots will assuredly disappear, but others will just as certainly be created. The specks, on the other hand, are a constant in the equation: they will be there somewhere as long as the islands remain.

The question is, where? Since the islands can change drastically between the times when these lines are created and when you read them, it is best to describe the general patterns which have remained unchanged year after year.

The presence of abundant baitfish aside (They are almost guaranteed to indicate specks are nearby, slicks are usually the result of redfish, if that matters.), the first pattern is the tide. Rising stages are best for working the surf and any troughs leading across the islands' back-side flats, while falling water is best in the pockets and at the mouths of the the cuts draining any lagoons or marshy areas within the islands.

The surf offers the best potential for a really big fish, but you won't catch it by wading out as deeply as you can and slinging your lure toward Yucatan! While the first trough is always worth prospecting with a cast or two, the water in the second trough just seaward of the first bar is a much better option. Wade into it to a point about mid-thigh deep and fan-cast in an arc from parallel to the bar out some 45 degrees, moving either up or down the bar a short distance to repeat the casting sequence after the previous one has been completed. Wade quietly, and if you want a trophy, be as antisocial as your personality permits; company may not effect the harvest of fillet-material, but the corresponding increase in the water's disturbance will often alert a big speck of your presence. Any discontinuation of the normal trough/bar/trough sequence found in the surf can be prime structure. A fairly common type is the submerged seaward extension of an island's south point. Here, relatively deep water is immediately adjacent to this "south bar", and schools of baitfish can become trapped against it by both specks and reds - and bull reds and big jackfish, so be aware when selecting your tackle for use here! The north points of at least the three southernmost islands are also a discontinuation and are shaped in the fashion of a hook. Within the hook's "bend" lies a pocket which in its deeper areas also serves as a "bunch-up" spot where specks can corral baitfish. When working these areas, do not wade into the deeper water or you will spook the fish.

While the islands' back-side flats are more likely to give up redfish and "good-sized" specks than trophies, they are the day-savers on trips when breezes in the eastern quadrants have the surf too rowdy for decent fishing there. Reds can be encountered on them literally anywhere outward from the point the water reaches shin-deep, but the best action - with both species - usually comes from the troughs. Like those found in the surf, they are detected by water which is darker than that over the adjacent shallower bars, and they should be approached and worked with stealth. Here, as in the surf, if you find fish, catch a few, and then the action stops, don't wait for it to resume - move on! But always try to work the particular areas of the islands at the times the tide is best for them.

What do you work them with? Assuming you will not be fly fishing (That's an entirely different story!), three lures should suffice in almost any given situation: a quarter-ounce jig dressed with a soft-plastic minnow (A "cocahoe" in chartreuse with glitter is a favorite.), a half-ounce gold Johnson "Sprite", and a surface lure like a Zara Spook or a Jumpin' Minnow. Whether used with spinning or casting gear, the reel should hold a minimum of 150 yards of 14-pound line - more and a bit heavier makes me feel much less vulnerable to a jack-attack. And a couple of feet of green 30-pound mono leader - no snaps or swivels - for fray resistance is highly recommended.

Besides the specks and reds, you will surely encounter sharks and rays at the islands. Avoid the latter by doing the "stingray shuffle" while wading (Sliding your feet along bottom instead of taking steps), and if a shark becomes bothersome, give bottom a sharp rap with the heel of your foot. Works every time, though it runs the specks off just as well!

In truth, when my buddies and I are out at the Chandeleurs during spring, we don't really sweat the beasties - too involved with the big specks. Sure, we are careful, and in being so we are about as likely to have an unpleasant incident as to be hit by an Iraqi scud missile. Caution also makes it more likely we will catch a big speck.

Believe me, they are out there - go get 'em!