by Capt. Mike Frenette
For the most part hunting seasons are either over or winding down but does that mean that your weekends should be spent on the couch? Absolutely not! Winter is the perfect time of the year to run your boat, play with your tackle, try different lures, and, oh yeah, stretch your line on some tackle-busting 30-40 pound world class redfish.
Years ago, Bull Reds were frowned upon as “trash fish” as they are not the ones you want to keep to eat. Times are changing. There are many Louisiana sportsmen and women who do not judge the success of their trip by how many fish they bring back. Remember “back in the day” when a trip was judged by how many ice chests were filled? It was quantity that decided whether or not a fishing trip was successful.
Louisiana’s finest outdoors resource is our wetlands. It is this very resource that is at risk due to tremendous losses caused by hurricanes ravaging our coastline, sinking of land from miles and miles of canals dug by petroleum companies, and estuaries being heavily impacted by the largest man-made disaster known to Louisiana history - the BP oil spill! All these events have conspired to create a big question mark as to what lays ahead in the future for our fisheries.
That being said, Louisiana anglers remain extremely lucky when it comes to catching saltwater species such as redfish. In Louisiana anglers can expect to catch redfish twelve months of the year. Most other states do not come even close to the quality of redfishing that anglers who visit or reside in Louisiana enjoy. For the most part, redfish, especially the “Giants”, are considered seasonal. But in late winter there is one area of Louisiana that is considered “the” spot for large Bull Reds. That’s the Mississippi River Delta and most especially the region from Empire down south to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
February and the next couple months are usually considered ‘stay at home’ months because we relate this time period to windy, cold and rainy days. And that can be the truth but squeezed in between the “uglies” you can experience days with first class conditions which present great opportunities for reds, especially the Giants.
Where to Go
Unlimited. That’s about the best description that I can give you. There are many options as far as picking a spot or an area to fish. Take a look at any chart, map, or Google Earth. It really doesn’t matter as you will see what I’m talking about. The delta region, especially the areas in Plaquemines Parish from Empire south to the mouth of the river, and encompassing both sides of the river you will find numerous cuts, passes, ditches, areas that spin off the river and head to bays or “edges” of the gulf. Where these “cuts” enter the bays or edges of the gulf the water is always moving and, as a rule, the higher the river, the more current you will find in the area of these cuts. Normally at this time of the year the river should be in the early stages of rising, so be looking for good currents in any of the cuts.
Because of the water movement at this time of the year these areas carry large numbers of small baitfish that the larger baitfish feed on and yes, you guessed it, the big reds are searching out these larger bait fish. As the ol’ saying goes “Find the bait fish and you will find the reds”. And, as far as I’ m concerned, the Bull Reds are the top predators of the delta.
The shorelines left and right of these cuts in waters six feet or shallower is what you will target. Usually, the closer you are to the cut the deeper the waters will be and as you move away from the cut the shallower it becomes.
What to Use
Certainly you can pick a spot and cast some dead shrimp or cut mullet next to the shore line and, yes, you will probably catch a couple of giants. But that’s just not my style.
I prefer artificial baits for many reasons but the most important one is that you can cover so much more area than you ever will when fishing with natural bait. This is the time of the year that you will find the giant reds working very slowly along the bottom in search for crabs, mullet, pogeys, or anything else they can get their mouth on. They are not picky eaters during the colder months. You can almost bet they will eat anything in their way especially if it’s moving slowly. These fish literally hug the bottom during the colder months. So you shouldn’t be surprised when you catch your beast and find traces of mud on its stomach.
Soft plastics and crank baits are my “go to” baits that I really like to use during the winter and you can bet my Plano Stow Away Utility Boxes will be stuffed with them. There are several reason for this but primarily because both can be worked slowly in relatively shallow water.
As stated earlier, you are most likely to be fishing in six feet of water or less and using crank baits that are designed for deep water such as Strike King’s 6 XDs and 10 XDs. So a slow presentation is necessary and, used this way, these lures are are deadly. For the soft plastics consider Strike Kings Glass Minnow on a 3/8 oz. jig head. Certainly these are not the only baits that will work but over the years, and during this time of the year, they have proven to be very successful.
Working the shore line left or right from the cuts with your trolling motor really gives you an advantage as during this time of the year the giant reds, and even the smaller ones for that matter, are not ganged up in huge schools as you might find in the early fall. Instead, finding small packs roaming the bank is the norm. Using a trolling motor at very slow speeds allows a stealthy stalk along the shoreline.
The first 100 yards in either direction from the cut are considered the “target zones”. When working left or right from the cuts position your boat so that you are going with the wind as this will make it easier for presentation of your baits.
Pay close attention to the surface of the water at this time of the year. There might be just the slightest hint that action is close by. A small swirl, a tiny flip from a bait fish or, if you’re lucky, a “push” from the potential target. At this time of the year heavy activity of baitfish is not likely so be alert as any of these clues will alert you to the possible presence of the giants. When you see the first sign of any activity power pole down and work every inch along the bank. Even if you do not see signs of baitfish deploy your power pole about every 100 feet so that you can work the area nice and slow.
It would not surprise me if by now you’re wondering why I suggested using deep diving crank baits in water of six feet or less. As stated previously this is usually the time of the year when the river waters are usually on the rise and usually the water temperature is cooler. So it is not unusual to have surface temperatures in the low 50’s or even cooler. And, as also stated earlier, the giant Reds are moving much slower than they would during the warmer months therefore being able to work your baits slowly is a priority.
Working deep diving crank baits slowly in shallow water is very effective as the crank bait churns up the bottom leaving a “mud trail”. It truly is amazing how slow you can work these baits wobbling and chugging the bottom at the same time. All this commotion sends off tremendous vibrations that the reds pick up on and come to investigate.
When it comes to the soft plastics and jig head, again, SLOW is the key here. Work the shoreline. Cast close to the shore and let the bait fall to the bottom, slowly drag the bait on the bottom for about three feet, tighten up with your reel then raise your rod tip up just slightly so that the bait comes off the bottom just for a second. Drop your rod tip and continue this process all the way back to the boat. You can also intermittently stop as you are retrieving along the bottom creating what’s called a “wounded technique”. This technique with the plastic baits stirs the bottom as well but in a moderate sense compared to crank baits. That is why the original H&H Cocahoe minnow and the Rage shrimp work well as both have great action when barely moving thus creating strikes during cool and cold weather conditions. Remember, it’s all about slow!
Rods such as medium to medium/heavy action seem to be popular when anglers are pursuing the giants. Since, when targeting larger reds you might need a little extra muscle on the strike a little stiffer rod may help you in turning the beast and keeping it from heading into or rubbing along the canes. If you feel comfortable using light action rods have at it because as far as I’m concerned when it comes to fishing, the lighter the equipment the more fun to be had. A seven foot rod is perfect for a couple of reasons. This size rod allows you to make long casts, still maintain accuracy, and it is not too unwieldy when fighting the big reds.
Reels are really just a matter of preference. Spinning reels and bait casters will always will be debatable and each type has its own camp of believers. Does it really matter? No. I’m a bait caster type of guy but the guy next to me might prefer spin casting. When you’re casting down the bank, basically in open water, both styles work just fine.
Over the years using braided style lines have become extremely popular and when chasing the giants it becomes quite apparent that braided line in 20 or 30 pound test will truly give an angler “the edge”. During the colder months “the bite” might be very subtle and braided line is so sensitive that you will feel the slightest nudge on your bait. When casting soft plastics I usually attach an 18-24 inch leader of 20-45 pound fluorocarbon line to the braid to take the “stiffness” out of the braid. This makes the soft plastic bait look more realistic. When it comes to the crank baits keep it simple. Tie the lure directly to the braid. If you haven’t tried Vicious Braid or Vicious Fluorocarbon give it a try, it might soon become your favorite.
Time of Day
There is no reason to head out on cold days at the crack of dawn. During the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest is usually when the bite is on especially if the tide is an incoming. As the tide comes in the giant reds will begin working the shoreline as they usually stage from the deeper waters to the shallow waters with in coming tides.
If at all possible, look for muddy bottoms versus sandy bottoms as mud bottoms gather and retain heat from the sun better than sandy bottoms.
Always check for abrasions after each battle, as it is very easy for the line to become nicked due to the bony make up and sharp gill plates of the redfish.
Having a good strong net such as a big Frabill is an important factor. Don’t chase the fish with your net. Simply wait for the right time to net your fish. Allow the giant red to get close to the boat and position yourself and the net so that the red is approaching with its head first. Get the head of the red in the net first. Turn the handle of the net perpendicular to the water and then lift the red in the boat. It’s ok if the tail is hanging out of the net, he’s not going anywhere.
Make sure you have pliers and proper hook removal tools as the mouth of these big reds are extremely bony. Having proper tools will prevent damage to the red when the hook is being removed.
Take a couple of pictures and then release the big guy as these giants are not only old but they are our breeding stock. Studies have shown that redfish usually do not reproduce until their 7th year and that a 35-40 pound giant can be 20-25 years of age, if not older.
And don’t just toss the red back in. Most of the time these giants have exerted themselves during the fight and a little thanks and assistance might be required. Cradle the red, gently lower it into the water, and then hold the fish by its tail. Sometimes they will swim right off but others might take a few minutes to rest. When they are ready they will simply swim out of your hand.
And remember, having a successful trip isn’t always about “limiting out”
Capt. Mike Frenette
Redfish Lodge of Louisiana