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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Rainy days and Wednesdays

I took off mid-week for a much needed day on the lake.  As I pulled into the state park, a whitetail fawn bounded across the road ahead of me.  “A good sign” I thought to myself.  A few minutes later as I readied the boat for launch I heard a roar approaching from somewhere, it seemed to be everywhere and nowhere all at once.  The only thing I was sure of was that the parking lot was getting much, much louder; then there was a great ripping sound as something tore the air.  I looked up and a Navy jet trainer streaked across the sky just a few hundred feet over my head.  He was banked hard to the right, standing it on it’s wingtip, and slipping sideways through the air as he pulled a hard turn.  In a flash and a roar he was gone, blasting up the river.  Another good sign, if the fish get too ornery I’ve got air support, no way this day ends well for the fish.

I launched the boat, got my sonars and camera dialed in, then headed south to see what I could see.  It was a gray day, with dark, dull colors muting the hillsides.  Most of the leaves had fallen already, exposing the forest floor and the ridge lines.  The wind was out of the south but it was cool enough to need a jacket, rain was in the forecast. 

There were a few coves I’d hit just off the main river channel to start the day.  These coves are surrounded by steep, tall hills.  From a distance these hills look like huge loaves of bread, lined up one after another.  The steep, forested hills roll along the bank like that as far as you can see.  In between many of those hills are coves that hold all manner of wildlife.  Some of the coves are a few hundred yards wide and are big enough to hold a marina.  Others are narrow affairs that lead you on a tight, twisty, watery path to the junction where the cove meets the creek that feeds it.

My first stop was a cove in which I sometimes camp.  There’s a steep rocky cliff on the left side of the entrance, and a wide gravelly bar on the right with steep hills all around.  The mouth of the cove this time of year is only a few yards wide.  Once you pass through that gap you enter a very protected cove perhaps 60 yards wide that doglegs to the left after about 150 yards.  

It was just after noon and I didn't expect the fishing to pick up until after 3 PM so just then  I was focused on running the camera.  Perhaps there would be something interesting to photograph in the cove.  As soon I killed the throttle to idle through the mouth of the cove I saw movement.  There, in the back-right side of the cove...coyotes!  In the middle of the day I just bumped into a small pack of coyotes hunting along the riverbank.

There’s no telling what type of lunch a coyote might luck into here.  A dead fish?  A slow moving snake in the cool weather?  Squirrel?  Chipmunk?  I’ve seen them all here, and clearly the coyotes have too. They don’t seem alarmed by my presence but they leave in a bouncing trot, following each other then splitting up and coming back together as they make their way around the cove.  I got a few pictures but between the weather and the distance I didn’t get any GREAT shots.

The coyotes drifted off through the trees in the back of the cove, and I thought I might be able to intercept them at the waters edge one cove to the south.  I eased the boat out of the cove and hit the throttle.  The boat jumped up onto plane and I was cruising fast at the base of a series of small cliffs that drop from the hills above.  I looked up at the ridge line that was slipping past me and wondered if I could climb up there and cut those dogs off in the woods for a picture.  I quickly realized the futility of that plan.  There were almost no leaves left on the trees, which meant every one of them was lying on the ground. There was absolutely no way to "sneak" across dried leaves.  It would be like trying to "sneak" across a floor covered in Rice Krispies.  If it had been raining the past few days I'd have had a chance because wet leaves are quiet leaves, but as it was, my only option was a water approach.

A minute or two later I turned right and into the large mouth of the next cove.  This was perhaps 100 yards wide and 300 deep.  Way in the back I thought I saw bass busting baitfish.  Water was splashing everywhere in a classic sign of aquatic carnage.  Then I noticed something small on top of the water.  It wasn't bass, it was ducks.  These birds were jumpy and it wasn't even duck season yet.  I was several hundred yards away and they spooked.  I was in the middle of the cove which meant they'd have to pass within 50 yards of me to get out.  They were slow climbers and all of them passed on the left...Mergansers. I grabbed a few pics then got back to fishing.

While I waited on the coyotes I made a few sonar runs looking for balls of baitfish.  That's the key this time of year, find the bait and you find the bass.  It's not unusual on Pickwick to find clouds of baitfish that are hundreds of yards long and fill the water column from top to bottom.  So far though I was only seeing small pockets of fish on the graph.  I could tell there were larger fish feeding on the bait, but it didn't look like largemouth.  I made a few casts in the middle of the cove just to be sure and pulled out a yellow bass.  Not what I was looking for but it confirmed my suspicions.  A few casts later I gave up on seeing the coyotes, they had a lot of options and it didn't seem like they were making a bee line for my location.

I left that cove and pushed further south and east, toward the mouth of Bear Creek.  Along the way I bumped a pair of bald eagles from a tall pine on the waters edge.  They were perched high, and when they left they stayed high.  I had nowhere near enough lens to get a good picture of them at that distance but it was cool to see.  If I'd had a 600mm lens I may have had a shot, but a Canon 600mm lens runs around $11,000 and a picture of those birds isn't worth near that much to me.  I shrugged and let them be.   

I continued south and east.  I knew the wind was out of the south, and Bear Creek runs more or less north/south.  I knew I'd hit some wind when I turned the corner into that creek.  I was not wrong.  As I rounded the point and entered the creek the water was rough.  I was not going to make good speed in this water.  When I fully rounded the corner all I could see was an angry gray sky and white-capped rollers that looked to get higher as you gazed deeper into the creek.  It actually looked like the water was "taller" in the distance.  The wind had whipped the water into a long series of increasingly tall waves.  I could literally see the future and it was going to be rough and wet.  

I had about four miles of this before I found shelter in a cove.  The bow was beating down on the waves and water was flying everywhere.  Without a rain jacket you'd be soaked to the core.  I passed a huge flock of Coot who looked as though they'd given up.  They were all floating in a huge group up against the rocks where the wind had blown them.  They were bobbing up and down as the waves passed under them.  Half were visible at any given time because the other half disappeared into the trough of a wave. If they were smart they'd have gotten out and walked to a better place.  

A short time later i found shelter in a wide cove that starts with 30 foot cliffs, but gives way to a wide gravelly bay, and then to mud as the lake meets the woods in the back of the cove.  There were signs of life, but despite a disciplined approach I didn't manage to catch anything.  I got back on the gas and pushed down to the next cove.  

Now a light, cold rain was falling.  The water and air temps were both in the mid 50's, and with a cold wind blowing you could get uncomfortable in a hurry if you weren't dressed properly.  Anyone can enjoy a blue sky, sunshiney day at the lake, but it takes a special type of person to stand alone in a cold, driving rain, on a gray, windy day and still be having fun.  One might call that type of person an idiot, I call him an outdoorsman.  

I slowly eased deeper into the cove.  A hundred yards away it dead ends into a draw between the hills that surround me.  Above and to my right I saw movement.  A hawk was silently gliding over the hillside looking for a victim.  He pulled up sharply, slowed, and landed on a branch high up the hill.  Patiently, he waits.  I cast again into the cold drizzle.  As I slowly retrieve my lure I hear a pair of squirrels on the hill to my left.  They bark and chatter as they run, making all kinds of noise on that hill.  Apparently I’m not the only one who hears the commotion.  The hawk pitched out of his tree and soared across the cove, taking up a perch near the squirrel fracas.  I smiled and went back to fishing.  

I don’t think the hawk ever got ahold of the squirrels because I never heard any screaming.   As you might imagine, if you get attacked by a flying predator 20 times bigger than you, there’s going to be some screaming going on.  Anyone who’s seen Lord of the Rings knows that much.  

Under trolling motor power I pointed the boat toward the tan gravelly bank that meandered along the foot of the hills all the way to the mouth of the cove.  It was quiet.  I had only seen one other person in the past few hours.  I stood there alone, surrounded by the muted colors of a wet fall day.  Dark leaves covered dark hills under a dark gray sky that was spitting rain.  The temperature was falling and I noticed the visibility was getting lower due to the rain.  It was like the entire world was brown and gray, but in a beautiful, deeply saturated way.  Somewhere behind me a Loon called.  The Loon has an almost prehistoric sounding call.  I've heard it described as "haunting" and it's a fitting description. It could easily be a sound effect from a Jurasic Park movie.  

About this time a Loon popped up from under the water right next to my boat.  I'm talking maybe 10 yards from me.  Loons are a diving bird, they float around in loose groups and they dive for fish.  This one had been working the bank and just popped up beside me.  As slowly as I could, I put my pole down and eased toward the camera bag.  I couldn't imagine that bird would sit still while I was walking around right next to him, but he did.  I made it to the camera and snapped a few pics.  Then he dove, and popped up on the other side of the boat where I got a few more pics.  He dove once more and I started counting to see how long he would stay down.  At the 30 second mark I started looking behind me, I figured he had to have popped up somewhere but here was nowhere in sight.  "How long can that thing hold it's breath?"  Still I counted.  Just past the one minute mark I saw him pop up about 100 yards down the bank!  He stayed under far longer than I thought he would have, and he covered a lot of ground along the way.  

If you look close in the picture below you can still see water beaded up on his head from diving.


Sadly I caught nothing in that cove.  I motored down to the next one and tried again.  The wind had died down by that point and the water was getting calm.  Another eagle swooped by and perched in a tree at the back of the cove.  Even from a distance you can see their hulking frames in the tree.  It cuts a menacing figure in the woods.  Always sitting, always waiting, ready to strike.  I made a note of his location and planned to beach the boat and stalk close with the camera if I didn't find some fish soon.

I was moving toward the back of the cove at perhaps half a mile an hour, just a really slow pace.  I was casting in all directions trying to find some action when I saw more activity at the back of the cove.  A flock of turkeys had come out of the hills and was pecking around by the waters edge.  Unbeknownst to them they were also just about under the tree I'd seen the eagle land in earlier.  I got the camera ready.  It would be astounding to witness an eagle pouncing on a large turkey.  I was ready with the camera but the eagle had apparently already left, ain't that the way it goes?  As soon as you leave your spot and your quarry comes trotting by.  

I came up empty handed again.  I had one more trick up my sleeve.  It was about 4 PM and I was on my way to my favorite spot.  If I couldn't catch fish there then they just weren't catchable. I learned in short order that it just wasn't meant to be.  On my best, most productive spot I got skunked.  There was no bait in the area, the sonar made the place look like a ghost town.  

I stood alone on the bow, surveying my surroundings.  The rain was coming harder now, and at a slight angle driven by the wind.  The world was quiet.  The only sounds I could hear were the rain falling on my jacket, and the lonesome sound of a distant train horn.  The solitude and the rain were washing away the stress, and peace was sinking into my soul like rainwater into the ground.  A pelican flew by.  

At that point I decided to start making my way back to the truck.  I'd check a few more places, just to see what I could see, but the writing was on the wall.  This was not going to be a memorable day of fishing. 

By the end of the day I’d seen deer, a dozen turkey, five bald eagles, a pack of coyotes, a huge flock of coot, herons, loons, flocks of ducks, and pelicans.

I caught only a single fish that day, but I consider it a success.  As Thoreau once said "Some men fish their whole lives without knowing it is not really the fish they are after."  It's about peace, solitude, connection.  It's about so much more than the fish.  

Thursday, October 26, 2017

It was a quick trip to the lake last week.  It was slow enough during the mid-day that I got a chance to play with the camera as much as fish.  I found a few nice targets, but also discovered my new lens has a bit of a focus issue.  It's currently at Canon getting fixed, but I did manage to get a few decent shots.

The fishing is getting good as we move into fall.  The topwater action was non-stop for over an hour on the last trip.  At one point I caught a largemouth and a smallmouth on the same lure.  The action should only heat up as the temps get cooler. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Redfish in New Orleans

It’s been a few weeks since my redfish trip to New Orleans, and after a few counseling sessions I think I’m ready to talk about it.  A good friend of mine called and told me he’d be in New Orleans to accompany his wife on a work trip.  She’d be in class all day and he’d have nothing to do, so it looked like a great time for us to get together and fish.

When I heard he was staying in New Orleans I cringed a little.  Years ago I made a vow to never visit that city again.  Back then my wife and I had been on a trip to a friends wedding.  On our way home we were going to pass New Orleans and it seemed like a great time to see the city.  We parked on a public street a few blocks from Bourbon Street and went to see the sights.  We had lunch, listened to music, and bought gifts for friends and family.  At some point we decided to go back to the car.  It was then I discovered the very expensive parking ticket on my windshield.  Apparently you’re not allowed to park on just any public street in the area.  

The trip was then officially much more expensive, and a lot less fun.  We dropped our bags in the car, then parked in a different spot.  I had to move several streets further away to ensure I was in no danger of getting another costly ticket.  If I was in an illegal spot I’d surely get a ticket because there was a police station just up the street, I could see it from my car.  Satisfied that there was no way I could possibly get a ticket there, we went back to our sight seeing.

A few hours later I returned to the vehicle and found shattered glass all around the rear passenger door.  First the police had welcomed us to New Orleans by giving us a parking ticket, now the locals wanted to extend their gratitude as well, by breaking into my car, stealing all my stuff, and forcing me to drive home with a cold wind howling through the broken back window for the entire six hour trip. It was at that very moment that I learned to hate New Orleans.  I vowed I’d never set foot back in that filthy city.

Fast forward two decades.  My buddy calls and asks if we can get together in New Orleans.  Memories came flooding back like I was in a Jason Bourne movie.  Jumpy, flickering, grainy images: a ticket on a windshield, broken glass, howling winds, stolen was almost too much to handle.  

I told him we’d get together, but I figured I’d stay in Slidell, which is just across Lake Pontchartrain from the city.  That would allow me to see my friend, yet stay true to my vow.  If that’s not a “win-win” situation then I’ve never seen one.

Ultimately my vow fell victim to logistics.  It would just be a lot easier to stay at the same hotel as him.  Doing otherwise would add a few hours of unnecessary driving.  With the decision made, I began to pack.  Right before I left for the trip a story out of New Orleans made national news.  A church convention was in town and two of their participants were violently mugged on the way back to their hotel just before 9 PM; both were put in the hospital.  I sent the story to my friend, told him to be careful, and said I’d see him soon.

He was staying at the Astor Crowne Plaza at the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets.  This is an area called the French Quarter, or simply The Quarter.  It is the oldest section of the city of New Orleans and it’s famous for it’s open container laws and it’s nightlife.  Most of you will know if for the wild parties that take place there during Mardi Gras.    

It was an easy 6 hour drive, then I valeted the car and checked in.  The Quarter is a busy place.  There was tons of traffic from vehicles, pedestrians, street cars, and all other manner of propulsion.  The hotel was nice and check in was easy.  “Maybe New Orleans has changed” I thought.  Perhaps I was overly harsh with my vow two decades ago.

We’d have dinner that night, then go fish in the morning.  My co-workers had suggested a local seafood place that was a short walk from the hotel.  The walk was made a little more difficult by the construction projects that were underway but it wasn’t impossible.  The sidewalks were walled off from the street by a chain link fence and black mesh.  This forced all pedestrian traffic onto a fairly narrow sidewalk.  I’m talking “ALL” pedestrian traffic, that includes the significant number of homeless, beggars, and crazy people who walk the street.  

The people I passed seem to be almost shell shocked.  Almost no one made eye contact or said hello.  It was like they’d been bombarded and hassled so much by the street people that they adopted a strategy of just staring at the ground and avoiding all contact with anyone despite the close proximity.

The streets were filled with construction machinery, dust, and a gray watery liquid that smelled like sewage.  The sidewalks were full of tourists trying to get where they were going without being hassled, and street people who’s only purpose in life is to hassle tourists. 

When we finally got to the restaurant it was everything it was advertised to be.  We stepped off the zoo-like streets and into a clean, uncrowded establishment.  We were seated and a short time later got our next introduction to New Orleans.  I thought we had left the freak show outside, but our waiter was a transvestite guy who wore ear rings and a woman’s hair do, and called himself ‘Aubrey’.  “Wow” I thought, “just when I thought we’d seen everything.”  

Dinner was good, and soon we were on our way back to the hotel.  I had to go to my room and make some calls, but told my buddy I’d catch up with him later.  I was pleasantly surprised by my room.  It was on the third floor and had a huge window looking down on Canal Street.  I was low enough that it was almost like being on the street.  I could see everything and hear a lot too.  As I stood in the window making my calls I noticed some commotion across the street.  There was a skinny guy across the street on a corner, holding a three or four foot long 2x4 and waving it angrily at cars at the stoplight.  He was yelling and waving the board and I thought for sure he was going to smash a window out of the car in front of him.  

The light changed and the cars drove off.  Now I was interested though.  What was the deal with this guy?  Surely someone has called the cops already.  He wandered over to our side of the street and walked around waving the 2x4, yelling the whole time.  I couldn’t make out the words he was saying, but he was clearly agitated and was now right outside our hotel.   I shot a text to my buddy, warning him not to go outside right now because of the threat in front of the hotel.  “Surely security will call the cops on this guy.” I thought.

After a few minutes of watching the crazy 2x4 guy I heard something outside.  It was a loud, buzzing that turned to a roar.  A pack of motorcycles and 4-wheelers was careening wildly down Canal Street.  There were between 20 and 30 in all.  Weaving in and out of traffic, popping wheelies, and basically acting like fools.  The 2x4 guy loved it.  He stopped his ranting and just smiled and laughed as the parade went by.  It was chaos on wheels, and all the crazies loved it.  

I shook my head and realized New Orleans had probably gotten worse since I was last here.  I talked to Tony and we made plans to meet in the lobby at 5:45 AM.

A new day

The next morning we met before 6 AM and waited for the valet to bring the car (there is no self parking at this hotel).  The air conditioned lobby seemed almost cold so we stepped out into the early morning atmosphere of the French Quarter.  It felt great.  It was warm with no humidity, a rare combination for the South in June.  

I was going to lean up against the wall of the hotel while we waited but someone had recently used the front of the hotel as a urinal.  We side-stepped the puddle, moved down a few yards, and waited.  

The golden, early morning light was being filtered by the downtown ecosystem.  Buildings, trees, signs, and vehicles all cast their shadows as the city began to stir from it’s slumber.  I was glad we were leaving, because soon the day would heat up, and the smells would rise from the sidewalk, making the place stink like an outhouse.  As I looked around it felt like I was on the set of The Walking Dead.  Zombies were everywhere.  Of the people who were on the street at this hour, most...MOST of them appeared to be homeless, crazy, or both.  

As a pair of fully clothed, clean cut people who had showered in the past 24 hours we were immediately pegged as tourists.  A middle aged guy with a beer gut and most of his teeth made a bee line straight for us.  He walked up to us like he was the Mayor.  “Where y’all from?”  he inquired in a gravelly, difficult to understand dialect as he extended his hand for a shake.  I shook his hand (big mistake) and replied “Memphis.”  

This routine will be familiar to anyone who has visited, worked in, or lived in a big city.  They walk up and make some small talk, then ask for money.  Soon enough he started asking Tony for a quarter.  Tony is from a small town and hasn’t conversed with anywhere near as many street people as I have, and he was a guest in town so I ran interference.  “He doesn’t have any money.  He gave it all to some homeless people last night along with the carry out food we had left over from dinner.”

With that, the Mayor moved on.  He shuffled down the wide sidewalk with bent wrists,  bowed elbows, and loosely balled fists.  It was a gait that reminded me of Joe Cocker.  He passed a few other zombies on the way and stopped in front of the McDonalds to talk to a guy lying on the ground, presumably after spending the night there.  

A young woman walked past, dressed for work.  I shuddered just thinking about my wife, daughter, mom, or ANY female having to walk this gauntlet of the homeless, the crazy, the drugged, and the drunk. 

The car arrived and we were off.  Traffic was very light leaving downtown at 6 AM.  In short order we had made our way to Chef Menteur Highway, the road that led to our launch.

We launched about 20 miles east of the city, from a ramp right next to Ft. Macomb.  The trip down Chef Menteur Highway was like a history tour on the weather channel.  From the road we could see dozens of buildings and structures that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago.  Buildings were turned into crumbling piles of brick, fences and billboards turned to twisted, tortured looking skeletons of their former selves.  The damage was so severe that people didn’t or simply couldn’t rebuild.

Driving down Chef Menteur Highway I reflected on the previous nights dinner.  New Orleans might have an epic level of crime, but it also has some epic cuisine.  For dinner the night before I had Crawfish Etouffee, BBQ Shrimp (a famous Louisiana dish) and a fried seafood platter.  I don’t normally eat fried food, but it sounded good at the time.  Despite my concerns about the sudden ingestion of a pile of fried food causing intestinal distress, I slept soundly through the night.

As I drove, I reflected on what little I know about the history of French cooking.  Auguste Escoffier immediately came to mind.  Widely considered to be the father of French cuisine, he codified French cooking in the 20th century, establishing it as the modern haute cuisine.  Much of what is done in New Orleans restaurants is based in some way upon the principles he laid down centuries ago.

Now I was wondering about the name of this highway.  “Just how good a chef do you have to be in a place like this to get a highway named after you?”  Paul Prudhomme is from New Orleans.  He popularized cajun food in America.  He’s the guy who made blackened redfish so famous that commercial fishing for the species had to be restricted to prevent it’s extinction.  If you’ve ever heard of a “Turducken” you probably think of it as some backwoods cajun novelty.  It is...but it’s also really tasty!  Do you know who is widely credited with creating it?  Chef Paul Prudhomme.  Heck, he hired Emeril Lagasse to work in his kitchen decades before the Food Channel made Emeril a household name.  The guy was great cook, a titan of cheffing (it might not be a real word, but I’m on a roll so don’t stop me) but as great as he was, even he doesn’t have a highway named after him.  This Chef Menteur guy must really be something.  

With two hands on the wheel and my mind pondering Chef Menteurs place in the history of French cooking our rental car hurtled past Katrina’s wreckage and brought us closer to our destination, and to our redfish destiny.

Ultimately I found out that Chef Menteur isn’t a chef at all.  It’s a derivation of an old Choctaw Indian phrase that means “Lying Chief”.  Some people say the Choctaw gave the name “Lying Chief” to the Mississippi River because it changed paths so often it was like it lied to you about it’s course.  Others say the Choctaw had a very dishonest chief who they ostracized.  He then came to live in this area, and that’s where the name comes from.  Local history aside, it was time to slay some redfish.  The ramp appeared on the right side of the highway and the gravel crunched under our tires as we pulled in and waved to Miles Larose, our captain for the day.


The boat was a small skiff with a Suzuki 4-stroke on the back.  I have one on my boat so I recognized it’s value as a quiet, fuel efficient motor for this type of trip.  The boat might have been 21 feet long, with a two man bench directly in front of the captains console, a high poling platform on the rear, and a slightly elevated casting deck up front.  It was a tidy and efficient platform for our excursion.

Below is a picture of a similar boat that I found online.

The weather forecast was for thunderstorms throughout the day.  Miles thought we’d get rained off before 9 AM, I thought we might make it to 11 AM, and Tony simply doesn’t care about weather...he intended to fish to the death.  I’ve seen him do it before.

As we idled away from the quiet ramp I was a little in awe of our good fortune.  This was late June in south Louisiana, we’d been outside for more than two minutes and we weren’t yet sweating through our clothes.  It was VERY pleasant weather with low humidity and mild temps.  It was perfectly comfortable as we idled away from the ramp, and into the wild marshlands of coastal south Louisiana.  

The boat ran smooth on the water, pushing us past the gun portals of Fort Macomb, under the Chef Menteur rail bridge, and into the shipping channel that led to into Lake Borgne, and then the Gulf of Mexico.  A massive shape appeared in the haze a few miles ahead.  It sat in the middle of the channel like a giant metal monster.  As we drew closer the massive gray beast turned into a large tug, pushing barges down the river and crawling past the thin green grasses of the marsh.

After a 15 minute run we found ourselves pulling off the main channel, and into another world.  We were in a grassy marsh near a place called Alligator Bend.  The marsh was a scenic and quiet place.  If you let your lawn grow up to about eight feet tall, then flooded it, leaving only the top three or four feet of grass visible, you’d get an idea of what the area was like.  Now, in that flooded grass, carve out some narrow, meandering “streets“ that lead to larger bays.  As far as I could see in every direction, that’s what existed.  It was narrow, meandering “streets”, always turning one way or the other, that would occasionally open up into a “bay” that was perhaps 50 to 100 yards wide and again as long.  

Miles was very familiar with the area and he ran us through these narrow streets at a fast pace.  The boat would lean so far in the corners that it reminded me of riding a motorcycle, a very smooth motorcycle.  Green grass was rushing past us on boat sides, the path would turn right, then the horizon would come off axis as we leaned waaaaay over to carve the corner.   We’d carve left and right on the smooth water until Miles thought we were in a good spot.  It was better than any ride Disney ever created.

Low gray clouds hung across the morning sky, the wind blew, and in the far distance you could see downpours falling from distant anvil clouds.  For the moment we were clear.  There were big storms to the northwest and to the south, but we had great weather on top of us.

Time to fish

Miles stood on the poling platform in the rear.  From there he could maneuver the boat with a 20 foot metal pole, and he could spot fish for us.  Occasionally he’d call out “cast to 10 o’clock, 30 yards, moving left.”  Whoever had their line in at the time would fire a cast that direction and try to hook up.  Other times you could just see a swirl on top of the water where a redfish had made it’s presence known.

We started in shallow water throwing weighted swim-baits.  These are just soft plastic molds of a baitfish.  As you reel it in, the tail flaps back and forth, throwing off a little vibration, and attracting attention to itself like a tourist in the French Quarter.  Here the weeds were just a foot or two below the surface so you had to begin your retrieve the moment you hit the water or you’d risk pulling in 5 lbs. of grass on your hook.

As we got familiar with the area and the technique, it happened.  Thunder.  I’m not talking about weather related thunder either, I’m talking about the fried seafood platter from the night before.  Now that we were a long way from where I could do anything about it, my fried seafood platter decision was coming back to haunt me.  Deep in my gut, a storm was beginning to brew.  “Surely this will pass” I thought.  

Miles pushed us along and we cast at the grass line on both sides of the boat.  As time went by, our casting accuracy improved.  Soon enough we could park those little swim-baits next to any clump of marsh grass we wanted.  It was easy going.  All we needed now were fish.

Every 15 minutes or so we’d pull our lines in and do our motorcycle routine through the marsh to a new spot.  Everyone knew what to do and we got right back to casting when we stopped.  The weather was still wonderful.  The wind had picked up, which made casting a little difficult, but the wide swaths of marsh grass kept the water flat.  There was no chop at all in this area.

After perhaps an hour with no luck, Miles said we’d move out to water a little deeper and switch baits.  We’d now throw jigging spoons.  These are just a large, thin, metal blades shaped kind of like a feather, but with a hook on it.  The feather shape causes the bait to flutter and wobble as it comes through the water, imparting a great deal of action and flash to the overall presentation.  

Here the idea was to run the bait a little deeper.  We’d fire a long cast, watch the gold spoon plop into the water, then begin a jerking and reeling retrieve.  As you worked the lure you’d see flashes of gold in the water.  It was a wonderful imitation of a bait fish.  Surely this would draw a strike from the hungry Redfish that plied these waters.

It was a perfect morning for fishing, but my mind was pre-occupied by the intense pressure building in my stomach.  I was just going through the motions at that point.  I was still cracking jokes and having a good time, but it had become apparent that this storm in my gut was not going to subside.  I was determined to ride it out though.  In a few hours we’d be back at the dock and I could find a restroom.

On a long cast to a sheltered pocket 40 yards away I had a Redfish try to run down my lure.  I could see the gold flutter of my spoon, and then saw the water “hump up” behind it.  The fish was big enough that his back was creating a noticeable wake as it shed water while chasing my bait in the shallows.  “Fish! Fish! Fish!” the captain called.  I could see it, and I was waiting for it to crush my lure but it didn’t happen.  

As I reeled back in I told Tony to get his lure into that spot.  He didn’t feel right casting to a fish that I had almost caught.  His principles dictated that he not interfere with my catch in any way.  He is a great guy, but I insisted that he fire in there and try to get it.  Tony is a fisherman.  I mean he is a born fisherman.  I’ve sat right next to him before catching nothing while I watched him use the same bait and gear, and catch one after another.  On Lake Meade I watched him do it and his hook was only 6 feet away from mine!!!  If there are fish in the area, Tony will catch them.  I practically demanded he cast to that fish.

He too had the fish make a run, but not commit.  If Tony doesn’t get bit, then that fish is not catchable...period.  We moved on.  A short time later we had entered a wide bay.  We fished the grass on our left all the way until it formed a small point sticking out into this 200 yard wide “bay”.  That long slender point had “Redfish” written all over it.  We cast all the way down it, and then across it when we got to the end.  It was a dud.  We got absolutely nothing from the best looking piece of real estate we’d thrown at all morning. Tony had just cast to a pair of grass clumps on the right of the boat when Miles said “Let’s pull ‘em in and try another spot.”

I was already in, and when I looked up to see what Tony was doing “BAM!”  He got hit hard.  His rod was bent over and the line was slicing away from the grass clumps and out into open water.  

I could see there was a large wad of grass stuck on his line and something was taking it for a wild ride.  Suddenly nothing mattered.  Our entire world had shrunk to a 30 yard circle around that boat.  There were no storms, no streetwalkers, no traffic, the ONLY thing that existed at that moment in time was the fight.  

I’m tempted to say that it was a nice escape from reality, but it may be more accurate to say it was a RETURN to reality.  A return to real life, to nature, to the food chain and our place in it.  This is what man was designed to do.  Sitting in an office chair all day staring at numbers flashing on an electronic screen can scarcely be called “reality”.  This...surrounded by wind, water, nature, focused on your prey, striving for and achieving success out here...this is a wonderful reality.  

A few moments later he managed to bring the fish near the boat.  It was then that I saw it.  A large redfish was on that line and it looked like a torpedo.  When Tony got it close enough to where it could get a good look at us, it took off like a muscular, red rocket straight away from the boat.  The rod was bent, it was herky-jerky as the fished pulled, and I could hear the line coming off the reel as the drag slipped.   This was a good fish!    Finally, in a moment that instantly connected us to millions of years of our human ancestors, the beast was boated.  

Miles thought that fish was too big to be good table fare so I just snapped a few pics and we let him go.  That fish made three or four powerful runs from the boat before we got our hands on it.  Ultimately Tony pulled a beautiful 15 lb. Redfish from the coastal marsh.  It was the first catch of the morning and it happened right after we’d switched to our new technique.

It was mid-morning now.  The weather was still cooperating, and we’d found a presentation that produced.  The rest of the morning would be spent throwing gold spoons at the grass-line in deeper water.  

Two minutes later we were working the grass edge of another large bay, when Tony struck again.  His fluttering gold lure was flashing it’s way back to the boat when it got mauled by a saltwater predator. BAM!!!  The lure disappeared in a swirl of red scales and the line went tight.  We all laughed with delight as Tony struck another mighty blow for mankind.  Again, the fish took a few drag-stealing runs before he came aboard.  This time we took a picture and threw him in the cooler.

I was happy for Tony, but to be truthful I was beginning to worry.  My lower intestines felt like Mount Saint Helens in the spring of 1980.  I was beginning to get so uncomfortable that I couldn’t even crack jokes.  The pressure was getting severe.

A few casts later I got thumped!  It felt decent, but not huge.  Before I even got it to the boat Miles laughed and announced “Marsh bass!”.   It was the greenest bass I’d ever seen.  It was so much smaller than the Reds that Tony was catching that I immediately began mocking my own success.  The grass stuck to my line probably weighed more than the fish itself.  We all had a few laughs and got back to fishing.

BAM!  Tony drilled another Redfish.  The guy just has the magic touch.  A minute later we had another Red in the cooler.  

Dink!  I got hit again.  This was clearly not a large fish.  A few seconds later I reeled in a long skinny fish with a deeply forked tail.  It was small, but it sure looked fast.  It was a ladyfish.  Now I really had a laugh.  Not only could I not catch any big fish, I couldn’t even catch a manly fish.  Oh the humanity!

My laughing didn’t last long though.  Mt. Saint Helens was rumbling, big time.  It was time to begin discussing options and tactics.  There is no dry land in sight.  It’s water and flooded grass as far as you can see.  We still had a while to fish, so going back in wasn’t an option.  Miles tried to provide some professional guidance by telling me “Yeah, I had to take a dump in a marsh last week.  But it was a way better marsh than this one, it had a hard bottom.”  In two sentences he had both given me hope, and taken it away.

I liked the fact that he could empathize with my situation, and had enough experience to intelligently analyze it and help weigh my options.  Ultimately my only choice was to gut it out (no pun intended).

We got back to fishing and soon Tony whacked another.  This fish was destined to make his way to the cooler with the others.  Ultimately he escaped the hook right at the edge of the boat!  It sucked, but I have to respect something that fights to the bitter end.

That fish escaping marked a new era.  After that we entered the doldrums.  The fish activity dropped off so much that not even Tony could get any action.  Cast after cast we made to the grass-line.  The pressure in my gut was now so bad I couldn’t even speak.  I was a tortured man.  I saw some weeds fall on the boat and I wanted to pick them up and throw them overboard, but I dared not risk bending over.  
All I could do was stand upright and not talk.  It was misery.

More fishless time passed, and still the gut storm raged.  Eventually I had to call it.  I told Miles I had reached DefCon 1.  This was now a matter of strategic importance, one of survival...we had to make a run for the ramp RIGHT NOW or one of us might not survive and the other two would be scarred for life.

Fishing partners are always looking out for you.  However, they are also good at keeping the fishing trip on track.  When Tony saw my dire straights he nodded off into the distance at a camouflaged structure sticking up above the water and asked “What about that duck blind over there?  If there’s a platform you could take care of business there and we could get back to fishing.”

It was a glorious idea.  I was about to explode and relief was only 150 yards away.  We pulled our lines in fast, and Miles ran us over to the duck blind.  As we approached my mentality eased. I was close to relief, this would all be over in a minute.  I dared not consciously let my gut relax but even it began to give in to the inevitable.  Then, horror.  There was no platform to stand on, it was just a boat blind.  There were two pieces of chicken-wire walls coming up from the water and no place to stand.  Our last ditch plan to save me had failed.

That moment, there in the Louisiana marsh,had the same emotional gravity as the scene in Star Wars when the Death Star obliterated the planet Alderan.  Obi Wan Kenobi was millions of miles away, and helping Luke Skywalker train with his light saber when it happened.  Obi Wan suddenly got weak in the knees and reached for a chair.  

Luke grew nervous and asked “Are you alright?  What’s wrong?”

Obi Wan, clearly shaken, responds “I felt a great disturbance in The Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.  I fear something terrible has happened.”

He might not have the dramatic delivery of Obi Wan Kenobi, but Miles spoke first.  With the sad tone one might use uttering a sentence like “I hate seeing puppies die” he looked into the empty boat blind and said “Man, that was a tease.”
I almost couldn’t hear him through the pain.  His next statement was loud and clear though.  He chuckled and said “It wouldn’t have done you much good anyway though, there’s a gator in there.”  My last hope was not only a failure, but it was also booby trapped.  

We now had no choice but to run to the ramp.  It’s probably a good thing anyway.  If I’d have dropped that load in the marsh, the EPA would have sued me harder than BP after the oil spill.  What I had coming, had no place in nature.

We were due to go back in a few minutes anyway, but on a trip like this, leaving even a minute early feels a bit like failure, even if someones life was on the line.

Our fishing was officially over.  Miles began navigating the marsh alleys to get back to the main channel.  From there it was a 15 minute ride to the north.  All I had to do was go to an inner place, a place where I could block out the pain, focus on the horizon, and pray.  At this point I was trying to remember breathing techniques we had to learn in pre-natal classes from our first kid.  Here though I was trying NOT to give birth.

I was just barely convinced it was do-able, then we hit the main river channel.  The wind we had been protected from earlier by the marsh grass, was chopping up the main channel.  Suddenly my meditation was interrupted by the jackhammering of the hull on the choppy water. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!  This was not looking good.  I prayed for strength.

The rest of the trip was a blur.  I remember a barge, a bridge, a fort, a case of the sweats, and then I saw the prettiest site you could imagine: an unoccupied Port-a-John in the gravel parking lot 150 yards distant.  That beautiful, dull gray rectangle of hot plastic with a tub of chemicals under it was my light at the end of the tunnel. 

I knew what awaited me in that box but I didn’t care.  Any box of any type, in the South this time of year is going to have wasp nests in it...period.  Red Wasps build nests that look like sunflowers hanging from the ceiling.  They usually have between 20 and 50 wasps in each nest, and they may build several in each box.  If you add all of that up it’s a freight train of pain.  There may even be a black widow or a brown recluse in there.  None of that mattered.  My life was in danger, and a few dozen wasp stings and a black widow bite would be a welcome trade for what I had going on right then.  

I recall nosing up to the dock, and limping to the Port-a-John like the hunchback from Notre Dame.  The sun was high and whitewashed gravel crunched under my feet with every clipped stride I took.  The pain seemed to build exponentially with every step.  I was dizzy.  I saw my hand reach out for the handle, almost like it was someone else's hand, I yanked the door open...and was floored by what I saw.

There, in a gravel parking lot at a public boat ramp in south Louisiana, was the cleanest Port-a-John I’d ever seen in my entire life.  There was not a single wasp or spider in it.  Heck, there was only a single line of graffiti in the whole thing, and it was rather witty.  The most unbelievable part about the entire episode was that there was even a full roll of toilet paper available.  I couldn’t have been more surprised if they’d had a bathroom attendant in there waiting on people.  

It was a strange, painful end to a trip, but from start to it’s almost disastrous was a success.  Fishing Louisiana is great, but I’d advise you to skip New Orleans, and skip the fried food if you have an early morning fishing trip planned.

If you’re ever in the area, go out of your way to fish it.  The natural beauty of the region, and the amount of wildlife you’ll see are well worth the effort.