The date was January 13, though it felt like a morning in April: The temperature was in the high 60s, and a gauzy-blue, still-air morning invited dreaminess. But my fishing buddy, Tom Montgomery, and I had not had time to loaf since our guide, Leland Ledet, had started poling some four hours earlier. One of the axioms of the fishing road trips Tom and I make together is that first and last days are never any good—so what was going on here? By noon of this first day, after losing the earliest hour to low light, Ledet had put us onto more than 50 redfish, virtually none of them weighing less than 8 pounds. Four had come unhooked, and we had boated 12, the smallest of which weighed 10 pounds and the largest (on which Tom broke an 8-weight fly rod in two places), 28 pounds. We had also released a 33-pound black drum and lost another just as big. There was not another boat in sight. Tom and I were giddy with astonishment. To Ledet, it was just another day at the office.
That office is the nearly limitless, marshy maze of islands, creeks, lakes, oyster reefs, and flats that lies between Dulac, Louisiana, and the open Gulf of Mexico. During the fall and winter, Ledet and the other guides from Dulac Charters fish close to and often in sight of the Gulf, targeting the big redfish that prowl the marshes at that time of year. They see fewer fish in these months than in the spring and summer, Ledet told us, but the ones they do see can be scary. So far this winter his anglers had caught four reds over 33 pounds and seen more than 40 of that size.
This amazing and relatively new shallow-water winter fishery for big reds along parts of the central Gulf Coast is just one of many bounties brought about by strict conservation measures initiated in the 1980s—to various degrees by all the states that border the Gulf—in response to a major crisis in redfish populations caused by both commercial and recreational overharvesting. The resolution of that crisis, one of the great fishery conservation victories in American history, has also resulted in the comeback of speckled trout, pompano, sheepshead, and other species to good-old-days populations.
But it is "Mr. Red" who has benefited the most from the assorted state restrictions and limits and from a federal ban on netting brood stock. From the west Texas coast to the Everglades, redfish numbers have rarely—if ever—been higher, which is very good news for the hordes of anglers who would rather have Sciaenops ocellatus on their side in a bar fight than any other fish they know. A guide friend of mine says that tarpon are like Deion Sanders and reds are like Larry Csonka. They are a six-pack of Bud to the Atlantic salmon's Sancerre; a pit bull to the whippet bonefish; a paragraph to the one-sentence largemouth. I have known a 5-pounder to survive a two-hour drive in the dry live well of a trailered boat and then swim off, when released, with attitude. A hot 10-pounder can give you concern for your cardiovascular health; nobody ever heard a redfish say no más. In their determined swanklessness, indecorous toughness, and egregious appetites, they are very like many of the Gulf Coast denizens who pursue them with redfish decals alongside the American flag on the back windows of their pickup trucks.
Over the past three years, in the course of working on a book about the near demise of the redfish and its spectacular comeback, I have enjoyed their resurgence in every state that borders the Gulf, usually in the company of Tom and our mutual friend and redfish fanatic, Jimbo Meador. Operating, as I am inclined to do, on the principle that you can't have too much of a good thing, when I heard about the big reds being caught during the winter in the marshes of Louisiana and Mississippi and just off the beaches in Alabama, I talked Jimbo and Tom into joining me for another of our now patented Gulf Coast road trips featuring excessive eating, symbolic mishaps, and total redfish immersion. We would begin, we decided, with two licks in Louisiana, and then take our act east to Mississippi and finally, Alabama.
SURROUNDED BY REDS
Jimbo was at a boat show in South Carolina, which cost him that astounding, jinx-breaking first session with Ledet down in Dulac, but he joined us the next day in Slidell, Louisiana, for an overnight trip to the marsh with Gary Taylor.
An ex-motorcycle racer, welder, professional bass fisherman, and Louisiana mosquito control director, Taylor has, for the past 14 years, been one of the best redfish guides in the business. Almost all of his guiding is done in the Louisiana marsh, 650 pristine miles of islands, bayous, bays, and tidal flats, located miles offshore from Rigolet's Marina and Bait Shop, which was where we met up early on another calm, sunny morning. Good as it is, Taylor's fishery presents him with a dilemma: To fish the marsh properly he needs a shallow-draft flats skiff, but to run the 32 miles of open water out there and back each day over Lake Borgne, which can get pretty rough, he needs something safer and more comfortable. His most recent solution to that problem is a 31-foot, 210-horsepower diesel-engine boat called the Mr. Champ, which he has customized to piggyback his 18-foot skiff on a cradle above the deck. He can also tow a second skiff, as he did with Jimbo's.
The Mr. Champ was well tricked out with electronics, drew only 2 feet of water, and had a top speed of about 22 mph. Its wheel-house cabin had two bunks, plenty of storage space, air-conditioning, and heat. Altogether, it was a very slick rig, though it wasn't immediately apparent how four of us were going to sleep on it that night.
It was a 45-minute run to the mainland edge of the marsh, and another hour and change to reach the Gulf side where the big reds are found. As we threaded our way through the wheat-colored grass islands, Taylor talked about the superb year-round light-tackle fishing there for speckled trout, flounder, Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, black drum, redfish, sheepshead, and jacks. He also told us about the outrageous fall and winter bull-red fishing he has along the outer edges—days when his clients catch four or five reds over 20 pounds, and nothing weighing less than 18 pounds (the biggest caught on a fly was a 38-pounder). Best of all, he had it all to himself. Improbable as that seemed, over that day and the next—two days of good-as-it-gets fishing—we saw only one other boat, and it was harvesting oysters.
Exactly how good is "good-as-it-gets"? Here's the short answer: We began fishing at 10:30 A.M., with Jimbo poling and casting from the platform of his skiff and Tom and I with Taylor in his. After a five-minute run from our anchorage, we were surrounded by big reds. Jimbo staked out the bottom end of the bank and caught four without moving. I buck-fevered the first few fish I cast to and then caught a 24-pounder and another almost as big. There were fish all around the boat. Taylor came down off the platform, and he and I doubled up. Then I gave the fly rod to Tom and he caught one, then a second, doubling up again with Taylor. Inside an hour we had boated seven fish, none under 15 pounds. The fishing stayed red hot until around two, when we left fish to find fish (something even your Labrador retriever knows not to do). And it was hot again for most of the three or four hours we fished the next day, which was overcast, switching to blind casting with spinning rods in the bad light and catching eight or nine reds up to 22 pounds on 8-pound-test line.
When we came back to the Mr. Champ, Jimbo and Taylor "cooned" some oysters off a bar and then culled and shucked them on the back deck, while I filleted the only redfish under 10 pounds that we had caught and opened some Pouilly Fuissé. We sucked some of the oysters out of the shells and added the rest to a gumbo Taylor's wife had made that was heating on a Coleman stove. Taylor grilled the fillets "on the half shell"—scales and skin down—and we ate them with the gumbo, rice, and salad, drank more wine, and sat on the deck talking until dark, watching the gulls and terns and white pelicans and listening to a light breeze off the Gulf. Then we stretched out, quite comfortably, on the two bunks and the floor of the cabin and went to sleep. And all that, too, was as good as it gets.
EAST TO THE ISLANDS
After coming in from the Louisiana marsh, Jimbo, Tom, and I drove an hour and a half east along the coast from Slidell to Ocean Springs, Mississippi—a quaint little town of antique stores, galleries, and latte shops hard by the outlandish Biloxi-Gulfport Vegas-on-the-Sea strip of casino resorts—where we met Richard Schmidt, his wife, Amy, and their chatty little boy, River, for dinner at Aunt Jenny's, a country-food restaurant I'm partial to.
Schmidt told us that River had caught his first speckled trout that summer on a little fly rod made for him out of a tip section. Right, I thought, a bit of forgivable hyperbole from the flyfishing version of a tennis dad. River was seated next to me in a high chair, talking up a storm and playing with a dump truck while I stuffed myself on fried green tomatoes and okra, catfish, biscuits, and slaw. After a while, he asked me to walk with him over to the window. As we looked over the courtyard and the bayou of dark water beyond, he stopped talking for the first time all evening, then sighed and said, "I want to go catch something with my fly rod."
That apple didn't fall far from the tree. His father is a fanatical fisherman and an ace young guide and fly-shop owner who grew up fishing the local inland bayous and Gulf islands. One of the best, largest, and most varied fisheries on the Gulf, the area in which he guides includes both the eastern edge of the Louisiana marsh and the Chandeleur Islands, some 30 miles off of Ocean Springs. These are his destinations of choice for big reds in the fall and winter.
But on the day Jimbo and Tom and I fished with him there was too much wind for a run to either location. So we drove up the coast, put in both Jimbo's and Schmidt's skiffs at a marina in Pass Christian, Mississippi, and planed the top off of 6 miles of chop out to Cat Island. We didn't see any of the big reds that we had become accustomed to catching, but we had a great day with Schmidt under clear skies, fishing first in the marsh on the Gulf side of the island and then in a lovely bayou full of shorebirds that ran part of the length of the island and was protected from the wind.
In both places, we caught lots of reds up to 10 pounds on flies and spinning lures. Jimbo had brought along some new lures made by a Japanese company called Dulamar. They were beautifully finished and featured a "control stabilizer and rolling plate" to produce the best action I've ever seen in a lure—and the redfish loved them. On one lure called the Bay Area Sniper, I caught puppy drum out of a big school on every cast, and then in the bayou, I had a Mississippi double—a 10-pound redfish and an oyster (which actually bit the lure) on one cast. I released the red and ate the oyster.
WEATHERBOUND WITH JIMBO
A cold front that had been tracking us all week finally covered us up with rain and wind. Instead of fishing another day with Schmidt, we drove on east to Jimbo's house in Point Clear, Alabama, stopping on the way for a beer or two, oyster po'boys, and the unspeakably delicious turtle soup at Felix's Fish Camp on the causeway between Mobile and Daphne, Alabama. Over a long lunch, Jimbo told us about growing up on the Gulf Coast as a kid obsessed with fishing and the outdoors. He taught himself to track coons, bob-cats, and foxes, to throw a cast net for mullet and gig flounder, and to hand-seine shrimp. He'd shoot ducks all day from a $2-a-day rowboat and trade them to the trotliners for catfish, catch speckled trout with Calcutta cane poles and popping corks, and in the winter hunt quail and doves with his father. But he has never worked or lived off the water and doesn't intend to start. Jimbo knows and loves and understands the Gulf Coast and its marvelous horn-of-plenty fishing as well as anyone alive, and he has had an intimate view of all the ups and downs of the redfish since the 1950s. He even wears a bathing suit in place of underwear because "you never know when you might have a chance to marinate."
One of the most dramatic manifestations of the redfish's return to glory in the Gulf is the presence in the fall and winter of enormous schools of large fish just off the beaches of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. By enormous, I mean schools of thousands of 15- to 30-pound fish—schools that, when they are up on the surface feeding on bait, look like coppery carpets the size of three or four football fields. Jimbo and I had fished for these schools once before, and we wanted to introduce Tom to them, too. We had arranged to spend the next day, our last outing of the trip, with Capt. Clif Jones from Orange Beach.
At different times during the year, Jones takes clients to fish offshore oil rigs and reefs, but from October to January he cruises some 60 miles of coastline from Fort Morgan, Alabama, to Pensacola Pass in Florida, looking for feeding birds. Nine times out of 10 when he finds gannets, pelicans, or terns diving on bay anchovies, pogies, or threadfin herring, he also finds a school of redfish feasting on the same bait. Then things can get hectic aboard Jones'32-foot center-console. On good days his anglers haul up to 50 fish into the boat.
Ours was not a good day. Though the weather had cleared and the wind was dropping, the Gulf was muddy and rough, with 3- to 5-foot swells. "The key to this fishing is covering ground," Jones had told us. "You have to be willing to burn fuel to find the fish."We burned plenty of it but never found a school. There was some consolation in the fact that, even in the midst of the best redfish numbers here in decades, Tom and I had managed to pull out our customary last-day goose egg. The worst record Jones had had before we arrived was six reds on the fly, so he might have been happy to see us load up Jimbo's truck and head for the Flora-Bama Bar. One of the finest things about chasing reds on the Gulf is that you're never very far from solace or celebration in a real-deal honky-tonk.
GULF COAST REDFISH GUIDES
CAPT. CHUCK NAISER Rockport, Texas, 361-729-9314 An easygoing pro, Naiser guides year-round on the shallow-water fishery that covers some 60 miles of coastline from San Antonio Bay to Corpus Christi. This area includes more redfish-covered "lakes" and bays than you could fish in a lifetime. He specializes in fly-rod fishing out of skiffs, but his clients also do a lot of wading.
DULAC CHARTERS Dulac, Louisiana, 985-563-2843 The four partners in Dulac Charters—Leland Ledet and his son Lance, Danny Ayo, and Blaine Townsend—are all excellent, experienced guides, and the almost limitless marsh system they cover, south of Houma, is nothing short of redfish paradise. No place I know has a bigger shallow-water concentration of reds weighing more than 20 pounds.
CAPT. GARY TAYLOR'S GO FOR IT CHARTERS Slidell, Louisiana, 985-641-8532 Taylor uses a 31-foot boat to comfortably transfer his 18-foot Hell's Bay Waterman flats skiff on the one-hour ride from Slidell across Lake Borgne to the offshore complex of islands, flats, creeks, and bays known as the Louisiana marsh. There he specializes in sight fishing for reds, many of them outsized, but he can also put his clients into speckled trout, jacks, mackerel, and flounder.
CHANDELEUR OUTFITTERS Ocean Springs, Mississippi, 228-818-0030 Owner Richard Schmidt is a fine young guide and a pleasure to share a boat with. He frequents an enormous and varied fishery made up of inshore bayous and flats around barrier islands just off of Ocean Springs, the southeast section of the Louisiana marsh, and (when weather permits) the Chandeleur Islands. Clients frequently have shots at four or five 30-pounders; 100-fish days are not uncommon.
CAPT. CLIF JONES Orange Beach, Alabama, 251-981-1827 The Alabama Gulf Coast has no marshy bayous or flats like those found in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but it does have some excellent fishing out in the open Gulf, particularly in winter when huge schools of large redfish cruise the shoreline. Jones searches for diving birds to lead him to schools of up to several thousand fish each. Once found, these school reds aren't picky, and there are no oyster bars for them to break off on—which is part of the reason why two of his clients set world flyfishing records for redfish.
ROBINSON BROTHERS GUIDE SERVICE Apalachicola, Florida, 850-653-8896 Tommy and Chris Robinson lead a team of five skilled and experienced flats guides who sight-fish for reds in a rich variety of habitats surrounding the panhandle town of Apalachicola. Their fishery ranges from river delta marshes and creeks to the airclear skinny water of St. Joe Bay (which can make you think you are in the Bahamas) and includes (some of them seasonally) speckled trout, cobia, jacks, bonita, and tarpon. —C.G.
REEL PEOPLE Clockwise from top left: Jimbo Meador poling the marsh on Cat Island; Gary Taylor (with redfish) and Meador; Taylor chooses the day's hot lure; "cooning" oysters for gumbo; Leland Ledet hoists a black drum caught by the author; evidence that redfish populations in the Gulf region have recovered; prime Louisiana marsh habitat; Meador at the helm of his skiff. BOATLOADS OF FUN The author chronicles the day's events as Gary Taylor pilots the Mr. Champ (top), which is designed to piggyback flats skiffs on the runs from the marina to the marsh (bottom). PAIR OF ACES Taylor and the author inspect a healthy redfish (top). Turtle soup is the house specialty at Felix's Fish Camp (bottom), located on the causeway between Mobile and Daphne, Alabama.