The annual trip to the ‘Vanishing Paradise’ where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico tackles challenging conditions for everything from cobia to bull reds, tuna to tripletail.
Big rains in the middle of America meant early fall muddy water flows down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and challenging conditions for the Marsh Madness crew that arrived at the Lighthouse Lodge in Venice, Louisiana.
How muddy the river was just outside of the Venice Marina was a mindblower. In 20 years of fishing where the main passes of the Mississippi drop off into the Gulf, never had there been this deep dark chocolate flow.
The 6 a.m. start felt a lot earlier on West Coast time. We headed out on Artie Cosby’s big Skeeter with his son Tyler and his father, Dr. Arthur Cosby. I had the good fortune to be part of the initial wave of the Marsh Madness team, which included many of the longtime boaters, all of whom were looking to locate quality water and fishing before the main group of sponsors and writers showed up.
Artie planned the dawn start to hopefully take advantage of an area of old oyster beds that had kicked out a bunch of big redfish on the big gold Rat-L-Traps over the past couple events. The mud followed us out to the mouth of Red Pass, where we found Eddie Permenter just about to deploy his small drag net in hopes of bait to fish for snapper and cobia on the nearby oil rigs. We watched a couple dry runs, then kept gunning it to make the tide, although lurking semi-submerged obstacles meant a somewhat slower speed.
Despite some good bird life in the destination zone and what was at least a bit better looking water, multiple moves and casts later the only fish hooked was a snagged hardhead catfish.
By now I could have slept in! Except from the motel room it wouldn’t have been just a quick ride out to some promising rigs. On the way, we encountered a long green scum line 20-feet wide that extended to the horizon in both directions.
“We should try this, it’s probably holding fish,” Artie said. Instead we agreed to check it out on the way back. Cobia were calling.
While Artie tried to jig up bait, Tyler and I deployed big cobia lures.
Tyler was in the bow and had just reeled up an oversize green and white Mustad bucktail jig when he shouted, “There’s one, that’s a big cobia. He’s just swimming around, now I don’t see him.”
There is no better confidence builder than knowing a cobia is around. When they’re there, they bite. The giant green and yellow grub on a 4-ounce head sank out fast and the hit came quicker. Braided line ripped off the baitcaster and then started to rise 50-yards on a diagonal from the rig. A monster cobia blew out of the water. And the lure fell out — slack line, back to the rig to start over.
Not long and Tyler hooks up and again the fish heads out. And out, out, out and out, then down, down, down. This does take a long time. The fish is a burly jack crevalle and puts Tyler and the spinning tackle right down to it. Tyler wins, gets to grin for the photos and let the fish go.
So, we hit a lot of rigs, running into Eddie and his gang again along the way. We go different directions and when do find them again it’s because he calls to say they are catching fish along the scum line, which the afternoon wind has started to break up into big sections.
The scum, green from duck weed and algae, is loaded with all sorts of flotsam, most of it commercial fishing gear like baskets, buckets, ropes and lines. There’s even a pair of long rubber work gloves, perfectly matched and lodged side by side in the mass.
Underneath are all kinds of baitfish and the strange (to a West Coaster) fish known as the tripletail – a kind of monstrous saltwater cross between a crappie and a smallmouth bass. And they taste as good as the combination would infer. Local folks are nuts for them, which is why an 18-inch minimum size limit has been imposed on the recreational fishery.
The tripletail can be seen blowing up on the bait along the edges. The first bite comes on a poppin’ cork rig tossed perfectly to the edge of the canopy by Dr. Cosby, the first of many tripletail that are just below the minimum size. They look huge in the water with their fan-like fins and disc-shaped body.
The bite doesn’t really take off, though, until Artie figures out how to draw the tripletail out from the protection of the cover. He’s tied on a big (at least 7/0) single worm-style hook and pinned on a white 10-inch Z-Man HeroZ soft bait, sort of a stretch version of a fluke. He throws that up against the scum, starts a slow sink and twitch-back-up retrieve and the big tripletail follow the white snake out in a pack, blasting away until one is hooked. Plop a cork anywhere near the action and the takedown is instant.
During one of the swirls of activity the outline of a big fish flashed beneath the canopy. The fluorescent cork barely splashes down before it is sucked down. Coming tight to the fish happens all by itself and the light trout rig doubles over. The 30-pound Seaguar braid and short fluoro leader cuts through the edge of the scum and the 2000 size spinning reel wails as the unidentified fish makes a long run into open water.
“Probably a jack,” says Artie. “Could be a cobia!,” I replied. That’s what I really wanted, especially since it was up to me to get whatever it was out there to the boat.
Nothing to do but put on the heat. The fish responded by running back towards the boat and it was a race to keep the pressure applied. Everything came together off the starboard stern corner and with a few pumps of the taco’d rod, the fish came into view.
“Lemon fish!” Artie cried and ran for the gaff, but the five-foot-plus long cobia had just come up for a peek, and then burned straight under the boat, requiring getting the line out and around the outboard twice before the fish decided to go back to where it came from – the scum line.
All I could do was keep the pressure on tight as the fish literally cut through the clotted slime and junk, Artie on the helm now keeping pace until the bow was almost across the muck and the line was almost straight up and down.
There, just above the streamers of vegetation and assorted plastic, was the cork!
“Artie the fish is right here under all this junk,” I called out, feeling the live weight of the fish through the light tackle.
“I see it, I see it, be ready to get out of the way, this baby is going to come in hot!” he said as he scrambled up on the bow deck.
A bit of a lift and the head and shoulders of the cobia, wreathed in weeds and, as Artie said later, probably blinded, surfaced enough and Artie made a perfect hit with the gaff. I flipped the bail and slid back into the gap between the rail and the center console as he swung the fish over and in and onto the deck by the opposite rail, where it twisted wildly for a bit until it calmed down.
It was 3 in the afternoon and normally we would have headed back in, but there was nothing on the schedule that night and we decided to stay out longer. “We can head in now if y’all want to, except the way I look at it, this is like catching a 2 to 3-pound smallmouth every cast and who knows where we’ll be able to fish tomorrow if the wind gets up like it’s supposed to.” So, we stayed and culled a few 18-inch-plus tripletails to join the cobia in the fryer the next night.
Well the wind did come up and with all the dirty water right around Venice boats and trailers headed in all kinds of directions the next day. We found some decent water not far, but only a couple small reds in the wind and surrounding thunderheads, finally running from a dark rain squall. We heard that others that trailered north to different launch ramps had found both better water and good numbers of redfish. The tuna trips had good luck, too, despite a big swell.
All that day the main group of Marsh Madness attendees arrived from all over the country. A huge TV screen was tucked under an eave of the Lighthouse Lodge and displayed non-stop SEC college football while Ken and Devin Sherman stirred up “pastalaya” for dinner and Britt Goodin kept folks happy with golden nuggets of cobia and tripletail dumped straight from the fry basket and gobbled with just a couple dashes of pepper sauce. Boy, that was good.
Eric Cosby of Top Brass Tackle, the godfather of the Madness, introduced the sponsors and called out the boat pairings as the wind picked up and sent through rain squalls. Then everyone converged to the shelter of the Villas to see what goodies sponsors Wiley X, National Wildlife Federation—Vanishing Paradise, Plano, Seaguar, Stanley, Mustang, St. Croix, Z-Man, Realtree, Bill Lewis Lures, Skeeter and Mustad had to offer. A couple local gendarmes thought the Wylie X sunglass display needed scrutiny. No arrests were made, but some evidence was taken into custody.
My boater for the next day literally blew in late that evening – a squall hit and ripped the canvas top off his boat. This was no ordinary boat and no ordinary driver — Tony Taylor founded Louisiana Sportsman Magazine and has lived that life large ever since, fishing and hunting all over the state that boasts the nickname ‘Sportsman’s Paradise”.
Tony’s boat is custom built by Sportsman Fabrication – no connection to Taylor’s company, yet purely a Louisiana creation. Built to run both shallow in the marsh and still handle the inshore wind and chops, the 28-foot long walkthrough has an 8-foot beam and features a sunken midship cockpit with seating for five and a full blast entertainment center. When the top is functional it’s a world of its own. When the top is down it’s like being on the world’s biggest bass boat. The 300 hp Yamaha hung on the back definitely adds to that feel.
The boat can easily fish 5 anglers and that’s what it did the next day. We were joined by Starkville Bass Club and Marsh Madness originals Randy Haynes and Dayle Reed, and another early MM participant, the Northwest’s own Bill Matthews.
A quick run out of Red Pass and the Gulf didn’t look too bad. Just up the way a line of guide boats was obviously hooked up, but both the weather and the bite took a bad turn. It was the time of the year when big schools of bull reds are packed up and feeding along the coast and getting to move into the marsh with the saltwater to spawn in brackish bays and lakes. Obviously, the guides, not related to our group, had found such a group and had taken advantage.
Both the weather and the water looked better on up the coast and it looked like we hit a gold mine when Taylor’s first cast with a poppin’ cork rig connected with a monstrous redfish. A hundred casts more turned up nothing in the way of game fish. Chasing similar conditions left us well up the line by Port Sulfur and with the aid of Haynes and everyone keeping a sharp lookout for shallows and lines Taylor wound his way through a massive commercial oyster bed and found the top entrance to Yellow Cotton Bay.
Here the fishing was classic marsh and rossa cane cuts and corners – perfect for a small beetle spin (spinnerbait) and a soft plastic minnow. Just put it in the right places and the next thing you know a red is ripping line and churning water and mud and cane. Dayle, mostly comatose early on with a stomach ailment, came to life and was the hot hand, hooking a half dozen golden keeper-sized redfish as we moved up and down the cane.
As big as Tony’s boat is, the draft is amazingly shallow, which came in handy when the time approached to negotiate a corner of Yellow Cotton Bay to get into a tight channel in the reeds that leads down to the Wagon Wheel and the main channel to Venice Marina.
On my very first trip to Venice for Marsh Madness, Yellow Cotton Bay was a heavily vegetated marshland with multiple lanes and ponds, alligators and tailing redfish. That first run was with Artie Cosby and he certainly taught me a thing or two about sight fishing.
Now Yellow Cotton, while still surrounded by cane, is a vast shallow mud lake, one of the many instances of Vanishing Paradise this writer has witnessed over the decades.
Finding a few feet of water to navigate was the challenge that Taylor faced, again with the help of Haynes, who knew the right approach angle and exit. Still we ran up on some mud not far from the old wood piling and pole that marked the channel entrance. Moving the bodies around, putting the motor up and using the thrust of the big troll motor on the bow, we got her off.
The early days of Marsh Madness used to be centered up more towards Buras, with meals at both local restaurants and lodges. Hurricane Katrina wiped out a lot of restaurants and the original marina used – and was the only hurricane that actually cancelled the event. Combined with the development of Venice Marina, where some of the boaters stay in houseboats, and the cooperation of the Lighthouse Lodge with its combination of villas, traditional motel rooms and plenty of room to park boats, the event became centralized and the meals got better and better.
The 20th Anniversary feed was the ultimate. The opening night feast was followed by a massive shrimp boil at Mike Frenette’s Redfish Lodge right on the marina. Next was a whole pig barbecued by the Goodin brothers Britt and Keith and assisted by Ken and Devin Sherman – cocktails poured by Michelle Fleming of Stanley and Bethany Mousseau of Mustang in custom Vanishing Paradise insulted cups – followed up by the grand finale at Venice Marina’s CrawGator’s Bar and Grill with a buffet of southern appetizers and free flowing beverages hosted by the Wiley X sunglasses crew.
Conservation and a love of the resource has always been at the heart of Marsh Madness and along the way the National Wildlife Foundation’s Vanishing Paradise program evolved in large part to the NWF’s Lew Carpenter. A former media attendee, Carpenter brought the sportsman’s organization in a sponsor.
The grassroots support from the Louisiana NWF chapter was evidenced by the presence of Erin Browne. Born in Louisiana, an LSU grad and Saints fan, she grew up hunting and fishing and is passionate about the natural riches of her home state. After the shrimp feast, she presented a slide show on the Vanishing Paradise program, which focuses on marsh restoration to stem the current loss of marshland that has seen an area the size of the State of Delaware swallowed up by the Gulf.
During the closing night Marsh Madness Happy Hour party, hosts Ryan Wilkerson, Ray Hill and Michael Magnan of Wiley X presented Browne and Carpenter a check for $10,000 for the Vanishing Paradise program.
The fishing the last couple days had been fantastic. A big hurricane running up the Atlantic stilled the east winds and clear water ponds were located that held everything from limits of keeper reds to giant alligator gar. One of the cleanest set of ponds was right next to the Gulf and Artie and Gerry Benedicto of Seaguar scored some beautiful keeper reds. Nearby, Jason Hall, a longtime local guide and angler, located a huge concentration of bull reds off the mouth of Southwest late in that second-to-last day.
While not an unusual location for the bulls, the pass had been pumping out chocolate water. Conditions were such, however, that cleaner water had edged up against the outflow and was chock full of life, including giant redfish ready to hammer the big gold Rat-L-Traps or a bright swimbait either cast or soaked under a cork.
When the word, early the last morning, went out that the fish were still there, a Marsh Madness flotilla of bay boats descended and it was full bendo catch and release action on the monster red drum.
I was on Sam Davis’s boat with Steve Tagami, who was there representing Mustad. The first time I fished with Steve was on a bluefin tuna trip out of San Pedro in the late 80’s. Over the years I have never seen him get so red hot fishing as he did this day in the nearshore waters of Louisiana. He would barely have a bait in the water before it was bit again by a bull red and once, he landed one of the biggest jacks I have ever seen, the fish almost sawing off the lines of everyone on the stern of Ken Sherman’s boat in the process of almost spooling Steve.
The only time the action would slow down is when the sharks would move through, although you usually got to pull on one of those for a while. That was what I was there for, but I did get plenty of big ol’ reds.
Speaking of sharks, there were plenty of blacktips out on the tuna grounds. A large, short period swell from the hurricane meant only those with sea legs headed out, but they put the wood to the blackfin tuna and yellowfin to well over 100-pounds. In all the years of the Madness, the ‘career’ of Jesse Simpkins, formerly with Plano and now marketing St. Croix rods, has been particularly illustrious.
This year he showed up at one of the dinners with a limp and a heavily bandaged right ankle. Seems they were in the middle of a great offshore bite when he leaned over with pliers to get the hook out of a blacktip. The shark flipped into the cockpit and landed teeth first on Jesse’s foot. I forgot the name of the award they gave Jesse this time – he’s won so many.
Luckily the shark missed the tendon and Jesse was back out that last morning with Artie Cosby, whacking the reds with Lew Carpenter and Eric Cosby.
As mentioned earlier, Eric Cosby of Top Brass Tackle has been the genius behind Marsh Madness all these years. It all started when he and his reps, Trip Banks and Ken Blake, worked with a couple other tackle companies and they brought some media down to Venice to fish with their gear. Thanks to Eric many great friendships and business relationships were created. And so many great memories.
The takeaway image from the 20th event was Eric lying on his back on the bow deck of his brother’s boat, hooked up to a bull red. Who says fishing has to be hard?