I should have told Dave Draper it was a bad idea. Ignoring the oft-proven fact that members of the outdoor press seem to trail nasty weather like a piece of soggy toilet paper stuck to their heels, Draper, a public-relations specialist at Cabela's, had invited me and four other fishing writers to join him on a trip to the fabled Chandeleur Islands in early November. Worse, when I arrived at the dockside rendezvous in Biloxi, Mississippi, I discovered that this concentration of angling media would be living (maybe trapped was more like it) aboard an 88-foot mothership for the duration of the three-day trip. Wasn't this a bit like thumbing one's nose at the fishing gods? Hell, we'd be lucky not to conjure up a late-season hurricane!
Although the Chandeleurs - a 50-mile chain of remote barrier islands lying due south of Biloxi - belong to Louisiana, they are actually closer to many Mississippi ports. Lots of anglers launching from Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula make the 20- to 30-mile run out and back to the islands in their own boats, but a more convenient way to fish them is to take a multi-day trip aboard one of the ten or so motherships based in Mississippi. Anglers eat and sleep aboard the larger vessel, while fishing is done from small, outboard-powered skiffs that can access the shallow areas inhabited by redfish, speckled trout, flounder and jacks. In calm weather, the mothership also provides access to the numerous wrecks and rigs surrounding the islands, where cobia, tripletail, kingfish, bluefish, jack crevalle, trophy red drum and large speckled trout can be caught.
Weather Be Damned!
In our case, we were hoping to fish the Chandeleurs' productive grass flats, but the fickle late-fall weather was already raising doubts: the forecast was calling for cold fronts, high winds and possible thunderstorms. Even as we gathered under leaden skies and began loading our gear aboard the rugged aluminum charter vessel, I'm Alone, skipper Terry Fitzgerald and boat owner Charles Graham were debating whether to make the lumpy, 30-mile run to the Chandeleurs' North Islands group or fish the protected marshes closer to the Louisiana mainland, where the I'm Alone typically fishes during the winter months. By 5:00 p.m. the decision was made and we began steaming south into the gathering dusk through three- to four-footers, a train of outboard skiffs sluing in the wake. Next stop, the Chandeleurs.
The next morning I awoke to the slap of light chop against the metal hull and the smells of a voluminous southern breakfast. Chef Herb McDonald had whipped up a hearty, calorie-packed feast of buttered grits, spicy sausage, scrambled eggs, thick slices of bacon, donuts and toast to fortify us in our fish-quest. No matter what the weather decided to do on this trip, starvation wouldn't be a concern.
As the gray skies brightened, I stepped out on deck and got my first look at the Chandeleurs. There wasn't a whole lot to see. We were anchored in Big Smack Channel, nestled among a group of low-lying islands covered by tall spartina grass and pockets of brush. Rafts of white and brown pelicans floated nearby and frigate birds circled overhead. Great blue herons, curlews and sandpipers looked for food along the shoreline. Aside from the oil and gas drilling rigs peppering the horizon, there was no sign of human presence - no other fishermen, no other boats.
Fish on Your Own
The fishing plan was simple: pair up, hop in a skiff and have at it. My partner for the first morning's foray was George Milam, the former Deputy Director of Tourism for the state of Mississippi. Since George was a lifelong Mississippi fisherman, I figured he had been to the Chandeleurs hundreds of times and was familiar with the local waters. Such was not the case. Less than a minute after leaving the mothership we ran aground.
"Well, this looks like as good a place to start as any," I announced as a cloud of mud and grass blossomed behind the stern. George agreed, so we shut down, tilted the outboard and began to cast. George started out with a soft-pastic curl-tail grub rigged below a float, a standard offering for trout and redfish in these parts, while I bounced a soft-plastic shad rigged on a quarter-ounce jighead over the bottom. The wind was light enough to drift across the flat, allowing us to cover a large area to locate the fish.
We hadn't been fishing for more than an hour when we heard some commotion from one of the other boats. It was Charles Graham, and he was gesturing toward an ominous wall of dark clouds that was rapidly approaching.
"Hey, George," I asked. "What do you say we get out of here?" My partner allowed as to how it was a pretty good idea, so we fired up the outboard and set a course for the I'm Alone. Twenty seconds later we were hard aground again. After much frantic poling with a long-handled oar, presumably kept onboard for just such a purpose, we were able to extricate ourselves and made it to the ship as the wind began to howl and the air temperature dropped ten degrees. That's one of the great things about fishing on a mothership: a safe, dry haven is always close by.
Just about the time everyone was safely back onboard, we noticed that fish - big fish - were breaking next to the boat. The front had evidently stirred up a mass of baitfish, which were being assaulted by packs of 15- to 20-pound jack crevalle. Looking across the water, I could see clouds of pelicans and terns working over more of the fast-moving schools. George and I quickly hopped back in our skiff and gave chase. The jacks were moving quickly downwind, so it took a bit of running-and-gunning before I was finally able to land one on a topwater plug.
Then the action died, and we faced the unpleasant task of pounding our way back to the mothership. After beating our brains out for several minutes, we decided to take a break and check out a small cut in one of the islands. By this time the tide was dead low, and we found ourselves poling deeper into the marshy center of the island in less than a foot of water. However, there was at least one redfish looking for a meal back there, and George caught it on his popping-cork rig before we headed back to the I'm Alone for lunch.
After several steaming bowls of gumbo and a sandwich, I was ready for the afternoon fishing session. This time I teamed up with Doug Pike, editor of the Coastal Conservation Association's Tide magazine and a veteran Gulf Coast fisherman. Doug has fished the Chandeleurs numerous times, and prefers to catch his reds and trout on topwater plugs. He immediately displayed his prowess at the "walk-the-dog" technique by hooking a 15-pound red that was foraging near a sandy point. After watching that redfish bull its way through a foot of water to wallop Doug's MirrOlure, I decided that I, too, would throw topwaters from then on. We spent the rest of the afternoon making repeated drifts over the grass flats in one to four feet of water, picking up a few more reds and some small trout before darkness forced us to quit.
Back at home base, things were getting festive as anglers gathered on deck to describe the day's adventures over drinks and hors d'oeuvres. It turned out that our party had done okay, despite the unsettled weather. Numerous specks and several big reds had been taken, including a 30-pound brute taken on a surface plug.
In such a fish-rich locale, it's only natural that fresh seafood should be on the menu, and that night we were treated to heaping platters of baked and fried trout and redfish, served up with side dishes of coleslaw, garden salad, mashed potatoes and beans. By the time desert was passed around, everyone seemed too full to be concerned about the big cold front that was scheduled to move through the area the next afternoon.
Feelin' the Magic
The next day I shared a skiff with Dave Draper, and we immediately headed for the spot Doug Pike and I had fished. The wind had completely changed directions overnight, but at least it allowed us to make perfect drifts along a half mile or so of prime grass flats. Our efforts were rewarded by a few small reds and one truly giant fish that materialized from the green depths of a channel to give my lure a look. We also picked up a handful of specks, although nothing big enough to boast about.
We followed this drift-and-move strategy for several hours until a bolt of lightning sent us scurrying back to the mothership. The big front roared through a few minutes later, bringing gale-force winds and a downpour that reduced visibility to 50 feet. It passed quickly, though, and once the rain had tapered off and the wind dropped, our band of die-hard anglers ventured forth again to fish until dark.
Making my final casts in the fading light, I felt sorry to be leaving the islands. After all, I was just getting the hang of fishing the flats, and had finally learned to navigate the area without running aground every five minutes. But there was more. The Chandeleurs had worked their magic after all, despite the weather, and I understood why these remote, inhospitable barrier islands have become such a sacred place for so many fishermen. As my experience proved, you've got to try pretty hard not to catch fish here!