Flooded Felines

When spring winds and rains roil in inland waters, turn your attention to Manchac-area catfish. They bite best when the water’s high and filthy.

The sky was a gorgeous dark grey — almost black — as we pounded into Breton Sound. Lovely little white caps topped the waves like frosting on chocolate cake, the swells between them heavily rippled by the savage gusts that had kicked up just seconds earlier.

An hour ago, we’d sweltered in the sun, grappling with ropes and ice chests while launching the boat, panting and squirting sweat from every pore.

But now the wind was bringing a pleasant chill … and is that? Ah yes! Those refreshing raindrops, invigorating our faces and bare torsos like the sting of a thousand ice needles, just as — FLASH! — an eye-catching lightning bolt jerked our gaze in time to see the entire horizon illuminate spectacularly.

Then — CRACK-BA-LOOM!! — the thrilling boom of thunder as we ducked, jerked our necks and thrust our arms overhead.

The flag on the bimini top was about to shred, flapping crazily and adding a catchy little backbeat — almost like popcorn popping — to the crackling of the radio and the earnest voices of fellow boaters we occasionally overheard. What a day to bring the women fishing.

We’d pulled into the Venice condo the day before, and had to unload the catch of reds, drum, sheepshead and trout with a forklift. The gals were on the porch, with Jimmy Buffet cranked up, and heavy into the margaritas when they spotted us.

Soon we were unloading the fish, and the gals got excited: “We wanna go tomorrow! Please! We won’t complain about anything. We promise!”

Yeah right — famous last words.

Well, anyway, you know how it goes this time of year. Those doggone squalls time themselves perfectly for the weekend. Makes coastal fishing iffy, if not downright dangerous. Watching those black thunderheads close in, ducking and looking around sheepishly as the thunder booms, then outrunning those storms. Makes for interesting reactions — especially from the gals.

So after two weekends of cancelled fishing trips to Plaquemines and St. Bernard (where things ain’t hard), I’d finally had it. No mas, I vowed. I gotta get out there — somewhere! Anywhere!

Time for a little freshwater fishing closer to home, I figured. I needed a place where I could duck the rain and be home to dry off much quicker.

But according to my bass-fishing chums, torrential rains also play havoc with freshwater fishing. The rain roils the waters and raises the “pH levels” — or some such hocus-pocus.

Alas, I’d noticed they had a point. Those deluges also messed up such enjoyable pursuits as “poych-joikin’.” Maybe there was something to that hocus-pocus.

But I’d also noticed that heavy rains actually seemed to turn freshwater cats ON. Time to cash in, I figured.

And so I hit upon an ingenious scheme — the 51 Canal, which runs from Laplace to Ponchatoula alongside I-55. Can’t beat it for channel cats, the very fish turned on by rain, the very fish that loves dirty water.

So time for some relaxing, late-morning fishing, I decided, paddling my ’rogue around and casting my light spinning tackle toward the pilings (much like fishing the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, but with lighter tackle and little corks here) then tussling with gorgeous (and delicious!) channel cats.

These fish spawn around May in this area, and if you find water in the 4- to 5-foot range around the pilings, cast to them with fresh crawfish tails on a plain hook under a cork. You’ll simply have a blast!

And boy was I ready for it.

Yep, there she is, I thought as we pulled up. I knew she’d be out here with all her friends and relatives. There’s always a bit of party down here where I launch off old Highway 51 near Shell Bank Bayou. I find the same people every year.

Yep, and there’s my pinko-greenie chum, Conrad, pulling up in his canoe. He’s (naturally) flyfishing. Yet, can it BE? Is it remotely POSSIBLE?

From the flopping in the bucket in his canoe … looks like — let me rub my eyes here — yes, looks like: He might have actually kept some fish!!!

“Don’t tell me you were flyfishing in this water, Conrad!” I bellowed.

“Finally gave up on it, Humberto,” he waved and chuckled. “Got some catfish, though, on crawfish, like you’d told me. The wife will be happy to see me coming home with some fillets for a change.”

I helped Conrad hoist his canoe atop his (naturally) Volvo. No SUVs for this guy, much less a battered pick-up like mine.

And there’s Ernestine bent over rebaiting with grass swimp, eclipsing a hefty section of skyline. Now she drops back in her trusty aluminum (or is it kryptonite?) chair with a hearty grunt. Not a millimeter of the seat is wasted. The frame squeaks and groans piteously with her every movement. The nylon webbing deserves a medal. Any break of an inch or so finds Ernestine seeping through it.

But it always holds the line, always manages to hold back the avalanche in black stretch pants. These could double as a five-man tent, and I don’t think they’re from L.L. Bean.

Her fishing poles are taller than Pelayo’s satellite dish, and I don’t think they’re from Orvis.

Her hair rollers are brighter than my bubble gum, and I don’t think their from Vidal Sassoon.

Ernestine loves to fish. And like most sensible people, she loves the battered and deep-fried results. None of that “catch-and-release” snobbery out here.

“Whatcha fishing for Ernestine?” I asked her.

“Whatever’s biting, Hom-Boy-Da!” she’ll answer.

My sentiments exactly. And out here, something is always biting.

“Dey runnin’ today, Hom-boy-da,” she smiles as Mikey and I shuffle up, after parking on the shoulder. “Dey sho’ runnin’. Looky cheere.”

And she motions me over to the bucket while whipping out her cork to the edge of the grassbeds. With her other hand, Ernestine lifts the lid on the white bucket.

“Runnin’,” indeed. The water frothed from the thrashing of a newly caught lakerunner, two nice green trout, a couple of yellow bass and, of course, about a dozen channel cats.

“Not bad!” I quipped. “Heck, that’s more fish than I caught after two hours of roaring around in a $20,000 bass-boat in the Tchefuncte yesterday. Not bad at all.”

“Dey started bitin’ about an hour ago,” Ernestine drawled while fiddling with the coat hanger sprouting from the top of her boom-box — just as the classic song kicked in.

“Turn it up!” I gasped. “That’s Otis!”

Mikey looked at me in complete bafflement. Otis Redding’s immortal “They call me Mr. Pitifull” was blaring from an oldies station.

“Sho’ did start bitin’,” Ernestine continued while swaying her considerable bulk to the infectious riff from Otis’ horn section. “’Bout an hour ago.”

Then she saw the little cork twitching.

“Looky cheere!”

Ernestine set her canepole down, grabbed the other and gave a mighty yank just as the cork plunged. Out came another chunky channel cat, about a pound, perfect for the skillet.

“Nice one!” I whooped, as she maneuvered to grab it, trying to avoid the spines. Then she started twisting the hook.

“Look at that, Mikey!” I said. “They swarm! Let’s get after ’em!”

He didn’t need much coaxing.

While paddling down the little cut to the 51 Canal proper, Mikey pointed toward Ernestine.

“Dad, look,” he said chuckling.

Yep, she’d gotten up to get a cold drink, and the chair got up with her.

Like Ernestine says herself, quoting Ella Fitzgerald, or maybe Marva Wright, or maybe Irma Thomas, or Queen Latifa, or maybe even Aretha: “I’m built for comfort, baby — not for speed!”

Yeah, you right, Ernestine. You got that right, dahlin. Well put.

“Dere he IS!” Ernestine blurted as we paddled off. I looked around thinking she was plucking out yet another fish. But no, she was slapping her ample thigh and cackling. “It’s Mistah Piti-FOAL hisself!” she whooped. “Here come Mr. Piti-FOAL now!” she shrieked while looking around.

Geezum, I though. Is she hallucinating? She never even touches the Mad Dog? What the. … Then Rufus shuffled up from the road with his cane poles, buckets and scoop net for grass swimps.

“Woman,” he drawled. “What you yappin’ ’bout now?”

He shook his head and sighed heavily.

“Woman, I comes out here for peace and quiet, not all this racket and commotion.”

I could never look at Rufus without thinking of Grady. Remember Fred Sanford’s friend Grady? Rufus didn’t just look like him — he even talked like him.

Mikey and I waved as we paddled off toward the pilings under the I-55 overpass, and Rufus returned our wave heartily and with a broad smile. His gold teeth almost blinded us.

Actually we aimed for Shell-Bank Bayou first, which meanders west from the 51 canal and eventually, after much shrinking and winding, reaches “the prairie” on the southeastern coast of Lake Maurepas.

I at least wanted to try some cypress knee fishing before we hit the bridge pilings.

As expected, the water was high and dirty, spreading out from Shell Bank Bayou and flooding this gorgeous cypress-tupelo swamp past the water-mark on the tupelos.

I reached in the bucket for a grass shrimp. We’d stopped and scooped into a ditch on the way over, filling a bucket, mostly with little crawfish. Then we’d scooped again in the grass along the canal bank, coming up with a few dozen prized grass shrimp.

I say “prized” because everything hits grass shrimp, especially around here — bull bream, lakerunners, goggle-eye, yellow bass, sac-a-lait, catfish, choupique, even green trout.

You never know what you’ll pull out when you stick one (or two) of these little suckers on a skinny perch-hook 3 feet (because of the high water today) under a little bobber and cast next to the cypress knees or to the edge of the grass beds around here.

And it didn’t take long. Mikey’s little cork actually smacked the tupelo trunk, then dropped in the water. It twitched twice and vanished.

“That’s him!” I howled as Mikey’s face lit up and he rared back with the ultra-light spinning rig, the little reel singing away. Whatever he had was going crazy, and it wasn’t small.

Sure enough, Mikey yanked out a beaut’ of a bull bream and chunked it in the bucket. I cast next with the same offering, near the same spot, and came up with another bream.

Man, I love this kinda fishing, I thought. Two weeks earlier, we’d been wrestling with blackfins near the Lump.

Now some “poyches” had us whoopin’ and hollerin’ every bit as loudly. Unreal.

Mikey’s next fish was a yellow bass. I cast toward some grass beds, and latched into something bigger.

Yep, just as I thought.

“Nice bass, Dad!” Mikey announced.

“That’s a green trout, son,” I corrected. “A green trout!”

“Whatever,” he chortled.

Soon Mikey was hoisting a fat goggle-eye aboard.

The thunder started, and 10 minutes later the sprinkles. I was just taking off a choupique when the heavy drops started.

“Time to get under the bridge, and into the catfish!” I said as we started paddling back east. “Gimme, Gimme shelter!” I howled as we neared the elevated spans. “The storm is threatening!”

We’d been listening to the Stones on the way over, and now the lyrics really hit the spot.

That’s the beauty of this type of fishing: You’re never more than a few seconds away from shelter — then you fish while you’re under it!

We put the corks for about 5 foota-wawda here. You want to get near the bottom for catfish. We also baited up with crawfish — a whole little one crushed, or the peeled tail of a big one.

Can’t beat this bait for catfish around here. You’ll also catch cats on regular shrimp (maw-ket bait) and nightcrawlers. But fresh crawfish always work best.

More interestingly, local or ditch crawfish work best. One day I hit upon the ingenious idea of bringing along a couple of pounds from a sack we’d bought for a crawfish boil.

They worked — but not nearly as well as the few I’d scooped up? Fascinating. I’m sure some biologist can explain it.

With my depth finder (paddle), we finally located some pilings in the desired depth — 5 feet — and started casting.

First fish was another bull bream.

Then I heard Mikey whoop and turned around.

“Now here’s a cat!” he grunted, just as the fish hit the surface thrashing. Channel cats always seem to do this. They’re nothing like hardheads, which always hug the bottom.

The tussle raged until Mikey hauled aboard about a 2-pound cat. Man, I could taste the golden-brown fillets already.

And I came up with another one, and not 20 seconds after my cork bounced off the next set of pilings and hit the water. This one was a bit smaller, but plenty filletable.

The storm raged overhead but we were dry. Even better, we were mopping up on the fish.

And for whatever reason, they bit best precisely during the heaviest portion of the storms! Always seems to happen this way. We went home with 18 of the beauties.

 

Humberto Fontova is author of The Hellpig Hunt (available at www.louisianasportsman.com) and the newly released Fidel; Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant, described as “Absolutely devastating! An enlightening read you’ll never forget,” by David Limbaugh.

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