"A no-sooner, as you guys call it!" he beamed while cranking away and looking around with a lunatic leer.
Last night Doc had warned us to "cut his nephew some slack." The boy had grown up in Atlanta, and "wasn't really an expert on our type of coastal fishing."
So now we wondered if all Georgians held their spinning reels upside down and cranked backwards. I know, I know — we've all seen fishing neophytes in this mode. But Zak's second gaffe was the more serious.
To wit: He cast under "the birds" in Bay Au Fer, hooked a fish that pulled and lunged muscularly, and he seemed immensely excited by the process.
"Look at this fish go!" he roared, as his drag sang and his biceps bulged. "What y'all think?" he yelled while looking around. "Five pounds — at least! So will one of y'all PLEASE get the net! I don't wanna lose this fish! And get the camera ready too!"
"Let him enjoy himself," Pelayo hissed, while pressing a vertical index finger against his lips and winking at Zak's dad, Clay. "What's the harm? The kid's having fun. That's why he came
And Pelayo had a point — despite the obvious gafftop on the boy's line.
After all, where's the TV fishing show (outside Louisiana) where people actually keep their fish? Cable TV is truly amazing nowadays. Half the channels feature the immensely gratifying and oh-so hip and politically-correct joys of cooking from scratch with natural ingredients. Then all cable fishing shows feature the immensely gratifying and oh-so hip and politically-correct joy of throwing back the natural ingredients, after torturing them.
I have quasi-veggie friends who much prefer us troglodytic meat fishermen to those hipster catch-and-release types who always bow and look around for applause after releasing their catch.
"A beautiful cat!" Zak yelled after wrestling his fish boatside. The slime covering his three-foot leader didn't seem to bother him. "Net, please!"
Pelayo grabbed the leader, swung the gafftop aboard and reached for the flipper. Zak seemed alarmed.
"OK, OK we'll take a picture first," Pelayo nodded.
"People around here don't eat those," explained Zak's smirking dad, Doc's brother Clay. "Don't you remember that from last time?"
Zak's face sagged. But we snapped a few pictures "to take home." His friends in Atlanta wouldn't have a clue it was a "trash fish," Clay, who grew up with us, rationalized.
"Where are we?!" Clay had gasped minutes earlier as we smashed into swells in open water and spray splashed him. "Where on earth ...?"
"This is Bay Adams," laughed Pelayo.
"So where's the shore?" responded a surprised Clay. "No!" he yelled. His face was a mask of horror. "Can't be? There's ... there's ...nothing around here?"
Poor guy. Who can blame him? Fish it often like us, and you're still horrified by the land loss. You can almost watch it washing away from week to week. Imagine after 15 years. Heck, after 20 years, as was the case for Clay. Even worse, it came on top of the retro tour we gave Clay of his old Fat City stompin' grounds. Clay was in tears halfway through the tour. His old disco haunts were gone or converted beyond hope.
"That's the Spanish Galleon!" he blubbered. "No! No!" (Now a nail salon.) "And what about The Godfather?"
I pointed left.
"No! Oh God, no!"
"Ah!" his face brightened. "At least The Ski Lodge is still there. Thank goodness!"
He sighed, and we staggered inside for a bit of reminiscing and a brewski. It took four to lift the poor boy from his funk.
Then he noticed a massive creature sitting on a bar stool. The stool had its work cut out for it, too. Gargantuan buttocks draped over each edge. Above it a blouse that could double as a boat cover. The stool creaked piteously as the woman blew out a mouthful of smoke and leaned over to order another drink.
"Remember Irene?" Chris said while motioning that we walk over.
"Sure!" Clay said. "The Dancing Queen. How could I forget? Those skin-tight disco dresses. Those hips. Those moves! And there sure ain't no forgetting that night after the tequila shots."
"Irene?" Pelayo smiled and tapped the behemoth on the shoulder. "Whatcha doin' here, AGAIN?"
"Pelayo!" she smiled. "Mitch! (Doc before he became a doc.) Same thing as y'all, I guess."
She giggled while we buzzed her cheek.
"Great to see y'all again!"
"Remember, Clay?" Pelayo asked while pointing behind him. "Clay Fontaine, Mitch's brother, the famous ..."
"Clay!" and she lunged over for a hug. "Can't believe it. It's really you! You haven't changed a bit!"
"Neither have ... have ... you," Doc's brother replied gallantly.
The man was horrified. We had a fun evening, as it turned out.
That night, Clay found his old friends were unrecognizable. Now he saw that his old fishing haunts fared no better. But amazingly, the fishing hasn't changed dramatically. It's mostly a matter of moving west of Bay Adams and Grand Bayou where the marsh now resembles the area from the Empire Canal to Bayou Grand Laird of 30 years ago.
This is shallow, oyster-studded marsh, which is why the reds love it. Open their stomachs, and you'll find mainly crabs — little blue crabs along with little stone crabs. These infest the nooks and crevices in oyster reefs. The reds prowl the reefs, sucking them down.
But the beauty of this area is the options. You can go from casting live bait or plastic along the beaches from Four Bayou Pass, Bay Chaland and Grand Pass to corkfishing with tandem beetles under birds around a point or island in Bay Au Fer to fishing around the broken marsh and broken spoil banks of the pipeline canal and bayou network from Garden Bay to Bay Joe Wise.
In the process, you'll never leave completely skunked. You probably won't boat limits, but you'll enjoy fun fishing, nice scenery and usually at least "half-a-box-a-mixed" for the grill, fryer and sauté pan.
Sadly, the marsh is also going fast from around Bay Ronquille to Bastian Bay. But there's still enough marsh for classic speck, red, drum, sheepshead, flounder move-around marsh-hunting with shrimp-tipped jigs under popping corks — as we call our traditional method of coastal fish. No fighting the crowds at the unsightly MRGO rocks. No getting skunked when the specks — for any of their number of unfathomable reasons — get lockjaw in Black Bay.
The birds in Bay Au Fer yielded us five 11 1/2-inch specks, one white trout and three gafftops (usual catch for us under birds), but blustery southeast winds had pushed up the tide, creating the conditions we crave for redfishing.
Soon we turned into the remnants of a pipeline canal just north of Bay Chaland. Little tufts and lines of marsh grass were the only evidence of the former spoil bank. I was dropping the anchor as Clay sent a shrimp-tipped chartreuse beetle 2 feet under a popping cork (same rig he swore by 20 years ago before moving) to the grassy tip of a feeble cordgrass island. Ten years ago, it had been part of a long spoil bank. Now you could see the current washing around the point. The place had redfish written all over it. The cork splashed about 2 feet from a white PVC oyster pole, and never reappeared.
Clay reared back on the light-action rod, and the sweet music started. He was back in his glory. No tight drags and stiff bass rods for Clay. He likes to play fish, to feel those lunges, to savor the screeching runs of a berserk red in shallow water. And mostly, to listen to the scream of a loose drag on a spinning reel.
Clay's spool was emptying. His face was a mask of sheer delight as that bronze torpedo blazed through the shallows. From its wake, you could tell it was beauty — probably 5 to 7 pounds.
Say what you want, my friends, there's just nothing like a red in shallow water on the end of light tackle on a Saturday morning to put a smile on a man's face and a glow in his breast. I grabbed the net just as Zak let out a whoop. He was on one too. But after two spirited runs, Zak's started tiring.
"Not fighting like that catfish!" he laughed.
"Must be one of those 15 9/10-inchers," I remarked as he appeared at boatside, with
that blue sheen to his tail. "The marsh is
full of them."
I netted Clay's fish to a chorus of hurrahs accompanied by high-fives as Pelayo placed Zak's along the Cajun Computer, stretching him, closing his tail for that extra half-inch.
"Aha!" he beamed. "Sixteen and one-quarter inches. A keeper!"
These rat reds, as we all know, fry best.
I finally cast out about 10 yards from the bank in slightly deeper water. I had a white beetle "sweetened up" with half a shrimp 3 feet under a popping cork. The current was taking it, and on the third pop, it plunged. I struck back, and he hit the surface thrashing that yellow mouth.
"Trout!' I bellowed. "We're on 'em!"
Within seconds, two corks landed just yards from my trout. And within a few more seconds, those two plunged. Three trout were now thrashing on the surface, and a wild chorus of whoops erupted from our boat. It's crazy, but after almost 30 years, three school trout and a few reds still unhinge us. We were beaming as we swung our three trout aboard. No monsters, but chunky school trout in the 14- to 15-inch range.
We finally cranked it up and headed east to another eroded pipeline canal that runs parallel to the coastline just west of Bay Joe Wise. (Watch for PVC poles with signs in these canals and SLOW DOWN near them! The rock dams in some have sunk and on a high tide are just at lower unit and prop level! As we discovered!)
Instead of a spoil bank, nowadays long, narrow islands separate what used to be the canal from the open bay to either side. The tide was moving, and you could see the little eddies around each point — hotspots for sure. Pelayo's cork sailed toward the action. Soon he was bellowing, as a red exploded in a copper froth on the surface as his pole bowed.
Zak was on the bow tussling with something that seemed like a crab at first, no motion — then it hit the surface in a mouth-thrashing frenzy.
"Flounder!" yelled his dad, who recalled the pattern from his youth. And indeed, within minutes Clay was slipping the net under a gorgeous flounder that made my mouth water as it was swung aboard. Flounder love current — lazy suckers. Since they don't move much, they wait for the food to flow over them — then SMACK! This one mistook Zak's shrimp-sweetened beetle for his usual meal in this setting.
I cast where Pelayo had been a second before, looked back and felt a tug. I looked back. No cork anywhere. Another tug. So I reared back. YES! Is there a more magnificent sensation, my friends? I felt a solid WHUMP, then a sharp lunge as the reel started screaming. Gimme a red any day.
"RED!" I howled just as he erupted in a foaming copper swirl. "A monster!"
My line was sizzling out, then it suddenly went flaccid. What the...?
"He's swimming in!" Pelayo howled. "Reel in that slack!"
I cranked furiously and tightened it just as it plowed under the anchor line. Somehow I passed the pole under the anchor rope and breathed a sigh of relief when I felt his bulk on the end of the line.
"Seven pounder!" I gushed as he finally flopped in the box.
Working around another point with shrimp-tipped beetles, we added three more reds, half a dozen school specks, three puppy drum and two more flounder to the box. After another dozen mixed fish caught after a couple more stops in identical current-washed grassy settings, the action finally slowed.
On the way back, an open section of water had a couple of terns diving around it, so we stopped. Zak was the first one to cast, and after two pops his cork plunged. Clay's cork plunged soon after his son's, and his fish started thrashing and swirling the surface, just as a bay boat approached, apparently attracted by the action.
"They're hipsters," Pelayo advised. "Check out the outfits (from the fancy hats to the fancy sunglasses to the fancy baitcasting reels).
"So let's hold up Zak's fish!"
Before Zak could comply, Pelayo reached over, grabbed the leader, and pulled out the flopping sheepshead.
"Cool!" Zak yelled. "Just like all those we caught on the Super Bowl trip!"
We'd taken Zak and his dad Clay out to the Sandy Point Rigs on their Saints Super Bowl visit and — naturally for that time of the year — loaded the boat with spawning sheepshead. Now Pelayo held up this smaller, thinner (but still delectable) sheepshead and turned toward the hipsters.
"We're wearin' these bay snapper out!" Pelayo bellowed. "Big school of them out there!" And he pointed off the bow. "Plenty room for everybody here, and plenty enough fish for everybody!"
The hipsters waved feebly, turned tail and after a polite 200 yards got on plane and roared out of sight.
"Never fails!" Pelayo laughed. "OK, Clay, now I'll net your speck," which he did.
The school speck and sheepshead were hugging the ledge amidst a small school of their brethren — typical for inside fishing this time of year. We were fishing a ledge of what used to be Bayou Au Fer where the water went from 2 to 7 feet, according to the depth-finder. But not according to anything visible on the surface.
Aerial photo maps are great for fishing this area, but so are the ancient ones. The ones that show this marsh when it looked like the Biloxi Marsh — bayous, potholes, bays etc. Those old ones often mark where an old channel lies, an old reef. Or an old bayou — like this one.
We caught nothing close to a four-man limit, but we spent the morning moving around a picturesque green coastal setting, analyzing the landscape for the tell-tale, current-washed points, for emptying cuts, for birds — moving if nothing hit within 15 minutes.
There's just something fun and gratifying about this version of the sport. And when practiced on a high and falling tide in this area, it rarely disappoints.