Bottom’s Up

Soak a dead shrimp or live crawfish on the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain, and you’ll be surprised what you pull up.

Our party of 12 required two large restaurant tables to accommodate. As the waiter led us through the crowded restaurant to our tables, Eddie — as luck would have it — was the first in line, walking right behind “Sebastian, our waiter for the evening,” who had already introduced himself in a highly officious and animated manner.

We’d spent a good half hour at the bar with Eddie recounting his couple of gigs at an Improv club during his exile from Louisiana after his (first) disbarment and divorce.

Sebastian’s was a rather long introduction, as these things go, and had apparently given Eddie plenty of time to study his mannerisms in detail, because as we walked Eddie would repeatedly turn around bat his eyelashes furiously and perform a little mime that mimicked our waiter down to a T.

Pelayo was so impressed with Eddie’s performance that he was forced to snatch a napkin from an empty table to dab at his eyes and cover his mouth. Chris, Doc Fontaine and I managed to control ourselves — but it wasn’t easy.

Did other patrons notice? Obviously. Did the waiter notice? It was hard to say.

But it was easy to say that the wives did not appreciate the humor involved, despite their partaking of the same cocktails as the rest of us on Doc’s gazebo a bit earlier and even one at the restaurant bar during the wait.

Finally Pelayo lost control and let fly with a cackle just as Eddie snapped off his act, and a smiling Sebastian spun around to exclaim, “My, but aren’t we all in a great mood tonight!”

The waiter’s smile seemed a tad forced. Was he gritting his teeth? Kinda looked like it.

“We sure are!” a crimson-faced Chris snorted.

The snort finally allowed him to catch his breath. Cindy, his wife, was not smiling, any more than was Shirley. The other women were too far back to notice.

We were finally seated at two tables, and their placement allowed Sebastian to give the “tonight’s specials” spiel twice, much to his obvious delight. As luck would have it, while elucidating the night’s specials to our table — in that excruciating detail fancy restaurants employ that includes every detail except that it includes only ½ ounce of actual protein, the rest of the plate being scattered with carved little pieces of rabbit food and cutesy little designs made from dribbling some tasteless sauce — Sebastian found himself standing with his back to Eddie’s table, who had just heard the spiel.

In fact, Sebastian’s back was no more than 6 feet away from Eddie himself, who found himself sitting at a very advantageous angle to continue his performance, which was greatly enhanced by long gulps from the third of the Bacardi doubles he’d ordered at the bar.

Even the wives started slipping this time, covering their mouths with their napkins and pretending to cough as poor Sebastian dutifully performed his job. Fortunately, we were in a fairly isolated corner of the restaurant, and poor Sebastian finished his performance without incident, just as Eddie finished his.

Doc’s sister-in-law (of sorts), Brenda, was again visiting from Sacramento, and sat next Eddie. She had ordered the special, “Trout Meuniere Almondine.” Eddie waited until she was half through the fillet.

“Remember the Easter trip to Grand Isle on Doc’s houseboat?” he asked pleasantly.

“Oh, how could I forget?” smiled Brenda.

“Well,” continued Eddie, “remember those fish infested with all those little white worms that we filleted and showed … ?”

“PLANG!” Brenda’s fork banged on her plate, and her chair scooted back as half the restaurant looked over. Eddie did not need to finish. Sebastian had been hovering around us, and he scurried over.

“Something wrong?” he asked in obvious horror.

“Does this fish have parasites?” asked Brenda. “Some disgusting little white worms?”

“Why, of course NOT, ma’am!” gasped Sebastian.

“The hell it DON’T!” roared Eddie. “If it’s speckled trout, and it’s wild caught, it’s fulla them! You just can’t see ‘em through all that batter! You saw ‘em yourself, Brenda! Tell him. Tell him how disgusted you were.”

Sebastian scurried off and quickly returned with the chef.

“Well, Mr. Chef Menteur,” Eddie roared at him. “Unless you’re lying and serving tilapia or sheepshead or something, this mueniere almondine fillet is studded with parasites!”

“Just bring me the filet mignon,” Brenda snapped as she got up and hurled down her napkin. “Come on girls.” She looked over at Shirley, Cindy and Trisha. “I need to go to the powder room.”

The night went downhill from there.

“Don’t worry, Brenda,” I consoled her later at Pat O’s. “I don’t think we’ll be catching any of those parasite-ridden fish tomorrow.”

“Good!” she gasped after a long gulp from her Pete’s Special.”

“Remember all those sheepshead from the Mardi Gras/Sandy Point Rig Trip?”

“Oh YEAH!” she chirped. “Are we going … ?!”

“Afraid not — not quite. The sheepshead spawn is mostly over,” I explained as she pouted. “We’re going closer tomorrow, right here in Lake Pontchartrain. But I’d bet we catch some sheepshead there too.

“Great!” and she raised her Pete’s Special for a toast with Shirley and Cindy whose own Pete’s Specials seemed to have worked wonders in ameliorating their mood after the night’s earlier ugliness.

Dive the shallow rigs (40-70 feet), and you see all the fish most Louisiana fisherpersons pass up on their way to troll offshore or to bottom fish with gargantuan tackle. Spanish mackerel, sheepshead, pompano, puppy drum, spadefish, mangroves — it’s a long list of great-fighting, great-eating fish that cram the waters of our shallower rigs.

You see a similar phenomenon while snorkeling the Causeway, power lines and wells in Lake Pontchartrain. Those obsessed with casting plastics for Brenda’s favorite fish generally miss out on the sheepshead, puppy drum, channel cats, croaker, reds and yellow bass that often cram the waters around the above-mentioned structures.

Well, we’d be targeting these very fish by bottom fishing with shrimp, which is to say, by fishing Lake Pontchartrain in the manner it was fished from the time of the Battle of New Orleans until about 20 years ago.

The blustery south winds meant we’d launch at Williams, but I’d scooped up a bucketful of little live crawfish from a ditch along the Causeway Approach in Mandeville. All the fish mentioned above — especially the sheepshead — find these live crustacean morsels irresistible. And it’s not like they’re terribly hard to obtain.

Call us equal-opportunity anglers. By using plain dead shrimp on smallish (No. 4) hooks, especially in early summer, we haul out reds, sheepshead, channel cats, croakers, flounder, gaspergou and little yellow bass — usually no great number of any one of these species. And the bull croakers (8-10 inches) and little blue and channel cats always swarm the year after a Spillway opening.

For the Sandy Point trip, Brenda had brought along her son Trevor. For this close, less-grueling trip, she brought along her daughter Amber.

We launched at Williams, and Chris aimed his bay boat toward the Causeway. The further we went out, the rougher (and dirtier) the water got. So we anchored about four miles out. We hadn’t been fishing for 10 minutes when Amber’s pole doubled over, and Brenda chimed in with verbal support: “Something NICE, honey!”

The fish had grabbed a whole shrimp threaded from tail to head on a loooong-shanked No. 4 hook with a couple of split shots about a foot above it. The little split shots give me just enough casting weight to get the shrimp next to the pilings. But it sinks slowly, and we know from diving that the sheepshead are often at mid depths. Trout and yellow bass too. Often they grab it on the way down.

The small amount of weight also allows me to feel the little taps as I reel in slowly along the bottom. Amber had been doing the very thing, exactly as Chris and Pelayo had instructed when — WHAM! This offering must look most like a live shrimp.

The biggest complaint against using dead shrimp as bait is hardheads. Well, in western Lake Pontchartrain, you won’t catch many. It’s amazing — and an utter joy. You catch a catfish, and it’s invariably a blue or channel cat.

Amber battled the brute for close to five minutes, and Brenda (a pro since her Sandy Point trip) finally netted a gorgeous red, about 7 pounds. Amber and her mom both shrieked and clapped with glee as I unhooked it.

They were seriously pumped, and in seconds cast out again. On the third crank, Amber’s pole doubled over AGAIN! Another spool-screeching battle. More whoops and growls and shrieks as she battled it out with a chunky fish.

This time Brenda netted about a 6-pound sheepshead for her daughter. Next fish was a gaspergou, which we released. Then came a puppy drum — a 17-incher, a keeper. Then a pair of “bull” or “breakfast” croakers (12 inches long.)

We moved down about five sets of pilings, baited up with little live crawfish and promptly reeled in three sheepshead, none over 4 pounds, none under 3.

And so it went for the next two hours. We never lacked for action, and ended up with a nice mess of three reds, seven sheepshead and three puppy drum.

On the way back, Pelayo suggested we hit the power lines heading west from the Williams launch, and Brenda and Amber consented with a loud whoop and a high five. No anchoring here. The wind was such that we simply killed the engine, baited up with shrimp on tandem shad rigs, and cast toward the twin pilings as we drifted by.

On the second drift, Pelayo nailed a puppy drum and Brenda a red — neither huge, but both keepers. On the next set, we got on a little school of yellow bass, boating five. We decided to anchor, and found some channel cats on the bottom — again, none huge, but all perfect for frying. They seemed especially fond of the little crawfish.

Suddenly Pelayo pointed: Some mullet were racing across the surface toward shore.

“Geezum!” Chris shouted. “A little early for the jackfish to be around here? They usually come in later, mid summer to the fall?”

We scurried over and cast, but raised no jack crevalle. In July or August, it would have been a much different story, especially with a pogie or mullet on heavy spinning tackle. Put a kid who you’ve bored to death while casting plastic for trout or bass onto a 20-pound jackfish in Lake Pontchartrain, and you’ll have a steady fishing podnuh for the rest of your life.

With northerly winds, we would have launched on the north shore and headed out 8-10 miles along the Causeway. There’s a sound reason for fishing this area. A shell reef, the remnants of an ancient shell island that stretched from inside of Goose Point in the east to a little past the mouth of the Tchefuncte River on the west, bisects the Causeway at about 8 miles from the north shore. I saw it on a (very old) geological map.

The current moves better out in this area too. We’d always notice it while snorkeling along the pilings while spearfishing for sheepshead and the odd flounder. From about five miles to shore, there’s not much current, hence the water’s clear along the bottom. Out toward the middle of the lake, the bottom gets stirred up by the current. But, of course, a moving current’s what you want for fishing.

Had we not already boated 21 fish (enough for the planned fish fry), we might have kept moving west along the power lines to the “hole” in the lake just offshore from the mouth of Bayou LaBranche near the eastern levee of the Bonnet Carre Spillway. Often this area holds trout (mostly white, but some specks), croakers and reds. After a Spillway opening, the channel and blue cats, and yellow bass, seem to predominate — and these great-frying fish are all fine with us.

This “hole” resulted from the dredging that filled in a section of the LaBranche wetlands at the western corner close to the lake a few years ago. The water drops from the (normal) 7-8 feet down to (dredged)14-15 feet in this area. The edges, particularly, concentrate the fish.

The hole’s between power lines 75 and 85. You ride along, either going east from the Peavine launch or west from Williams launch, until you see these numbers, then turn toward shore for about 300 yards until you see the depth drop to 14 feet.

Almost every species of fish in Lake Pontchartrain readily bites on dead shrimp — and almost everyone is delicious when dipped in a beer/mustard batter and deep fried. Just ask Brenda and Amber.

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