Chas Champagne is on the water more than 200 days a year, and when he’s not pursuing speckled trout in Lake Pontchartrain you can bet he’s heading for duck ponds in search of feisty redfish.
The 33-year-old creator of Matrix and Vortex Shad soft plastic paddle-tail lures offered up six key tips to make you more successful when trying to hook up with shallow-water reds.
1) Watch the weather — “I’m a big believer in days when there isn’t a cloud in the sky,” Champagne said. “That’s when I like to go because you can get up on a platform and, even if there aren’t a lot of redfish in the area, you can see them and pick them off.
“It’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Mornings with full sun are his favorite times to target reds.
“If you really want to chase redfish, 7 a.m. to noon is the premier time,” Champagne said. “I feel like they just like to be out eating and sunbathing — doing their thing.
“I’m a big fan of fishing in the mornings. One, you get more cloud cover in the afternoon. And two, you usually get more wind (after noon), as well.”
2) Keep the sun at your back — If you can’t spot redfish, sight-fishing is obviously tough. To get maximum visibility, Champagne always wears polarized glasses and keep the sun at his back.
In fact, he always tries to set up his drifts in a westerly direction, and even puts off visiting ponds where he knows he’ll be facing due east until later in the morning.
“It doesn’t have to be directly at your 6, but you don’t want to enter a pond with the sun in your face,” Champagne said. “If I’m forced to and the pond is big enough, I’ll just hug the left-hand shoreline with my trolling motor on the way in and try to pick off one or two with the hope that when I get to the back of the pond and come with the sun to my back, we really start to get after it.
“As far as being able to see the fish, it’s like night and day when you have the sun at your back.”
So much so that Champagne will even cast into the wind if he has to.
“The sun to your back is more important than the wind to your back,” he explained. “I might have a 10 mph wind in my face, and I’ll still fight the wind to have the sun to my back. I hate when that’s the case, but it is more important to have the sun at your back than the wind at your back.”
3) Elevation is key — You certainly don’t need a professional redfish tower 15 feet above your deck, but Champagne said anything you can do to gain a little altitude will help locate fish.
“For every foot you go up in the air, you can see like 10 more feet out into the water, so the higher the better,” he said. “But for people who just want to do this and experiment, don’t go out and buy an expensive stand. Get a good 70-quart Kysek — or any rotomold cooler — and then you have a dual-purpose machine: You’re elevated, and you have a good ice chest to put your fish and food and drinks in.”
Also, keep in mind that trolling motor use becomes a challenge the higher up you go. But if you’re set on a towering view, you can wirelessly steer Minn Kota’s i-Pilot from a lofty vantage point, he said.
4) Rig up right — Champagne uses a medium-heavy rod, and he favors 60- or 80-pound braid.
“When you’re fishing that heavy vegetation and you stick an 8-pound red, you want to keep him out of the vegetation as much as you can, because if you let him get you in 5 or 10 pounds of snot grass, it gives them a better opportunity of wiggling off the hook for some reason,” he said. “You want to horse them out in heavy vegetation.”
And redfish love cover, so Champagne said not to get laser-focused on targeting just the shoreline.
“If a pond has good grass with little grass islands in the middle, the fish aren’t always on the shoreline. I’d just drift the whole middle — don’t think it’s just a shoreline deal,” he said. “Reds are going to use something to hide, whether it’s the marsh along the bank or something in the interior.”
And grass is where lots of the redfish action is, so Champagne recommended targeting another fish if you don’t like dealing with it.
“If you really want to sight-fish, you need to be in grass,” he said. “If you don’t like dealing with grass and your trolling motor doesn’t like it, you might as well not try to pick this up.”
5) Pack a popping cork — When clouds sock in and sight-fishing gets tough, Champagne doesn’t hesitate to move to a popping cork.
“In my opinion, the best lure in the world for you when you can’t see is a popping cork with the lure about 12 or 14 inches down, depending on how shallow the pond is,” he said. “The only thing with a cork is it’s super grassy — the most weedless lure out there is a gold spoon.”
Otherwise, when conditions are right and the water is clear, Champagne goes with a Matrix Shad or Vortex Shad soft plastic lure on a Goldeneye jighhead.
“We like 5/16-ounce jigheads because the redfish most of the time is looking down and rooting in the grass, and the 5/16(-ounce jig) allows for more precision on the cast because it’s got more weight,” he explained. “When you see a fish coming down the bank and you want to drop it right in front of his nose, you’re more in control with that little bit of extra weight.”
6) Put the lure where it needs to go — Casting precision is key in this game, he said.
“The best anglers at this pitch it. They’ll hold the lure in one hand and pitch it underhand,” Champagne said. “When you get good at that, you can literally put a lure inside a bucket nine times out of 10.”
Part of the learning curve is identifying the wake pushed by a red and then being able to place the lure within striking distance under pressure.
“A 6-foot radius is about their limit on seeing it,” Champagne said. “Just don’t doink the fish in the head with it.
“Cast it past him, then reel it to him and drop it right in front of his nose. If he doesn’t hit it immediately, pop it real hard because he probably didn’t see it.”