Mississippi: Chasing Redfish in the Heart of Dixie
By Scott Leon - Fly Fishing In Salt Waters Magazine
This article first appeared in Fly Fishing in Salt Waters December 2001 Posted to internet on 12/13/01.
All right, admit it - Mississippi probably isn't the first place you think of when it comes to fishing. It's often overshadowed by the productive waters of its western neighbor, Louisiana, or just overlooked altogether. That's too bad, because as good as the fishing is in Louisiana, it's just as good off Mississippi. Anglers regularly catch redfish, trout, cobia, kingfish, jack, tarpon, bluefish, bonito and snapper in these waters, and opportunities for game fish like dolphin, tuna and marlin lie just a little farther offshore. The relatively recent addition of the casinos to the Mississippi Gulf Coast has changed the former sleepy shrimping towns of Gulfport and Biloxi into first-class tourist destinations. Add to that a pervasive local hospitality, history, cuisine and small-town charm, and there are few places that compare. For those who aren't familiar with the Mississippi Gulf Coast, 26 miles of beach run from Bay St. Louis to Ocean Springs, with easily 10 times that distance in shorelines along the bayous. And that doesn't account for the barrier islands, such as Ship Island, Cat and Horn islands, or the Chandeleurs (pronounced just like the thing that hangs over the dining room table). All in all, these waters make up a fly-fisherman's dream. You won't, however, hear talk of stalking fish in gin-clear water. In fact, except around the outer islands, the water tends to look more like strong tea than gin. Still, potential for excellent sight fishing always remains. Redfish in the 5- to 10-pound range are commonplace almost year round in the shallow ponds and lagoons around the islands and in Back Bay. Gator trout, or ''specks,'' of up to 10 pounds also frequent these waters. But perhaps the biggest attraction for fly-fishermen begins in the fall when huge schools of bull reds, some well over 20, 30 and even 40 pounds, turn up around the barrier islands and eventually push inshore. Be warned right up front, though: Fly-fishing is not yet the rave among Mississippi's saltwater anglers. A small local contingent of fly-fishermen regularly ply these waters, but they are the minority. You'll find only a handful of guides who specialize in fly-fishing and just one serious fly shop here, though numerous light-tackle guides and captains willingly accommodate fly anglers.
As soon as water temperatures begin to cool, usually sometime in October, the migration of the big spawning redfish begins to push through coastal Mississippi waters. Depending on those temps, the push can last through the end of December. Typically, the first of the big fish make their presence known in the barrier island channels and passes, though it doesn't take too long for them to make their way into the nearshore zone. These migrating schools of bull reds can easily contain hundreds of fish. In fact, at this time of year the reds can school so tightly and in such numbers while feeding that the water takes on an unmistakable red tint when viewed from above. The large schools of feeding fish stand out from several miles away and prove difficult to spook, willing to strike almost anything within range. Such bulldogged determination almost takes the sport out of it ... almost. Conventional-tackle anglers routinely pull 20- to 30-pound fish out of the schools, and even bigger fish are possible; the state's record fish weighed in at 44 pounds. The few fly-fishermen who fish these waters routinely catch double-digit fish up to 20 pounds, particularly on the flats around the Chandeleurs and other barrier islands.
A series of islands ranging from less than a mile to over 15 miles offshore shields the beaches and coastline of Mississippi, creating the shallow and often murky Mississippi Sound. Ship Island is probably the best known of these, lying roughly 15 miles off Biloxi and Gulfport. The cuts and channels between these islands, particularly Camille Cut - formed when Hurricane Camille literally cut Ship Island in two - provide prime locations and numerous shoals and sandbars that hold bait and feeding redfish. In addition, simply walking along the beach and watching for reds in the surf can often provide numerous shots at large fish. Wading the associated flats, sandbars and grass beds usually yields shots at cruising reds, not to mention trout, jack and bluefish. The only drawback to fishing these locations is that a boat and/or guide is necessary. Specific locations fishermen favor include shallow-water structure just off the beach of Ship Island, including the Quarantine Station, the rocks at the Lighthouse, the Ship Island Pier, and the stumps and the wreck off of Fort Massachusetts, to name a few. Smuggler's Cove on Cat Island remains a spot worth checking for big fish, and the lagoons at Horn Island, along with the grass flats just off its beach, offer tremendous wading opportunities for both reds and trout. In fact, these protected lagoons saved several potentially disastrous trips for me when the weather just didn't cooperate. Although technically not a barrier island, the Chandeleur island chain holds some of the most productive waters off Mississippi, weather permitting, especially for big redfish and giant trout. During the warmer months, everything from pompano to cobia frequents the islands' flats, providing excellent opportunities for fly-fishermen. Since the 30-mile run to the Chandeleurs can prove quite rough during the cooler months, small boats generally don't make the trip. However, numerous ''Chandeleur boats'' (local mothership operations) and the Sportsman's Lodge (operated by the Beau Rivage Casino) offer comfortable and convenient access to these waters in relative luxury.
One of the most convenient and scenic fishing options is the Back Bay area of Biloxi. It always holds reds of all sizes no matter what the conditions, and the added chance at large trout, flounder and sheepshead makes fishing these shallow salt marshes worthwhile. Plus, you can begin fishing within minutes of leaving the dock. Generally, most of the fishing in the Back Bay involves sight-casting to both tailing and cruising fish on the shallow flats. Guides who regularly work the area also blind-cast into waters they know hold fish. While these fish run smaller than their offshore brethren (often under 10 pounds), on the right tide they represent as close to a sure thing as you can get in the fly-fishing world. For those just passing through or spending some time at the local casinos, the Back Bay offers a few opportunities to venture out on your own. Unfortunately, fishing along most of the mainland beaches tends to be unproductive, especially on fly, but wade-fishermen should be sure to try one of the local redfish and trout holes right in the heart of Biloxi, within walking distance from several casinos. The spot sits directly behind the old seaplane hangar at Point Cadet, right at the headwaters for the Back Bay under the Ocean Springs bridge on Highway 90. Local anglers regularly pull 8- to 10-pound trout and good-sized reds from the oyster beds in this area, so the place can get a little crowded on weekends. Still, it's usually worth a look. The same could be said for Mississippi in general: When fishing begins to trail off in many areas of the country, head down to the Deep South, try your luck at the slots and console your monetary loses with a Rebel red or two.