Big trout

Charter skipper Justin Bowles is all smiles after taking this 7-pound speckled trout on a trip to the Chandeleur Island chain. With the Mississippi and Pearl Rivers pumping floodwater, the Chandeleur's are worth the trip for big time trout action east of the Mississippi River.

With freshwater chasing speckled trout from many of their usual spawning grounds, there’s no hotter fishing spot along the entire coast than the ribbon of sand at the farthest eastern stretches of the Bayou State.

But even experienced anglers can spend a day at the Chandeleur Islands and leave with a light fuel tank and even lighter ice chest. Without question, the place can be a tough nut to crack.

Just ask Justin Bowles.

The Ponchatoula resident is a lifelong angler and part-time guide who catches more fish in a typical year than most anglers will in a lifetime, but his first experiences with the Chandeleur chain left him disappointed and disillusioned.

“I’ve only been there three or four times, and the last time I went, which was a couple years ago, I got really frustrated with it because I was used to fishing the islands south of Dularge, and they never really had sandbars that came out hundreds of yards from the island,” Bowles said. “You could just pull in the area you wanted to fish and fish it from the boat without having to wade.

“So that was how I tried to fish Chandeleur, and I kept running aground and couldn’t get where I wanted. I got impatient and frustrated.”

The difference

That changed a few weeks ago, when Bowles went out with veteran island angler and fellow charter skipper Kris Robert.

“I picked up on the way they fish it,” Bowles said. “You have to pull up, look for bait, and if you don’t see bait, there’s no reason to get out of the boat. So you may have to make a few moves — which may take 30 or 45 minutes of stopping and looking and making big U’s — to get to new stuff to look at, but it definitely pays off.

“I knew I’d do the exact same thing the next time I got to go out there.”

That trip happened last week. Bowles and buddies John Thomas and John McQueen left Hopedale on a perfectly calm day, and scooted down the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet before crossing Breton Sound and arriving at a fishless Curlew Island.

After a brief wade, they quickly pulled up stakes and headed to nearby Gosier, where things started out promising.

“I got the boat as close to the island as I could until we bottomed out,” Bowles said. “We saw some bait, so we got out and waded toward it. We got on a good bite — probably picked up 25 to 30 fish, all on topwater.”

Those crazy jacks

They might have rounded out their limits at Gosier, but two elements arrived to work against them. The first was a school of jack crevalle.

“We didn’t have one even go at a bait. I was expecting them to, but it was massive schools of mullet that they were blowing through,” Bowles said. “They muddied up the water and ran the trout off.

“They were swimming five feet from us.”

The other limiting factor came from above.

“We had three seaplanes that flew over us,” Bowles said. “They saw the pods of bait we were working, and they all circled back and landed. We were going to start wading the other way, but they had just landed and were probably going to have at least four fishermen per plane, so we didn’t want to even contend with it.”

Plan B, or C

The crew opted instead to head to the southern reaches of Chandeleur Island.

Once there, Bowles had to handle his 24-foot Skeeter with some care.

“You can’t just run parallel to the island because it’s too shallow. The sandbars come out too far,” he said. “So you’ve got to back out and run basically due west, then run north, then run east until you run out of water.

“You can see on Google Earth where the grass is in the water, so I kind of had that in my head. I didn’t have exact coordinates, but I had a good idea, so we just kept moving until we found where the grass was.

“Once we found the grass, we noticed two ‘liar’ birds diving, and that showed us a little bitty school of bait. We were probably 300 yards from it. We got out and kind of waded quickly toward the bait, and that turned out to be about mid-stomach-depth water, and all you could feel under your feet was grass,” he said.

Standing on what felt like a soupy lawn, the anglers proceeded to add another 40 fish to their stringers, throwing SheDogs, MirrOdines, Matrix Mullets and Matrix Shads. But the hottest bait was one that’s kind of old-school.

“John (McQueen) was throwing a Spit’N Image, and they tended to favor that, big-time,” Bowles said.

The cherry on top

The anglers could have easily finished out their limits, but they wanted to add a cherry atop the sundae and sought out one of the bruiser trout, the monster trout for which the Chandeleur chain is known.

“We left the fish biting because we wanted a big fish, and they’re not going to be in a school where you’re getting a bite every cast,” Bowles said. “I remembered when I had looked at Google Earth the grass beds got thicker the farther north you went, so we made one more move and saw a tiny amount of bait — two mullet jump — but we started wading toward that, and we were pretty spread out, maybe 90 yards from each other.

“I was in the middle, and made a cast over what looked like solid grass. I twitched the MirrOdine two times, paused it and felt a huge thump. I thought I hooked a big redfish or something, but when I set the hook, the trout came to the surface immediately and started tail-walking with her big yellow mouth open. She tried to swim right between my legs, but I stepped to the side.

“I knew it was a big fish, and she ended up being right at 7 pounds on the Boga.”

It was the biggest trout Bowles has caught in several years, and remarkably, it was the only bite they got on that entire wade. Bowles towed it back to the boat, so he could pose for a few pictures before letting the trophy trout swim away.