Shallow Rig Nine

Head to the close-in rigs this month for all the action you can handle on spadefish, sheepshead, pompano, spanish, triggerfish, bluefish, black drum, redfish and even grouper.

The uproar from Bourbon Street was deafening. A sea of flushed faces, buggy eyes and wildly waving arms clamored for Mardi Gras treats.

But beads and doubloons were far from these minds. The treats that inflamed this crowd to a state of whopping, stomping, panting delirium were strictly of a visual nature, and were unveiled in a manner more uninhibited and seductive than anything seen at the Gold Club or even Las Vegas.

Doc Fontaine’s girlfriend Tricia was the main feature on the balcony of his Bourbon Street bungalow, and she was in top form.

“Get my camcorder!” Doc yelled over his shoulder into his crowded apartment.

“Yeah!” Artie blurted. “The camcorder. Man, we need this captured on film!”

“It’s in the closet in the bedroom!” Doc pointed at me through the crowd. “On the top shelf!”

“Yeah, you right!” I whooped while barging through the hall to his bedroom. “I’ll get it!”

I was rummaging madly through his wardrobe but couldn’t find it. In the process the closet door swung most of the way closed, and I heard female voices on the outside. The post-Katrina repairs at Doc’s bungalow were not complete, and the “door” in his bathroom consisted of a mere drape. So I could hear the voices clearly.

Made mischievous by two of Doc’s famous margaritas, I hid behind some clothes and cupped my ear. Here was a chance — at LONG LAST! — to discover, perhaps, what actually goes on during those crowd visits by women to the powder room. It was irresistible.

“Boy that Tricia sure is something!”

The voice was Carmen’s. She was a friend of my cousin, Maria, who along with her husband Frankie was visiting from Miami for Mardi Gras.

“And her figure,” continued Carmen. “Well, shall we say, she sure seems to be holding up very well. And she sure seems proud of it.”

“Oh sure,” snapped another voice. “I’d be proud of them too, considering what she paid for them. They cost her about three grand each. And that little ski-jump nose of hers? Well, when Doc first brought her around, all the guys called her Barbra Streisand behind her back. Pelayo, naturally, coined her nickname.”

“Oh well,” Carmen added. “She seems very nice, all the same.”

“Wait until she gets a few more margaritas on board,” snapped the other voice, which was unmistakably Priscilla’s, or Yoko (as we’ve called her since the disco era because of her determination — and partial success — at breaking up the old TigerLand gang of chums). “Then you’ll see how friendly she can really get. What she’s up to out on the balcony ain’t nothing compared to what’s coming later, believe me. You’ll see.”

Yoko’s voice was especially grating as she stressed the word “friendly.”

“I don’t think we’ll still be here too late,” said Carmen. “We’re supposed to be going fishing tomorrow.”

“FISHING!?” snapped Yoko. “THIS time of year?”

“Well, um, yes,” answered Carmen. “Humberto and Pelayo are taking us. They say we’re guaranteed to catch fish. In fact, they say this is the only time of the year that they can absolutely guarantee that we’ll catch fish — and lots of them. Is that…?”

“HAH!” laughed Yoko. “THAT figures. Look, I know he’s your cousin and all, but…..”

“Oh no,” Carmen blurted. “He’s not MY cousin. He’s Maria’s cousin. I’m just her friend of many years. No, no. I’m not related to Humberto and Pelayo at all — and thank goodness! In fact when Humberto came to Miami for some book signings, you should have seen the hecklers.

“‘Fontova is a fascist!’ said some signs carried by the Democratic Underground in front of Miami’s biggest bookstore. It was great! In fact I loved it when you could hear the studio crowd booing him on Politically Incorrect and the Dennis Miller Show. I don’t blame them. I was booing myself — at the TV in my den!”

“O.K., sorry!” said a still laughing Yoko. “I was booing too, believe me. Guess I got a little mixed up during the introductions earlier.

“But anyway this is better, because what I was about to say is you shouldn’t believe a word those two say. I’ve learned that over many, many years. Everybody knows March is the absolute worst time of the year for Louisiana coastal fishing. Wesley and I don’t even bother going. Nobody really does. The speckled trout won’t start biting again good until it warms up a bit in April.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about that,” said Carmen. “I’m a guest on this trip. I’m basically going along for the ride.”

“Two years in a row now,” continued Yoko, “Wesley —against his better judgement and against the advice of most of his leasemates — invited Humberto to our deer camp. He knows we have a 6-point rule…..”

“A what?” asked Carmen.

“Oh, sorry. Forgot. You’re probably not a deer hunter. Well, it means that before any hunter at our club shoots a deer, he has to make sure it has six points on its antlers. We do this to let the bucks grow.”

“I see,” said Carmen.

“Anyway, two years in a row, including this New Years, Humberto came as a guest, and two years in a row he shot much smaller bucks, claiming some tiny little bumps on the antlers qualified as points, or that a branch got in the way — all kinds of his typical BS.”

For the next five minutes, Yoko’s voice mounted in both volume and agitation as she continued her litany of defamations against one of her husband’s good college chums.

The two gals finished their discussion just as shouts of “The CAMCORDER! Where’s the camcorder?” erupted outside.

I finally rummaged it up and rushed through the den, stopping near the food table, where Yoko and Carmen dug greedily into the nachos.

“Good nachos, huh!” yelled Pelayo at the gals when he saw me.

“Oh yes!” chirped Yoko.

“They certainly are!” seconded Carmen while wiping some sour cream off her chin.

“Humberto brought ’em.” Pelayo blurted. “They’re deer nachos. He calls ’em Six-Point Nachos! Got more in the refrigerator too!”

Yoko glared, Carmen shrugged and the crowd outside was still yelling for the camcorder. An hour later, the festivities had cranked up several notches, but Frankie, Maria and Carmen seemed somewhat sedate and reasonable.

“What time we leaving tomorrow?” Maria asked.

“Probably around 9 or 10,” I said.

“We’re still goin’ fishing right?!” stammered Frankie.

“Sure,” Pelayo butted in. “But no reason to get up too early for this type of fishing. Heck, we might even leave a little later. Where we’re going, the fish bite all day.”

Our Miami visitors now got into the full swing of the evening.

By late February even Oak River and “The Holes” in the Buras Canal and Yellow Cotton Bay have mostly shut down. Yet it’s our favorite time of the year to fish because of the consistency — consistent boxes of superb fish, that is.

Yes, I said “boxes,” a term that’s become very politically incorrect in most fishing circles. But since our quarry consists of sheepshead, white trout, Spanish mackerel, triggerfish, bluefish, spadefish, pompano, etc., we still measure the success of our spring fishing trips in terms of “boxes,” and quite proudly.

Fishermen from every corner of America (indeed, the world) rave over both the sport and culinary qualities of all of the above-named species of fish. These fish contain no parasites, and fight maniacally. So in Louisiana we scorn them, preferring the feeble-fighting and parasite-ridden (and hideously ugly) speckled trout.

It was 11:30 the next morning by the time we cleared the mouth of Flatboat Pass and entered what is known as the Main Pass blocks in extreme lower Breton Sound. Actually, this time of the year, all shallow-water rigs (18-35 foota-wawda) off the Louisiana coast swarm with most of the above- named species. If you can get out the couple of miles it takes, you’ll load up. It’s that simple.

The sheepshead are spawning, ravenous and stacked up around shallow rigs and wellheads from Black Bay down through Breton Sound, East Bay, West Bay, Sandy Point, Grand Isle blocks, Bay Marchand blocks (Fourchon Rigs) to Ship Shoal.

Slip out of every channel from the MRGO to Ostrica locks to Baptiste Collette, around to Red Pass and the Empire jetties, west to Caminada, Belle and Whiskey passes, and you’ll find such structures within easy reach for small boats. No reason to bash yourself silly or get skunked on the inside this time of year.

We chose Venice as the launch site and the shallow Main Pass structures as our fishing destination because of the wind direction. It was due south, and predicted to rise during the day. This would make the Sandy Point Rigs (WD 20s) a bit bumpy.

The shallow Main Pass blocks, on the other hand, would be sheltered from gusts by the shoreline. It barely took a 10-minute open-water ride to hook up to a platform standing in 28-foot depths.

And it didn’t take two minutes before Maria was screeching 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 at the screaming reel. She was a sight.

“I can’t!” she gasped “I just CAN’T! WHOOOOA!” The rod tip jerked into the very water. “Frankie HELP!”

“Just hold on!” Frankie laughed as he grabbed her from behind in a spoon grip.

After much grunting and whooping and yelling, the fish was thrashing at boat side. Pelayo grabbed the leader, and swung it aboard.

“Sheepshead, huh?!” whooped Frankie.

“No. Not necessarily sheepshead,” Pelayo chuckled. “Might be a ‘Sea Bream.’”

“Or even a Bay Snapper,” I added.

“Yeah, I saw that last week on a menu,” Maria said. “The waiter said it was a fine white- fleshed fish very similar to redfish.”

“It was sheepshead.” Pelayo said. “Not a very glamorous name for an item in a hoity-toity restaurant, so they give him aliases.”

Interestingly, The Times Picayune Creole cookbook, circa 1911, calls sheepshead: “Perhaps the best fish in the Gulf.”

The rhapsody continues: “This fish is delicious in any of a wide number of modes of preparation.”

“This O.K.?” a smiling Carmen was holding up a pole with a tandem shad-rig attached, obviously waiting for me to bait her up.

“Yeah, that’s fine,” I said, while tipping each with a chunk of shrimp. She dropped it over the side close to a piling, let it drop about 6 feet and flipped the bail.

The rest of us baited up our plain 3/8-ounce (with no current, we might go with 1/4-ounce) jigheads with shrimp, and cast out.

I was just flipping the bail when…..


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

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.

“Spanish here!”

A Spanish or blue whacks it. A sheepshead, spadefish or pompano nibbles.

“Spanish are here too!” yelled Pelayo from the stern. “They’re out away from the rig! Look at this sucker go!”

Pelayo raved as he held the rod high, the line ripping off as the berserk mackerel went on its classic run.

“Like a freakin’ missile!” he whooped.

Carmen was gaining on her fish. They finally hit the surface and churned it to a froth, splattering us all.

“Look! It’s TWO!” Carmen yelled.

“Just grab the leader Frankie!” Pelayo was shouting from the stern as he did the very thing to swing aboard his Spanish.

Frankie 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 with this type of fishing. We like 30-pound mono shock leaders, about 3 feet long atop the jigs, so we can reach down and swing these babies in, one after another.

Thirty minutes, five sheepshead, two Spanish, three pompano, two bluefish (fried fresh, they’re delicious) and two triggerfish later, Frankie yelled: “Check THIS out!”

“A grouper!” Pelayo yelled just as I looked over, “And a keeper. Who’d a thunk it?”

We think of grouper as deep-water fish. In Florida, he’s nothing of the sort. We’ve speared dozens over reefs in barely 15-foot depths while snorkeling in the Keys.

These Main Pass blocks are the only rigs where we’ve caught them in shallow water off Louisiana, however.

Some spadefish came aboard next. Then another chunky triggerfish, which greatly excited our Floridian guests. Their skin is tougher than a gar’s, but a soft section sits right behind the dorsal fin. I start there with my boning knife, and extract gorgeous white (and parasite-free) fillets.

The fishing was non-stop until two “boxes” filled. All were caught on the same baits and at only two rigs.

“Just like last year!” Frankie beamed.

“Yes,” seconded Maria. “You guys weren’t kidding. You can’t even call this fishing, it’s catching! Whoo!”

“Hey Carmen,” I said, tapping her on the shoulder. “Be sure to tell your new friend Yoko — OOPS! — I mean Priscilla.”

Carmen cocked her head, squinted and looked at me suspiciously.

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