Bubby was once the rarest of all species found in Louisiana – an honest-to-God saltwater fly-fishing guide. His specialty was sight fishing for reds in the shallow and usually fairly clear waters out of Myrtle Grove – that’s between Belle Chasse and Port Sulphur, and when he began guiding he had a real edge over everyone else who tried to fish in that area because of his boat.
By the time I met him – that’s about the same time he retired from Ma Bell and began to guide – I had acquired a bit of recognition from the fly-fishing folks around the state for all the redfish I had been catching, mostly on poppers. I had become pretty good at that by then – probably in great part because I was doing it so much. Anyway, I wanted to see how he was doing it and maybe offer him some pointers. Yeah, right…
I met him that morning at a secluded little ramp in Myrtle Grove. Bill had come along too – he’s the guy I never again made another offshore fly-fishing trip because of the casting-rod capture of the tarpon on our “fly-fishing trip” of a few years before. My first impression was that Bubby seemed to be okay, but his boat left much in question.
And it had absolutely nothing to do with fly fishing for lemonfish – or anything else offshore, for that matter. But it did provide the means for building the friendship that grew between us, albeit in a rather unusual way.
I wouldn’t say it was the most Godawful-looking thing I had ever seen that was intended at least in part for fishing, but it was close. It was a 19-foot flat-bottom aluminum skiff, pointed at the bow and powered by a 25-horsepower straight-drive air-cooled motor known locally as a “Go-Devil”. It was sort of typical of “mud-boats” used hereabouts for alligator hunting, crawfish trapping, and such, but Bubby had created a “fly-fishing mud-boat”. Its bow was decked flush with the combing, creating a large, uncluttered casting platform. Two swivel seats were positioned on a thwart amidship for the non-fishing audience, and Bubby’s “helm” was aft. A small poling platform was mounted on the port quarter.
That particular section of marsh was still fairly fresh, but saltwater intrusion was becoming more and more noticeable throughout it, mainly by the snags and stumps – remnants of not-so-long-ago willow groves and cypress brakes. Some of those were totally submerged, and I know for a fact that there aren’t as many of them now as there were before Bubby started running that tractor of a boat across them – that motor chopped them up like a chain saw!
Even with it loaded with the three of us – and a substantial amount of gear, we could pass across damp mud, and Bubby could easily pole it anywhere he chose. There was absolutely nowhere a red could go to hide from us.
It was a fun trip, even though we didn’t catch many fish – even though Bubby gave me quite a few pointers; he had been fly fishing for reds in that marsh long before he started guiding. A lot of those helpful hints – a good while later – proved to be of worth, but back then I might have been a tad bit stubborn. I mean, I was the guy who was in the know about that sort of stuff – at least, I was supposed to be.
The trip actually began with me showing some semblance of ability. Bubby had slipped the “boat” into 4WD, idled into a small, shallow pond, killed the motor, and poled us up to a thick patch of widgeon grass – besides which a redfish was waving its tail at us. I was on the bow, made a long cast with a popper, and caught it – a rather small one. I did not catch another that day.
There were plenty of fish, and I have a problem believing that they might have been a different sub-species from those I usually fished for, having developed a slight disinclination towards popper-bashing, but after the first one they showed absolutely no interest in that fly. To make matters worse, early on I had made some off-the-wall comment that if I could see them, I could catch them, me being one who would never let his mouth overload his butt. I guess I deserved that little comeuppance…
Whatever, I don’t know what was wrong with those fish that day. Bill and Bubby even had trouble trying to entice them to strike their “spoon flies” – a somewhat heretical creation by Jon Cave that my friends swore were instant death and destruction on the reds in that particular marsh. And I must admit that since then, I have seen those “flies” produce many reds – when attached to other folks’ tippets. But on that particular day, the reds wanted little to do with them.
So I was invited back on what would hopefully be a better day. It wasn’t – not particularly so, anyway, and that became a mysterious pattern that arose almost every time I fished up there with Bubby. It mattered not in the least that if on the day before, two neophytes caught a dozen, and on the day after, two “pros” filming a TV show wore themselves out with them. On the day in between when he and I fished together, the fish would be laid up with tight lips and almost totally unresponsive. Not every time, but lots of times! And that was with him fishing and me on the poling platform, too!
In a case like that, one might assume that a certain individual making up the party could possibly be a “Jonah”. So did we, but we couldn’t figure out which one of us was, since he caught ’em when I wasn’t around, and I caught ’em whenever I fished with someone else – or by myself. It led to a somewhat unique relationship in that we felt we had to test our luck together again and again, just to see. In the almost invariable defeats that arose on those trips, we became buddies, and it came to pass one day that I invited him to come along with me and see if we could find some lemonfish.
They had become somewhat of an obsession to me by then – the “realistic” big-fish opportunity for fly fishing in West Delta. That description of them might seem to be somewhat inappropriate, since I had already caught a tarpon on fly out there but hadn’t even come close to catching one of the big brown beasts. Still, experience – both with conventional and fly-fishing gear – indicated that any further fly fishing success with tarpon would require an almost inconceivable amount of good luck. All it should take for the lemonfish would be to find a big one and feed it a fly before it discovered the boat – and try to prevent a baby from beating it in the race to that fly. That shouldn’t be too hard, should it…
First one must find the fish…
West Delta was like glass that morning. We crossed the color change way too far inside – in water too shallow – for anything worthwhile to be among the scattered pieces of flotsam along it. So we ran around and looked – all day. We found one baby beast on a weak current line with a few lilies scattered here and there. Bubby caught it, and we ran in on fumes.
Our next trip together was even worse. Not a fish was seen, not even along a strong, sargasso-loaded rip we found some 10 to 12 miles out. It was a very discouraging trip.
You might think that by then one of us would have realized the other’s company was not especially conducive to good fishing and split the relationship. But Bubby liked the change of pace – speeding around the Gulf in a bay-boat looking for beasts instead of plowing around the pastures in his “tractor” looking for redfish, and I just liked his company. So a while later when it looked like conditions were going to be decent, I gave him a next-day notice, he re-scheduled his charter trip because “he was feeling badly”, and we sallied forth in the morning.
He’s an “early-morning” type of guy. I guess that’s because he met his day’s clients at six and became accustomed to rising early. When I head offshore I like to wait around a while to let the sun get up a bit – better sub-surface visibility that way. Anyway, our meeting time at Dave’s marina was eight, and even though Bubby was up and ready to go early – and in being so in no real rush to get his gear together, he picked up his 8-weight outfit by mistake.
Again the Gulf was slick and with only the smallest of swells. Again the color change was well inside, the water across it clear green and promising – and way too shallow. Again the sky was cloudless and deep blue, the sun bright and perfect for hunting beasts – and swelteringly hot. And again we ran and looked and ran and looked – and found nothing. (To Be Continued)
West Delta: in part well known for specks and bull redfish, in part synonymous with Louisiana’s tarpon fishery, and in part tuna country – and the realm of beasts with long, thin horns protruding from their heads. It is the Federal designation of a particular area of the Gulf for mineral-leasing purposes. It is bounded on the north and east by land from the mouth of Four Bayous Pass – east of Grand Isle – to the mouth of Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River, then by a due-south line to the lease-line of another area known as Mississippi Canyon. Its southern boundary runs west from that point to a line running directly south from the mouth of Four Bayous Pass – the area’s western boundary.
Within it and in water depths ranging from barely chin-deep to roughly 450 feet towards its southern boundary and quite close to the 1300-foot depths of the “Canyon” – an ancient channel of the river – are myriad petroleum platforms. Those range in sizes from shallow-water satellite structures to full-blown deep-water production facilities. And within all that there were, at the time of this foray into the wilderness, four caisson-supported oil wells in the area we were exploring that were known by those who fished for tarpon around them as “The Pipes”.
The “Inside Pipes” – a pair situated fairly close together – are nearest to the mouth of Tiger Pass: perhaps six miles just west of due south. They are in the shallowest water and in an area that is subject to become dirty from the discharge of the small western passes. The “Outside Pipe” – the newest of the four – is a couple of miles west of the pair and in the deepest and normally clearest water: 45 feet or so. The fourth, which had yet to receive a name, lies about five miles northwest of the mouth of Southwest Pass and is the southernmost of the group. It, too, occasionally suffers from the presence of dirty water. Here, we’ll call it the “South Pipe”. All of them are very uninspiring, standing there like silent sentinels keeping watch over West Delta. They are not what one would think of as good fish-holding structure, and in all of our running and looking, Bubby and I had never thought of looking around them. That day, we did.
The Outside Pipe proved to be unattended, but as we approached the westernmost of the Inside Pipes, we could see them, slowly circling the caisson – big brown beasts.
Bubby is on the bow platform. I have given him the first shot, returning the favor he gives me as he poles us across his grassy fields. He has discovered his errant selection of the 8-weight outfit and has rigged it with one of my size 2/0 Deceiver-types and leader assemblies – and hopes he’ll be able to cast it; my bigger and heavier tarpon flies are obviously way too much for the little stick. I am on the helm, 12-weight armed and close at hand, and ease the boat into position some 50 feet away. Bubby casts – short. The fish, though, see the fly and attack it en masse. He picks the fly from a baby, chooses a bigger beast, casts at it, and is shortly hooked up as the rest of the troop begins to scope out the bottom of the hull.
I have shaken out some line and lobbed the fly into the milling hoard, but only the baby beasts show interest, and somehow I manage to avoid hooking one. It’s a good thing, too, as Bubby needs assistance; his fish – showing the same ability as those that dwell beneath cable-tethered buoys – has found the pipe and run around it. He throws it some slack line – and almost pitches overboard headfirst as I gun the motor in pursuit. But he doesn’t, we soon gain safe water, and he keeps the fish convinced that it should not make another circle around the pipe. The little 8-weight does its job, and a short while later the beast yields. It weighs just over 22 pounds.
We took a few minutes to shoot some pictures and celebrate. It was Bubby’s first good lemonfish on fly and the first decent one I knew of that had been fly-caught in the entire state. Finally! And even though I wasn’t the one who caught it, I was quite pleased about it all. I mean, he had taken it from my boat on my fly – and I did have to think of something positive to console myself about the matter! Anyway, it appeared we had broken our “Jonah-jinx” – and it was now my turn on the casting platform.
The other pipe was also attended by a drove of dragons. Striving to prevent them from seeing the boat, I engaged at about 50 feet – and hooked a baby! Then the color change moved across that pipe, putting it in dirty water, and the beasts withdrew. We then moved back to the pipe where Bubby had taken his fish and which was still in clear water, though not for long. Three were circling it. I cast – and caught the smallest of the squad: another baby. Then the color change passed that pipe too, and then we went home.
So it had at last been done. Eventually we completed the documenting paperwork, and when my pictures were developed, I gave him a couple to submit to the state’s keeper of fishing records for the cobia-category in the fly-fishing division. But Bubby wasn’t into that, so although for a while he had claim to the biggest lemonfish ever taken on a fly in Louisiana waters, he never submitted it to the record-keeper.
But what in hell had he done right that I’d been doing wrong! I did not know, because when he cast at that fish, I was jigging my fly in front of another’s nose right beside the boat.