Fish, Fun & Fillets

If you’re looking for a mixed bag of just about everything that bites, head no farther than the shallow rigs just off the Louisiana coast.

The fish-cleaning shed at the marina was the happenin’ place that afternoon as Pelayo, Spencer and I walked up to check out the scene. The table was packed with sweaty fish-cleaners hacking and slicing away between hearty swigs as music blared from a nearby boom-box: “Getcha motor runnin’, head out on the highway, looking for adventure, and whatever comes our way!”

Given the mood, “Born to be Wild” seemed the perfect soundscore. A rotund fellow with an LSU cap on backwards was in a veritable filleting frenzy, frantically dropping the finished fillets in one bucket and the carcasses in another, his forearms splattered with scales and slime.

Pelayo’s cousin, Spencer, who was visiting from Atlanta, walked over to him just as he bent over to discard a freshly-filleted red snapper. The motion revealed the back of his humongous shorts in Dan-Aykroyd-as-refrigerator-repairman-on-Saturday-Night-Live mode.

“Looks like y’all had a great day,” Spencer beamed as the fellow stood with a mighty grunt and turned to face him.

“Not too bad,” croaked the rotund Aykroyd. “We didn’t limit out, but we did alright.”

“Red Snapper, huh?” asked Spence.

“Yeah, plenty snapper, and plenty other stuff, too. We caught all kinda fish. Happens that way offshore this time ’a year.”

Pelayo had walked over and peered into the fellow’s discarded fish bucket, laughed and motioned me over. Amidst all the filleted carcasses of red and mangrove snapper lay two whole pompano and three whole Spanish mackerel.

Spence looked over too, frowned and asked: “Ya throwing them away?” as he pointed into the bucket.

The rotund fellow looked over for a second, “Yeah everything in that bucket goes in the that bin over there,” and he pointed at the trash bin.

Pelayo bent down and plucked out the fat, gorgeous pompano, gleaming in all of its yellow and silver glory. “Even these?”

“Sure,” snorted the guy. “Man, them jacks is too bloody, too oily…that’s them hardtails, them skipjacks, or a little jackfish. Can’t eat any of ’em.”

A wide-eyed Spence plucked out a fat gleaming Spanish mackerel, a fish prized off South Carolina and Florida, where he usually fishes, and held it up. “This too?”

“Oh sure,” snorted the guy. “Dem’s even oilier than that little jackfish.” He pointed at the pompano with his knife. “We kept them for chum and bait in case we ran outta pogies, ya know. We was gonna chop ’em up and use ’em.”

“Mind if we take ’em off your hands?” I asked. “We’re heading offshore tomorrow morning. We might need some chum ourselves.”

“Sure, knock yourselves out,” he beamed after a hearty swig from his brewskie. “In fact, hold on. I think we gotta few more in the box. ‘Hey Nick!’ he called to his buddy rummaging around in back of their boat on the dock. ‘These guys wanna know…..’”

We walked over and — sure enough — they had another pompano and two more Spanish, which Nick promptly plucked out and handed over.

“They make great chum,” he smiled. “Y’all have a good one,” and he waved us off.

We had a “good one” alright — a SPECTACULAR one, in fact! We had a meal of butter-bronzed and lemon-sprinkled Spanish and pompano fillets that night to make you wanna “slap ya momma.”

“This place is something else,” nodded Spence as he gobbled the luscious fillets. “Culinary capital of the world, right? Isn’t that how South Louisiana bills itself?”

“Sure is,” I smirked.

“Right, and y’all turn up your noses at some of the most prized fish in the world — then you roll your eyes and rub your tummies while sucking the muddy crud from the heads of cockroach-like creatures dipped from stagnant drainage ditches.”

But we were in no mood for cultural philosophizing, and turned in. The next morning we were hellbent on a box of those locally-scorned fish ourselves. Blazing down Red Pass (amazingly intact after Katrina), we entered a calm Gulf and pointed the bow toward the shallow West Delta blocks, those numbered 29, 30s and 45. These run in depths from 40 to 55 feet, the ideal depths for pompano and Spanish. And for whatever reason, we find these the best for early summer fishing.

No knocking ourselves silly on a 20-mile open water ride. These rigs lie barely 7-10 miles offshore. The sheepshead spawn is over by now (not that there’s anything wrong with filling a box with these savories, as we do from January through April on practically every trip out here). By May your bait can make it through the upper water column, swarming with ravenous sheepshead until early April, to the pompano and puppy drum at mid depths.

The ride was smooth so I lay on the bean bags near the stern, and immediately got groggy. In a few minutes, I was snoozing — that light sleep where you dream vividly….

“This is Katie Couric reporting from Venice, La.:

“PETA is investigating a report that two sharks swimming peacefully off the Louisiana coast during Easter Weekend were subject to an unprovoked attack and horribly brutalized by a boatload of vicious thugs who lured them to their craft using a ‘chum-line’ of shredded fish, then mangled them with a variety of weapons including firearms and various harpoons.

“This according to Bill Maher, who was on a nearby vessel and witnessed the horror.

“The Politically Incorrect host was one of many environmentally-concerned celebrities aboard a vessel carrying members from the Cousteau Society, Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund and Ocean Watch. They were in the area for a ‘consciousness-raising workshop’ and filming a Discovery Channel special entitled, ‘Katrina; How Our Nation’s Addiction to SUVs and Fossil Fuels Destroys Our Coastal Wetlands and Spawns Killer Hurricanes.’

“Maher reports that the thugs, believed to be Cuban-Americans and Cajuns, opened up with a variety of weapons including semi-automatic rifles, pistols, shotguns, spearguns and harpoons, to stun, kill and horribly mangle the sharks.

“‘I couldn’t believe it!’ gasped a badly rattled Pamela Anderson. ‘Last year I saw the late Jaws author, Peter Benchley, describe the killing of a shark as ‘a moral travesty.’ I heartily agree. I’m simply, simply, simply at a loss for words to describe this inconceivable atrocity. But I ask, is there an Earth goddess Gaia who would allow this to happen?’

“‘These sick, sadistic hoodlums were yelling and whooping and throwing empty whiskey and rum bottles in the air!’ added a weeping Anna Nicole Smith, who huddled with an ashen-faced Paul McCartney. ‘Then they blasted away at them with shotguns as we approached, splattering us with glass! Boy, was I scared!’

“‘Then we begi-in,’ crooned the Ex-Beatle as he stroked Anna’s hair, ‘to make it better, better, better, BETTER’ and the teary crew joined hands and started singing and swaying to the famous melody from ‘Hey, Jude.’

“The shaken observers further report that the horribly mutilated sharks were hoisted on a winch from the boat’s fantail amidst what they again describe as ‘a terrifying din of wild whoops and rebel yells.’ Then one boater rushed up with a can and spray painted a beard on its mangled jaw and the name ‘Fidel’ on its shredded and lacerated hulk.

“‘Then they went totally crazy!’ gasped Woody Harrelson, who was also aboard the Ocean Watch vessel. ‘They started hacking at it savagely with machetes, gaffs and empty whiskey bottles until one of them screeching, “YEEEEEE HAAAAAH!” opened up with a rapid-fire assault weapon of some kind from atop the tuna tower.’

“‘With the shark carcass dancing and jerking crazily from the bursts, the short sun-tanned fellow on the bow jammed an automatic weapon to his hip, and shouted, “SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!!” and joined the deafening fusillade. Well, the shark carcass almost disappeared before our eyes!’”

I awoke to the clang of the rig hook on WD 29. In seconds, Spence was howling, and his reel screaming.

“Nice one HERE!” he kept yelling.

Pelayo hustled over and netted the Spanish that had grabbed his white beetle, tipped with shrimp, on his third reel-crank.

“Nice fish, huh!” Spence gushed. “Pretty fish too!”

He’s not used to this type of frantic action — not in Florida, not in Georgia, not in South Carolina.

Soon Pelayo was pointing off the stern — a frenzy. Maybe hardtail, maybe bonito, or maybe … just then a Spanish jumped completely out of the water and dove — toothy mouth agape — into the little school of shiners they were shredding.

“WHOOOA!” yelled Pelayo whose tandem shad rigs hit 10 feet away from the action. Spanish and pompano just love shad rigs. Their small hooks makes them ideal for a pompano’s small mouth too. Pelayo reared back, and his spool started emptying.

Spence cast next to another surface thrash, and soon looked like he’d been plugged into a socket. He was beaming and quivering and smiling from ear to ear as both he and Pelayo cranked in those aquatic missiles known as Spanish mackerel, their spools screaming, their rods bent into beautiful U’s.

“WOW!” was all Spence could manage as he held on with a crazy grin.

I went down with a shrimp-tipped shad rig, felt the tapping, raised the rod tip and — YOWZA! — the battle was on. And a battle on medium spinning gear, which is much nicer than on the usually gargantuan tackle people use out here.

Alas, I came up with a triggerfish, which delighted me.

“Now HERE’S some eating!” I whooped.

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

“Fighting like another Spanish!” he roared.

“Don’t think so Spence,” I said. “A Spanish streaks off close to the surface. This looks more like a…”

Sure enough, I looked down through the water and saw the tell-tale yellow fins and shiny body. “A POMPANO!”

“Pompano, indeed!” Pelayo roared. “Now we ON ’EM!”

I netted the silver beauty for Spence as we high-fived.

“Now let’s see if there’s a few more,” I said.

You catch one pompano, there’s usually a school. These aren’t solitary fish. We know this from scuba diving these very rigs. Pompano are usually in a tight school.

But you generally can’t spear or catch too many out of any one school. Like mangroves, they seem to wise up quick. So rig-hopping helps.

But no problemo, because in these shallow West Delta rigs, closely bunched together, hopping around is a cinch.

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. My rod dipped, and I started cranking. This sucker was battling it out, too.

But through the clear, green water, I soon saw the stripes. It was a sheepshead. Still a nice fish.

“Wow! So y’all got those out here too?” asked Spence, who pursues them off the Florida coast using live shrimp and fiddler crabs for bait. “Nice!”

Back down I went with another pinch of shrimp. I’d just flipped the bail and reeled in a little slack when — WHAM!

“Another one!” I screeched.

After a mighty tussle, I finally saw the silver and yellow flashing back and forth through the water.

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

We ended up with seven more, then moved to another rig, where we nailed five more. Then to another for another five.

The Spanish were thick too, but generally away from the rig and nearer the surface than the pompano.

Once, a shrimp-tipped beetle got too far down, and a huge drum nabbed it. Quite a battle. Smaller puppy drum (3-5 pounds) also nailed the shrimp-tipped offerings at mid depths — and you can’t beat their firm white fillets on the grill.

The action was frantic and non-stop. And the amazing thing is, we didn’t see another boat fishing the area — though we saw several passing us going farther out.

We’re often passing up some dynamite fishing as we head way offshore. “Offshore” for us means pounding yourself silly for an hour, then using ponderous tackle to winch up snapper. You’d be amazed at the fun of medium tackle and jigs at the shallow rigs.

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