Melee In the Marsh

by Pete Cooper, Jr.

Fall 1997



Autumn is spectacular in Louisiana's Mississippi River Delta, especially for those who fish and hunt. It is the time when brisk north winds loosen the grip of sultry summer - and send waves of migratory mourning doves from the grainfields of the midwest to the tallow trees on the high ground in the marsh. It is the time of crisp, calm nights when the yelps of geese arriving from the wilds of northern Canada can stir you from your sleep - and unlike the barking of neighbors' dogs, it does not bother you a bit. It is the time the yellowfin tuna reappear around the deep water platforms, the time the king mackerel gang up on schools of mullet along the Southwest Pass jetties, and the time of the southern flounders' offshore spawning migration. And, it is the time when the inland waters throughout the Delta become alive with redfish.

I recall a mid-October afternoon which was a bit too breezy to be fishing in the bays near my home in Buras, so I decided to drive down to the Venice Marina and visit with my friend Dave Ballay. I didn't quite make it there, because I discovered Red Pass alongside the Tidewater Road was churning with redfish marauding storm minnows: a variety of killifish which school in great numbers in early autumn. After noticing the melee I parked my truck on the road's shoulder, grabbed my ever present casting rod, and proceeded to take my five fish, very nice ones, too, on spinnerbaits as I stood beside my truck!

Then there was the afternoon my buddy Bubby Rodriguez and I got into 'em in Tante Phine Pass near the old Robert O'Meara tank battery. They were harassing storm minnows on the surface, too, and we left them hitting after catching 36 - on flies! And I could never forget the day I found them in the western corner of Bay Adams up behind Empire and caught over 50 - again on spinnerbaits - most of them while at anchor! But there have been far too many great autumn days in places like those - and the Venice Dome, Drake's Bay, Bay Pomme d'Or, and the flats off the Buras Canal - to recall them all. That's a result of the potential now for any trip - or every trip - you make to these waters to be the trip of the year - or a lifetime. And I do not exaggerate - ask Dave...

If the timing of your trip to the Delta coincides with the bottom half of the falling tide


during a period of decent range - a foot or more, if the water is reasonably clear - which it usually is at this time, and if you know anything at all about how to catch reds, then you should have little trouble boxing your limit of good fish: four to six pounds or a bit better. However, if you would like to experience a "day to remember", then let me offer you some thoughts based on fishing for Delta reds for almost 30 autumns.

The first is to concentrate your efforts in water no more than three feet deep; shallower is better. The second is to keep moving and look - and listen - for signs of fish. And the third is to use a lure which allows you to cover water quickly; that does not include a popping rig.

Fish Shallow

The first suggestion is self-explanatory. Broad, broken-marsh flats (Like "No-man's Land" between Grand Bayou and the old sulphur mine behind Empire and Port Sulphur, and those off the Buras Canal) are prime, though they can be difficult to work in a stiff breeze. If that occurs, try the sheltered shorelines of moderate to large-sized bays, like Bay Adams, Second Bay, and Drake's Bay. There, and wherever else you may find them, bedded oysters in the appropriate water depth greatly enhances its potential.

Keep Moving

The second suggestion is a little more complex. One of the surest ways to box your limit of reds at this time is to locate a promising flat or shoreline and work it slowly while on your trolling motor, but that won't normally lead you to a day to remember. Sure, you want to make a cast or two at the prominent spots: large isolated patches of grass, the tips of points and the back-ends of pockets, and the mouths of tidal cuts. The rest of the time, though, you should be looking with the trolling motor set on 12-volt "high" or 24-volt "medium."

What you look for are indications of concentrations of fish. You will probably notice a cloud of mud here and there from one you spooked - or you might even see the fish itself: sheepshead, black drum, or possibly a red. Ignore them. But if you spook several within a small area, immediately switch the trolling motor into dead slow, mark the spot, and idle quietly away from it. Then give them five or ten minutes to settle down, return to the spot - at dead slow speed - and work the entire surrounding area. They probably won't be back in the exact location where you first pushed them, but they will be nearby.

Another indication is a surface strike along a grass shoreline, preferably that of a fairly large, meandering tidal cut which drains a broad area of marsh: Drake's Bayou, Bayou Grand Liard, and Spanish Pass are good examples.

At other times this activity would usually indicate a single fish, but during autumn it can be made by one of many. The key will be the presence of baitfish, normally killifish, and the procedure goes something like this: you see a strike at a distance - or hear one nearby, you get yourself over to where the disturbance occurred, then you switch the trolling motor to dead slow and look around. If you detect several small schools of minnows swimming in the same direction along the grass - usually with the falling tide, you may have just hit the jackpot; for sure, if no minnows are present, move on - it was almost assuredly a lone red. But let's assume you found the minnows.

As you watch them rippling across the surface, you will soon notice reds blasting into them up and down that shoreline. The tendency will be to chase those spots where a red just struck, but that procedure won't lead to very many fish, since the one you just saw strike probably won't be there when you arrive. The best approach is to idle with the trolling motor up the shoreline and against the movement of the minnows; this will allow you many more chances to intercept the reds, which often cruise along with the minnows.

Occasionally, especially during the low end of a very high tide, killifish will get hemmed up in the deeper "pockets" within the shallow, broken marsh. This glorious event will be plainly announced by rapid-fire and quite audible surface strikes along with the presence of diving, squawking birds. On that note, you had best pay attention to the antics of even the "lying birds" (Least terns) during autumn; very often they are telling the truth! Should you detect these sounds of mayhem in the marsh, get over there quickly - and quietly, gently set the anchor, and go to work on them; the fish will frequently remain within the immediate area until the tide goes slack. The key here (If there really is one) is to cast to the edges of any thick patches of grass nearby, as that is where the minnows will attempt to flee from the reds.

What to Cast

While I have taken a lot of reds on a popping rig during fall, it is not very efficient, as working it properly burns up too much time. Likewise, I have caught a couple of 12-yard dump trucks-full of these fish on feathered Pet 14 spoons. But the two lures I have relied on for the last decade or so (When I am not fly fishing for them.) are a spinnerbait and a surface lure (Or a fly-rod popper, which is my preference there.).

The spinnerbait is made up of a gold size 3-1/2 or 4 Hildebrandt safety-pin spinner snapped to the eye of a 1/8 or 1/4 ounce jig head, to which a soft-plastic minnow has been attached. I like that in clear chartreuse with glitter; other folks I fish around prefer purple or black with a chartreuse tail. Whichever you choose, you can cover the water both quickly and thoroughly with this type of bait, and its vibrations create a secondary stimulus which spoons and straight-up jigs lack.

For day-to-day work, a spinnerbait like that is a very productive lure, but on those idyllic, glassy, low-tide mornings, a surface lure simply can't be beat, especially when the reds are running killifish! Then, a Skipjack, Spit-n-Image, Zara Puppy, and the like will assuredly make for a day to remember!

In the Delta that can occur anywhere in the western marshes from Port Sulphur to Tidewater and beyond. The upper reaches - like No-man's Land - are best gained from the Hi-Ridge Marina at Port Sulphur (504-564-2232) and the Delta Marina at Empire (504-657-9726). Drake's Bay, Bay Pomme d'Or, and the flats off the Buras Canal are easily accessible from Joshua's at Buras (504-657-7632). The Venice Dome and the small passes below Tidewater - where the killifish can really run amok - can best be reached from the marinas at Venice: Cypress Cove (504-534-9289) and the Venice Marina (504-534-9357).

That's a lot of area where limits are almost guaranteed and days to remember can be so common you can actually forget them.

Know anywhere else that can take place?