Tambour-ine

You’ll love the sweet music coming from the end of your line this month while fishing school specks in this Cocodrie hotspot.

The 25-foot Grady White fueling up at the dock looked perfectly normal for this setting, and the elegant brunette on the stern with the killer tan, bikini top and orange wrap flapping around her waist and thighs didn’t look out of place either.

For whatever reason, females appear more commonly in fishing scenes west of New Orleans than east or south of the city. Pelayo has often pointed this out. Chris did the pointing this time, attempting to camouflage his facial expression and gesticulations and imagining himself quite suave and discreet in the process.

He looked more suave and discreet interacting with the pole dancers at his bachelor party — only they weren’t called “pole-dancers” 25 years ago.

The brunette’s gold hoop earrings bounced as she chipped at a huge block of ice. This was no anorexic model, and we weren’t the only ones on the marina dock mesmerized by the spectacle.

“Looks like they might be going offshore with that boat,” smirked Pelayo. “Imagine those poor suckers who’ve been out on a rig for two weeks leaning against the railing, looking down and catching a glimpse of her sprawled on the bow.”

“Or vigorously cranking in an amberjack,” added Chris.

Chris had a point. For some reason, she didn’t seem like the usual hitch-along-for-the-trip-just-to-get-a-tan-on-the-deck type of fisherbabe. This woman seemed in control. Soon, she started arranging the rods in the rod holders and barking commands to the poor kid wrestling with the fuel hose.

Then she opened a small cooler, raised her arms skyward and contorted her pretty face into a ferocious grimace, which she aimed at a portly fellow in gargantuan flowered shorts and a black fishnet shirt who was walking back from the marina store with a bag.

“I said char-do-nay!’ she roared at the Clemenza-like fellow. “But I see zin-fan-del!” as she jabbed her finger toward the cooler.

“Sorry honey,” the poor guy shrugged. “They were all out.”

Then he exhaled a huge plume of cigar smoke, and clambered into the boat with a heavy grunt.

Dr. Fontaine was strutting back after parking his Suburban, his Cozumel cap cocked at a rakish angle and a cocky grin on his face. His girlfriend Trisha was buying some last-minute provisions in the marina. So Pelayo pointed.

“Check it out, Doc.”

Fontaine turned just as the Grady White rumbled from the dock with the brunette at the wheel. He took off his shades and squinted…

“Can’t believe it,” he nodded. “It’s Gina. Second time I’ve seen her out here this year.”

Doc’s face started twitching and his lips compressed tightly.

“But this time she’s with HIM! And in MY old boat!” he snarled. “I oughta cave his head in! That shyster skunk’s been disbarred in three states! Good thing we won’t run into them while fishing. I know just where they’re going — Last Island or the Pickets. Making that long haul, at her orders. I can ga-ron-tee it. We won’t be anywhere near ’em.”

Doc Fontaine had suffered a vicious and debilitating divorce settlement (his second) six years earlier at the hands — it seemed to us, though we recognized it as a touchy topic and didn’t inquire — of the Clemenza-like fellow accompanying his ex-wife. Doc lost his boat and most of his earthly belongings during the ordeal, along with 30 pounds off his already lithe frame from the mental trauma.

At first his medical practice suffered financial reverses when his patients became reluctant to seek advice on health and hygiene from a man starting to resemble Keith Richards.

But soon his old college chums intervened, and he got his groove back. Doc even named his boat the Midnight Rambler after some of our night-fishing trips where Hot Rocks blared from the boom box, brewskies emptied and the reminiscing from Tigerland cranked into high gear. Soon, he again became “Fast Fontaine,” his moniker back in Tigerland, a tribute to his prowess with the Disco babes, along with the weekend cow-babes who cavorted atop Zachary’s mechanical bull.

The song, “Save the Horse, Ride the Cowboy,” was a quarter century in the future. But on certain weekends, Fontaine switched from his polyester bell-bottoms to jeans and boots to capitalize on the identical sentiment.

But now his eyes blazed with fury. Pelayo grabbed him by the arm.

“Get a grip, Doc.”

“Easy for you to say,” Doc said as he took his place at the helm, just as Trisha showed up and climbed aboard. “But let’s forget it, OK?” he winked while pointing with his chin toward her. “I’m ready to get into some trout.”

“Me too!” chirped Trisha as she smilingly grabbed him from behind in a spoon grip and nuzzled his back.

“Don’t we need gas, Mitch?” Trisha asked while releasing her grip.

“Nah,” said Pelayo while tapping the fuel gauge. “Got plenty for where we’re going.”

“Exactly,” nodded Doc.

Our boat ride would be a short one, especially by the standards of most speck fishing in this area. The beaches around Timbalier and Isles Dernieres, the Pickets, lower Lake Pelto — these areas attract most fishermen who launch from Cocodrie. We’d stop less than halfway to those places, less than a third from some. And we’d have a blast with the specks — school specks that is, much more ravenous and less finicky in early summer than their parents and grandparents. And much better eating.

Drifting over schools of them in the Bay Tambour (not to be confused with the similarly named one below Yellow Cotton Bay) and Bay St. Elaine areas near the mouth of Bayou Petit Caillou, watching our corks plunge and whooping crazily as we haul them aboard two at a time has become an early summer ritual for us.

But it’s best before the shrimp season opens. Right now, the birds (black-headed gulls) aren’t focusing on bycatch from shrimp boats; hence when they’re perched on the water or, even better, hovering right above it, they rarely steer us wrong. They steer us, almost invariably, right over thick schools of ravenous school specks.

“Watch it!” I screeched as we hit the open bay and barely dodged a crab trap bottle. “Watch it! There’s ANOTHER!

“Man, it’s hard to see these things today for some reason!” yelled Doc.

Then, sure enough, WRUUN WRUUNN, the motor killed.

“Now ya did it!” Chris sighed. “You got one! The rope’s wrapped around the damn prop!”

Not exactly an uncommon scene with us lately.

“Well!?” Doc said while looking around wide-eyed as Trisha snuggled him, batting her long eyelashes and raising her eyebrows in mock fear.

“Your turn!” Pelayo snarled at point-blank range while staring at me. And I knew exactly what he meant. I’d have to jump in and unravel the thing.

In I went. Actually, the still coolish water felt great.

“Hurry!” I heard Pelayo yell as I struggled with the rope. “Here he comes!” And I saw Chris and Doc pointing behind me just as a wave filled my nostrils with water and ignited a spasm of coughing. Sure enough, this was no pleasure craft approaching. It looked like the owner of these crab traps. The guy probably loses half his crabs and a quarter of his traps every year to people who look like us right now.

“Look!” Pelayo screeched as the ramshackle boat closed on us. “He’s reaching for something!”

Indeed, the crabber guy was reaching down. I could already see the news report: “This is Christiana Amanpour reporting from Chackbay, Louisiana. The ear-shattering explosion and ball of flame that erupted from these normally placid waters this morning and horrified residents as far away as Chacahoula has been traced to an exploding gas tank in a pleasure craft.

“Capt. Mitch ‘T-Boy’ Waguespack of the Terrebonne Sheriff’s Department pieced together the cause of the conflagoration, and attributes it to a bullet from a high-calibered hunting rifle striking the gas tank of a boat, another tragic example of that rash of aggression spreading throughout our southern waterways known as boat-rage.

“Tulane professor Fernie Fudgeracker has written extensively on the issue, and he’s with us for tonight’s broadcast.

“‘This type of thing is to be expected now that mean-spirited Republicans cut the funding for the courses in conflict-resolution and the teachings of Mahatma Ghandi, which we had stipulated as a requirement for anyone applying for a boater’s license.

“‘When they wake from their delirium, Fontova, Pelaez and Keys have their own political party — those neo-fascist Republicans — to thank for their ghastly ordeal.’

“The hapless fishermen, who remain in guarded condition at Houma Medical Center, were rescued by the Sheriff’s patrol.

“‘They were a pitiful sight,’ stammered a still-shaken Capt. Waguespack. ‘The flames singed all of their clothes and most of their hair, even their mustaches and eyebrows.’

“Their wives, contacted at Louis Armstrong International Airport as part of an all-girl junket bound for Cancun, seemed remarkably composed.

“‘Oh, they always look a little worn out after a fishing trip,’ giggled Shirley Fontova between sips of her complimentary, pre-flight margarita.

“‘Besides, we made a deal,’ chirped Cindy Keys while high-fiving Shirley after a hearty margarita gulp. ‘Humberto and Chris go to Cocodrie — we go to Cancun! They’ll be fine. You’ll see … Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville!’

“Back to you, Lou.”

A ghastly vision, and a fleeting one. The crabber, it turned out, was only reaching for a drink. He rumbled up, nodded, waved and roared off. I finally peeled the damn rope off.

We’d motored barely half a mile south when Pelayo pointed.

“That’s them!” he bellowed.

Sure enough, some gulls (the black-headed ones) were hovering, with another dozen or so sitting on the water resembling a small flock of malnourished dos gris. They were maybe a hundred yards off a grassy point.

Nine times out of 10, beneath these gulls are feeding school specks, pushing up shrimp for them. On the other hand, if you cast around diving terns, the ones that make that creaky, squeaky sound and smack into the water head first after diving like a Stuka, you usually catch sail cats or ladyfish. Farther out or along the coast, however, terns often signal feeding Spanish mackerel, and we eagerly pounce on these.

Half of these gulls were sitting on the water. A few others were hovering and dipping their beaks. A current line formed right past them. Little swirls and various forms of surface commotion rippled the surface. Everything looked perfect.

Doc killed the motor about a hundred yards away, and we drifted in just as the gulls started lifting. I chunked out my shrimp-tipped tandem shad-rigs (yes, I still swear by them, and not only because of sentimental reasons) under a cork toward a little swirl, and the cork never stopped. It hit the water and kept going down. I thought it might have gotten tangled for a second, as happens a lot with tandem shad-rigs.

Then I felt the lunge.

“WHOOAA!” I reared back, and felt another lunge that almost jerked the rod from my sweaty grip. The drag was loose and singing crazily when a trout went airborne and another thrashed the surface with that gaping yellow mouth.

“YEAH, YOU RIGHT!” I howled. “Looks like a DOUBLE CHEEA!” It was, but one dropped off as I swung them aboard.

“Great!” squealed Trisha while clapping her hands. “We’ll fry ’em up tonight!”

“And whole,” added Pelayo as he cast. “The skin garlicky, lemony and crispy, the meat underneath moist and flavorful. Yeah, you right!”

“I’ll make the homemade tartar sauce!” roared Chris as his cork plunged and rod bowed.

“Man, I still love catching school trout like this,” Chris whooped as he swung aboard a pair on his tandem white beetles. “Like we used to do wading in front of the Lake Villa pumping station when Honky Tonk Woman was No. 1 on the WTIX charts. Only we were using go-go worms and smoky shrimp tails at the time.”

“And side-winders,” added Doc as he swung in a trout. “And Mr. Champs”

“Well,” I smirked as my cork plunged again. “I, for one, am using the same thing I used back then — shad-rigs!”

Then my trout cartwheeled across the surface.

After my third cast, it took all of three pops until my cork plunged. Then my rod was almost yanked from my feeble grip. Then they erupted on the surface with yellow mouths agape, rattling their gills like tambourines.

“Can’t beat this, huh Doc?” I yelled, and he whooped a salutation as a trout smacked his very cork. The Gina ugliness was a long lost memory by now.

Soon Doc was savoring those lunges and that surface thrashing on his light spinning tackle. He was using white grubs.

As usual under these conditions, at this time of year and in this upper Terrebonne area, lure color and style was irrelevant. The school specks smacked everything we threw at them — though it seemed they smacked the shrimp-tipped ones with a bit more gusto and hung on a bit longer.

Pelayo cast next, and his cork plunged on the first pop.

“YOWZA!” he blurted as he set the hook and his pole bowed. “Nice school trout here!” The thing was going berserk. Even leaped, ladyfish like, in the air.

“Sure that ain’t a ladyfish?” Doc laughed. “Sure looked like one with all that airborne stuff.”

But no. Soon Pelayo swung aboard a 15-inch speck — big by our standards. We never get into monster trout by fishing this area and this way. But who cares? We want fast action and a fish fry.

Pelayo finally cast out … but with a spoon? It even looked like a …?

“What the heck was that?” I asked while unhooking my fifth trout.

“A Sidewinder,” he laughed. “A classic! Watch.”

He hadn’t cranked three times on his reel when — WHAM! — he struck back.

“They still like ’em!”

It took me five cork-pops to nail one on my next cast. Then it got off midway back to the boat. Then another one hit. Then he got off. Then just as I was lifting the lure from the water — SMACK! — one hit it and splattered me with warm water.

“They’re all over!” I laughed.

We ended up with 18 from this school, after maybe five throwbacks, then set out to find another, which took all of five minutes by heading along the northern coast of what old maps term Bay St. Elaine.

We laughed as boats headed past us all morning — all heading south, all spending outrageously expensive gallons of gas. And perhaps they caught trout a tad larger than ours.

But we had a blast. We didn’t quite limit out, but kept another 36 schoolies, with maybe 10 throwbacks. Most were filleted back at Doc’s camp, but a dozen remained whole for the evening feast, which, along with the oysters and boudin brought over by Doc’s second cousins and new duck-lease mates — was divine.

We found them under the gulls in the open water. We found them around current lines off of points. We fished like we fished along the (then wild and undeveloped) Metairie/Kenner lakefront as grammar-school hoodlums. No hocus-pocus or dilettante-ism for this type of fishing — and we had a blast.

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