Only the specks, so far, had been missing.
Then, when Mr. Fang came over the gunwale, my companions and I just stared for a moment. Flopping below us was not the speck that plies the labyrinth of canals splayed across this landscape, but its first and, some say, not-as-well-to-do cousin, the sand trout, or white trout as many refer to them.
Truth is we weren't completely surprised. We had heard tell of a congregation of sand trout in the vicinity, around South Pass near Port Eads. But what did surprise us was the voraciousness of the creatures and the very apex of fun that we experienced at their expense.
Over the next couple of days, in the combined time of about an hour and a half, three of us caught 140 of these fish that were full of just as much tussle and fight for life as any speckled trout. And every one of them, if we had wanted, was a keeper.
So volume in this case, some would argue, made up for lack of quality. That's because the sand trout, sorry to say, isn't highly thought of in these parts. Ask the odd caster, and he'll shrug and mumble something about them not being as low down as a mullet but certainly not one to be sought out.
The sand is forever known as the fish that doesn't keep well and, therefore, isn't good to eat. Here's the way the thinking goes: Set them up, the sand and the speck, on a dinner plate, fork into them, and you'll notice the difference. Something happens to the tissue of the sand trout after freezing, something mushy. It just doesn't hold up the way the speck does, so why bother?
Thus it is a poor cousin indeed.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the sand begins to look more like a serious go-after fish and less like something to avoid.
Pet food it is not, but only if you abide by the following rule: Eat it soon. Sand trout do not hold up even when perfectly frozen. Pull them out of the water and soon into a pan, and you will have a delightful meal. Let them sit up in the freezer a few months, and you may as well eat a mud puppy.
"You can forget them if you don't eat them fresh," says Bobby Dugas, owner of B.C. Charters in Port Sulphur. "You have to cook them up within two weeks tops. I've tried everything I can think of. I tried freezing them in water. Works fine if they're specks, but not sand trout. I even tried to vacuum seal them once. Forget that."
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons fish go mushy after sitting for awhile in your freezer. Improper freezing preparation can wreck any fish. Other causes have to do more with the finer details of organic chemistry. The catfish, for example, as well as others with high fat content, won't keep long because that fat begins to work evil on the tissue, turning it into an awful mass after a few short months.
In the case of the sand trout, however, the trouble is with the enzymes.
"You have different enzymes working in different ways on different kinds of fish," says Dr. Mike Moody, a professor in the Department of Food Sciences at LSU in Baton Rogue.
"Enzymes in the sand trout start breaking the tissue down almost immediately after they die, and they keep working on them," he said. "Freezing can slow the process down, but it won't stop it. After a short while, the sand trout will develop that undesirable texture.
"But you don't find that problem with the speck. It holds up better after freezing primarily because the enzymes aren't working as hard to tear down the tissue."
The sand trout is, like the speck, a member of the drum family. It shouldn't be confused with its other close cousin the silver seatrout.
If it looks like a speck but doesn't have them, most people along the Gulf Coast just cobble the sand and the silver into the category white trout. Both the sand and the silver also have those distinctive fangs, just like the speck.
There are, however, some differences. Silvers stay in deeper waters, usually offshore. They tend to be a bit larger, often running more than 3 pounds, and are grayer on top. Sand trout are more of an estuary fish, preferring to hover in waters less than 75 feet deep, so say the biologists.
"They're most easily found in the estuary," says Clarence Luquet, a biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in New Orleans.
"Sand and silver trout are hard to tell apart. But you can be more certain it is a sand trout if you catch them in brackish water. I hear stories of people getting into hundreds of them at a time. Sometimes people come across them in the river when it's low, when it is more brackish," he said adding that enforcement hasn't been a problem since there is no limit on the number of sand trout caught.
"There are lots of them out there," he says. "But they aren't too popular. Not many people go looking for them."
The sand trout apparently likes to amble among the shallows, up in the canals and the estuaries, and is parcel to gathering in the odd deep hole like a pack of teenagers at a movie theater.
That is where we met our batch. At the intersection of two nondescript channels — in a place as unremarkable as one could imagine — was a hole some 40 feet deep. And in it, it turned out, were sand trout packed in tighter than a tin of sardines.
Using plastic cocaho minnows and electric chicken Bass Assassins, we got into immediate action. Hardly a minute passed that all three of us didn't have one on the line. We were all moving about the boat like a trio in a sewing mill weaving a giant tapestry. If one hit the line and got off, you needn't fear because before you could get the minnow to the top another would take it. It was quickly turning into a frenzy when a call came for help from a friend with motor trouble. Curses all around, but we abandoned the sand trout and made our way upriver to tow friend and boat back to Venice.
It wasn't so bad, though. It forced us to take in the moment, to slow down a little, to share the happenings with others, and in the end we found that the next day would prove to be even more rollicking.
In fact, within minutes of arriving early the next morning, we found the sands hadn't lost their appetite. This time, though, a little while into the feeding the slaughter down below attracted the interest of others. Traveling through was a mess of redfish that saw fit to tear into our catch, one by one.
That strong trout tug became more like a runaway tractor at full throttle. Suddenly a 2-pound sand trout beget a 30-pound red. By the time these distant cousins had had their fill of struggling and maimed sand trout on our lines, we had hauled in six reds.
We'd about had our fill too. When the fishing gets like this, you can start feeling sorry for the fish. It's not supposed to be this easy. You don't deserve this kind of fun. Are they ever going to quit? Do they want to commit suicide? Random thoughts aplenty bubble up while struggling to comprehend why some creatures thrive in nature by avoiding danger dangled by humans, while others lumber straightforward into a barbed hook snack and near certain death.
Eventually it just wore us down. We called a truce and hauled up the anchor, but not before recording the GPS coordinates. Just in case.
Dugas, the Port Sulphur guide, hasn't waded into that kind of sand trout get-together lately, but he knows how to find them and how to catch them.
"I've gotten them out among the shallow rigs lots of times," he says. "That's out in the West Delta area. They like it between 25 and 50 feet down. I've got them in the spillways and especially in Lonesome Bayou and around the Head of Passes and sometimes out at Main Pass 69. There seems to always be some about, but the best time is between May and June."
Dugas, not surprisingly, doesn't get too many requests to go looking for sand trout, but his clients, he says, are never disappointed in the fight the fish put up. Dugas says the ones he and his clients catch are usually around 3 pounds. But the odd one will run much bigger. The Louisiana state record is a monstrous 11-pounder caught in 1973.
"They can just be so much fun to catch," he says. "And you are liable to come into them unexpectedly. In fact, they seem to like to run with specks now and then. I've been out with clients before when one cast you'll bring in a speck and then next it will be a sand trout."
Although sand trout will hit dead shrimp, and all manner of cut bait, Dugas says he finds they like a black/chartreuse plastic Cohiba minnow with a 3/8-ounce jig head. He'll also go with the purple/chartreuse and will switch over to clear sparkle beetles as well as DOA Shrimp when he needs to.
After we got back to shore on the second day, several people reminded us of the drawbacks to the sand trout and warned that we may as well have a big eat soon or not at all. So over drinks that night, we shared story after story of that hole we found down near Port Eads, the fun we had, the visit from the traveling redfish and so on.
And the ones we cooked quickly? Well, sautéed in a small puddle of olive oil, encrusted with some upper-quality Louisiana seasoning and sprinkled with a little parsley, they were full of flavor, moist, flaky and yes, they were firm.
The experiment, though, could not have ended there. A few Ziploc bags went into the freezer that first night, and they were chock full of sand trout and all those workaholic enzymes. A short time later, we deep fried a batch, and they were still sweet and firm, although something, perhaps more psychological than anything, was naggingly amiss. The enzymes, I was certain, were doing their job.
The next time we thawed and cooked up a mess of them, I was thinking we may as well have had mud puppy for supper.
John Fleming is a resident of Carmel, Calif.