I was frantically focusing the camera when I noticed the big red was barely lip-hooked.
"You wanted some action shots, RIGHT!" Pelayo bellowed. "Well, here's your chance. Choot him! Choot him — but QUICK!"
I finally had the camera ready, prepared to click, when Spence (who had deigned to slum it up by joining us today) slipped the net under the redfish and swung him aboard.
"You wanted an action shot," Pelayo, said. "But I want this sucka on the grill! So live with it! He was about to get off! Don't worry. We'll get another for your action shots."
He was right. This was the third we'd caught off this grassy point just below Bay Shallow. The current washed around the point of spartina grass, and at first we all cast our shrimp-tipped beetles right at it, letting our corks go with the flow. In this manner we'd caught one keeper and two throwbacks — and two ladyfish along with a hardhead. Then Eddie "muffed" a cast from his line twisting, and his cork landed on the edge of the mat of Eurasian watermilfoil (it's not technically hydrilla around here. It's technically Eurasian watermilfoil and coontail). The grass matted in a little cove on the downcurrent side of the point, and Eddie's cork was barely in it, covered with a couple strands.
Eddie was fumbling with his spool when Pelayo yelled, "Your cork!" Eddie deftly (actually about as deft as Jerry Lewis in Cinderfella) untangled his line, reeled in the slack, set the hook — and the battle was joined. Spence had ducked just in time to avoid getting decapitated or whacked unconscious by the rod during the hook-setting process.
The red blasted off along the grassline, entangling the cork with a clump of grass, then made for open water as Eddie's reel screamed the sweet music of a drag surrendering to the mighty lunges of a musclebound red in shallow water.
"Hear that?? Hear THAT??" Eddie yelled as he pointed the reel toward us and cocked his ear. "That ain't no dentist drill! That ain't no power tool!"
His rod tip knocked Spencer's glasses off and almost poked his eye out in the process.
We had to hand it to the guy. Tinkering with his classic Mitchell 300 (one of Eddie's favorite hobbies) he'd found a way to crank up the volume of his drag. Now the results were manifest, and we couldn't help but indulge in the fun. Eddie's dad ("Mr. Henry") bought that reel for him at Security on Carrollton when Ernie Wheelwright led the Saints in rushing yardage.
"Give it to the Wheel! Give it to the Wheel!" Pelayo started chanting as Eddie fought his fish. Then — to get back into the spirit of things — we all joined the chant, even Spence. A nasty spat with wife Priscilla had found him sleeping on Doc's couch for a week. Doc beseeched us that his generosity was hanging by a thread. Could we take Spence off his hands — at least for the weekend? And so we did.
Eddie's reel had been baptized with fish from inside a tri-hull Seabreeze not far from this very spot — but back when Bayou Gentilly was a bona-fide bayou, Little Lake was actually little, and grass was scarce in these waters, well before the Caernarvon opening. I can still hear the purple-and-gold-clad "Mr. Henry" snarling and punching the air during that trip about the Saints drafting Archie Manning.
It took us a while but we finally figured that the reds like to gang up (OK — maybe not exactly "gang" more like four or five) not precisely where the current is flowing — but at some ambush point just below the current-washed point, free from the current, but where they can dash out and grab the morsels flowing by. These morsels, as anyone who's opened a redfish stomach knows, consist primarily of little crabs. The explosion of underwater vegetation in the Delacroix area has created an ideal nursery and buffet for these morsels, so beloved of the redfish so beloved by us.
You'll note that reds caught in the upper Delacroix area share the full-figured physique of the fat "footballs" caught around Venice. The body of reds caught elsewhere along our coast often start tapering right past the head. An ample food supply accounts for that "football" physique. And Mississippi River water and vegetation sure seem a factor in propagating that food supply.
Pelayo was into his fifth or sixth pop into the grassy cove accidently discovered by Eddie when he suddenly jerked back on his rod and held it high overhead. "WHOA!" he roared as a nice swirl erupted near the shoreline where his cork had disappeared. Then his spinning reel started singing its sweet music, but at lower volume than Eddie's. I put off my cast and got the net ready.
"Another red, huh?" said Eddie from the bow.
"Nah!" said Pelayo looking over with a crazy grin. "A red makes longer runs, hits the surface more. This looks like a drum, but a nice one."
"A nice one indeed!" I whooped while dipping the net under about a 5-pounder. "Perfect fillets for the grill."
Black drum, needless to add, inhale crabs with the same voracity as red drum. Somehow this drum thought Pelayo's white beetle with shrimp resembled one.
"On the half-shell or off," smirked Pelayo as he plopped it in the box. "Their firm, white (whiter than reds, actually) fillets don't fall apart on the grill. A couple more, and we're set up for tomorrow's barbecue at Doc Fontaine's."
Pelayo was using a highly exotic rig: a white sparkle beetle tipped with shrimp 2 feet under a popping cork. I was baiting up with a similarly exotic set-up, but mine was a yellow shad-rig tipped with shrimp.
Meanwhile Spence kept "working" the current lines with his topwater plug — a fetish of his. My cork didn't last half a minute in the water. I reared back, but nothing happened on the surface. No runs either. No major lunges, just a slight but steady pressure.
"Oh-oh," I snorted.
In seconds, I was flipping off a hardhead — an occupational hazard of shrimp-fishing for sure. But one easily compensated with the drum and sheepshead that normally shun anything without "maw-ket bait." To say nothing of the reds themselves.
On the next cast, the cork bounced along in the current, then drifted to the edge of the grass bed, where I popped once — and it vanished. I struck and the water exploded — a gorgeous eruption of froth and copper.
"YEAH, YOU RIGHT!" I howled, and the battle was on.
First he shot off along the shoreline, making a nice wake. Then he turned toward the open water. With pole high overhead, I savored every second of the combat. Every lunge. Every run. Every surface thrash. My spinning reel was singing sweetly. Pelayo finally netted my red, which probably went 6 pounds. Then he cast out and latched onto another.
Meanwhile, Spence indulged his topwater fetish with nary a bite — whoops! I'm sorry. I mean, nary a "blow-up." I think that's the proper terminology for this dilettante hocus-pocus.
Pelayo was unhooking his third red when Eddie shouted, "Can you believe these jerks!" and pointed behind us. "Check it out!"
The bass boat was closing on us at trolling-motor speed and seemed poised to pass between us and the bank! But the occupants seemed nonchalant, casting their silly little spinnerbaits with their silly baitcasters with that silly little wrist-flip of theirs. The dainty wrist-action not only makes them suspects in a fishing version of "Don't ask, don't tell," more importantly, it prevents some of fishing's most exciting moments.
To wit: With your rod tip and jig moving daintily only a few feet in front of your nose during a cast — right there you eliminate any chance to snag your friends' nostril or earlobe or to send his cap flying like a Frisbee. On the other hand, we spinning-reel-fishermen, when we haul back, swing around and cast our lures in the manner of a javelin thrower — woe to any of our treasured fishing partners too slow or distracted to duck in time! These fishing partners then provide much merriment during an otherwise dull trip and timeless memories for banter during tailgate parties for decades to come. The short and relatively inexpensive trip to the clinic is quickly forgotten.
"Man, I can't believe it!" Eddie yelled at a decibel level easily audible for 300 yards around. "Look how close! Ya think they'll really motor in front of us?"
"Wouldn't put it past 'em," Pelayo snorted. "They look like bass fishermen from central casting."
"And they're acting like 'em too," Eddie added.
The beauty of fishing this area is normally the lack of competition. Most boats roar past this huge swath of prime redfish territory for traditional speck territory farther south and east. But interestingly this same boat with the same two fisherpersons, employing their trolling motor and spinnerbaits, had earlier been "working" the very coastline we were now casting around from our anchored position. We hadn't seen them catch a single fish, but were hardly discouraged, knowing our shrimp-tipped offerings — kept enticingly and easily within a fish's striking range by a popping cork — often provoke strikes from fish that have just let a spinnerbait or spoon whiz by. We've seen this time and again. And Spence, now futilely casting a weedless gold spoon exactly where we'd caught six reds, was driving home the lesson with bells on.
While flying between their New York and California haunts, liberal elites sneer at most of the U.S. land mass (and its denizens) as "Flyover Country." Please — I don't claim the same political perversion for the boaters motoring past us along the Twin Pipeline, the Spider Pipeline and the Pencil Canal. But a similar principle holds. We were fishing the Southeast Louisiana coastal version of Flyover Country. Most fisherpersons pass it with a sneer (or a frown) on the way to and from Oak River, Bakers Bay, Ponton, etc.
Which is fine with us.
Meanwhile the bass boat got closer and closer, and Eddie's face redder and redder. Finally he threw his rod down and cupped his hands around his mouth.
"Ain't many green trout around here!" Eddie yelled. "Go over by Lake Batola!"
Finally they acknowledged us with a wave.
"We're redfishing!" yelled the dapper fellow working the trolling motor. "We're scouting for a tournament."
And on they came, closing the distance to about 60 yards.
Eddie looked over wide-eyed, waved his arms in desperation and reached down for the bait bucket.
"You need shrimp for these redfish!" he yelled while winding up like Sandy Koufax. "Here!" and he let fly, three chunky shrimp landing just shy of the boat. Then he reached down for more. "Here!" with Eddie's second pitch the bass guys ducked awkwardly, the one on the bow almost losing his footing.
"You crazy!" Spencer hissed at Eddie, who was already hauling in the anchor as Pelayo cranked the engine. Pelayo slammed the throttle and his boat roared to life — but not on plane, rather in that stern-heavy, pre-plane mode that makes the biggest wake, which was how we passed the bass boat at about 30 yards.
"Here's some more bait!" Eddie yelled with his third pitch. "And no! Don't worry. It's our pleasure!"
In fact the fish had petered out and the hardheads moved in. Time to move anyway, which Pelayo did at warp speed. Time to find another shoreline point with similar attributes. We knew of one south of Lake Fausan. But as we neared it, Pelayo pointed and said, "A no-brainer — here's a no-brainer!"
Indeed, the tide had started falling, and here was a trenasse emptying a pond into a larger deeper bayou. This meant current, clear water and a ledge — perfect. Pelayo hauled back on the throttle, and I eased the anchor over. My first cast went wildly awry from twisted line and landed far from the shoreline I'd sought. My cork danced in the little waves created by the outflowing tide meeting an incoming wind.
But it didn't dance long.
"They're here!" I struck and the school speck hit the surface rattling his mouth. Eddie's cork hit the water nearby mine and plunged before he could even pop it.
"We're ON 'em!" he whooped.
As Pelayo and — amazingly — even Spencer cast over with tandem shrimp-tipped jigs under corks.
In minutes we had six school specks prettying up the box. Sure, you'll catch bigger ones at Stone Island with live shrimp. But we love these little ones. Catching them's a blast for sure. But so is scaling them and frying them whole, including the head, like they served them at the old Fitzgerald's in Bucktown. A platter of these make great conversation (and taste) sensations at tailgate and dinner parties with a retro theme.
The trout petered out quickly, and the ladyfish and hardheads moved in. So we started casting shoreward, right to the edge of the milfoil beds that bracketed the mouth of the trenasse. In short order, we had another four reds further prettying up the "box." We ended up with nothing close to a four-man limit. But you'd never have known it from the whoops and high fives issuing from Pelayo's boat as we lifted anchor for the (short) ride back.