Learn to effectively fish the islands, and you’ll never want to do anything else.
Just as my D.O.A. Shrimp hit the water, I felt as though my cast had landed on the caboose of a runaway freight train. The rod pretzelled, and the line came off the reel as the drag sang a high-pitched tune.I heard my fishing buddy, Bo Hamilton of Ocean Springs, laughing.
“I think you’ve got a fish on, John,” he said.
I consider Hamilton, who’s fished these barrier islands his entire life, one of the best anglers to fish with at the Chandeleur Islands because not only does he know how to find and catch speckled trout there, but he’s also entertaining. I’ve taken some of my most enjoyable fishing trips through the years to the Chandeleur Islands with Hamilton.
At the Chandeleur Island chain, you can fish anywhere, use any type of bait and catch numbers of a variety of fish. You also can fish effectively, whether you’re wade-fishing or fishing from a boat. The Chandeleur chain holds plenty of speckled trout, redfish and flounder year-round.
Where to catch early
In the early morning glow before the sun fully rises at the Chandeleurs, Hamilton prefers to fish the 1- to 2-foot-deep grass flats because of the calm water, the lack of noise and the fact that he’ll find the speckled trout and redfish still on their nighttime feeding patterns.
“That’s when I fish a topwater lure like a Walking Stick, a MirrOlure Top Dog or a Zara Spook,” Hamilton said.
He’ll then switch from topwaters to soft plastics under corks.
“Generally early in the morning, I like to fish a shrimp tail-looking lure or the D.O.A. Shrimp under a popping cork over these grass beds,” he said. “Then as the sun rises, I’ll search for a little-bit deeper water like holes in the flats or drop-offs.
“When the tide’s moving in or out, I like to fish cuts or ditches on the backsides of the middle islands, which are trenches that allow water from the Gulf of Mexico to run to the backsides of the islands on high tide or water from the grass flats to run out to the Gulf on low tide.
“I like to fish the Redfish Point area on an incoming tide with spinning tackle on 10- to 12-pound-test line. You get more fight out of your fish and have more fun when you’re fishing 10-pound-test line.”
Later in the morning, Hamilton fishes popping corks, D.O.A. lures and grubs in the deeper grass beds, 3 to 4 feet deep.
“I really like the Cajun Thunder-style popping cork with the glass beads because when you pop it, it gives off a sound like trout feeding,” Hamilton said. “When the trout hear that sound and come to the area where the cork’s located, they’ll see the D.O.A. Shrimp or the grub, and they’ll eat it. You can wade-fish the deeper grass beds, but I prefer to drift over these areas in a boat because you can cover more spots and fish more water quicker.”
Wade fishermen think they can sneak up on the trout on the backsides of the islands better than boat fishermen can. Although Hamilton prefers to stay in the boat, if he realizes he can catch more fish by wade fishing, he’ll hit the water like a Labrador retriever watching a mallard tumble from the sky.
“I like to stand on the deck of a boat to be able to see a big speckled trout blow up on a topwater lure or a big redfish pushing its giant head wake as it approaches a lure, but I will wade fish if that’s the pattern the fish want,” he said.
Hamilton fishes the backsides of the islands with a Heddon Lucky 13.
“When I fished the Chandeleur Islands with my dad years ago, he had an old, handmade wooden tackle box, and the only lures in it were Lucky 13s in every model and color,” he said. “For some reason, I stopped fishing them and started fishing the bone-colored Zara Spook. Now, the Lucky 13 has become my favorite lure again for fishing inside the islands.”
When the water warms
After the early morning bite ends, Hamilton moves to the front sides of the islands, because the shallow water on the backsides of the islands will heat up quicker than the water from the Gulf of Mexico hitting the front sides of the islands. Hamilton puts on his wading shoes and climbs out of the boat.
“I like to walk the outside beach (Gulf side) and look for troughs between the first, the second or the third sandbars, and fish a jig, a grub or a D.O.A. Shrimp,” he said.
The speed of the current combined with the amount of wind determines the size of jighead Hamilton will use with his grubs.
“I either like to pull these soft-plastic grubs near the bottom or bounce them off the bottom where the trout or redfish will pick them up,” he said.
Most of the islands in the Chandeleur chain will have a three-sandbar setup. When Hamilton fishes the bars, he first locates the concentrations of trout and reds. On different days, they may hold between the shore and the first sandbar, between the first and the second sandbars or on the edge of the third sandbar.
The clarity of the water, the tide and the location of the bait usually define the position of the specks and the reds between the bars. For instance, on a very-high tide, the bait often will hold between the beach and the first sandbar. But as the tide goes out, the fish will move and hold between the second and third sandbars, or they may swim out to the edge of the third sandbar.
“At certain times of the year, but especially during the fall, you may have large schools of redfish moving between the bars, hammering schools of baitfish,” Hamilton said. “If you wear a quality pair of polarized sunglasses, you can spot those schools of redfish moving, or you can see them mudding.”
Often on the outside beach, you’ll see an area of muddy water right in the middle of really clear water. Redfish create that muddy or off-colored water while eating crabs and other bait off the bottom. When you pinpoint that area and cast to it, you’ll start catching redfish.
“If the redfish are moving down the bar quickly, you’ll usually only catch one or two out of a school, but if they’re corralled up and not moving fast, you may be able to catch 10 or 15 redfish out of a school before they move,” Hamilton said.
If you’re fishing a large school of redfish, the fish probably will weigh 3 to 8 pounds, but if you’re fishing a smaller school, you may get into the big bull reds that range from 12 to 20 pounds each. Generally, the larger the school of redfish is, the smaller the fish in the school, and the smaller the school, the bigger the redfish.
Although you can catch big numbers of speckled trout in any of the troughs from the beach out to the third sandbar, Hamilton has discovered he primarily takes his biggest trout on the edge of the third sandbar.
“Normally, the more shallow the sandbar, the smaller the trout,” he said. “And the deeper you fish, the bigger the trout are. On many of the islands, the third bar will be about 4 feet deep and drop off to about 12 or 14 feet.”
Rating the islands
Hamilton names Breton as the best island of the Chandeleurs to fish because it receives the least amount of fishing pressure. However, you must make a longer run from Biloxi to reach Breton than to reach the other Chandeleur Islands.
Each island has its own characteristics, and on different days, you may find one island more productive than the others.
Hamilton’s favorites also include Cat, Horn and Ship islands.
“Each of these islands has productive grass flats to fish, and all three have good front-island sandbars,” Hamilton said. “I prefer to fish Horn Island because it’s closer to my home. On any given day, I usually can catch a limit of speckled trout and redfish on any one of these islands.”
Hamilton mentions that you will discover flounder there too. But they’re incidental catches around the islands, mostly caught at night by gigging.
“Generally the people who stay overnight on big boats out at the islands will get into skiffs at night and go flounder gigging,” he said.
Hamilton also occasionally fishes Curlew, a long run from his home in Ocean Springs.
“In 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore-up Curlew Island pretty bad, and I don’t know anyone who’s fished it extensively since then,” he said. “Curlew has productive troughs on the outside of the island, and good drop-offs on its ends where you can find specks and reds. However, Curlew doesn’t have much grass, so I don’t fish there very often.”
Once you decide to fish the Chandeleur Islands this summer, remember to always wear some type of wading shoes because the abundance of shells will cut your feet. If you wade barefooted, you’ll wish you had on shoes.
“Also, most people who wade the Chandeleur Islands use long stringers with corks on the ends of them to float the fish they’ve taken,” Hamilton said. “However, don’t tie your stringer around your waist. Instead, clip it on, or tie it loosely to your belt or your bathing suit.
“At certain times of the year, sharks will move into that shallow water. If you’re pulling speckled trout and redfish on a stringer down the beach, you may attract sharks. It’s better to give up a prize catch on the end of a stringer than become a tasty morsel for a bull shark or a blacktip shark, the most-common sharks in this region, or an occasional hammerhead.”