Crowded Causeway

It’s not the traffic above the water’s surface that draws anglers to the world’s longest bridge this time of year.

Venice was out of the question. Even Delacroix and Hopedale looked iffy. The dinner party was for 7 p.m., and I had to “help” get the house and yard presentable. “No problema,” I thought. A few strokes from the feather-duster to the pintail mount. Same to the redfish mount. Then poke the vacuum nozzle into the 6-point’s nose and ears a bit. Plenty ice on the brewskies. Check the rum and whiskey supplies. Dig up the disco tapes, Hot Rocks, etc.

Then saute’ up some “Gadwall Fingers Parmesan” (fillet and slice breast meat thinly; marinate in teriyaki sauce and lime juice overnight; shake in bag with Italian bread crumbs and flour; saute’ in butter until batter’s brown but gadwall still pinkish on inside; sprinkle with Parmesan cheese).

Anyway, that’s MY idea of preparing for company. How long can that take?

“Be back no later than 1 o’clock!” was still ringing in my ears. “And that’s NOT 1:30, either!” Apparently Shirley figured there was more to it.

So it looked like a close-in fishing trip, or nothing. The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway sounded like just the ticket. Every year around this time, we slap our foreheads much like in the V-8 commercial. Why haven’t we been fishing here?!

Because it’s been too windy? No excuse. That’s the beauty of fishing the lake: There’s ALWAYS a lee shore. Wind been howling outta the north or northwest? No problema. Launch outta Mandeville Harbor or the end of Lake Road in Madisonville. The Causeway’s just a couple miles away.

Blustery south wind? No sweat. Launch outta Bonnabel or Williams. Causeway’s right there again. And on either side you’ve got calm lake going out three or four miles from shore, and needless to say, plenty structure.

No less an authority than Clay Prieto, owner of Rips Restaurant in Mandeville, gave me the lowdown on Causeway fishing recently — and got me seriously pumped for this trip.

“I tell ya, Humberto,” he started. “We had a little fishing tournament outta my restaurant couple weeks ago. You could fish anywhere in the lake. And people went all over! The Rigolets, Chef, Twin Spans, Seabrook.

“They used live shrimp. They trolled, everything. I mean they pulled out all the stops. Heck, I used live shrimp myself, went all around Lake Catherine, the Rigolets — left no stone unturned.

“Well, we come back in that evening, and come to find out, the most and biggest fish were all caught right here (he pointed from the front of his restaurant to the Causeway.)

“And I mean, some beautiful fish! Trout, reds and flounder, and all on plastic. Dudleys and cocahoes — actually all those minnow-type lures, like the Bayou Chub, the Assassin, the Hybrid — they all work well out here.

“But year in and year out, week in and week out, the green and avocado with red flake seems to be the best color.”

After talking to Clay, I was seriously pumped for the fishing but seriously dreading the subsequent party. Doc Fontaine was bringing his new girlfriend, Sondra, you see. Whoo-boy. She was a looker alright. No problema there, except for her apparent anorexia.

“Can’t be too skinny or too rich,” they say. She qualified for both, and with bells on. An uptowner. Some said she’d inherited a bundle from her family. Others said she CLEANED OUT her first husband using a vicious and absolutely unscrupulous lawyer, a shameless snake and a complete scoundrel who was also a good friend of ours.

Hence her link up with Doc. Whatever, at least she wasn’t after Doc for his money. That counted for something.

We’d recently gone out to dinner with Sondra and Doc, and spent an extremely tense and unpleasant evening. No amount of wine helped. Sondra picked it of course. And Doc picked up the tab (THANK GOD!).

When we opened the menus, the women started politely “yumming” and smiling and twittering: “Boy I bet that’s good! Wow, this sounds great!”

Pelayo and I, on the other hand, were focused on the figures on the extreme right portion of the menu pages. We looked at each other and let fly with a loud whistle — “wheeeeeeeuuuww!” — which provoked many murmurs of dissent and troubled looks from around the table, especially from Sondra who’d picked the restaurant.

Women seem to be into huge black clodhoppers nowadays, so the kick I received under the table from Shirley left a bruise on my shin for a week.

We’d started off on the wrong foot with Sondra even earlier. She’d ordered the “calamari” appetizer.

“Hey Doc!” Pelayo roared while poking the air with his fork for added effect. “Remember I wanted to keep the leftover bait when we went snapper fishin’? To fry up that night? Remember you said it was disgusting? Now ya buying the same damn thing for — what? — 20 bucks an ounce! WHOOO!”

Pelayo looked over with his florid face and a stupid grin.

I leaned over half the table to high-five him, knocking over two wine glasses, one into Sondra’s lap.

We’d had a couple rum-and-Cokes at Chris’s house earlier, and now, along with the wine, the effects were beginning to manifest. But the gals, for some odd reason, didn’t seem to get the joke?

More levity when the waiter finally brought the food. He walked around placing the plates in front of us, and Pelayo and I almost choked. We were stifling guffaws. Where was the actual, you know, FOOD?!

Pelayo’s face was the color of a Creole tomato, and his shoulders heaved spastically. His lips were crunched closed but quivering from the super-human effort involved. Drool leaked from a corner of his compressed mouth. I pretended to cough and covered my face with a napkin as my torso heaved with involuntary convulsions. Tears squirted through my crunched eyelids onto the napkin.

“You alright?!” asked Sondra from across the table.

She thought I was choking on a chunk of squid. It was working.

I gasped and nodded, keeping my face covered. Now Cindy was patting me on the back.

“Humberto! You alright?” she fell for it too.

Shirley, however, landed another vicious clodhopper blow under the table.

I had to get to the bathroom or outside and explode with mirth, had to let it out.

“‘SCUSE ME!” I finally blurted and backed up the chair — hitting the waiter who was carrying two full plates.

CLAT!-BLANG! Both clattered to the ground. Because of the napkin, I hadn’t seen the guy.

But there was almost nothing on the floor! A few little pointy bitter leaves that probably wouldn’t qualify as primary browse for deer. A coupla scrawny shrimp like you might cull from the pick-box. A tiny sliver of meat like you’d toss to the cat while skinning your deer. A few little carrot and green-bean slivers like you might throw in the cage with your kid’s guinea pigs.

No item on any plate was much bigger than a Froot Loop. But ah! The plates sure had all kinda fancy little designs with the sauce and carved vegetables to disguise the fact that they were otherwise empty!

“Oh sorry!…Pardon me!” gasped the waiter as he bent down to pick up the plates. I really got the impression that Will & Grace was this waiter’s favorite show. Naturally the women loved him.

“Tee-hee-hee…!” they’d been bantering with him since he came to take the appetizer order and recite — in EXCRUCIATING detail — the specials that night.

“Ohh yummm!” the women kept gushing. “Sounds yummy!” as they looked around at each other, smiling and wide-eyed. Then, “tee-hee-hee…!” again at another of his fruity comments.

“Sheeee-out!” Pelayo finally blurted. “We had freakin’ amberjack last week! And where y’all getting it anyway?”

He looked at the startled waiter, then around the table at the frowning faces. “Bet OURS was fresher!”

Then Pelayo leaned over to high-five me, but he slammed the table with his stomach, knocking over his red wine onto the white tablecloth and into his wife’s crabmeat mushroom appetizers.

Now looking down, I noticed that the little sauce and vegetable designs on my meal-plate had been tragically smeared by the fall.

“Sorry ‘bout that!” I stammered.

The waiter looked up, smiled and flashed his eyelashes.

“Oh, no problem,” he lisped and stood up. “Here…” and he started brushing my back and shoulders with his napkin, employing dainty little flicks of his wrist.

“That’s fine,” I snorted. “I’m fine…..just fine.”

Which I was. Perhaps an endive stem had brushed me. Perhaps a “drizzle” from the corn-broth “reduction” had flecked me. You’d need a magnifying glass to see it.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Now the bathroom?.. bathroom? Where’s the bathroom?”

“Right over…” he extended his arm, lowered his elbow and bent his wrist to point. “There — oh here!” he suddenly squealed. “Let me show you! Follow me!”

Wonderful, I thought. Pelayo was following too. The waiter opened the door for us but stood INSIDE holding it open. I was afraid of that.

“You’ll find hand towels right over here,” and he traipsed over to a little basket by the sinks as we unzipped. “We also have some cologne over heeee-re,” and he pointed. “Anything else I can do for you fine fellows, just let me know.”

Then he stood there.

The night went downhill from there. Doc later showed us the bill. One couple’s tab coulda bought a stainless steel prop AND a boat cushion AND a dozen decoys. The tip alone could have bought a new pushpole AND a battery for the trolling motor. The combined bill for three couples could easily buy three propane tanks for the camp, a fiberglass pirogue, a set of trawl boards AND a new drive-shaft for the mudboat.

Not that I’m complaining or anything. After all, it WAS our anniversary. Knew we shoulda gone to Rips on the Lake.

Some say the Causeway area “turns on” in May and stays hot through mid July or so. Then slows down a bit during the hottest months. Then picks up again in September through November as the water cools. Then slows down again in the coldest months.

This refers to trout. Heck, trout fishing slows down EVERYWHERE in August, from Last Island to Bay Eloi. And I’d say it slows down less in the lake than in most other places because of the salinity factor — in Lake Pontchartrain it’s close to the highest of the year in August.

Fishermen like Prieto and Bill Hungerford catch trout all through the summer on nothing but plastic.

“Just work it around the legs, popping it,” they say.

It’s not rocket science, they stress.

“And cover a lot of ground, especially in the 8- to 12-miles out (from the north shore) area.”

The good folks over at Hook N Shoot in Mandeville have their finger on the pulse of Causeway fishing too. They’re a great source to find out what particular portion of the bridge the better catches have been coming from.

There’s a sound reason for fishing the 8- to 12-miles out 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 farther toward the middle of the lake, and the bottom gets stirred up by the current. But of course, a moving current’s what you want for fishing.

Also, the lake’s full of other species every bit as attractive to many of us as speckled trout, and much more cooperative.

My favorite bait for the Causeway is plain dead shrimp threaded from tail to head on a smallish (No. 4) long-shanked hook, with a couple split shots about 2 feet above, a Carolina rig, of sorts.

But I don’t like the real heavy sinker on the normal Carolina rig for lake fishing. 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 at every set of pilings.

We hadn’t been fishing 10 minutes near the 8-mile hump, only on the third set of pilings, when, “Check it out!” my son Robbie yelled as he heaved one aboard. “A trout!”

It was a 15-incher. It had hit a dead shrimp.

Chris, casting to the same area with a plastic, hadn’t caught one. Robbie cast out again and — WHAM!

Another smallish speck. Then Chris nailed a monster speck with his green Dudley.

“Now HERE’S a fish!” I bellowed and yanked back. “This ain’t one a dem feeble fighting trout!”

Indeed my pole was bucking crazily and the drag wailed its sweet music. Minutes later, Robbie netted my red, about a 5-pounder. He liked shrimp too. As did the half dozen big sheepshead we hauled aboard in the next hour.

Chris sweetened his jig with shrimp, and started casting right on the downcurrent side of the pilings and — whadaya know!

“Told ya!” I said.

He beamed while swinging aboard a flounder. Flounder rely on current to feed, the current that swirls around these pilings. We landed six more flounder in the next hour and a half.

On Robbie’s next cast, the bait smacked the piling itself, then plunk, started sinking. He’d barely flipped the bail when — WHOA! — his pole doubled over AGAIN! Another spool-screeching battle. More whoops and growls and shrieks as he battled it out with a chunky fish. Soon I netted another red.

He repeated at the next set of pilings (keep moving, as Clay and Bill advised), and in came about a 6-pound sheepshead. Next fish was a gaspergou, which we released. Then came a puppy drum — a 17-inch keeper.

And so it went for the next two hours. We finished up at 11:45 with six sheepshead, three beautiful reds, the flounders, half a dozen specks and a couple channel cats for lagniappe.

Even made it home early.

Humberto Fontova’s latest book, The Hellpig Hunt, described as “fascinating and fun!” by Publisher’s Weekly is available at a discounted price at