Chapter 10 – Offshore Alone

 

            Throughout my entire life, I have been alone on many of my fishing trips. It’s not that I preferred doing it that way; it’s just the way it worked out.

            Before I was old enough to drive a car I’d peddle my bicycle to some Red River backwaters near my home in Shreveport. Occasionally I’d meet a buddy or two there – or maybe some of the local country folks, sitting on their tackle buckets in the shade of the shoreline willows and drowning earthworms. Most often, though, I’d have the place to myself. Mom didn’t like that too much, but life was still safe at the edge of the city for a 14-year-old back then – you even went shopping downtown at night.

            I did the other stuff too – baseball, basketball, girls, and golf. I became pretty good at golf; in fact, it finally reached the point where I had to play a lot in order to stay as good as I was, realized how much fishing time that was taking up, and basically quit – with a 7 handicap at age 17. But prior to that decision I had still been putting a lot of time aside for fishing – more than most of my buddies did, so much of it was spent alone.

            The driver’s license allowed me to expand my horizons, but I still had no boat. That came about in lieu of a high school graduation ring: an 11-foot wooden duckboat which I car-topped and ferried around in bass-boats for 14 years. It would fish two people very nicely, but even throughout my college years, most folks didn’t fish as often as I did. There were priorities, you know – like studying…

            The jobs in the oil field weren’t too favorable for fishing buddies, either. Initially my days off were Friday and Saturday, and on the seven on/seven off schedule, five of the seven days off were work-days for folks with “normal” jobs.

            There were times – and there still are – when I did prefer to fish alone. That’s usually on a river, and I really dislike company when I am fishing one of the smaller types that I have really doted on while I was not exploring saltwater wildernesses. But I am not selfish about them – at least, I don’t believe I am. I’ve shared some of my most favorite streams with a few close friends who, almost to an individual, found them as I have, and that’s rewarding. It’s just that little rivers tend to become personal places to me; I occasionally get pretty intimate with one, and intimacy is best spent one on one – like while upon the flats that were once behind Grand Gosier Island.

            I don’t believe I’d care to become intimate with West Delta when I’m 10 to 12 miles out upon it in my bay-boat. Occasionally, though, when Bubby had a charter trip, Capt. Bill was fishing with Sandy, and Dave was working on his new home in Mississippi, if I was to fish at all, I had to fish by myself.

            I refused to do that when I had my tarpon-fishing boat. Even if my entire crew consisted of rank rookies – as it occasionally did, one of them could at least man the helm while I set the trolling spread. And when another jack or shark struck, there would be some help with clearing the other lines before a massive tangle occurred. I often ferried my canoe – the duck-boat’s successor – in it to some freshwater ponds down the river and fished alone. And I used it to tote the canoe on many solo duck hunts. But I did not take it offshore while I was alone.

            That, in great part, was because of the trolling tactics and tackle we deployed back then – heavy rods, fighting chairs to wield them from, and huge spoons with big hooks that wouldn’t usually stay stuck unless you kept the motor in gear. And that’s not a very wise practice if you are by yourself. It’s all quite different now: “stand-up outfits” – so no need for fighting chairs, and big circle hooks fastened to the ugly jigs which when planted in a tarpon’s upper lip will usually stay there until you yourself remove them. On multiple hook-ups you can actually leave live rods unattended in their holders and work the fish to the boat one at a time. Mike once caught four like that – and tagged and released all four of them – while alone upon West Delta.

            And upon those revered waters one does not troll flies. He runs and looks and runs and looks – and then, hopefully, casts – and all that can be done alone.

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            My first solo run was a couple of weeks after the trip with Barbara and Christi. The sargasso had disappeared by then; the color change was poorly defined and accompanied only by small, scattered patches of hyacinths. So after determining there was nothing better around to look beneath, I dropped the trolling motor, took up the 12-weight – with the 9-weight armed and close at hand should a tripletail appear, and began my search among the lilies.

            The experience – the “feeling”, if I may – is totally unique. I am a knight with lance in hand, mounted upon my warhorse and seeking battle with the dragon on the green, rolling plain – one on one – mano a mano.

            Then there’s the other side of it. The trolling motor is foot-controlled – that device being the type where you press the right side of it to turn right, the left side to turn left, and in doing so usually knock it over and must re-position it by hand. It all works pretty well in the comparably calm waters of the bays – where a bay-boat is intended to be operated. But it becomes a bit difficult in a slight swell when one is striving to maintain his balance as well as maneuver his boat by foot – and there is nothing between him and intimacy with West Delta but a few inches of flush casting deck.

            Perhaps I’d best put on a life jacket…

            And just about the time I decided that act might be prudent, I noticed a wooden pallet floating along some 50 feet outside the color change, and pallets are favored lairs of dragons.

            They will also destroy an outboard’s lower unit, should one be discovered at high speed, being created from relatively heavy oak boards which make them float fairly low in the water. Their purpose is for ease in transport of sacked oil-field chemicals, either by fork-lift or a crane’s slings. While they are not discarded intentionally, occasionally one is lost overboard – and I have never met one upon West Delta that I did not immediately learn to love. Beneath this one lay two tripletail and a small lemonfish.

            Now that’s a pretty tough nut to crack, what with the ‘tails’ tendency towards tentativeness and a small cobia’s blatant aggressiveness – provided it hasn’t discovered the boat. I can always use some fresh tripletail fillets, but should the baby beast reach the fly first, I had no doubt the more desirable fish would spook from the resulting ruckus. Still, I swapped rods, cast a Flashy Chartreuse Thing at one of the tripletail, and caught it. I wasn’t so fortunate with the next cast.

            A while later I discovered another pallet, caught another tripletail, and spooked the rest when another little lemonfish struck. I did not see another fish that day.

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            Bubby had made his first two offshore trips with me before I went out alone again. That’s three in a row without encountering a dragon. Well, I sure met one that day!

            I had discovered a strong rip some 10 miles south of Tiger Pass – dirty river-water on one side, clean-green on the other. It was about mid-morning, so the sun’s angle was still fairly low and demanded I conduct my search from the dirty-water side of the rip, looking across it and into the clear water beyond. I don’t especially care for doing it that way when I’m alone, but that’s the way it goes in West Delta sometimes.

            The rip had not collected much flotsam, but there was a considerable amount of foam along it – the result of the strong opposing currents. It was not a knife-edge rip like those we sometimes find, especially where the water is blue on one side of it, but it was generally straight – except for a particularly acute jink in its course that I soon came across. At the point where that began to straighten back out was a large, thick patch of foam. As I moved a bit closer to look beneath it in the dirty water, the current caught me, and I bore right down on it – and right on top of a four-foot lemonfish! It’s strange, you know, how fast those fish will approach a boat to check it out and how fast they will flee from it when it is approaching them. Or maybe it isn’t. Whatever, I was pretty pissed.

            And when a double-digit tripletail appeared and then disappeared within the time it took to make a cast at it, I was even more pissed! In fact, I was becoming aggravated by it all. It was a good thing Bubby captured one of the big brown beasts a week or so later…

            By then September had arrived. The river had undergone its almost-typical late-summer transformation from a sea of liquid mud to the clearest inshore waters in the entire state much earlier than usual that year. Typically, an army of redfish invaded the small passes below Venice, joined ranks with the river’s resident stripers and white bass, and conducted massive and continuous forays against schools of shad and storm minnows. Fly fishing for them was phenomenal, trip after trip. Then on the first day of autumn, the season’s first norther blew through, foretelling the imminent end of the tarpon – and the lemonfish – for another year.

            The following Monday I drove to Baton Rouge to present a seminar to the F. F. F. chapter there on the present status of the river and all the fly-fishing festivities it was now offering. The norther had blown itself out by then; the sky was bright and starry as I drove home late that night. There was not a breath of wind.

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            As Barbara dresses for work, she awakens me. Only six hours of sleep have left me rather foggy-eyed, and it takes a second cup of the thick, dark-roast coffee to focus them. Then – through the window of my loft – I notice that the branches of my weather-forecast tree are motionless. I snap on the little VHF weather radio: “…winds light and variable…”. Fishing time.

            There have been recent reports of some big specks around the gas wells off Sandy Point. They will be the main topic for the day, as I have not made a speck-run in some time. And if I can’t find any of them – or if the weather forecast proves to be a bit in error – there is now the excellent option of the redfish, et al, in the river. I can’t miss. So I gather the fly box, the 9-weight, and the camera should something special present itself, and as I step towards the stairs, the little voice in the back of my head says “Take the 12-weight, Pete, just in case”.

            It’s too late to phone Bubby – he’s probably got a charter on a day this nice, anyway. Dave is in Mississippi, and I find that Capt. Bill has a pile of honey-dos to take care of. So – again – it’s offshore alone.

            The morning is drop-dead gorgeous – one to remember to bolster yourself against the upcoming winter gales – one to reflect upon to break the tedium at the tying vise as the latest norther rips through the stark and barren branches of the backyard hackberries – one to recall over late-afternoon cold ones as we stare across the fog-enshrouded marina, wondering if “the day” will ever come. But today is hand-made, and as I clear the mouth of the pass, all thoughts of specks and redfish vanish. My heading is just west of due south and into the realm of the dragon.

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