From the front deck, standing high on my toes, I caught a flash of silver over the top of the dark emerald water about 100 yards ahead, and then I caught another.
It was small fish running and jumping as they were being chased, and in the Gulf of Mexico, there are no games of tag.
“Something’s chasing bait fish up ahead,” I told my fishing partners, who were busy working soft plastics in the surf off the south shore of Ship Island. They turned to look in the direction I was pointing to with my spinning rod.
Then I saw a sight that 15 years later I have never forgotten.
“Oh my Lord, y’all the water’s orange with redfish, thousands of them, everywhere,” I hollered, and I’m omitting some colorful words that were interspersed in my excitement. “Crank the engine. Crank the engine. Idle us where I’m pointing until I say stop and then throw where I throw.”
As we approached the orange mass, it was obvious that this was no small school of reds. This was massive, spread over about 100 yards in all directions, and it was moving toward us. I hollered to kill the engine about 20 yards from the leading edge and told them to get ready because all three of us were about to be hooked up …
… With big powerful bull reds.
My gold spoon landed in the thick of them and by the time I closed the bale on my reel, I was hooked up and glad I had both feet firmly planted on the deck. Line screamed off the reel and I started tightening up on the drag.
“Me too; I’m hooked up,” said one partner.
“That’s three,” hollered the other.
What pursued, over the next three hours, was the most intense, exciting and excruciating action I’ve experienced in nearly 40 years of outdoor writing.
Excruciating? Heck yes. Have you ever banged your knees and shins on ice chests, other knees, rails and everything else in a boat? Have you ever had somebody else’s redfish flop around and slap your legs and ankles? Have you ever had a hook in your leg with a redfish still attached to it?
All that happened on a September day when we chased that school of reds for hours in the shallows off Ship Island.
We caught and released — we even clipped the barbs on our hooks to make release in the water possible — over 100 reds that day between 15 and 30 pounds. We went through thousands of yards of 12-pound line. Yes, some of the reds were so big we never turned them.
And here’s the kicker: This is just one of the myriad fishing options available in the later summer and early fall period on Mississippi’s barrier islands, a string of six from Louisiana across to Alabama. From the west, there’s Cat, West Ship, East Ship (Hurricane Camille cut it in half in 1969), Deer, Horn and Petit Bois, all about seven to 12 miles from the mainland.
The action makes island hopping a popular sport in the last dog days of the summer and first weeks of autumn, when the weather is about as dependable as coastal weather gets.
And, it is a main reason why the near-shore guide business is booming along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“It definitely is booming,” said veteran guide Sonny Schindler, the ringleader of the seven- to 10-boat operation known as Shore Thing Charters of Bay St. Louis. “Between the barrier islands and the DMR (Mississippi’s Department of Marine Resources) reefs, it’s hopping. It is a situation that creates a year-round outstanding fishery, and September is a peak time. There are just so many options.”
Start early for specks
Most fishermen opt to start their days on the No. 1 sought after fish, the speckled trout.
“You have to remember that September is still summer, and it’s hot, hot, hot,” Schindler said. “You need to start your day as early as possible, leaving the dock as soon as you feel safe to run and get out there and try to find a big trout. Mainly it means drifting the grass beds. Cat Island is good for that. You have to put in the work watching your electronics, watching birds, watching bait, and looking for slicks. All of those are signs of hot spots. Watch the tide, too.
“When you find fish and maybe get a flurry of action, mark that spot on your electronics for the future. Check the depth, the tide and the baitfish around, and then try to duplicate that pattern in other areas along the island and on other islands. You can fish artificials if you want, and it’s a good way to get a monster trout on a topwater early, but it’s hard to beat a live bait under a Boat Monkey cork.”
Live bait can be shrimp, croakers, pinfish or cocahoe minnows.
“Those grass beds are full of baitfish; that’s why the trout are there,” Schindler said. “Try to see what’s there and match it.”
Redfish are plentiful on the barrier islands in September, and fishermen enjoy the action.
“We don’t go island hopping and chase reds if we’re looking for fish to keep and eat, because the bulls outnumber the slot fish (over 18 inches and under 30 inches) that you can keep,” said Jimmy Carter of Gulfport. “We go chase them for fun, because if you can find a school of bull reds and can stay with it, I don’t care who you are, you are going to enjoy it.”
Carter enjoys fishing at Ship Island, both the east and west sections, and at Horn and Petit Bois islands to the east.
“At Ship, we always start at Camille Cut (the pass between the two carved by the storm) and then move up the islands until we find fish,” he said. “A lot of times we find them by chasing slicks (when a slick pops up on the surface, it’s often a sign of active fish). Sometimes it’s spotting bait scurrying.
“Then there are those days when the water just glows orange and you see it from the distance. Those are insane.”
Either way, Carter is looking for big schools and not solitary fish.
“In September and October, the reds travel in schools, especially the bulls,” he said. “You find a school that’s feeding and it doesn’t matter what you throw, live bait or any kind of lure, they’ll hit it. If you can find a school on an island shoreline, they are moving up and down the bank looking for food. You can stay with them for hours if you’re lucky.”
But, what about keeper reds? Schindler said Cat Island is the place.
“Cat is different in that it has cuts and bayous in it, and in the later summer and early fall, that is Mississippi’s go-to place for slot reds at the islands,” he said. “But you better know the tides and only fish on or near the peak high tide. If not you can’t get in, and, worse, you get in but can’t get out.”
Carter prefers the surf at Petit Bois Island for keeper reds.
“I generally throw a small croaker or a big shrimp under a small plastic bobber without a weight,” he said. “Most of the time I work the south side (gulf side), but when the wind doesn’t allow it, we can catch reds on the north side (Mississippi Sound side), too. Just be ready for something big, too, because you never know. You just never know.”
Tripletails and cobia
Two species offer great action and yet bring a relief to the searing heat of a dog day afternoon. Tripletails (blackfish) and cobia (lemon fish, ling) require a lot of running and gunning, and the running brings relief on a hot day.
“This year has been poor on tripletails, but that has me excited about the coming months (September and October),” Schindler said. “They’re best in the heat of the year, but this year we got crashed by so much freshwater from the storms in May, just when the triples start to show up, I think that impacted us. Through mid July, our boats collectively had caught just five tripletails. In recent years, we were catching 10 or 12 per day.”
Tripletails hang out around any kind of surface structure, especially channel markers and crab trap buoys. Finding a line of either that you can run past in a boat looking for fish on the surface makes for a refreshing respite.
“Cobia are similar,” Schindler said, “and because the fish are starting their reverse migration back to Florida and further to the Caribbean, they can be found. We like to run the ship channel markers, old wrecks and even the deeper DMR reefs.”
Cobia running requires commitment and preparation.
“We like to do it after a morning of trout or redfishing, just like we do tripletails, but you have to commit to doing it,” Schindler said. “Everybody has to have a rod and be ready to throw anything from live bait to jigheads and trailers. You may run 10 spots without seeing a single cobia, and then at the 11th spot you might run into a dozen or more. You don’t want to be sitting around with a beer and a sandwich when you strike gold.”
Sharks and jacks
When all else fails, the final cards up most anglers’ sleeves are sharks. Rarely will a fishermen turn up a nose to a chance to battle a big, toothy shark.
“One of things that we can always do, no matter what, is go hunt big fish, whether it’s a shark or a jack crevalle,” Schindler said. “When line starts screaming off a reel, everyone perks up. If the reds, specks and tripletails — our big three — are not playing, and we spot a school of lady fish busting bait, we know there’s about a 99 percent chance we can catch something big underneath the lady fish.
“We’ll drift out a big bait, like half a lady fish or a mullet, and usually it won’t be long before something takes the bait and the fight is on. You’d be surprised how fast everyone perks up when a 100-pound shark is hooked up, or about a 30-pound jack crevalle starts screaming line. It might even be a giant bull red or black drum.”
Jacks are a brute fish, long on strength and extremely short on table value. For pure sport, however, they are hard to beat. Carter loves them.
“What we usually do is look around the islands for a shrimp boat that’s been pulling all night and the crew is picking through their catch in the morning,” he said. “When they are tossing their by-catch overboard, fish like bonito, jacks, sharks and even cobia gather to feast on the throw-aways.
“What we do is cast cut bait or lures into the water around the boats and it rarely takes more than a few seconds to find out if there are fish around. We use medium heavy spinning gear with 12- or 14-pound test and we keep a couple of 1,000-yard spools of line on pegs so we can re-spool as needed. There are been many days when we needed a third spool or more.”
Carter said it is prudent to keep at least one heavier action rod ready.
“If you spot a cobia, that light stuff won’t do,” he said. “That’s the fish you do not want to lose because they are so danged fine to eat.”
For information on Sonny Schindler and Shore Thing Charters, visit shorethingcharters.com.
For information on Capt. Rober Earl McDaniel’s WhipaSnapa Charters, visit whipasnapachaters.com.
For other charter boat information, visit gulfcoast.org.