- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
As winter gives way to spring in the northern Gulf, a few anglers become captivated by a Siren’s song. It evokes thoughts of a gentle emerald surf, a cloudless azure sky, dusky sand dunes, solitude, and red drum—bulls and “regular reds” alike. The song persists, and the point is soon reached where it must be fulfilled. And on the first decent day thereafter, it compels those anglers to make their year’s first trip to a barrier island.
The song is quite forceful. Friends and I who are susceptible to it have made “first trips” to the islands in some very marginal weather ranging from pea-soup fog to stiff nor’easters that had the sound churning with white-capping chop. Venturing to barrier islands in such conditions is foolhardy; some of us simply can’t resist the song—can’t wait for a better day.
Those will assuredly come. Grab them when they do—job or not. There is absolutely nothing like a friendly late-winter or early-spring day at the islands.
Tale Of A Trip
You idle up to a pocket in your destination’s back-side shoreline, outboards trimmed well up, and spook a nice red—and then another. One of your friends quickly kills the motors, grabs a casting rod, and ascends the radar tower while your other friend gently sets the anchor. From the tower a red is immediately spotted in the winter-clear shallows, the cast is on target, and the fish eats. Ever seen anyone fight a 10-pound red while trying to hang onto a radar tower? Quite entertaining!
Redfish dominate the island action early on, but speckled trout will arrive en masse once spring arrives.
You and your anchor-setting friend quickly don waders and slip overboard. Both of you hook up almost instantly, and thus begins a day you will never forget. A day in which the weather and the sea were picture-perfect. A day when almost 50 reds would be caught and released. A day when you and your two friends had it all to yourselves. A day that could not have been improved. Barrier islands are like that—memory makers—especially before the crowds begin to arrive.
There are quite a few of these jewels across the northern Gulf. Of note in Louisiana are the Timbalier/Terrebonne chain generally southeast of Houma, Grand Isle and Grand Terre south of New Orleans, and the Chandeleurs north of the Mississippi River Delta. Mississippi boasts the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which includes Petit Bois, Horn, Ship, and Cat Islands. Also, Deer Island off Biloxi can provide good action. And in Alabama there is Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan Point, which is actually a peninsula but it fishes like an island. Only two of these are permanently inhabited—Grand Isle and Dauphin Island—with Grand Terre having a small research lab on it. All but Grand Isle and Dauphin Island, which are accessible by automobile, must be gained by boat, seaplane, or helicopter. And all offer excellent potential for both reds and specks in late winter and early spring.
While it’s possible to stumble across some specks before the vernal equinox, redfish normally predominate the fishery during that time. Those fish can be found virtually anywhere around an island, but some areas demand the closest attention, though their productivity is normally dependent on a particular stage of the tide. And although barrier islands can assuredly be fished by boat, wading is the preferred tactic.
The first areas to probe are shallow bars. Those can be found at the ends of the islands as well as in the surf. They are easily determined by having hues lighter than nearby deeper areas or by waves breaking against their edges. During rising tides reds will often move on top of bars to feed, and sight-fishing for them there can be outstanding.
Whether it's on the flats, at the bars, or in the surf, big reds will be somewhere around the islands.
During periods of low tide the reds are drawn into the deeper water of the troughs and pockets. These are dark in color—the darker the deeper. Also, waves do not break in them. They can be found traversing the flats that occur on the inside of many islands as well as in the surf and adjacent to the bars at the ends of an island. Those in the surf also have the best potential for a school of bulls.
The last primary area to find reds around a barrier island is the back-side flats themselves. Like the bars, they can offer fine sight-fishing, and they can be a trip-saver when an easterly kicks up. Like the bars, the flats are usually best on a rising tide.
If the surf is fishable, you should concentrate on it and on any bars at the ends of the island you choose to fish. Take note that the interior areas of many islands—that which are above the mean high-tide mark—are off-limits. That means your exploring—a part of island fishing which is almost as much fun as the catching part—must be done along the water’s edge. While searching, or while prospecting a promising trough, or while scanning the tops of the bars for visible fish, take frequent looks around you for small, fresh slicks or diving pelicans—and get over there quick!
Although the rising tide has always been desired for fishing the surf, brisk onshore winds can make that area unfishable. At that time working any back-side marshes on the falling tide can be productive. Look for signs of baitfish being drawn from the flooded grass by the falling water, and work the area thoroughly.
Fishing for late-winter reds at the islands can be done with a minimum of gear. Chest waders are essential, as are polarized sunglasses and a cap with its bill having a dark underside. Normally, 1/4-ounce jig/soft-plastic combos are all you will need. Your outfit—either spinning or casting—should consist of a 6- or 7-foot medium or medium-heavy rod and a reel holding at least 150 yards of 16-pound line. Use about 3 feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon for a leader—no snaps or swivels.
At this time, barrier islands are made to order for fly fishing—a practice I take advantage of out there at every opportunity. Fish the same places on the same tides as was just described. A 9-foot, 9- or 10-weight outfit made up of a reel with a good drag-system and a capacity for a slow sinking-tip line and at least 150 yards of 30-pound backing is appropriate. Use an 8- or 9-foot leader tapered to a 16-pound class tippet and finished with a foot of 30-pound fluorocarbon for a shocker. Sizes 1 and 1/0 Clouser Minnows in the same basic colors as the area’s most productive plastic tails are the only flies you will need; use the smaller size for sight-fishing and the larger size for working the troughs.
A barrier island double-dip, and a great way to kick off the season!
Depending on the weather, specks begin to show up at the islands in numbers around the first of April. Generally they are best targeted on rising water in troughs in the surf and across back-side flats and on falling water around any marshy areas. When prospecting for them, do not enter water deeper than mid-thigh or thereabouts unless it is to reach a promising spot. By doing so you may spook nearby fish. And on that note, if a spot gives up a speck, others should be around—often LOTS of others!
As is the case with redfish, specks show up around the islands to eat. Therefore it doesn’t take a lot of tackle to catch them. The same outfits—both conventional and fly—that were recommended for reds are appropriate, and specks will strike the same jigs and flies that the reds will. However, as the month progresses specks develop an appreciation for surface lures.
While those are certainly both productive and a real boot in the butt to fish with, they present some problems for wade-fishermen. Conventional walking-type surface lures are armed with two or three sets of treble hooks, which can present a real danger, especially while subduing a fish that is close at hand. By all means work a topwater across surf or back-side troughs, but use them with extreme care.
For fly fishermen, surface lures—poppers—are not nearly as dangerous. These flies—some 4 to 4-1/2 inches long and with only one size 1/0 hook to have to watch out for—work very well on island specks. But they don’t work at all with the sinking-tip line which was recommended for reds and which is ideal for prospecting for specks with the Clouser Minnow. About mid-month I arbitrarily switch from the sinking-tip line to a full-floating line. Besides allowing the popper to be worked properly, this does not seem to adversely affect the use of the Clouser Minnow, apparently the result of the warming water and more active fish. The big popper also falls into the genre of lures—topwaters—which I firmly believe have the best potential for the really big specks, which begin showing up around the islands at the end of April.
So there you have it. Lots of reds—and perhaps some bulls—early on, then gobs of specks, and finally the chance for a real trophy. And all in a setting of quiet solitude and raw beauty. Is there any doubt why some of us are so susceptible to the Siren’s song?