Trout fishing at Ship Island starts getting hot in May, and anglers can choose to wade the surf on the south side or the shallow grass beds, or drift the deeper grass beds on the north side in a boat.
Capt. Chris Bush of Southern Salt Charters (www.southernsaltcharters.com) prefers to start his morning in the surf, and then hit the grass beds once the bite slows when the sun comes up.
"The best part about fishing the islands is the insane action, especially on the south side," Bush said. "If the conditions are right, you and your party can catch a limit of fish before you have to put on your sunglasses.
"If that's the case and you still want to enjoy a day on the water or your spot fizzles out before you can fill your limit, hop to the north side. I really like fishing the grass beds, especially when the sun gets high."
Bush starts by anchoring in the predawn hours on the west end, south side of east Ship Island and wading toward the east.
He's looking for contour changes that extend off the beach - a series of small bars and troughs perpendicular to the beach. There is typically another sandbar that runs horizontal to the beach a long cast out.
"After I get the boat situated, I immediately start looking for bait," Bush said. "Some mornings you will see shrimp skipping, and others you'll see bands of mullets on top of the water.
"When you see bait, start fishing: More often than not, the fish will be right under them."
Of course, finding bait is the best-case scenario.
"However, I don't see bait every time I go out," Bush admitted. "If that is the case, start fishing the breakers. Breakers are a key component to finding the fish; they indicate a ledge of shallow-to-deep water, and the turbulence caused by the breakers provides the perfect ambush environment for trout."
The bait of choice for fishing the surf is a Shrimp Creole Matrix Shad on a 5/16-ounce Hoosier Hooker jighead.
Bush lets the trout tell him how the bait needs to be presented by fishing the entire water column until he is on a consistent bite.
"I generally start with a simple cast and retrieve," he said. "When fishing the surf, I keep my rod tip straight up and constantly retrieve with an occasional pop. This is my go-to approach about 75 percent of the time. By using this method, it allows you to fish a lot of water in a short amount of time.
"Once I get a bite, I stop wading and duplicate that cast as best I can. Most of the time, if you catch one you can catch a limit, but you have to be mindful about your presentation."
Of course, there are always those times when he has to change up.
"The other 25 percent of the time I'll work the bottom half of the water column," Bush said. "I do this by standing upcurrent of my target and letting the tide keep my bait in the water column by slowly lifting my rod. Once I get to the top of my retrieve, I reel in my slack and repeat my presentation.
"This approach works best for targeting more-quality fish on ledges or under bait."
But he said there was one constant, no matter how he has to fish.
"Regardless of technique, my No. 1 key is to find the fish by covering a lot of water (and) then figuring out the best way to consistently catch them," he said.
When the surf is hot, Bush can get his limit of trout before the suns completely breaks the horizon. On the days when the bite is slow or he simply wants to spend more time on the water, he'll hop across the island and wade or drift the grass beds on the north side.
This side of the island is similar to the south side in that there are sandbars and troughs. The difference is that the north side doesn't have the wave action and is covered with grass beds.
"Since the wave action is minimal compared to the southern side, abnormalities are a bit harder to find," Bush pointed out. "Breakers that indicate ledges or drop-offs are generally not present, which means you have to look for these differences. This is the reason I like to wait for the sun to get high.
"That being said, look for darker spots on the fringes off the grass beds: These indicate sharp ledges, which generally hold fish.
"Another feature to look for are long stretches of sparse grass within the grass beds. This indicates that the water is deeper, and provides a gulley, which is an ideal ambush point for trout and reds."
Wade-fishing the north grass beds adds a new twist. Instead of focusing on just troughs and bars, an angler can target grass line edges, points and holes in the grass.
Fishing on that side of the island requires more technique to avoid getting hung up in the grass and fouling the bait every cast.
"Another key factor to consider when fishing the grass beds is altering your presentation," Bush explained. "I generally stay with basic lures like Matrix Shad soft plastics or MirrOlure MirrOdines, but I lighten my weight. On the south side, I like throwing a 5/16(-ounce) jighead, but in the grass beds I like throwing a ¼-ounce. If I'm using hard baits, I'll downsize from a Catch 5 to a MirrOdine.
"By lightening up, you're allowing that bait to stay out of the grass, keeping it in the strike zone for the fish and less frustrating for you. After all, you don't want to go out there and just catch bushels of grass."
Ship Island also has grass beds in deeper water, some as deep as 8 feet. If you prefer to stay dry or to finish your morning on the boat, then drift fishing the deeper beds is a viable option.
Fishing these beds is dependent upon the wind. To be successful an angler needs to set up drifts across the larger grass beds and concentrate on holes, edges and points. A trolling motor should be used only on days where there is little to no wind to avoid spooking the trout.
"I apply a similar concept to fishing out of a boat as I do wade fishing - noise discipline," Bush said. "I set up my drift upwind of my area, which allows me to make long casts, keeping me off the fish, preventing me from spooking them."
Bush is quick to explain that when he catches a trout he will immediately anchor the boat using his Stick It Anchor Pin and comb the grass bed until the bite slows. Trout tend to bunch up on grass beds, so he thoroughly fishes a bed before continuing the drift.
"Once you start your drift," Bush said, "and you catch a fish or get a few hits, anchor your boat. This allows you to meticulously fish an area; once that bite fizzles keep moving.
"Realistic expectations are to catch 8 to 10 fish a drift, once you've completed your drift."
He then simply goes back to his starting point.
"Crank your big engine, ease way off your spot and idle all the way to the beginning and re-drift that area," Bush said. "Many times a spot will reset by the time you've completed your first drift, which means you can catch equal to the amount you caught on your first drift.
"I've done it way too many times: I've caught 10 fish on my first drift, seven on my second and four on my third. Before you know it, you and your party are close to fielding a limit. Once that area shuts down, move on."
Fishing Ship Island is a blast because there are so many ways to target fish. An angler can take their favorite technique to the island and catch fish on any given day.
Just keep an eye on Mother Nature, and when the weather permits give Ship Island a try.