Upper Empire

The Bayou Vacherie area still has lots and lots of marsh, and the salty creatures that love to call it home.

The poor guy was blinking, shaking his head and seemed to be screaming. My passenger window was rolled up, and Bobby’s radio was BLARING Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” — “How does it FEEE-EEL!” — at 1972 Warehouse levels so I couldn’t be sure. The guy was hoisting an orange basket of ice to his chum in the boat, so he couldn’t swat. He could only blink, scream and shake his head maniacally. His pod-nuh quickly dumped the ice in an opened ice-chest, hurled the basket down and started swatting crazily at his eyes and ears.

Heaven help us, I thought.

“Told ya we needed some wind,” I gasped at Bobby while getting out at Frelich’s. “I’ll get the bait and ice,” I continued. “Y’all got the beer.”

“Fair enough,” Bobby smirked. “And don’t worry, that wind’s supposed to kick up later this morning. Got plenty Skin-So-Soft anyway. We’ll be alright.”

I’ll take mosquitoes any day, I thought to myself while walking briskly through the parking area. Heck, I’ll take cottonmouths and leeches to GNATS!

On calm spring days, no more hideous torture bedevils the coastal fisherman. Oh sure, Off and Skin-So-Soft work — but you can’t apply the stuff inside your eyelids or inside your mouth and nostrils. So those vicious little buggers zero-in on this tender flesh. Horrible..HORRIBLE!

A line had formed for the maw-ket shrimp, and the small talk was all gnat-related. I tried to block out the obnoxious babble.

Suddenly, “well, well, WELL!” came a loud salutation from behind me. I didn’t like it. The voice was vaguely familiar, and the tone was more snide than friendly. So I tried to ignore him too.

“Six pounds of shrimp, please,” I signaled to the frantic fellow behind the counter. “And a basket of ice.”

“Well if it ain’t Mr. Deerslayer HIMSELF!”

The voice behind me was louder and more snide this time. No mistaking it now. He was talking to me.

No, I thought. I didn’t need this. Not now. I was headed to Bobby Braud’s and Kevin McKearan’s camp this weekend mainly to relax. I didn’t for a second think we’d catch any fish. Bobby and Kevin assured me we’d mop up in the Bayou Vacherie/Bayou Maringuion area just north of Bay Adams outta Empire.

“A beautiful marsh around our camp, Humberto,” Bobby assured me. “Still looks like the lower Empire-Buras area from 30 years ago. Winding bayous, duck ponds, lotta marsh still. If the tide’s up, we’ll troll-motor into the duck ponds and nail the reds. If it’s low, we’ll bottom fish the deeper bayous. Lotsa good oyster bottoms. We’ll nail reds, drum and plenty sheepshead. You’ll see.”

I didn’t believe a word of it. These are first-class BS artists — virtuosos at the game, even by South Louisiana standards. The wind had been howling for almost a week. Water was bound to be chocolate and the tide low. Whatever. For me, it was enough to just be out there for the weekend.

But now the snide one had me cornered — and I didn’t for a second doubt who he was: our old “friend” Wes from Tiger Plaza. “Doug Neidermeir” we’d nicknamed him back at LSU. Quite appropriately the nickname was coined by Pelayo during a toga party.

Anyway, I grabbed my shrimp, turned around and made my way through the little knot of customers, avoiding him, keeping my distance. I could hear him snickering and noticed him pointing at me as I made my way through the door, where I bumped into a heavily perfumed woman in an LSU sweatshirt and cap. She caught my eyes, I looked down and my stomach froze.

Her eyes and lips narrowed.

“The deerslayer!” she finally snarled.

“That’s HIM alright!” yelled her husband, still taunting me from behind.

Ye-GAWDS! I thought. Yoko TOO! Chris came up with her nickname, and at the same party if I recall. She looked nothing like Yoko Ono, more like Margaret Houlihan, which we called her when Wes first brought her to a party.

Shortly, her true personality began to manifest. She evolved into a hideous, rumor-mongering, backstabbing witch, and broke up the old gang. The moniker was perfect.

I guess every gang of chums has their Yoko. Priscilla was ours. For years afterward whenever an old chum would ask “Seen Wes? What happened to ol’ Wes?” we’d answer: “He got Yoko’ed.”

The term clicked instantly. My stomach was in a knot and my mind swirled with ugliness as I walked to Bobby’s boat. Why these people? And why today? My mood was ruined. I’d only come awake near the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church. Now just a brief run-in with Neidermeir and Yoko had put a serious hex on what was supposed to be a fun-filled weekend.

The memories of my last confrontation with Wes and Priscilla were ugly and fresh. At a dinner party just after New Year’s, Artie invites me to his lease for the last weekend of the deer season.

“Sheeeee—eet” I snorted. “A waste a time! I heard y’all got that antler-rule stuff. No way I’m wasting my time. Hard enough to see ANY deer at all in South Louisiana, much less a 6-point or better! You gotta be out-cha mind to hunt Louisiana with rules like THAT! Me, I like MEAT. Me, I’m going duck hunting that week. And that bunch you hunt with! What a buncha buttheads! I knew some of them at LSU. Man they…..”

“We got doe tags, Humberto,” Artie replied. “Very few got filled this year. I’ll get you one.”

“Now THAT’S better!” I brightened up. “I just might….”

“Don’t think anyone else is going hunting that week anyway. We’ll have the place to ourselves.”

Now I was really brightening up.

“Ready?” I hoisted my empty glass at Artie as I headed for the bar.

“Freakin-aay,” he nodded back.

I brought him back a double. The Bacardi flowed freely that night.

“Heck, I need me some meat too,” Artie confessed later. “Ain’t shot deer one this season. Gail’s complainin’ about all the money I poured into this damn lease — and I ain’t got SQUAT to show for it!”

“Told ya!” I snorted. “Man, a piney woods lease like that? Ya gotta be CRAZY to pay that kinda money — and then have to wait around for a 6-point or better? That’s nuts, for a guy like you.”

“NO waitin around this weekend, Humberto,” Artie leaned toward me and winked. “We ain’t letting ANYTHING walk, pod-nuh. This weekend, if it’s brown, it’s DOWN! Doe, spike, forkhorn, whatever! It’s the last week.”

Artie was getting more excited, leaning in closer, speckling me with Bacardi spittle.

“And like I said,” his eyebrows were in serious Groucho mode. “I’m pretty sure we’ll have the place to ourselves. As always, now that the season’s closing, the rut’s JUST starting!”

“Sounds like a winna!” I grinned, wiped my glasses and hoisted my glass for a toast. “Like Ted Nugent says: ‘We’ll whack ‘em and stack ‘em!’”

“Freakin—aay!” Artie clanked my glass and drank deeply.

I hadn’t been on the stand 45 minutes on that cold, drizzly evening when the deer ambled into the food plot.

The shakes started. It even had horns!

“Maybe? …JUST maybe?” I was thinking as I raised the scope.

Naw, a big-bodied cow-horn spike. Still I was pumped. Artie said ANYTHING. We’d split the meat. The crosshairs wobbled crazily, and the deer was on the very edge of a briar thicket when I finally jerked the trigger — PE-TAAOOW!!

The spike flipped like a head-shot rabbit. Then he started kicking … kicking … more kicking. Mud and leaves going everywhere. I got nervous and frantically worked the bolt, chambering another round. But when I raised the scope I saw he was finally expiring. Another kick … another leg jerking over the briars. Finally, the briars were still.

I was a basket case as I clambered down the ladder. My knees were almost knocking as I walked over the muddy food plot toward the brown that was down.

I got to him and let out a crazed whoop. I’d hit him high in the neck, though I was aiming behind the shoulder. No matter. I was seriously pumped. Deer were hard to come by this season. Now we had some scrumptious meat on our hands. I was sitting on a log gathering my wits when I heard the 4- wheeler approaching. That’s Artie for ya, I thought. We got some meat, so now he’s ready to head back to the camp and start boozing it up. Fine with me.

Then it came around the bend — but this ATV was green? Artie’s is RED! And the guy now walking across the food-plot was much taller, and dressed in L.L. Bean?! Artie’s more a Wal-Mart/Army surplus kinda guy! What the…..?

He was halfway to me when he yelled out, “Got one?” It was Neidermeier himself! The club president, I’d heard.

“NO!” I stood and blurted, shaking my head vigorously.

“Who’s that?” he said as he picked up the pace. “That YOU?…..Humberto?….What on earth?”

“Sure is, Wes!” I smiled feebly while my stomach received an icy jolt. “Artie and I just got up. Man, how ya been! Been a long time, amigo!”

My smile was rigid and transparently fraudulent as he walked up.

“Artie told me you were his club’s president. I told him we were old friends!”

Then I extended a hand that was shaking a bit.

“Strange,” he said as he walked up, not smiling, and shook my hand mechanically. “Artie didn’t say ANYTHING about any GUESTS this weekend? He knows that we have a policy where…..”

“It was a last-minute thing,” I stammered. “Ha-ha!”

My smile remained but my turgid eyes gave it away.

“Well, what ya got?” Wes asked with his eyes narrowing.

“Nothing!” I snorted while kicking the ground disgustedly. “Shot at a damn coyote and missed.”

“That so?” Wes pursed his lips.

“Yeah man,” I grimaced. “That sucker came BOOKIN’ through here, chasin’ a rabbit. I mean that sucker was SHAGGIN’.”

I held my hand slightly over the side of my head, forefinger shaking.

“I popped off a shot just he cleared the plot (I pointed in the OPPOSITE direction from where the deer lay). Looked it over but no blood or anything. I’m about ready to head back anyway, so…..”

“Let’s have a look,” Wes said as he walked OPPOSITE from where I’d pointed. The swine had me pegged. He didn’t believe me now, any more than he believed Chris (or Priscilla herself ) about them “just talking” while holed up in Pelayo’s Tiger Plaza bedroom after the Ole Miss game in ‘79.

Anyway, Wes found my deer. He brought it back to the camp himself, where his wife Priscilla and two other couples were playing cards and gabbing. Things got ugly that night.

“Well!” Artie shot back at Wes. “Nobody told me Yoko was coming EITHER! I thought……”

“WHO?” Wes asked the question with an angry frown, and I shot a look at Priscilla in time to see her flinch and grow bug-eyed. She knew about her nickname but always blamed it on ME, rather than Chris. He’d convinced her otherwise after that Ole Miss game.

Artie and I left that night in a blaze of tension, ugliness and name-calling.

“I was quitting that raggedy club anyway!” Artie kept snarling between beer gulps on the way home. Then Artie’d go into his Neidermeir imitation.

“‘Artie, you owe a $50 guest fee — PLUS a $250 fine for the spike.’ Well, the check’s in the mail, WES!”

The ugly memories swirled in my head as I got in Bobby’s truck, just as he was getting out.

“Forgot something” he said as he made for Frelich’s door. “Need some jigheads. Be back in a second.”

Five minutes later, he hadn’t returned, and I looked out to see him leaning into a shiny black SUV’s window talking to someone…..that someone was….. Neidermeir! Then Yoko walked up behind Bobby. He turned around, and they hugged. He smiled broadly as she pecked him on the cheek! What the …? I was stupid with shock.

Bobby was halfway back to his truck when he suddenly turned around and exclaimed,

“Yeah, we brought the paper plates and fish fry, don’t worry.”

I sat bolt upright in the seat and faced Bobby as he got in.

“What was THAT all about?” I stammered.

“Wes and Priscilla,” Bobby quipped as he jerked his truck into gear. “Great people. Told ya we were in this camp with some other people. That’s them. We’ll probably get there a little before them. They’re stopping at Cypress Cove first to see Priscilla’s sister who’s in from Houston and staying at a condo down there.”

I slumped in the seat. My head swirled. I felt weak and dizzy. I tried to forget about it, to think of ANYTHING else. But it was hopeless.

“How’d you hook up with them?” I finally asked as we came over the levee into Delta Marina.

“Wes was Johnny’s soccer coach for a coupla years,” Bobby said while motioning to his sleeping son in the back seat. “Great guy. We really hit it off.”

“You know,” I said. “I’ve known Wes for awhile myself.”

“No kidding?!” Bobby smiled. “Should be a great weekend. A reunion of sorts. Friends all around.”

“Right,” I nodded while getting out to unhook the straps.

Mud loomed below the hoist. Tide was super low.

“Forget the duck ponds,” I snorted to Bobby as he cranked the engine.

“No problem,” he smiled. “We’ll start out in Bayou Vacherie. We oughta do OK.”

The ride to his camp took all of 10 minutes. Bay Adams was churned horribly. Water was filthy. Things looked grim.

But the water in Bayou Maringuion itself was amazingly clear.

“Told ya,” Bobby remarked as I stared at the water from the camp’s dock while lugging an ice chest from the boat.

Bayou Vacherie makes a sharp turn near its mouth at Bay Adams. We parked on a little island, and Bobby started rummaging for the shrimp.

“Cast right out there,” he pointed straight behind the boat, where Johnny’s shrimp-tipped jig-head had in fact just landed. “There’s a little ledge there.”

Not three minutes after casting, Bobby was rearing back on his road.

“Come to PAPPA!” he whooped as his real started screaming. The battle was joined.

“Running like a redfish, Humberto!” Bobby whooped. “Told ya!”

Then the brute erupted in a froth of copper near mid bayou.

“Red alright!” Johnny yelled from the bow. “A MONSTER too, Dad — HEY!” Then Johnny reared back on his pole. “One here too!”

Just then I felt the tap-tap on my line. I lifted the rod tip, and felt a lunge. I lunged back

“YEAH YOU RIGHT!” I howled as my rod bucked.

Three lines in the waw-da. Three fish on! Unreal!

Bobby’s was a 10-pound red. Mine a 5-pound puppy drum and Johnny’s a gorgeous sheepshead. We hadn’t been fishing five minutes, and had one of each species Bobby assured me we’d catch. Unreal. Soon Kevin approached in his boat, and we waved him over. He beached alongside us, and his boys started casting.

In minutes, they were whooping themselves. This was the kind of fishing they liked: ACTION! No hocus-pocus either. Simple bottom fishing with shrimp-tipped jigs. Something you don’t see much of anymore.

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

“Whack ’em and stack ’em, huh Humberto!” Bobby yelled while hoisting one aboard.

“You ain’t NEVER lying, Bobby!” I whooped back.

Finally we couldn’t cram anymore in the boxes. Between two boats, we had 73 fish as we docked up at the camp. I was wacking my boning knife on a stone when I heard Bobby yell.

“Finally here!…Check ’em out!” and he held up a fish in each hand.

“NICE!” nodded Neidermeir as he rumbled up to the dock.

“Oh wow!” Yoko gushed. “Y’all did GREAT!”

Then she saw me. We had an interesting evening.

Signed copies of Humberto Fontova’s new book, The Hellpig Hunt, are available on-line at www.louisianasportsman.com at a greatly reduced rate off the cover price. You can also order a copy by calling (800) 538-4355.