Back in 2003 I was elected into the Louisiana Sportsman’s Hall of Fame because of my fly-fishing accomplishments and my writings about hunting and fishing, mainly here in Louisiana. Because of that – and a long relationship with the Louisiana Conservationist magazine, I was given their back page to relate just how I earned that award – the steps that I took along the way to getting there. That was the first and only time a non-employee was given a regular back-page column, and I was thrilled, flattered, and brimming with enthusiasm. The latter emotion has most to do with the topic herein.
The column ran from July 2003 to March 2006. During that time my “enthusiasm” drove me to create a number of columns that were not published. The entire list is historical, entertaining – or so I was told by the editor, and true to the letter to the word. I will try to post them on a monthly basis. I am certain you will enjoy them – especially as you get to know me.
In the beginning… Rockport, Texas
15 May 2014
The Quest for Cobia
I have no idea why I became so obsessed with catching cobia on a fly. Back then I had neither the means nor the knowledge to go about doing it. I had also caught only two on conventional gear. The first – a quite small one – fell for a fried breaded pork chop (Bone in), and the second – a fair one – ate a bar-b-cueing-sized shrimp. Obviously neither event had yielded any constructive fly-fishing data. But all that aside, somehow I got the hots to fly fish for the big brown beasts, and that resulted in more frustration, aggravation, and humiliation than I have experienced in all other angling activities combined!
As was usually the case back then, I had to learn by trial and error, and for an awfully long time there were plenty of errors! I won’t bother you with the gruesome details except to admit that many of them were self-inflicted. Suffice it to say, though, that errors make great teachers, and after a few years I had learned enough from them to show a trace of confidence whenever I boarded a friend’s boat. Too bad that never lasted to the return trip! Still, I persisted – at least I did whenever friends invited me on what were becoming less-frequent trips offshore.
Eventually – and I assure you for accomplishments other than catching cobia on flies – the now defunct OMC Fishing Boat Group began providing me with “memo-boats”, the first being a 19-foot bay-boat. The frequency of my trips offshore then began to increase considerably, as did the number of beasts I either broke off, ran over undetected, or lost the race with a baby to the fly. It’s a good thing I wasn’t relying on cobia steaks for sustenance!
That summer Bubby put the first legal-sized fish aboard my boat. That day they were thick around both of West Delta’s “Inside Pipes”, but all I could do was pluck babies from the midst of the beasts, and by then that had gotten pretty old!
Admittedly, there were times between defeats when an image would come to mind of the guy in the woods who was beating his head against a tree-trunk because it was going to feel so good when he quit. But I was not about to quit, and on a gorgeous early-autumn morning later that year it all came together.
By then I had refined my knots and had learned a lot about how to whip a big fish with a fly rod before it whipped me. That particular day I also learned that the fly need not be presented some distance from a big cobia “to prevent spooking it”. That was what allowed the babies to make their deft interceptions. So I banged a couple of the beasts on the nose with it, caught both, and returned to the marina to great celebration and rejoicing.
At the time the largest of the two – 41 ½ pounds – was believed to be the biggest fish of any type ever landed by fly fishing in Louisiana. That, plus the fact that I had been alone in my bay-boat when I caught it, really blew some folks’ minds. Some of the most sorely afflicted were members of the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association who bestowed their prestigious “Fish of the Year Award” upon the big one. That really blew my mind!
By the following summer I had settled back to earth, and Bubby, Dave, Brent, Brandon, and I began to make regular fly fishing quests after the big brown beasts. Bubby was my most frequent companion, even postponing charter trips on days when the weather was favorable for cobia fishing out in West Delta. He liked it almost as much as I had grown to, and I guess it was fitting that if my big one was going to be bumped from its top position in the state’s fly-fishing record book, a fish that he caught while with me would do it. He sure earned that one, too – a bad fish that stayed deep and did nothing to tire itself out on a hot, humid July morning without a breath of a breeze. I took a few quick pictures of them before we headed in – still can’t tell which of them looks the worst for wear.
In between trips with Bubby and the Ballays I put a few other fly-fishing folks on cobia, several their first ones. One of them was Howell Raines, at the time the editor of the New York Times and the author of the best-seller “Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis”. He had some ties to Louisiana, had read some of my stuff, and on a trip south asked me if I would take him fishing. The first few times we went out together we didn’t do very well, but we had a good time. When he finally brought along his son Jeff, who was also a competent fly fisherman, I found a rip that was loaded with cobia. And I was sure glad of that, because the one Jeff caught was the last one he cast at – and there were plenty of others for both of them beforehand! I haven’t a clue why cobia rattle fly fishermen so much, but they sure seem to.
Take my buddy Bill from north Louisiana who froze up solid on each of the first two he hooked. That’s not very conducive to maintaining the integrity of one’s leader as a big one tears away like the proverbial striped ape. It took another trip for him to get his first – and he was one proud puppy about it!
That’s a typical reaction for first-timers, and I must confess that even seasoned veterans can respond the same way. That’s especially true when a certain “seasoned veteran” does it again all by himself.
Even before Bubby moved away I made a lot of solo trips out onto West Delta. I had the drill down fairly well, though I must declare that fly fishing from the helm of a moving boat is a rather difficult exercise. But over the years I managed to spot a few fish before I ran over them, got off some reasonably accurate casts without fouling my line on the console, and eventually caught them – a quite satisfying sequence of events!
The last offshore trip I made with an OMC “memo-boat” was in early October. Again I was alone, and again conditions were absolutely delightful. The fish appeared suddenly along the edge of a lovely rip and moving toward me too quickly for a cast. I let it pass, then sped up in a broad circle which I hoped would lead to a point back down the rip where I would intercept it. And like the events on that memorable autumn day so many years earlier, it all came together. The fish wasn’t quite as large as Bubby’s, but it remains my biggest, and after several years now I am still immensely proud of it.
Just think what I’d have missed had I ever quit the quest…
18 November 2013
The Hell Holes
By the mid-1980’s the combination of rampant gill-netting and the loss of thousands of acres of spartina grass in what was then the “marsh” from Empire down to Boothville made for often very difficult redfishing. Out of necessity alone I eventually began prospecting derelict oil-field equipment – some of it quite small – which then littered the area and which thwarted the netters as well as served as something the fish could associate with. Two of the best of those little sweet-spots became fondly known as “The Hell Holes”.
My initial trip to “HH#1” was the direct result of being unable to fish anywhere else because of all the nets. That morning – gleefully concealing my frequently-bent rod from any passing commercial guys – I caught my biggest red in years along with numerous others, and my next trip there a few days later was even better. Not long thereafter I discovered “HH#2” across the bay, and for many years – even after gill-netting was made illegal – they served me and many friends very nicely with specks as well as reds.
The name arose from the oysters and odd-and-end scrap-iron that littered the bay’s bottom around both spots and served to collect various prey sources which in turn drew the predators. Nice – except when a large version of the predators drew one’s line across some of that lovely structure, an altogether far too frequent occurrence. But that in itself led to some memorable events.
The first took place with a devout spin fisherman. I had just taken a nice one with my stout casting outfit and 17-pound line – which at times was itself insufficient to turn a red away from the trash – and suggested he cast at a spot where a short, piling-supported walkway joined two small structures. He did, his cork soon dove, his reel squealed as the fish neatly dragged his line across a piling, and that was that.
He paused for a moment, looked at me just as I burst out laughing, and mumbled
“I think I was just set up.”
By the time a couple of years had passed, I had learned all the places around the Hell Holes where I should not cast. One of them seemed to always hold a big red, but because of the structure creating it, all the advantages were with the fish.
Two magazine editors from Atlanta came down one autumn for a picture-taking fishing trip. After putting them on some nice specks and fair reds early on, I decided to see if we could get a big red at HH#1. On the way I developed a wicked urge to set one of ‘em up.
I pointed at the spot: “Cast right there.”
The cast was well short.
“You have to get it close to the structure”, I offered.
“Bump the stump”, I pleaded.
Short again, and I could stand it no longer. “No, like this!”
You guessed it. The cork hit the strike zone, I gave it one pop, it immediately disappeared, and you can chalk up one more for the adversary. I guess I deserved that one, but I never was able to get a fish out of that spot.
But man, those we did get from the Hell Holes’ less dangerous waters!
A supervisor of mine in the Chevron days got a two-foot speck one lovely spring morning at #2 – the biggest he had ever caught. Some years later in a breaking nor’wester between Christmas and New Years Day the wife of a pine-cone-kicking buddy from north Mississippi got another two-footer from the same place. I thought her face would crack from the grin she wore for the rest of the day!
Christi passed a summer day with me around #2, pitching spinnerbaits for reds. I got one that we weighed at just over 11 pounds, then revived and released it – and got a rousing ovation from a crew of nearby oil-field hands who had been watching all along. That was a real ego-trip, strutting my stuff in front of my daughter and getting applauded for it.
Then there was the one I caught on a spinnerbait one day at #1 with old Bruce that pegged 12-pound scales. It’s a good thing that one had its directions wrong or I’d have never kept it out of the “structure”! There were a lot of big fish holding to those two spots, and every one that we somehow boated – and usually released – was a real accomplishment. And it was a heck of a lot of fun getting there!
Towards the end of the century the owners of the Hell Holes decided to clean up around #1. Suddenly the little structure was stacked with all kinds of piping that had been dredged from the bay’s bottom around it, and that was the end of the great fishing there. A couple of years later the structure itself was removed, and with the continuation of the degradation of the local marsh, fishing got just a little tougher.
HH#2 suffered a comparable fate, though not quite as extreme. By the time Bubby and I began to fish it regularly on friendly winter days, the sparse roseau “island” around which was scattered the junk and oysters had shrunk to a fraction of its one-time size, and a bit of “house-cleaning” had taken place around it. Still, on reasonably warm days with a hard-rising tide, we would often hit ‘em hard – nice ones, too, even on flies.
My pine-cone-kicking buddies and I found them there again one late fall afternoon during the end of its days, right where they were supposed to be. We caught them on topwaters and by popping plastics, and once again, they were all very nice specks. But we never broke off a fish on “structure”. #2 had lost a lot of its personality, even though it still attracted fish.
The following winter I checked it out again. The canes were completely gone, as were the jumbled pilings and bits and pieces of scrap-iron that showed above the water’s surface at low tide. But a few familiar markers around the spot remained, so I didn’t believe I’d have any trouble finding it again. Still, it was sad that another fine spot was threatened if not extinct.
And then came Katrina.
I’ll best remember #1 as a spring and summer spot with big fish that were quite willing to help me set up a friend for a laugh or two. I’ll best remember #2 as a winter spot on those crisp, cool afternoons with Bubby while everyone else afloat was fishing the deep holes down toward Boothville. But I’ll best remember them both as oil-field junk-piles that created two superb little fishing spots during a time when those were getting scarce in that area, and the fact that they were once somewhat “dangerous” only enhances their worth.
Yeah, I guess in the overall scheme of things their removal was best; they had done their time and served their purpose – and they had claimed far too much of my tackle. But that won’t stop me from missing them.
20 August 2013
On Tying Flies
Prior to my 12th birthday my fly tying consisted of small shreds of Mother’s sewing yarn being lashed to some perch hooks. None of the fish I caught with them – mostly bluegills – were very noteworthy, most of them even too small for the skillet. Nevertheless, my folks apparently felt that my fly fishing and fly tying activities were harmless enough and were keeping me away from bad company. So for a present that year I received a mail-order fly-tying kit.
While it was mainly intended for constructing trout flies, the kit contained a dozen or so pre-shaped and slotted cork popper bodies of various sizes, along with some hump-shank hooks for them. The accompanying instruction booklet, though, was obviously designed for tyers with a much greater engineering capacity and a much larger vocabulary, especially in physiological terminology and Latin, than a 12-year-old possesses (this one, anyway), so it ended up forthwith in the trash basket. I then proceeded – without any form of instruction whatsoever, since literally no one I knew of was tying flies at the time – to create the poppers.
They were fashioned along the lines of the very few that were available at the five-and-dime store which was about a 10-minute bike ride from my home, and I recall I was quite proud of the results. And they did catch fish. The bluegills came in skillet-size much more often than they had when I fished with my yarn-flies, and occasionally a respectable largemouth would accompany them. My folks seemed happy to see me enjoying such a “wholesome” activity, and I was happy to be catching fish on my own creations.
There was also a distinct economic factor involved with those poppers. 12-year-old Coopers received rather sparse allowances which prohibited purchasing the dime-store versions with any regularity. Now, when one of my creations would become mangled from bass and bluegill encounters, I could simply re-tie or re-paint it. That beat the heck out of doing extra household chores to earn the quarters necessary to purchase a new one! Life was wonderful.
Some of those poppers lasted until I reached high school. By that time, though, all the grizzly hackles, turkey quills, dubbing, and associated trout-fly stuff had been relegated to the trash basket and the supply of popper feathers used up. My allowance had increased a bit and was being supplemented with income from part-time jobs, and while most of that was usually spent entertaining the girls, there was often enough left over to buy one or two of the dime-store models. School, girls, and fishing left little time for anything else; tying ceased, and once I left for college all the associated odds and ends vanished as a younger sister took over my room.
I doubt I would have ever tied flies again had I not moved into the Delta and found almost limitless fly-fishing opportunities within minutes of my house – and absolutely no flies of any type within 60 miles! And since all this took place long before the sport became fashionable enough for the mail-order companies to include appropriate accoutrements in their catalogs, my flies – “poppers” marketed as freshwater bass bugs – had to be purchased on trips to New Orleans.
Those worked very well, and it didn’t seem to matter a bit that their hooks were not stainless, since the redfish, especially, would chew them apart long before corrosion had a chance to set in. But there were occasions when I’d run a little short, and a 60-mile trip to town to renew my supply was distinctly dissimilar to the 10-minute bike-ride to the dime store in Shreveport. So it came to pass that I placed an order to a mail-order house for a large box-full of feathers, bucktails, vise, bobbin, and all the other associated odds and ends whose likenesses had been discarded from my room at home in Shreveport. And once again I began to tie flies – now, though “saltwater flies”.
Think about that for a moment. Back then, fly fishing in Louisiana was a rare enough exercise, and the practice of tying one’s own flies for it was comparable somewhat to Cajun Voodoo. I, now, was performing the act upon saltwater and conjuring hair-and-feather concoctions (not entirely unlike Voodoo dolls) to ply therein. Needless to say, I had few close friends and was shunned by the local society for many years. Nevertheless, I caught fish – lots of fish – mostly redfish.
But even with tying materials and apparatus, the poppers I almost exclusively used presented a distinct problem: bodies. On rare occasions – like once in a small general store way out in the south-Texas boondocks – I would find some pre-shaped assortments, but even then most of them were too small for redfish poppers. So I cut, chopped, whittled, sanded, and ground wine-bottle corks and shrimp-trawl floats until my fingers cramped. They came out like snowflakes – none were ever quite the same – but they caught fish when dressed with green over yellow bucktail and painted similarly with model airplane enamel. And if the paint chipped from excessive contact with redfish teeth, no problem; there was much more paint around than bodies. Life was again wonderful, and I couldn’t care less about not being invited to the community “socials”.
But nothing ever stays the same, and I am not sure whether it all began with a precipitous influx of out-of-state fly fishermen or whether a bunch of local guys got bored with slaying vast numbers of reds on shrimp, read a book about bonefishing with flies, and put it all together. Whatever, someone discovered I had been doing it for some time, and suddenly my dark practice became “expertise” and in great demand.
Of course, that expertise included the types of flies I was using, and while those were satisfactory to me and quite acceptable to the fish, they may have lacked a certain degree of “refinement” to tyers of talent. So, for the clinics, seminars, and such which I began to give, I had to construct some “presentation models” – and eventually I began fishing with them.
By that time I had also begun fly fishing for reds during winter in slightly deeper water and for specks in the nearby bays and along the surf. In those settings I discovered that Clouser Minnows were quite effective and well within my limited engineering capabilities. And not long thereafter I began the pursuit of offshore beasts – with tarpon flies, which I could also tie.
My tying desk is now much more cluttered than it once was, even though I limit myself to the four or five patterns I am capable of creating. I also find myself tying them more often now for pleasure than out of need, and though I am still viewed with great suspect by the non-fly-fishing members of my community, I believe it’s more of a curiosity than a fear of one who practices dark deeds. I even have a couple of close friends.
And I continue to catch fish on my flies. Life is indeed wonderful!
7 April 2013
The Venice Dome
I made my first trip into the wilds of the Venice Dome oil field – the infamous “Wagonwheel” – in early 1969, inspired by tales of great redfishing in its labyrinth of canals. To get there I had to launch at Ellzey’s erstwhile ramp in Venice and make my way down TigerPass and then Tante Phine, finally heading up Red Pass and into the Dome. And I recall keeping to the main drag while I was fishing, as getting lost was a distinct possibility. It was a very promising place, but I caught nothing to justify the long and comparably complex run to get there and back.
The following winter I car-topped my pirogue to Tidewater to fish for bass in some canals on the eastern side of the field. While I did catch a pair on a spinnerbait, I also got a 12-pound redfish – my biggest at the time. Subsequent trips into those canals resulted in other fine reds, and the following winter they gave up another double-digit fish, but in both cases warming weather ended the action in them.
By that time Barbara and I were becoming good friends with Ralph and Winona Chastain. They lived in the same apartment complex that we did, and he and I had begun to frequently fish together. He was the contract maintenance supervisor at Gulf’s Venice Refinery and had access to a small ramp near the back of the plant’s property. It was also right alongside the Dome’s main drag, and once I received permission to use it, I began fishing there often.
During the winter of 1971 a friend and I used my bass-boat to ferry a pirogue to an enclosed section of a pipeline canal on the northwestern side of the field – a first-time event that would become a regular practice there and elsewhere. On that day I caught my biggest speck – on a spinnerbait! Shortly thereafter – again from the pirogue in the same canal – I caught several bass, including a 3 ½-pounder, on fly-rod poppers. Further trips yielded good catches of bass on poppers – one of them earned me the “Outstanding Fisherman” award in a local and primarily saltwater fishing tournament. I recall some bigwater fishermen got pretty chapped about that, and occasionally I still remind a couple of them about it. Anyway, it all culminated that June with my first fly-caught Louisiana red – also my biggest at the time. So for a while my largest speck, redfish, and Delta bass had come from a single spot in the Venice Dome. Maybe there was truth in those inspiring tales.
I have no idea why that section of the canal was isolated by those two wooden bulkheads, but they kept out the dirty water of spring as well as everyone but pirogue-ferriers. For years I had it all to myself.
During the winter of 1972 I found out just how good the Dome was. Ralph accompanied me on most of those pioneering runs, our first winter trips into the heart of the field. The fishing we discovered there was far better than any I had ever experienced! Popping a shrimp-tipped jig set a couple of feet beneath the float was the technique, and working it along the canals’ shoreline drop-offs was just as effective on days when ice rimmed the banks as it was on temperate ones.
The Dome remained mainly a winter spot for a while. One late-January morning in 1973 I set out to fish a particular canal, but on the way there I spun my wheel. The boat would still move ahead at idle speed, but I didn’t want to risk the relatively long run to my intended destination. So I turned off the main drag into a canal that led to a previously unexplored cross-canal in the center of the Dome and began prospecting it. There I discovered a gang of reds holding to some partially-submerged willow stumps, set the anchor, and commenced to catch 73 of them! Talk about a blind sow finding an acorn! In the 30-odd years since that day I haven’t come close to topping that catch.
But I began to fish the center of the Dome regularly, both in the canal from my bass-boat popping shrimp in winter and from my pirogue fly fishing the adjacent ponds during the warm months. And for two decades I had the best of both worlds – and there was none better.
Some of the best days were during teal seasons. Limits often came quickly, so I began carrying a fly rod along with my shotgun and decoys. Once the teal hunt was over, I’d return to the bass-boat to swap out hunting gear for fishing gear, then begin the redfish hunt by paddling around the same area. Was I in hog heaven or what?
Somewhere around that time the field’s staff – who lived with their families in the “camp” between Red and Tante Phine Passes – went on a seven on/seven off work schedule and moved away. The houses were then sold and removed, and eventually the swamp began its takeover of what was once such a nice little neighborhood. Also the field’s production began to decrease. Many wells depleted, and over time many of those were plugged and abandoned, their canals no longer seeing any boat traffic other than from occasional hunters and fishermen.
The Dome is a dynamic area. Its petroleum reserves were developed from a circular canal – the “main drag” – dredged around the perimeter of a sub-surface salt dome which was the trapping mechanism for the oil and gas. Many of the canals are affected by the effluent from Red Pass, and without occasional re-dredging – or frequent traffic from large vessels, they filled in with silt from the river-water.
Other canals allowed saltwater intrusion into the area, killing vegetation and in some cases causing subsidence in canals’ shorelines. A plague of tropical systems in the 1990’s added to the destruction of the interior marshes. You’d think that with the continuous help from Red Pass, the Dome would have been immune to subsidence and erosion, but it has suffered with the rest of the Delta. I haven’t made a fly-fishing trip there in years.
It was the foundation of the Tidewater Oil Company. Getty developed it and reaped the benefits, Texaco found it to be un-economic, and now only a handful of contractors oversee its marginal operation. All of the processing facilities but one have been removed, the offices and service buildings are derelict and overgrown, and few of the once immense number of wells remain. But because of the lack of boat and service vessel traffic in its canals, the Dome is slowly regenerating. It will probably never attain its original state, but there are places in it now where freshwater vegetation grows where I have never before seen it, and shallows extend well outwards from canals’ banks. And still, even with most of the canals now only a fraction of their original depths, some of them hold redfish during winter just like they have for decades.
And I am mighty happy about all of that.
(Louisiana Conservationist 7-2005)
25 February 2013
A while back I attended the annual all-day conclave of the Baton Rouge chapter of the Federation of Fly Fishers. I had presented programs at those and other gatherings as well as at monthly meetings for over a decade and had gotten to know some of the folks fairly well. I was chatting with one of them when I noticed a large number of kayaks and pirogues mounted atop members’ vehicles, and when I mentioned it my friend said they were the craft of the “puddlers” – those who pursued redfish into very shallow water with them. Then he paused for a moment, looked at me like he had just recognized me, and stated “You know, you gave us a program about fly fishing for reds from a small boat at one of our club’s first meetings – that makes you the original puddler!”
Well, I never thought about it quite that way. It was simply a very effective means of catching redfish.
I was in a pirogue when I caught my first Louisiana red on a fly. That time its purpose was not coping with very shallow water but accessing a section of pipeline canal in the Venice Dome oil field that was isolated by two wooden bulkheads. Earlier that year the clear water between those bulkheads had beckoned strongly, and I had used the pirogue – ferried there and back in my bass-boat – to enter it. I quickly learned it was full of bass.
One lovely June morning I was working a small popper along the canal’s overhung grass shorelines with my 6-weight Missouri smallmouth outfit when the red waved its tail at me. It ate the little fly without hesitation, and after it had towed me up and down the canal for 20 minutes or so I netted it aboard – and in the process came within a hair of capsizing the pirogue! That took place in 1971, and I believe it is relevant to state that at just under 15 pounds, that red remains the largest I have caught on a fly in “inside waters”.
One really good reason for that could be the disappearance of the marsh that was then present. Nevertheless, in my early “puddling” days there was plenty, and I was soon to discover that much of it was loaded with reds.
The shallow water advantage which the little boat offered manifested itself on a trip not long after the capture of the big red. Action in the canal had been slow, so I decided to prospect a big pond which was nearby. At that time part of the pond could be accessed by bass-boat through a small, meandering tidal cut between it and an open canal. However, an extensive flat along the pond’s western side was too shallow for the bass-boat. That day – from the pirogue – I got a pair of 8-pounders from that previously unattainable flat.
Bass-boat access to the entire pond ended not long thereafter when the open canal was re-dredged, plugging the cut with spoil. On the few trips I made after that, I had to drag the pirogue across the spoil-bank – no real problem, but the reds no longer seemed to like the pond as well as they once did.
But they sure liked the marsh just behind the Boothville garbage dump!
I hooked my first Louisiana redfish – on a spinnerbait – while I was walking along the bank of what was then the “back-levee canal” right behind the dump. During that fall, winter, and early spring I worked that canal and a pipeline canal that intersected it from my 11-foot duck-boat, catching a world of specks and a few smallish reds on jigs. Late spring and much of summer found me in my new bass-boat prospecting the then well-defined waters of YellowCottonBay, Bay Jacques, and Bay Coquette. Then hurricane “Camille” blew Barbara and me north and kept us there while I finished my degree, then returned to the Delta in late January. There I again used the duck-boat through the rest of winter and much of spring to catch specks and a few reds from the back-levee canal below the dump.
That summer I went to work for Gulf Oil Company as a lease operator in BlackBay. The job consisted of five work-days and two days off – almost normal except for the 45-minute crew-boat ride to and from work. Normally we would get home around a quarter to five.
For the next year my fishing continued to be done in the bays from my bass-boat and in the back-levee canal from my duck-boat, then from a newly-acquired pirogue. That winter I discovered the isolated section of the pipeline canal, and the following spring I realized the value of the small boat for fly fishing for reds in the shallow marsh. And there was plenty of shallow marsh on the other side of the back-levee canal!
That area could not have been created any better for “puddling”. Lush spartina throughout it grew tall enough to protect the small ponds within it from the effects of a moderate breeze. The bottom of the ponds was blanketed with widgeon grass which occasionally rose to the surface, forming protective mats for killifish, crabs, and shrimp and prime hunting grounds for reds. Because of the grass, the water was as clear as tap-water.
Fishing country began immediately upon entering the marsh. A redfish tail could be waving enticingly – or the fish itself could appear quite plainly – against the protection of a grass shoreline, just around the next turn, just inside the next pond, or right against the next mat of widgeon grass. The only problem I could find with any of it was that I didn’t have enough time to fish it in the afternoons after work.
But where there’s a will, there’s often a way. In this case it was by the grace of Hal the Seaplane Pilot who had a piece of property against the drainage canal just below the dump. He put a small building on the property, built a foot-bridge across the drainage canal, and constructed a ramp for his seaplane just across the levee on the edge of the back-levee canal. And he let me keep my pirogue by the ramp and use his foot-bridge to get to and from it!
Now there was no hassle or lost time from loading and unloading the boat from the car-top carrier and paddling some distance down the back-levee canal from the original access point just behind the dump to gain the marsh. It took about 10 minutes to drive to the place and five more minutes to gather my gear, cross the bridge and the levee, and load the pirogue. Five minutes later I’d be fishing. During those precious summers and at a time when daylight savings had yet to be re-considered, I’d often have two full hours to paddle around that lovely marsh, and the fly rod and poppers fit it all perfectly.
On most “after-work” days two or three fish would be the rule, though on days off that number was often many more. Most were in the four to eight-pound class; several were in double-digits – one came close to the weight of the canal red.
That one was tailing contentedly in the center of a small pond when I first saw it. The pond was almost totally enclosed and could not have covered more than a quarter of an acre, so I had to be really stealthy as I approached the fish, stopped a short cast away, and gently set the anchor. A few moments later it showed its direction, and then, like so many of its kin which inhabited that marsh, it immediately ate the popper.
And then you should have seen the mud and the crud fly as it tore around that little pond, turning it into a mini-maelstrom. Apparently the fish couldn’t find the escape route, so it kept going around and around it, spinning my pirogue on its tether like a child’s top! I almost got dizzy! At just over 14 pounds, that was an awfully big red to have been in such a small pond.
But it wasn’t nearly as big as the gar I cast a popper at from a canoe years later, had it strike, and then had it almost capsize me as it shot underneath the boat. Put a 6-foot alligator gar between a canoe and bottom which is maybe a foot below, and there’s not much room left! Whatever, I don’t cast poppers at skinny-water alligator gar anymore!
Sadly, autumn of 1974 signaled the end of my fly fishing in that lovely marsh. A “hurricane buffer zone” was created throughout it by filling it in with sand and silt dredged from the river. Ironically, be replacing the back-levee canal with what is now the “BurasCanal”, which lies just outside the buffer zone, most of the marsh alongside it has since eroded away. What a waste – and what terrible judgement. But in 1974, who knew…
While my puddling efforts became a little more labor-intensive after the end of the marsh behind the garbage dump, I still used the pirogue, then a canoe – both ferried by a larger boat – for pursuing reds in the center of the Venice Dome. That was also a fine area, and it held its grass – both emergent and submergent – very well until successive poundings by Opal, Danny, and Georges. There are still reds there, but the water hasn’t been as clear as it once was. I guess everything is bound to change – I was graced to have had the Dome like it was for so many years.
I can’t remember the last red I caught from my canoe. Every year that passes makes it less likely that I will ever catch another. Prior to K. there wasn’t much suitable water left from Empire down to Triumph, and there isn’t ANY near my present home in Acadiana. Then too, an old back wound makes loading and unloading a boat from the truck – and sitting in it for a few hours – rather painful. But I’ll tell you this: Even with all the other types of fly fishing in my life which just may be a bit more challenging, exciting, and – okay – “prestigious”, there are times when I sure do miss puddling around a pretty marsh.
(Louisiana Conservationist 7-2004)
The community of Ostrica once stood across the river from Buras. At one time large enough to warrant its own school, staff an oyster factory, and justify a set of navigation locks, successive poundings by hurricanes in the mid-1900’s eventually drove its residents to Buras. Now the name is mainly associated with a large riverside oil terminal and a modern set of locks. Of the old place, a few camps were re-built after hurricane “Camille”, and at the time I went to work for Gulf Oil in 1970, its prominent feature was the office complex for the QuarantineBay field.
Getting to work there – and further on to Black Bay – required parking one’s vehicle in lots against the levee behind the Buras school and crossing the river on a ferry-boat – originally a converted steel-hull trawler, the “Red Snapper”. Then he would disembark the ferry at a small dock beside the old and now inoperable locks and walk across a levee to a long slip on the marsh-side of the old locks which was maintained as a docking area for the office complex. There he would board a crew-boat for the remainder of his commute to his respective place of work.
Originally, that’s how I got to Black Bay – five days a week. One afternoon while crossing the levee on the trip home a flock of doves flew by. Upon mentioning them to the ferry-skipper, he said that was a fairly common occurrence. By then I had discovered that the owner of the boat that was assigned to me also owned much of the land around the old locks, so I sought him out and received permission to hunt the place, then made arrangements with the ferry-skipper for crossing the river. And that initiated almost a quarter of a century of delightful and often outstanding hunting for doves and – I soon discovered – jacksnipe.
The marsh on both sides of the long slip was prairie-like and fairly easy to walk. In places there were small hills and ridges where buildings once stood. These were topped with tallow trees and – get this, now – prickly pear cactus! I later learned that rather out-of-place plant somehow got to be the traditional gift to neighbors after a vacation “out west”. Whatever, it flourished!
Tallow trees also grew in places alongside the levee and with willows along the batture. Most of the jacksnipe were walked up in the prairie and along the batture. Doves were also jump-shot from the high ground where they fed among the pears on grass seeds until the tallow seeds ripened and became the area’s primary food source. Most doves, though, were taken either on the pass as they flew up and down the levee or among the tallow trees. There were a lot of possibilities around Ostrica, and most often I had them all to myself.
Most hunts were made when the seasons were open for both species, though one that took place on opening day of the first dove split resulted in one of the quickest limits I’ve ever taken. And that is only one of many memorable hunts.
There was the chilly, very foggy morning when I coerced the ferry-skipper to run me across the river, then jumped a big bunch of doves off a small tallow-topped hill. Doves don’t like flying in the fog, and those came right back, appearing quite suddenly out of the gloom and in perfect improved-cylinder range. That was a quick limit, too.
So was the one on jacksnipe when I discovered a small bog that they didn’t want to leave and took them easily as they returned to it. Then there were the two days when I limited on both doves and jacksnipe.
But there was a lot more to hunting Ostrica than limits. Usually I hunted alone, since only Gulf employees and contractors were allowed on the ferry-boat. That let the solitude of the place provide a little soul medicine as well as good hunting, and I could hunt whatever I wanted to the way I wanted to. That, I am sure, is what led a certain baby goat to adopt me one day, bleating loudly as it followed in my footsteps and ruining any chance of successful jump-shooting, until late when it found its momma. I shot very little that day, but I remember it well and quite fondly.
And there was something rare and precious about those cold, still, December evenings when the big northern doves would come gliding in to roost among the stark and barren branches of the tallow trees. Those days also resulted in many limits, but they are remembered best for sitting among the pears or atop a piece of some long-ago building’s foundation, feeling the crisp chill permeate my body, hearing nothing but the distant yelp of a lonely goose, then suddenly seeing the birds appear – shadowy wraiths riding silent wings – and instantly feeling the chill driven from me. Really good stuff!
Somewhere around halfway through my time in Black Bay, the Quarantine Bay offices were moved to the field, and the “Red Snapper” was replaced by the “Mark 1”, a tug-boat look-alike but much more comfortable and safer than the old trawl-boat. Around that time the Quarantine Bay crew began commuting to work entirely by crew-boat, departing from Moto’s Landing on the river behind the Buras school and traversing the locks to gain the bay. It was inevitable that the BlackBay bunch would eventually follow suit, and it finally came to pass that the “Mark 1” was no longer needed, released from its job, and moored at the river-dock beside the old Ostrica locks.
And it didn’t take long for it to become stranded as the slip filled in from lack of use.
After the “Mark 1” was decommissioned I hunted Ostrica via my skiff, launching it at a little back-down ramp at Fort Jackson. The slip into the river-dock continued to fill in, but some of the owners of the camps there kept a small channel open and marked with willow branches, so I was able to secure my boat in water protected from the wakes of passing ships. And I spent many more wonderful afternoons there.
On my last trip to Ostrica I discovered the slip to the river-dock had become too shallow to enter. By going through the locks I did manage to gain the old docking area, but as I began hunting I ran into a guy who had recently built a camp there and who said he had been hunting them hard for two weeks and had no intention of quitting. I never shot a dove that day and doubt I’ll ever return.
That’s a sad ending for such a special place, but things change, and I want to remember Ostrica as I knew it. And I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to hunt it as such for as long as I did. But I sure do miss those cold, still, December evenings with the big northern doves gliding in to roost in the stark and barren branches of the tallow trees…
In June, 1970, I went to work for Gulf Oil Company as a roustabout in the Black Bay Field. At the time there were six production facilities (“tank batteries”) and a compressor station operating there, along with two office and warehouse complexes fondly known as “The High Chaparral” and “The Ponderosa”. Both were situated on grass islands, the shorelines of which had been reinforced against erosion from wave-action with granite boulders.
After about two weeks of “indoctrination” on the company’s field work-barge, I began training to become a relief lease operator – a “pumper/gauger” or “tank-battery commander” in oil-field vernacular. And not long thereafter I discovered the fishing that both the islands and the facilities offered.
This was during the time when the state was permitting the companies to produce oil in excess of the normal daily allowable in order to make up for production that was lost because of Hurricane “Camille”, and the Black Bay Field was really putting it out! So one of the lease operator’s primary responsibilities was to ensure each well was producing its quota. That meant daily checks via crew-boat of virtually every well in his field. It also meant that regular flow-tests of each well were necessary, and there was frequently some maintenance that was required on his facility’s production equipment. In a given day when things were going well, all that could burn up perhaps three or four hours. That left a lot of time for other activities, and I chose to fish. And back then, if you were making your quota and the oil, gas, and produced water were going where they were supposed to be going, the bosses couldn’t have cared less!
“Testing bottom” – as one of the old tank-battery commanders I once worked with called it – became an almost daily activity. He and I ate fried specks and white beans and rice a lot, and yeah, I put on a lot of weight during those years in Black Bay! Other lease operators I worked with were not so inclined, though, and I missed out on taking advantage of some great fishing days when I was working with them. But that nagging problem was neatly remedied three years later when I was given a tank battery of my own.
Now when my quota was being met, my wells were producing efficiently, and my equipment was all working properly, I could fish just about any time I cared to. I was even given a “helper” like I myself had been a short time before! I didn’t think I really needed one, as my “field” consisted of only some 30-odd wells, and I felt a little guilty about taking one, but he freed up a lot more fishing time for me. And we – he, my boat skipper, and I along with the nearby compressor station gang – ate very fresh fish regularly.
Not wanting to jeopardize what had to be the best job-conditions in the universe, I decided to create a little job-security, spending time on marginal fishing days learning about compressor operations and even chipping rust and painting production equipment on my tank battery. I also did a little office work. The bosses seemed impressed with my efforts, never said a word about my fishing, and often ate lunch with us. I just loved it!
Most of the fish I caught in Black Bay were specks. Some of them were quite creditable, with two-footers being fairly common. But there were also run-ins with reds, flounders, and channel mullet – those more commonly caught during winter and when I was trying to amass a mess of flounder fillets by fishing on bottom with fresh shrimp. Occasionally a wayward jack or bull red would be hooked, though few were landed, and I met my first tripletail while it was nosing the pilings around one of my wells one hot August afternoon – didn’t catch it, either! I transported my reel and lures out and back each day in my “tote sack” along with lunch and my slicker suit. The rod was kept laying across the racks of a curtain’s valence that graced a window of my neatly-kept dog-house – three full years would pass before someone swiped it.
Most of the specks I caught out there were taken from the lower platforms that made up the facility – “South Black Bay Central Storage Facility #1”. Occasionally I would have to make a run to the office where the protecting rocks beckoned and where the boss’s boat-skipper regularly caught specks, but I seldom fished there. Once I stayed after work and fished beneath the light on the little seaplane dock there and killed ‘em, but I didn’t want to stir up the water around the office too much – if you get my gist.
In January of 1977 I was transferred into the company’s drilling department – a rather unusual move but a personal goal I had worked long and hard to attain. I spent almost a decade thereafter as a company drilling representative, advanced nicely, saw my beloved “Big Orange” get swallowed up by Chevron, and eventually was offered a position I could not accept and resigned. But just before that I was assigned a really great project.
It involved some remedial work on a well in the Southeast Black Bay Field. The operation created some time when my presence was not necessary, and it was all day-work which enabled me to be home every night. So one day I took along a casting rod, and when the time was right the crew-boat skipper and I made a little run over to the island where my old office had once been.
By then the company’s lease of the island had expired, and the owners had stipulated it was to be put back in its original condition. All the buildings, the equipment, and the rock wall that had protected it so well from the ravages of winter gales for so many years were removed. It was a sad sight, and without the protection of the rocks the island would eventually wash away. But that day I was to discover that not all the rocks had been taken out – many remained scattered across the bottom of the bay for some distance from the shoreline, and they still held specks.
The next morning I carried a fly rod to work in lieu of the casting outfit. Later that day the boat-skipper and I again ran over to the island, and there – clad in steel-toed work boots, company coveralls, and plastic hard-hat, I waded a short distance out into the bay and proceeded to fish. And my flies accounted for 29 fine specks.
That was a very fitting end to my relationship with BlackBay. The operation on the well succeeded beyond expectations and was completed under budget, and 14 years would pass before I had a better day fly fishing for specks. I hear the fishing out there is still great, but I doubt I’ll ever find out. The memory of my last trip to Black Bay is one I don’t want to risk.
Feathers in the Office
During the late summer of 1968 Barbara and I moved into the lower Delta, the result of a job transfer. There were two reasons why we accepted the move. The first arose from a crew-boat ride to a rig I had been roughnecking on a few years earlier – the boat, which was then in Joseph Bayou, spooked a pair of ducks. That was very surprising – and quite promising – to this blossoming duck hunting fanatic, as it was June at the time, and it didn’t matter a bit that I later discovered the birds had been mottled ducks and virtual year-round residents hereabouts. Ducks in the summertime just had to be a good omen.
The second reason was the $25 per month raise that went along with the transfer.
So we packed my duck-boat, decoys, guns, boots, shotshell reloader, rods and reels, tackle boxes, a 9.8 horsepower outboard, and everything else we owned into and on top of our 1967 2-door Rambler and headed down the road. Eventually we discovered the Lyon-Hoff Apartments in Boothville – where a one-bedroom model rented for about twice as much as the one we had just left. That demanded Barbara get a job. With the help of my boss, Van West, she contacted Frank Patti, a high-ranking parish official, who arranged for her to teach at Delta Heritage Academy. Very soon we were secure in our new home.
My job description was “night warehouseman” for Tri-State Oil Tool Industries, a service company that specialized in “fishing” things out of wells that had broken, become stuck, or weren’t supposed to be there. A dispatcher of sorts, my hours were 7PM to 7AM. Some readers might feel that would be less than ideal for a young couple who hadn’t been married for a full year, but it was in conjunction with a seven days on/seven days off schedule. So, since the shop was in Venice and only about a 10-minute drive from the apartment, my new job allowed me to be home for some 12 hours every day I worked and for a whole week every other week! That created a lot of time for hunting and fishing!
As the night warehouseman I usually spent much of my shifts alone, since the guys who worked during the daytime on the same hitch I did lived in Mississippi and stayed – and slept – in rooms upstairs of the office. If a rig called in with a big job – or if a piece of equipment needed to be delivered to one of the oil companies’ docks, I’d wake up one or more of them, but normally things were pretty quiet. Early on I spent many of those hours piddling around, cleaning up, reading trade magazines, and perhaps occasionally catching a catnap.
By the time I’d get home in the morning, Barbara would be about ready to drive to school. After she left I would crash and sleep until she got home after three. Then we would visit, have supper, and then I’d head down the road again to work. But that rather dull routine changed abruptly with the opening of the first dove split.
I had never considered hunting doves in that area, mainly because there wasn’t much land around that appeared suitable. Nevertheless, on the way to work one day I noticed some doves flying across a small cut-over cornfield between the highway and the back levee, located its owner, and got permission to hunt it. Later I also got permission to hunt a big field across the highway from what was then the Getty Oil Company loading docks. There was a surprising number of doves utilizing both spots, and very few people were hunting them. Limits during off-work weeks then and throughout the second split often came easily, and I quickly discovered that I could cram a couple of hours of hunting during work-weeks between the time Barbara got home from school and suppertime and without any adverse effects on either her or my job. Life was wonderful!
A scouting run into the marsh behind the apartment just prior to the opening of the duck season showed it might have great potential for hunting. It did, and during most of my off-work weeks throughout the season I hunted either five or six mornings. Even with the limit at only three ducks per day that year, we ate them for quite a while!
It was fairly easy hunting. I kept my duck-boat and decoys in a shed next to the back-levee drainage canal and only about 100 yards from the apartment. I would walk to the shed, drag the boat to the canal, paddle across it, drag the boat across the levee, and then paddle a short distance out into the marsh where I would hunt from the grass. And I just couldn’t get enough of it. After all, during a normal morning I would get more shots than I would have gotten in a week on Caddo or Wallace Lakes, my erstwhile hunting grounds near Shreveport. So it didn’t take long for me to do as I had done with the doves and began hunting during my work-weeks, though those hunts took place after I got home in the morning.
And during my weeks off I would often make an evening dove hunt after a morning’s duck hunt. Life was outstanding, though it was a good thing I reloaded my shells or I would have never been able to afford to take advantage of that wonderful opportunity.
There is a step, though, between shooting ducks and doves and eating them – cleaning them. During my weeks off from work that presented no problems. However, it initially created a very big problem during my work weeks, as there simply wasn’t enough time in my daily 12 hours off to get enough sleep, hunt, eat supper, and clean the birds somewhere in between. So I began to carry them to work with me and clean them there.
Now throughout my work career – well, up until I began writing, anyway – I always tried to give my very best effort. You know, that 110% stuff. But as I mentioned earlier, at night it was fairly normal to have everything under control, the shop and office swept and mopped, and any tools that had recently been returned cleaned, re-painted, and re-stocked in their respective locations. Then I had time on my hands, and I seldom chose to watch TV, because the few times I did it seemed that a phone call from a rig in trouble would always interrupt the show. Those were often long hours, but with the arrival of the hunting seasons they solved my problem nicely: I would wait for my daytime counterparts to go to sleep, slip out to the car, get my birds, and then clean them in the office. And afterwards I would meticulously sweep up any wayward feathers that I would see on the floor. But wayward feathers have a way of slipping out of sight.
Life got much less chaotic, if also much less rewarding, with the closing of the hunting seasons. Shortly thereafter I would buy my first bass-boat – and there simply wasn’t enough time in the 12 hours between shifts for me to fish in it during my work-week. So I got a little more sleep, saw a little more of Barbara – and eventually began wishing for autumn.
My boss Van usually arrived around 6:30 each morning. That gave him plenty of time to be briefed on the night’s activities before I headed home. One morning that summer he got to the shop just after a shipment of new office furniture had been delivered. Desiring to make the change before the day-crew went to work, he and I began moving out the old furniture – and there along the walls where some of it had stood were piles of dove and duck feathers.
Van stared dumbfounded at one particularly large pile for a few seconds, then muttered in the ever so appropriate oil-field vernacular “Where in the #@*%*#@* did all those #@*%*#@# feathers come from?”
I said it was time for me to head home.
A year to the day that Barbara and I had moved to the lower Delta – and well before the anxiously-awaited hunting seasons began, Hurricane “Camille” blew away my job with Tri State as well as a lot of our possessions. I returned to college, finished my degree, and then moved back to Buras where my career in the oil field advanced very nicely, but I never had such hunting opportunities again – close, maybe, but not quite. Ironically, a part of my career occasionally involved phoning Tri State to order their equipment and services which were needed on a job I was ram-rodding, so in effect Van was then working for me. But even so, many, many years would pass before I told him the source of the feathers in the office.
(Louisiana Conservationist 9-2003)
When you get right down to it, hunting and fishing are pretty dangerous sports. Fortunately, over the years I have neither drowned – came close once, but that’s another tale – nor been shot. However, I have been sliced, stabbed, slapped, and punctured fairly regularly, and a few of the scars have some memorable associations.
As a 13-year-old while bicycling to a favorite spot on the Kings Highway bayou near my home in Shreveport, one of the hooks on the lure I had pinned to a rod’s guide found its way through my jeans and into my left leg just above the knee. That left me unable to peddle any further, neither could I walk. So there I sat – on the side of the highway – until some guy stopped and offered to drive me home. That he did, and then he retrieved my bike for me! My pediatrician – who continued to perform a lot of atypical work for/on me in years after his services would have normally ended – removed the hook without incident. The point is, back then it was nothing to so trust a total stranger. I wonder what happened…
A year later, now having parental permission to peddle my way to the wilderness across the levee which then surrounded Myer’s Lake, I was wade-fishing a slough between the “First” and “Second” lakes – barefooted. You guessed it: my left foot found the edge of a rusty and quite sharp coffee can, and there was suddenly no question that my day’s fishing was over. I wrapped the wound with a sock which I had removed along with my shoes before I started fishing, spoked it home as fast as I could, and a visiting grandmother nearly fainted when she saw the blood-soaked sock! The same doctor who removed the hook stitched me up – I haven’t waded barefooted since!
While bass-fishing on Two O’Clock Bayou from my 11-foot duckboat one early-autumn afternoon, I snagged my surface lure in some shoreline vegetation, and after giving it several good yanks it came free. Then, just like it was guided by a homing device, it shot towards me, finding its programmed target at the very bottom of my upper left arm. A few tentative tugs proved it had solidly penetrated flesh as well as my shirt-sleeve.
Not especially wanting to quit fishing, I decided to see if I could extract the hook. So I unscrewed it from the “plug” – with my right hand, as my left one was completely useless because of the hook’s position. Then I cut away part of the shirt-sleeve with a pocket-knife and attempted to push the hook’s point and barb through the flesh so I could cut it off with my pliers. All of that is a little more than a one-handed operation, and trying to ignore the hook and continue fishing led to numerous reminders of its presence. So eventually there I sat – again.
It wasn’t long before two good ole boys came putt-putting up the bayou in their flatboat. After greetings I asked if they would help me remove the hook from my arm. After questioning looks at each other and having scrutinized the situation, I thought one of them was about to throw up, but with my instructions they succeeded very nicely. I then doused the wound liberally with some canned liquid I had aboard and proceeded to catch three more bass. The moral? If you gotta yank, be ready to duck!
Having caught enough reds on that particular cool, low-tide September morning, my companion and I decided to coon some oysters that were exposed along a bay’s shoreline. After gathering a dozen or so, I simply had to test their quality, but since we had no suitable knife or screwdriver aboard to shuck them with, I had to resort to using a hunting knife I had found in my friend’s tackle box. The five that I sampled were delicious; the knife slipped on #6, and it was suddenly time to head in.
The only thing that kept me from passing out on the way was the cool spray in my face as we crossed Bay Pomme d’Or. After leaving the boat at Joshua’s, my friend drove me to the doctor’s office where the wound was cleansed and secured with eight stitches. The moral? If you like oysters, carry an oyster knife in your tackle box. Better yet, buy ‘em already shucked. And as a little lagniappe, hydrogen peroxide used to clean a deep, open wound acts as a very fast-acting laxative!
A doctor-buddy and I once got into a big school of specks in a bay behind my home in Buras. We were really hammering ‘em – nice fish, too – when one of them neatly transferred the size 3/0 jig-hook from its lip into the meaty part of my left hand between the thumb and forefinger. And no matter how hard I tugged, it wouldn’t come out!
It was awfully hard to leave those fish, but we ran back to the marina, tied off the boat, and then drove to my friend’s office. There he “opened up shop”, so to speak, shot my hand full of deadener, cut out the hook, sewed up the wound, bandaged my hand, and then shot me full of tetracycline. Then we proceeded back to the specks and caught a bunch more. The moral here? A doctor makes a great fishing buddy!
One hot summer day Bubby and I came across a current line in West Delta that was loaded with cobia. That day he was on and I wasn’t, and he quickly got his pair while I sloppily broke off the first two I hooked. Then looking at another fine shot, a small fish intercepted the fly from the maw of the beast, and in a rush to release it I managed to puncture the palm of my left hand with one of the fish’s small dorsal spines. No problem there – I made it bleed, then rinsed it with seawater and went back to fishing.
That afternoon we decided to make another run the next day. That morning I awakened to some swelling in my hand, but nothing very serious-looking, so offshore we went. And we had a great day. But the next morning I was in pain, and the red streaks were by then well past my elbow.
My speck-fishing doctor said I could have developed serious problems by procrastinating. The infection, he said, was caused by microorganisms in the water, not by the fish, and it could have occurred from any similar wound. Or it might never have. The moral: Any wound you receive while fishing in saltwater should be treated by a doctor at the first indication of infection.
Then there was the shark I caught while tarpon-fishing that popped me on the left calf with its tail while I was trying to avoid its teeth. It took over a month for that wound to heal. And people ask me why I dislike sharks so much…
But at least I haven’t been eaten by one… or drowned… or been shot…
Spots in My Eyes
Throughout my life I’ve had this “thing” about fly fishing for bass in flowing water, and at times it literally compels me to do just that, pre-empting even a hot local saltwater opportunity. I assume its foundation is the creek that ran through my maternal grandparents’ ranch in the Texas Hill Country where at around age 10 I caught my first bass on a fly. That creek was a classic, and I guess it got inside of me.
Back then I also had the opportunity to fly fish the Medina River near the town of the same name and later the Guadeloupe River near Kerrville. There I caught some vaguely strange-looking bass which I assumed were super-charged largemouths but which many decades later I discovered were Guadeloupe bass. I was impressed!
My grandfather sold that ranch just as I turned 14, and for two years I caught very few bass in flowing water. One of note came from the spillway below the old Caddo Lake dam, and it looked – and acted – a lot like the bass I had caught in the Hill Country rivers. That day I was with my baseball coach, and he identified the fish as a spotted bass. Again I was impressed!
While I did catch a few more of them on subsequent trips to the dam, spots began to play a much larger role in my life after I graduated from high school. Then I would often car-top my new duck-boat to Bayou Dorcheat and catch them on both conventional crankbaits and fly-rod poppers. The reach of the bayou near Dixie Inn was a really pretty place back in those days – with the spots and the current it was my kind of water.
Spots also came in surprise packages. One misty, early-April morning while I was on Easter break from LSU, I found them on LakeBistineau’s Pin Oak Flats, apparently spawning. Those were the largest I had encountered up to that time, and they crawled all over my surface lure – a Devil’s Horse “Dancer”, if I remember right. Since then I have worked the Flats on several occasions during that period in hopes for a repeat performance, all to no avail. I wonder what happened…
There was also the monster that a frat brother caught in a bar-pit alongside Two O’Clock Bayou and the single spot I caught one slick, hot August evening while fishing the oxbow lake just across the levee from LSU-S. On a hunch I allowed my crankbait to sink much deeper than normal, and when I began its retrieve it was walloped by a pound-and-a-half spot – the only one I ever caught in that once-upon-a-time honey-hole.
Spots also schooled with barfish in Caddo and Bistineau during late summer, and during an early-autumn drawdown of Bistineau, Barbara and I – married barely a month – found a gang of them in a shallow boat-road. Those, like the spawners, went wild over surface lures. I’ll never forget that evening: calm, clear black water reflecting the reddening cypresses, the music of arriving geese, the occasional plaintive cries of nutrias, and newlyweds in the duckboat, catching spotted bass on topwaters. Somewhere it may get better than that – somewhere…
That could only be in flowing water, and in the spring of 1966 I met the ComiteRiver. It was discovered, I must confess, on an afternoon fraternity beer-bust and softball game along its sandy shoreline. Not long thereafter I made a scouting run with a fly rod and discovered that it indeed held spots.
The Comite in the reach above and below the Greenwell Springs Road was a deceiving little creek. Much of it was comprised of shallow riffles across a sand and pea-gravel substrate. Mid-stream pockets deep enough to hold bass were bathed in sunlight most of the day, and any bass that might have been in them usually refused to cooperate. But find a subtle little washout along a shoreline which was shaded by overhanging limbs, or fish under a heavy overcast or after sunset, and it was a real jewel.
And it glistened even brighter that autumn with color in the shoreline hardwoods and a bit of a chill in the water. I absolutely loved it!
The following spring I met Barbara, and we soon made our first trip to the Comite together. There were some people swimming near the bridge when we arrived, even though a light rain was falling. We worked our way upstream for a short distance, and had two nice spots oblige, before the rain became a deluge, the river began to rise, and we decided to get the heck out of Dodge. Almost back to LSU, we heard the guy on the radio say two people had just drowned in the ComiteRiver near the Greenwell Springs Road. Even pretty little creeks can get really nasty sometimes.
She and I were married that September, and for many years thereafter I fly fished for bass in flowing water only during brief vacations to visit her folks in Missouri. It’s a different world up there – clear, cool water, big hills, and smallmouths. I became enamored with the brown bass and the environment surrounding them, and for two decades I ignored Louisiana’s creeks and their spots, limiting my local fly-fishing efforts almost entirely toward saltwater targets.
Eventually a decent redfish got the attention of a group of some fly-guys in New Orleans, and I began to present seminars to them about it all. Over time I learned from them that there was this pretty little creek north of Bogalusa that I might like to try. The initial scouting run resulted in two of the largest spots I had ever taken, and the fact that I caught them on a crankbait did not prevent me from almost exclusively fly fishing it thereafter – Pushepatapa Creek. It was a beautiful place back then, and it holds perhaps the largest spots of any of Louisiana’s Scenic Streams. Indeed, that’s where my one-time state record fly-caught spot came from, and that’s where I was confronted with an environmental issue that led to my meeting with Keith Cascio – the coordinator of the System and now a great friend and fly-fishing buddy.
Since then we have “surveyed and random sampled” several of the state’s scenic streams, most of which have shown evidence of a good population of spotted bass. One – Kisatchie Bayou – grew in endearment to a level almost equaling that of the “Pushe” – it has real, honest-to-God rocks in it as well as a lot of nice spots. And it, too, is a pretty “scenic stream”.
I’d have to say most of those that hold spots in Louisiana are pretty – at least most of those that Keith and I have “surveyed and random sampled” (That’s scientific terminology for “fly fished in a creek”, in case you don’t know.). And that’s part of the appeal of it all. Yeah, I’ll take a spot anywhere and in any way I can, I will appreciate and admire it for what it is, and I will probably release it. But when I catch one from flowing water on a fly-rod popper, I always feel I’ve been treated to something special.
And I hope that feeling never changes.
(Louisiana Conservationist 9-2004)
Rumors of remote hunting and fishing Valhallas have always intrigued me. During college years one of particular interest was Spanish Lake, a shallow, swamp-enclosed slough a few miles south of Baton Rouge. Duck hunting there was reputed to be outstanding, so very early one cold December morning two frat brothers and I drove to the little camp where Alligator Bayou, I believe it is called, and Bayou Manchac met. There we rented a dilapidated wooden skiff, loaded our gear into it, and began what the camp’s owner said would be about a 6-mile trip to the lake.
For propulsion we had three paddles which were worn to the point where the handles had become offset from the center of the blades. And no matter how hard we tried, the boat would only go so fast. So we resigned ourselves to our snail’s pace and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the swamp on a cold winter night. At least we did until a pair of bobcats began conversing with each other from opposite sides of the bayou – one ahead of and one behind the boat and sounding like they were getting closer all the while! And back then Alligator Bayou was not nearly wide enough to prevent a bobcat from jumping into our boat if it wanted to! But the caterwauling soon faded away, and after a grueling three-hour work-out, we gained the lake.
With daylight we discovered there was nowhere we could hide on the lake’s vast, shallow flats. “Laying out” in the skiff proved futile, and though we did see a few ducks, we got no shots. We gave up just before noon, ran out of steam about half-way back to the camp, crashed for a nap, and thankfully had a bayou boy come along and tow us the rest of the way back.
There was a lot of work involved with that trip – and a lot more planning would be necessary for another, but the place appeared to have potential. It also had some hazards, as one of my hunting buddies discovered upon returning to the camp later that afternoon to retrieve his forgotten shotgun. Another boat-load of hunters was returning about the time he got there. One of them – who had gotten out of the boat to push it across a very shallow flat – ran it into a stump which was undetected beneath the mud similarly to others we ourselves had encountered. On impact his shotgun slid from its perch, discharged, and from a very short distance blew a thumb-sized hole through his shoulder. He bled to death in minutes. Thoughts about that tragedy, and the long paddle required to get to and from the place, squelched any enthusiasm for hunting Spanish Lake for two years.
By then Allain and I were sharing an apartment, and he had an 18-horse Evinrude which we began to use to power us to and from the lake in what was apparently that same dilapidated wooden skiff. All hunts were made in the evenings after classes, and we discovered a blind that wasn’t being hunted then. The action wasn’t spectacular, but it was fairly consistent with teal and ringneck ducks making up most of the bags. Then one evening I got a goose.
Allain is apparently not about to ever let me forget that bird. That evening Scott was on the left, Allain was in the middle, and I was on the right of the blind’s shooting box. The bird came in late, head-on, low, and on Scott’s side. Initially not recognizing it, I shouted “Don’t shoot!” Then, suddenly realizing what it was, I dumped it before my buddies could recover. I always have felt a little guilty about taking that bird – especially after Allain has reminded me about it again – but only a little.
A rather inane event but one that had a long-lasting effect occurred about that time. Scott, Allain, and I were again hunting from that blind, and one evening we had a flock of scaup buzz us. After they had passed an uncontrollable urge engulfed me, and in perfect pitch I softly sang out “Wily’, dos gris’, chink chink!” Scott then looked at Allain, Allain looked at Scott, and then, with very questioning looks, they both turned to me – and as if on cue, all three of us busted out laughing! Why do I remember stuff like that? Anyway, the long-lasting effect was that some 14 years later, I Christened my tarpon-fishing boat “The Wily Dos Gris”. I have no clue why!
While Allain and Scott were my regular companions, I occasionally made a solo trip when they were busy with classes and such. Those hunts were quite exhilarating – me alone with the bayou, the swamp, and the lake. I became familiar with the bayou’s turns, the Evinrude’s quirks, and the old wooden skiff’s creaks and groans. Each trip to Spanish Lake was an adventure as much as a hunt, and I will admit to a small sigh of relief every time I returned to the camp!
Almost invariably I would have the lake to myself. However, late one evening I ran into a couple of my LSU ROTC instructors there. They were having some outboard trouble, and not wanting to leave them without the means of a tow back to the camp, I stood by until they finally got it started. Then in the rapidly growing darkness I took off up the bayou, glancing over my shoulder from time to time to check on their progress. Upon looking forward again after such a check, I noticed a snag in the water dead ahead and close. In an attempt to miss it I healed the motor over sharply, the lower unit then kicked out of the water and slammed back down hard, causing the outboard to jump off the slightly rotten transom and sink in about eight feet of very cold and very dark bayou!
By the time the ROTC guys arrived, we could see bubbles and a slick from the broken fuel line rising through the water and marking the spot where the outboard lay. So we returned to it, I stripped to my underwear, and overboard I went.
The motor was not difficult to locate, even though that had to be done entirely by my bare and quite cold toes! However, once that had been accomplished and I had a firm grip on it, when I tried to lift it I succeeded only in driving my feet and legs into the slush that comprised the bottom of the bayou. That was scary! It also demanded a different strategy. So a few minutes later I descended again, this time with a rope, and by feel alone managed to tie it around the outboard. Once back on the ROTC guys’ boat, the three of us lifted it aboard. Then, after dressing again – an act greatly complicated by my trembling hands and shaking knees – we began to tow the skiff back to the camp. It was a long, cold procedure!
Allain later took the outboard to the fix-it shop. Surprisingly, the sudden shock of cold water didn’t damage it. Daddy paid the bill – he wasn’t too happy about it, but it could have been much more. Allain never did seem too concerned about it all, neither his outboard nor my mid-winter skin-diving salvage operation. The amazing thing about the incident is that I didn’t catch pneumonia from it!
That was the last hunt I made on Spanish Lake. I’d imagine in the 40-odd years since then there have been some changes, but back then it was truly remote if not a hunting Valhalla, and therein was its appeal. And even with the unpleasantnesses that I associate with it, I am sure glad I knew it when I did.
Like the question of the chicken or the egg, I have no idea of what came first, the movie or the song. Neither gained the lists of great art, though the song – done by Peter, Paul, and Mary – was just different enough to have appeal. I remember it mainly because of its timing, coinciding with the final days of an intense relationship with a Cajun beauty during my sophomore year at LSU.
I don’t remember much about the movie. I saw it once or twice, and it made little lasting impression on me. I’d assume it affected most other folks the same way, since it is seldom in the TV re-runs these days: Hurry Sundown. It, and the song, had absolutely nothing to do with the situation between the girl and me; back then just about everything Peter, Paul, and Mary put out received at least some appreciation from college kids. We liked the song together, then our paths parted – don’t think twice, it’s alright.
College life became very unhappy, and not a little disillusioning, after that. Two years would pass before another would take her place as loved one, and I had no clue as to what I wanted to study – to become. And things like having a South Korean for the instructor of an American government course didn’t help a bit. The only thing that kept me from going off the deep end was that I could hunt and fish – lifelong pursuits of great enjoyment but which I then had to use as defense mechanisms against an unhappy time and place, eventually to the point where I failed to make my grades. On the other hand, I did not go off the deep end.
Much of that hunting was done with either a fraternity brother – Allain – or a high-school buddy – Scott – who also attended LSU. Ducks, doves, and jacksnipe were our normal targets, and we eventually discovered a significant percentage of the secluded swamps, sloughs, and corn-fields within a 40-mile radius of Baton Rouge. Permission to hunt was almost always granted; perhaps that was because there were few birds using most of those spots. With a couple of exceptions we seldom shot much, but we were hunting – then for me an escape from the despised demands of college life as much as a pleasurable pastime. And it mattered not a bit that the time of those hunts occasionally corresponded with that of French 51 – among others.
After taking a semester and the following summer off – hoping to gain new direction, a different attitude, and some dollars to help pay my bills, I returned to LSU determined to at least maintain grades good enough to stay in school. That I did, but I still fished and hunted, only now before or after classes. And one day Scott, hunting while I was in class, made the discovery of the most unusual hunting opportunity I have ever experienced.
The place was on the Louisiana Women’s Correctional Institute at St. Gabriel – a fairly short drive south of the campus. He didn’t tell me about it; one afternoon he showed it to me, and need I say I was a bit uncomfortable when we turned off the highway, passed through the compound’s gates and alongside the guard towers, and parked in front of the warden’s office. There, after introductions, we received instructions on what we should and shouldn’t do while we were there and where we could and could not hunt. Then – a good deal more at ease – we took our leave, drove the rest of the way through the compound, and continued down a gravel road along the edge of a long, overgrown field toward a swamp bordering the eastern side of the prison’s property.
The road came to an abrupt end a quarter-mile or a bit further from the swamp. On the right was a thick grove of hardwoods, ending at about the same point the road had ended and looking like it had all the makings of a fine dove roost. Eventually we discovered that it did.
From there to the swamp the field was two-tiered, its southern half being around three feet lower than its northern half and with the line of demarcation between the tiers being quite abrupt. The upper tier, overgrown as it was, showed little hunting potential, but the lower tier was somewhat boggy with scattered stands of indigo throughout it, promising both doves and jacksnipe. Finally, about midway between the road’s end and the swamp was a complex of levees which, judging from its shape, must have enclosed two fairly large ponds and which were apparently constructed from dirt bulldozed from the part of the field which created its lower tier. A breach in one side of a levee had drained the ponds; judging from the vegetation growing within them, that must have taken place some time ago. It was all very mysterious.
But we were not there to solve a mystery, and soon walked-up jacksnipe – and later flights of doves going to roost in the hardwood grove – proved we had indeed found a fine spot. And the trustees smiled and waved at us as we drove back through the compound to the highway that evening as they were to do for many days thereafter.
For two autumns Scott, Allain, and I hunted “the prison”. I have no clue why the warden bestowed upon us such permission, but during those days we never saw a sign of another hunter. Perhaps he saw a need in us for a break from college stresses. Perhaps he was a hunter, too, and wanted to share such a sweet spot with three college kids who felt the passion of his sport. Who knows, but it sure helped us through the hard times of school – and it strengthened bonds between friends and created a few really great memories.
Most of the afternoons we spent there were only moderately successful – a half-dozen or so mixed doves and jacksnipe apiece, but that was far better than what most of our other spots usually gave up, and it was hunting and once again an enjoyable pursuit rather than an escape. Then there were those quite memorable days.
One of them involved a goose – my first – that came gliding across the lower tier near dusk one cool, cloudy afternoon and fell to the right barrel. An unlikely event for that part of Louisiana, it still inspired thoughts of more like it, and within a week I had cut and painted two dozen cardboard silhouette decoys, complete with coathangers for stakes. One balmy afternoon a short time later Allain and I set them out on the lower side of the field, hid as best we could in the grass separating the two tiers, and watched in utter amazement as a flock of a dozen snow geese descended toward the spread like falling leaves, talking to the counterfeits below all the while, until they discovered something wasn’t quite right and swung away just out of range. In truth I doubt Allain had any more hope than I did of seeing geese in that doubtful spot again, even though there had been others with the one I had shot earlier. It was all really just an excuse to make another hunt, and without even pulling a trigger, it was one to remember.
I pulled the triggers many more times than I’d like to admit one bright, winey afternoon a year later, alone with my back against the grove of hardwoods and with a backdrop of those mysterious levees, as the doves came like there would be no tomorrow. And there would not be – at least not hunting at the back of the women’s prison at St. Gabriel.
By then three autumns had passed since the Cajun girl and I had parted ways. I was making decent grades and was nearing graduation, I was about to meet the one I would share the rest of my life with, and I would shortly begin a career in the south Louisiana oil field that would carry me a long way from those first unhappy, then quite happy hunting grounds. And during the very few times when Hurry Sundown would play in its different forms on the radio and on TV, it would no longer generate melancholy memories of long-ago days. Fact is, Hurry Sundown had created some very pleasant memories in the meantime. If I may elaborate.
Recalling the movie as best I can, there was a big house built alongside the Mississippi River’s levee. The levee broke; I don’t remember why or how, but the resulting flood destroyed and washed away the house. The particulars are not all that important; as I said before, the movie was rather forgettable.
I mentioned the levees near the back of the prison’s property to the warden one day as I was checking in for an afternoon’s hunt. He smiled and asked if I had ever seen the movie, “Hurry Sundown”. When I replied I had, he stated they were created for filming the part of the movie where the “levee” broke and the “river” wrecked the house. The movie crews had built a model house alongside those levees, then used the water they had pumped into the ponds the levees had created to wash it away just like the river would have, had it broken its own levee. So the mystery was solved.
The song still generates vague recollections of the Cajun girl, and it is impossible to recall the song without it bringing to mind the movie. The movie itself doesn’t remind me of anything, but in its creation there would remain a setting which would later provide me with other memories – memories of youth, friends, and autumn days spent hunting doves, jacksnipe, and geese around an old movie location on a prison – and would help to “hurry me a sunup from this beat-up sundown day”.
Really strange how all that worked…
(Pour Elaine. Louisiana Conservationist 11-2003)
I am fairly certain that during the three-month periods either side of my high school graduation day, I caught more bass than I had caught during my entire life up to that point and probably for a fairly long time thereafter. There are two good reasons to back up that belief. The first was the 11-foot duck-boat that I wrote about last month. The second was the discovery of an oxbow lake not far from my home.
For sure, that spring and summer I used the duck-boat to catch a lot of bass from such one-time favorite waters as the gravel pits alongside Bayou Dorcheat near Dixie Inn, Bistineau’s Pin Oak Flats, and Wallace Lake’s Seven-acre Pocket. But as I became familiar with the oxbow, it became the most productive spot, and throughout that summer I fished it almost exclusively, and several times a week. And I learned volumes about bass-fishing by doing so.
Initially I would park the old ’57 Plymouth near a fence’s gate at a turn in the levee that runs alongside what was then the Hart’s Island Road, remove the boat from its car-top rack, and then slide it through the gate and down an embankment to the water. Somebody apparently didn’t like me doing that, and one day I returned to find a note stuck under a windshield wiper stating I should keep out.
There were, however, several owners of the land surrounding the oxbow. One of them, a truck farmer, gave me permission to access the water from his property. His produce was grown in two fields, one between the highway and the levee, the other between the levee and the lake. A dirt road wound through both fields from the highway across the levee to the lip of the embankment – very easy access.
The oxbow was a classic. Being west of the Red River – its source – and running generally north to south, its “cut-bank” or deep side lay to the west against the farmer’s property. A narrow but thick band of tall willows lined this bank, extending across a gradually-deepening shelf to an abrupt drop-off into the channel.
Most of the eastern shoreline consisted of mid-depth sloughs dotted with willow brakes, but those sloughs were bisected around mid-lake by a broad, fairly shallow point that extended some distance into the channel. The north end of the oxbow’s almost perfect image of its namesake was a slough of moderate depth and almost entirely covered by a thick brake of willows; the south end was a shallow, barren, and uninviting flat.
While I can still clearly envision the character of that lake, I cannot recall its dimensions. I do remember that a long paddle was required to reach the north slough from my new access point – I never did paddle all the way to the south end. And I never did any probing to see how deep it was along the cut-bank, but its clear, black water gave the impression of significant depth – depth where great beasts lurked.
During summer the willows along the edge of the cut-bank began to shade the water there well by mid-afternoon – the time I’d usually arrive. By seven or so the sun would have disappeared behind the levee, the water’s surface would have become like polished onyx, and with the approach of twilight my concentration would occasionally be shattered by a tremendous splash in the open water behind me. Big alligator gar? Paddlefish? Perhaps even a sturgeon? I never saw, but they were all possible, because at the time it was a “live” oxbow, being in communication with the river during times of high water. And the entire area had been severely flooded five years earlier.
There was also another mystery which I did not solve until very recently and have never witnessed anywhere else. It appeared in the infrequent forms of large suspended green beach balls with dark round spots all over them, and when I would poke one with a paddle, it felt quite firm, though a bit rubbery. Now, thinking back on those darkening summer evenings, the mystical water, the big splashes, and those strange underwater “balls”, I get a tingling in the back of my neck.
Yes, the lake was rather mysterious, but its bass weren’t. On summer afternoons the shaded water around the cut-bank willows was a very productive area. On cloudy days and after sunset the edges of the point on the eastern shoreline provided good action, often on surface lures. But far and away most of the bass I caught fell to my trusty “BS&W” – a #1 Barracuda Spoon with a 6-inch purple plastic worm threaded onto its single hook (See “The Big Bass”). When the bass were even the slightest bit receptive, that lure was almost unfair!
Typically, those fish were in the one to three-pound range; I recall catching only one any larger, and I doubt even it weighed four. I don’t believe there were any particularly outstanding catches, either, but I do believe there weren’t any dry runs – just good, consistent catches, even on the days when I fly fished.
Fact is, I can recall only three specific incidents, one being the capture of that largest bass. It was also one of the first I caught from that lake, coming from the north slough in early spring. The second was a very nice spotted bass I caught on a crankbait worked – on a whim – deep just outside the cut-bank drop-off late one still, sultry summer evening. It was the only spot I caught from that lake. And the third was when I knocked my companion off the narrow deck of the duck-boat in a slough on the east side of the lake. An unnoticed willow branch swept him overboard, and I’ll guarantee it didn’t take him a second longer to get back into the boat than it took to knock him out of it!
After almost 50 years, I wonder if he still remembers that day – and the other days we spent together, fishing that old oxbow. We had graduated together and attended the same church, and though I had known him for less than a year, John Davis and I became fast friends. The oxbow – and its bass – had a lot to do with that.
I don’t remember if I ever fished it again after that summer. Even though I had summer jobs during the following college years, I still had time to fish. And I did, but mostly, at least, elsewhere.
On some relatively recent trips to Shreveport to visit Mom, I occasionally had cause to drive along the Hart’s Island Road. I doubt many folks know it by that name anymore; now it’s the “King’s Highway Extension” or something like that – the back-way into LSU-S. Whatever, on the first trip that I made up there after I wrote this, I discovered that the truck farm had been swallowed up by development, the banks of the oxbow had been manicured, and the land between the levee and the lake had become an up-scale residential area. And I’m pretty certain that the owners are not about to give someone permission to access the lake through their property. And I am just as certain that I no longer have any interest in doing so. Still, I continue to give thanks for the days I spent on it so long ago.
Man, the bass J.D. and I caught there that summer…
April 2011 (B)
Throughout my early life I made at least one extended fishing trip to Rockport every year, but I was twenty before I caught my first redfish. Specks were my parents’ and grandparents’ single target, and we fished for them religiously from my maternal grandfather’s 16-foot Magnolia, mostly drifting across the beds of turtlegrass in Aransas Bay outside of Traylor Island. But by my late teens the tales told by the locals, the pictures on the marinas’ walls, and the dead fish in the ice bins of the fishhouses had honed my desire to catch reds to a very sharp edge.
In 1964 my grandfather and I stayed at Rockport for several days after my parents and sisters returned to Shreveport. We had taken a few fair specks before they left, but things had been a little slow in our time-honored spots between California Hole and The Cove. And we were hearing some very good reports from Cedar Bayou, a deep cut separating San Jose Island from Matagorda Island and linking Mesquite Bay to the Gulf.
That was a long way from where we normally fished, but Granddaddy was game, so one morning we headed that way up the Intercoastal Canal with great expectations – and with total amazement in me after coming across a large sign in some quite desolate reach of the canal denoting “Harvey, LA, 512 Miles” – something like that, anyway! With the aid of a crudely-drawn map – and with a lot of luck – we missed the shallow reefs in the bay and eventually found ourselves in a cut of beautifully green water surrounded by shallow flats that were lush with turtlegrass. Gulls were in a frenzy, squawking and diving on shrimp being herded to the water’s surface by a strike-a-cast school of specks. Granddaddy was ecstatic, but after we had boxed 20 or so of them I could no longer resist the allure of those flats. Armed with a box-full of spoons and a couple of topwater bass plugs, I abandoned the specks, went overboard, and began my first serious quest for reds.
The flats were about a foot deep, with a relatively hard bottom, and with scattered small and large patches of grass. In the distance the vegetation created dark water, and on closer inspection its edges teemed with a marvelous abundance of marine life – shrimp, minnows, crabs, an occasional spooked flounder, and – redfish? I could not believe what I was looking at! A mere hundred yards from Granddaddy’s boat, I was staring at a red that was no more than 20 feet from me, rooting through the grass! Then all my youthful ability for pinpoint casting for bass in some extremely tight confines vanished in an instant as I made a sloppy, backlashed cast with a surface lure that landed right on top of the fish – which immediately spooked. I almost cried!
An hour or so later, having covered about a quarter of a square mile of very promising water, I hadn’t seen another fish. But as I made my way back to the boat, I encountered a fine flounder swimming easily across an open patch of sandy bottom. This time the cast with the surface lure was on the mark, the fish struck, I hit back – and missed it! I was sick – it was the biggest flounder I had ever seen!
Thoroughly rattled now, I wasn’t paying attention to what was around me as I continued on towards the boat and almost stumbled into a school of three redfish. Unbelievably they didn’t spook, and at a distance of no more than 15 feet I made a sidearm lob at the biggest one. It immediately struck, and for an instant I thrilled to the previously unknown power in a red’s initial run. Then the hooks pulled, and for a very long time I stood there motionless, alone on a Texas turtlegrass flat, wrapped in despair unlike any other I had ever felt while fishing.
Back at the boat I found that Granddaddy had taken about 15 more rather smallish specks. As we chatted about the morning’s activities on our way back to the launch-site, I could tell that he was not in favor of returning the next morning, even after hearing my rather overwhelming story of the reds at least twice. Back at Rockport, having eaten a light lunch at Kline’s and settled in for our afternoon nap, our discussion became a little more heated, and I regret what I said and how I said it to this day. Yes, I had been eye-to-eye with the first redfish I had ever seen alive, and I had suddenly developed a burning passion to catch one. But because of that I was more than a little disrespectful to the man who had influenced me most in becoming a fisherman. I realized and regretted that at the time, but there was something in me that I couldn’t hold back, and for the only time I can ever remember, we went to sleep mad at each other.
After the nap – and with a very unfamiliar and very uncomfortable air between us – I headed out for my normally unproductive afternoon wade-fishing session along the old town’s waterfront. Working the flats and the washouts around the piers’ pilings with a spoon, I had one strike – a sudden heavy weight, a screech from the reel’s drag, and then a broken line.
That evening at dinner, subtly making me feel like the most ungrateful child that I was but not saying it in so many words, Granddaddy mentioned that he felt he could have caught more fish that day if he had been a little quicker on the strike and wondered if I wanted to go back to Cedar Bayou again in the morning. For that effort alone, my grandfather left another footprint on the edges of the bays in my world.
I did not sleep well that night. Guilt and excitement do not make for restful slumber, and I was up before the alarm went off. We had the boat in the water at daybreak, and forty-five minutes later we were anchored off the head of the bayou in a clear, rising tide and with fish everywhere. I did not even try for the specks that morning, and as soon as the boat was secured I wished Granddaddy good luck and headed off on my quest.
The tide was higher, the sun a little lower, and the bottom seemingly a little softer that morning as I worked my way across the grass. Another fisherman, working a popping rig with a live shrimp, had caught one, but I did not see a fish for two hours. Then, once again on my way back to the boat, one waved its tail at me from the middle of a large patch of grass. The cast to it with the surface lure was good, the fish struck, and a short time later I had my redfish – almost 4 ½ pounds. And I couldn’t have been happier when it brought a smile from Granddaddy.
Although he and I were to fish together at Rockport for several more years, that was the last trip we made to Cedar Bayou – hallowed grounds for many Texas anglers that I’ve been told no longer exist. The lure – a perch-colored wooden Devil’s Horse – was glued to a small plaque and served as a fond reminder of that memorable day for many years, the last 20 of them while resting beneath John P. Cowan’s first GCCA print of a wade-fisherman casting into a school of reds on a Texas turtlegrass flat. And that red signaled the beginning of a love for the species that remains to this day, even after having caught over 10, 000 of them, many – as one might imagine – on surface lures.
And it all began in Texas and in great part because of a grandfather’s love for a self-centered, disrespectful, 20-year-old child.
Many people and many factors influenced my hunting and fishing activities along the way. Of them all, two stand out: my maternal grandfather and an 11-foot wooden duckboat. It was because of him that my fondness for the outdoors budded and bloomed; the boat provided the means for that fondness to fully blossom.
For a time, almost all of my freshwater fishing and a good part of my saltwater fishing was done either while wading or from jetties, piers, and dams. Duck hunting was then in its infancy in my life and was done exclusively with a single friend – and not nearly often enough! By the spring of 1962 I had a strong desire to expand my efforts on both fronts.
My parents noticed, and after some discussion – and a bit of research on my part – they agreed to give me the boat in lieu of a class ring for my high school graduation gift. Great promise, but the doors it would actually open were inconceivable at the time.
The boat was fairly typical of the genre – flat-bottom with a small amount of rake fore and aft. It drew some four inches of water with two of us in it, but wide combing gave it adequate freeboard. Each pointed end had a small deck that we could sit on while we fished – out of all the years I had it, only one person fell overboard from one! The cockpit was rectangular, rimmed with a raised gunwale for spray-protection, and would hold two of us, 40-odd decoys, and our guns and cushions in relative comfort. And, as might be expected, it was painted “dull dead grass”.
Initially I spent most of my time in the boat prospecting an oxbow lake just south of my home. During Thanksgiving break from LSU that fall I hunted ducks from it on Wallace Lake and discovered that I needed to learn to shoot a little better! Over Christmas vacation a hard freeze and an unimaginable snowfall hit the area, and a buddy and I broke thick ice with it along Caddo’s shoreline just west of the LA 1 bridge, then paddled it to a friend’s blind where we stood in calf-deep snow and shot divers – and did it again the next morning.
For the next four years I fished from it on spring and summer breaks and learned the patterns for catching largemouths from Bistineau and Wallace and the spots in Dorcheat. I also discovered the delights of redear sunfish, the crappie, the goggle-eye, and the chain pickerel. A girlfriend shared it with me for a while – and man, back then Dorcheat was a very romantic place, besides a fine fishing spot! One warm April morning I gave my dear grandfather a little payback from it – if in fact a few bass from Bistineau can be an adequate payback for my first redfish. And on another spring day, again on Bistineau, my father caught the biggest bass ever brought into our home in Shreveport. During fall and winter I developed a lay-out technique in it for duck hunting, and though that once led to a minor bout with double pneumonia, I learned lessons from it that I would practice with great success further along the way. The boat was well used.
As such, it eventually began to show the signs, one of which was a slow leak that could not be stopped with fresh paintings. So began a series of semi-successful attempts at fiberglassing its bottom and lower sides. Eventually the leaks stopped, but by then the boat had become considerably heavier.
In 1967 Barbara and I were married, and soon thereafter we began to fish from it, mostly on Bistineau and Dorcheat. I have no doubt that those days in that boat helped to solidify our relationship – in a small boat, two are close in more ways than one.
The following August we carried it to our new home in the Delta where I kept it and my decoys in a shed behind our apartment. Initially we used it to catch specks and redfish from some canals near the Boothville Garbage Dump. That fall I would drag it from the shed across the back levee and hunt from it in the marsh. That was duck hunting like I had never experienced before – and my “lay-out technique” made it wonderfully effective.
After the season closed I bought my first bassboat, and fishing from the duckboat came to an abrupt stop. The following August, faced with having to evacuate from approaching “Camille”, we figured the duckboat would be secure in the apartment’s living room, so we left it there, along with most of our other meager possessions. That storm drove the water-level to the building’s second floor; everything downstairs – where our apartment was – was submerged. But the duckboat, if not much else, survived.
A short time later we carried the boat back to LSU where I finished my degree that fall and before and after classes shot ducks and caught bass from it in the West Atchafalaya Floodway. During that time it also accompanied me in the bassboat to a friend’s hunting lease south of Vinton as well as returning to the Delta for a pair of hunts, one with an uncle and one with Barbara for her first duck.
After graduation we moved back to the Delta. Late that winter I used the duckboat to catch my largest redfish from a canal at Tidewater – the first of many from that so sweet spot that no one else fished because of its isolation. Later that year Barbara blessed us with Christi, Daddy came down to visit, and he and I hunted ducks from it for three wonderful days – the last we would share in it.
And man, did the gray ducks come!
During the next three years, made possible at least in part by another fiberglassing courtesy of the local oysters and barnacles, the boat continued to serve well as both a hunting and a fishing platform. Then on the opening day of the 1973 duck season, a treacherous combination of opposing wind and tide sent it down in a bay 100 yards from shore. The situation was very scary, and my companion and I – who had hunted together from it for over a decade – were lucky to get out with the loss of only our ducks and 20 of my irreplaceable Herter’s decoys.
For the next five years the duckboat lay mostly idle alongside my spot in the apartment’s parking lot. I used it occasionally on solo forays into the thick marsh, both to hunt and to fish, but never again onto broad, open water. During that time most of the duck hunts and fly fishing trips into the marsh were made from pirogues or a fiberglass canoe – another boat that barnacles and oysters would eventually destroy. Over time the duckboat began to show signs of dry-rotting, and it finally came to pass that on May 20, 1978, I had both it and the glass canoe hauled off to the dump – such a sad way for a boat to meet its end, but there was nothing else I could do.
For right at 16 years the duckboat provided the means for learning, the thrills of successes, and the unparalleled enjoyment of close companionships, all for about $80. Just think how much I would have missed had my folks given me a class ring instead…
Oh, that last date? It’s noted in my fishing log. Wouldn’t you have done the same?
(Louisiana Conservationist 5-2005)
The Big Bass
Back in the days when only Louisiana-strain bass inhabited Louisiana waters, my father promised that the first one I caught weighing five pounds or more would be mounted. Even the best of intentions, though, often go awry.
By the time I reached age 12, I was fishing fairly regularly from the banks of the bayou that parallels Kings Highway near my home in Shreveport, traveling to and from it by bicycle. One of the bass I caught that year – 1956 – earned a picture in the Shreveport Times – who would have known what that initiated! Anyway, the following year my parents allowed me to fish the wilds of Myer’s Lake just across the levee.
Myer’s Lake was a mystical place back then and an adventure as much as a fishing spot. And it gave up a lot of bass – usually while wade-fishing – on both conventional and fly-fishing gear before I got my driver’s license and began to explore more distant waters. Those bass – often accompanied by white bass, especially in the spring – frequently made eye-opening stringers, and it was not unusual for folks passing me in their cars as I peddled down Kings Highway to yell words of congratulations. But for three years not one came even close to being a wall-hanger.
The same pattern continued through the rest of high school and most of college. Three-pounders were fairly common from such revered waters as Wallace Lake, Bistineau, and Bayou Dorcheat, and one a bit larger would show up every now and then, but I can’t recall even hooking and losing one of mounting size.
During my senior year in high school a good friend and fishing buddy introduced me to a lure that was to become one of the best I have ever used for bass. It was created by biting about a half-inch off the head of a 6-inch purple plastic worm, then threading the worm onto the single hook of a #1 Barracuda Spoon. A fairly slow, steady retrieve made it wiggle like a little snake; begin the retrieve just before it splashed and it could be worked across mats of duckweed and peppergrass without fouling. My first four-pounder fell to it that spring, and for several years thereafter the “BS&W” (Barracuda Spoon and Worm) was a spring and summer favorite.
I have no doubt that one of the main reasons I was able to cram a four-year course at LSU into five years was the presence of the fishing gear and shotgun in my room at the fraternity house. Yes, shotguns were against the rules even back then – I just never got caught. Whatever, a casting rod always accompanied me on trips back to Shreveport during holiday breaks.
While returning to Baton Rouge after the Easter holidays of my sophomore year, a frat brother and I decided to stop and make a few casts in a bar-pit alongside the old highway in the West Atchafalaya Floodway. There, while walking along the pit’s bank, we quickly caught three nice largemouths. Back at school and after much discussion, we decided to prospect the area more thoroughly. That led to the discovery of Two O’Clock Bayou and all the bar-pits that surrounded much of it.
Two O’Clock was a lovely place back then, long before the camps erupted around and alongside it like a plague of johnsongrass in a centipede lawn. It was remote, almost wild, and only small boats with small outboards – or paddles – could access most of the area. And few people fished in it.
The pits had been created from excavations of dirt needed to form the base of US 190, raising the highway to a point where it was hoped a flooding Atchafalaya River wouldn’t immerse it. Some were small – no more than a few acres. One – north of the highway – ran most of the way from Two O’Clock to Bayou Courtableau. Some were deep, but most were relatively shallow and without much obvious fish-attracting structure, but they were full of bass.
My friend and I rented an ancient wooden skiff from the semblance of a commercial camp on the east side of the bayou, paddled south beneath the old highway and the railroad bridges, and finally made our way into a pit just to the west of the bayou. There, my companion caught the biggest spotted bass I have ever seen! At 4 ¾ pounds on commercial fish-house scales in Krotz Springs, we later discovered it was awfully close to being the largest spot ever caught in Louisiana, but at the time we didn’t know that and ate it.
Friends and I later fished the bayou and its bar-pits from my 11-foot duck-boat, mostly working surface lures for bass and fly-rod poppers for bluegills and redear sunfish. One of them was the guy who had introduced me to the BS&W, and it came to pass that on March 9, 1967, he rang my phone, proclaiming that he had a surprise to show me and the day was simply too good to spend sitting in a classroom!
I was a senior by then, sharing an apartment with a frat brother who was also a long-time hunting and fishing buddy. I had also met the one I would share the rest of my life with, and to top it off, I was doing relatively well with my school-work, though not well enough to make up for such a poor beginning – at least not through my parents’ eyes. Therefore I did not discuss my extra-curricula activities (Hunting and Fishing) with them. Never!
My friend arrived at the apartment around noon, opened the trunk of his car, and proudly revealed a brand-new-rebuilt Wizard outboard motor, early 1950’s vintage and something less than 10 horsepower. He said it ran well – I quickly decided to skip my one-thirty class, gathered my fishing tackle, and off we went toward Two O’Clock Bayou.
Our destination was the big north pit. This one was different from the others. Besides its size, its eastern end was pocked with small, willow-clad islands, and much of its southern shoreline bordered a swampy backwater. A small cut from the bayou to the pit’s extreme southeastern corner provided access into it.
That late-winter afternoon was absolutely marvelous – warm, sunny, and just a light southerly breeze – the kind of afternoon that really shouldn’t be spent in a college classroom, especially after a prolonged period of cold, worthless weather. We arrived at the “camp” just after one, rented a skiff, fired up the outboard, and putt-putted our way the short distance up the bayou to the pit. Once there, with my friend sculling us around from the bow, we began to work the edges of the little islands.
I caught the first fish – a yearling that ate the BS&W like it hadn’t eaten in months. My friend got the next one – a fat three-pounder that showed all the signs of pre-spawn aggression. And a little later, having cast at a small cluster of submerged willows at the edge of one of those pretty little islands, I got the big one.
For the rest of the afternoon – and for the only time I can remember – I lost interest in fishing, spending most of the time simply gawking at that great bass. That evening at the same commercial fish-house in Krotz Springs where the big spot had been weighed, we discovered my bass weighed six pounds even – one for the wall.
But there was no way I was going to tell my father that I caught it when I was supposed to have been in class, and I was certain that if I fabricated a tale, he would eventually find out the truth. My father was like that!
Back at the apartment I discovered my room-mate was out – probably fetching his date for the weekly bridge game. I put the fish in the fridge, cleaned up, then drove to the girl’s dorm where I picked up Barbara and returned to the apartment, arriving there about the same time my room-mate and his date did.
At that time he owned one of the original Polaroid cameras, and I had been thinking that since the fish was not going to be mounted, I might at least get some pictures of it. The problem was, I sadly discovered, that the camera was presently at his parents’ house in Plaquemine. Still not giving up, I recalled that sometimes Baton Rouge’s “Morning Advocate” would run a picture of a noteworthy catch. So I wrapped my fish in newspaper, and my wife-to-be and I got into the car and headed to the newspaper office.
And two blocks from the apartment a foreign student ran his car through a yield sign and hit mine on the front left fender, smashing the radiator and the fan.
I took the bass from the car just before the wrecker drove away with it. The investigating police officer was quite sympathetic, and after seeing the fish noted what a really nice one it was – definitely newspaper-picture material. Then Barbara and I walked back to the apartment where I cleaned the fish and we subsequently ate it – no mount, no picture, only the memory of the way it all happened.
And even though I would shortly earn my degree, get a very good job in the oil field, marry, and become father to my parents’ first grandchild, fully ten years would pass before I told them about the big bass.
(Louisiana Conservationist 3-2004)
February. 2011 (Again! And that’s all here until March!)
I have the great fortune of being recognized as the first Louisiana resident to have caught a tarpon on a fly in Louisiana waters. A very strong and long-time fondness for them led to that momentous occasion.
Tarpon leapt into my life suddenly and quite unexpectedly on a trip to Rockport, Texas – back then a small fishing village on the central coast which served as a regular family vacation spot as well as the roots of saltwater fishing in my life. Most of that was done for specks with my maternal grandfather. The normal drill was drift-fishing in his 16-foot Magnolia – a “ski-boat” with fins – across the expansive turtlegrass flats found along the outside of Traylor Island, a little south of town. The lure of choice was a “Hump #5” – a clear-red hard-plastic “wiggler” with bright yellow spots. Since we seldom hooked anything very large, our tackle was light – spinning gear with 10-pound line and no leader.
That first encounter with a tarpon took place when I was 15. Granddaddy and I were drifting across a favorite bed of grass that was traversed by Turtle Bayou – a deep cut through the island and grass which extended well out into Aransas Bay – when the fish struck. There was no initial indication that it was big, just a speck-like thump. But there immediately followed a very unfamiliar surge of strength, and a nano-second later a four-foot slab of dime-bright silver erupted through the surface of the bay – and broke the line. I recall making a comment about one heck of a big skipjack – local patois for ladyfish and a species we occasionally caught along with the specks. My grandfather asserted that it was most definitely not a ladyfish but a tarpon. I was quite impressed!
Thinking back on it, that reaction was somewhat strange. Ladyfish were considered pests – seemingly by everyone around but me, even though that part of the coast held some fairly large ones that jumped very nicely. On the other hand, they were a royal pain to release, and they frequently escaped with a lure after fraying the line apart with their raspy lips and gill-covers. They were also totally inedible. Now here appeared a tarpon – just like a huge ladyfish that also jumps nicely but also steals a valued lure and from what I soon learned was also totally inedible. Except for size, I saw no difference between the two, and I had yet to discover the meaning of prestige among fishes.
A couple of years would pass before I met another. By then I was fishing in the afternoon – usually alone – as well as in the morning with my grandfather. One evening after supper I walked out onto the jetty that creates the Rockport boat basin and discovered a large number of Spanish mackerel had moved into the harbor – and they wanted nothing to do with a Hump #5.
That was the first time I had ever encountered those fish, and I was quite anxious to catch some. So the next afternoon my grandfather drove me to the local hardware store – there were no true “sporting goods stores” in Rockport back then – where the proprietor avowed Spanish macks could not resist a Mr. Champ spoon. So I bought one, and that evening after supper I walked expectantly back onto the jetty with it tied firmly to my 10-pound line.
The macks were again present, leaping clear of the water here and there in pursuit of some undetermined prey. I waited until one appeared within range, then made the one and only cast I was destined to make with that lure. As it neared the end of its retrieve, a huge silver form rose from the depths of the boat basin, engulfed the spoon, erupted into the air not 30 feet from me, fell back onto the line, and broke it, leaving me with a fluttering heart, quivering knees, and a sudden obsession to catch one.
In his battery of fishing tackle my grandfather had a 7-foot popping rod and a 1950’s-vintage Penn #9 reel spooled with 20-pound dacron line. He also had a couple of Mirrorlures which I felt might entice any other tarpon that might be around. The hours before the next evening dragged.
That afternoon the southeasterlies kicked up, generating a 3-foot chop that battered the outside of the jetty. The mackerel had gone – there was not a sign of a fish of any type in the boat basin.
The jetty is a bit over a quarter of a mile long and is made of concrete reinforced on its outside face with boulders which terminate for some reason some 30 to 40 feet or thereabouts from its foot. It is similar to a long pier, wide enough for two people to comfortably walk side by side along it. A splash-wall roughly a foot thick and extending perhaps 2 ½ feet above the walkway runs the entire length of the jetty’s bay-side. There is nothing but caution to prevent you from falling into the boat basin.
Upon arriving that evening I thought I saw a tarpon roll on the outside of the jetty right at the point where the boulders ended, but with the waves breaking against the structure, I wasn’t certain. After an hour or so of futile effort and in gathering darkness, I climbed up onto the splash-wall near the point where the boulders ended, sat down on it with my legs dangling over the breakers, and began to methodically cast out into the bay while waiting for my grandfather to come fetch me.
A short while later he appeared – there was time for one more cast. Like the others it was into the teeth of the breeze, then a pause to let the lure sink a few feet, and then a slow, stop-and-go retrieve. Then, unlike the others, there was a tap – a sensation that felt just like a wave had carried the lure into the face of the jetty. I began to reel in the remaining line, felt resistance, and immediately found myself eyeball to eyeball with a four-foot tarpon! I could have reached out and touched it! Then the lure came whistling past my right ear, and in a reflexive effort to dodge both it and the fish I lost my balance and fell backward off the splash-wall and onto the jetty’s walkway!
Granddaddy, a short and somewhat rotund gentleman, either got to me really quickly or I lost consciousness for a moment – I did end up with a pretty nice lump on the back of my skull. Whatever the case, the only permanent injury I received from it all was the reinforcement of my obsession to catch one of the great silver beasts.
That was the last encounter I had with a Texas tarpon. More than fifteen years would pass before I even saw another, and that was during a fishing rodeo in the Mississippi River Delta. There, for two solid days a couple of friends and I trolled big spoons through acres of them and never had a strike. Now obsessed more than ever with catching one, the following year I bought a boat expressly for tarpon-fishing, and after a period much longer than I intend to relate, I finally caught one – a big dude, too. And that one led to others – but not nearly enough.
That’s why I fished for them as long and as hard as I did. Those Texas tarpon really got inside me…
(Texas Fish & Game)
February 2011 (B)
(Forgot I had this one! It should have been the first post on this page.)
Back then much of the Texas Hill Country was only a few decades past being Apache lands – literally. If you happened to be driving along that serpentine, stomach-in-your-throat stretch of Highway 16 between Medina and Kerrville and were brave enough to turn off it onto one of the infrequent gravel roads you would come across, you could tell it right away.
Civilization – and electricity – ended at the edge of the pavement. The trace would wind and dip through sycamore-shaded hollows, climb sharply over mesquite and blackjack-topped ridges, and very occasionally glide across a clearing dotted here and there with scrub cedar. Fifteen miles an hour was a good speed, twenty could be life-threatening: a deer or a boulder on the road – and childhood visions of an Apache war party – might be just across the next rise.
Eventually you would probably come across a field or two carved out of the lower slopes of a hill. Then you might notice a few head of cattle – and possibly the rancher’s house in a grove of blackjacks atop a little knoll. It would be small but neat, probably painted white, and with a barn and corral nearby. My maternal grandfather from San Antonio found a spread like that one day toward the end of the Great Depression, immediately fell in love with its desolate beauty, and made its owner a deal he could not refuse.
While his main interest in the ranch was the deer and turkey hunting it offered in season, it served as a get-away for him and his family throughout the year. It was certainly not a cushy retreat. Drinking water and ice to cool the perishables had to be carried there on each trip. Cooking was done on a wood stove; kerosene lanterns provided the lighting, and a fireplace – along with the stove – heated the house in winter. Open windows cooled it during summer. We’d knock our shoes together before we put them on in the morning in case a scorpion had taken up overnight residence in them, and we never put our hands or feet in places where we hadn’t made certain no rattler or copperhead lay. It was a long way from a doctor’s office!
It was a remote and wild place – for a while cougars still roamed that part of the Hill Country. As such, it was a fine school for a boy to learn the outdoors. By the time I was eight I could ride a horse, build a fire, and shoot a rifle fairly well. But ranch-life – even as a get-away – required performing many chores. One of those – which had to be done two or three times a trip by Granddaddy – was to pump water from a nearby creek to a tank in the yard for dishwashing, the shower, and the toilet. Usually I’d go with him, and it didn’t take long for me to discover that the creek was the best of everything the ranch had to offer.
It was truly a wonder. Unlike many of the small streams that meander through the Hill Country and suffer badly during the droughts that often plague the area, this creek’s source was a huge Artesian spring located a few ranches further back into the wilds. Throughout the year it flowed clear and cool down long, boulder-strewn runs, across sheets of layered limestone, and through deep, sycamore-shaded pools. It sated the deer’s thirsts in late evening, cooled and cleansed us on hot August afternoons, and supported fine populations of largemouth bass, longear sunfish, warmouths, and bluegills. It was a place that couldn’t have been made better for a boy to learn to fish, and as I grew up my recurring dreams – and daydreams – of the ranch began to focus on the creek.
I surely cannot recall the first fish I caught there, though a black-and-white photograph of me at age seven – dressed in miniature cowboy boots and Stetson and holding a long cane pole over some forgotten pool – indicates I started early. It is one of my most cherished possessions; who knows, perhaps it was taken on the day I caught that first fish. In any case, it is a picture of the beginning of a lifetime of fishing.
I passed several summers, always in the company of an adult, fishing with that cane pole. And I probably had as much fun catching the grasshoppers I used for bait as I did catching the fish – at least for a while. Eventually I made the step up to Granddaddy’s tubular-steel casting rod, an ancient Shakespeare reel, and black linen line. He and Mother used that outfit with a green River Runt to catch some fine bass from the creek; initially I crept around sycamores and crawled across boulders with it to dap a grasshopper into a promising pocket. Later I would also use the River Runt to catch bass there, one of which would remain my largest for several years, but one day I discovered another rod, apparently long ignored, which Granddaddy kept in the rafters of an outbuilding: a bamboo fly rod.
In later years I would occasionally ask him about the day he and I walked to that also-forgotten pool where I took the fly rod and lobbed a ragged semblance of a Grey Ghost streamer into the path of an apparently very hungry largemouth and caught it – my first fish on a fly. He said I was about ten at the time – for sure, I don’t remember. But I do know that somewhere around then I began to fish the creek with flies, and by age eleven I had become fairly decent at it. That was also about the time I was allowed to go out on my own.
The three years that followed were more exciting and adventuresome than I could have ever imagined. Newly-discovered pools and pockets that were distant from the house beckoned strongly, and I regularly begged unashamedly for someone to drive me to one. I seldom fished in the mornings, helping Granddaddy with his rancher’s chores instead and loving every minute of it. I didn’t especially care for the after-lunch siestas he insisted we take, though, and I’d lie there, twisting and turning in anticipation of the afternoon hours on the creek until the sounds of the wind ruffling through the blackjacks, the whir of the grasshoppers, and the hum of the wasps soothed me to sleep.
I spent a good part of those precious afternoons creeping up to the edge of a small precipice or big boulder where I could look into the water below me and watch the fish. And I’d study the shoreline cover and scheme of a stealthier approach to a likely spot. Thinking back on it, I was fortunate to have never met a rattler – and only a few copperheads – as I crept through the brush to make a cast.
The creek was an almost continuous progression of promising spots of every type there is in flowing water. I learned the effects of the current on the lures – and the flies, and I learned how to use that current to sweep them beneath an undercut bank and around washed-out boulders. I also learned the gentle presentations which were necessary in the still water of the pools where I could watch the reactions of the fish. And I would sit beside a shoreline cedar occasionally and try to understand why the fish that I watched did what they did – and often get so wrapped up in it that I would get startled out of my wits by a deer that had come to drink nearby. At my home at night – and in school – my mind would wander to the creek where I would imagine myself approaching a particular spot, casting to it, and catching a bass. One of those daydreams actually came true – almost to the letter, and I have no doubt that they played a part in my learning how to fish a creek – and helped to create a lifelong love of doing so.
By 1958 an incident with an outlaw and a confrontation with a pair of poachers, Granddaddy’s age, and my grandmother’s insistence finally led to the sale of our beloved ranch. My parents, sisters, and I spent a final week with them there that July, and Granddaddy and I stayed on for another after they had left – the week of my fourteenth birthday.
We spent the mornings sorting out the stuff we would either keep or leave behind, packing, and cleaning up. It was sad, hard work, but for a few hours every afternoon we would slip away and fish. Occasionally he would drive me across a field and through a grove of blackjacks to some remote spot on the creek, drop me off for a while, and then return to pick me up. Those were some of the best hours of my entire life, alone in the wilds of the Texas Hill Country, fishing a creek.
On the last day I fished entirely by myself. Those precious minutes passed awfully fast that afternoon, but I remember the last fish as clearly as if I caught it yesterday. The bass struck a yellow popper as it drifted alongside a washed-out sycamore on the bank of a deeply shaded and very special pool. After I slid it onto the grass I stood, raised my hands toward that big blue Texas sky, took a last look through tear-filled eyes at those dear hills that surrounded me, swore like MacArthur “I shall return”, picked up my fish, and walked back up the hill through the cedar-dotted clearing and the grove of blackjacks to the house.
And I cried myself to sleep at night for fully a month thereafter.
I never did go back, and I believe I knew I never would as Granddaddy and I made that last drive down the gravel road to Highway 16, then back through Medina and on to San Antonio. And after a while I didn’t really want to – it wasn’t “ours” anymore.
But Wallace Creek with its clear, shaded flowing water had become a living part of me by then. Throughout my lifetime I have re-discovered it and re-delighted in it again and again as I fished in small streams in the mountains of western North Carolina, the central Missouri Ozarks, and the hills of up-country Louisiana. I see the creek in every pool, in every run, in every fish I catch in flowing water. It was indeed a very special place, and I was blessed – and I still am – to have had it in my life.
One day you might realize that some of the best hunting and fishing spots around are quite close to home – at least, once upon a time they might have been.
My childhood home was located in Shreveport’s southeastern subdivision of Broadmoor. Our street was one block long and had very recently been a cotton field. A half-block to the east was King’s Highway which ran alongside a large bayou. Actually, even then the bayou was more like a very long, skinny lake, but back then it held some nice bass, and by age 12 I began to catch some of them.
On the far side of the bayou was a smaller and somewhat older subdivision known as Dixie Gardens. Its eastern boundary was a levee, and between the levee and the Red River – a distance of a half-mile or a bit more, I’d guess – was a wilderness of sorts which contained four small natural lakes and a maze of interconnecting sloughs. It was said that much of the land belonged to a local man, Charlie Myers, thus the general name of the “lake”. But to those of us who chose to fish there rather than follow the practices of most of our early teen-age buddies, they were designated by number. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Prior to age 13 my parents prohibited me to venture to Myer’s Lake, even though part of it was only a short distance from the stretch of the bayou that I normally fished. That year – 1957 – the Red River flooded, backing up all the way to the levee and inundating the four lakes. It also brought with it a charge of fish!
By the following spring the lakes had regained their banks, and almost three years of the best fishing I had ever experienced began. It all started in the slough at the lower end of the First Lake – the closest point to the dead-end road where we would park our bicycles against the levee and walk and wade to our target areas. I recall the first bass I caught there fell to a fly-rod popper.
While that slough gave up some nice fish early on, the action in it slowed rapidly as the weather warmed. On subsequent exploring trips we discovered the Second Lake. It was similar in size to the First Lake and was also rimmed with dense stands of willows. However, just below a slough that linked it to the First Lake was a stretch of open shoreline that became fondly known as “The Bar”. It was here where I was to catch most of the fish that I would take from Myer’s Lake.
The drill was basic. I would pedal my way from home to and then up King’s Highway to the bridge that crossed the bayou, turn there, and then proceed up the dead-end road to the levee. There I would abandon my bike beside a rickety “bob-wire” fence, step through it, and then make my way across the overgrown field between the First and Second Lakes to the Bar. Then I would wade out into the lake to a point about crotch-deep and begin to cast as I moved up and down the Bar. Actually, I doubt there was really a “bar” outside that stretch of barren shoreline, but there sure was something out there that attracted the fish!
Those consisted of bedding bluegills in spring – many of them better than hand-sized and suckers for a small popper. Largemouth bass occasionally fell to those rather diminutive flies, but most of them were enticed with either an “H & H” – one of the first skirted safety-pin spinnerbaits – or a “Mitey Minnow” or “Bayou Boogie” – tight-wiggling lipless crankbaits. The latter types also accounted for most of the white bass the Bar gave up – an unanticipated bonus that the flooding river had left behind. And they were very nice-sized white bass, too!
First light would often find a friend or two and me meeting at the levee, then walking together across the field to the Bar. Company was well appreciated during that time of day, especially after one friend arrived there alone just after a criminal had escaped the police, crawled across the levee, and then died from a gunshot wound. It turned out my friend had walked scant feet from the body on his way to the Bar!
By the end of the second summer the action at the Bar was beginning to slow down, especially with the white bass. Further exploration led to finding productive spots in the slough along the levee that joined the Second Lake with the Third Lake. One of the best of those involved an old wooden bridge that had settled over the years and had become partially submerged. In that fashion it had become a haven for various prey species, and the bass prowled its edges and even made forays on top of it at times. And when they did they couldn’t resist a popper. That was really something else, catching bass on top of a bridge.
The Third Lake was located south of the first two and was directly across the levee from Hamel’s dairy farm. As such, a boat was necessary to fish it, and while we would occasionally borrow a nearby truck farmer’s wooden skiff – and often do quite well when we did, it wasn’t fishing like we were accustomed to on Myer’s Lake. And a boat was also necessary to access the Fourth Lake – the smallest and most remote of the four and also the least productive for us.
The last fish I remember catching from Myer’s Lake was a channel catfish that struck a crankbait as I was wading along the bar one summer afternoon. By then the white bass had all but disappeared – I wouldn’t be surprised if my friends and I had something to do with that, but there really wasn’t any way they could sustain their population in those lakes. And though we never did catch any really big largemouths there, their very respectable average size seemed to be decreasing. So, too, was their number.
During my junior year in high school I began to drive to more distant waters – the grass seeming to be greener on the other side of the fence. A year later my parents gave me an 11-foot duckboat for my graduation present, and Myer’s Lake became just a memory, albeit a very pleasant one.
Now the First Lake is more of a shallow slough than a lake and only a fraction of its original size. The Second Lake was made into a water-skiing course; the field we once had to cross to reach the Bar now supports some tennis courts and is traversed by a street; the bar, though, still looks the same. An apartment complex now stands on bare ground that once encompassed – and was – the Fourth Lake. And the Third Lake? Access to it is virtually impossible unless you know someone who owns land adjacent to it, and I don’t anymore.
But I do have many memories of great days with long-ago friends strung out along the Bar to greet the bass and white bass as the day awakened. And who could ever forget the cheers and shouts of congratulations from passing motorists for our stringers of those fish as we pedaled our bikes down King’s Highway on the way home…
Texas Fly Fishing
Although I learned much of the basics, and a few of the finer points, of hunting and fishing here in Louisiana, Texas is where it all began, and that includes fly fishing. And along the way that involved some unusual creatures – well, back then they were unusual to me – and a momentous occasion.
By the time I reached 14 I had become a reasonably competent fly fisherman, having solved many of the mysteries of flowing water on the absolutely wonderful creek that graced my maternal grandparents’ ranch in the Hill Country and unraveled some productive stillwater techniques on the lakes near my home in Shreveport. As I was entirely self-taught, I was admittedly rather crude; up until my birthday that year, so was my gear. But for a present I received an 8 ½-foot Shakespeare “Wonderod” for a “GBF” line – a weight-forward 8-weight in today’s language. Shortly thereafter I used it and a yellow popper to catch the last bass I would ever take from my beloved creek.
My grandparents had sold the ranch that year. After he and I returned to their home in San Antonio from my last terribly sad days there, he suggested we make a trip to Rockport – a longtime family getaway on Aransas Bay and the roots of my saltwater fishing life. One evening after supper I walked out onto the motel’s lighted pier to see what might be happening, the lights having been strung along it and numerous others like it to provide a night-fishing opportunity, mainly for specks. The bay was uncharacteristically calm that night, and swarms of ladyfish and a few specks were plainly visible chasing small brown shrimp through the lighted water.
On a whim I returned to the motel and fetched the fly rod from the car – having left it there forgetfully after returning from the ranch, tied a popper to the leader, and hurried back to the light. And there I proceeded to catch three ladyfish – my first saltwater fish on a fly – before a big speck struck and broke the badly-frayed leader. Several years would pass before I caught another resident of saltwater in a similar manner – a deed virtually unheard of thereabouts at the time – but I had discovered that it could be done, and I couldn’t care less that the first had been the unheralded “skipjack”.
It didn’t take long for my grandfather to buy another ranch. This one was much smaller and less remote than the other, fronting on Texas 16. It too had a creek running through it, but that one was intermittent; some years it was almost stagnant. I did catch a few bass from it, but it was more like a series of small stillwater ponds than a lively creek, and I began to sorely miss fishing in such water.
During a summer trip there my grandfather had to go to Kerrville for some business. On the way he dropped me off at the base of the Texas 16 bridge which then crossed the Guadeloupe River. At the time that stretch of river was somewhat braided, fairly shallow in places, clear as glass, and laced with current. I credited the strength and antics of the relatively small and somewhat strange-looking “largemouths” I caught there on poppers to conditioning brought about by that current. Almost a lifetime later I learned those fish were not “strange-looking largemouths” but Guadeloupe bass – a distinct species. I didn’t catch many of them, and I only fished there a few times, but those fish and their environment greatly reinforced my love for fly fishing in flowing water.
At about that same time I was developing an interest in golf, had become fair at it, and was bringing my clubs along with the fly rod on trips to San Antonio. My grandfather and I began to play rounds together on a public course in Breckinridge Park, and it didn’t take long for me to become more interested in the pretty little creek that flowed through it than in playing golf on it.
Thinking back, that “creek” may have been a shallow, rocky, lively stretch of the San Antonio River, but too many years have passed to be certain. Whatever, since my grandfather still had duties with his family’s monument business, it was often necessary for my grandmother to drive me to and from the park. She wasn’t concerned when those trips involved a round of golf, but when they began to focus on fly fishing the “creek”, she did become a little apprehensive – a grandmomma sort of thing, I guess. So I’d promise to stay near the crossing where she would leave me, and I would, and I soon discovered a remarkable fishery in downtown San Antonio – “urban fly fishing”, if you please.
While I did see bass in that “creek”, I don’t recall ever catching one. The main interest was Rio Grande Perch – a cichlid found in streams in the southern Hill Country and points south and west. They were pretty fish – shiny blue-gray with muted red and yellow splotches on their sides and elongated fins. They were as prone to strike a small popper as a bluegill is, I recall they resisted capture even harder than a similar-sized bluegill, and they graced a skillet nicely. I loved ‘em – along with the astounded, then questioning looks I would often get from the afternoon golfers as they crossed the nearby bridge on their way to the clubhouse.
I know something you don’t know, would often run through my mind, and it’s a lot more fun than playing golf!
In 1964 – six years after the night of the fly-caught ladyfish – I coerced my grandfather into making the long run from Rockport up to Cedar Bayou. Back then that directly linked Mesquite Bay with the Gulf and offered some great fishing. On its inshore side were vast, shallow flats carpeted with turtlegrass, and it was on one of those flats that I caught my first redfish – a major accomplishment at the time.
For the next two years I sought out reds at every opportunity, frequently abandoning my grandfather and his boat to wade the flats outside of Traylor Island just south of Rockport and much nearer our normal grounds than Cedar Bayou. Most fish were taken by sight fishing with spoons, and the thought eventually arose that if they would eat a spoon, I should be able to make them eat a fly. And in the late summer of 1966, I did.
I was ecstatic with that catch, especially so since it shocked the locals so much. But I had no idea how that fish and the way I caught it would end up effecting my life – not immediately, but five years later and in combination with another fly-caught red, the first of over a thousand I would take thusly from Louisiana waters. My success with them would gain me much notoriety – even a little fame. And just like the deep fondness I still have for fly fishing for bass in flowing water, it all began in Texas.