"Have some fried fish," offered a quickly smiling Doc to Yoko, who was dressed to kill in an orange tube-top, chartreuse short-shorts and fancy Italian sandals showing off her freshly pedicured tootsies.
Doc pointed toward the table, where a mound of golden-fried fish chunks surrounded a bowl of Artie's homemade tartar sauce.
Yoko pointedly ignored Pelayo, Chris and me as she grabbed a chunk with her finely manicured fingers, dipped in the sauce and shoveled the morsel past her glossy lips, which puckered as her eyes closed dreamily at the taste sensation.
"Oh YUMMMM!" she moaned as she finally opened her gorgeous green eyes. "There's just no beating fresh speckled trout! Looks like y'all had a great trip to Breton Island. See that, Wesley?" said Yoko turning to her husband. "Told you that's where we should go tomorrow."
Wesley nodded wearily without saying a word. Priscilla's cheeks seemed flushed from drink, and we got the impression they'd been prancing through the Quarter all evening long with Wes subject to some hellacious hen-pecking in the process.
"Actually, Pris" smiled Doc as he poured her some wine. "That's not speckled trout you're eating."
"Oh?" she smiled. "Sure tastes like....."
"Actually, it's a bull red we caught last week."
"A BULL RED!" gasped Yoko. "Shame on you! You shouldn't keep bull reds. That's the spawning stock! That's the future of..."
"Sure tastes good, though," snapped Pelayo as he passed Priscilla and popped open a brewskie.
"Besides!" shrieked Yoko who hops aboard whatever fashionable greenie bandwagon happens along. "Bull reds are supposed to be tough, barely edible. What a terrible waste of the resource!"
"Well, there's your proof of their toughness," laughed Pelayo while pointing at the mound of fried fish. "You just swallowed it while rolling your eyes and rubbing your tummy. Cleaned and cooked right, we find big reds juicier, more delectable than mule trout.
"Reds accumulate fat as they get older. That fat acts as marbling on the meat, like you find on pompano, cobia and grouper. We fillet them and slice the meat across the grain of the fillet, like on a deer backstrap. Well, you just tasted the results. There's your proof."
"Besides," added Doc as Yoko glowered, "some say bull reds usually die after all the exertion of hauling them in. Why not put them to use? It's perfectly legal."
"Heck, Priscilla," Pelayo offered after a mighty gulp, "in the taste department, I put fried bull-red fingers right up there with button-buck backstrap."
The button-buck comment sent Priscilla and Wes to the balcony in a frowning huff. Their deer camp has a strict 6-point rule.
We followed, for the heck of it, and saw that Doc's nephew, Shawn, rather than the crowd below, was the center of attention. His wife, Sheila, was handing out pictures of the recent addition to their family, little Gus, to the coos, twitters, squeals and "awwws!"of the assembled gals. Shawn himself was beaming amidst much back-slapping from us.
"You mean, you were in the delivery room again?" a smirking Mr. Marion, Doc's uncle, suddenly burst upon the scene and joined the banter, stressing the term "delivery room."
"I know, I know, Uncle Marion," sighed Shawn. "Your generation, you waited patiently in the waiting room. But it's different now. It's much different. We're expected to share in...."
"WAITING ROOM!?" snorted the rotund Uncle Marion. "Heck man, we wasn't in no waiting room. We wasn't even in the hospital!"
He looked around, his florid face and twinkling eyes fixing on each of our bemused faces for a second.
"We was down the street at the BAR!" he roared, then gulped greedily from his beer, finally coming up for air with a heavy foam mustache. "But the women all knew WHICH bar, so they knew just where to find us when the time came to announce whether it was a boy or a goyl!"
Priscilla stood with her back to Uncle Marion during his discourse. But we could tell she was listening intently, grimacing to his every exclamation, flinching at his roars of harsh and cynical laughter.
"Heck man," Marion continued. "Most old hospitals in New Orleans have several old bars nearby. Same for funeral homes. The men paid their respects and went down the street to bend an elbow while the women stayed to mourn and commiserate."
"Sounds like a good deal to me!" Pelayo raised his cup, and we all toasted as Priscilla finally saw a chance to butt in and make a nuisance of herself: "Do you mean to tell me...?!"
That was our signal to head back inside.
"High tide's not until noon, Doc," Pelayo informed Fontaine. "I say we leave around 11."
"Fine with me," he responded.
Four straight days of blustery east winds meant our Bayou St. Malo locale would be absolutely ideal for redfishing. We only fish it with super-high tides.
This is heavily eroded marsh, roughly bordered by the top third of St. Malo on the east and Lake Borgne and Lena Lagoon on the west and northwest. Most of what we'd be motoring over in search of redfish was solid marsh 20 years ago — maybe 10 years ago.
The high tide brings in the reds (and drum and sheepshead) to rummage through the eroded coastlines and flooded wiregrass, and makes it possible for even a 20-foot bay boat to easily maneuver from spot to spot, perhaps with a slight tilt of the motor from time to time.
We'd be launching at Breton Sound Marina, heading east on Bayou La Loutre for a couple of miles and hanging a left into Bayou St. Malo. From Shell Beach and with a southeast wind (even a blustery one), you can also scoot along the lee Lake Borgne shoreline and enter Bayou St. Malo at its mouth.
From these launch sites, most fisherpersons head Breton Sound-ward with live bait for specks. Redfish aficionados usually head for the interior of the Biloxi Marsh, one of the few brackish-to-salt marshes holding its own against erosion. Which is not to say it's not eroding, simply that the rate — even after a direct hit from Katrina — seems slower than those of the marshes on the west side of the river.
A few shots of that magic elixir — Mississippi River water — would benefit the Biloxi Marsh enormously. Alas, its location doesn't allow for any easy and beneficial river diversions in the form of Caernarvon or Myrtle Grove or the accidental one from the wrecked Ostrica Locks (now closed and thus beneficial no more).
These sheltered Biloxi Marsh ponds, many slowly re-sprouting with widgeon grass and milfoil, make ideal places for a shallow-draft boat to slowly troll or pole through. They contain the clear, calm water where a redfish wake, or even the redfish itself, is easily detectable from a distance, whereupon the gold spoon, the spinnerbait, the topwater or even the hand-crafted fly is cast ahead of his nose. Upon rushing and gulping the bait, the subsequent events for the fortunate creature on the other end of the line can be absolutely electrifying. Many people pay major bucks for one such experience in the Florida Keys or the mangrove marshes skirting the Everglades.
Alas, we had nothing of this sort in mind. Three of us were on board, and we wanted redfish alright — but we also wanted a meat-haul of them, enough for a grillfest at Doc Fontaine's houseboat. No dilettante stuff.
We also wanted the puppy drum and sheepshead that habitually prowl the same habitat as reds, gulping the same morsels (crabs, primarily) and whose gorgeous white fillets, sizzling on the grill while drenched in lemon butter, teriyaki or barbecue sauce, rival those of the redfish himself.
Generally speaking, you won't catch the redfish's first cousin, the black drum, or his third cousin, the sheepshead (actually a big pinfish), on artificials, unless sweetened with shrimp. And this sweetening is exactly what we had in mind. We swear by it, even for reds.
Redfish are not primarily fish-eaters. Of course, they'll wolf down cocahoes, pogies, mullet and pinfish, the prey mimicked by most artificials cast their way.
But look at the redfish — that nose, that mouth. He's primarily a bottom feeder. He's designed to nose around nooks and crannies in the marsh grass, in the roseau canes, in the oyster beds — hunting his favorite prey: crabs.
I study the stomach contents of every red we catch (I'll clean a box of fish rather than a boat and ice chests ANYDAY. And this division of labor seems to work well with my fishing chums), Eighty to 90 percent of what I find in redfish stomachs are little crabs. After fishing oyster-studded areas, I find little stone crabs as often as little blue crabs.
Alas, after years of attempts, free-lining those little crabs you find mixed up in the bait shrimp never entice redfish like a nice chunk of fresh shrimp on a beetle or shad rig 2 feet under a cork that's popped vigorously. Go figure.
We slowed down about two thirds of the way from La Loutre to Borgne, and idled left into some acreage of marsh that had redfish written all over it.
First off, the water was dingy from the waves pushed by those blustery east winds. For whatever reason, when it comes to reds, we always do better in dingy rather than clear water. Eroded, grassy and wave-lapped shorelines were what we wanted. If it contained an aperture from one pond to another, from a slough to a pond, and if current was visibly moving through it — you could almost bet on at least a couple of reds.
We found such a spot not 150 yards after turning in from St. Malo, and three shrimp-tipped beetles, one chartreuse, one purple and mine white, were on their way, landing roughly 10 feet from each other along the sparse grass line.
Doc's disappeared first, but he was focused on a pair of mottled ducks winging in from the direction of Lena Lagoon, so Pelayo had to alert him with a howl. Doc reared back, the water exploded and the fight was on.
His fish plowed right through the flooded grass, before Doc finally turned him. "Man, oh man! Awesome! Simply awesome!"
Doc was aglow. Then his fish hit the surface about 30 yards out with a breathtaking eruption of froth and copper. "WHAT A FISH!" he beamed. Now the fish aimed back for the grassline with a spirited run. Then back north. Finally Doc started gaining on him.
Engrossed in the action, I was ignoring my own cork when I felt a tug. Instinctively, I reared back, and felt that gratifying sensation of solid resistance, followed by a lunge that started stripping line, followed by a huge swirl on the surface that signaled a change in the fish's direction as he bore out for the open water. He lunged again, and I tightened my drag to slow him. To no avail, which was actually fine with me.
I looked back to see Pelayo swinging a speck aboard.
"He musta been lost in here," he remarked while unhooking it and hurling it in the box.
For whatever reason, the few specks we catch in the shallows alongside reds average bigger than the schoolies most people catch in Bayou St. Malo itself.
Doc's red and mine looked like twins when we hurled them in the box — 6-pounders, we estimated. I rebaited, cast, popped twice and was mesmerized by another pair of mottled ducks dropping into a nearby pond when I heard a splash. I jerked my head around, and saw my cork surrounded by swirls and bubbles when — smack! — something hit it again.
"Saw that?" I howled. "Red's smacking my cork!"
I knew what was coming next.
Sure enough, in seconds my cork plunged, and I set the hook with a loud whoop and the rod tip high overhead. Another battle commenced, and again ended with a beautiful red in our box. Meanwhile Pelayo put on a topwater bait.
"If they're smacking your cork, they sure oughta smack this!" he blurted while flinging the lure toward the shoreline.
Pelayo cast and twitched, cast and twitched, cast and twitched while Doc and I each boated another red.
Pelayo finally saw the light, and switched back to his shrimp-tipped chartreuse beetle under cork. On his second cast to a current-washed opening in the shore, he was howling as a big wake plowed the shoreline. Pelayo loosened the drag to let him run. And RUN he did. He was making a wild run parallel to the shoreline as Pelayo's face radiated pure joy. His pole was high overhead, his drag screaming and an idiot grin creasing his face.
"Can't beat a shallow-water red on light tackle, huh Doc?" I roared.
He reared back like a maniac. "Another one here!" Doc had spent an ungodly sum just the previous month on a guided trip off Key Largo for one-10th this action.
"And here!" I finally roared.
We had three of the suckers on at once. It was bedlam. Doc's, fortunately, was streaking for the open water. Mine was plowing through the flooded grass. Pelayo's was at boatside — a nice puppy drum actually. Just as frantic a fighter, just as grillable and doesn't work against the redfish limit. Fine with us.
After a few minutes of hysteria, we managed to net our two reds. After 10 minutes free from action, we raised anchor and moved over to a grassy point with a nice current line forming about 10 feet from shore.
Doc wound up and cast, catching Pelayo's cap with his beetle and sending it overboard like a Frisbee. The cork landed about 20 feet from the boat, a huge birdsnest of mono floating in the water. I was convulsed in mirth when suddenly: "Where's your cork, Doc? Your CORK! Set the HOOK, man! SET IT!"
Reeenga-reeenga-reeenga-reeenga, Doc frantically reeled in about 20 feet of slack then — "WHOOOAAAA!"
"That's him, Doc! That's him!" bellowed the hatless Pelayo. "Ride him out, Doc! Ride him out."
The reel sang its sweet music as the brute aimed for Breton Island.
We raised anchor five different times in three hours fishing the same type of grassy, slightly wave-lapped and current-washed spots, and ended up with nine reds from 3-8 pounds, three specks, two puppy drum and a sheepshead. A superb trip, by our standards.