Six very thick layers of clothing, including two outer ones resistant to water, helped break the chilly air during the 40-minute run across the west end of the Mississippi Sound.
It was a ride that would have been impossible without the heavy garments, including insulated gloves, a full-face wool mask with only eye holes and a set of goggles to protect said peepers from icing over.
“Don’t worry; it’ll be worth it, I promise,” said Capt. O.T. Sutton, who quickly found the right speed to keep his 22-foot boat bouncing on top of the crests of the 1-foot seas. He was making 30 knots, and it was pushing cool air through every available break in fabric. “That first redfish will have you sweating; just wait and see.”
From Bayou Caddy in Waveland, we crossed the sound to the Biloxi Marsh without taking a wave. Five minutes after arriving, Sutton’s prediction proved true.
A redfish hit a Redfish Magic spinnerbait on my second cast, and the braided line sang as it was pulled through the rod eyes.
It was a bull, easily longer than 30 inches, and it was working me over.
“Sweating yet?” Sutton asked, laughing as he saw me struggling, not so much with the fish than trying to shed layers of clothing with the fish on.
Have you ever tried to remove two jackets, and a pair of rain overalls, while fishing a 25-pound red?
It’s not easy.
Sutton quickly hooked up on the same spot, and the laughing stopped. It took us about 15 minutes to subdue the two fish, and before either of us made another cast, we adjusted our wardrobes. Good thing, too.
Over the next three hours, fishing a half-mile stretch of the north shore of the Biloxi Marsh, due south of the mouth of the Pearl River, we worked over the redfish.
And, they worked over us, too.
It was the first week of January 2017, and we hoped it was an omen of the year ahead. It was certainly proof that the marine waters off the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts produce year-round.
In this story, we’ll break down the calendar into quarters, listing the top saltwater options for each time of the year. Dress appropriately, and let’s get going.
First Quarter: Short runs, full boxes
Not a time for the weak of heart, January, February and March offer some of the easiest and best fishing on the calendar. Weather is what makes it so, but it’s also why many fishermen are reluctant to schedule trips.
“It’s just so darn fickle,” said Sutton. “We may have two weeks of unfishable weather, then get two or three, or even four or five good days in a row when the conditions are as good as we get all year. You just have to be ready to go when the window opens.”
Guide Sonny Schindler of Shore Thing Charters in Bay St. Louis said, “That’s probably the hardest fishing time of the year because of the weather, cancelling trips, but it is probably the easiest time to get on fish because you don’t have to go very far.”
Redfish are plentiful, both in the marsh and in the bays. Trout move up, too, and can often be found holding in big schools in deep holes in places like bays, coastal river bends and oyster beds.
“Don’t overlook sheepshead and black drum — what we call puppy drum — either,” said Capt. Robert Earl McDaniel. “All those species move in during the winter, and we don’t have to run far; heck, a lot of times we don’t even have to leave the bays and hit the sound.”
Bridge pilings on US 90, where it crosses the coastal rivers before they become bays, are hot spots treasured by recreational fishermen and charter captains alike.
“A lot of times, we’re talking about leaving the dock at 7 or 8, and being back by noon with a box full of good, eating fish,” said Jerry Mayes of Biloxi. “You may have to move around to a few pilings to find the hot spot, but once you have, dead bait shrimp is all you need to fill a box.”
The key, fishermen agreed, is current and knowing how it’s working, and then using trial and error to find the best way to present the lure so it reaches the base of the piling where predatory gamefish are waiting in ambush mode.
Sutton prefers the run across the sound to the marsh.
“If you can get out there, it’s worth the run, and I’d rather save my days for when I can,” he said. “Some of the best redfish and speck fishing we do is in the winter. If you can find a deep hole in a bayou, you might can limit on trout without moving.”
Offshore, winter is pretty quiet off the Mississippi coast, except for a few anglers with big cabin cruisers.
“If you can handle the run — and it can be nearly 100 miles — then the yellowfin tuna action is superb down at the lumps south of Venice (La.),” said Biloxi’s George Johnson. “You have to have a big boat, because this time of year, it can get rough on you in a hurry. I know those smaller boats that run from Venice can handle it, but their trip is much shorter.
“You can certainly load the boat with tuna, but honestly, it’s the time of year to work over the reds and specks.”
Second Quarter: Add cobia, snapper to the mix
McDaniel is probably the happiest fisherman on the coast to see April arrive. He knows cobia are coming in quickly on their migration from the east, and that snapper season will open in a month or so.
“Cobia and snapper are my bread and butter,” said McDaniel, whose charter boat is named WhipaSnapa; a snapper boat for sure, but also the boat whose predecessor of the same name produced the state record for cobia.
“I start keeping close tabs on the reports out of Destin (Fla.) and Pensacola (Fla.) to see when the cobia start biting,” he said. “Then I know they will be coming over here a few weeks later. They migrate up the Gulf Coast to spawn, and in Mississippi, that means the old sand bars and submerged islands out in the Gulf.”
McDaniel finds an appropriate spot and puts out a huge chum slick to attract the giant female cobia, which will follow it back to the source, and to McDaniel’s live baits staggered at distances behind the boat.
“April and early May are the best times, then after that, I start running the structure to find the cobia,” he said. “Oil rigs, old wrecks, reefs, channel markers — anything that will hold fish — could have one or two for the taking any given day.”
Although red snapper season has not been set or determined, it’s a safe bet it will open sometime around June 1. That has been the opening day the past few years.
“It’s a mess, what they’ve done with the season-setting process, but I know on June 1, it is likely to be open for the recreational angler,” said James House of Gulfport. “It may be for a weekend, or for a week or two, or they may do what they did last year and open it only on weekends for the whole summer. The one time I know I can count on going is early June.”
May is a good month offshore for amberjacks, if the season is open.
“It has closed the day before the snapper season has opened, at least for the past few years,” House said. “Crazy; that’s about all I can say about that.”
June is a peak month for billfish, and other big gamefish species.
“The best bluewater fishing in our part of the Gulf is in June, which is why we have our Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic in June,” said Bobby Carter, tournament director for the event. “The mouth of the Mississippi is almost due south of Biloxi, and it’s within easy reach for the big tournament boats. Tuna, wahoo, marlin, and last year, we added swordfish.”
April, May and June are a time of transition for the nearshore species like trout and redfish.
“Cat Island gets hot, because it has a lot of grass beds on the south side,” said Schindler. “Once they get around the islands like that, they will stay, especially around grass, throughout the spawning process.”
Last year, spawning specks were caught as late as mid-August around Cat Island, which has the best grass beds of any area of the Mississippi Coast.
Third Quarter: It’s on, all over
July brings the heat of the summer and some of the hottest fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. It will stay that way through the end of the third quarter, September.
“Just like the cold of winter, the heat of the summer isn’t always for the weak of heart,” said Sutton. “I nearly fell out from heat stroke one day last summer, which is why my boat now has a Bimini top. I was so busy catching fish I didn’t realize how hot I had gotten.”
Finding big schools of speckled trout can be as easy as finding an offshore oyster bed or the right shallow-water oil platform.
“Everybody knows oyster beds are trout havens, but a lot of people are oblivious to the fact that before any oil rigs or platforms are built, builders lay down big shell beds to harden the bottom,” House said. “In the summer, if you can find a rig in a depth of between 8 and 15 feet, it is subject to be holding specks — and big ones.”
Surf fishermen can find trout wading off the main beach or off any of the barrier islands, and they aren’t surprised when a redfish hits the bait.
“The Biloxi Marsh is full of reds in the summer, but the best fishing is on a fall during a high-tide period,” Sutton said. “We start to see schools of reds roaming the edges of the marsh, and a lot of those will be over the slot and have to be thrown back. But, they’re still fun.”
Flounder are fun to gig at night, on a full moon, on the beaches and around the islands, but they can also be caught on a hook-and-line around rock jetties — like those located just behind casino row in Biloxi.
“Ground mullet, too, and let me tell you something, flounder and ground mullet are two of the best -eating fish in the world,” McDaniel said.
Offshore, depending on the federal seasons, red snapper are still plentiful as well as mangrove (gray) snapper, grouper and cobia, around oil rigs, wrecks and reefs. King mackerel make their first solid appearance in July and will stay thick in the northern Gulf through the fall. Spanish mackerel are also plentiful and trolling spoons or casting spoons will fill a box quickly.
All of that action is available, but the third quarter offers one unique opportunity that no other time presents — tripletail, aka blackfish, and the most-popular way of catching them is pretty “cool.”
“No doubt about it, we try to end each day with at least an hour or two of looking for tripletails,” Schindler said. “You need to keep your biggest and best shrimp in the baitwell alive and ready for the tripletails. What we do is find long lines of crab pots put out by commercial crabbers and run alongside them at 20 or 30 miles an hour, looking for the tripletails around the buoys. You can see them pretty easily once you’re accustomed to looking for them. They try to make themselves a part of the buoy, it seems, and wait for the current to bring something past to eat.”
When fishermen spot one in the water — a big brown blob next to a buoy — the ploy is for the captain to run another 100 yards downcurrent, stop and slowly idle back to the spotted fish. Once in easy casting distance, the idea is to toss the shrimp, usually on a hook about a food underneath a cork, past the fish, and then ease it back into striking distance.
“They are curious and will go look at this cork and then find the shrimp, and they can’t resist it,” Schindler said.
Fourth Quarter: Consistent weather, good fishing
Charter captains love the fall weather, although the timing isn’t the best.
“October and November are two of our best months, weather-wise, because we don’t see a lot of fronts,” Schindler said. “We can count on running most of our bookings without having weather cancellations.”
The problem is that bookings slow because of school.
That’s okay for Sutton, a recreational fisherman whose school days are 50 years in his rear-view mirror.
“That just means less competition on the water, especially on weekdays,” he said. “I love the fall, mainly because I love redfish, and they are so much easier to find and catch from October through the holidays. And if you get the right conditions in the marsh, you can find speckled trout all over the place.”
Sutton proved it one day this past November, just after Thanksgiving, when the allure of trout pulled him out of his deer stand in the Delta, and he prepped his boat and gear for a week or two of trout and reds.
At first light, in 40-degree weather, he took us across the sound to the marsh and into a magical area known as Bob’s Bayou. In the first 15 minutes, we found redfish feeding heartily on the end of a rising tide.
Two hours later, on the falling tide and at the third spot we checked, we found a school of speckled trout holding on a non-descript bank, less than 30 yards in length. We fished for trout, our remaining shrimp getting a bite on every cast.
It brought up a conversation based on that early January day, when Sutton and I had hit the redfish so hard, just a few miles away in the marsh.
“We thought that might be a good omen, and it was,” Sutton said. “And this is a perfect way to end the year.”