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March 15, 2013

Chandeleur Soaring

Northern Gulf Floatplane Trip Offers Excitement, Convenience, Beauty and Big Fish

The author, and pilot/fishing guide/lodge owner Theophile Bourgeois (right), circles high overhead Breton Island, a remote slice of heaven in the northern Gulf that teems with hungry game fish.

Breton National Wildlife Refuge, just a short flight from Barataria, Louisiana, encompasses a huge swath of fertile and productive waters.

Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of big fish caught from boats of various sizes. And I once saw a bonefish caught from the back of a pickup truck in the Bahamas. But until this past May, I’d never seen a fish taken from a plane.

I was enjoying a bologna-and-cheese sandwich aboard Capt. Theophile Bourgeois’ Cessna 185, staked out in the lee of Breton Island off the eastern Louisiana coast, replaying in my mind a fabulous morning of wading. Along with his wife, Eilene, Bourgeois and I had just caught some 50 spotted seatrout and were resting up on the seaplane before the afternoon bite.

But Bourgeois couldn’t help himself. He fired off a long cast behind the plane, then suddenly let out a yelp. I never saw the take but knew it was a good one, and 10 minutes later, a 35-pound bull redfish was boat-side, er, plane-side! We unhooked the monster, let it go, and then proceeded to catch another 50 trout that afternoon.

So there we were, in one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen, having caught 100 trout in just a few hours and a whopper redfish — from an airplane, of all places. What a crazy sport.

An Angler’s Disneyland

Bourgeois has become rather accustomed to such days. The owner of Bourgeois Charters (neworleans​fishing​.com; 504‑341‑5614) and a spacious lodge on the Intracoastal Waterway in Barataria, Louisiana, he has been offering his guests seaplane trips into the Breton National Wildlife Refuge and its remote Chandeleur and Breton island chains during the past couple of years.

During my trip last May, we flew in and out of nearby Southern Seaplane Airport. But these days, Bourgeois takes off and lands from the comfort of the Intracoastal in his backyard, and he’s currently in the process of building a hangar.

big sea trout
Specks grow large and are plentiful around the barrier islands of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Catching 100 fish a day is often commonplace.

“I got my license six years ago,” he says. “I always wanted to fly.” And as a kid, Bourgeois always wanted to explore the barrier islands of the northern Gulf.


“The Chandeleurs were always in the back of my mind,” he ­remembers. “Of course, I couldn’t get out there back then, but you’d always hear about them. Now, it’s part of my daily routine — I get to go to Disneyland!”

There’s no question that this region of the Gulf is nothing short of a Disney-like experience for serious anglers — just listen to the words of Sport Fishing Fish Facts expert, Bob Shipp, Ph.D., chairman of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama and one of the region’s most respected scientists.

“The area is absolutely the perfect habitat for specks [trout] and reds,” Shipp says. “It’s nutrient rich, fed by the runoff of major river systems. This translates to an abundance of food like shrimp and forage-fish species. In addition, reds and specks favor high-salinity estuaries, so the salinity regime is ideal for these members of the drum family. I don’t think there’s another place on the planet that is so perfectly suited for these species.”

Not only that, the refuge — and its network of islands — is beautiful and vast. America’s second-oldest national refuge, Breton was established in 1904 and spans more than 18,000 acres. The outer island chains — comprising the southerly Breton and the more expansive Chandeleur chain that extends north — lie south of Mississippi and east of Louisiana. They’re accessible by boat from either state, primarily from Gulfport to the north and Venice to the southwest, but it can be a haul, and often a rough one at that, since much open water must be traversed.

“But it takes just 28 minutes flight time to the first island chain,” says Bourgeois. “Everyone’s so busy these days, so the seaplane has been attractive in that sense. And folks really seem to enjoy the flight as well.”