Redfish Heaven

Chasing monster reds in the Louisiana backwater is not for the faint of heart.

People ask me why I don’t hunt. It’s simple. I don’t have anything against shooting wild critters in the woods, but I don’t have enough time for all the fishing I need to do. If I’m out there tracking Bambi, that’s time away from hooking a bonefish or an angry bull red. Fortunately, I have friends who hunt, so we have an efficient barter system—I give them red snapper and mahi in trade for venison and birds.

redfish heaven 1"Reds" can be golden, too. Photo: Mike Frenette. www.venicefishing.net

Like most fishermen, I have a long bucket list I have to complete before the Good Lord scoops me up in his net. So far, it’s going pretty well: Bonefish on the fly rod in the Bahamas—check; leaping silver kings in Boca Grande—check; bull reds in Louisiana—check; permit on the fly—no check! Dangit!

Less than a decade ago, Louisiana bull reds were still on my bucket list. I’d caught big redfish in the Florida panhandle where I live, but the conventional wisdom was (and is) that the marshes and bayous of Louisiana produced the world’s most humongous reds. Stories of catching 100 of the beasts per day haunted my daily thoughts.

redfish heaven 3Editor Fred Garth with a "small" red.

Added to that was pressure from my old friend, Trey, a New Orleans native, who kept taunting me with epic fishing tales backed up with photos of fat speckled trout and monster reds. Then it happened. Trey and some other buds from New Orleans bought a fishing camp in Venice, the epicenter of fishing in Cajun Country. And I was invited to visit. When I say fishing camp, I’m not talking about a wooden hut with no running water and a hole in the ground to relieve yourself. No, this is a Man Cave of epic proportions. It’s basically a glorified, double-wide trailer on a 90-ft.-long barge. There are four bunkrooms, three refrigerators, two icemakers, a full kitchen and an air conditioning system that chills it to arctic temperatures to battle the Amazon-like heat of summer. Don’t get the wrong idea…it ain’t fancy. The barge is rusty, the paneling is cheap and the furniture is barely up to yard sale standards. But it’s in the right location, it’s perfect for smelly fishermen and there’s a 26-ft. center console with a 300-hp four stroke in the locked and loaded position.

redfish heaven 6Louisiana fishing and oil rigs go hand in hand.

So in September 2007 (before deer season started), my truck and I took the long and winding road south from New Orleans to the tiny community of Venice at the southernmost point of Louisiana. I mean no disrespect to women (unless you’re a woman who lives to fish), but Venice is kind of a man town. Yes, I realize how sexist that sounds. But, consider that Venice has no shopping other than bait and tackle, the accommodations are mostly cheap motels, the restaurants serve mainly fried meat, gumbo and jambalaya, and the landscape is dotted with unsightly oil wells, tanker ships and work boats. There are no beaches to dig your toes into, no shows to see in the evening, no spas to soak in and no infinity swimming pools with comfy chaise lounges. To top it off, the river is muddy. If you don’t fish or work in the oil biz, there are very few reasons to visit. Vegas this ain’t.

But I digress. I’d finally made it to Venice and even I was a bit shocked by the starkness of the landscape. On the flip-side, the barge accommodations were perfect. I found a bunk, and we thawed some deer sausage and trout fillets and feasted on heavily seasoned, wild-caught protein. A 20-year-old Panasonic stereo with a real turntable and actual albums crackled out some Allman Brothers and ZZ Top. We talked of football, told fishing lies and spit tobacco juice into Styrofoam cups. I had landed in Man Heaven. And we hadn’t even fished yet.

redfish heaven 8On August 29, 2004, Hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana. The infamous fish camp in Venice was washed almost a mile inland. The house on top was ripped apart (even though the deer head mounts survived) but the steel barge remained intact. They used a tractor to drag it back to the water and an insurance claim to restore the fish camp to its original rustic charm.

As our testosterone boiled over, Trey prepped us for the big event. We’d rise at five, choke down some coffee, gnaw on some cold deer sausage and blast out. We packed the cooler that night with sandwiches and drinks, and had our rods rigged and bait well full of live shrimp, pinfish and croakers. Here’s the thing about folks in Louisiana…they use a lot of live bait. I’m more of a lure fisherman, especially since I’ve become a flyfishing snob. But when I’m with the Cajun crowd, live bait is the lure de jour.

The third stooge in our group, Brent, was another New Orleans native by way of Key West. He grew up fishing for everything from mullet to lobsters in the Keys from a 13-ft. skiff with a 15 hp engine. He’s a helluva fisherman and his culinary skills are top shelf, too. Brent knows most of the top chefs in New Orleans because he’s owned a few restaurants. The man’s blackened redfish and cheese grits can turn an atheist into a Southern Baptist preacher overnight.

The next day, as we buzzed down river passing through miles and miles of marshland, the scenery became more appealing, even beautiful, although there was no escaping the ubiquitous oil platforms—large and small. We navigated miles upon miles of marshes teeming with birds of all shapes, sizes, and colors and, for a moment, I contemplated the cost of an Audubon Society membership. For one stretch of probably 30 minutes, thousands of freaked out mullet jumped as we zoomed by on the glassy smooth bayous. I’m sure—and this is no fishing yarn—we witnessed more than a million mullet jumping. The sheer preponderance of life blew my mind as I thought of what was in store for us.

If you’ve never seen it, the Delta is vast, wet grassland with literally an endless maze of canals and cuts, some barely as wide as the boat and only a foot or so deep. Trey’s been running these waters for several decades and knows to turn left at that tall cattail or right at that patch of sawgrass. It all looked the same to me, and I was completely lost five minutes after we left the dock. As we ripped along at full speed, I kept expecting another boat to meet us head on around one of the turns, something that has been known to happen. But not to Trey…yet.

redfish heaven 4Pink herons in a Cyprus tree.

We traveled a good 20 miles south from Venice to Redfishville. Down there, where the Mississippi River dumps into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s full-on fishing action. You have East Bay and West Bay (they didn’t use an ad agency to come up with those names) with myriad sandbars and channels and oyster reefs—none of which are visible to the naked eye when the water is muddy, which is often. Again, Trey knew where to go. He checked a few landmarks, watched his bottom finder and directed me to toss the anchor. We settled in and put live croakers on our hooks about three feet below a red and white plastic cork. Trey pointed off the starboard side of the boat.

“Toss it right there,” he said. “When the cork goes down, start reeling.” And so we did. Within seconds, Brent and I were hooked up and Trey was taking pictures. To make a long story short, two hours later, we’d caught about 20 bull reds and our arms were like silly putty. Trey was laughing at us and we were weeping with joy. We left that hotspot, not because we stopped catching reds, but because we needed to rest our muscles and find some speckled trout. We ran out to a couple of small rigs in the Gulf where the water was a lot clearer. “We caught 50 trout here last weekend,” Trey said. Fifty! With a “limit” of 25 trout per person in Louisiana, Trey and his nephew filled the cooler with “only” 50 trout.

redfish heaven 5Trey Todd with coolers full of speckled trout.

We switched to live shrimp and, again, the action was instant. We caught speckled trout, sheepshead and even a few flounder. Another two hours and a bunch of photos later, we had to take a break again. Trey’s smile turned to a sly grin when we stopped at another spot south of the rig and near the shoreline. We removed the cork and free-spooled some pinfish. Within minutes, Brent’s pole bent over. Thirty minutes later, he dragged in a 20-lb. jack crevalle. That did it. It only took two beefy jacks to whip us and Trey knew it. He giggled like a little girl. The day was coming to an end and so were we. A hot shower, cold beverages and some grub was sounding mighty fine. As we zigzagged at high speeds through skinny water and narrow passages, Brent was planning the meal aloud and talking about remoulade sauce, fried fillets, stuffed baked potatoes and other mouth-watering eats.

By the time we got back to the fish camp, the sun was dropping behind the golden marsh. In the distance, an oil rig’s exhaust tower was spewing orange flames into the pinkish sky like a gigantic Bunsen burner. In a weird Venice-kind-of-way it was beautiful. We were covered in sweat, blood and six species of fish slime. This was hard-core fishing, deep friendship, food and drink at its pinnacle. Yep, Man Heaven was upon us. As I absorbed the whole experience, I wondered how life could get any better. Then I realized we had two more days of fishing ahead of us. Amen!

redfish heaven 7A sunset over Venice's shrimp fleet.

The Redfish Workout Plan

If you’re considering a fishing trip to LA, there are some essential preparations before you go. First, be sure to hit the weightroom and work on your forearms and biceps. Do this for at least two weeks, gradually increasing the weight load. Then, before you go to bed every night, take two tablespoons of hot sauce (preferably Tabasco) followed by some ice cold beverages. This will get your plumbing right. If raw oysters are available, add two dozen with ample cocktail sauce to your bedtime ritual. Finally, at various intervals during the day, go outside and hoot and holler for 30-60 minutes, making sure your vocal cords are properly lubricated with more oysters.

redfish heaven 2Monster red. Photo: Mike Frenette. www.venicefishing.net

Although not required, it’s helpful to brush up on your French by adding the sound of an “O” (spelled eau or eaux—such as “bateau,” meaning boat) to most words. Be forewarned, even if you stick to this routine religiously, after a redfish extravaganza in Southern Louisiana, you’ll still gain weight from all of the good food and drink, but at least your arms will be a lot stronger and your language skills will be much improved.

By Fred Garth
Photos by Trey Todd

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