Rig Rodeo

Go to the shallow rigs this time of year, and you’ll catch a wider variety of fish than that found at weekend tournaments in the summer.

The number on the cell phone said Pelayo was calling, from HIS cell phone. I flipped the little sucker open.

“Yeah?”

“Well, we got Artie’s camp if we want it,” Pelayo rasped. “He said it’s …”

“Tell him thanks,” I barked. “But we …”

“Nick says his boathouse is open too, if we …”

“LISTEN to me,” I replied patiently. “We ALREADY got …”

“And Eddie says his place is open too. I’m kinda leaning toward Eddie’s ’cause …”

“LISTEN to me, WILL YA!” I barked again. “We stayin’ at Doc Fontaine’s houseboat this weekend. We got that too. It’s all set. Tell Artie, Eddie and Nick they’re welcome too.”That’s the beauty of late winter, especially for us moochers. As far as borrowing a camp for the weekend? Especially in Venice? NO PROBLEMA.

In July it’s a different story, September too. Heck, it’s like that basically all the way up to Christmas. But ah! Now the duck season’s closed and the river’s up. For most fisherfolk, that means no inside fishing around Venice, not even the spillways. Everything’s chocolate milk, except a few secret pockets in deepest, darkest Wagon Wheel, Sawdust Bend and Freshwater Bayou. A few others near the mouths of Octave and Raphael passes harbor moderately green water and a few reds. Forget trout and reds, say most fisherfolk.

Not us. It’s become a tradition. Now’s when we hit the Sandy Point Rigs. Call these three big double rigs and the dozens of surrounding well jackets West Delta 24 if you prefer. It’s all the same. They’re easy to get to, easy to fish and, in late winter, crammed with fish.

Reds, white trout, puppy drum, channel mullet — not to mention sheepshead out the wazoo!

These rigs lie right off the mouth of Red Pass, and the mouth of Red Pass ain’t 15 minutes from Venice itself, including the slow rumble out of the marina. These rigs have another appeal: They’re in state waters. They’re inside that magic three-mile boundary. Check out WD 24 on a map, and you’ll see.

But if you want to be ABSOLUTELY sure, simply look at the little identification on the rig itself when you rumble up. When it reads “SL,” that means “state lease.” Means you’re home free with the reds. (Please note: I don’t refer to the Green Monster here. That’s in federal waters.)

The reds at Sandy Point are perfectly sized, too. You’ll latch into some bulls for sure, but most range from 5-10 pounds — ideal grilling size, on the half-shell or off. And winter’s the time to nail them out here, generally from October through March.

As soon as that water heats up though, for whatever reason, you’ll have a hard time hooking a red out here — heck, you’ll have a hard time hooking ANYTHING out here! Which is why we almost always have these rigs all to ourselves in late winter. Most people hit them during peak trout season in summer, get skunked, and forsake them all year long.

Big mistake. In summer, you want to go out a bit farther to the WD 29-30s for mangrove, pompano, Spanish. You want to get out in over 30-40 foota-wawda in summer. But now, you want to fish the shallower rigs in West Delta, the ones standing in 16-22 foota-wawda.

Sure, this is “rig-fishing.” But not boat-ride wise or tackle-wise. Heck, you fish deeper water on the inside — Oak River, the Buras Canal and Hospital Bay, for instance.

So we use much the same tackle at Sandy Point we’d use at those places — medium spinning gear. But we tie the jig heads — anywhere from 1/4- to 1/2-ounce, depending on currents — to the tip of a 20-pound mono leader, about 3 feet long. These fish are serious battlers out here, especially the sheepshead. You don’t want them breaking off every third cast.

We pulled into the marina, and sure enough, the parking lot was vacant — except for Doc’s Suburban in front of his houseboat. A door was open in fact, and some gloriously proportioned female legs and hindquarters encased in snug-fitting sweat pants poked out. We pulled up alongside and feasted our eyes for a second. Then she scooted out carrying a little handbag, slammed the door and turned to face us.

“Heaven help us,” Pelayo snorted.

The woman stared straight at us and didn’t crack a smile. Not a wave, not a hello. Nothing. She turned on her heel, and traipsed to Doc’s houseboat.

“Knew we shoulda gone to Artie’s,” Chris wailed as he covered his face with his hands.

I felt vaguely ill myself. Sondra was here, Doc’s latest girlfriend. The swine didn’t tell us she’d be here either. We figured we had the place all to ourselves.

We’d only known the woman a few months, but she already loathed us with a passion it takes most wives and girlfriends YEARS to cultivate.

“Well, too late now,” I said as we all got out and made our way inside Doc’s snazzy houseboat. The thing puts even his Cocodrie camp to shame — even his Bourbon street bungalow. I walked in first, and there was Doc with Sondra draped over him on the couch.

“Hey, hey!” he called out while hoisting his wine glass.

“Is that a wine glass in your hand?” Pelayo bellowed, trying to break the tension we could see building on Sondra’s face.

“Who’s wine — what wine — where the hell did I dine?” Chris followed up on perfect cue.

The Peter Frampton classic had boomed from the speakers in our Tigerland bungalow with monotonous regularity in those wonderful years.

Doc immediately roared his approval.

“Come on! Let’s do it AGAIN. Do you, YOU!”

“FEEL LIKE I DO!”

We all chimed in now — all except Sondra.

We were all trying too hard to laugh and act merry when the door to the bedroom opened.

“What’s all the noise out here?” said the gorgeous woman who stepped out.

“NO!” I thought to myself, but managed to restrain the outburst. She was gorgeous alright, but a serious ditz. Meg, Sondra’s friend, was here TOO!

Now I REALLY felt ill. Pelayo and Chris were doing their damnedest to smile, but it was hopeless. Their turgid eyes gave it away.

We’d gone through this already back in July. Meg was a blue-state diva from central casting. She’d met Doc’s new uptown squeeze, Sondra, while attending — where else? — Tulane. Meg was originally from Connecticut, and acted the part perfectly. She got her “environmental” lessons from Sierra Club bumper stickers and Discovery Channel idiocy. You’ve seen the shows. EVERYTHING they feature, from polar bears to rattlesnakes to sharks, is “seriously endangered by man’s evil encroachment on their habitat.”

And sharks are what led to the trouble with both Sondra and Meg back in July. Doc hooked one near the Mud Lumps, brought it alongside, and while Meg and Sondra started their squealing about how “endangered and wonderful and beautiful, blah, blah, blah” (they recited the Discovery Channel script perfectly) — well, halfway through their reverie, Pelayo pulls out his crack-barrel 12-gauge and blows the damn thing almost in half with a quick blast.

Remember Talia Shire in The Godfather? Remember when she made a nice dinner for her husband, Carlo — but Carlo decided he was going out that night? Good thing we didn’t have any china on board, or Meg and Sondra would have smashed it on our heads too.

Whoo-boy! Complete hysteria, tears, blubbering the whole bit. Sondra and Meg went absolutely nuts. For some reason, at the time, their hysteria acted as a stimulus to our hilarity, which in turn stimulated more rage and hysteria, which in turn — you get the picture.

Maybe the beer had something to do with it? They, naturally, had stuck with the spring water and herbal tea, hence were completely immune to the hilarity convulsing Doc’s boat.

In brief, a very, very ugly weekend, compatibility-wise. Now it looked like we were poised for another. Heaven help us. We all turned in early.

Next morning, we cruised out of Red Pass and met gentle ripples. Even a brisk — 10- to 12-knot — wind leaves WD 24 fishable, if that wind is east or northeast. A south or southeast wind means a warm front. That warm air meets the frigid river water around Venice, and you’ll be socked in with fog. Not today.

“Coulda come out in a flatboat,” Chris snorted.

In minutes, we were rumbling up to the first rig.

“Check ’em out,” Pelayo pointed at the next rig. “They’re mopping up.”

Indeed they were, commercial fishermen that is, hauling sheepshead in hand over fist, one after another, with slaughter poles, with thick bamboo rods. Just dipping the line a few feet under water next to a piling, then — WHAM! — jerking them out and overhead into the back of the boat. We’ve seen that a lot out here the past few years.

That’s how THICK the sheepshead are out here this time of year. They’re spawning. It’s like getting on a bed of bluegill — but 4-pound bluegill.

Actually, they’re this thick and this ravenous at ALL shallow rigs along our coast this time of year. You’ll find the same thing outta Fourchon, Cocodrie, in Breton Sound, everywhere. Now’s the time to get the kids, wives, girlfriends — whoever INSISTS on catching fish non-stop — out here. After April, the spawn dies down, and you’ll catch sheepshead at shallow rigs more sporadically, if at all, and you might even need live shrimp, not that anyone would stoop to such a thing.

“Sheepshead, huh?” said Doc as he gazed at the busy commercials.

“No, not necessarily sheepshead,” Chris chuckled. “Some might be ‘sea bream.’”

“Or even ‘bay snapper,’” Pelayo added.

“Yeah I saw that last week on a menu,” Sondra said while jerking off her gloves and reaching for a pole. “I didn’t know what on earth it was. The waiter said it was a ‘fine, white-fleshed fish very similar to redfish.’”

“It was sheepshead,” Pelayo said. For some reason we were all getting along this morning. “It’s not a very glamorous name for an item in a hoity-toity restaurant, so they give it aliases.”

“I see,” smiled Sondra. “Is this O.K.?” She was holding up a medium spinning outfit with a tandem shad-rig attached.

“That’s fine. Here swing it over.” And I tipped each with a chunk of shrimp. “Just cast right over there,” I pointed toward the corner of the rig while I baited up myself.

Pling-Pling!

I turned in time to see Sondra laughing, covering her mouth as the shad rigs bounced off the pilings and into the roiled waters.

“Get ready!” I counseled and she smiled sweetly again. I recalled that the normally witchy Scarlett O’Hara was all smiles one morning too. Hmmmmmm.

That’s another thing about this place. Don’t let dirty water bother you out here. Usually it’s just on the surface this time of year. The current might be cranking for maybe 2, 3 or 5 feet down, then it dies — or switches direction. You never know.

The rest of us baited up our plain 1/4-ounce jig heads with shrimp, and cast out. I was just flipping the bail when …

“OOOH! OOOH!” Meg suddenly erupted from the bow, her face in half-laugh, half-grimace mode as she grabbed the rod a foot above the reel and cranked away spastically. She was a sight. “I can’t …!” she gasped. “I just CAN’T … WHOO!” The rod tip jerked into the very water. “Somebody HELP!”

“She’s got a double, I bet!” Pelayo roared. “Look at that …”

Then Sondra squealed from beside me, and her rod dipped beautifully.

I was looking behind me at the tumult and into the second reel-crank when — WHAM! — a vicious strike almost jerked the pole from my grip.

“Looks like the reds are here!” I yelled. “Look at this sucker go!”

I held the rod high, the line ripping off as the berserk red went on its classic run. A sheepshead fights doggedly back and forth, a drum just as doggedly, but he likes to hug the bottom. A red TAKES OFF!

And don’t we love it! Nothing like it! He’d smashed a very exotic bait, too — a green sparkle beetle tipped with maw-ket shrimp! That’s all you need to get in on the action out here.

“AAAHH!…Almost got ’em! Almost!” more female shrieks behind me as I started gaining a little line. Meg was gaining on her fish too. Her fish finally hit the surface and churned it to a froth, splattering us all.

“Ahhh! Ahhh! Look! It’s TWO!” Meg yelled.

What a brawl. They were going crazy. A sheepshead in shallow water is one thing. In the marsh, he can’t give a full account of himself. He tugs back and forth, from side to side as you haul him in over the shallow marsh. Out here, he goes absolutely berserk.

“Just grab the leader, Doc!” Pelayo was shouting from the bow as he did the very thing to swing aboard his own sheepshead. And Doc reached down into the froth, grabbed the heavy mono atop the shad rig and swung aboard the flopping, thrashing duo.

No time for landing nets when fishing Sandy Point.

“Those things go 4 pounds apiece,” I said with a low whistle as the fish flopped on the deck.

“You talk about a FIGHT!” Meg was grinning ear to ear. “O.K., Mitch,” she chirped. “Take ’em off, and hurry! I wanna catch some more!”

Meg sure seemed good-natured this morning too? Hmmmm.

Fifteen minutes and five sheepshead later, Sondra’s bait somehow made it past them to the bottom, and a drum grabbed it, as often happens out here this time of year. And it was off to the races.

After boating my red, I cast away from the rig, let it hit bottom, and started bouncing it back. It took four bounces. WHAM! The pole bent. He was fighting, but not like the others.

“Think the white trout are here too!” I beamed.

Sure were, and I swung him aboard. Chris cast out near me, and came out with a channel mullet. Pelayo dropped his close to the rig and came out with a triggerfish!

“Kinda close in for triggerfish,” he said as he unhooked it.

But we weren’t complaining — not with those snow-white fillets he’d yield.

“That’s a red, MEG!” Pelayo roared as he chunked his fish in the box, which was quickly becoming a serious “box-a-mixed.” No doubt. The fish was on a steady, dogged run, and Meg’s spool was getting dangerously low.

“Tighten the drag!” Doc counseled, and he reached over. Finally she started horsing him in. Five minutes later, the gorgeous red was at boatside. And here we opted for the landing net.

The fishing was non-stop.

“Sure beats that summer fishing!” Sondra giggled.

She had a point. Hauling from Yankee Pond to Octave Pass to the Mud Lumps to scratch a limit of reds in August will wear a person out. And so will Sandy Point in March. But not from the haul — it’s from the CATCHING!!

 

Humberto Fontova is the author of The Helldivers Rodeo, The Hellpig Hunt and coming March 30, Fidel: Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant.

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