Feathers and Fins: The Best of Both Worlds

I was born and raised in southeast Louisiana. I grew up hunting and fishing the marsh and swamps surrounding New Orleans and the Mississippi River Delta, with mud permanently lodged under my fingernails and brackish water in my veins. I guess it should come as no surprise from a state that holds almost 45% of the nation’s wetlands and was affectionately alluded to as “The Bathtub” by the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, but fishing and hunting is a way of life here. Louisiana quietly produces some of the most well-rounded outdoorsmen I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. As I’ve grown older, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to different places – both here and abroad – to hunt and fish, but at the end of those trips, I can’t wait to come back home.

It appears that through the years, outsiders have begun to share the fondness I have for my home, as Louisiana has developed a stirring reputation as a major fly fishing destination. Guides and recreational anglers alike make the annual winter pilgrimage to the muddy delta to chase big redfish, eat strange foods they (often hilariously) can’t pronounce, and wander the streets of New Orleans. As a native Louisianan, the most baffling thing about this recent rise in popularity of fly fishing in Louisiana is how easily it leads to traveling anglers solely focusing on big redfish. The waters of southeast Louisiana are home to more species of fish than I can count, and some local guides and anglers are skilled at targeting almost all of them on the fly. As the reader, you also have to understand that when I was a kid, my favorite target was the speckled trout and its flaky white meat. Schools of giant redfish often interrupted our trout bites by hurdling through the area and demolishing everything in their paths, including the trout. In classic redfish fashion, they would often indiscriminately inhale our lures as well. At that point, we cranked our drags down, broke them off, then left that spot in search of more trout. Perhaps it’s for this reason that it took me a long time to warm up to actively chasing big redfish.

Or, perhaps the reason lies in the unfortunate reality that the most popular time to chase big redfish in Louisiana is in the late fall through winter. The dilemma – if you want to call it that – for the native Louisianan fly angler is that this “big fish season” coincides almost simultaneously with duck season. Curiously enough, some of the best waterfowl hunters I know are also some of the best anglers I know. While fly fishing is obviously the target subject matter of the subscribers to the Fly Lords, any outdoorsman should understand completely that the Mississippi River delta is home to one of the most expansive and varied waterfowl migrations in the world. It’s not uncommon for a single Louisiana limit of ducks to contain six different species of dabbling ducks. The unfortunate reality of modern-day, social-media induced duck hunting, is that most folks don’t care much about a duck unless it’s got a green head. Photos and videos of jacked up Labradors hard-charging through fields in the plains are much more aesthetically pleasing than photos of a dog struggling to push through sloppy Mississippi River mud that has the consistency of quicksand. That’s all fair, but the amount of different species of waterfowl that winter in and around the Mississippi River delta is unparalleled.

Hunting southeast Louisiana, much like hunting any other flyway, is almost entirely about finding food. Here, that food takes the form of submerged aquatic vegetation. Southeast Louisiana’s largely brackish tidal marsh is home to a myriad of different grasses, most of which produce seeds that provide great food for wintering waterfowl. Ponds filled with sub-aquatic vegetation also provide refuge for tinier, less fortunate members of the food chain, such as nymphs, baby crabs, and baitfish. Not only do some of these provide food sources for waterfowl, but they provide food sources for pond-dwelling redfish. Redfish will cruise in and around the same grass mats, ambushing bait and reaping the same benefits as the waterfowl swimming on the surface. So, fly selection for these pond fish? Baby crabs, duh. In addition to providing a food source, the sub-aquatic vegetation also serves as a giant water filter. I’ve seen Louisiana grass mats that were every bit as clean as Bahamian sand flats. All of this is of course continent on hurricanes (much like every other facet of life in southeast Louisiana), as the storm surge from tropical storm systems can decimate grass populations. A big storm in the summertime will often lead to a forgettable duck season and months of chocolate milk for water.

As for me? All of the above works out fine. Louisiana’s January cold can be as cruel as its August heat, and I much prefer spending my winter mornings bundled up in waders, crouched down in the marsh grass with my dog and friends, tirelessly trying to talk groups of ducks down into our decoys. As with many things in the marsh, what’s good for one is bad for another. Louisiana’s brutal winter cold fronts bring with them strong northwest winds and low water. While this makes the duck hunting a bit more work for both us and our dogs, low water means tailing redfish in grass mats not far from my decoy spread. While the fish that frequent these duck ponds don’t have the size of their spawning-sized cousins, I promise they’re just as fun to catch. Once the sun comes up and our straps are full, then we’ll swap waders for fly rods, and shift our focus to yet another small part of the seemingly infinite providence of the Louisiana marsh.

When I travel to fish, I try to experience places for everything they have to offer. This has caused me to forego prime bonefish conditions in the Bahamas because the spearfishing was so good, and resulted in giving up good rooster fishing days in Central America because the surf was way better than anything I’d ever seen. If you, my new reader friend, are into fully experiencing a place, then ask your fly guide about a blast and cast next time you come down to see us. Follow it up with a shrimp or oyster po-boy, and you’re well on your way to learning how to talk just like us. By the way, those shrimp and oysters come from the same marsh that just gave you a strap full of ducks and a bunch of shots at tailing redfish.

Sam Collett runs Marsh Hen Media and can always be found somewhere on the Mississippi River Delta in Southern Louisiana! Be sure to check out the rest of his awesome hunting and fishing content @collettjsam on Instagram.

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