Tuesday, July 27, 2021

First Fly Fishing Trip: Louisiana Redfish
By Chris Santella

For most new fly anglers, the “gateway fish” is some form of trout. No surprise there: trout are by far the most popular fly rod target, and much of the iconography and allure of the sport centers around rainbows, browns and brookies. The feel of a trout pulsing at the end of your 5-weight is a thrill that speaks to the special connection a fly rod provides to your quarry . . . and to larger Mother Nature.

When you hook a big redfish in shallow water, you have your hands full. Watch those knuckles. Image by Barry and Cathy Beck

But imagine, for a moment, that light pulsing replaced by a bucking rod and line sizzling off your reel. By a quarry that’s 10, 20 or 30 times the size of your average trout . . . and that often responds aggressively to a well-placed (and even a not so well-placed) fly.

A strong case can be made for taking novice anglers on a trip for redfish, where the challenge is relatively modest in comparison to catching heavily fished trout, and the rewards are great. And there’s no better place to find legions of big reds than the marshes of Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish.

Redfish (or red drum) are not widely known as a sportfish outside of the Gulf States and the Carolinas. (Thanks to Chef Paul Prudhomme, they were once more likely to be encountered blackened on a plate than on the end of your line; the popularity of plated redfish drove the fish to near extinction until new harvest regulations were enacted.) Today, redfish are abundant in Louisiana and beyond. Redfish actually tend toward an iridescent silvery gray coloration, with a coppery patina on its back and upper sides; its most distinguishing characteristic is one (or several) black spots near the base of the tail. Redfish have many commendable traits for fly fishers—they are plentiful, they often frequent shallower water close to shore, they are tenacious fighters, and they are eager feeders. Redfish can approach 100 pounds, though you’re more likely to encounter fish in the 6-to 10-pound range. (However, fish to 40 pounds are regularly encountered by inshore anglers.)

This is the moment of truth, when a 15-to 20-pound fish is won or lost. Image by Barry and Cathy Beck

Conway Bowman, who guides fly-fishers to mako sharks off the coast of San Diego and has hosted a number of fly fishing TV shows, feels redfish provide newbies an excellent primer. “Your cast is often less than 40 feet, and the redfish is less spooky and more accommodating than other shallow saltwater gamefish. Also, the fly rod novice can hone their casting and fish fighting skills before making the jump to more difficult saltwater species like bonefish, tarpon and permit. You could say that redfish are the equivalent to saltwater fly fishing training wheels.”

Most of my redfishing has transpired in the Biloxi Marsh, which encompasses hundreds of miles of shallow water along Louisiana’s northeastern shoreline. One or two anglers are poled about in a Caribbean-style flats skiff by guides who know these waters well. (And I’m glad they do—if I were asked to get the boat back to the launch amidst the scores of labyrinthine, look-alike channels, we’d surely be lost!)

While redfish are present year-round, fall and winter brings the big “bull” reds (fish of over 27 inches) close to shore. Algae that’s present at the height of summer has died off, so the water is clear enough to sight fish, just as you might for bonefish or permit. Often, you’ll see the backs or tails of these redfish poking out of the water as they forage. Once spotted, the guide maneuvers the boat within casting range and then it’s all up to you.

Beginning fly fishers can take big reds on the fly just as easily as experienced anglers, like Cathy Beck, who’s hoisting a good one here. Image by Barry and Cathy Beck.

“The bull reds come in near the marshes to spawn in the fall,” explained Captain Gregg Arnold, who has guided fly anglers here since the 1990s. “As the weather cools they stay, as the shallow water is warmer, which attracts forage—baitfish, crabs and shrimp. Before I came upon these fish around the Biloxi Marsh in the mid-90’s, a 12-pound redfish was considered a good catch on the fly. Now, we regularly find reds over 30 pounds.”

As long as you don’t hit the marshes during an infrequent cold front, you can count on many shots to tailing, swirling or actively hunting fish. It’s safe to say that redfish are not quite as particular as spring creek trout looking for just the right Baetis imitation. And, when fishing the Marsh, you could get shots at black drum, which range to 50 or 60 pounds.

Dan Favato showing off a slot size redfish. Photo Credit Gil Greenberg

One of my finest days of angling occurred on Biloxi Marsh, when I fished with Captain Arnold. It was my first time redfishing, I should add, and after a few miscues I cast to a tailing fish and landed a 15-pound specimen. Then several fish around 25 pounds. We moved to the edge of the marsh and wave after wave of bull reds presented themselves, literally thousands of fish. In the next hour, I landed fish of 28 pounds, 32 pounds, 35 pounds and 38 pounds, all on crab patterns.

The fishing can be pretty easy and very, very good. The cherry on this King Cake is that New Orleans—a city that’s rumored to have a few good eateries and watering holes—is less than an hour from the launch.

With rich food sources, pelicans are numerous in the Biloxi marsh.

WHERE

Biloxi Marsh, Louisiana.

TIMING

You can catch redfish year-round in Louisiana, but prime time for large fish, which are called “bull” reds, is November and December.

GEAR

Even first-time fly-fishers stand a chance to hook a beast. Fly rods in the 8 and 9-weight range are preferred. High quality reels holding plenty of backing are needed—these reds run when hooked in shallow water. Floating fly lines, especially those designed for cold water application, work perfectly. Bring 15-pound to 20-pound leaders and tippet or use what your guide recommends. You can bring a variety of flies to match crabs and shrimp, but make sure to ask your guide for his or her personal favorites.

BOOK THIS TRIP

Dogwood Lodge offers guided fishing for those big Lousiana reds and its location, at “End of The World Marina” in Hopedale, just 45 minutes from New Orleans, means anglers get quick access to the best redfish flats.

Guests stay on a renovated vessel called the Dogwood, which was originally built for the US Coast Guard as a buoy tender. It was later purchased by a cruise company and converted into a multi-day vessel for river cruises. The lodge features a lounge area known as the Mississippi Room on the second deck with comfortable seating and a wide-screen TV. A complimentary bar and outdoor seating offers the perfect place for guests to enjoy morning coffee or evening drinks and a cigar. The Lodge offers six private rooms with two twin beds and a private bath per room. The rooms are named after the rivers the Dogwood has travelled: Red, White, Arkansas, Atchafalaya, Ouachita and Kanawha.

For more information or to book this trip contact Gil’s Fly Fishing International at info@flyfishinginternational.com