Just North of Destruction

Sure the marshes of Empire have eroded like a sand castle at high tide, but there are still plenty of fish to be had in the area.

Eddie went through this a couple years earlier when he moved back to his home state of Louisiana after two divorces and at least one disbarment that we heard of.

Now it was his little brother Kyle’s turn. He seemed equally horrified. We were giving him the 50-cent tour of our old Empire/Buras stompin’ grounds from our Tigerland “Animal House” days. “But? … but? Where’s the Phillip’s Canal?” he gasped.

“It ain’t dere no more,” deadpanned Pelayo.

“And where’s English Bay?” he asked looking around in utter bewilderment.

“It ain’t dere no more,” it was my turn.

“But wait!” Kyle stammered. He pointed and swiveled his head. “Wasn’t Bay Pomme D’Or kinda like over … ?”

“It ain’t dere no more,” Chris answered.

Poor guy. Who can blame him? Fish this area often like usm and you’re horrified by the land loss. You can almost watch it washing away from week to week. Imagine after 15 years.

Heck, after 20 years for Kyle. He got back home and started strictly fishing the Delacroix area, as advised by his new circle of chums.

Now the sight was too much for the poor guy. Even worse, it came on top of last night’s 50-cent tour of his old Fat City stompin’ grounds. Too much trauma for poor Kyle.

Benny Grunch and the Bunch’s classic was widely quoted during that tour also. Kyle was near tears halfway through it. His old disco haunts were gone or converted beyond hope.

“And what about The Godfather?”

“It ain’t dere no more.”

“THAT’s The Spanish Galleon!” and on, and on, and on.

I pointed left.

“Ah!” His face brightened. “At least The Ski Lodge’s still there, but under another name. Thank goodness!” he sighed, and we staggered inside for a bit of reminiscing and a brewski. We were slowly lifting poor Kyle from his funk.

Then he noticed a massive creature sitting on a bar stool. The stool had its work cut out for it, too. Gargantuan buttocks draped over each edge. Above it, a blouse that doubled as a boat cover. The stool creaked piteously as the woman blew out a mouthful of smoke and leaned over to order another drink.

“Remember Irene?” Chris said while motioning that we walk over.

“Sure!” Kyle blurted. “Irene, the Dancing Queen. How could I forget! Those skin-tight disco dresses. Those hips. Those moves! And there sure ain’t no forgetting that night after the tequila shots.”

“Irene?” Chris smiled and tapped the behemoth on the shoulder. “Watcha doin’ here, AGAIN?”

“Chris!” she smiled. “Same thing as y’all, I guess.”

She giggled while we buzzed her cheek.

“Great to see y’all again!’

“Remember, Kyle?” Pelayo asked while pointing behind him. “Eddie’s little brother? The famous … .”

“Kyle,” and she lunged over for a hug. “Can’t believe it. It’s really you! You haven’t changed a bit!”

“Neither have … have … you,” Kyle replied gallantly.

The man was horrified.

“I’d heard you’d left the country?” Irene said after a hearty gulp of her Cuba Libre. “I’d heard that you … never mind. Well, I heard all kinda stuff.”

She took a drag on her cigarette.

“It’s all true,” Chris laughed. “Every bit of it. But we came here to talk about old times. Not semi-old times, O.K.?”

“O.K.!” she laughed again.

We had a fun evening, as it turned out.

Now he saw that his old fishing haunts had fared no better than some of his old friends. We’d gone about a mile down from the marina, and I’d been watching Kyle’s face the whole time. He kept swiveling his head around, wide-eyed, furrowing his brow. Kyle looked on the verge of tears. Like I said, it had been almost 20 years since he’d seen this area.

“Bay Pomme d’ Or starts at the levee and extends to the freakin’ Gulf!” Chris explained to Kyle. “We only motored down here to show you. Now we’ll go catch some fish — there’s still plenty fish in the area. But we know, after living in those concrete jungles up north, you wanna see some marshland scenery, bring back old times.”

So we motored westward and across Adams Bay — or what used to be Adams Bay. Soon we were in Bayou Maringuion, where the water was amazingly clear, as befits this relatively sheltered marsh area.

“Watch this, Kyle,” Chris was already baiting up a simple jighead (no rubber, just the head) with shrimp as I eased the boat against the shoreline where a pond emptied into the bayou. Soon we had all cast out with similar, corkless rigs. In another month, this would be a simple invitation to load up on hardheads, but in early April, the water is still cool enough to keep the hardheads at bay — most of them, that is.

In three minutes, I felt the tapping. I raised my rod tip a bit and felt pressure, another tap, so — WHAM! — I set the hook, and it was off to the races.

“RIGHT!” I howled as my rod bucked.

In short order, I hauled aboard a 3-pound sheepshead, a fish Kyle (oddly enough) had always appreciated.

In seconds, he was hauling one in himself with his face creased in a heavy grin.

Chris was next with a sheepshead.

All of our lines were bunched up with algae, which we peeled off after chunking the sheepshead in the “box.” We weren’t complaining either.

Jerald Horst’s Angler’s Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico points to studies showing that sheepshead are pretty much omnivorous; like wild swine, they’ll eat both plant and animal matter — algae and sea grasses along with crabs, clams, barnacles and assorted mollusks and crustaceans.

One study showed that the diet for sheepshead in Lake Pontchartrain was about half sea grasses.

For whatever reason, the ponds and bayous that still exist in this upper Empire area fill up with algae in the spring. Structure and cover by any other name, right?

The reds seem to move in to feed on the little crabs and minnows that infest the algae. No doubt the sheepshead partake of the little crabs too, but while filleting them we noticed their stomachs crammed with the algae itself. Their chunky fillets were nonetheless superb, either bronzed, grilled or fried.

This was the kind of fishing Kyle had always liked — ACTION! And no hocus-pocus or dilettante-ism. Simple bottom fishing with shrimp-tipped jigs. Something you don’t see much of anymore. As a kid, Kyle had always loved cranking up bull croakers and white trout at Chef Pass. This fishing was similar.

We made another stop in Bayou Maringuion’s first bend, and had a repeat performance. Bottom fishing with shrimp in 5 feet of water yielded another gorgeous mess of sheepshead and a couple puppy drum.

Well,” bellowed Pelayo with a satisfied grin while slapping Kyle on the back. “We got our meat haul. Now let’s go hunt reds.”

“Oh yeah!” whooped Kyle. “I was hoping we’d get into some.”

“We will,” nodded Chris as we roared off toward Grand Bayou. Then we turned into the “7-Foot Canal” as locals call it, and finally entered another open area of eroded marsh, which basically makes up what used to be the marsh between Lake Washington and Grand Bayou.

Sadly, it’s going fast around here too, but there’s still enough marsh to fish. And the sad — or bittersweet — part is that an eroding marsh is actually good for fishing, especially for reds, whose top food item are crabs, especially the smaller ones that hide out in the grass and crevices of an eroding marsh. A high tide lets the reds enter these areas where they can root around, snatching the little morsels up, along with the cocahoes that hang around in this grassy stuff too.

“They call this No-Man’s Land, Kyle,” Pelayo said as he came back on the throttle. “Pretty shallow usually. This area was once marsh too. But we’re O.K. today. High tide.”

“High and falling,” I added. “Perfect for reds.”

Pelayo rumbled toward a grassy shoreline a couple of hundred yards off. I looked down and saw that the water was ideal for reds — it was murky. I’d been a little worried on the way over. The water looked super clear, as often happens in the more-sheltered waters.

But for whatever reason, for the type of fishing we do, (shrimp-tipped jigs under corks cast toward grassy shorelines), clear water skunks us. Maybe the reds see US better that way? Whatever. We always do better on high tides and murky to filthy water for reds. We find market shrimp indispensable for this type of fishing too.

We zeroed in, as always, on the windward side of the bay. As we approached, I saw the murky waves lapping over the grass on this eroded shoreline, and could make out what looked like a current line. Just as importantly, the depth finder showed 2 feet. The place had rat red, puppy drum and sheepshead written all over it.

My cork hit the water first. Under it was a white sparkle beetle tipped with half a shrimp. The cork hit about 2 feet from the grass, and immediately a slight current started pushing it along. Another favorable sign.

Grassy, wave-lapped shoreline in 2-foot depths. You couldn’t order a better situation, I was thinking to myself when — “WHOA!” — my cork plunged, even before my first pop. I reared back, and it was off to the races.

“WOW!” was all Kyle could manage while watching my spool empty, and the wake barreling across the shallows.

“He’s turning!” I roared. “He’s turning to the open water! He’s gotta be a monster!”

“Monster hardheads and sailcats do that too,” Pelayo smirked.

“This ain’t no hardhead, podnuh! Look at that!” I waved my bowed rod in front of his face. “And LISTEN to that!” I put my spool inches from his ear.

“Alright, alright!” Pelayo yelled right before he struck back himself. “And this ain’t no hardhead EITHER — WHOO!!”

Pelayo’s pole was high overhead as he cranked furiously.

“What the … ?” he suddenly frowned. “Did he get off?”

Pelayo’s pole straightened and his line went slack as he cranked the reel.

“HECK NO!” I yelled. “He’s swimming in ON YA! He’s a monster red too, heading for the open water!”

Just as Pelayo reeled in the slack, his reel gave a mighty screech to prove my point, and the rod was almost jerked from his grasp.

“Oh YEAH!” he beamed while looking over. “Feels like a red alright!”

I was still savoring mine. His berserk run took him back and forth in front of the boat, as I gained — then lost — line. I held my pole high overhead, and bellowed my joy to the heavens, just as he exploded in a froth of grey and copper.

“Eight-pounder for sure!” I raved as he barreled off on another run, and I felt the muscles in my forearms bunching up from the strain of the battle, on top of the ones against at least a dozen big sheepshead.

“Forget it Kyle!” I saw him reaching for the net. “Go get yourself one. They’re stacked up along that shoreline, podnuh. I can net mine myself.”

Kyle smiled, and his shrimp-tipped green beetle 2 feet under a cork was on its way shoreward posthaste.

I was just dipping the net under mine when Kyle erupted.

“Whoo! Yeah! Whoo! Yeah! Awesome!”

He had a crazy look on his face as a wake streaked across the shoreline and plunged into the flooded grass itself.

“Work him out, Kyle!” Chris counseled. “Work him outta that grass so he won’t cut the line!”

Kyle tightened his drag a bit.

“THERE!” Kyle beamed. “Got him out!”

Now his fish streaked for the open water too. This spot yielded four reds, two drum and a flounder before petering out. That’s the thing with this type of fishing: You never really find massive schools in any one place. But you find enough fish and enough variety to make for an action-packed trip.

The next spot had a nice current too — but a little too nice. The cork barreled across the point too fast. We caught two 15 9/10-inch rat reds, and pulled up the anchor. Next spot was another grassy point, with murky water, oyster bottom and wind-lapped shoreline.

Kyle cranked in a nice sheepshead on his first cast. Then a red. Then Pelayo caught another red. We ended the day with nine reds, 4 puppy drum, two flounder and 21 sheepshead. Not bad for inside fishing in spring.

“Know something?” Kyle beamed while unhooking his last red. “Think I’m gonna start fishing this area.”

“We been telling ya that, Kyle,” Pelayo snorted. “Heck man, we all do good at Delacroix now and then. But there ain’t no middle ground there. You mop-up or you get skunked. That’s trout fishing for ya.

“Out here you might get into the trout, especially later in the year and closer to the coast around Shell Island, Bay Joe Wise, Lake Washington, etc. But if you don’t find the trout, and it’s a high tide, you can always head over this way and you’re almost guaranteed a box-a-mixed — or half a box, reds, drum, sheepshead, flounder. Ya follow me?”

“Yeah,” Kyle laughed. “I follow ya!”

The trauma of seeing the current plight of Fat City and his old fishing grounds was (slowly) dissipating.