On Cape Cod at least, the striped bass season was winding down when I boarded a plane bound for Houston, Texas on October 28. The temperatures had dipped, and though the 2011 fall run never really got going, it was safe to say that it was almost over. I felt melancholy as I spotted Race Point through the tiny window of the airplane, realizing it may be a full 6 months before I walk those beaches again, surf rod in hand.
But those thoughts evaporated quickly when I considered my destination. After landing in Houston, I’d hop a quick up-and-down flight to Lake Charles Regional Airport in Southwest Louisiana. From there, I’d hitch a ride with Buddy Oakes to the Hackberry Rod and Gun Club on the shores of Lake Calcasieu.
Never heard of it? Neither had I, until Mark Davis from Bomber Saltwater Grade sent me an email, inviting me down for a few days of fishing.
Calcasieu is a big shallow bay that drains into the Gulf of Mexico. It has a surface area of 160 miles and an average depth of less than 4 feet. It is regionally well known for its excellent speckled trout, red drum (redfish) and southern flounder fishing. During my visit, I was told, would be the best time to catch all three species in a single day and complete the Louisiana Slam.
After a 30-minute drive from the airport, I joined Mark, Jeff Pierce from Mustad Hooks, Gerry Benedicto of Seaguar and Gabe Krakowski of IHuntFish apparel. After unpacking, a dinner bell rang, and everyone converged on the dining hall. I’d heard great things about the food on the Gulf Coast, and when a home-cooked plate of fresh shrimp, rice, corn and some other accompaniments (all with a healthy dose of Cajun seasoning) was placed in front of me, I could see the dining was going to live up to the hype.
After wolfing down dinner, the bread pudding dessert, a 24-ounce glass of iced tea and a Bud Light, I was ready for bed. Breakfast time was set at 5:30 a.m. and launch time was not long after that.
The weather, when I awoke, was not too different from what I’d left in Boston – howling northeast winds, temperatures in the low 40s and gray and grumpy skies. My last-minute decision to toss my Frabill StormSuit jacket into my pack proved to be a good one. Scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and, of course, biscuits and gravy awaited me at the breakfast table. As Buddy Oakes had put it the night before, “Y’all aren’t gonna lose any weight this weekend.”
On Saturday, 10/29, I fished with Jeff Pierce from Mustad, and our focus was going to be redfish. Our guide, Brady, took us right to a large dock sitting off a point in the southern end of the lake where he’d been finding redfish consistently in recent trips. We anchored up and began tossing Bomber Mud Minnow Paddle Tails up toward the pilings and worked them back to the boat along the bottom. Within a few casts, I connected with a small flounder, which we tossed back. Before the flatfish was out of sight, Brady set up on something a good deal larger. The fish streaked out into open water where a pod of dolphins was criss-crossing and working bait. “This is a red,” Brady said. After a long fight, I was surprised to see the fish’s size when it finally came into view through the murky waters.
I was expecting a fish in the 28- to 32-inch range based on the headshakes and powerful runs, but when Brady scooped up a 22-inch redfish, I could hardly believe my eyes. Those cooper-colored drums have some serious pulling power.
A couple casts later I tied into my own redfish. The headshakes felt similar to those of a good-sized striper. The fish took a few good runs, but I tired it out enough to get it into view, and I thought the battle was pretty much over. Wrong. As soon as the fish caught a glimpse of the boat (or my mug) it took off on another run with renewed vigor. Redfish and stripers are similar when it comes to fighting, but, as much as I hate to admit it, redfish have bass beat when it comes to stamina. When Brady slipped the net under my 29-inch red, I was thrilled that only an hour into the trip, I’d already caught a personal-best red drum.
We picked away for another half-hour or so, with a few small black drum and croakers coming to the boat. Then Brady got a fish call that the “bull” reds were chowing down at the jetties where Lake Calcasieu enters the Gulf of Mexico.
We motored down and saw Mark Davis tight to a big fish on a boat with one of the Hackberry Rod and Gun Club owners, Kurt Stansel, and photographer Gary Tramontina. Several other boats were anchored up in the area, and some of them were hooked up as well. The reds were running an underwater rock line parallel to the jetty, and you could almost predict when you would get hit based on when the other boats were hooking up. When I saw Kurt dip the net under a 20-pound-plus red drum for Mark, I could hardly get my line in the water fast enough.
While the Bomber Mud Minnows continued to work on the reds, the bigger fish seemed to prefer cut or live bait. When I caught a small croaker, I passed it off to Jeff Pierce to cut it into thirds, and rigged the middle chunk on a Mustad circle hook behind a couple large split-shot sinkers. The rig hardly had time to reach bottom before a bull red scarfed it up. Jeff had a handful fighting the fish on gear more-suited for 4-pound largemouths, but after a good battle, Brady was able to secure the 25-pound red.
I managed to hook one of the big reds as well, but the heavy fish headed for another boat’s anchor line, and when I tried to palm the spool to slow it down, the charging bull had none of that and swiftly broke me off.
The fleet continued to pick away at bull reds, croakers, sheepshead and black drum for another hour or two, and when the bite finally slowed, everyone was ready to head back to the lodge for some more good eats.
On Sunday, October 30, southern flounder were in our crosshairs. These fish are almost identical in appearance to the fluke found here in the Northeast, but they don’t get quite as big. I fished with Gabe Karakowski of IHuntFish and our guide was Paul.
In Louisiana, there is no size limit on these flatfish, and I remembered my friend Big Jerry Sullivan telling me about the days before fluke limits in New Jersey and how every fish went into the box as long as you couldn’t see through it when you held it up in front of the sun.
Unlike the fluke fishing back home, where drifting is the most productive approach, Paul anchored up his bay boat off a point and we began casting toward the shoreline. Once again the Bomber Mud Minnows were the lure of choice. Tipping them with a piece of shrimp definitely helped get more bites. The action was fast and furious, and within an hour, we each had coolered our 10-fish limit. I was admittedly hesitant about participating in that kind of flatfish slayfest, but Paul assured me the fishery could handle it. I had no reason to doubt it, especially considering the other boats anchored up off that same point also limited out in that same stretch.
The flounder ranged from 10 to 20 inches, and after some more catch and release flounder action, Paul said it was time to hunt for some big speckled trout to add to the box. The heavy north winds of the previous days had scattered the trout a bit, and Paul said we’d have to do a little hunting in order to find them.
We worked a number of shorelines casting a mix of jigs, topwaters and a subsurface twitch bait called a Corky, but found no love. En route to another spot, we ran past a pile of birds. Keeping in mind that most of Lake Calcasieu is less than 4 feet deep, the run-and-gun style we’re used to in the Northeast when chasing blitzing fish over deeper water would almost certainly shut down a bite completely.
Paul killed the outboard 50 to 100 yards away from the birds and crept the boat into casting range with the trolling motor. As soon as we could reach the fish, the hits came every cast. Most of the fish were sand trout, a smaller, spotless relative of the weakfish and speckled trout. On one cast, I had a much sharper hit, and when line began dumping off the small baitcasting reel, Paul turned and said, “Looks like you found a redfish.” After a great fight, the 30-inch red came to the boat.
We spent the rest of the day following the birds, catching a mix of sand trout, redfish and even a few speckled trout, and each of us completed the Louisiana Slam. I ended the day with more than 50 fish – not a bad way to spend my birthday.
It was only appropriate that our focus on Halloween would be a fish with some fangs. I once again fished with Paul and Gabe, and we were joined by Gerry Benedicto of Seaguar. There was a slight chop as the sun came up, perfect conditions for topwaters according to Paul. Gabe was the first to connect while walking-the-dog with a Bomber Badonk-A-Donk. The fish came to the surface violently shaking its head. At the sight of that, Paul became all business telling Gabe he had a big trout on the line. Like their big cousins, the weakfish, speckled trout have soft mouths and are well-practiced at throwing hooks. The fish managed to shake off before Gabe got it to the boat. Paul hooked up next on a Heddon Super Spook, and managed to stay connected to the 18-inch speckled trout. As the sun peeked over the horizon, the purples and silvers on the fish were beautiful.
We continued the hunt for “sow” trout, but when Paul spotted a disturbance on the surface tight to the bank, we veered off. The wake was created by a school of redfish pushing shrimp in very shallow water. If we could get close enough to the fish before they scattered and moved to deeper water, we’d have the chance to hook up on topwaters. Paul deliberately nudged us closer to the fish with the trolling motor, being careful not to spook them. When we were in range, Gabe fired the Badonk-A-Donk into the school and within two twitches a redfish hopped on top of the lure, trying to get it into its underslung mouth. Gabe set the hook and brought the nice red to the boat.
After landing and photographing the fish, the redfish school had broken up, but a flock of birds was working feverishly nearby. We snuck up on them, and for the next 90 minutes, caught speckled trout on almost every cast, with the occasional redfish thrown in.
We chased birds for the remainder of the day, and the fishing remained steady. The highlight was the bull red that was mixed in with a school of speckled trout. Paul spent almost 10 minutes trying to tame the fish on the light baitcasting gear.
The abundance of fish in Lake Calcasieu is unbelievable. This fertile estuary is teeming with shrimp, mullet and what appeared to be peanut bunker, and this forage supports a huge number of speckled trout, redfish and flounder throughout the year. And, I’m told, the fishing for tripletail (picture a massive saltwater crappie) is excellent in the summertime. All-in-all, it was an incredible trip – and as I gathered from the text messages and emails about the freak late-October snowstorm back home, my escape down south was extraordinarily well-timed. I felt the same sort of melancholy I experienced on my flight out of Logan as I watched the Louisiana marshes disappear beneath the clouds as my flight out of Lake Charles airport departed on November 1.
What about the spill?
One of the questions friends and family members asked me when I returned from Louisiana was whether I saw any ill-effects from the Deepwater Horizon accident of 2010. The answer was no. The fishing was fantastic and the waters were clean and teeming with life. The intensive 18-month sustained cleaning effort following the spill is nearing its completion, and soon to begin are BP-funded restoration activities.