Every place we seek game fish — inland, in the coastal shallows, or off in the marine deep — has its own unique character. And what makes it special depends on each angler and boater. When we adventure after a specific species, the globe tightens, the list of destinations grows much shorter and the competition begins.
Such is the case with the redfish, AKA red drum. The playing field for this gamester belongs in the Western Hemisphere from roughly North Carolina to Texas. But the "A-list" for sightfishing to the greatest numbers of redfish and the largest sizes year-round is fairly small and exclusive and includes Florida's Space Coast and the Louisiana Marsh. I recommend both these fabulous regions, but for flats fishing the most expansive habitat with the least boating and angling pressure, the "LA Marsh" is King. Put differently, this wild rustic place should be on every redfish anglers' bucket list. NOLA (New Orleans) does share the "same" Low Country charm, seafood, and environs as Savannah and Charleston, but its' Cajun flavors, jazz, and street life — weddings and funeral "dance marches" in the streets — sets it entirely apart as well. This makes it a perfect destination for the anglers' non-fishing friends and family.
What makes this fishery even more exciting is its proximity to New Orleans, which is under an hour away from the customary flats boat ramp in Hopedale to the southeast. In fact, the Big Easy is where your itinerary will call for you to stay and be picked up and dropped off by your guide each morning and early evening.
It's essential to talk a bit about New Orleans for those that have not been there.
New Orleans is recovered from the two-punch assault of Katrina and the BP oil spill. The town is entirely intact and the waters of the marsh show no signs of having suffered in its flats fishery. This was to be my third trip back since the spill and the prior two trips were spectacular. Anglers that held off traveling to fish this area because of the spill need not hesitate any longer.
My strategy was to time my trip for the depths of winter when the waters clear and become a sightfisherman's paradise. This also corresponds to the time when big numbers of large redfish and big black drum invade the vast shallows of the marsh. The art form of the timing in this winter fishery is to arrive during some fishing days between cold fronts (with its intense northern icy winds) as well as its leading edge which can bring rain, severe storms, and certain cloudiness. Since the best guides are often booked a year in advance, the angler must commit to dates when the weather belongs to the future. The best way to hedge against this is to book at least four or five days, which gives enough of a spread of weather to offer some good chance of stable conditions and overhead visibility.
Though there are now maybe eight or so guides working this area, my advice to anglers is to choose the ones that have fished this area the longest, something a little research will make obvious. Of no small importance is the kind and size of the poling skiff that these captains use. This is a time of year when crossing open waters can get rough and extremely cold. While one wants a skiff that can reach skinny waters, it simply is not necessary to have a super shallow draft vessel for giant redfish.
Salted Flats Fly Fishing
My choice for a guide on this trip was Captain Douglas Henderson with Salted Flats Fly Fishing. "Doug" had an East Cape 19-foot Vantage, which is an able vessel capable of handling rough water while providing a remarkably dry, stable, and "shoal" ride. I met Doug a year or two before on a prior foray and made a mental note to charter him for a future trip. He had a blend of unmistakable expertise, but with an unpretentious, relaxed approach to his customers. His readiness to work hard for his fly fishermen and some light tacklers — me amongst them — was tempered by his joy of sightfishing and just being out there, poling the flats. I found this impressive. So I gladly booked my fishing dates and chose the Country Inn on Magazine Street for my lodgings.
My flight arrived just before midnight on Jan. 19. The first thing I noticed was that the air temperature was warmer than in visits past. A quick check of the weather on my iPhone revealed that though my arrival was between fronts, the marine conditions showed fog as well as 25 mph winds out of the south. I was glad we'd be cozy in the Vantage skiff on the 'morrow. After an unhampered taxi ride to the Inn, I went to sleep quickly in anticipation of a 6:30 a.m. pickup barely 6 hours away.
The night passed quickly and Doug picked me up right at the front door. During our drive to Hopedale which included stopping for a great Low Country breakfast, I had a chance to interview him a bit more. Of special interest to readers and first-time customers is Doug's seasonal yearly fishing itinerary. From October to March, he fishes the Louisiana Marsh. During the months of May, June and July, he moves operations to the Florida Panhandle where he pursues giant tarpon on fly.
Soon, we were launching the skiff at the Hopedale ramp, which was shrouded in patches of fog. Doug told me that he had a specific area that he wanted to run to where he'd been encountering some huge "floating" redfish. He said the run would take an hour, which would also give the fog a chance to burn off and the sun to punch through to give us better sight fishing.
During the long run, Doug tempered the speed of his Vantage with the fogs' density and expanse. As the fog lifted, the sun came out and the wind picked up, throwing a chop on the open bays. Finally, Doug throttled down, and idled his way over to a marshy shoreline perhaps three hundred yards long. After cutting the engine, he grabbed the pushpole and climbed the poling tower. I picked up an 8-pound spinning rod rigged with a soft plastic jig pegged to a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader. As I got up on the bow, I felt that this was the moment when the trip to NOLA really began.
After about five minutes, Doug spotted a nice redfish working the bank. Though he called out its position, I'd already spotted the fish. I made a presentation about 2 feet in front of the fish. After two bounces of the jig, the fish pounced on the lure. I struck the fish hard and the drag started screaming. After a nice five-minute battle, Doug eased the chunky ten-pounder aboard for photos. We quickly got some images, released the gamester and began hunting again.
After 10 minutes, Doug spotted a much larger fish on the other side of the boat in deeper water. It took me a couple seconds to see the fish, which rather showed as an orange "glow" of a form. My cast lead the fish by about the same distance as the first, but this second fish immediately rushed to the sound of the splash and inhaled my jig. I struck the fish and my drag howled as the fish ran a good fifty yards. After that, it came to the surface and shook its head again and again. I hoped and prayed the jig would hold — and, it did. Doug poled towards the fish as I kept up maximum pressure on this junkyard dog of a red. After 15 minutes of runs, shakes and bulldog maneuvers, I was able get the redfish alongside for Doug to grab. He weighed the fish on his Boga Grip, yielding 28 1/2 pounds, which for me was my biggest Marsh redfish, a real trophy on 8-pound tackle.
After photographs of my trophy were taken, we released the fish back into the water to resume its life. Though the pressure was now off us, we fished hard this day and the next. Often the weather got cloudy and visibility got tough, but the fishing remained steady. I had a great time with Doug and vowed to return as soon as I could.