During the time between cobia number one and cobia number two I married, got blown away by hurricane “Camille”, returned to college to finish earning my degree, and went to work for Gulf Oil Company on a petroleum processing facility in Black Bay – an arm of Breton Sound just southeast of New Orleans. As I had done in my roustabouting days, I fished at work there, too, though the main topic of interest around that area was specks. And during my days off I began fly fishing for reds in the marshes near my home in Buras and below Tidewater. That was in 1971.
That was also another “pragmatic move” in my fishing life, though it was inspired by an accident of sorts. I was fly fishing for largemouth bass one morning in a canal in the Venice Dome oil field. For some unknown reason the canal’s owners had erected two wooden bulkheads across it only some 300 yards apart, but those structures caused the water between them to become unusually clear. It was also loaded with bass – and accessing it required a secondary boat being ferried to it and back in my bass-boat.
I was fishing from a pirogue that morning, working a small bass bug on a 7 1/2-foot 6-weight outfit. It was a close-range exercise, as the canal’s banks were very irregular and overhung with spartina grass, and early on I had taken a few fair ones by hitting the little nooks and crannies in the grass when I saw a redfish tail up beside a small clump a short distance away. Taken entirely by surprise, as I had never encountered a red in that canal before and never really expected to, I still managed to make a decent cast. The fish struck, and after some 20 minutes of mostly being towed up and down the canal, I managed to net it – an act that nearly resulted in a capsized pirogue! The fish weighed almost 15 pounds, and besides being my first Louisiana red caught on a fly, it remains the largest one I have taken thusly from the marsh.
At the time I had also taken some very nice ones on a popping rig from a pond just across one of that canal’s shorelines. It, too, required a small boat to access it, and as the weather warmed in late spring parts of it tended to become choked with widgeon grass – a submergent weed that will foul both a popping rig and a “weedless” spoon in a heartbeat.
I solved that problem in part by using a buzzbait, but when the reds were feeding very close to the pond’s shorelines – as they often did, the impact of that lure would spook them. A fly-rod popper wouldn’t – usually. So I began to fly fish with poppers almost exclusively for reds in the shallow, grassy water found in parts of the Dome, more out of necessity than anything else. And I would soon find others areas that were made to order for the technique. One of those was only a 10-minute drive from my home.
In those days the “back-levee canal” was just that: a canal just outside the levee that protected us from high water from the Gulf. The river-levee held the Mississippi in check, and yes, we did live below sea level. That aside, back then there was some lush, widgeon grass-loaded marsh just across that canal, and it was full of reds.
And it came to pass that an enterprising seaplane pilot eventually built a ramp for his aircraft on the bank of the canal right behind the levee a little below the Boothville garbage dump, and not long thereafter, he gave me permission to keep my pirogue there beside it. That allowed me to be able to fish a couple of hours in the evenings after work without the hassle of car-topping my boat to the dump – one of very few spots where a vehicle could access the canal, then having to paddle a good distance to reach the best water. It was wonderfully easy, and I took great advantage of the opportunity that “Hal the Seaplane Pilot” gave me, often four or five times a week. And I caught a pile of reds by doing so!
Very few other folks fished in that part of the marsh, so I usually had it all to myself – no competition and no one to spout forth comments about my sanity and virility because I was “sissy-fishing” with a fly rod. That verbal abuse would begin after those waters – so productive and so perfect for fly fishing – were filled in with dredge spoil to create a hurricane buffer zone in 1974.
By that time I had begun to fly fish in waters where it wasn’t really “necessary” – fly fishing for fly fishing’s sake, I guess. That was being done from my bass-boat, and that required launching it and picking it up at Joshsua’s Marina alongside the Buras Boat Harbor – where my fly rod was occasionally detected. I really didn’t mind the ribbing I’d get when it was, especially after those who dished it out took a look inside my ice chest. Then they’d wander off, shaking their heads and mumbling something almost incoherent about fly fishing in general and a fly fisherman in particular – as some of them continued to do many years later. It was all mostly in fun and by some guys who I knew fairly well, but the acceptance of fly fishing in saltwater came pretty hard to the Louisiana coast. With the exception of a couple of buddies who took it up early on – and then only when they shared a boat with me, more than a decade would pass before I saw, read about, or heard of anyone else fly fishing in Louisiana saltwater – for reds or otherwise.
I held the job in Black Bay – which entailed an almost-normal 5-day work-week – for over six years. Then I advanced to a seven-days-on/seven-days-off schedule as an offshore supervisor of drilling and remedial operations. As a boss of such stuff out there, you don’t have much time to sleep; much less to fish; something always seems to be about to hit the fan, and during the times when it isn’t, that’s when you catch up on all the damned paperwork! But there were roustabouts and electricians on rigs in those days, too.
And crane operators… (To be continued)
Chapter 2 – Continued
Lemonfishing with handlines tied to the rig’s handrails had become fashionable by then, and the technique worked pretty well, provided the platform’s resident hammerhead shark didn’t take a liking to the offering and remove several sections of handrail in the process of eating it (A fairly common practice!). Once a lemonfish had been hooked, the crane operator would lower a couple of roustabouts down to water-level in the “personnel basket” – a Satanically-created mode of crane-assisted transportation that must be further described.
It consists of two heavy aluminum rings, the lower one being perhaps twice the area of the upper, and separated by three equidistant rope ladders around seven feet long. Three men can stand on the lower ring – which is covered with a tarp for transporting their luggage – and hold onto the rope ladders. On the upper ring is affixed a bridle for the crane’s hook. The contraption opens and closes like an accordion, and boarding one requires some agility and very good timing as it snaps upwards, then collapses, on the stern of a pitching crew-boat. But in the hands of the educated, it makes a very good “landing device” for moderate-sized pelagic species.
Having been lowered to the Gulf’s surface – but not into it far enough to cause the basket to collapse – the roustabouts would slide the fish onto the lower ring’s tarp, and then the whole kit and kaboodle would be raised back to the main deck. Then everyone would go back to work. It was a nifty operation and great spectator sport; watching it was as close to fishing as I could manage most of the time.
But one thing about being an offshore drilling supervisor is that nothing ever stays the same. We never worked on the same rig for very long, and eventually I moved to one on a platform that could not support the entire drilling unit. So a “tender” – a converted LST – was required for the purpose of storage, quarters and offices, and such. And tenders have a magnetic attraction to lemonfish.
One summer morning things were running as smoothly as they ever do out there, and I was soaking up a little outside entertainment watching a couple of crew-members trying to entice a fairly nice one that was lolling about on the surface just aft of the port beam. They couldn’t and soon gave up.
Now I have never been of the mind to allow a fish I could see go un-molested, so I made a quick raid on the galley and procured a couple of filleting-sized shrimp. I then borrowed the rod and removed all the wire, weights, beads, and swivels from it, tying the hook directly to the line. Looking just like I knew what I was doing, I then stripped about 30 feet of line off the reel, letting it fall loosely onto the deck, took shrimp-baited hook in hand, and tossed it right at the fish. This time the bait’s impact went “Splat!” instead of “Ker-Splash!!”, the fish immediately ate it, and not long thereafter I had cobia number two – about 25 pounds, we guessed. And something about that incident was filed between my ears – unconsciously, to be sure, but firmly ensconced – for future reference.
The previous winter I had bought my tarpon-fishing boat. I don’t believe I’ll get too explicit about the seven years I fished it, dragging around a spread of huge spoons, getting sunburned every day, and drinking way too many cold ones trying to catch an oversized herring. Actually we did hook a few of them – and we should have caught one more than we did – which would have made a total of two. In any case, the boat brought great promise, and the one fish that it accounted for is worth a tale.
July 8, 1981 – crew-change day, and after a particularly convoluted week on my drilling rig, I was ready for some R & R. But the day promised to be a good one for trolling outsized spoons for poons in West Delta. So I phoned Carroll – a service company rep and good friend who I fished and hunted with for several years – and made arrangements. We debouched from Tante Phine Pass around noon to meet a slate gray sky, slate gray sea, and nothing to inspire any enthusiasm.
Around three I crashed on the deck, beat to the bone from the past week, boredom, and rocking and rolling. An hour or so later I got up and staggered to the cooler for a cold one, and after no more than two or three sips, the deep-line rod went down – and an awfully big tarpon came up!
Carroll did a masterful job of clearing the other lines while getting me into the harness and then the Mickey-Mouse fighting chair I had mounted in the stern. Not long thereafter the chair separated from its pedestal! Since my rods were equipped with gimbal fittings on their butts, now, with no usable gimbal, I had to fight the fish with the butt in my gut or in my left armpit and hurting like hell!
I always trolled with one of the pair of outboards tilted up – that way, should we actually hook a fish, there would only be one lower unit to worry about fouling the line on. And sure enough, with the fish at the boat, it dove and fouled the line on the lower unit of the motor in use. But with a lot of luck and quick action from Carroll, we cleared it, and shortly thereafter gaffed the fish aboard.
And then we headed in, and then the party began!
It weighed 151 pounds on the scales at a commercial dock. Carroll’s company had the fish mounted, and it graced a wall in his boss’s office for many years. And I awarded myself a gold tarpon that I have worn on a chain around my neck ever since.
Two years later Carroll had one of the great silver beasts just off the transom when the hook fell free. And that was it in the tarpon department for “The Wily Dos Gris”. A year later I sold it – really don’t remember why, but even with all the sharks and jacks (and a few kings), it served its purpose with that one grand fish.
Nevertheless, in all that time we never hooked a single lemonfish. I don’t recall even seeing one. Now I realize there was a very good reason for that: we weren’t looking for them!
That’s fairly typical with the tarpon-addicts down here. You either have your eyes on the depth recorder or you are looking way off into the distance, trying to determine if that flash you just saw was from a fish or another whitecap. And I guess we never thought to look around the boat after we’d just rid ourselves of another shark. It’s strange, though, that we never caught one, since we were usually fishing in water that we later discovered was full of them, and they did eat other folks’ spoons from time to time. Anyway, back then I was not carrying along a fly rod on offshore trips.
That began after I started writing full-time and was demanded by my editors to write about something other than fly fishing for redfish!
Of course, I had never had any problems at all with fly fishing for something if only because it was there. By that time I had been hitting the smallmouth bass pretty hard for over 20 years in the little rivers near Barbara’s home in Missouri. I had also taken the plunge into cold water a few years earlier and was doing fairly well with the wild trout in the high lonesome of western North Carolina. But since the time I sold my tarpon-fishing boat, I didn’t have the means to get offshore. That, however, returned with a vengeance.
I had known Dave for 15 years or so by then but had never fished with him – fished around him a lot, though. He had been an oil-field service company rep, and we would cross tracks occasionally through the business and sometimes at the bars. He had also run an offshore charterboat for a while before he went to work in the oil patch and still fished whenever he could – for tarpon and the bluewater beasties, mostly. He was good at it, too.
Once in a while, though, I was luckier than he was. A particular was during a local “rodeo” – that’s a south Louisiana term for a fishing tournament with a lot of eligible categories. He spent those days trolling for big game along the bluewater rip in a mega-buck sportfisherman; I was in a canal in my pirogue fly fishing with poppers for largemouth bass. The three I entered took the top three places in their category, and the accumulated points for them – exactly one more than Dave ended up with – won me the award for top angler of the event. A lot of folks with big boats got chapped butts because of that, and I even caught some flack about it in an article in the sports section of the Sunday edition of the New Orleans “Picayune”. But I had the trophy up until K. took it away from me, and occasionally after a few late-evening cold ones – usually wishing the wind would lay down so that we could go fishing the next day, I would remind him of it. Anyway, about the time I left the oil field and began to write, he left it and opened up a marina down below Venice. And we started fishing together – mostly offshore.