With apologies to Charles Dickens, fishing in south Louisiana right now is either the best of times or the worst of times.
If you’re an angler who thinks the very sun itself was birthed from the loins of a sow speckled trout, you’re probably hating life right now.
The fresh water the Midwest keeps bequeathing to the lower Mississippi River Valley has pushed specks out to the extreme edges of our coast, turning some seasonal hot spots into silty sanctuaries of sediment. If you want specks right now, you’d better top off the tanks in both your truck and boat.
But if you’re just as content — or even moreso — with the satisfyingly solid tug of a line-stripping redfish, you’ll be telling your grandkids about these halcyon days. All this fresh water has caused the redfish population to thrive, thanks to an abundance of submerged aquatic vegetation and the bait it supports.
Redfish are absolutely everywhere, and many of them have Jonathan Ryan on their tails. The 32-year-old Jefferson angler can’t get enough of chasing reds way back in the shallow-water marshes, where he makes few casts on fish he doesn’t first see.
“To me, there’s really nothing like it,” Ryan said. “You’re in these estuaries that are undisturbed, and you’re seeing bait, different grasses, garfish, stingrays — actually, on my last trip, there were two redfish swimming right behind a stingray because they know stingrays will kick bait up from the bottom. How can you not enjoy seeing something like that?”
Ryan is perfectly set up for the style of fishing he does, pursuing his prey out of a 20-foot Gator Trax aluminum boat that draws very little water and features a remote-controlled trolling motor.
“The type of vessel you’re in is going to dictate where you can go,” he said. “Draft is something that’s really important. I have a jack plate, which allows me to get up in that shallow water. If I push way into some area, I don’t have to putt back out or use a trolling motor. Instead, I can get up on plane and get out of those shallow areas.”
Other boaters who aren’t outfitted precisely the same can also have success sight-casting to redfish in shallow water, Ryan said.
“There are bay boats out there that are fully capable of doing the exact same thing I do,” he said. “A 22- to 24-foot bay boat is only going to draft 12-14 inches of water, so you can get in some pretty shallow stuff. I feel like a lot of people underestimate what they’re capable of doing in the boat they currently have. They’re capable, but they steer clear of it because it’s uncharted water and there is that risk of, ‘Oh man, I could get stuck.’
“But I bring my waders, and I’ve got no problems. I’ll jump out of my boat, push it, jump back in, and I’m good to go.”
Though more sight-fishing anglers are investing in tower boats that are so ubiquitous across the Louisiana coast right now, Ryan says they aren’t essential for success, and can sometimes be a hindrance.
“I have a 75-quart ice chest that I stand on at the front of my boat, and that works for me,” he said. “There are a lot of guys who do it on towers or platforms, but a simple ice chest is more than enough most days, just as long as you put that sun at your back.
“And actually, the towers can sometimes be a disadvantage because you have to take into account the wind and how much impact it’s going to have on your cast,” he said. “I’m a little closer to the water surface, so I can put it where I need it, but as you go higher, you have to more account for the wind. You’re casts are really going to be affected by that.”
That’s an important element because sight-fishing demands casting accuracy. Anglers have to consider the direction a fish is moving, as well as its rate of speed, and have to look for potential obstacles like matted grass or lure-clogging patches of algae, which most anglers call “snot grass.”
“I don’t want to spook the fish,” Ryan said. “That’s what I’m always considering. If the fish is really calm, you don’t necessarily need a perfect cast. You can throw it maybe six feet away, reel it toward him and drop it down when you get it in front of him, within about a foot. Chances are, he’s going to hit it.
“If the fish is facing toward me, I’m going to throw past its tail and bring it toward its face. I want it six inches in front of its nose, and then I’m going to drop it.
“Most of the time, you’ll see them hit it rather than feeling them, especially if you have a good day with sunshine in clear water with little wind,” he said. “You’ll see them turn on it and see their gills flare. You know they just sucked it up.”
Sunshine, clear water and calm winds are all a sight-angler’s best friends, but Ryan said one is far more critical than the other two.
“The most important element — 100 percent — is sun,” he said. “If you’ve got the sun, it makes life 5,000 times easier. When the sun comes out (from behind a cloud), it’s like a switch goes off in the water column. You can see everything — all the little intricacies, the bait, the grass lanes.”
Assuming he has clear skies, the next element Ryan is going to consider is wind.
“Ultimately that’s going to dictate where you can fish,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to see them on the lee shorelines because you get that calm water, those slick coves. You can press into the shoreline and get some protection. That allows you to see a lot more.”
Finally, clear water is important, but Ryan spends very little time stressing about it.
“I feel like, if you get around grass, you’re going to find clean water somewhere,” he said. “I’m not really concerned with the water clarity as much because typically you can find it. When you’re willing to go through those small little ditches, to where your boat can hardly fit through it, and you get past these thick grass patches that protect 12-22 inches of water, it’ll be just gin-clear and undisturbed and you can see straight to the bottom. If you can find that grass, you’re going to find clear water. That’s the key.”
And you’ll also find redfish. Plenty of them. Others may hate the fresh water, but Ryan would give it a big, wet kiss if he could. For him, these are the best of times.