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 Puddling the Bayous
by Pete Cooper, Jr.

 

 

 

In the Spring 2004 issue of Gulf Coast Fisherman, Robert Sloan's article on fishing from a kayak really brought back some memories. You see, paddling around Texas' salt waters - among others - in a small boat is nothing new. Fact is, I paddled a canoe around much of Copano Bay back in the late 1970's. But Mr. Sloan has already covered the Texas part of that exercise. Allow me to try to convince you that it is also a very viable practice elsewhere.
 
 
While I have never fished from an actual kayak, I have spent long hours pursuing mostly redfish in much of the remainder of the small-boat genre - a duck-boat, pirogues, and canoes. It all began back in 1971 out of absolute necessity: gaining a very promising section of pipeline canal that was isolated by a pair of wooden bulkheads.
 
That spring I got my first fly-caught Louisiana red from that section of the canal, fishing from a pirogue that I had ferried there in my bass boat. At just under 15 pounds, it remains my largest fly-caught red taken in inside waters. Not so incidentally, a speck - also taken from the pirogue - that was to be my largest for some time came from the same spot. Remote places that are not easy to access have proven to hold fish that are well worth the effort to gain them in a small boat.
 
That was proven earlier the same year on a bass fishing trip to a roadside canal near Tidewater, then a small community and petroleum-processing complex just below Venice. I car topped my duck-boat there, launched it into Red Pass, and paddled through the marsh to the canal. That one was bulkheaded on one end, and just beyond a small cut through a bank that connected it with the marsh, a distance of about a quarter-mile, a shallow pipeline crossed it, preventing access by larger boats. That day while working a spinnerbait, I caught a 12-pound red, the first of many I would take from that so sweet spot, along with the bass. And throughout the years, I have never encountered another angler there.
 
Then there was the famous pond, isolated by the banks of encircling canals save for one tiny, meandering cut which, all too soon after I discovered the place in my bass boat, was filled in with dredged spoil. After that I began to ferry my duck boat to it, and from that unlikely craft I caught a red weighing almost 16 pounds - my largest "inside" red - along with several other double-digit fish.
 
Paddling a small boat around such "sneaky spots" as those - a practice that led to a nickname as well as the name of my succession of big boats - can lead to fish few others can reach. Those fish can be tantalizingly

close by - on the far side of a roadside canal or pond, or just out of casting range from your bay boat as they swim, backs exposed, in six inches of water. Been there/seen that? Indeed, the latter scenario - accessing very shallow water - is one of the main perks of a small boat.

Should you now be thinking of pursuing fish that you previously have been unable to reach, there are some important considerations. The first is the type of small boat that is best for your purposes. While a duck-boat will assuredly work just fine in protected areas like small ponds and broken marsh, it is not intended for open water. However, it is stabile, and in being low-slung it has little wind resistance - a real benefit. If you have one and confine its use to "protected" waters - it will suffice. It's just a little slow to paddle.
 
Since I have never fished from a kayak, I cannot make any recommendations for or against them. They are popular craft for our purpose, though, and they come with plenty of bells and whistles that make fishing from them as efficient and comfortable as possible. They are also low-slung and therefore not overly subject to being blown about by the wind, and I've been told a pair of oars will propel them much faster than the other types. On the negative side, you sit low to the water, and that's not good for subsurface visibility.
 
Although I've caught a couple of one-ton pickup trucks-full of reds from the two pirogues I have owned, and I have never even come close to flipping one, for that potential alone I cannot recommend the type. That's covering my butt, so to speak, in case some "klutz" would buy one, flip it, get a bo-bo, and then try to sue me, the magazine, and every pirogue manufacturer in Louisiana! Sure, in many cases you will be fishing in water so shallow that if you did flip one, you'd barely get wet, but there is always the chance for something to go wrong at the worst possible moment. Unless you are a bona fide bayou boy, no pirogues please.
 
Not counting pontoon-boats and the like, which I feel have too many drawbacks to be included here, that leaves canoes. For over two decades that type has been my preference. Like pirogues, they are a bit tipsy, and they are subject to the effects of the wind - but there are ways to cope with that. On the other hand, they are the best choice for fishing with a buddy, they are reasonably fast, and they can hold a lot of gear.
 
Size is the next consideration. Here, bigger is not necessarily better, since it adds weight - an important factor if you intend to car-top the boat. Larger craft also tend to not respond to the paddle as well as smaller ones. And don't assume that a 16-footer will be safer than, say, a 14-footer - if it is it won't be by much. My canoe is 13 feet long, and it handles fishable weather - with a buddy aboard - just fine. I'd consider a range between 12 and 14 feet to suit most situations.
 
Material is the final factor. My experiences have shown that plywood boats are inexpensive but subject to self-destruct when used in salt water. Fiberglass and resin models tend to get eaten up by oysters, and aluminum is comparatively expensive. If you fish in shallow, oyster-strewn water, spend the bucks on aluminum, or you will be buying another boat shortly. Conversely, craft made of fiberglass and such are quite suitable for grassy, shell-less areas. I'd avoid wood.
 
Although many of the redfish that I have taken from small boats were caught on spinnerbaits and popping rigs while "blind-casting", most were the result of sightfishing. That is the practice of a growing number of "puddlers" who are presently plying Louisiana waters in such craft, and there is even a guide in Mississippi who offers the service.
 
Once actual fishing begins, if it is possible - and reasonably safe - sit as high as you can. I usually sit on an ice chest which puts me a few inches higher than the canoe's seats would. Also, sit in such a way that the boat's bow will not be forced well out of the water. My ice chest is placed just aft of amidship, keeping the bow down while still allowing good steerage.
 
A small anchor on around six feet of rope should be tied to something near amidship on the upwind side of the boat. The anchor should be placed in a fairly secure position on the same side of the boat and within easy reach.
 
And here are some final notes. If you are sightfishing, know what you are casting at before you cast at it. I once made a nice toss at a tail protruding through a patch of widgeon grass. The tail turned out to belong to a 6-foot alligator gar, and after I set the hook the beast almost capsized my canoe as it passed beneath it!
 
If you come across some likely waters that are marked with posted signs, do not trespass there. Also, if you fish during the first duck hunting split, a prime time for "puddling", give the hunters plenty of room
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Always carry two paddles (I learned that one the hard way!), and if you must traverse deep water, no matter how extensive it might be, wear a life jacket. Respect the wakes from power boats in areas like that - they can flip you!
 
Otherwise, enjoy it. It's a great way to explore a pretty marsh, isolated water, or an expansive and very shallow flat. And you should have at least most of it all to yourself.
 
For further information, contact Richard Whitner at Gulf Coast Outfitters in Baton Rouge - 225-926-3597, or Capt. Mike Thompson of Mississippi's Shore Thing Charters at 228-342-2206.
 
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