(All photos courtesy of Journey South Outfitters and Southern Way Charters)

Christmas on the Bayou

The abundant schools of redfish were gone, Eric Newman told me, when I spoke with him in Venice, Louisiana, in September about winter fishing opportunities in the area’s shallow-water marshes. They leave early every autumn to spawn in the adjacent depths of the Gulf of Mexico, said Newman, who along with his wife operates Journey South Outfitters, a full-service lodge in Venice.

Weeks later the redfish return, offering anglers wonderful light-tackle fishing right through Christmas, until sleeting rain turns the bayou country wintry cold. Then the best fishing is seven to 40 miles offshore, where you’ll find such deepwater species as tuna and wahoo.

Monique and Eric Newman
Monique and Eric Newman, operators of Journey South Outfitters

 

Venice is in Plaquemines Parish, 77 miles south of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi—the very end of the Great River Road. Newman said the late-fall and early-winter sport for large “bull” redfish is most exciting for those who cast giant top-water cork poppers with a fly rod or noisy surface lures with spinning and conventional casting gear. The fish are there to chow down on mullet or the largest biomass of herring-like menhaden (called “pogies”) anywhere. The reds can reach 30 or even 40 pounds.

When the rains of December muddy the mouth of the Mississippi and chill the gray air, anglers hoping for continuing shots at redfish still have a good chance to the east and slightly inland, in a place called Biloxi Marsh in St. Bernard Parish. It’s a vast watery network of 210,000 acres of tidal bays, ponds, and lagoons.

There, fly fishers visiting from as far away as France and Australia stay aboard a restored historic Big River vessel called Dogwood Lodge, operated by Bart Haddad’s Southern Way Charters.

“Ninety-eight percent of our anglers come then for the big bulls,” Haddad told me. October all the way through April, he said, is prime time. The water is clear, and the fish are in shallow water, tailing and cruising. “On a good day, the guide will give you shots at maybe six to 10 fish—then it’s up to you.”

Fly fishers like things nice and calm, “not too windy, with pretty blue skies,” Haddad said with a laugh. “But when a cold front comes in, that’s it. Time for a day trip to New Orleans.”


Protecting Redfish

Redfish are actually red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), and there was a time when they really were almost gone. During the early 1980s, at the start of the foodie craze, celebrated chef Paul Prudhomme promoted Cajun-style, cayenne-spiced blackened redfish cooked over high heat. Spotter planes located the schools of pre-spawning redfish and radioed down to pairs of skiffs that efficiently and quickly closed in on them with seine nets. They were almost wiped out. 

Now wild redfish are off-limits to commercial fishing. To protect the valuable spawners, sport fishers may keep no more than five per day longer than 16 inches, with only one exceeding 27 inches.

Still, Eric Newman, whose “coon-ass Cajun family” dates to 1847 around these parts, is concerned for the future of the resource. “Since 1959 we’ve lost wetlands the size of Delaware,” he said. Since the Gulf oil spill, the number of sport-fishing inshore charter captains has tripled to 1,300. “We think it’s bottomless—it’s not. We can’t keep killing three million redfish a year.”

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