Breton Blast

Every year, the Fontova clan makes a pilgrimage to Breton Island for a weekend of sun, sand and specks.

Ernie Pyle called it the “thousand-yard stare.” Pyle was a WWII war correspondent who shared foxholes with the boys who won it. He wrote for the folks back home about the grunts and dogfaces and the holy hell they went through while blasting their way to victory — but from a front-line seat. Ernie was a “real-time” Stephen Ambrose.

Geraldo Rivera is no Ernie Pyle, believe me.

That “thousand-yard stare” he described on his soldier chums was a consequence of relentless front-line combat and the resulting emotional jolts and horrors. These men had seen, felt, heard, smelled and even tasted shock and trauma on such a ghastly scale that the central nervous system finally “crashed.” The emotional circuits shorted-out, leaving a zombie-like expression. These guys were past battle-fatigue. They were numb to suffering. They’d become machines. I guess that was the only way to keep going. Berlin and Tokyo were still far away.

I’ll risk sounding sacrilegious, and claim these are the looks I saw around me. Thing was, we were on a “relaxing vacation” camped on a gorgeous barrier island preparing to fish the shallow rigs north and east of Breton Island for massive specks.

The sun was barely up but hidden behind ugly, murky clouds. The easterly breeze carried the scent of rotting catfish and stingrays, which littered the shoreline. Some of the stingray carnage was ours. “Flounder” gigs, they call them. But stingrays are much more plentiful than flounders out here nowadays. How nobody got stung I STILL can’t understand.

Gnats and a few mosquitoes bedeviled us, but we could barely work up the energy to swat them. A putrid slime seemed to cover us, a consequence of that sickening humidity of early coastal mornings. It clung to our sunburnt skin along with the sand and grit that filled our sleeping bags. When we got in them last night we were in no condition to feel it. They could have been full of broken glass, nails and black widows, and we wouldn’t have felt them either.

After a few hours of rolling around in them on the hard lumpy ground while horribly sun-burnt and covered with greasy Skin-So-Soft, the agony began to manifest. Such a bed does wonders for your back. I doubt any of us had actually slept for more than 15 minutes at time, the mosquitoes constantly whining by our ears, biting our noses and foreheads. In the dark watches of that night, we pleaded with Providence to deliver us, to please hurry the sunrise.

“Why do we DO THIS?” came a muffled shriek from Pelayo’s tent.

“NEVER AGAIN!” Don bellowed in response.

“Lord, get me out of this!” pleaded Chris. “And I promise to stay past communion next Sunday!”

The minutes dragged by like dead animals until dawn. Finally we emerged creaking and groaning from the tents and shuffled around the malodorous remains of the campfire like stroke victims and winos. Or like sumo wrestlers. Ever see them squaring off, stomping around with their legs apart?

Well, we hadn’t changed our shorts in two days. The sand and saltwater rubbing around in there resulted in a condition we got as babies. But we were luckier then. A soft female hand provided relief, applying soothing ointments as we kicked our legs and gurgled in glee.

Nothing like that nowadays. We’re all married, so barring some supernatural event I suspected we’d be applying our own.

A grimacing Pelayo limped up, made as if to say something, but went into a violent coughing-hacking fit. He finally spit, sighed wearily and bent down to open the ice chest.

Bob saw him and held out a trembling hand while issuing soft whimpering sounds. His mouth was too dry and throat too parched to utter anything else. But those pitiful wheezes said it all — he needed liquid succor, he needed something to alleviate his near-lethal dehydration.

Chris was slumped on his cooler, weary and sullen with red-swollen eyes sunk deep in bag-lined sockets. He (actually we all) had a wino-like two-day stubble that made an ideal haven for gnats. Our necks were peppered with their stings and streaked in red from our frantic scratching that stopped only when we drew blood.

Chris was oblivious to the world around him and what anyone might think of his appearance, which was hideous. He’d tried to rip his t-shirt off last night during his unforgettable “The Incredible Hulk” routine around the campfire, right after the tequila shots, but only managed to stretch the collar and rip a sleeve. His frenzy caused him to lose his balance and stumble into the fire. The flames scorched the hair off his legs and left a nice pinkish-red sheen. The salt water, sand, mosquitoes, gnats and especially the sand flies all helped greatly to alleviate the pain.

Now he looked like something you see on Julia Street or the front of the Ozanam Inn. His shorts and arms were covered in crusted fish slime. His cheeks were smeared with what looked like barbecue sauce, but could have been anything from campfire soot to sheepshead guts.

Don nodded vacantly from his perch atop an ice chest. We should be convulsed in hysterics right now. But that takes energy. His top lip protrudes grotesquely, almost like those tribesmen you see on National Geographic who put plates in them. It flapped and he drooled spastically when he tried to speak. Then he spilled half a Coke all over his chin and chest while trying to drink it. He finally gave it up and resumed his sullen brooding and frantic scratching.

Poor Don had rushed in his tent last night to get his guitar when we cranked up the Hotel California CD — and left his tent flap unzipped for the rest of the night.

You know what that means. He crawled back into his tent some hours later and sunk into a rum-coma. So he didn’t feel the swarms of mosquitoes covering his face to near suffocation. Mosquitoes are particularly fond of tender fleshy regions like lips.

Don’s deranged screams woke me later. He emerged this morning looking like the elephant man. His eyes were almost closed.

Ah yes, “The Breton Island Blast” we call it. We do this once a year. There must be a reason — and someday we’ll figure it out.

We finally waddled, limped and crawled over to the boat, cranked it up and were soon idling around the famous Central Rig, which lies a few miles north of Breton Island and is a famous summertime lair of mule-trout. But you better have live shrimp.

Yesterday we had some. Now Don held up a net full of them from the baitwell. “Lookit THIS?” he snarled.

There was precious little snapping and wiggling going on.

“Seventy-five bucks down the drain!” snapped Pelayo. “I knew we shouldn’t bought THAT many!”

“Maybe if you’d remembered to fish the dead ones out last night like we TOLD you!” Chris snapped back. “We’d a have a few MORE!”

“Then why didn’t YOU do it?!” Pelayo yelled back. “Huh?!”

“Cause I had to collect all the damn firewood, THAT’S WHY!” Chris yelled in a shower of spittle. “While Senor Sleeping Beauty was taking his little SIESTA in the breeze under the tarp!”

Our nerves were raw.

Cocahoes hold up better, but they just don’t catch specks like live shrimp out here. Pogies, finger mullet and croakers are all good too. Cocahoes are a fish of shorelines, puddles and crevices. You freeline them, and they have a tendency to find a little hole or crevice on the bottom behind an oyster shell or anything they can find and just sit there motionless and hiding.

Pogies and mullet are more of an open water and surface fish. Freeline them or put them ahead of a sliding sinker and, rather than sulk on the bottom, they’ll swim surfaceward, where – WHAM! – a mule trout can smack ’em.

Only problem is catching enough of these and managing to keep them alive long enough. Live shrimp are more reliable out here. And if you INSIST, you can try artificials and catch one trout every 100 casts or so, while your chums load up with live shrimp.

In the meantime, we kept idling around looking for an opening. I used the word “famous” for Central for a reason. Already a fleet had converged and anchored around it. They come from all points of the compass — Hopedale and Shell Beach in the west, Venice and Buras in the south. There’s only about 15 feet of water here, so it’s not like anchoring at the Lumps. Thank GOD! Here it was simply a matter of finding an open spot.

“Guy over there is netting ANOTHER one!” Don blubbered from the bow while pointing at a Grady White anchored on the very corner of the rig. He was the only one who we’d seen catch anything. Now he was netting his third trout in the few minutes we’d been putting around.

“Looks like our spot.” So we snuck in from his blind side.

Suddenly — CLANG! SPLASH! — Bob was chunking the anchor from the bow.

“NICE!” I looked over and the Grady-White guy, no more than 50 feet away now, threw down his pole and was waving his arms at us while screaming something.

“Scare ALL the FISH away, why don’t you!” raved his buddy, who’d just netted his gorgeous speck. “Not enough that you get ON TOP of us!”

We ignored him. Then I noticed another boat creeping up from their blind side. This one bracketed them from the other side, about as close as we were. And another boat was right behind THEM. The poor Grady White guy heard them, wheeled around and threw up his arms.

“What the hell IS this?!” He chunked his trout in the box, closed it with a mighty WHACK and ran to the bow and his anchor rope, as his buddy cranked the engine.

“Sure gotta buncha a——s out here today!” he yelled as they gunned the engine. The boat jerked up into a fast plane, made a circle, then headed right for us!

“Lookit this…!” Bob was pointing from the bow with a crazy look as they bore in. “That suckers…gonna…?!!”

But at about 50 feet – WWWRRREEEN! – they turned, sending a swell and huge rooster tail at us and the other boat.

“Touchy, touchy, touchy,” nodded Pelayo.

“Hell, you know good and well why they’re leaving,” seconded Chris. “They already caught their limit.”

They guys in the other boat cupped their hands around their mouth and screamed something at the departing Grady. Then they looked over at us waving their arms in that universal expression that usually means “where’s the fish?” but probably meant something else this time. I didn’t feel like speculating.

Here was a classic Breton Sound trout situation. You see it at the Black Tank, The Wreck, The Dope Boat, Battledore, and most notoriously, here at the Central — somebody mopping up on one little corner of the structure, nobody else catching jack.

We think we finally figured it out. From diving, we know that most fish tend to congregate on the UPcurrent side of a rig. LSU’s wetland center did a study dropping some kind of a sonar contraption around rigs and confirmed it.

Problem is, at the deeper rigs you never really know which way the current’s going down where your bait is. The currents in the Gulf are often layered. They’re in one direction for the first 10 to 50 feet from the surface, then the switch in the opposite direction. Then maybe back AGAIN at real deep rigs. It’s weird. Scuba divers know this.

You almost always hook up to a rig on the downcurrent side, so you won’t get battered against the beams. An exception might be with a slack current (on the surface) and a stiff wind. Here the wind determines how your boat will position itself. So even while hooking up downcurrent of a rig, your bait might get pushed close to or actually inside the platform’s structure, which is what you want.

Well, here at the shallow Central, you can be pretty sure that the current is all going in the same direction, from top to bottom. So you want to anchor upcurrent from it and cast toward it. No problem.

Problem was, today the current came at an angle to the rig. So only a tiny corner of it qualified as upcurrent structure, and dammed if that wasn’t the spot where all the specks were concentrated, making jockeying for position a real treat.

Bob was the first to cast with a live shrimp. Don grabbed the little net, scooped back in the baitwell and came up with a lively shrimp. I quickly grabbed for it, shooting my hand from behind Don’s shoulder while he wasn’t looking, thinking to steal it. The boy was quick, though, and in two seconds I had my arm twisted behind me like a pretzel and was groaning piteously, my nose brushing the aerator bubbles as my cheek and ear plunged into the bait well. Don’s other hand gripped the back of my head like the jaws of a pitbull. I released the shrimp.

Don was a karate instructor. How could I forget? This was a bad morning for any cute stuff. Nobody was in the mood. Pelayo had accidentally brushed Chris’s leg a minute ago and ducked just in time as a beer whizzed over his head like a missile, then exploded like a foam-bomb on the transom. We were still edgy.

I had just dried my face on Pelayo’s shirt and was rubbing my traumatized neck when Bob bellowed, “WE ON ‘EM!! YEAH, YOU RIGHT!”

I looked up, and his medium spinning rod was bowed over beautifully. Then it started jerking from brutal lunges characteristic of big specks. Then a big trout exploded on the surface in a gorgeous froth as Bob whooped from the bow.

“Somebody better get the net ready!” Bob’s face was creased in a gargantuan smile. The first we’d seen all morning, from anyone. Pelayo netted it.

“Can you BELIEVE this guy?” suddenly I heard a rod clatter against the deck. There was Don waving frantically at an approaching boat with both hands.

It was a spanking new 20-foot Century, with what looked like a family on board. The cutest little blond moppet you’d ever want to see and her brother were in matching life-vests, smiling and waving from the bow. She looked like Cindy Brady (the youngest one in curls). He looked like little Opie. Mom was a knock-out in her blaze-orange bikini top and tasteful “wrap” around her waist. She smiled broadly also.

Dad, in his polo shirt and long-brimmed cap reminded me of Ward Cleaver. He handled the anchor while waving our way.

“Anything biting, fellas?” he beamed.

They looked like a doggone postcard, like the Christmas cards you get with the whole loving family in some heart-warming setting.

“HEY MAN!” Don bellowed. “WHATCHA DOIN?!! Back off — OFF!” And Don motioned disgustedly with his hands.

They were preparing to anchor a good 150 feet away, almost THREE times the distance we’d been from the Grady when we anchored. So we had no choice.

“SORRY guys,” poor Ward stammered. “I thought….?”

“COME ON!” Chris barked. “Have a little courtesy…WILL YA!”

“Give us some room for PETE’S SAKE!” Pelayo roared. “Where’s your MANNERS?”

The NERVE of some people, huh? The guy waved sheepishly and backed off — just as Pelayo rared back into another big speck. “They’re here alright!”

Now Chris was whooping from the stern as a big trout whipsawed his ultra-light rod. I finally hooked a live shrimp through the horn and nailed a nice speck not 15 seconds after it hit the water about 20 feet from the rig’s corner.

We caught trout steadily for an hour and a half — for EXACTLY as long as the live shrimp lasted. Then we caught a few puppy drum and sheepshead on dead shrimp but nary a speck. Not one. Not one on artificials either.

We were in much better moods now and waved the heartwarming-postcard boat over as we lifted anchor. They’d been catching a few sheepshead, bluefish and small sharks, which seemed just fine with them, judging from the shouts and squeals issuing from their boat.

“Cast right over there,” Pelayo motioned. “You’ll wear ’em out.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” beamed Ward, and his smiling wife nodded assent. “But we’re doing just fine right here, thank you, really. Right gang?”

“YEAH!” squealed Cindy and Opie.