Fish America: Louisiana Marshes

Why is the first fish so important on a trip? Why is the difference between one fish and none such a big one? Because while one fish might not set the world on fire, depending on the species, getting skunked is almost unbearable. You feel it in your stomach when get off the water. I'd been looking forward to Louisiana redfishing the whole trip. Redfish are bigger in Louisiana. My first attempt at catching them went awry. Weather, wind and poor conditions, not to mention a missed hookset, kept me from my first Louisiana red. Do you give up and move on, or take one more shot?
More than any other factor or lesson that I've absorbed on this trip, it's that not giving up is the difference between success and failure, on the water and off it. So I took another shot. I fished with Rocky Thickstun, taking my second crack at finding some Louisiana reds. I couldn't move on after one missed opportunity. I couldn't go to Texas with my tail tucked between my legs.
Rocky and I fished the Louisiana Marsh with paddle-tail soft plastics like this one, on ¾-ounce jigheads. A high-pressure system made for a beautiful day on the water. We were fishing about half an hour outside of New Orleans.
There's a reason we keep casting, take another shot, and don't give up, and this is it. This redfish, which Rocky estimated to be 8-plus pounds, is my largest ever. These fish hold tight to grass beds on mud banks, searching for prey. A well-placed jig along the weedline can turn a red's head. Then they just bolt for open water, making strong searing runs.
Rocky and I worked the grassline all morning and picked off a few fish steadily, with the larger reds in the 8- to 10-pound range. The fish were, as I'd hoped, larger than the Florida redfish I'd found.
The Louisiana marsh on an early fall day is often completely quiet, without any boat traffic. The sky goes forever and dolphins, blue crabs and herons add to the scenery. It's a beautiful place to find yourself fishing.
Releasing these fish is half the fun, knowing some of these reds will get to 20 or even 30 pounds. "This is what we do with our redfish," Rocky says proudly as I watch one powerfully swim back toward the marsh.
Rocky's only been guiding for about a year, but he's been passionately fishing the Louisiana marshes for much longer. This guy is hungry and wants to find fish. And he happens to be very good at it.
On a day when conditions were still far from ideal, we were able to scratch up double-digit numbers of redfish. Rocky had a great eye for spotting these fish, or their wakes, as they fed along the grassline. "It looks like someone is dragging a fire extinguisher underwater, you're looking for a broad heavy push," he said to me when describing the visible movement of an underwater red from the surface.
We enjoyed a traditional Louisiana delicacy for lunch. Fresh "Po' Boys," which are submarine-style sandwiches on Louisiana French bread were broken out at slack tide, when the action tended to lull anyway. You can choose seafood Po' Boys or just about anything else, but they're delicious. The bread makes the difference. Try one if you're in the Big Easy.
Rocky had one last goal before we got off the water: a redfish on the fly. Rocky does mainly fly-fishing and many of his clients are fly fishermen. Conditions made fly presentation difficult all day. But this was the last redfish of the afternoon and it fell for a fly.
With both fly and conventional gear, the trick was dropping the jig or bait right in front of these cruising fish, or dragging it right across their path. Dirty water made precise presentation crucial. Rocky hit this red on the nose with a fly and it paid off.
All told, we caught more than a dozen redfish on the day, and the one of the fly. The fishing was never fast and furious. But we kept working shorelines and stayed out of the wind and it consistently paid off with fish like this one.
Redfish are just something you've got to chase if you're ever in Louisiana. They get big, like 50-pounds big, they make drag-burning runs, and they're a beautiful fish. What more could you ask for?
The guys in Louisiana gave me a tip that made it worthwhile to backtrack. I was told that fishing the Mobile River in Alabama was something I'd need to experience while I was in the area. It was a two-hour drive back East, but it proved more than worthwhile.
My guide for the day would be Pat Ogburn. Pat grew up fishing and hunting the marshes of Alabama, and although much has changed in his life, his love for the water hasn't. Pat works in Real Estate in Mobile, but he seemed most at home navigating the backwaters of the Mobile River.
It took a few tries, but finally Pat found the perfect vessel for his type of fishing. This Gator-Tail belt-driven surface drive mudmotor allows Pat to navigate the shallow, stump-filled muddy backwaters of Mobile, and to get out of almost any trouble he gets into. A boat he customized to specification completes a package that allows him to go where very few other Alabama anglers can get to. Pat fishes lakes that are only reachable by running through foot-deep, stump-filled channels and creeks.
It's hard to describe the way these motors work, but picture a combination of boating and four wheeling, and you might get the idea. There's mud flying everywhere at times.
The river doesn't look like much at the outset, but Pat assures me it's beautiful.
"Have you ever seen Deliverance?" he asks as we get close to the "launch." Fortunately I haven't.
As we ease out into the Mobile River, we pass the power plant, burning coal. It's the last sign we'll see of civilization for the afternoon.
After that, it's shallow, muddy water, snakes, spiders, and cypress trees. Some of the stumps are enormous. If you've never done this type of fishing, the water looks like something you couldn't possibly get a boat through, and there's a part of you that doesn't believe you'll make it back until you actually do.
The narrow channels and shallow passes that we navigate en route to a larger lake are amazing. You believe that you made it through, but only in the way that you believe that a snake ate a gazelle. You know it because you saw it, but it still doesn't seem possible.
Pat has been exploring these and other backwaters for the last few years. Complications from surgery limited the amount of saltwater fishing he could do, so he took to the swamps and rivers of Mobile, refusing to sit still. He had maps customized for the areas he fishes, and is in the process of exploring every bay and hole in search of more fish.
The object of the afternoon is "jug fishing." The term originates from a practice where anglers would tie a leader, hook and bait to a jug, and leave it floating on the water's surface to retrieve it, and hopefully a fish, later on. Pat has taken jug fishing to a whole new level.
The bait consists of chunks of brim and other assorted fish Pat saves. Circle hooks are used to better hold the fish without a hookset.
Pat has taken jug fishing to the next level. He's designed his own "jugs," that have a piece of rebar inside of the PVC tube. This way, when the leader is pulled, the rebar slides to the down-side of the tube, making it stand up straight in the water. So, with a quick glance you can tell which jugs have been hit, or have a fish, and which still have bait, because the jugs that have been hit will be standing straight up in the water.
The first jugs we set out get a few catfish right away. Here, Pat unhooks a blue catfish that hooked itself early on in the afternoon. This type of fishing is pretty fun. It allows you to set out your jugs and do another type of fishing while keeping an eye on them, and come back and pick them up. It's like angler multi-tasking.
Pat's got this down to every detail. He's even got the clip-on fans to cool you as you cast and keep an eye on your jug line.
Tossing spinnerbaits along the shoreline while keeping an eye on the jug line, I cross another species off the list on Fish America. This Bowfin viciously attacked a double-willow white spinnerbait. At first I thought I had an enormous largemouth. I wasn't all too disappointed though, as I'd never caught a bowfin, they fight pretty well, and they're just a downright cool fish.
The next victim wasn't as quite as big, but every bit as aggressive. This brim, another Fish America first, looked more like it got stuck on the spinnerbait than as if it were trying to eat it. Either way, I counted it as another fish in the boat.
This thing was definitely hungry when it decided to attack my spinnerbait. I'm still not sure if it was looking for a meal or a fight. Because of its size, I didn't get either. They are cool-looking fish nevertheless though.
A shot at catfish, bowfin, largemouth and brim, along with some interesting scenery like this coal barge and the power plant, makes the Mobile River a place worth fishing if you've ever got the chance.
If You go… Louisiana Reds: Captain Rocky Thickstnu