To answer a question that many readers have posed: yes, I have a mother. (Thank you for all of your bizarre theories to the contrary, but I was not hatched, I was not spawned by the underworld, and no, neither Eileen nor Hedge Witch secretly gave birth to me, although that would explain some of the hostility.) And I really do try to be a good son. I send my Mom stuff on most Mother’s Days, although she is fond of saying she gets sympathy cards on that special Sunday. I call her reasonably often. I try to visit Michigan now and then, and once in a while, I take her on a trip someplace interesting. (And if there happens to be fishing there, well, what a happy coincidence!) A couple of years ago, Marta and I took my Mom to France – touring tackle stores in Paris and Normandy.
After all, this is the woman who by and large raised me and my ne’er-do-well sister. (The one with the seasick husband.) Mom made sure we were fed, although I could have done without that tuna casserole. (It looked like someone had already eaten it.) She made sure we were clothed, although some of those 1970s family pictures make me wonder what she was thinking. (Is there such a thing as pattern blindness? Couldn’t we have just stuck with Geranimals?) And this is the woman who took me to 5am hockey practices. So even though mothers may sometimes be a bit liberal with helpful advice on nearly every aspect of our lives, they are still our mothers and should be treated with love, kindness, and respect.
Mom at her birthday dinner, Commander’s Palace, New Orleans.
This time around, we stayed with the French theme and I took her for a long weekend in New Orleans, a city that shares a nickname with an old girlfriend from Columbus. It had been a long time since I had visited the Crescent City. (Not that nickname – keep thinking.) To my great shame, I had never caught a fish in Louisiana – it is one of the 13 states remaining to go before I hit 50. So even though New Orleans with your Mom is not exactly a big party weekend, hey, it’s not like I’m the Bourbon Street until 4am type. Two beers and I can feel it the next day; a six pack would land me on Fox TV – either “Cops” or “Girls Gone Wild.”
Now, you may detect a French motif in the travel destinations. This has been a lifelong point of contention. Whereas I tend to take the British side in dealing with the French, my mother is fascinated by all things Gallic and is a shameless apologist for them, especially regarding their less-than-stellar military history. (“Oh, they didn’t mean to surrender at INSERT ANY BATTLE SINCE 1815. It’s just that the maids were on strike and the replacements accidentally bleached the flag.”) Mom took courses at the Sorbonne in the 70s, has a degree in French, and has been back to Paris several times. Oh, the shame.
Why did the British burn Joan or Arc? Because they were cold.
There are other important cultural reasons to visit Louisiana, mostly driven by John Fogerty. At some stage of my life, I needed to go down to the bayou and figure out exactly what the hell a Hoodoo is. And why anyone would want to run through the backwoods bare, because this place is thick, and I mean thick, with mosquitoes, and nothing takes the fun out of a drunken nude sprint like biting insects. (Or so I’m told.) And very importantly, there are beignets, a sort of free-form French doughnut that provide an excellent excuse to eat a handful of powdered sugar.
New Orleans is a town steeped in history.
In terms of fish species, the Mississippi River delta is a happy hunting ground. The brackish water can hold almost anything from fresh or salt, and apart from the legendary redfish, there are all kinds of gars, catfish, and other assorted critters that have not yet joined the list. The biggie for me would be a sheephead, a member of the seabream family that had eluded me for many years, despite attempts to catch them in North Carolina and Florida.
I had hoped for a guide who was a truly authentic Cajun swamp relic – named something like Thibodeaux LeScrotum, who had really bad teeth and could only communicate in mumbled 17th-century French. Someone who could explain what a Hoodoo is and why dogs feel a need to chase them. What I got instead was Jim Menard, born and raised in the area, solid outdoorsman, perfect English, fine teeth. He had been fishing these waters for 60-odd years, and as you will see below, he knew his business. (I booked through http://www.eccentriccharters.net/, and I would highly recommend these guys.) It’s a terrible shame he wasn’t Swedish, or I could have called this episode “Bjorn on the Bayou.”
We met before dawn in Lafitte, only 30 minutes or so outside of town – it is amazing how quickly the metropolis of New Orleans gives way to rural bayous. As we motored off into the sunrise, it was already over 80 and very humid – the mold-growing kind of humid one usually finds in basement hot water-heater accidents. But as the sun rose over the Delta, we picked up just enough wind to make it pleasant. And no matter what it was like, I was going fishing, so that’s a good thing. The river delta is enormous down here – giant swaths of marsh, broad channels, and endless series of back canals. In most places, I could hardly see the other side as we sped across the water.
Morn on the bayou
After a 20 minute run, we set down the anchor near a break in a barrier wall. It was a fishy-looking spot – tidal current flowing out of the opening created a natural ambush point for predators. The BFOC down here is the redfish, and although I had caught them before, this was certainly the main species pursued in the area and I couldn’t leave without catching at least one. I made a few exploratory casts with a spoon, then switched to a spinner and tossed right into the current and boom – a solid hit and a nice redfish in the boat. It had taken all of 3 minutes of fishing to add on state number 38. A fish Jaime Hamamoto hasn’t caught, in a state where Jaime Hamamoto hasn’t caught a fish!
I quietly and maturely gloated for a moment, but the redfish were wide open, and I started getting one on almost every cast. Then some channel catfish joined the fun. Jim caught a largemouth bass, then I caught a stingray and some pinfish – the variety was amazing. Then I hooked up again – this was a different fight with strong dives to the side and very little head shaking. Instinctively, I grabbed the net in case it was something interesting. And it was – a foot or so below the stained water, I saw the unmistakable dark bars of a sheephead. I gently scooped the net under him and gave a whooping cheer for species number 1009. Jim just smiled politely and took some photos for me.
A sheephead. Don’t worry, Eileen – I put it back.
A few more redfish came on board, then I got a bigger hit, followed by a powerful dive for the bottom and the s-curve swimming of a solid catfish. As I pulled it to the net, I was greeted with the beady eye and impossibly large mouth of the flathead catfish. Even in smaller sizes, these things look like they can swallow pumpkins. This was one of those especially satisfying catches, because I had been humiliated by this species in the past, and I never, ever forget these things. Back when I lived in Columbus, Ohio, I used to do a lot of fishing on the Scioto river, usually on Friday and Saturday nights when the aforementioned old girlfriend claimed to be washing her hair. I didn’t catch many fish, but on one memorable evening at Greenlawn dam, I was working a live minnow through the spillway when suddenly an enormous mouth flashed out of the depths and grabbed the bait – the last thing I saw was a wake heading for Kentucky at high speed.
The Flathead Catfish. Now I’ve caught one. Jaime hasn’t.
A face only a mother could love – species 1010
Speaking of fish laughing at me, on my next cast, I felt a bite, set the hook, and thought I had snagged the wall – but then I noticed it was moving. I reeled up as fast as I could, and a 4 foot alligator gar launched up out of the water and spit the hook. Ah, the alligator gar – a design that works so well it hasn’t changed in millions of years. Primordial and frightening, these things grow to hundreds of pounds and have apocryphal sins attributed to them, such as carrying off children, sheep, and virgins. (See “Gobius draculus” in “The Compleat Angler” episode from July –https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/countdown-to-1000-the-compleat-angler/ ) The one I lost was more like 25 pounds, but I just had to land one, so I rigged up a wire leader and strip bait and let it drift in the current. About 20 minutes later, the rod went down, gently at first, then building into a line-peeling run down the wall. It jumped twice like a tarpon, but the really exciting part was netting it. These things have teeth and very poor social skills. I took the courageous path and sold out the guide – “Jim, you’re on your own.” He scooped it up without incident.
Your basic alligator gar
“Let’s try not to lose a finger, son.”
And toward the end of the day, just as we were packing up to go so I could race back to New Orleans and join Mom on a tour of Garden District homes oh joy, I got a nice little bite and reeled in what I thought was another channel catfish. Just as I was about to release it, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the anal fin on this fish was very straight, one of the keys for a blue catfish. So I looked more closely. The anal fin was indeed very straight, like a barber’s comb. I said to the fish – “My, that’s a very straight anal fin you’ve got there.” And the fish seemed to look up at me and say “Back off, air breather. Try that crap on Bourbon street.” It was indeed a blue catfish, and I closed the day at 1011 species.
My, that’s a straight anal fin you’ve got there.
Now, I know someone is going to wonder about the BP oil spill. The fishing is just fine. Stop cancelling, people. Great fishing and an awesome town to visit – can’t beat it. And as far as BP goes, everyone I talked to seemed to agree that BP was spending a lot more money on PR than they were on actually helping people. Which stinks. “FU BP” t-shirts were selling briskly in the French Quarter. Some of you may even find one under your Christmas tree.
Shrimp boats idled by the BP spill. I think I saw Lieutenant Dan.
But I still don’t know what a Hoodoo is. It may be some sort of naked swamp pixie, in which case, I saw a load of them on Bourbon Street. And mercifully, because she doesn’t drink much either, I did not have to say those five words I dreaded the most – “Mom, put your shirt down.”