Hurricane Devastation or Good Fishing?

Jason Bryant and Ryan Evans

Hurricane Devastation or Good Fishing?

Back in early April, good friend Phil Perry approached us with the idea of making a trip to the Chandeleur Islands off the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana during June. It took only seconds for Jason and me to pipe up the answer, "Great idea!" And just like kids we became almost instantly giddy with anticipation; the trip could not get here fast enough. We talked to several of our fishing buddies who reminded us that Katrina and Rita had just blasted that part of the Gulf Coast not even a year ago, but with one quick call to Capt. Troy Fountain on the "Double Trouble" our worries were put to ease. There were several doubters… but we are here to assure you that the Chandeleurs are up and running!

In late summer 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita literally demolished entire coastal communities in Louisiana and Mississippi. As many of you know New Orleans was completely flooded and people from all over Louisiana made a mad dash to neighboring states. I think we tend to forget that not only did the hurricanes wipe out the homes of thousands of families, but also temporarily took out small businesses like Capt. Troy Fountains' Biloxi charter operation. Many of our favorite fisheries took a direct hit leaving a big question mark as to what we would find; dead water full of bacteria and storm debris or healthy and full of fish? Being that Jason and I are both risk takers we gambled on the idea and it paid off heavily.

With early June just around the corner we had all of our gear cleaned, oiled, and polished; there would be no excuses why we didn't come home with the prized catch. My friend John Presley suggested that we take his 20-foot center console powerboat along so that we could use it as a mothership for our kayaks and the long hauls that we were about to make (the idea was a goldmine that we wouldn't know about until our second day out). After loading all of my gear, kayaks and cooler I swung by to pick up my Dad and buddy John. Even at 30 years of age it cracks me up to see grown men just as excited to take a fishing trip I am. An hour later we added Jason to the excitement and all though he doesn't show as much emotion I could tell that getting on the "Double Trouble" couldn't get here fast enough. So with two kayaks on the rack and one 20-foot center console in tow we made one last pit stop to pick up an Ocean Kayak Prowler 13 donated by Johnson Outdoors for everyone to demo; we were en route… Interstate 10 beware!

We didn't even get past Beaumont when we started to see reminders of devastation… signs torn down, trees toppled, and gas stations deserted by past owners. This trail of disaster continued through the swampy bottomlands of Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast to Biloxi where casinos and boat slips were ravaged. Finally after several CD's, 2 packs of sunflower seeds, multiple dips into one of several care packages made by our caring wives, two gas breaks, 1.5 hours of traffic in Baton Rouge, 4 cars giving us the thumbs up and umpteen million calls from our buddies that were already on the "Double Trouble" we finally made it. I am tired just thinking about it.

Needless to say we pulled up and hopped out to take a very deep breath of salt air. Only the Canadian Rockies can top filling the lungs up with that refreshing air. We were immediately greeted by the "Double Trouble" deck hands Jason and Jeremy along with Capt. Troy himself. Jason and I turned our back for one second and they had everything out of the truck, loaded on dollies and carried aboard the mothership. You wouldn't think that a 70 foot boat with 10 anglers, 2 deckhands and a captain would be spacious……not only was it spacious but it was also comfortable! After studying a few maps, checking out our gear and enjoying a night cap or two we took to the bunks for our 4 hour ride to these magnificent islands.

Day 1: Friday Morning (Jason Bryant) –

The night seemed to go on forever. I made every effort to settle my racing mind but the visions of speckled trout reacting angrily to a topwater plug… MY topwater plug – were just too tough to shake. I had heard so many stories… so many accounts of these legendary waters and now it was finally my turn to fish them. The wake up call could not come soon enough and in spite of hundreds of early morning fishing trips I do not believe I have ever been so alert at 5:00 am.

This was no ordinary fishing trip! Captain Troy and the deckhands gave us a quick briefing of the islands, loaded up the skiffs, and sent us on our way. I had no idea what to expect. I had heard rumors that the hurricanes ravaged the islands and was told, "Not to expect much." I quickly learned that this was certainly not the case. The islands are in excellent shape. Grass flats resting under several feet of crystal clear water extend off the island for miles. Tidal guts weave through the island's interior and work as funnels for all forms of life from the tiniest baitfish and crustaceans to sharks so large that just the sight of them will cause your pulse to quicken and your hair to stand on end. In fact, the biggest problem I faced at the Chandeleur Islands was the fact that EVERYWHERE looked "fishy."

I finally settled myself down long enough to focus on a grass flat in 5 feet of water. I was flinging the topwater plug with reckless abandon in hopes of making those visions from the night before burst into reality when I heard a commotion behind me. I turned to see a circle nearly 20 yards wide of foaming, frothing, boiling water and fleeing baitfish. All I could manage was an awestruck "Whoa." The topwater landed softly right in the middle of the ruckus and before I could make one twitch of the rod tip the water erupted and my plug disappeared. I buried the hook with a quick side-armed snap of the limber rod and the fun had officially started.

The fish bolted off on one of the quickest runs I have ever seen. This trout meant business… or at least I THOUGHT it was a trout. Right about that time the fish cleared the water and when it finally reached its apex nearly 6 feet above the glassy liquid below I was able to make a positive identification – a LADYFISH?! Not just any ladyfish, this was easily the biggest, meanest, fastest Ladyfish I had ever hooked in to. I boated the fish and quickly released it – it was then I knew this was going to be a new experience.

On the upper Texas coast, inshore fishermen typically do not get to see a lot of variety in terms of the species we catch. Trout, redfish, and flounder are the usual quarry with an occasional wildcard thrown in every few trips if you're lucky. The Chandeleurs are VERY different. Every time you set the hook you have the potential of hauling in something different than the cast before. If you're looking to add a few more species to your "fish I've caught" list then the Chandeleurs can definitely be the place to do it. Trout, redfish, flounder, ribbonfish, ladyfish, blue runners, sharks, tarpon, Spanish mackerel, some of the biggest blue crabs I have ever seen and dozens of other species share these awesome waters.

I ended that first morning with several trout, a couple of healthy flounder, and all the ladyfish I cared to catch. The morning had gone by so quickly… it wasn't until I was on the way back to the mothership for a quick snack that it finally sank in – I was in the Chandeleurs. Slow down, take a look, breathe deep – no smog, no trash, no cell phones, no fancy jet-skis buzzing the waterways; just a bunch of guys running around with a common goal: catching lots of fish.

Friday Afternoon (Ryan Evans) –

After seeing the islands that morning and realizing that they are still there despite what some reports said and a pretty discouraging fishing morning, my Dad and I loaded up with Jason and another angler to try and hook into some Chandeleur redfish. We weren't too far from one of the islands that had a cut with current dragging helpless baitfish (and sharks for that matter) into the mouths of the gamefish we were hunting.

Speaking of sharks, I gotta tell you that although I am not deathly afraid of them, I am somewhat leery. After fishing the Chandeleurs you either get used to them cruising around in the flats or you stay on your boat. I love to wade fish and dangle my legs over the side of the kayak so slapping my rod at them every so often did not bother me all that much, in fact it become fun. In Galveston you never know how close you are to sharks until they either steal your hard-earned catch from your stringer or bump your legs. Neither is very pleasant.

Just like anywhere Jason and I go to fish, he seems to be the first one to hook up and then repeat the process one or two more times until I finally catch on. Well the theory held true and with two very nice trout swallowing the Texas Tackle Factory Flats Minnows one after another, what we'd been calling "the bite" completely stopped. My Dad and I both landed several undersized trout (by Texas measurements) and a few ladyfish and of course the odd hard head, we made a move.

Next destination was about a half of a mile north of the first island with several of the same features. We pounded the shoreline looking for reds… hit several coves and backwaters which we thought would hold the elusive redfish. Nada, zero… zilch. For whatever reason I could not adjust to the clear water on that day. I have fished clear water the majority of my life while hunting large and smallmouth bass in Arkansas and Corpus Christi and Aransas Pass for the Texas Slam but this block would not last for long. The bite was completely off so I took some time to show my Dad some saltwater tricks since this was only his second time in salt.

Its not every day that a father and son get to take a trip together and spend time fishing 40 miles off the coast at a remote chain of islands and I am glad that I did not catch a whole lot of fish that afternoon, I enjoyed arguing with my Dad over which island or cut we should hit next a lot more… and watching him catch a ladyfish or ten made my day as well as his. Back to the "Double Trouble" for a cold drink and a filling dinner.

Saturday Morning (Ryan Evans) –

I knew this morning would prove to be different than yesterday. I removed the mental block that I had, strapped on the game face and told myself that it would be a great morning. After talking to Captain Troy we decided to make a long run to one of the outlaying islands where the big trout hang out. My Dad, buddy John and I jumped aboard the bay boat and made an 8-mile run (this is far in the Chandeleurs) to our new destination. Conditions weren't right for my favorite bone colored topwater (which was mauled by a shark Friday morning) so I threw on my trusty Texas Tackle Factory Trout Killer with pumpkinseed top, white bottom and chartreuse tail. My Dad and John wanted to make a drift in the boat so I jumped out and started my wade.

I found that there wouldn't be much of a wade as the water eased out to knee deep then dropped to about 8-10 feet. I tossed my soft plastic for what seemed like forever and right before I was going to change lures I decided on one more cast. This was the cast of my lifetime. The soft plastic hit the water and I give it a few seconds to make its descent, popped it once and all hell broke loose. Like lightning, my drag started to scream and line was peeling off my spool like a drag race… my initial thought was that I had a bull redfish until the silver ghost popped  3 or 4 feet out of the water. TARPON!

Oh my God! I started screaming back to the boat telling them to come and pick me up. I knew that the only chance I had was to get on that boat and follow this beast. My light action trout rod doubled over (that's right folks, when I screw up I do it right) line was disappearing at a rate I have never seen, I tightened down the drag and I promise you I almost sold my soul praying that I would never swear or make another rude comment as long as I could land this fish.

After this 4 footer gave us a carnival act I will never forget I looked down at what was left of my line and knew that the fight was about over… she had another 10 yards to go and the boat couldn't get to me fast enough. With a gentle release I knew the slack in my line wasn't because she was willing to jump ashore and take pictures but that I just had been spooled. I didn't care. We don't get tarpon like that in Texas (at least not where I fish) and it is now the nicest fish I never landed. With hands shaking and congratulations and pokes from my Dad and John we headed for some grass flats trying to outrun what looked like a mirage of rain.

We stumbled upon what I call "Bird Island" and its beautiful grass flats in 4 foot of crystal clear water. Immediately the trout hammered our soft plastics over and over again. Don't get me wrong, the trout were not monster sow trout but we were consistently bringing in 16- 20 inch fighters and released a few others to fight for another day. I heard over our VHF that Jason sunk his lures into a few flounder and a Chandeleur redfish (which proved later to be one of the most beautiful bronze-colored reds I have ever seen). It turned out to be one of the best fishing mornings I have had in a long time and the afternoon would be just as fun.

Saturday Afternoon (Jason Bryant) –

Up to this point, Ryan and I hadn't gotten to do much fishing together on this trip so we made it a point to head out with the kayaks before it was too late. We strung the kayaks off the back of a skiff and made quick time to an expansive grass flat we had scored some trout on earlier in the day. We crawled out of the "big boat," jumped in the plastic and quickly began saturating the flat with the Flats Minnows weighted on 1/16 and 1/8 oz. black/gold eye Rockport Rattler jigheads. The deep water allowed us to work our baits relatively slow. We would cast out and allow our baits to slowly freefall several feet and then give it a quick twitch and repeat. The trout could not resist the slowly falling plastic minnow – the small paddletail would gently flutter down through the water column and then you would feel a vicious "THUMP" and your line would begin to swim off to one side.

This scenario repeated itself dozens of times throughout the evening. Every cast was made with the anticipation of a trout coming to hand as the end result. A couple of hours passed and the sun started to creep slowly down on the horizon. We had moved up in some shallower water preparing for the evening bite when I noticed the birds had seemed to suddenly wake up. They took flight and began circling the small island in search of their evening meal. I glanced down at my watch and sure enough – we had reached the peak of a major feeding period.

If you read my article in the last issue of Kayak Fisherman Magazine then you know what I am talking about. I looked over to Ryan and said, "We're in a major." No sooner than the words had left my mouth Ryan's rod bowed up – fish on. I was preparing to retrieve my lure and grab the landing net for Ryan when my line surged off to the left – double hook up! I told Ryan he was about to witness the power of the major. For the next 20 minutes we proceeded to hammer the vigorous Chandeleur trout. It seemed that no more than a 60 second window would pass before one of us would be hooked up again.

So what could make this evening any more enjoyable? How about one of the most perfect sunsets I have ever witnessed? The huge glowing sphere burned deep red, as it seemed to slowly melt into the thick black horizon. An eerie calm fell over the islands – the birds returned to their roosts, the fish stopped biting, and the water slicked off to the likeness of a finely polished mirror that served to magnify the radiance of what was now only a purple sliver of light cast by the fading sun. We had just witnessed nature's grand finale.

It was very interesting to listen to Capt. Troy and his experienced deck hands talk about how the islands were before the hurricanes. Personally, I don't see how the fishery could be better than the way it is now. There are deep drop offs, nice cuts and guts, grass, mud, sand and islands that sustain the bird population along with the fishery. Although it may not be what it was before the hurricanes I feel the islands are in great shape. We didn't have the typical "fill your cooler" trip with fish that you hear from the Chandeleurs but I think in part the amount of freshwater that God dumped on them just a few days before didn't help us much. Our boat caught just as many fish as all the other charter ships but I can tell you for a fact they did not have nearly as much fun!


Ryan's Tools of the Trade:

  • Ocean Kayak Prowler 15 Angler (www.oceankayak.com)
  • Carlisle Carbon Fiber "Majic" Paddle  (www.carlislepaddles.com)
  • American Rodsmiths Kayak Extreme "Redfish" rod and Troutmasters "Trout Slayer" rod  (www.americanrodsmiths.com)
  • Shimano Curado 200b sf reels
  • Texas Tackle Factory "Killer Flats Minnows" (www.texastacklefactory.com)
  • Texas Tackle Factory "Red Killers" and "Trout Killers"  (www.texastacklefactory.com)
  • TALS pack  www.tals-fishing.com

Jason's Tools of the Trade: