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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 packages...it 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.

Underway

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 finish...it 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. 


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lizards and Logs

Stress 

I work in a very competitive, thin margin, cyclical industry, in a full commission sales job.  That means I have no paycheck.  Every month they guaranty me $0.  I’ll summarize the experience by saying that it’s very stressful.  Adding to the stress is that we are in a down-cycle and everyone has their job threatened every month.  While fishing is expensive and addictive, it’s one of the few things in life that allows me to escape that stress for a few hours.  I hear that heroin is another expensive, addictive way to relax, but with heroin you don’t catch any fish, so that’s not an option.

Adding to the stress at the start of the year was a project I had for one of my kids sports teams.  I was the guy who volunteered to do the end-of-year video.  It’s a cool project but it takes me about 60 hours to complete.  Many nights I’d come home after work and sit at the computer for 3 to 5 hours, and hit it 5 to 10 hours every weekend until it was finished.  When I was done, all I could think about was a trip to the lake.  Yet it was not to be.

After I got the video complete I had two road trips for work.  One of them was an overnight trip to TX to see two customers.  I left Thursday and returned Friday.  I had a 48 hour trip with only 1 hour of meetings.  The rest of the time was spent in cabs, hotels, and airports.  I spent roughly 15 hours just sitting in airports waiting on planes.  The result was that I came home with Bronchitis.  Bronchitis is no fun at all.  

As you can probably tell by now, the last few months have been nothing to write home about.  However, I had a decent week and my recent road trips have added some hope on the horizon, so I decided it was time to take a trip to the lake and hopefully boost my morale.

Lakebound

The weather man was calling for sunny skies and warm weather, so I took Friday off from work.  I was now, officially, unstoppably, going fishing.  I stood at the tailgate in the sunshine this morning tying lures and prepping my gear amid a growing surge of anticipation.  Gear prep is the first mental step you take toward relaxing.  It forces you to focus.  Where should the fish be?  What should they be hitting?  You create a plan and prep your gear accordingly.  Soon I had the gear rigged, the boat hooked up and was underway.  

I stopped at a new gas station before I got on the highway to top off the truck.  It was kind of a small parking lot, and when I swung wide to get the trailer around the pumps I noticed the parking lot wasn’t square, or even rectangular.  It got so narrow near the front of my truck that I wondered if I’d be able to get out.  BAM!!!  Something just hit me.  

I had taken the turn plenty wide to clear the gas pumps and the island upon which they sat.  However, this gas station thought it would be a good idea to put 4 or 5 inch concrete poles further out so nobody’s tires would scuff the island.  One of those poles slammed my trailer in front of the wheel well, doing significant damage to the “step” on my trailer.

“Ugh!”  I thought, I’m not even underway yet and I just racked up a bill to fix the trailer.  Mentally, I put it aside.  I could not worry about such silliness at the time.  I had a date with the lake and by God nothing would stop me.  I filled up and hit the road.

I drove east toward Pickwick Lake under azure blue skies with just the faintest wisps of cottony clouds here and there.  Under these conditions I usually get my butt handed to me, but I was still optimistic.  It was a beautiful spring day and I was determined to go fishing.  If the truck broke down, I’d pull the boat by hand.  Nothing would keep me from the lake.




Arrival

About two hours later I had the boat in the water and had a pair of decisions to make.  “Where do I go?” and “What do I throw?”  The “what” part was easy.  Last spring I found some success with a Zoom lizard and that would be my primary bait today.  That lizard was so magical that I began calling it the “Lizard of Oz.”  After one memorable trip with the Lizard of Oz I came home and ordered a whole bunch of them just so I could have them everywhere.  I have them on the boat, in my tackle bag, in the truck, my nightstand, the fridge, and in my shaving kit.  I can’t stand the thought of not having that lizard when I need it.  So, that part was covered.  






As for “where” I figured I’d start with a broken dream from last year too.  A bonafide HOG caught me badly out of place last year and broke my heart.  It breached and shook and spit the hook right back at me before disappearing forever.  That would be the place I began.  It’s hallowed ground.  I’ll never forget the lessons the hog taught me that day, those very lessons guided my rigging earlier today.  I had that lizard on the right rod, with the right line, and my drag was set properly.  Today I would be fully prepared for a rematch.

After a short run I was in the arena.  I was right back where I lost the Battle of Panther Creek last spring.  Sadly I discovered that some of the timber I fished last year had floated away, and the weeds hadn’t grown much yet.  It was kind of barren.  To kill some time I decided to pitch the Lizard of Oz at whatever cover and laydowns I could see along the bank.  It seemed like a fruitless endeavor because all that cover was in 2 to 4 feet of water and I’ve never had luck finding bass spawning that shallow on this lake.  I was already here though, and I figured it would be a good warmup. 

Now that I was moving slower I had a chance to notice the things around me.  Everything was blooming and this creek seemed to be nothing but blue skies and butterflies.  The butterflies were everywhere, big yellow and black ones flitting on the breeze, alone and in pairs.  It just kind of added to the “springtime” atmosphere seeing them doing their thing.  There was a giant woodpecker somewhere in the hills above me going to town on a tree.  There under a warm spring sun I realized that a woodpecker sounds a lot like an M240 machine gun.  The sound and cyclic rate are remarkably similar, the only thing the woodpecker lacks is the booming echo.  

The air and water temp were both 66 degrees, and I was pitching a lizard at submerged timber under clear blue skies; there were worse places I could be.  In fact, at that point I had forgotten all about the busted trailer.  If it weren’t for the periodic deep coughing fits, I’d have forgotten about the bronchitis as well.  

I had fished perhaps four laydowns by this point and my casting was still a little rusty.  I was not accurate at all with the Texas rigged lizard.  One of my casts was so bad I actually said out loud “There ain’t nothing there.  That’s a terrible cast.”  The words had no sooner tumbled from my lips when I got thumped.  Something hit my lizard!  WHACK!  I set the hook.  Despite a terrible cast, in water that was “too shallow” I had just caught the first bass of the day!!!






I couldn’t believe it.  I had been actively fishing for less than 20 minutes, in conditions where I should be getting my butt kicked, and I just put one in the boat.  The Lizard of Oz had struck again.  

That fish really got my attention.  I immediately decided that I’d just keep the trolling motor going, and I’d move as fast as I could from cover to cover.  I’d stop and fish it thoroughly when I arrived at each stump or brush pile, but I’d be moving quickly in between them.  There might be a brush pile here, then 40 yards up a long algae-covered stump dropping off the bank into deeper water.  The bank was dotted with structure like that for a few hundred yards.  Some of the timber was bleached white by weather and time, others were victims of more recent storms and still had bark on them.

Soon enough I caught another fish using the same tactic.  I had cast across a “V” shaped trunk coming off the bank and slowly crept the lizard back to me.  I felt it climbing the backside of the first trunk, then saw the red flake along it’s watermelon back sparkling in the sun before it followed the Texas-rig head first into the murk that lay between the logs.  It was there that the lizard met the bogey man.  Thump!  The line cut to the right, toward deeper water.  I can’t recall exactly how I got the fish out of the limbs but soon enough I had fish number two in the boat.  The only remarkable thing about the catch was that it was so much shallower than I was used to.  Maybe I’d had some strange trips last year, but despite days of trying, I never caught one in less than 6 feet of water.  

The fish seemed to be telling me what they want, and I planned to listen.  If they want a slow lizard next to timber, so be it.  It’ll be lizards and logs the rest of the day.  

I fished my way out of that creek with no more luck, but I had boated a ton of confidence.  I pulled the trolling motor and sat at the helm.  I decided to head for another creek I knew of that had similar structure.  Somewhere in the distance another woodpecker fired a long burst at full cyclic rate and I smiled.  Nature is just out here doing it’s thing.  

Lizards and logs

A few minutes later I pulled into a creek roughly 400 yards long, 200 yards wide, and filled with snags and timber on both sides.  Early into the creek I was casting to a really shallow gravel bar perhaps 20 yards wide with a dead tree right in the middle of it.  The gravel and the tree both slipped away into deep green water, leaving you to imagine what might lurk down there.  I had to find out.  

As I worked the left side of the tree I made another terrible cast.  I attempted to throw onto the gravel shelf then work it deeper, but instead I clumsily cast it straight into the deep stuff.  That wouldn’t work.  I was a little shocked at how poorly I was casting.  I was wasting time with such poor throws.  I quickly went to retrieve and recast when BAM!  My lizard got smashed!!!  This was the second time today that a terrible cast got clobbered.  It was starting to feel like “one of those days” when everything goes right.  After a quick fight I landed a fairly small bass.  It was a violent strike, the hardest I’d felt so far that day, but it was a fairly small fish.  I figure he must have hit the lizard with a monkey-wrench and dropped it after I set the hook. That’s the only explanation I have.

About that time another fisherman idled into the creek.  I was on the South bank and he on the North.  It looked like it would naturally work out that we’d each fish the side we were on until we hit the back of the creek.  I didn’t pay him much attention but it looked as though he were throwing a spinnerbait and moving quickly.

We both reached the back of the creek with nothing to show for our effort.  He picked up his trolling motor and left.  That allowed me some time to work the very shallow back portion, then hit the side he had already worked.  

The back of this creek looked to be just two feet of water that was absolutely choked with submerged limbs that the wind and current had pushed in over time.  My polarized glasses allowed me to see many of the shapes that were just under the water and it was a crazy patchwork of limbs and trunks.  I couldn’t imagine a bass being this shallow on this lake, but hey, why not try it?

On perhaps my third cast into the thin water something grabbed my lizard and was politely removing it from the area.  It was just gliding to the right and I could almost hear my line scraping on the tree trunk over which it travelled.  I set the hook but got nothing.  Hmm.  Two casts later the same exact thing.  Something grabbed my lizard, marched it to the right, and wasn’t there when I set the hook. That bugged me enough that I pounded the area with the lizard.  I don’t know how many times I cast but the fish went quiet and I never heard from it again.  Next I turned my attention to a few other downed trees.  I got a light bump at the end of a tree in 3 foot of water, but it wasn’t substantial.  It felt almost like a bluegill tugging on the lizard tail so I picked up a small crappie spinner and threw it in there.  BANG!  A small bass crushed it almost immediately.  At this point I could tell that the fish I was catching in the really shallow water were smaller.  

I decided to pull back to deeper water, then work my way out of the creek with the Lizard of Oz.  There was plenty of cover to work with here.  

100 yards later I was in deeper water and working the side the other fisherman had hit on his way in.  There were wonderful targets all along the North side.  There were whole trees, broken trees, branches poking up above the water, it looked like an awesome place to throw a Texas rig.  If Disney made a place just for guys who like flippin and pitchin, this is what it would look like.  It was Laydown City.  

I poked and prodded the cover from every direction I could hit.  As I worked I marveled at how pretty everything was out here.  The hillside above me was alive with squirrels running through the leaves.  Pink blossoms were bursting out on trees along the bank, bright yellow flowers were blooming on the emerald green stalks of weeds poking up along the waterline.  Life was emerging from it’s hibernation.  It was a natural cycle as old as the earth, and during the short time I’m alive I plan to enjoy this cycle as much as I can, to immerse myself fully in it’s splendor.  I know many guys who are at home watching basketball right now.  While there’s nothing wrong with that, I just can’t imagine missing natures spring time big show to sit indoors on a couch watching other people do something indoors.  






I was absolutely dragging this lizard, there was nothing fast about the retrieve.  This was Bass Fishing 101.  I’d pitch it in, let it sink, then drag it a few inches and let it sit.  Drag and sit, drag and...bump.  It felt like something hit me.  Hookset, BAM!  Fight on.  This was a good fight.  On the outside of a brush pile in 12 feet of water something tried to take my lizard!  This fish was putting up a determined fight, it was clearly a better fish than the others.  He had some say in whether or not he was coming to the boat.  

Up he came with the familiar arc of a largemouth that is about to break your heart.  I saw a flash of creamy white belly with green scales and red gills pass the boat.  He sliced this way and that and finally breached with a powerful head shake as he tried to free himself of the Lizard of Oz.  Catching a fish is an interesting event.  Two brains are working very quickly to solve a problem from opposite ends.  His was screaming “Breach and shake!  Breach and shake!”  Meanwhile, mine was screaming “Keep tension!  Keep tension on that line!!!”   Ultimately all the running and breaching couldn’t help him, he ended up in my boat and then in my phone.  Snap.  Another picture of another fun fish.  A sturdy 3 lb. specimen.  Solidly built, fast, agile, powerful, it was a wonderful example of an aquatic predator.  

It felt like I had just learned something.  Pitching tight to cover with a slow moving soft plastic was clearly working on a blue sky day, but I also appeared to be catching bigger fish deeper.  It was too early to call it a pattern, but it was noticeable.  I took a picture and released him.   With two swats of his tail he was back in the murky depths from which he came.  He was perhaps the fifth fish I caught on that same lizard.  That bait had served me admirably and with great distinction and bravery, so I decided to retire him.  Despite having been attacked by at least 5 largemouth, getting hung on innumerable rocks and logs, and dragged through grass mats it was in remarkably good shape.  It’s way tougher than a regular lizard, so much tougher that I think they should rename this thing the Gila Monster.  

After releasing him I stood on the deck and surveyed my surroundings.  Every year some astronomer tells us when the first official day of spring is.  Who the heck is he?  Why does he get so say?  I say the “first day of spring” is the first day I catch a largemouth on a lizard!  That’s how I will mark it from this day forward.  It can’t possibly be spring without largemouth, and what a spring it was turning into on the water today.

A word on the “types of bites” might be in order here.  There are many ways a bass can hit your bait.  Sometimes they hit it like a freight train, other times it feels like they hit it with a bat or a pipe wrench, yet still other times its very subtle.  Today most of the bites felt as though the bass picked up the bait, put it in a bag, and was walking out to the trash can to dispose of it.  Most of todays bites were anticlimactic.  You had to be paying attention or you might not realize you got hit.  The fights had been good, but the bite itself had been a little on the sneaky side much of the day.

Two logs later I pitched the lizard to the backside of a log jam, into the water between the bank and the cover closest to it.  BAM!!!  The Lizard of Oz took a vicious uppercut and was being dragged hither and yon by an enraged predator on a tight line. It ran deep, out toward open water and closer to the boat.  It was putting up a nice fight and about the time I thought about getting the net I heard something.  The drag!!!  This angry fish was stealing drag from my spool!  What a fight! Soon enough I had him in the net, snapped a pic, and tossed him back. Things were certainly getting more interesting in the deeper water.






The birds were singing, my drag was singing.  Ladies and gentlemen, spring time has SPRUNG and I am basking in it’s glory!!!  This is what being alive was meant to feel like!

The action kept up like this for so long that I had to make sure I kept my phone in the right pocket to make the pics easier.  By the end of the evening I could hold that lizard in my left hand and point at the water with my right and a fish would jump into the boat.  I didn’t even need to use a rod and reel any more, I could simply summon them with the Lizard of Oz.  

BOOM!  Another green monster attacked my lizard. SNAP another pic.  I was absolutely slaying the largemouth.  All of my stress was gone.  I was having a ball.  I didn’t feel sick, I wasn’t worried about work, or my banged up trailer.  I was focused on fishing, and on the beauty of spring time.  

At some point I noticed the shadows were getting long.  It’s always tough to say goodbye to a day like this and I reluctantly checked the time.  6:15 PM.  Wow, I still had over an hour til sunset!!!  Let the beatings continue! 

That long bank meandered back and forth from gravel to mud, and every 20 yards or so the lake claimed another tree through erosion.  Those trees fell into 12 feet of water and made wonderful homes for all manner of aquatic life.  Tonight it seemed as though every time I tossed a lizard into a tree it got devoured.  The only thing that could have made it more magical would be if a mermaid riding a narwhal approached the boat and gifted me Neptune’s trident.  This day was so good I’ll remember it forever as the Bronchitis Beatdown.

A short time later the sun was behind the hills and I pointed the boat toward the ramp.  Everything in life felt perfect.  Driving into a sun that has already dropped behind the hills is always a treat.  Water, land, and the sky are all cast in a gorgeous shade of light one normally doesn’t see.  The heavens and the water are separated by the long inky black profile of hills backlit by the setting sun.  The glossy surface of the water yields to the dark strip of land, which in turn yields to glorious shades of yellow, gold, then deeper shades of blue that fade to black as another night falls upon the lake.  Another cycle is complete. 

As I blast across the smooth water in the cool late evening air I have a few moments to reflect.  This day is coming to a close, but with a little luck I’ll live to see another one.  If I do, what will I do with that gift?  Will I spend it indoors, watching other people on TV?   Or will I use that gift to really, truly live?  When I’m old and gray will I wish I’d had more days of indoor TV watching when I was younger?  Or will I long for the days of spring when nature proudly displayed her power to create life and beauty?  


Fishing is about so much more than just catching a fish.  It’s spring time folks, get out there and live!