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May 12, 2008

Louisiana Lake Trout

Any cast might produce the next state-record speck on a rejuvenated Lake Pontchartrain

To the Bridges
With little other structure in the lake except a few oil platforms along the north shore, anglers frequently fish the bridges spanning the system. These include the Causeway, Interstate 10, U.S. Highway 11 and an ancient railroad trestle. (See page 3) By Vandenborre's estimate, the trestle produces a 7-pound or bigger trout for every 8,000 fish caught. For the interstate, that ratio rises to one in 5,000 and only one in 300 for Highway 11.
 
"I've probably caught 15 fish in my life over 9 pounds," the captain says. "All my big fish came off Highway 11. The trestle has way more fish than any other bridge, but they are mostly smaller, 1 to 4 pounds. The interstate has bigger fish than the   railroad trestle, a lot in the 1 1/2- to 5-pound range with an occasional 6- or 7-pounder. The Causeway produces some 6- and  7-pounders, but it doesn't produce as many really big fish."
 
Vandenborre also recommends the Seabrook Bridge, which crosses the Inter Harbor Navigation Canal, or Industrial Canal, on the south shore. Dredged to allow commercial traffic and scoured by currents, some holes drop to 90 feet deep.
 
"When the Seabrook Bridge area is on, it can be the greatest place to fish in the world," Vandenborre says. "It's not uncommon to catch 100 specks in 90 minutes with many in the 3- to 5-pound class. I've seen days when four people caught 100 trout weighing more than 515 pounds."
 
Like an inundated concrete forest, miles of barnacle-encrusted pilings provide cover and current breaks for trout. Around these pilings, Vandenborre fishes slow and deep. Big trout don't like to expend too much energy chasing down fast prey, so he flips heavy jigs to the pilings and works them slowly along the bottom in 12 to 13 feet of water, almost like a bass angler flipping lures at flooded timber.

Slow and Patient
Depending upon tidal strength, Vandenborre uses 3/8- or 1/2-ounce jig heads tipped with Deadly Dudleys, his own soft-plastic designs. Typically, he throws "blue moon" bluish-gray colors with chartreuse tails. Sometimes, he throws avocado-colored Deadly Dudleys right against the pilings.

"Bigger fish are always right against the pilings," Vandenborre says. "At the bottom of each piling is a bunch of moss. Where every piling hits the mud is an indentation where the tide washed around it. Big female trout sit in that little gully."
 
As a lure falls, keep the line slack enough to make it fall more erratically, but watch the line. Fish often hit falling baits. After it hits bottom, pause a moment before hopping it off the bottom. Let it fall again and repeat every three to eight seconds. Sometimes, the biggest fish hit with the subtlest taps. Anglers might not even detect when a potential state-record trout slurps a bait and spits it out quickly.
 
Big speckled trout may hold onto live bait longer. Capt. Mike Gallo of Angling Adventures of Louisiana (877-4-AAOFLA; www.aaofla.com) suggests giving lunkers a chunk of meat. For big fish he prefers big livies, such as 7- to 8-inch croakers, menhaden or mullets. With big baits, anglers won't catch many fish, but each bite could produce the fish of a lifetime.
 
"A big speckled trout would rather eat one 1-pound mullet than 16 1-ounce shrimp," Gallo advises. "Then, it's not  hungry again for another three days. For the first 18 months of a speck's life, about 80 percent of its diet is shrimp. When it gets bigger, 80 percent of its diet is finfish."
 
When giant trout feed, they seldom waste much energy grabbing their one big meal. Therefore, try to fish the last minutes of a falling tide on the downstream side of structure. If that doesn't work, throw baits parallel to upstream pilings, letting the tide pull baits under the bridge.
 
"On any day in Lake Pontchartrain, any bite could produce the new state-record trout, but someone might catch big fish one day and not see them again for days," Vandenborre says. "A big trout may only feed for 15 minutes every three days. The biggest fish I've caught have all been during the last 15 minutes of the falling tide when it wasn't running very hard."
 
For numbers, troll jigs or crankbaits parallel to the bridges on the upstream side so baits run close to the pilings. Trolling generally targets smaller trout. As females sit at the bottom of pilings, male trout roam up and down the bridges.

More Trout Hangouts
Although the bridges provide the most visible structure, anglers can also find school trout by watching birds diving upon bait, but solitary lunkers seldom run in schools. Anglers might catch some big trout lurking around little-known reefs away from the bridges. Katrina created many new reefs, dumping cars, boats, bridge chunks and even houses into the lake.
 
During hot weather, trout seek the deeper, cooler waters of the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes between Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne. Both passes average about 35 feet deep but can hold water more than 60 feet deep. Smaller  and narrower than the Rigolets, the Chef probably receives less pressure. On an incoming tide, most people fish near the U.S. Highway 90 bridges that cross the passes. A railroad also crosses the passes farther to the east, offering a great place to fish during a falling tide.
 
Near where the Rigolets enters the lake but inside Lake Pontchartrain, many trout stay near the old "hospital wall." Situated across Highway 90 from Fort Pike, a   19th-century brick fort, the hospital served soldiers during the Civil War. Today, chunks of barely submerged rocks and other debris mark the hospital remnants.
 
"The Rigolets has a good number of 1 1/2- to 2-pound fish, but in 2007, we caught more 7-pound or better trout in the Rigolets than ever before," Vandenborre says. "The mouth of Chef Menteur Pass produces many 2 1/2-pound fish. During slack tide, big specks sit in deep water. I've caught fish in water 45 feet deep, but generally, I fish the drop-off edges 20 to 30 feet deep. When the tide runs strong, don't even bother to fish that area."
 
In late summer, trout also move into Lake Borgne. Several oil platforms in Lake Borgne offer good structure. People can also fish near islands to the east or the marshes that surround Lake Borgne.
 
Lake Pontchartrain has existed for more than 4,000 years. Every so often, some self-appointed prophet proclaims the death of this magnificent fishery, but it continues to produce fish by the millions. Like everything else in nature, it goes through up-and-down cycles, but no storm can destroy this vital treasure.