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            Louisiana's Pipeline Specks
            For piping hot action, head to the pipeline canals.

            by John Felsher

             

            CURRENT MOON
            lunar phases

            When oil companies began to explore the vast Louisiana marshes in the first half of this century, they dug numerous canals to bury pipelines carrying precious black gold or natural gas. Other canals were built to improve navigation through the generally featureless wetlands. Barges and boats used these canals to transport equipment, maintain systems and open new areas to mineral exploration.

            Today, about 7,600 miles of pipelines carry gas throughout Louisiana. Another 3,450 miles of pipelines carry oil, according to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. Pipeline canals slashed indelible and permanent gashes across the Sportsmen's Paradise like gridlines drawn on a map.

            Pipeline canals brought mixed blessings to Louisiana citizens. Aside from economic prosperity literally pumped into the state, the numerous canals disrupted the natural water flow. Where once shallow bayous meandered through fresh and brackish marshes, razor-straight canals ripped through lakes and ponds. Often, they cut off the flow of natural waterways.

            Fish and wildlife species depend upon the primordial flushing of fresh and brackish marshes to spawn life in these vast wet nursery grounds. Through the canals, Gulf of Mexico brine entered fresh and brackish marshes, killing trees and soil-holding grasses that lined natural waterways. As plants died, liquefied mudflats remained. During strong tides, water rushing through pipeline canals tore huge chunks from fragile wetlands. Today, Louisiana loses about 35 square miles of wetlands each year with little improvement in sight.

            "We have been losing wetlands at a tremendous rate," said Phil Bowman, undersecretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "Louisiana has 40 percent of all coastal wetlands in the United States, excluding Alaska. We are losing those wetlands faster than any other state in the nation."

            For sportsmen, canals brought fishy blessings to the marshes. Anglers seek bountiful speckled trout, redfish, flounder and other species in these canals. Pipeline canals opened enormous acreage of formerly isolated fish-rich waters by making marsh navigation much easier.

            These canals also serve as conduits for moving schools of bait and predator fish. Canals dominate water flow through shallow marshes. Therefore, they also dominate "fish flow." Like the pipes themselves, pipeline canals "herd" and constrict fish into narrow areas, making them more accessible to fishermen.

            Often, canals intersect with numerous lakes, bays and lagoons. With deeper water and more tidal flow, fish and bait flow from marshy lagoons into canals like water running downhill. Shrimp and baitfish leave the grassy edges and drift with the tides into canals. Speckled trout stack up on the down current sides of points formed by the intersection of bays and canals to watch for morsels flowing from shallow marshes during falling tides.

            "Pipelines are highways for fish and migration routes," said Ronnie Addison, who fishes the Delacroix marshes southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana. "Water moves out of a pipeline faster than it does out of a wide lake or major river. Fish get in ponds, and shallow marshes, but sooner or later, they have to come out into deeper water. Pipelines offers deeper water and quick migration routes between large lakes or bays."

            In winter, fish congregate in deeper holes in canals to avoid frigid temperatures. While marshes and lagoons might only hold two or three feet of water, canals hold eight to 12 feet of water. During cold weather, anglers typically find trout in the middle of the canals where they hover just off the bottom.

            "We usually fish shallow, nothing over three feet in the summer," said Allen Welsh of Hooked Up Charters who guides near Venice and Delacroix. "In the winter, we fish 10 to 12 feet of water in the canals."

            As canals flush with strong tides, they create even deeper holes. Trout hide in these holes to ambush bait. As tides drive baitfish, speckled trout rise from murky depths to devour unsuspecting menhaden, croaker, minnows, cocahoes, shrimp or other temptations.

            "I look for an outgoing tide when I'm fishing the pipelines, but any tidal movement is good," Addison said. "I also look for irregular features, such as pockets, cuts, or main bayou crossings. Fish gather in little eddies out of the current. At a major bayou crossing, there will be a hole washed out. Fish stay in there, especially in the fall and winter. When baitfish migrate through pipeline cuts, fish pull up onto the flats to feed and then drop back into the holes."

            Many pipelines run parallel to each other and create ideal structure for speckled trout. Spoil banks, dredged mud deposits, separate the two canals and over the years, some spoil banks erode into little more than humps in wide canals. Tides wash numerous cuts into these humps and trout easily move from one canal to another through these cuts. The trout lurk in eddies formed by these humps. They congregate behind points and other structures that block the tidal flow. These humps provide access to both shallow and deep water where trout can feed and escape from the cold.

            "Humps in twin pipelines concentrate fish," Addison said. "Fish the eddy areas or current breaks. Fish may be on top of a point or off in the deep water. Search around until you find them and, once you do, you should catch a lot of fish."

            Not all pipelines concentrate fish and naturally, some attract more fish than others. Look for long pipelines with good tidal flow. Find canals that intersect with other major water bodies or passes and look for concentrations of baitfish or shrimp moving through the canals. Avoid muddy or offcolor canals that may drain stagnant waters.

            Even in "good" canals, trout can easily fool unwary fishermen. They appear and disappear almost by the hour. They congregate in huge schools for a time and then disperse to other areas as they follow baitfish schools. However, in winter, fish generally remain in the same areas where they find comfortable temperatures, sufficient food, oxygen and cover from other predators. Find one fish on a cold day and it often leads to a bundle. The challenge lies in finding the first finny creature.

            Borrowing a tactic from his tournament bass fishing skills, Addison concentrates on pockets of fish found with his electronics, avoiding long, unproductive stretches.

            "Electronics are very important for fishing pipelines," Addison said. "Pipelines might have miles of unproductive water and a big concentration of fish in a small area. I use electronics to find underwater structure and fish. Most of the time, I'll see fish on the graph first, turn around and then catch them. If I catch two or three fish, I try to find out where the fish are positioned and at what angle they seem to be hitting best. Then I'll position the boat the best way and use the trolling motor or drop anchor."

            Even without a depth finder, anglers can eliminate considerable fishless water by using a sharp eye. Where canals intersect other water bodies makes an excellent starting point. Look for anything different or out of the ordinary such as a washout or sudden depth change. Fish frequently hang just over the edge of dropoffs. Check points, cuts, pockets, and any place where water flows from one body of water into another. Fish often lurk at the mouths of such cuts.

            Because boaters often use pipelines for marsh travel, they can terribly disrupt other anglers; nothing like a boat roaring through a productive hole gives fish a faster case of lockjaw. To prevent this, many anglers only fish pipelines at odd times or during the week when fewer boaters travel through an area.

            Typically, anglers venture from marinas at first light or within an hour of daylight.

            "If I'm in the first boat out, I'll stop and fish holes along the pipelines that I know hold fish," Addison said. "If I'm not the first one out of the ramp, I'll usually start on the lakes and other points. I'll give it about an hour for the boat traffic to calm down and then hit the pipelines."

            Anglers fishing in or near the canals use several baits to attract trout. During cold weather, they need to go deeper and slower. Baits that bounce bottom or flit slowly over holes often entice strikes.

            Try using 1/4 to 3/8-ounce leadhead jigs tipped with beetles, grubs, or cocahoes. Let the baits sink to the bottom, jig them up and then let the baits flutter down to the bottom again. If this doesn't solict a strike, try a slow steady retrieve just above the bottom.

            Hot colors in soft plastics include purple and chartreuse, avocado and chartreuse, avocado and red, red and white, glow and chartreuse or smoke. During slow action, spice jigs with a pinch of market shrimp to give them extra smell and taste.

            "In clear water, I like smoked paddletail grubs or cocahoes," Addison said. "Late in the fall and winter, I like smoke-colored shrimptails or purple and white shrimptails. A Rat-L-Trap is an excellent bait for fishing pipelines. During winter, when I fish deeper holes, I yo-yo it up and down. I let it sink and then rip it off the bottom and let it flutter down. I like a 1/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap in chartreuse and silver, pink and gold or tequila sunrise."

            Across Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, pipelines serve oil companies well. They also serve sportsmen well. Next time, instead of flying by on these watery highways, try to drop a line in the 'line!

            For more information about catching speckled trout in pipelines, call Addison at (504) 345-5089, Theophile Bourgeois of Bourgeois Charters in Lafitte at (504) 341-5614, Danny or Toby Duet of Gala Resort in Golden Meadow at (504) 475-5179, Charlie Thomason in Chalmette at (504) 278-FISH or Welch at (601) 799-0110.

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