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Fishing Friday Feature #3: Marsh Donkeys on the Fly


EDITOR’S NOTE: HottyToddy.com and Team Renegade Outdoors have teamed up to feature hunting, fishing and game stories. Team Renegade Outdoors is comprised of individuals from all over the South who “eat, sleep, and breath the Gamekeeper lifestyle, always trying to better the habitat so the wildlife we love to pursue can thrive and be around for generations to come.”

Rolling down Interstate 55 south through the great state of Mississippi my excitement level kept growing as the coast and salty air was not that far away.

For the fifth time in the last year, I was making the trek from Oxford down south of New Orleans near the commercial fishing community known as Delacroix, Louisiana. The end of the world, as I like to call it because the road literally dead ends into the marsh then you have reached one, if not the most, Southern point in the United States.

The plan was to drive down to the Delacroix Lodge (one-room bunk houses) and meet up with one of my lifelong best friends Jake Kesterson to sight fish for redfish with fly tackle.

Jake Kesterson is an UM alum with a degree in business marketing.
Jake Kesterson is an UM alum with a degree in business marketing.

Jake and I have been friends for 15 years now and we have always had one thing in common. We both share the same intense, crazy passion for fly-fishing and the interesting culture that surrounds it. Jake graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2009 with a business marketing degree but currently resides in Lafayette Louisiana working as a production enhancement engineer for a leading energy services provider. Since moving to Louisiana a few years ago, Jake has transformed the from avid trout angler to overly obsessing chasing bull redfish with a fly rod in super skinny water.

Jake was standing outside by the boat rigging rods and watching coals get hot as my truck pulled up to our single room cabin that we would call home the next couple of days. This would mark my fifth trip down to south Louisiana in the past year without landing a redfish on a fly rod. It was almost like a curse. History just seemed to keep repeating itself. I would travel down for the weekend and would encounter tough fishing conditions or some other problem, then a week later my phone would be exploding with pictures from Jake of fish after fish. A lot of stars have to align to land one of these beasts on a fly rod.

Sight fishing for redfish on the fly usually involves two people, one person on an elevated poling platform above the outboard motor pushing the boat through the shallow marsh with a long carbon fiber pole. The other fisherman stands on a shorter elevated platform at the bow of the boat ready to cast the fly at feeding fish. Since whoever is poling the boat is higher up in the air he or she usually spots the fish out in the distance and coaches the individual on the front into making the cast to the approaching fish.

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A specialized fiberglass “flats” boat that has fast outboard engines, hydraulic jack plates and trim tabs that allow the boat to run fast in extremely shallow water is crucial. Water depth where the fish reside is usually anywhere from a half-foot to three feet of water so the ability to run shallow is mandatory. Sometimes the fish are feeding so shallow their backs and tails are completely exposed out of the water, they normally will always eat a fly when tailing that is if you do not spook them first. Weather conditions have to be absolutely perfect not only the days your planning on fishing but also 3-4 days prior. The only comparable thing to the weather in the south Louisiana marsh is the unbelievably unpredictable weather currents’ of the Rocky Mountains of the west. The weather patterns and the tide currents determine everything in the marsh. Muddy water, low tides, high winds that chop the water making it difficult to spot fish, dead winter cold-water temperatures, hurricane force winds, and rain are just a few situations that could potentially work against a fisherman in search of a marsh mule on the fly.

To an outsider, everything in the marsh looks exactly the same: canals, bayous, ponds, lakes…there are all kinds of Cajun names for these confusing brackish waterways so the number one tool on the boat is a reliable GPS and depth finder to navigate from spot to spot. It has taken Jake unfathomable amounts of time and effort to learn the marsh and its dynamics, but the difficulty makes it that much sweeter. Day One of two came bright and early and I backed the trailer down the ramp before the clock hit 6:30 a.m. Anticipation was high as we idled out of the marina and immediately challenge number one was thrown at us.

The skies were clouded over and without any sunlight, it was going to make it extremely difficult to spot fish in the shallows. We opted for Plan B and grabbed a spinning rod rigged with a popping cork and Berkley Gulp shrimp and went in search of a few speckled trout. We bounced around to a few points and jetties where Jake figured there would be a few trout lurking, but after a couple of hours, only one trout had made it to the boat. A keeper trout no doubt, perfect for that night’s supper. We fished extremely hard the remainder of the day once the sun came out from behind the clouds. But, as marsh fishing normally goes we were again slammed with another challenge. Muddy water.

The days prior to our arrival there had been some unusual westerly winds causing the ponds to closely resemble chocolate milk where we were expecting to find fish. We did happened to find a few fish in the muddy water but by the time we spotted them the boat was floating over top followed by a giant mud cloud from spooking the fish. The remainder of the day was spent behind the wheel of the skiff searching for clear water.

After a few trips down to the marsh, I began to realize just how much the fishery changes from day to day and it is up to the fisherman to read the conditions and predict where the fish will congregate. Every day definitely presents a new challenge, but that is indeed what we love about the sport of fly-fishing.

As the boat came out of the water the sun was setting on Day One, and we had a single “gator” trout to show for the day and a few dozen blue crabs we bought off a local commercial fisherman to throw into some spicy boiling water. While the crabs boiled we hung out boat side re-rigging rods and talking strategy for the next morning. Day Two and we got a little bit of a later start than day one but we had received a potential tip of where in the marsh we might find some clear water and big fish. With the crank of the outboard, we began the hour-long boat ride to hopefully find some clear water.

As we headed out of the bayou we could see a giant thunderstorm cell headed directly in our direction across the marsh. Jake and I looked at each other and he said, “It’s just rain right, it won’t kill us?” I shook my head in agreement and we throttled down towards the storm. As we got closer to the storm a passing boat flagged us down warning us of the torrential storm. At that point, we decided to use our better judgment and sat and waited the storm to pass. 15 minutes later and the storm had dissipated and on we went.

We noticed birds screaming across a large pond, diving and circling bait, and we hoped it was a school of hard fighting Jack Creville attacking baitfish near the surface. As we approached the flock of birds I chunked a three treble Heddon Zara spook (white and chartreuse) as far as I possibly could and began twitching and working the bait back to the boat. Immediately, after just two twitches a fish destroyed the top water lure but unfortunately it was just a little dink trout. Five or six small trout later and it was time to move on in search of the beast.

As we motored up to the spot we had in mind we found gin clear water and could hardly believe our eyes. Jake climbed up on the poling platform and slowly we began moving down the shoreline. Almost immediately we spotted fish, not just your average slot sized redfish, but massive bull redfish fresh out of the Gulf of Mexico. I had blown probably five or six shots making bad casts or spooking the fish as the fly hit the water at some truly giant fish. We kept poling along and after two back to back missed opportunities on redfish over or near the 40” mark spirits were low, extremely low.

It was just past lunchtime and so we decided to take a 10-minute break, eat some lunch, change flies and get down to business the last two hours we had left to fish. I opted to change from a bright, meaty, crawfish-like purple fly to a smaller brown crab imitation. Time was beginning to run out and with all of the fish we had seen I decided to get serious the last hour and strapped on the Garmin virb chest mounted camera.

As I hopped back up on the casting platform I reached down into my pocket and found one single Louisiana state quarter with the flying wild turkey on the tails side. Turkeys just so happen to be my favorite animal to chase.

I turned around to Jake and laughingly said, “I am going to make a wish,” and flicked the quarter behind my back into the marsh.

Literally, minutes after making the wish I hear, “Okay, relax there is a really good fish at 11:00, 40 feet, start your back cast.”

About that time the fish came into view and I began false casting to get enough line in the air to reach the feeding fish. I dropped the fly and it landed just behind the fish, not usually a great cast, but the splash of the fly caused the fish to do an 180 and inspect the noisy splash.

Jake loudly whispering “strip, strip, strip, STOP.”

My heart stopped for a split second. The fish opened its large mouth and flared its gills out and in a poof of mud the fly disappeared.

“He ate it! Set the hook, strip, strip, hit him again,” yelled Jake.

In the blink of an eye, chaos erupted. The fish took off and as I was trying to clear the fly line it was moving through my fingers so quickly it burned flesh. The mule made a short run and finally I had stripped enough line in to catch up to him and set the hook one more time. Apparently, he felt that one because the drag on my fly reel screamed as he headed for deeper water. 75 yards into my backing and the fight was nowhere close to being over.

Luckily, I still had my wits about me and in the heat of the moment remembered to hit record on my chest camera so it could capture the entire fight. We battled back and forth for almost 10 minutes until the fish finally had enough and was tired. I moved to the back of the boat and pulled the fish towards Jake in hopes of landing the fish. It is this moment during the fight when a lot of fish are broken off or come unhooked so the situation was intense without saying. The boga grips found their home in the jaws of the fish and as Jake pulled the fish into the boat my eyes got huge and I realized how big of a fish I had just caught.

If someone had been watching us they could have mistaken us for being lunatics from all the screaming, giggling and high-fiving.

Jake placed the fish back in the water to decrease the amount of stress on the tired fish as I readied the cameras for a couple quick pictures. As my Pawpaw would have said, “I was grinning like an opossum eating yellow jackets” holding that fish, to say the least.

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Jake then handed me the fish and after a few pictures and camera swaps the fish was back in the water and I began reviving it. The underwater camera was recording and in a big tail splash the redfish took off and swam back into the marsh. High fives ensued.

My hands were shaking. I finally got the monkey off my back and I had landed a redfish on the fly. After multiple failed trips I didn’t give up and kept coming back and finally on the last day, at the last hour it happened, in epic form. All the time, money and effort spent chasing this fish was all finally worth it, without a doubt. It was a day I will truly never forget.

john david

John David was introduced to hunting and fishing at a very young age by his father John and his Uncle Charles Smith. He was bitten by the bug early, killing his first turkey and deer at age six, and soon after a deer with a bow at age 11. He was truly hooked. Santi grew up chasing ducks, turkeys and deer from the rolling farmlands of northern Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta, and the flooded timber and cypress breaks of Arkansas Although hunting is much loved in the Santi family, chasing small-mouth bass throughout the Ozarks of Arkansas and the Tennessee River Valley remain close to the heart. Growing up around Memphis offers some of the best hunting in the country, being just stones throw away from some of the best hunting and fishing territory in the southeast. For John David, even though duck hunting is a passion for him, his real love lies within the spring turkey woods and crisp fall mornings with a bow in hand and of course not leaving out his little brother Zander Santi (19), a favorite hunting companion. John David graduated from Christian Brothers High School in Memphis in May of 2013 and is currently a senior Integrated marketing and communications major at the University of Mississippi. The University of Mississippi is a haven for outdoorsmen and women alike, the large amount of public, and Corps of Engineer land surrounding Sardis Lake offers unlimited hunting very close to the school. No matter the time of the year you can find John David outside and chasing some critter with a camera in hand.

For comments or questions, email jdsanti@go.olemiss.edu.

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