Short-Changed

Drop down medium-heavy tackle at the short rigs, and you might never venture offshore again.

These didn’t look ANYTHING like pick-box draftees. None wore the battered sneakers and long-sleeved work shirt. None wore that huge straw sombrero and baggy pantaloons. None looked like Edith Bunker or Phyllis Diller. No, the sight of these had us RIVETED.

There were three of them, and they looked right out of MTV’s Spring Break or The Man Show. But a bit older, which is to say, more shapely, more worldly, much sexier.

They were the hit of the marina that morning and knew it. All eyes were on them. Every degenerate launching that morning was wide-eyed and sucking in their beer-guts. The strain had every face red. A few walked around like Frankenstein’s monster from the effort. It was something to see.

Pelayo was performing the gut trick heroically as he went around to deal with the strap. His face looked like he was being strangled. Finally he started yanking on the boat strap just as the one in the frosted shoulder-length hair and baby-blue bikini-top walked past us on the way to the hoist. No anorexic little waif here. This was a REAL woman’s body. Her ample hips swayed seductively as she ambled by smiling. The breeze even brought us a whiff of her heavenly perfume.

Pelayo had just turned to her and didn’t notice that the strap was already loose. Then he gave a mighty yank and stumbled forward, smacking his head smartly on the transom.

“OOOWW!” he yelled.

The nasty thump stopped the woman, and she turned her head. She saw Pelayo rubbing his forehead frantically, and started walking over with her head cocked.

“You O.K.?” she cooed.

I was still in the driver’s seat with the window open, and she stopped about 10 feet from me. I had a bird’s-eye view. She wore one of those stylish “wraps” in a daisy pattern around her waist. The thing was sheer, and her blue bikini bottom showed clearly through it, greatly adding to the allure.

“Yeah, I’m O.K.,” Pelayo mumbled, trying to laugh.

“Here let me see.”

She moved closer and took off Pelayo’s cap. I was GREEN with envy! She pursed her lacquered lips and looked Pelayo in the eye.

“Better get some ice on it,” she said just as…

“Amy!” Chris was walking back from the ice shed and was hailing her. “Thought that mighta been you!”

“Hey Chris!” she said turning from Pelayo.

She seemed genuinely happy to see Chris. He walked over, and they pecked cheeks.

Pelayo and I were stupid with shock.

“Your friend here just bumped his head,” she told Chris.

“That’s Pelayo,” Chris said, then pointing to me. “And that’s Humberto.”

I waved spastically and smiled idiotically.

“This is my friend Amy,” Chris said with an affectionate arm around her. “She works for Dr. Waguespack, good client of mine. So you better take her advice, Pelayo. She knows what she’s talking about.”

Seems every place we go we see gorgeous babes, who turn out to be nurses that Chris knows. Comes with being in medical sales, I guess. Nice scenery for sure.

“So what you doin’ out here?” Chris asked.

“Well,” she said putting her hand on her hips and closing one eye. “Your competitor (she winked) is taking doctor Wag fishing today, and asked Cindy, Patti and me to come along.”

Chris managed a feeble smile.

“Good luck to y’all!”

We’d need it too. We had a guest with us today. Our friend Lowell from Kansas City. He treated us to the deer hunting up his way. Now it was our turn to show him the fishing down our way.

But now we were worried. I wasn’t sure we could reciprocate. Conditions looked grim for getting Lowell on some reds. The tide was low this morning and rising (we always do best on high and falling). Worse, there was almost no tidal movement today. Not much of a hump in that little graph on the tables. The day promised to be a dead-calm scorcher too. So no “wind-driven water” either. Like I said, we’d need some luck too.

By 10 o’clock, my worst prognosis was bearing out. We’d been fishing the marsh around the mouth of Red Pass, and had two keeper reds and two sheepshead to show for the effort. Lowell was still tickled.

“Heck, that’s already more than I caught on my last fishing trip to the Keys!” he kept gushing. “And that cost me a bundle!”

The sun was beating down unmercifully.

“Alright gang,” I yelled. “Time to head outside.”

I pointed at the rigs clearly visible to our south.

“Ready for some ACTION, Lowell? Better grab your medium-action rod, too. You say you caught a jack crevalle and a Spanish on your Florida trip? You say that was the highlight of the fishing? Well, get ready my friend! Time to hit the LONG BALL here!”

And what luck. A shrimp boat was anchored near the mouth of Red Pass, culling his catch.

“Let’s pull over,” I motioned to Chris. “Get some bait.”

Chris did a thumbs up. Some of this “bycatch” wouldn’t go to waste. All those little croakers, pogies, eels and stuff serve as superb chum and bait when we go offshore.

Oh sure, I know. You can BUY similar stuff that’s shipped down from Rhode Island or California. It comes in nice little boxes or bags. Figure that one out: We catch a hundred times as much and shovel it over for the seagulls. Up north, they package it and sell it to us!

Pelayo was at the wheel and Chris was kneeling in the bow, ready to hand the shrimper our bucket. We were coming in a little fast.

“SLOW DOWN!” Chris suddenly bellowed.

Pelayo had turned for a second to dig in the ice chest for a drink.

“YA GONNA……!”

WHOMP! We smacked the side of the wooden Lafitte skiff right at the pick-box. Chris rolled off the bow right into it — indeed, right into the pile from the shrimper’s last haul.

“AHHH!—AHHHH!!”

Suddenly Chris was screaming and flailing crazily with his arms. He seemed to be reaching for his back.

“Ahh-Ahh!”’

His face was contorted with pain. He shifted around, and we saw he had a little hardhead impaled near his shoulder blade — the VERY spot you can never reach to scratch when a mosquito bites you.

“Ahh-Ahh!”

He kept reaching behind him spastically, scattering the man’s shrimp all over his boat as he thrashed and jerked around like a wounded rabbit, only the squeals were missing.

“Here!” yelled the shrimper as he reached over. “Sit still for a second, my man!”

He grabbed the catfish with his gnarled hands and yanked it out as Chris grimaced. Then he reached under his steering wheel, pulled out a little box and rubbed some stuff on Chris shoulder.

“That oughta do it.”

We ram his boat, scatter his shrimp everywhere, and the guy still gives us not just the bycatch but a few pounds of shrimp — FREE! Unreal.

A cold one got Chris back in the groove as we entered the Gulf, which was dead calm.Nothing grueling about the boat ride. Lowell was in the bow, wind in his face, taking in the scenery. About four miles out, he suddenly he pointed.

“What’s that?!”

Something was in a feeding frenzy, the water erupting, seagulls hovering above.

“Probably bonito,” Pelayo said. “Maybe Spanish. Maybe both!”

Lowell was already reaching for his rod.

“Those things FIGHT, MAN!”

He cast toward the splashes with the same white beetle he’d used inshore, and almost went overboard on the third crank

“WHOOOA!” he yelled as he reared back and his spool started emptying.

“Gotta be a bonito, Lowell! Now tighten that drag!” Pelayo yelled. “We’ll follow it!”

And off we went. Lowell would crank it in, but as soon as we stopped the thing zoomed off again. He fought the bonito for 10 minutes, and I finally netted it. Lowell was ecstatic. Pouring sweat but beaming.

“Whooo!” was all he could manage as he flipped off his cap and wiped his brow. Just then a boat came by.

“Yep!” Chris said waving. “There’s Dr. Wag!”

And they slowed down and turned toward us. Nice touch, too. The nurses had their wraps off now.

“Where y’all headin’?” Chris asked after a little small talk.

Dr. Wag pointed straight out. “Out for snapper,” and they gunned it.

We didn’t envy them. We only had two more miles to go. In minutes, we tied up to a rig, at WD 31s, and — Hallelujah! — the gentle breeze carried us right under the shade. Perfect.

The depth-finder showed 48 foota-wawda. The water was dark green, and Lowell flipped out looking down around the beams.

“What’s all THOSE!” he said as he pointed and jerked his head around.

“All kinda stuff, Lowell!” Chris laughed. “Sheepshead, spadefish, mangrove snapper, jacks. Put some shrimp on that jig, and get it out there. Ain’t no telling what’ll clobber it!”

“And out THERE!” Lowell pointed at another feeding frenzy behind us as he baited up. “What’s…?”

“Now THAT’S Spanish!” Pelayo nodded. “See ’em jumpin’ straight out DA WAWDA!”

Lowell looked like he’d been plugged into a socket. He was beaming, quivering, frantic. He cast out with his white beetle (Spanish seem to smack silver and white jigs best, not to mention spoons. But with those line-cutting teeth, fishing with spoons for Spanish can get expensive) while I went to work on the bycatch and bonito with the machete.

Soon I had nice bucket of chum, and both Lowell and Pelayo were battling those aquatic missiles known as Spanish mackerel, their spools screaming, their rods bent into beautiful U’s. “WOW!” was all Lowell could manage as he held on with a crazy grin.

I chunked out the chum and watched it drifting through the clear green water, then netted Lowell’s Spanish.

Things were looking up. Indeed, the very conditions that skunked today’s inside fishing made for IDEAL conditions out here. To wit: a slack tide inside means a slack current out here, hence your bait or jig stays close to the beams, where the fish hang out. Also, the chum sticks around, rather than getting carried away and scattered.

In seconds, we had a fish fiesta below us. I could make out several mangroves in the darting, flashing, slashing melee. Chris freelined a little bycatch croaker into it and — WHAM! — the brawl started. The thing was going nuts, but heading inside the rig.

“That’s a mangrove!” Pelayo yelled. “They always do that! Tighten the drag and horse him away!”

Chris was doing just that.

Lowell followed Chris’s lead (a plain hook, no leader and a freelined croaker), and was soon tussling with another mangrove.

“These thing’s FIGHT, man!” he gasped as his biceps bulged, and he cranked away. Amazingly, they managed to horse them away from the beams, and we landed both.

Lowell cast out again, set the hook and was soon battling a small jack crevalle, which delighted him. The boy was beside himself. Every cast yielded a fish. He’d NEVER seen anything like this.

I went down with a shrimp-tipped jig and came up with a triggerfish.

“Now HERE’S some eating!” I howled.

Lowell shrimped up his jig, dropped it and had his pole doubled over in seconds.

“Fighting like another jack!” he roared.

I looked down through the water and saw the tell-tale yellowfins and shiny body. Yep, another jack, I thought to myself. Up it came, closer to the surface now. I looked closer.

“Hey, wait a minute!” I yelled. “That looks like…like…like A POMPANO!”

“Pompano?!” Pelayo snorted. “Sure about that? Ain’t seen them in a while.”

In seconds, I netted and swung him close to his face as proof.

“Yep!” he beamed. “Sure like to get into a mess of them!”

Then he turned to Lowell.

“No better eatin’ fish out here, my man! You’ll see tonight!”

Lowell seemed unimpressed. He wasn’t much thinking the eating part. The fighting part is what had him worked up.

“I’ll see if there’s a few more,” and I reached into the tacklebox for the small shad rigs. My friend Ray Caballero fished pompano commercially for a stint. He said you can’t beat a small-hooked, shrimp-tipped shad rig for these delectable fish. He advised to cut off the tail of the shad rig right at the end of the hook, too.

I followed suit and dropped the jig about 20 feet down.

Bump-bump–WHAM!

And I jerked up.

“We’re ON ’EM!” I howled as my rod dipped and I started cranking. This sucker was battling it out, too. But it was a sheepshead. No problem. Still a nice fish.

Back down I went. I’d just flipped the bail and reeled in a little slack when WHAM!

“Another one!” I screeched.

In seconds I saw the silver and yellow flashing back and forth through he water.

“YEP!” I yelled in triumph. “Another pompano!”

We ended up with seven more. A real treat here, and an unexpected one.

Little croakers yielded mangroves, Spanish and jacks. Shrimp-tipped jigs yielded triggerfish, chunky sheepshead and those pompano. The action was frantic and non-stop. Lowell — in his own words — had the fishing trip of his life.

“I can’t believe this!” he kept laughing and shaking his head. “Fish LITERALLY on EVERY cast!” And the amazing thing is, we didn’t see another boat, though we saw several passing us on the way out.

We take this stuff for granted, my friends. “Offshore” for us means pounding yourself silly for an hour, then using ponderous tackle to winch up snapper. I let Lowell winch up the boat at the ramp for that thrill.

You’d be amazed at the fun of medium tackle, chum and jigs at the shallow rigs.

“You guys say my deer hunting ain’t really hunting, it’s killing,” Lowell laughed as he took a breather with a cold one. “Well, your FISHING ain’t really fishing, it’s CATCHING!!”

Fair enough.

 

Look for Humberto Fontova’s new book this month titled “The Hellpig Hunt: A hunting-fishing adventure in the wild wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River by middle-aged lunatics who refuse to grow up.” On his book tour, Humberto is scheduled to appear on The Man Show and Fox’s Hannity & Colmes. We’ll post the dates.

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