Saltwater Perch Jerking
Ever catch bream big enough to jerk the rod from your hand? You will if you go to the shallow-water rigs this month.
Don’t be turned off by the face. You’ll forget this face when you dig into the luscious fillets — fried, grilled or broiled.
But the biggest line formed behind the platter featuring the venison strips, onions, green peppers, sour cream and tortillas.
“Oh my!” sighed Trisha’s sister Brenda as she bit down and hunched over, dodging the juice that squirted from the far end of the rolled tortilla.
“This is heavenly!” gushed Brenda who was visiting for Mardi Gras from her home in Sacramento. “But this can’t be deer — no way! Un unh! You’re pulling our leg again, Humberto.”
Her pretty eyes rolled heavenward as her pretty lipsticked mouth slurped and chewed. “This is SO tender, SO juicy. No gaminess at all. And it melts in your mouth! Here, Trevor.” She said reaching over to her 10 year old son. “Try some.”
“Yum!” Trevor smirked, while wolfing down the rest of his Mom’s fajita.
“Trevor’s going fishing with his ‘uncle’ Gus (Doc’s brother) on Monday,” Brenda revealed as we walked toward the bathrooms together. “But he doesn’t seem too excited?’
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Not sure, but he’s been over there talking to Gus who’s been explaining all kinda winter fishing techniques to him,” she replied. “Seemed kinda complicated — from what I overheard, anyway. They plan on going to some ... Oak River, I think? Sounded pretty complicated to me — ‘find the right depth, they bite slow in the winter, slow retrieve, all kinda stuff.
“We went to one of those places with Gus this time last year, and we caught a few of those little skinny speckled trout things. But I can’t say it was much action. Catching those fish felt like reeling up a wet paper towel. Trevor was playing his Game Boy most of the time.”
“We’ll take care of THAT!” I roared. “Have little Trevor come with us to the Sandy Point Rigs on Monday instead. He won’t have time to play any Game Boy out there, believe me. He’ll be cranking in powerful, great-eating fish after powerful fish after fish — and without employing the slightest hocus pocus. Just drop the bait over the side — WHAM!! His arm will be sore the next day — I ga-ron-tee! And none of that obnoxious measuring and throwing back fish either.”
“Oh, Trevor hates that!” Brenda laughed. “He went ballistic when Gus threw back one of those little speckled trout he caught last year. ‘That’s my fish!’ he kept whining.”
“He won’t whine when he comes to the shallow rigs with us, believe me.”
“You sure?” Brenda asked. “Or is this another of your tricks, like the fajitas?”
“The fajitas ain’t no trick, and neither is this fishing trip. In fact, that ceviche you’ve been piling on crackers and wolfing down was the result of our trip three days ago to these shallow rigs. And you oughta come too. If you don’t believe the guys, well, then ask Shirley, Toni, Cindy, Mary Kay, Laura. They’ll tell ya. They wouldn’t BS ya or yank your chain. That’s their favorite time of year to fish because it ain’t really fishing — it’s catching! Go ahead, ask ‘em about our late-winter sheepshead trips. You’ll see.”
“Oh, thank you!” Brenda squealed and she leaned over and kissed my cheek with her heavily lipsticked lips, then slipped into the powder room. Shortly, she returned and fixed both herself and Trevor another deer fajita, which both inhaled in two or three bites.
“Four-Point Fajitas,” Eddie croaked as he ambled up with one in hand. “Can’t beat ‘em,” he smiled at Brenda. “Can’t beat a yearling deer for the pot. We swear by ‘em.”
Brenda smiled blankly and nodded while wiping her mouth with the napkin.
“You sure this came from that 1½-year-old 4-point?” asked Pelayo from his seat in the corner while chomping down on his own fajita. “I think it mighta been from one of Humberto’s button bucks. He shot two this year.”
“Coulda also come from that little doe Humberto almost shot in half,” added Artie, who sat next to Pelayo. “The thing barely weighed 50 pounds.”
“It’s hard to say,” Eddie quipped. “But no matter. None of us shot a deer over 1 1/2 years old the past two years. So they were all trophies — trophy meat, absolutely dy-no-myte! Just look around this room,” and he pointed behind me at the crowd slurping down our trophies. “Heck, what’s more expensive? Veal? Or some tough, old Black Angus round steak? Same principle applies with deer — in our case, anyway.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Artie as a frowning bystander approached. “We do allow some older deer to be harvested on our lease,” he said after a long gulp from his draft. “We invite some horn hunters near the end of the season during the rut to take out the tough old bucks. But these guests ain’t allowed to shoot anything under 4-points or any does.”
“Good move,” said Doc’s friend Spencer, who had just walked into the room and ambled up. “We do the same on our lease. That wise policy will build your herd up, allowing those smaller bucks to walk will also get some decent age structure and good horns in your herd.”
“Maybe so,” said Eddie. “But they’re ain’t a young deer that walks past us without winding up hoisted in the skinning and butchering shed,” and he pointed around to Pelayo and me. “We leaseholders insist on keeping the young deer — the ones with the trophy meat — for us. Any guest shoots one, and he’s fined heavily and banned from the club for two years.
“But that’s not usually a problem. These guests are usually satisfied concentrating on the tough, gamy, stinky old bucks. We let ‘em scout around during midday as we booze it up, feast, then nap back at the camp. And you oughta hear ‘em when they get back to the camp! They get to gasping and hyperventilating over all those scrapes and rubs they find in the woods. They sound like Ann Margaret pining for Conrad Birdie’s autograph!
“But hey, that’s their thing and that’s fine. Me, I don’t fool with all that hocus-pocus. Fortunately, these guests have been doing a great job of culling these undesirable tough, stringy, old-fogey bucks from our lease to where we have no problem with them running off the younger, tender bucks, as they sometimes do during the rut.
“Geezum, last January we invited Pelayo’s chum Nick Scramuzza over for a hunt. Nick shot an old buck with a big swollen neck — and that thing reeked! I didn’t wanna allow it in the cleaning shed! Nick offered us some of the meat, but all of us said no thanks!”
“I see ...?” Spencer stammered.
But his face was a mask of utter bewilderment.
“I hope you don’t get the wrong idea,” added Pelayo as he put down his drink and spun his arms around. “I mean, it’s not like we’re selfish with our trophies. In fact we like to share our trophies with all our friends. Just look around this room at the people munchin’ out.”
It was 10:30 a.m. two days later when we cleared the Empire jetties, hung a left and made for the nearest rigs. Not that we had to be here. Actually, this time of year, all shallow-water rigs (15-30 feet) off the Louisiana coast swarm with sheepshead. If you can get out the mile or two it usually takes, you’ll load up. It’s that simple.
The sheepshead are spawning this time of year. So they’re ravenous and stacked up around shallow rigs and wellheads from Black Bay down through Breton Sound, East Bay, West Bay, Sandy Point, Grand Isle blocks, Bay Marchand blocks (Fourchon Rigs) to Ship Shoal. So load the boat with the kids, the wives, the sisters-in-law, the aunts — whatever. Pile them in and prepare for a blast of a fishing trip.
And a chunk of market shrimp on a jighead dropped near a rig-leg is the only hocus-pocus required for instant and constant action.
Slip out of every channel from the MRGO to Ostrica locks to Baptiste Collette around to Red Pass and the Empire jetties, west to Caminada, Belle and Whiskey passes, and you’ll find such structures within easy reach for small boats. No reason to bash yourself silly or get skunked on the inside this time of year.
We chose Empire as the launch site and the shallow WD block structures as our fishing destination because the area offered us the shortest trip — both truck and boat-wise. Plus the wind was out of the southeast, and predicted to rise during the day.
Look at a map and you’ll see how the coast shelters these close-in rigs from such winds. A blustery south wind might have found us heading out of Ostrica or Baptiste Colette to hit the rigs just offshore from those sites. A north wind might have found us heading out Fourchon’s Belle Pass.
It took barely a 10-minute open-water ride to hook up to a platform standing in 20-foot depths.
And it didn’t take two minutes before Brenda was screeching from the bow, her face in half-laugh, half-grimace mode as she grabbed the medium spinning rod a foot above the reel and cranked away spastically.
“I can’t!” she gasped “I just CAN’T! WHOOOOA!”
The rod tip jerked into the very water.
“Humberto! Pelayo! HELP!”
“Just hold on!” Pelayo laughed while grabbing her by the belt from behind. “He probably won’t pull you overboard. Think it might be a speck?”
“NO WAY!” yelled little Trevor from behind us.
He had jammed the rod butt between his legs and cranked awkwardly at his own reel, using the gunwale as a rest for his bucking pole while his drag screeched crazily.
After much grunting, whooping and yelling from its captor, Brenda’s fish was thrashing at boatside. Pelayo grabbed the leader, and swung the chunky sucker aboard. No time for landing nets with this type of fishing. We like 30-pound mono shock leaders, about 3 feet long atop the jigs, so we can reach down and swing these suckas in — one after another.
“One of those sheepshead you guys were talking about, hunh?!” gasped Brenda.
“Naw,” Pelayo chuckled. “Might be a ‘sea Bream.’”
“Or even a bay snapper,” I added.
“You know,” Brenda said. “I saw that the other day on a menu. The waiter said it was a fine white-fleshed fish very similar to redfish.”
“He wasn’t lying,” Pelayo said. “And here he is!”
Pelayo grabbed the sheepshead and thrust it near Brenda’s face. “Not a very glamorous name for an item in a hoity-toity restaurant. And check out this face! So they give him those aliases.”
“I see,” Brenda said while recoiling.
Then she baited back up.
In fact, I’d venture that a rig-caught winter sheepshead actually beats a deep marsh redfish as table fare. The saltier the water, the better tasting the fish. And as mentioned, the spawn is on around here. This combined with the cold winter waters means these sheepshead are plenty fat. You’ll note the meat is almost marbled. This makes the fillets juicy and absolutely delectable whether fried, grilled, broiled, ceviched — whatever.
The key to filleting them is using a sturdy-bladed boning knife and cutting over and around the thick rib bones by going into the fish from the top rather than from behind the gills. With an electric knife, it’s easiest to start from the tail and fillet forward.
For freezing, we leave the skin and scales on the fillets (no wrapping paper has been invented that serves as a better shield against freezer-burn), put them meat side together and wrap in foil. Thus we stock our freezer this time of year, and even six months later have juicy, fresh-tasting fillets.
“This O.K.?” a smiling Trevor was asking after he’d cranked in and wrenched off his own sheepshead. He was holding up his a pole with tandem shad-rigs — and had baited up both this time.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” I said. “But really hold on this time!”
He dropped it over the side close to a piling, let it drop about 6 feet and flipped the bail.
Pelayo and I finally baited up our plain 3/8-ounce jigheads with shrimp, and swung our baits out. With a slack current, we might go with 1/4-ounce jigheads. The key is to keep the bait as close as possible to the piling. With a strong current this is often easier a mere 4 or 5 feet from the surface, and amounts to a saltwater version of cane-pole perch-jerking or sac-a-lait jigging around stumps.
I was just flipping the bail when — WHAM! The battle was joined. He hit the shrimp-tipped jig not 5 feet from the surface, but my drag was loose so he started stripping out line like a maniac.
“AHHH! WHOAH!!” Came some juvenile yells from the bow.
I looked over and saw Trevor’s contorted pole smacking repeatedly against the bow-rail, as the boy held on for dear life.
“Look Brenda!” Pelayo pointed. “Looks like Trevor’s got a double.”
“Unless it’s a speck!” she giggled.
We fished one rig and two well-jackets (all in state waters), and filled two boxes (like in the good-ol’ days). Three puppy drum and three 6-pound reds prettied up the boxes.
Trevor’s Game Boy remained in his knapsack the trip long, even on the ride home. He was so tired from fighting fish he zonked out almost instantly, as did Brenda and Pelayo.
I slipped in Hot Rocks so Mick and Keith kept me company while driving home. Indeed Mick, our fishing had been a “gas, gas, gas!”
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