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Breaking the Code
On a chilly morning in late-November, Capt. Charlie Thomason was slamming the speckled trout in the outer bays near Delacroix, La., a rustic fishing village on the east side of the Mississippi River. Significant numbers of fish in the one- to three-pound class were arriving en masse, as they made their first big push into areas such as Lake Campo, Oak River Bay and Bay Lafourche. And there was Thomason, methodically positioned to take full advantage of the annual migratory event. This was a classic post-spawn feed and he knew these fish were "bulking up," storing energy for the cold winter that would be setting in shortly.
For more than a week the spotted predators continued to eat voraciously, gorging of baitfish and shrimp. The reports were coming out of this region was not what most consider to typify winter fishing. As word spread in early December many others came to fish here. And they remained, relentlessly casting baits through mid-December. But Thomason was nowhere to be found. He knew the success in these outer bays would be short lived. With plummeting air and water temperatures, he was the first to move deeper into the confines of the interior marshes. Years of experience told him it was time.
A few miles away on the west side of the Mississippi River, Capt. Eric Muhoberac was having a field day in Lake Grand Escaille, on the southeastern edge of Barataria Bay. Trout were slapping surface baits like it was a warm summer afternoon. But this was December, and he knew it was time to change the game plan.
Just south of Lafitte, Capts. Phil Robichaux and Jody Donewar were finding steady action in Bay Round, Bay Laurier and Bay Five. But these veterans also knew that their fish were in transit. And to stay on top of their game they knew they would have to move further inside.
All of these veterans agree there are many advantages to fishing in winter. First, except in the brutal cold, your days on the water will generally be more comfortable with proper attire. Secondly, your catches of speckled trout, redfish, flounder and other species, can be as productive as anytime of the year. In addition, most of these species can be found extremely close to most marinas and launches. This obviously means less time running, more time fishing, and much less pain and the fuel pump. But perhaps the most important ticket to success in winter is to be acutely aware of the migration and know when it's time to move.
"Winters in south Louisiana can be some of the most comfortable days of the year," said Muhoberac, of New Orleans. "And if you're in touch with your surroundings, you can catch as many fish as you can in any month of the year. I think the secret is knowing what's going on."
And with the transition of the fish, there is a lot going on.
The biggest problem for most, Muhoberac said, is that all anglers tend to be creatures of habit. And habits, or patterns of behavior, can be often be difficult to change. The areas where we decide to fish are often dictated by the degrees of success and failure we experienced on our last trip. In other words, if we caught fish in an area last time, the odds are that we will return our next time out.
"Most of the time I have to make myself move," he said. "And it can take discipline to break these patterns of behavior."
Patterns is a concept, a tool that we often use to illustrate realities of marine life. It can be used to describe the seasonal movements of fish, as well as how and why they relate to different environs. It can be used to describe how the fish are biting, what they are feeding on, or the voracity of their strikes.
"To me, patterns means a lot of things," said Robichaux. "It tells me where the fish are headed, where they're coming from, and what they're feeding on."
Understanding and adapting to patterns can pay off in big dividends. It's not a scientific term, and is rarely used by biologists. But it allows anglers to form their own theories based on past experiences, and apply that knowledge to any given situation.
"Patterns tells me exactly how they fish are striking," Robichaux said. "Are the fish suspended, or are they hanging on the ledges? Are they striking horizontal (with a cork) or vertical (tight-lining)?"
Muhoberac said he relies on patterns to explain the seasonal behavior of fish, and guide him to fishing areas.
"When someone is 'patterning fish,' they are figuring out the areas and water depths that fish are the most active in," he explained. "Then they'll use the baits and techniques that produce best in those circumstances."
The fish establishes the pattern, and then the angler must discern it. This process can take time. But once it is figured out, angler will catch more fish. Rather than casting blindly, the angler can use more information to his advantage.
"Summer patterns are fishing the inside reefs and coastal bays, using live bait," Muhoberac said. "But a winter pattern is fishing the slopes, ledges, drop-offs and deep bayous, tight-lining plastics."
While some may not even realize it, much of their time on the water is spent determining patterns. It may often be an unconscious adjustment in the retrieve of their lure, their finesse of their rod tip, or the timing and velocity of their hook sets.
Patterns let anglers know when to stay on a certain area. And it tells them when it is time to leave.
"Most people have these 'secret areas' that are scattered between their marinas and the Gulf of Mexico," Robichaux said. "And I've heard of people who'll fish these same areas no matter what time of the year it is."
So Robichaux developed a strategy several years ago using a map and numbering system. He assigned numbers to his top 15 areas between the launch and the Gulf of Mexico. During the fall and winter, he noticed distinct trends or patterns in the movement of speckled trout.
He found this system to be an asset in winter, but especially valuable in the peak transitional periods of fall and spring.
"Number one was near the launch, and number 15 was near the beach," Robichaux recalled. "In June and July we found a lot of trout in regions of 14 or 15. But in December and January the fish were back to numbers one- to- three."
The system enabled him to adjust his fishing areas to accommodate climatic changes. For instance, on a warm day in December, he would fish in slightly higher regions from four to eight. And on cooler days in March or April he would target mid-range numbers from eight- to- 10.
"The good thing about this system is that anyone can do it no matter where they fish," Robichaux said.
Patterning Coastal Lakes
Few anglers on the Gulf Coast are as disciplined at Capt. Dudley Vandenborre. Vandenborre, creator of the famous Deadly Dudley Lures, changes his areas and transforms his techniques with each passing season. One of the main attributes of his success is because he knows when to change.
"I'm pretty disciplined in what I do," said Vandenborre. "I use certain colors in certain seasons. And I change my fishing areas depending on the month."
From January to April, Vandenborre fishes manmade structure. His specific areas are a series of three bridges in Lake Pontchartrain. This includes (1) The Trestles, the U.S. 11 span between Slidell and Irish Bayou, (2) the Twin Spans which links Metairie to the North Shore, and (3) Seabrook Bridge, near the Lakefront Airport in eastern New Orleans.
Anglers can implement similar systems into their game plan. Keeping logbooks and/or records is critical. Be sure to include the date, weather and water conditions, especially temperatures and tidal flow. Other information to include is areas with descriptions, water depths and baits.
Vandenborre believes water temperatures are critical. This, he believes, have a profound influence in any coastal region you are targeting.
"The trout here will feed in water temperatures as cold as 45 to 50 degrees," he said. "If it gets any colder than that, they'll shut down. But in this cold water you have to slow your bait down to a slow crawl."
By keeping detailed records and logbooks Vandenborre stumbled upon some great information several years ago. For years he noticed that he was catching more and bigger fish directly next to concrete structures. So after testing the water temps with an aquarium thermometer, he found that the reading indicated that the water directly next to some of these structures was five degrees warmer than water 10 feet away. He has theorized that the warmth from the sun was carried downward through the structure and into the surrounding water.
"When you walk into an air-conditioned room in the summer, you say 'Yea, this is great," Vandenborre said. "Well fish are the same way. They look for warmth in the winter."
Fishing the transitional period in winter can give anglers many chances to experiment and try new things. And keeping records and recognizing trends can pay off in big dividends. Collecting and using this data is often what separates the pros from the casual anglers. Become familiar with migratory and feeding patterns of fish, weather, and tidal and current tables. These are all related to patterns.
Even a very basic knowledge of these things will increase your chances of catching finding fish on any given day, any time, and in any given situation.