All Jacked-Up for Saltwater Action
On The Fly Saltwater
Featured photo by Polly Dean.
By Polly Dean
Fishing the Chandeleur Islands had been on my bucket list for a number of years – a couple of decades actually. When I read the invite to visit a “lodge” and fish this chain of islands, it only took a second to reply “yes!” I didn’t pay much attention to the term “jack-up barge” within the brief invitation. Instead, I zeroed in on the fact that I would soon be wading the flats of this legendary chain of islands off the Mississippi coast. The shallow sand and grass flats of the Chandeleur Islands are notorious for redfish, speckled trout and numerous other species that either reside or make their migration through the waters of the crescent-shaped chain.
Fishing in the Chandeleur Islands is good from spring through the end of the year. Though most anglers are targeting red drum and big seatrout, a myriad of other game fish are available as well. Herds of jack crevalle cruise these shallows during the summer months. Migrating cobia and tarpon make an appearance from May through July. Bluefish, Spanish mackerel and flounder will also bend a rod.
Due to the Chandeleur Islands being 30 miles from the mainland, many anglers choose to stay aboard a “mother ship” at night to maximize fishing time. The Chandeleur Islander, our “home away from home” was a renovated jacked-up barge designed to accommodate groups of anglers. The barge, repurposed from its earlier use at oil rigs, proved to be a clever, yet comfortable and practical home base for our small group of anglers, along with another dozen or more who joined us onboard.
Though nearly due south of Biloxi, Mississippi, Louisiana lays claim to this crescent-shaped chain of uninhabited islands. Lore has it that in the 1800s a dispute arose between the two states as to the possession of the Chandeleur Islands. Ownership was established by drifting a barrel down the Pearl River that divides the states and allowing wind and current to determine which side of the islands the barrel would drift. The barrel traveled northeast of the main chain, thus Louisiana claimed ownership.
We made the 38-mile run to the barge via a shuttle boat out of Pass Christian, Mississippi. Normally a little more than an hour trip, rough seas slowed our voyage to two hours – a new, but unwelcome, record for our shuttle crew. The crew stowed our gear, and bean bag chairs for our comfort filled the deck. Guests are welcome to bring their own boats to the Islander. The jacked-up barge has a portable dock for access and boats can be safely anchored close by
In the first minutes of wading, my initial cast into a “blue hole” drew a strike. The strong-fighting fish that eagerly swallowed my fly, was a hardhead catfish. Turns out these opportunistic saltwater cats were quite common and easily spotted almost everywhere we waded. Depending on one’s point of view, the hardheads were either somewhat of a nuisance or to one angler in the group, they provided a distraction – a target to cast to, when fishing was slow.
Later on, we joined a fly angler from Texas who was traveling solo in his 24-foot Scout and graciously shared his boat with us. We scooted around the islands looking for areas where we could hop out and wade, but with enough water for the boat to say afloat on the falling tide.
The almost deafening sound of birds could be heard as we approached some of the larger islands. We saw gulls, terns, pelicans and skimmers. It was a magical place with the abundance of wildlife and activity in and around this salty habitat.
Redfish Point, near the center of the chain and a popular area – I say this loosely, as we were the only boat and anglers in the vicinity – was our starting point. The water had a slight stain from the wind and waves but was clear enough to see bottom at its shallowest in one to two feet deep. There was plenty of space for all of us to roam and the terrain ranged from white sand to a mix of sand and grass. We learned quickly that most of the bottom was firm but dispersed throughout were soft areas (large or small), where one could sink up to the knees if not careful. It was best to navigate slowly.
We all hooked fish: a lot of hardhead cats and a few speckled trout. I managed a small redfish with a blind cast to a grass edge. We were assured that we had endured a “bad” day of angling in Chandeleurs. That’s fishing, some days it’s hot, some days it’s not, but you never lose when something is on the end of your line in such an exotic destination.