Fishing in Our Own Back Yard
My mission this month was an appealing one – to learn more about Hancock County’s vibrant fishing scene and how I - a novice to the sport - could start casting.
The local scoop is that we had a kind winter this year and the water is getting warm, so the spring spawn is arriving early. Some beautiful trout are already showing up along our coast (and I really Trout Almandine a lot). Since late spring and summertime is the ideal time to fish inshore for trout here, I figured there’s no time like the present to learn.
This area is known for some of the best inshore fishing on the Gulf Coast. By water, Bay St. Louis is only a few miles northwest of the Louisiana marshes, a bit further from the Barrier Islands and Mississippi’s inshore reefs. The Jourdan River flows into the Bay of St. Louis from the north and the Wolf River from the east, while the bay itself opens onto into Mississippi Sound.
My first stop was The Tackle Shop, at the corner of Third and Washington in Bay St. Louis
(264 Washington St, 228-220-7114).
As I pulled up to the store, owner Billy Ray Sanders, was ambling outside with a lanky nine-year-old boy and his mother. The boy scurried back and forth to his mom’s car, filling it with fishing tackle and line.
Billy Ray busied himself with setting the drag on the boy’s new fishing rod and reel. The man and boy stood together on the lawn next to the parking lot and practiced casting. Billy Ray gently corrected the boy’s technique.
After the family left, I sat down with Billy Ray and asked if I could pick his brains a bit.
Billy Ray told me he opened his tackle shop about two years ago on the corner of Washington and Third, only two blocks from the Washington Street pier and boat launch. He has been a serious fisherman since he moved from New Orleans to Hancock County in 1981.
The Tackle Shop sells all the lures that are most effective for our area (Billy Ray’s favorite lures are Vortex Shad and Matrix Shad), as well as frozen bait for saltwater fishing, rod and reels, fishing tackle, ice, snacks and drinks, and durable LED flounder lights that he makes himself. The walls of his shop are lined with lures, nets, hooks and lines. Dozens of rods stand in racks, and shiny reels beckon from glass cases.
“There are just so many different places to go fishing here, either with or without a boat,” he replied, “or you can use a kayak or a small flat bottom boat. We have six public piers in the Bay-Waveland area alone, just from Cedar Point to Bayou Caddy!
"I personally own two fishing boats, but I find myself night fishing under the lights on the piers more than I ever go out on the boat.
“Also, you can go crabbing – kids love it so much. There’s just a lot of variety of fish in our waters -- from “reds” and “specks” to drum and flounder. And of course, catfish.”
I learned that he was referring to redfish, and spotted (speckled) trout. Also plentiful in our waters are red snapper, both black and red drum, sheephead, ground mullet, Tripletail, Spanish or King mackerel, cobia, sea trout, flounder, and the highly prized “Inshore Slam” (trout, flounder and redfish in the same catch).
Big speckled trout are caught early in the morning at first light on the Gulf Coast’s artificial reefs with top-water lures all during the late spring, summer and fall.
“Seasoned fishermen who have a boat can roam anywhere they want to go to target the fish species they’re shooting for; you’ve got from the reefs to the marshes, from Jourdan River (especially in winter) to Redfish Bayou, Campbell’s Bayou, Three Oaks Bayou, or the Pearl River, to name just a few.”
Other favorite Bay St. Louis fishing spots include the Bay of St. Louis train bridge (live bait fished on the bottom can catch white trout, flounder, redfish, black drum and sheepshead); the Highway 90 Bridge (when the white trout are biting, there may be as many as two dozen boats fishing the bridge at the same time); the Dupont Piers (two piers at Dupont’s pigment plant on the north shore of the Bay of St. Louis), the Jimmy Rutherford fishing pier at the harbor, the Washington Street pier, and the Cutoff Bayou at the Jourdan River (when the weather turns cold, the trout stack up near the bottom).
To reduce erosion and encourage reestablishment of habitat that was once present in the region, the Shoreline Project team is constructing about 5.9 miles of living breakwater seeded with rocks and rubble that will encourage oysters to bed and attract more fish.
They are also creating new salt marsh habitat, and approximately 46 acres of subtidal crushed limestone reef in Heron Bay. (Billy Ray reported that he had already caught some sizeable speckled trout there.)
“Besides the great fishing that the living shoreline will bring, it will also help save our coastline from erosion. I’m hoping that DMR (Mississippi Department of Marine Resources) would plant some sea grass there to build a habitat for speckled trout, too.”
“This area is going to have the best fishing in Mississippi, hands-down. In a few years, fishermen won’t have to go out into Louisiana marshes to fish. Even now, Bay St. Louis is a better place for Louisiana fishermen to launch their boats; they can launch at Washington Pier and then it’s a straight shot over to the Louisiana marshes. And soon, it’s going to be on fire here in Hancock County!”
But, if someone has never really fished much before, I ask him, what’s the best way to get started here? I want to jump in!
It quickly becomes obvious that Billy Ray is no stranger to advising fishing novices. “Basically, there are two kinds of fishing,” he explains, “live bait fishing and lure fishing. Live bait fishermen use fresh or frozen shrimp or cocahoe minnows or mullet, and you can do it year round here. Differences in the weather and water conditions will affect where the fish can be found and what bait they will bite at, of course.”
Billy Ray explains that the “tried and true method” for novice fisherfolk is bottom fishing. He likes to start “newbies” off with a bottom rig, hook and sinker, called a “Carolina rig.” “If you want to know whether the fish are on the top, suspended, or close to the bottom, you use just enough weight to send the shrimp bait down as slowly as possible, and then you can figure out where they’re hanging out.”
“In the summertime, lure fishermen start fishing as early in the morning as they can get up, usually before daybreak. They’ll use top-water lures, usually until some point in the mid-morning when the top-water fish may stop biting.” In winter, the fish go deeper, lurking at 4 to 8 feet under the surface to try to escape the cold. For winter fishing, Billy Ray has had great success using lip bait to troll.
“Choosing the right method can make you look like a fishing machine, hauling in fish left and right, while the poor guy anchored next to you might not get a bite."
Billy Ray’s best general advice for boat fishermen? “Look for shell and oyster reefs, and try to land where you see shells on the bank. Always keep your eyes open for seagulls and other diving birds going after bait fish – that means big fish are there too.” After the surface fish stop biting (if they ever do), Billy Ray moves to deeper oyster bars, fishing them with either live shrimp or soft lures.
“I like to keep it real simple for newcomers,” he said. “I’ll look at the person in front of me, his age, size, hand and arm strength, skill level, whether or not he or she has ever fished before. . . . If I don’t think a spinning reel is a good idea, then I’ll suggest a push button reel. Everybody is different; I’ll look at their height for the rod length.”
Billy Ray also hands out advice on what weight sinkers anglers should choose under the present conditions, when the angler should change out his lure color, depending upon the clarity of the water, and which type of live bait or lure to use.
“Don’t forget to get the right fishing license too,” he adds. “Everybody from age 16 to 64 needs to have a fishing license.” The easiest way to purchase a fishing license is online.
For Mississippi residents, a freshwater fishing license is $10 per year (which includes small game hunting). A saltwater fishing license is also $10 per year. A three-day freshwater fishing license is just $3. (All license prices are higher for non-residents than for residents.) If you’re 65 or over, you can purchase a lifetime saltwater license for just $5!
Children fifteen and under, seniors 65 and over, and the disabled are exempt from the requirement to carry a fishing license, but they still need to carry the right documentation to show proof of age or disability.
If you’re fishing in Mississippi’s brackish waters, and you’re not sure whether you need a freshwater or a saltwater license, the rule is that a saltwater license is required to fish anywhere south of Highway 90, a freshwater license is required to fish anywhere north of I-10, and between Highway 90 and I-10, either a saltwater or freshwater license will suffice.
Find out all the Mississippi fishing regulations here.
Bay Marina is a full service facility for boaters and fishermen, with a boat launch, a fuel dock with non-ethynol gasoline, a live bait shop, an outdoor Tiki Bar overlooking the Edwards bayou, and a pump-out station. Hundreds of outdoor boat racks, slips, and dry storage are available.
The RV park is enormous, and a second RV park with another thirty spaces is opening there soon. The RV spots are generally used by weekend fishermen from Hattiesburg and other parts of north Mississippi. This is where you can get your live bait (Billy Ray’s Tackle Shop sells only frozen, as fresh bait is more difficult for a solo storeowner to handle.) Bay Marina sells cocahoe minnows throughout the year, and live shrimp until the first freeze.
I spoke with the amiable owner, Bob Castoro, who pulled up in his golf cart while I was checking out his live bait fish. He told me that he’s been fishing most of his life, and loves running “the local neighborhood marina.”
“Even when the water and weather conditions are bad, we can always catch fish in Bay St. Louis.” Castoro drove off with a friendly “Tight lines and good fishin’!”
Several companies offer charter fishing here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, including Shore Thing Fishing Charters (228-466-4970) and Fisher-Man Guide Services in Pass Christian (228-323-1115). On a charter boat, a knowledgeable guide can help you find the type of fish that you want to catch.
Trips usually last from three to eight hours, and prices for a day or a half-day on the water range from about $250 to $800 (depending on the number of hours and the number of anglers on the boat). Prices generally include your fishing licenses, live bait, fish cleaning and bagging, snacks and iced beverages, and use of the company’s rods and reels and tackle.
For information on all kinds of fishing in Mississippi, check out DMR's Go Fishing site.
Bay St. Louis is a great place to fish, whether you’re just learning or you’ve been fishing for fifty years, and whether you’re looking for a fun day with the family or a hard-core fishing adventure with your buddies.
So, clear the weekend calendar, it’s time to cast those lines!