July is the peak of barrier island fun on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One of my favorite islands to hit is Horn Island, which is approximately 12 miles long and sits 12 miles southeast of my hometown of Ocean Springs.
Horn Island offers a plethora of opportunity, from fishing grass beds on the north side to fishing the surf on the south side, and enjoying camping, crystal-clear waters and sandy beaches.
On any given July weekend, the island will be covered with boaters from daylight to dark. Fishermen converge on the island before the sun breaks the horizon, with pleasure boaters making their way to the east and west ends later in the day.
Dana Sanders, a wetland consultant with D.R. Sanders and Associates, is one of the anglers who regularly makes the predawn trek to Horn Island. And he has developed a three-prong strategy that has resulted in some impressive boxes of speckled trout.
Option 1 for Dana is Fish Haven 10, a rubble pile about ¼-mile north of Horn Island. The GPS coordinates for Fish Haven 10 can be found on the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources website (www.dmr.ms.gov).
“There are three ways that we fish Horn Island in July,” Sanders said. “The first stop is to fish the rubble (Fish Haven 10) north of the island. We’ve caught some good trout there.
“The key is to get there at daylight. Before you even get to Horn Island, stop there and check. You don’t want to go by fish that are biting.”
Sanders fishes the area, which is in 12 feet of water, by bouncing a shrimp creole or ultraviolet Matrix Shad on a ¼- to 3/8-ounce David’s Custom Tackle jighead off the rubble. He lets the current and wind dictate the jighead size.
“It’s a feast-or-famine kind of thing,” Sanders said. “If they’re there, you’ll catch your limit in a few minutes. If they’re not, white trout will be there.
“You can always catch white trout there.”
Option 2 is to hit the grass beds at Horn Island. These grass beds stretch the length of the island on the north side. Some are more productive than others, but trout can be caught from one end of the island to the other.
“The grass is the biggest draw that Horn Island has for trout,” Sanders said. “It is literally a jungle of a fishery for trout; it’s cover, and they love that.
“In fact, a topwater bait out there at daylight can be off the charts.”
Sanders prefers a chrome/black back Rapala Skitter Walk for topwater presentations.
Once the sun comes up, he switches to a 4-inch D.O.A. Golden Shiner jerk bait threaded on a 3/16-ounce David’s Custom Tackle lead-belly screw-loc hook. The lead belly screw-loc hook allows the bait to be Texas rigged and fished through the grass without fouling the hook.
“After the sun comes up, typically the topwater bite will quit; then you go to a light-weight jig,” he explained. “Look for bait, look for bait, look for bait. If you’ve got bait jumping around there’s trout there.
“That (Golden Shiner) color is a (dead ringer for) finger mullet,” Sanders explained. “I tell you what: I’ve caught better trout on finger mullet than I have anything.
“That D.O.A. Golden Shiner, that’s money right there.”
When Sanders fishes the grass beds he uses the wind and current to set up drifts across productive areas, trying to make as little noise as possible. Big trout are particularly skittish and react negatively to any noise.
When he catches a fish, he uses a Stick-It Anchor Pin (www.stickitanchorpins.com) to hold his boat in place so he can cover the area thoroughly before continuing his drift.
He uses his trolling motor to get out of shallow areas before cranking the outboard to avoid damaging the grass and spooking the fish.
Option 3 is to fish the aforementioned Matrix Shad on a ¼-ounce jighead on the contour changes at the east end of Horn.
“There are some holes and drop-offs on the east side of Horn Island that you can fish,” Sanders said. “We’ve pulled up on those bars before and boom.
“If they’re there, you’ll know it fairly quickly.”
Safety a must
Horn Island is an absolute gem, but the fact remains you have to cross 12 miles of open water to reach it.
Know this: Safety has to be No. 1 and cannot be taken lightly.
The weather in July can be summed up with one forecast: hot with a chance of afternoon thunderstorms. The key is to not be lulled into complacency and find yourself in a dangerous situation.
Capt. Travis Paige of Goin’ Coastal Charters based out of Biloxi Boardwalk Marina, spends a lot of time at our barrier islands putting clients on coolers full of speckled trout. He has made the safety of his clients his a priority, and has a list of important items to consider.
“Make sure your boat has working and up-to-date safety equipment,” Paige said. “I always have redundant VHF (radios), handheld GPS and complete anchor setup with plenty of rope. Cell phones work most of the time, but if it gets wet you’re in trouble and service is very unpredictable out there.”
Of course, it’s important to be sure weather is suitable for the haul out to the island.
“Check the weather forecast and file a float plan with someone before going,” Paige said. “Know the recent weather patterns, and know that you will most likely have an afternoon thunderstorm in the summer. Keep an eye on the sky and watch for the thunderheads building.
“If a thunderstorm catches you at the island, don’t panic. It is safer to ride it out at the islands; don’t try to beat it or out run it. If you get caught on the way in, make sure everyone has life jackets on, and make sure your kill switch is connected.”
Horn Island is a great place for family fun. Take Dana’s advice to fill your ice chest with some delicious fillets for the ride home and heed Capt. Travis Paige’s advice for making sure you and your family stay safe to fish another day.
Capt. Travis Paige can be reached by calling 228-297-0207 or by sending an email to Capt.TravisPaige@gmail.com.