According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the combined fish and shellfish harvest from the five Gulf States equals nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. landings, second only to Alaska. In fact, four Gulf towns rank among the top 10 ports for tonnage of seafood landed, with Venice, La. ranking third behind Dutch Harbor, Alaska and Reedville, Va.
Recreational fishing contributes more than $20 billion to the Gulf Coast economy. In fact, Gulf Coast anglers account for 40 percent of the recreational finfish landings in the U.S. With numbers like that, no roster could possibly mention every hot honey hole, but sit back and enjoy a west-to-east cruise of 10 outstanding Gulf fishing destinations.
SABINE LAKE, LOUISIANA AND TEXAS
Pouring down from the 186,000-acre Toledo Bend Reservoir, the Sabine River defines much of the border between Texas and Louisiana. The river flows through pine uplands, cypress swamps, and marshes before hitting Sabine Lake about 50 miles southwest of Lake Charles, La. Sabine Lake enters the Gulf through Sabine Pass.
The area took a direct hit from Hurricane Rita in 2005, but the fishery recovered fairly quickly. In 2008, Hurricane Ike caused minor fish kills on the river, but saltwater fishing remains excellent. Up the Sabine River, anglers can catch bass up to 6 pounds as well as catfish and other freshwater species.
“In 2006, fishing was wonderful on the Sabine River south of Interstate 10,” says Ron Castille, a bass angler from Lake Charles. “People could catch all the small bass they wanted. In many places, people could catch bass, redfish, speckled trout, flounder, and other fish in the same spot. During bass tournaments, anglers sometimes had to move because they were catching too many trout.”
Dotted with islands, sandbars, and oyster reefs, the 59,700-acre Sabine Lake measures 19 miles long by 7 miles wide. It averages 5 to 8 feet deep. From the Texas side, the Neches River flows into the lake, creating an estuary about five times bigger than Galveston Bay. On the east, Sabine National Wildlife Refuge preserves about 124,500 acres of lush marshes crisscrossed by several bayous. These marshes and bayous form a rich nursery where shrimp, menhaden, croakers, mullet, crabs, and other forage species grow abundantly.
One of the top Gulf Coast trophy trout destinations, Sabine Lake produced specks exceeding 11 pounds but it garnered a bigger reputation for fabulous flounder fishing. Anglers routinely pull flounder in the 3- to 6-pound range from its waters, but the lake also produced the Texas state record, a 13-pounder.
CALCASIEU LAKE, LOUISIANA
Many people believe the next Louisiana state record speckled trout could come from Calcasieu Lake south of Lake Charles. Currently, Leon Mattes holds the top spot with a 12.38-pounder he caught in 1950. Each year, anglers pull specks in the 8- to 10-pound range from the 52,700-acre “Big” Lake, as locals call it. In fact, it produced three Louisiana Top 10 trout, including one weighing 11.16 pounds. The estuary also produced three of the top trout caught on fly tackle including Capt. Jeff Poe’s 9.31-pound state record.
“To consistently catch big trout, people need to fish for big trout,” says Capt. Kirk Stansel of Hackberry Rod and Gun Club. “We catch plenty of big trout mixed with big redfish because they eat the same bait. Bait is the key to finding big fish. Look for a reef with good tidal movement and a good bait supply.”
The oval-shaped lake measures roughly 12 miles long by 9 miles wide and averages about 6 feet deep. The Calcasieu Ship Channel, a swath 40 miles long, 400 feet wide and 40 feet deep, connects Lake Charles to the Gulf and runs tangentially to Calcasieu Lake. Just south of the lake, the channel enters the Gulf through Calcasieu Pass. Several channel openings allow water from the Gulf to flow into the lakes, offering excellent places to fish for trout, redfish, flounder, drum and other species. West Cove, a very shallow bay filled with oysters, branches off from the southwestern portion of the lake.
Many charter captains, including Capt. Erik Rue, guide on Big Lake. For area information, contact the Southwest Louisiana Conventions and Visitors Bureau.
BARATARIA ESTUARY, LOUISIANA
Together with the adjacent Terrebonne Estuary, the Barataria system spreads through more than 4.1 million acres of some of the richest, most diverse waters in North America. The combined system forms a huge triangle anchored by the Atchafalaya River on the west and the Mississippi River on the east.
The Barataria Waterway connects the Lake Salvador-Cataouatche system with Barataria Bay. The bay merges into the Gulf through passes by Grand Isle. The Davis Pond Freshwater Diversion Project near Luling redirects Mississippi River water to freshen about 777,000 acres of marshes at the upper end of the estuary where anglers catch bass, catfish, and crappie.
From the middle to the southern part of the system, the bays and adjacent marshes interlaced by canals and bayous make ideal redfish habitats. Fish grow fat on abundant shrimp, crabs, and baitfish in the estuary. Near the Gulf, some Reds approach 50 pounds.
“In the Barataria system, we catch many 15- to 20-pound redfish,” says Capt. Theophile Bourgeois. “Sometimes, reds are very aggressive and hit anything. I have seen 400 to 500 redfish feeding on the surface. I wouldn’t want to put my hands in the water then.”
LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN BASIN, LOUISIANA
One of the most historically significant estuaries on the Gulf Coast, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin covers 5,000 square miles on the northern edge of New Orleans. Lake Pontchartrain stretches 41 miles long by 24 miles wide and spans 402,400 acres. It averages about 12 to 15 feet deep, but some dredged channels drop to more than 40 feet deep.
To the southeast, the 162,505-acre Lake Borgne connects Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico through two natural passes. Both the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes average about 35 feet deep, but some holes drop to more than 60 feet deep. To the west, Pontchartrain connects with Lake Maurepas, a 57,900-acre, mostly freshwater lake filled with catfish, through Pass Manchac and North Pass. Several rivers flowing into the basin offer good bass, catfish, crappie, and bluegill action.
In August 2005, many people proclaimed the death of Lake Pontchartrain as urban goo flowed into the system when Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans. However, soon after the storm left, people could again catch speckled trout in “Da Lake.”
“Just 10 days after Katrina hit, we saw more fish in Lake Pontchartrain than I ever saw in my life and I’ve fished the lake for more than 45 years,” says Capt. Dudley Vandenborre. “We saw big schools of fish. The lake filled with shrimp. Since Katrina, anglers can limit out with 2.5- to 7-pound trout almost every time they go. It’s not hard to catch 100 fish. On any day in Lake Pontchartrain, any bite could produce the new state record trout.”
In January 1999, Kenny Kreeger caught an 11.99-pound speck, the biggest trout seen in Louisiana since 1950. Nine months later, Jason Troullier yanked an 11.24-pounder from the Rigolets. Vandenborre caught a 10.5-pounder in April 2002.
From Venice, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, people can catch anything from bluegill to blue marlin in the same day. The river nourishes a vast marshland dotted with passes, lakes, and bayous, creating outstanding habitat for bass, catfish, and redfish. However, nearby waters harbor giants.
Over the centuries, the Mississippi River pushed across the continental shelf. Now, water drops to more than 4,000 feet deep just a few miles offshore. Sackett Bank, also known as the Midnight Lump, rises from 700 feet deep to crest 185 feet below the surface 18 miles from shore. “The Lump” attracts large schools of yellowfin and blackfin tuna, wahoo, cobia, king mackerel, and other species. In May 2003, four anglers landed a 1,152-pound bluefin tuna, the largest game fish ever caught in the Gulf.
Besides the Midnight Lump, anglers can chum or troll around several other lumps at Main Pass Block 305 and South Pass Block 62. People can also fish near the giant floating rigs or troll for blue marlin, white marlin, wahoo, dolphin, and tuna along the edges of the deep Mississippi Canyon.
“I mostly troll along the rip line where blue water meets green water,” explains Capt. Scott Avanzino of Paradise Outfitters. “Wahoo, marlin and dolphin hang on the rip because it’s like a bait buffet. The rip has sargassum patches, each containing a lot of bait including flying fish hiding under the grass. Big fish swim up and down the rip line.”
Biloxi sits astride a peninsula with its bay and associated waters to the north and the Gulf to the south. Several barrier islands protect the coastline. The protected waters of the bay can produce good speckled trout, redfish, sheepshead, and flounder catches.
“We have a fantastic fishery on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” says Capt. Scott Simpson of the charter boat Impulsive. “The Back Bay is alive with an abundance of fish. Bridge pilings and structures at the mouth of Back Bay hold plenty fish. Flounder hang out behind the pilings. Sheepshead feed around the pilings. A main channel runs between Biloxi and Ocean Springs. The channel is about 15 to 21 feet deep, but the rest of the bay averages 4 to 13 feet deep.”
Some people make a short cruise to Petite Bois, Ship, Cat, Horn, or other barrier islands to wade in the surf for bull reds, trout, and flounder. Anglers can also fish numerous artificial reefs, including some old ships, established offshore.
MOBILE BAY, ALABAMA
The fourth-largest estuary in the United States, Mobile Bay encompasses more than 413 square miles. It measures 31 miles long and 24 miles at its widest point. Most of the bay averages 10 feet deep, but dredged channels drop to more than 75 feet deep in places.
The Alabama River runs 312 miles through its namesake state before joining with the Tombigbee River to form the Mobile River. The Mobile River and several other streams create the Mobile Delta. With so much river flow, much of the delta offers excellent bass fishing.
“The Mobile Delta has a huge bass fishery,” says Nick Nicholls of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. “It’s a very large, tidal estuary with lots of bayous, grass flats, timbered areas and backwaters. We don’t see many large bass, but we see large numbers of robust fish.”
In the bay, anglers fish for redfish, trout, flounder, and drum. Since the bay opens to the Gulf, anglers might also encounter jack crevalle, Spanish mackerel, perhaps even a tarpon. Out of Orange Beach, people can head into the Gulf for tuna, wahoo, and billfish.
“Mobile Bay offers a variety of fishing opportunities,” says Capt. Lynn Pridgen of Captain Lynn’s Inshore Adventures. “Every spring, people catch cobia breaking the 100-pound mark. In July, we sometimes catch 100 redfish a day, each between 15 and 45 pounds. During the summer, we catch tarpon near the battleship just a few hundred yards from Interstate 10. In the fall, the upper portion of the bay explodes with activity from trout, redfish, flounder and other fish.”
For centuries, Pensacola Bay and associated waters provided a deep anchorage for ships. Periodic dredging keeps it deep. Today, that estuary offers outstanding fishing.
“In Pensacola Bay, people can fish flats in one foot of water for redfish or 60-foot holes for red snapper,” says Capt. John Rivers of Mega-Bite Inshore Charters. “We don’t have to go into the Gulf to catch keeper snapper and grouper. I’ve even caught cobia in the bay.”
In late winter, anglers catch lunker trout. In the spring, attention shifts to sheepshead. Most average 5 to 10 pounds, but some top 14 pounds. They congregate around bridge and dock pilings, crunching barnacles and snatching shrimp or crabs.
In the summer, the bay holds king and Spanish mackerel. By early fall, anglers target specks until mid-October when redfish action turns hot. In the fall, people sight-cast topwater baits to large pods of hungry redfish. Most reds average 15 to 25 pounds, but some break 40 pounds.
“Every month we have a run of some type of fish,” Rivers says. “Migratory fish leave in the winter, but we have a very good winter fishery for other species. In November, we see schools of 100 to 500 redfish on the surface. The water boils with activity.”
Destin hosts one of the largest charter boat fleets in the United States because anglers can find deep water close to shore. People may bottom-fish natural and artificial structures or venture 60 miles into the blue to tempt marlin, sailfish, tuna, wahoo, and swordfish.
“We don’t have to go far to catch bottom fish,” says Capt. Mike Graef who runs the 40-foot Huntress. “About 5 miles from the pass, we have natural bottom structure in water 60 to 90 feet deep where people can catch a limit of red snapper. There’s never been more red snapper than now.”
After catching their fill of bottom fish, many anglers troll for king mackerel, dolphin, and wahoo. Starting in mid-March, cobia pass Destin on their annual migration to the spawning grounds in Texas. The “cobia run” lasts into early May.
“The biggest cobia out of Destin that I know about weighed 136 pounds,” Graef says. “Fishing for cobia is more like hunting. It’s being in the right place at the right time. We might go out one day and not see a fish. The next day, we might see a hundred. We catch them within a mile of the beach by sight casting. Sometimes, we catch them over the first sandbar in 12 feet of water.”
One of the major rivers along the Gulf Coast, the Apalachicola, drains 19,500 square miles in Florida, Alabama and Georgia. It forms at the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers near Chattahoochee, Fla., about 60 miles northeast of Panama City, Fla.
“The lower Apalachicola River has a great bass fishery,” says Fred Cross, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist in Panama City. “During the shrimp run in the fall, it’s not uncommon to catch 40 to 50 bass a day. We see 5- to 8-pound fish fairly regularly and larger fish occasionally.”
The river enters Apalachicola Bay through a vast delta wetland. In this wet labyrinth, anglers often catch both fresh and salty species. Behind several barrier islands, the oyster-studded bay runs about 40 miles along the coast and measures 10 miles wide in places.
“At certain times, we catch pompano, speckled trout, redfish, whiting and flounder,” says Capt. Rex Phipps. “At other times, we catch tarpon, tripletail, and sharks.”
Capt. Jeff Poe’s. 337-598-3268, Biglakeguideservice.com
Hackberry Rod and Gun Club. 888-762-3391, Hackberryrodandgun.com
Capt. Erik Rue. 337-598-4700, Calcasieucharters.com
Southwest Louisiana Conventions and Visitors Bureau. 800-456-7952, Visitlakecharles.org
Capt. Theophile Bourgeois. 504-341-5614, Neworleansfishing.com
Capt. Dudley Vandenborre. 985-847-1924, Rodnreel.com/dudley
Paradise Outfitters. 985- 845-8006, Paradise-outfitters.com
Capt. Scott Simpson.
Captain Lynn’s Inshore Adventures. 251-214-5196, Captlynnsinshoreadventures.com
Mega-Bite Inshore Charters. 850-341-9816, Megabiteinshore.com
Capt. mike graef. 850-685-5593, Destincharterfishing.net
Capt. Rex Phipps. 850-670-8428, Captrexphipps.com
Just about any destination on the Gulf Coast can offer excellent fishing at times. Of course, this list omits many local favorites, but it might generate a few ideas on where you can enjoy your next adventure.