The Redfish Riviera

From Texas to the panhandle of Florida, large schools of humongous reds cruise the coastal flats, marshes, and channels. Our mission was to hit the road, chase the big fish from west to east, and catch as many as possible. Mission accomplished.

Field & Stream Online Editors

T he 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 m¿¿s. 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.

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] 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 excessiveating, 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 marshes, 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 gets 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 wheelhouse 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.[NEXT "Story Continued..."]

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 Fuiss¿¿. 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.

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] In both places, we caught lots of reds up to 10 pounds on flies and spinning lures. Jimbo had brought along some new lures madeof 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.

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] 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