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Chandeleur Soaring

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

March 15, 2013
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| |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.

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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

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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.

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

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“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.

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“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.”

Reds by Winter, Trout by Summer

| |Thirty-five pounds of bull redfish coming at you! During the winter, these monsters can be found by the bushel.|

I certainly did. I gazed down in awe on the way out, first at the vast networks of endless grassy marsh, then over the oil-platform-dotted Gulf of Mexico shallows and, finally, above the long-stretching barrier islands. It was both inspiring and adventurous.

And, of course, the fishing was hot right from the get‑go.

Our May trip coincided with the beginning of trout season, but these island fisheries are active year-round, weather permitting.

From mid-April through the end of September, trout is the name of the game, and the out-island chains are renowned for quality fish. You won’t see 8‑pounders in this region of the Gulf of Mexico, but three- and four-pound fish in numbers are not uncommon on a good day of fishing.

“They come into the shallows to gorge on baitfish,” says Bourgeois. “These islands are like a buffet in the Gulf; all that bait hangs out around here, so it’s a perfect feeding ground.”

The trout are aggressive in these warm waters and can be caught any number of ways — on soft plastics fished on ¼-ounce jigheads either bumped along the bottom or suspended under popping corks. Or, says Bourgeois, “you can catch big trout on topwaters all day.”

Unfortunately, we did not get into seriously big trout during our short trip, but we did find lots of them, and they were caught at all levels of the water column. The big, lunchtime redfish was an unexpected bonus, mixed in with topwater trout.

| |There’s no more enjoyable way to fish the Chandeleurs than by floatplane — plus, you can be home in time for dinner!|

But redfish — big redfish like this one — become the rule from October through March.

“There are thousands of them out there during the colder months,” says Bourgeois. “They range from 10 to 40 pounds.”

These bull reds push in extremely shallow, taking ­advantage of the quickly warming waters over sandy bottom. “Between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., they move in tight,” Bourgeois says. “There’ll be 30‑pound fish lying in a foot of water. It’s a fly-fisherman’s dream. They don’t fight quite as good as summertime fish, but they’re there for the taking. And they still fight pretty darn hard!”

Bumping the bottom slowly with soft plastics and ¼‑ounce jigheads is the best method to take these wintertime bulls, either by blind-casting or sight-fishing to specific fish.

During March and April, mixed bags of reds and trout can be caught, but regardless of species and regardless of time of year, Bourgeois insists that fishing these islands is about one thing — trophy fish.

“You can have the trip of a lifetime out here,” he says. “If you appreciate trophy fish more so than numbers, and like looking at a lot of nature, that’s what this trip is about.”

Alaska with a Touch of Gumbo

There’s no question that this is a visually stimulating fishing trip. “You can see what the pelican sees flying over those islands,” says Bourgeois.

In fact, we decided not to land at Gosier Island — just north of Breton and south of the Chandeleurs proper — after spotting the many large, shadowy figures lurking in the shallows far below. “Sharks,” said Bourgeois, as we circled overhead and turned back south to Breton.

Generally, it’s not the sharks, but wind direction and velocity that dictate much of the when and where of this fishing. When alighting, Bourgeois typically puts down on the lee side of any given island. And he generally won’t head out if winds are up more than 20 mph.

He’ll also coordinate more than one plane if necessary. “I’ve been out there with two and three planes before,” he says. “If you get a group of six to eight guys, you need the room.”

The best part of such a trip is the fact that you can ­experience a remote, wild place, yet have the ability to enjoy a few drinks and a delicious Cajun meal back at the lodge with your friends. And, yes, the food is ­Louisiana-good at Bourgeois’ place.

“We’re trying to capture the last frontier with this trip,” he says. “I always wanted to go to Alaska when I was young, but it’s too far, and I don’t like the cold! So I took that idea and added a little gumbo, and started fishing out there. It’s a unique trip. You can’t compare it to anything else on the Gulf Coast.”
And you never know — you might even latch onto a monster red from the plane itself.

| |## Come PreparedFishing these island chains via plane is an in-the-water affair. You’ll be wading — typically in knee- to waist-deep water — and Bourgeois warns that there are hazards in the Gulf. “You’re in Mother Nature’s backyard,” he says. “There are stingrays and sharks. There are crabs that can pinch you and jellyfish that’ll sting you.” While no such critters of any significance were encountered during my trip, you should come prepared — bring sturdy wading shoes, protective long pants, and hats and neck gaiters for sun protection. Bourgeois also likes to carry a customized backpack that can carry tackle and supplies, as well as two additional rods.|

| |## A Birding ParadiseYou know you’re in the presence of a lot of birds when you can actually smell them. That’s precisely what I discovered while walking the length of Breton Island. But as an avid birdwatcher, it was worth it. The Breton National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for nesting wading birds and seabirds as well as wintering shorebirds and waterfowl. Twenty-three species of birds use the refuge, with 13 nesting throughout the islands. The number of brown pelicans I saw was staggering, as were the laughing gulls. The noise was staggering too! However, these barrier islands are constantly in flux and changing with storms. The recent tropical activity in the northern Gulf has hit these islands hard, and Breton Island itself has actually decreased in size from 820 acres in 1869 to only 125 acres as of 1996.|

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