Columbia native Tommy Sutton had his 21-foot bay boat racing across the Mississippi Sound, bouncing on the occasional waves, which often caught the captain by surprise.
Sure, his eyes were on the water; but Sutton was also looking for signs of fish. Without warning, he pulled back on the throttle and the steady hum of the 250 4-stroke lowered in tone.
“Got to be redfish here,” Sutton said, staring at the water between him and the bank on the north side of the Biloxi Marsh. “Look at those pelicans diving …”
I chimed in: “And look at that mud boil. That’s a giveaway. Head for that, and on the double.”
Sutton slid the boat into casting range of the mud and we both immediately launched a pair of soft plastic cocahoe minnows and heads — Strike King’s Speckled Trout Magic to be exact — and immediately hooked up.
“That’s them, bulls,” I hollered. “Bull redfish.”
Line peeled from the spools of our spinning reels with the unmistakable squeal of light braid passing through the eyes of the rods.
There were also squeals of joy, along with some grunts and groans.
The action was on, and the day had just begun. It was July and it would get hot … both the weather and the action. But there would be no complaints.
Start early on trout
The fact that Sutton and I had found that hot spot was no accident. We’d both been on the boat with Capt. Sonny Schindler of Shore Thing Charters out of Bay St. Louis and Waveland, and had learned some of his secrets to finding fish in the heat of the summer when the time without fish seems to hurt the most. He was happy to share those tips again.
“The only thing worse that fishing in the summer heat is fishing in the summer heat and not catching fish,” Schindler said on one trip. “Fish are no different than us when we work, except their main job is to eat. They want to find the easiest way to do it. This means feeding during the coolest temperatures (early morning and late evenings), and using the moving the water of the tides to move, funnel or pin the baitfish. This is usually why the best bites almost always occur on a good calm early morning, when the tide is moving well.
“You’ve just got to keep your eyes, ears and options open.”
Our plan that morning was to race to a bay with a grass bed to look for a topwater bite for big speckled trout. We knew that was what Schindler would do.
“The hotter it gets, the earlier our hunt for speckled trout begins,” Schindler said. “First light is usually when we are out on the water ready to fish. I never really care if the tide is rising or falling, as long as there is some kind of movement in it.”
But we kept our eyes and options open, and we found the reds.
Obviously, as often as guides are on the water, they can keep up with fish movements and have a good idea of where to start each day. But, Schindler is always looking and always ready to switch gears.
“The easiest way to locate specks has to be diving gulls,” he said. “Seldom do the little terns and pelicans point the way to specks, but the gulls seem to feed hand in hand or fin in feather with the trout. Watch for the gulls dancing right at the surface, chasing jumping shrimp and it is almost always speckled trout underneath them.”
Like redfish with mud boils, trout often leave a telltale signal that they are around.
“If you have enough light to see on the water, watch for slicks,” Schindler said. “Most of the time, if you are down wind, you will smell them first. I always try and see where the slick originated. Don’t chase the slick, try and fish where you saw it pop up first; that’s where the fish should be.”
Even if you know you are in a trout area, watch for the signs to help pinpoint the hottest spot within the hot spot. Schindler gives an example of one of Shore Thing’s most popular trips — overnight stays at a house on Cat Island, the easternmost of Mississippi’s barrier islands.
“We have been spending more and more time out at Cat Island, staying at the big house where we do our all inclusive overnight trips,” he said. “This gives us perfect access to fish the grass beds on the north and south side of Cat Island. There is really no ‘magic spot’ on these grass beds, you just have to cover as much water as possible and stay observant. The most consistent bites we see drifting the grass come when the slicks are popping up, the minnows and ballyhoo are skipping, and the water has any kind of green tint to it.”
Once the fish are located, the shallow grass beds allow a variety of choices. Schindler said the grass is always in 4 feet of water or less, offering a perfect wading opportunity. It is also perfect for a drift in a boat.
“The early morning topwater bites drifting those grass beds can be absolutely insane,” he said, but added that topwater is not the top producer. “A good Boat Monkey popping cork, 2 feet of 30-pound leader, a small split shot and a 1/0 Kahle hook is our go-to rig. As long as the ladyfish aren’t too thick, you can fish the grass beds all day long with live shrimp or minnows and catch fish.”
When sun’s up, trout go down
Schindler knows that as the temperatures and the sun get higher, he will have to change tactics and that often includes changing locations. He can keep drifting the grass, but if he wants to find trout congregated, he’s got to make a move.
“When the midday temperatures climb high, we go low,” he said. “If we can find any well heads, satellites, range markers or wrecks in 8 feet of water or more, we are sending down big live shrimp or croakers on Carolina rigs.”
Oddly enough, there is no set pattern on where to find fish consistently on these structures. You’d think that the current would dictate whether the fish are on the up-current or down-current side of the structure.
Not so, said Schindler: “You’ve just got to work the entire structure before leaving because the trout could be anywhere on it. Some days the fish hold tight to the structure; other days they are only on the up-current side. You can fish the same structure the next day and all the fish will be way down-current.”
Structure fishing has a bonus, too.
“The cool thing about fishing these structures is that other critters that show up,” Schindler said. “We have caught bull reds, pompano, flounder, tripletail, mangrove snapper and cobia on these deepwater structures.”
Bullish on redfish, too
Like all Mississippi charter captains in the summer months, Schindler knows that bull redfish are dependable, and give clients a challenge with their brute strength and amazing speed.
“I really like to fish the big bull reds in July,” Schindler said. “The best way I have found to target them is drifting shallow bays (2 to 6 feet of water) that are holding bait. If you find pogeys or mullet in these bays, the bull reds should be close by.
“Most of the time, you can see the big reds roll on the bait in these shallow bays. Another way to find them is to watch for big puffs (boils) of mud in the water. The feeding bulls will root up the bottom like a pack of feeding hogs, and, if the water is in any way clean, these mud clouds can be easily spotted and that means a school of redfish.”
Schindler also looks for other natural signs from allies flying above.
“This time of year, the pelicans are usually dive-bombing on the schools of mullet and pogeys,” he said. “Watch for the big birds falling out of the sky, and they will point the way to the bait and bull reds. Big birds mean redfish; smaller birds mean trout.”
Shrimp is the key
The old fishing adage is that to find fish, first you have to find their food. The same holds true in the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi Sound and the Biloxi Marsh.
Find shrimp and you will usually find fish, lots of different kinds, too.
“My favorite thing to key in on is shrimp,” Schindler said. “Usually the shrimp will travel in large schools, and the trout will be there, feeding in big schools as well. When the trout chase the shrimp to the water’s surface, they have nowhere to go, so they jump.
“When they jump, you will usually see either a trout crashing on them, or a bird diving after the shrimp. Getting into a big mass of shrimp has got to be the easiest way to get in on an every-cast trout bite.”
All of the popular game fish species in the Gulf will eat shrimp, which is why it is Schindler’s go-to bait in July, and the rest of the year.
“I have always been partial to fishing with live shrimp, but I like to have a variety of live bait,” he said, especially when his trips include multiple species. “If I can find some mullet, cocahoes (saltwater minnows), or pogeys, I will put them in them livewells too. Most of the time the shrimp will work on the trout, but it also deadly on redfish, flounder and tripletails.
“I try to use my medium-sized and small-sized shrimp on the trout and reds. If I have any jumbo-sized shrimp in the live well, I always leave them alone in case we see a tripletail; they always work the best.”
Tripletails are ‘cool’
Always a treat at the table and long popular with locals, tripletails, a.k.a. blackfish, have skyrocketed in popularity the last few years among the guide services. They provide a perfect respite on a hot day, a dessert, if you will, after hours of chasing trout and reds.
Schindler calls them “cool.”
“Really cool,” he said, and he meant it in more ways than the obvious slang usage. “They are a fish we catch on the run, which on a hot day really can cool down a fishing party.”
The technique is running past as much surface cover as possible, looking for tripletails laying on the surface next to whatever structure you can find. The ideal situation is a long line of crab pot buoys, since crabbers usually place them in long lines that they can run and collect their catch.
Because tripletails do exactly the opposite of most game fish and move shallow for the summer, the timing couldn’t be better.
“They usually start showing up in May and stay until October, but the hot summer months, like July, are peak,” Schindler said. “I’ve caught tripletail from sunrise to sunset, and if you want to fish for them, there is really no bad time. We do seem to see the most fish during midday hours, when the sun is up high. This makes spotting them much more easier.”
Tripletail thrive in conditions and tides when other species do not.
“My favorite time to look for tripletails is a sweltering flat calm summer day with little to no tide,” Schindler said. “When it gets like that, other fish slow on the bite, but the tripletails just seem to come up, and stay up on the water’s surface. You can find them on buoys, channel markers, floating debris, or just free swimming. You really just need to always be on the look out, because during summertime, they can be anywhere.”
With spotters watching every piece of passing cover, eventually a tripletail will be spotted and usually in a horizontal attitude.
“We run on past, not stopping too close so it doesn’t spook the fish,” said Capt. Kenny Shiyou, a tripletail fan and another member of the Shore Thing team. “I like to have a tripletail pole rigged at all times, and that means a medium-heavy spinning rod with braided line and a popping cork above a swivel and no more than a foot of fluorocarbon leader tied to a Kahle or circle hook with as big a shrimp and I can find in the bait well.
“I will idle back to within about 20 or 25 yards down current of the fish and the buoy and use the trolling motor to move in quietly to within casting distance. You need to have a guy ready to make the little flip cast past the fish and then reel it back to the strike zone. Usually you can see when the fish notices the bait, cause he’ll turn on it and then move over and suck it in. Then, the fight is on. Usually the only stumbling block is the crab pot or marker pole, or whatever the structure is that was holding the fish. If you can get the fish away from that, it’s then just a matter of wearing it down.”
Schindler knows there will be times when he’ll have to call an audible — change plans and look for something else.
“If the winds change, or tide quits moving, don’t be afraid to move,” he said. “If your trout bite shuts down, and the weather is good, try something else. Drift a shoreline and try for some red fish. Watch for big schools of ladyfish, and if you find one and have a big rod on the boat, break it out for some sharks. There are almost always sharks feeding under those boiling schools of ladyfish.
“The near-shore man made reefs are always good for trout, sheepshead, black drum and redfish.”
When making a move, keep your eyes open.
“While riding from one spot to the next, always be on the look out for birds diving and, of course, be looking for tripletails,” Schindler said. “Be ready for anything. There are plenty of fish out there to be caught; you’ve just got to fish for them.”