Spade Raid

Don’t pass up the shallow-water rigs on your way offshore. Instead, load the boat with hard-fighting and tasty spadefish.

The specks were finished spawning — scattered and scarce. Tides were low, so the reds were fickle and elusive on the inside.With the warm waters, offshore fishing had moved WAY offshore. For small boaters, finding red snapper now meant a horrendous (and expensive) butt-bashing haul. And even if found (a feat in itself this time of year), hauling them in meant wearily cranking away at ponderous tackle to raise them from their late-summer lair in a hundred-plus feet of water. I find the process about as exciting as winching up my boat — if my boat had a 200-foot cable, that is.

Yet a massive blow-out was planned at Doc Fontaine’s camp for Chloe’s (his new girlfriend) birthday in mid August. The featured course, at her request, would be fish, grilled, bronzed and fried. She’s from New York and can’t get enough of it, especially the fresh Louisiana variety Doc had been spoiling her with since they met last year. The crowd would be huge for the bash, including many of her New York family and friends. We desperately needed a pile of fresh fillets, and versatile ones at that.

But our previous three fishing trips had provided barely enough speck and red fillets for home consumption. Things looked grim — according to Doc, that is. His hang-up with specks on the inside and snapper on the outside made it look that way to him.

Strutting around and constantly boasting that all the fish served at his dinner parties were caught by the host and his chums, while spraying the guests with beer spittle, always features as a highlight at these fish feasts — at least for us strutters and sprayers.

Our wives, with much keener instincts in these matters, have often and vociferously pointed out how the guests usually weary of the boast about the fifth time they hear it, especially as it tends to come at a progressively higher decibel level as the evening progresses. Our boasts are probably the equivalent of New Yorkers boasting everything they serve at their dinner parties is “organic.”

“That’s one a dem ‘free-roaming’ chickens you’re chewing on there, Toots!” Pelayo announced to one of Chloe’s friends at the Fourth of July bash.

The elegant Prada-clad woman had been discussing some Broadway hit with her “partner” (you can’t say “boyfriend” anymore, it seems) until she noticed Pelayo and Chris nearby and seemed to edge over. The woman was named Andrea, but was a ringer for Angelina Jolie, and her “partner” for Paul Schaffer, but shorter and with a voice like a chipmunk’s. He made Woody Allen look like The Incredible Hulk. They both smiled pleasantly and seemed intrigued by Pelayo’s disclosure.

“Oh really!” she smiled while smacking her bee-stung lips. “Yes, I could certainly detect the wonderful distinctive flavor.”

“There’s really no mistaking that exquisite flavor of a free-range chicken,” twinkled Mr. Chipmunk as he savored a spoonful. “We order it often at Manhattan’s Club 21.”

“Yeah!” blustered Pelayo as Doc moved into closer hearing range. “Don’t know what the hell they call ’em on that fancy menu, but down here we call ’em pool-doo.”

“Interesting,” bubbled Mr. Chipmunk, trying to get a word in edgewise. “Yes, of course. The French word for chicken, but what’s the second … ?”

“The proper pronunciation is actually poule d’eau,” Doc moved in and corrected, finally acknowledging the poor guy.

“Yes, yes,” smiled Andrea while cocking her head pleasantly toward Pelayo again and changing the focus of attention. “French for water. Does it mean that these fowl also nourish on natural, unchlorinated or spring-fed water?”

“Ummmm … actually, YEAH!” blurted Chris. “In fact, they do just that! No preservatives or anything in these chickens. Everything’s fresh and natural at our dinner parties.”

“You bet,” added Pelayo. “They sure ain’t cooped up in some pen all their lives. If ever the term free-roaming fit, it’s for these suckers. In fact, some roam all the way from Minnesota and New York to Louisiana! Bet the waiters at Club 21 can’t claim THAT! I’m heading over for another helping of free-roaming Louisiana water-chicken gumbo myself!”

“Can I get you some more wine?” a snickering Doc quickly asked his guests.

“Certainly, Mitch,” chirped Andrea. “Thank you. Then I’m going over for another serving of that marvelous free-roaming rabbit, the one Pelayo told me feeds exclusively on wild roots and tender shoots. I remember that you have a quaint and charming local name for it also … let me see … ummmm … nu … nu..?

“Nutria?” smiled Doc.

“That’s it!” chirped Andrea. “Absolutely divine flavor, mild, low-fat and succulent. Too bad I can’t find it in Manhattan, in any restaurant and not even in any of the Whole Food stores.”

“I’ll certainly be on the lookout for it!” beamed Mr. Chipmunk while turning to Andrea, who ignored him as she set off after Pelayo.

We’d heard he was a playwrite and swimming in money, which helped explain Andrea’s (increasingly sporadic) attention to Mr. Chipmunk. The poor guy seemed relegated to fetching her drinks as she chatted with Pelayo and Chris, batting her eyelashes and squealing with mirth at their every idiotic comment.

With every glass of wine she got friendlier, her giggles louder and her hands friskier. She couldn’t just compliment the tans on their muscle-shirted shoulders, either. She had to rub them too.

“Those can’t be REAL tans,” she cooed at one point and started giggling wickedly as her eyes focused downward. When she reached for Chris’ waist, I freaked. When she poked her finger under his shorts’ elastic waistband, I jerked my head toward his wife, Cindy, who’d been sitting nearby.

Whooo! Thank goodness she’d moved.

“They’re real tans alright!” giggled Andrea as she pulled the waistband and peered downward. I tensed and jerked my head around again. When I turned back, Andrea raised her head, cackled and hoisted her finger skyward, causing Chris’ waistband to return with a loud SNAP! — and Chris himself to look around with a demented leer.

Finally I noticed that all our wives were inside embroiled in urgent gossip and oblivious to the scene on Doc’s deck. What a relief. Chris and Pelayo had noticed also, looked over at me, and winked with a thumbs up.

For a while, Doc had been seriously hassled by his sister Connie for not taking his nephews fishing, considering all the fishing he did. He finally complied and got hassled even worse for the results. The doofus took them after specks in Breton Sound, but on a day when the specs — for any of their number of unfathomable reasons — weren’t turned on.

So he takes them again, after reds this time, but on his flatboat with the elevated platform to watch for them “finning in the shallows” and perhaps “sight cast” for them with topwater lures and spinners — when he deigned to finally desist from fondling his flyrod, that is. The tide was low and rising that day, and AGAIN the fish snubbed them.

Doc asked his nephews to go fishing again, and they scoffed.

“We’d rather fish the ponds in the Beau Chene golf course with chunks of hot-dog for bait!” they wailed. “More action, uncle Mitch! You’re kinda fishing is SO BORING!”

And who can blame them?

Thank goodness much of the dilettante hocus-pocus that passes for fishing nowadays wasn’t around when I grew up — or that it never attracted those who took me fishing. While filling in the free time, I might have evolved into an even MORE proficient Pinball Wizard than is presently the case.

“Tell ya what, Doc,” Pelayo told his henpecked friend. “We’re gonna get the fish supply for Chloe’s birthday bash AND get you off the hook with Connie and your nephews in one fell swoop. How’s that?”

Finally the Marine forecast called for 1- to 3-foot seas, the Burrwood buoy confirmed it with winds at 6 knots, and the weather map showed a big high-pressure area enveloping coastal Louisiana. Time to swing into action.

The trip to the shallow rigs from Buras and out the Empire jetties took barely a half hour, not enough time for the munchkins — aged 9 through 14 — to get bored and start any serious mischief, as in yelling and punching each other. They were too pumped by the scenery, the cavorting dolphins, the gently rolling swells and the prospect of actually catching fish. Nary an I-Pod was even on board, if you can imagine such a thing.

Soon we were idling toward a rig in the WD 32 block. Spadefish generally start appearing at the rigs 30 to 40 feet deep on out to those in the hundred-plus category. This applies from the rigs off Holly Beach in Cameron through Ship Shoal, through Timbalier, through West Delta and around to the Main Pass blocks. We were fishing these only because they offered the shortest ride — in car and boat.

The rig hook clanged, and the yelling started.

“Look at ’EM ALL!” yelled little Nick, as he pointed around the boat. His brother Alex and cousin Phil rushed over to the railing and joined the excited chorus. The water was a dark green, as it often gets at close rigs this time of year, and the spadefish were visible everywhere.

Amazingly, they’d never fished here before, only passed them a couple times on the way to tuna trips with their uncle, which they hated. Three fish, however big and mean, in a six-hour period just ain’t gonna cut it action-wise with most kids this age.

Now they were frantically baiting up with little chunks of shrimp on little shad rigs (1/8-ounce; spadefish have small mouths). In seconds, Phil had “cast” at the striped quarry schooling all around him.

Doc has a point: Sight-casting DOES add an element of excitement to fishing. Difference was, here they’d actually catch fish.

“WHOO-AAH!” In literal seconds, Phil had his rod tip bent over into the water as he cranked away for dear life, and Pelayo bellowed support.

“That’s it, PHIL! Horse that sucker in!”

Then he turned to the others.

“Get after ’em y’all!”

As often happens, other spadefish were chasing the frantically fighting one.

Nick dropped his bait — can’t even call it “casting” — toward the melee and started slugging it out with a spadefish himself. A 2-pound spade fights like a 4-pound snapper or a 6-pound trout. The things are brutal. And the kids loved it. Screaming and yelling and cranking, finally tucking the pole between their legs for extra leverage.

Pelayo heaved their fish aboard as I cast with little shad rigs myself — but away from the rig. I jigged a couple times and — WHAM!

Soon I was swinging aboard a pair of hardtails, just what I wanted. Spadefish are nibblers and jerkers rather than strikers, like trout or snapper or Spanish. This makes them notorious bait-thieves with soft bait like shrimp.

Their main food, amazingly enough, is jellyfish, but we’ve found they love little chunks of hardtail, which also stay on the hook better than shrimp. A little chunk (about the same size as the hot-dog chunks they use for perch in golf course ponds) often catches multiple spadefish out here. So no need for constant re-baiting — no small consideration with a boat-full of munchkins.

I nailed two more hardtails, and started chopping maniacally, as much for bait as for chum. Soon I had a nice pile, and started chunking out handfuls. Not that we actually required it. Just from three tandem shad rigs constantly in the water, and at least one fish constantly hooked, we already had a spadefish feeding frenzy around us.

The action was nonstop, and the box was filling with chunky, delectable spadefish as the chum did its thing. Little Nick let out a yell, and his line was screeching out, but on a surface run away from the rig.

“Looks like a Spanish, Nick ol’ boy!” Pelayo said. “Hold on!”

And indeed it was. Another good thing about this type of fishing at this time of year is that the Spanish aren’t bunched up in tight schools like in the spring. In those conditions almost as soon as you hook one, another grabs the line above the jig or leader and promptly cuts it.

In late summer at these shallow rigs, Spanish are bigger and not bunched up, though still plenty common. Soon I was netting an absolute beaut’ of a Spanish for Nick.

“Watch those teeth!” Pelayo yelled as he hustled over to unhook it.

Alex then swung aboard a nice triggerfish. Yep, spadefish, Spanish, now a trig, next a small mangrove. Then more and more spadefish. The chum was doing its thing, and the box quickly filled.

Chloe’s birthday bash featured fish just like she wanted. The thick slab of meat above the spadefish backbone we used for grilling and bronzing. The smaller thinner part below the bone and above the anal fin we fried. The results were spectacular. The reviews from the happily gulping and gorging crowd were absolutely rave.

At first, the locals were all told it was mangrove snapper — a fish, incidentally, only locally recognized as top-notch in the last decade or so. After the last smidgen of fish had vanished I made the formal announcement that they’d gorged on spadefish.

“You mean them angelfish things always around the rigs?” gaped Doc’s brud-n-law, Artie.

“Yep!” beamed Pelayo. “Them VERY ones!”

“And boy do they FIGHT!” added little Nick with Phil and Alex heartily agreeing beside him. A bit later a loud shriek erupted from the den.

“What the..?!” and we rushed over and peered in where Pelayo was seated next to Andrea while pointing at one of Doc’s coffee table books and photo albums.

“Just showed Andrea some pictures of dem free-roaming chickens and rabbits she loves so much!” he smirked.