“Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.”
Henry David Thoreau
“If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there’d be a shortage of fishing poles.”
“One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish”
Cajuns (/ˈkeɪdʒən/; French: les Cadiens or Les Cadiens or les Acadiens, are an ethnic group mainly living in the U.S. state of Louisiana, consisting of the descendants of Acadian exiles (French-speakers from Acadia in what are now The Maritimes of Eastern Canada). Today, the Cajuns make up a significant portion of south Louisiana’s population and have exerted an enormous impact on the state’s culture.
po’ boy (also po-boy, po boy, or poor boy) is a traditional sub sandwich from Louisiana. It almost always consists of meat, usually roast beef, or fried seafood, or sometimes chicken or ham. The meat is served on baguette-like New Orleans French bread, known for its crisp crust and fluffy center… A key ingredient that differentiates po’ boys from other submarine sandwiches is the bread… A “dressed” po’ boy has lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayonnaise; onions are optional. Fried seafood poboys are often dressed by default with melted butter and sliced pickle rounds.
This is the brief travelogue of a fishing trip to the Gulf of Mexico with my brother-in-law, the quintessential fishing guide, all around chef extraordinaire and expert on all things requiring Cajun seasoning. Times, minor details, and distances are not exact and should not be on any self-respecting fishing trip; however, I have tried to be as accurate as possible and hereby record the epic 24 hour journey for posterity.
We leave the home base of Brooksville, Mississippi around 9:30 which is an excellent time unless it’s in the evening in which case it’s even better. Nothing like hitting the dark open road, the moon on the rise, coffee in hand (we won’t mention the heavy eyelids that eventually come knocking on ones eyeballs). Before hitting the open road south, though, there were many stops to make, the first being a short foray into little Africa, just south of Brooksville, at the local Dollar General. There we wander the aisles, picking up random snacks befitting a well outfitted fishing expedition, myself focusing on a large cache of chewing gum. While there I surreptitiously watch the black patrons come and go, eavesdropping on their incomprehensible conversations, marveling at their fluid movements down the grocery aisles. Once fully cached we head down the red dirt road (a distant cousin to the yellow brick road) to pick up the boat.
The boat, being a major player in this expedition and one we will depend on rather heavily to keep ourselves dry, deserves a fitting introduction. The vessel in question is a 21-foot center-console Century with a 200 horsepower motor poised over the back, like the extra-large fin on a rocket fish. It is long and white and, I thought, quite fetching. It is not a deep-water seagoing boat but never mind, we have no plans of crossing any large oceans or braving 6 meter swells.
We hitch up the boat and trailer and then proceed with protocol practiced by fishermen everywhere time immemorial: the famous “Ritual of the Lights.” It goes something like this: “What about now, is it blinking now? What?! Hmm… Well, what about now? Still not? Ok, try the brake. Hmm, nothing.” And so on. The brother-in-law, who from here on in will be known as “the captain,” takes out the light bulbs and performs some magic on a metal grinder, of all things—oh the ingenuity of fishermen! Within minutes we have lights that work, at least to a point. We don’t have signals or brake lights but never mind, We. Are. Going. Fishing.
Boat in tow we drive State Route 45 south to the hamlet of Macon where we find a late night gas station, a watering hole not only for vehicles but for the local black hipster population, most of whom sport pants that settle in somewhere between mid-thigh and knees, flashing jewelry and large gold watches. I then notice the sign on the station door that says the usual “no shoes no shirt no service” but then adds “and please pull your pants up.” Hopefully these boys can read. They crowd the area, fueling their jacked up cars, music pounding, posturing and posing, pretending us white boys don’t exist, or so it seems. We bunker on fuel, both for truck and boat, clean the windows and settle back in.
Half hour later we make a quick and necessary stop in the small city of Meridian where I grab coffee and layered citrus gum. We then head south to Hattiesburg, this time with me, the first mate, driving and chain chewing one stick at a time. The night wears on, the miles drift by under a clear sky and to the east lies a pale moon on the half-shell. The occasional noisy hiccups from the aging truck awake the captain and cause looks of sleepy interest and tired consternation.
We gas up the guzzling and grunting Ford again in some early morning southern burg. I take the copilot seat and fall into an easy sleep disturbed only by the occasional sampling of the rumble strips by the driver, who just may have been experiencing residual sleepiness himself. The sky returns from clear to ominous and back, promising a later morning of sunshine, then rain, then sunshine. The moon meanwhile continues to climb its long arc and we sail on, the boat bouncing along behind, the occasional and unfortunate early morning commuter whipping by to some distant day job. I open an eyelid here and there to see palm trees flash by and then start with wonder at the brightly lit skyline of New Orleans from the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. The lake lies to the northeast of the city and bears the responsibility for flooding it back during Hurricane Katrina. Not far off the bridge we pass the deserted and overgrown ghost town of a thousand boys’ and girls’ dreams, the former Six Flags amusement park. Katrina ravaged Six Flags back in 2005 and the company walked away from it, leaving it frozen in time. Now, ten years later, the tall rickety roller coasters still rise into the blue sky, surrounded by tall weeds, decimated play galleries, broken windowed cafes, and lonely looking palm trees.
We turn off at Chalmette and enter the bayou country, flat for miles around, as far as eye can see, thousands of islands of reeds interspersed by manmade waterways, some no wider then a shrimp boat. Other bayous, like small rivers, wind their tortuous ways, like the snakes they contain, all with the purpose of reaching the gulf.
Awake now, I watch the passing panorama, intrigued by this otherworld of the Cajun land and bayou where houses perch on stilts and crab and shrimp boats sit wide and squat in the water, tall spars angling here and there from their crowded decks. The Delacroix Highway (a bit of a stretch to call this narrow two lane road a highway) curves around and back following the bayou as the endless waving swamp grass pushes in on us.
We arrive in the quiet village of Delacroix around four in the morning. In the glow of the artificial lights from the Sweetwater Marina we slowly back the tired truck into an empty spot while we put our seats back and try to sleep while waiting for the owner of the marina to arrive and open shop for the day.
We sleep fitfully that hour, awaking every time another truck pulls in with yet another hopeful fisherman at the wheel, dragging yet another boat. The marina office, a small, four-square edifice with one side open to the road holds numerous large tanks of shrimp. Placed side by side, these tanks are overshadowed by multiple pipes which run along the top, dumping oxygenated water into the shallow tea colored pools where hundreds of 4-5 inch translucent shrimp swim idly. Two pretty young ladies of presumably Cajon descent, sober and sleepy, scoop up buckets of these tasty fish bait and hand them to impatient fishermen anxious to see open water before dawn.
At the captain’s instruction I back the trailer down the ramp and the 21 foot Century is carefully eased off the trailer and into the dark waters that reflect the bright lights off the small fishing settlement and the marina. After making one last run back to the pickup for our lunch pail, the 200-horse outboard chugs throatily to life and we point the bow towards the south, down the narrow channel of the Bayou Terabouf.
As the first mate and lowly deck hand I am instructed to ensure the lid of the cooler doesn’t fly off in the wind. I am on my knees at the back of the boat and idly wondering to myself why exactly the lid would fly off when the captain says something to the effect that he is going to “hit it.” Before those words register in my mind a sudden deep roar fills the air, the bow of the boat lifts out of the water and I am suddenly and ungraciously thrown back, by luck catching myself on the back of the nearby seat. I right myself, nonchalantly straighten my shirt, run a grim hand through my now fly-blown hair and contemplate what the captain would have thought to arrive an hour later at the fishing grounds only to look around and find his only companion of the day, me, the ignorant first mate and lowly deck hand, gone, blown away, disappeared. My thoughts head south from there, into the snake and alligator infested water and I shudder. Mentally I add another seafaring term to my repertoire: “Hit it” means grab any handle in range and hang on for dear life. Two hundred horse of two-cycle kicker-power can really make a twenty-one foot boat stand up and go!
After that first startling experience I stand beside the captain, both of us ducking behind the wind screen, watching the dark water flash by at 42 miles an hour while the eastern horizon slowly begins to lighten, now just a thin red line, promising some future stunning visual effects. We roar on, our wake white behind us until suddenly, dead ahead, we see lights and we both think, as we recount this adventure later, that we were coming up behind another boat. With mild interest I watch and then became aware that actually this was a fairly large boat, not meandering in the same vector as us, but approaching us and the distance is closing rapidly. The skipper of what is now obviously a shrimp boat flashes his forward bow lights in quick succession and the next instant we veer sharply to starboard and the shrimper flashes by on the port side. The captain then quickly and smartly turns slightly to port to hit the incoming large and dark rolling wave of water created by the larger vessel. We hit the first wave hard before we have time to think and then smash into the trough only to contact the even larger second wave. The bow of our boat slams down into the next trough, the lunch box flies open and careens across the deck spilling sandwiches and other lunchly accouterments hither and yon. The captain nonchalantly takes it all in stride wavering only momentarily from the fast clip, as he quickly grabs the rogue sandwiches and chips, stuffs everything back in the box, slams the lid and continues on towards Black Bay. We put our heads back, hair flying in the wind, and laugh uproariously. What a great trip and it’s only just begun! What more dangerous adventure lies ahead?
The banks of the bayou flash by and I take in the incredible scene with feelings of awe and excitement. The reed beds lining both banks stretch to the horizon, all perfectly level with only the occasional pole, pipe, or palm rising to break up the view. Here and there waterways break off to sluice out of sight, some man-made by the ever present Gulf oil industry, others natural paths, bayous inside bayous, random lakes and lagoons scattered throughout, disappearing into the darkness, filled with infinite mystery.
The thin red line to our port side turns into sunrise, beginning as a subtle red blush, then growing to throw random strokes of crimson up and across the scattered low clouds. Across the far horizon, cumulus clouds tower to impossible heights casting long dark shadows across the now glowing waters. Suddenly an orange explosion bursts over the rim, the star in this glorious celestial orchestra, flooding the world with the music of light and color. We say things like “best sunrise ever” and “wow, would you look at that!” the wind catching the other more poetic offerings, carrying our words out and down the bayous. On the other side to the west, opposite the light show, we can now see other more ominous and dark orchestras forming, massive banks of rain riding in the huge morning skies, promising a sea experience that make me think of the SS Mary Rose and the Wreck of the Hesperus.
Abruptly we break out of the bayou and enter the Black Bay of the greater Gulf of Mexico and are immediately surrounded by oil rigs of all shapes and sizes, unwelcome gangly interlopers in a sea world of awe and wonder. Large rigs with helo pads and populated by men, others just small little outposts dotting the water, a few pipes rising ten feet or so above the surface. Eyesores and blights on the seascape, certainly, but also havens to the sea creatures we seek. We aim our bow toward a mid-size derrick and once in place, bobbing up and down, we make our first casts. For the first hour, with no success, we race from derrick to derrick trying a few casts here, a few casts there, searching for that large school of spotted trout that is just waiting for the fresh shrimp that are jumping about energetically in our live tank. We head further out in this search for a number of miles, have no luck, and finally return, in the shadow of the approaching storm, and anchor offshore a small island known as Stone Island. By all appearances the oil industry has sequestered this small islet and built up various misshapen outbuildings, the detritus of industry scattered here and there. A large boat, looking somewhat like a fishing trawler, comes and goes almost constantly, moving from rig to rig, and back to the island. Three other fishing boats with hopeful occupants are situated on both sides of us, anchored, bobbing in the swells, casting their lines with a flash in the bright sun.
Shortly after we throw out our anchor the heavy gray clouds move in from the west and the rain begins, rain on one side, sunshine still bright to the east. The occupants of one boat immediately don their green heavy weather slickers and keep casting. The fishermen in another boat immediately pull anchor and disappear in the direction of shore. The guys to our starboard beam simply remove their clothes and stand there, in their swimming trunks, oblivious to the rain, casting their lines with nary a pause. We follow the last pair’s example and stand there as well, casting with reckless abandon and joy, into the rain splattered and shining waters. As the rain begins to fall, the fish begin to bite and I receive the first surprise, a nice and lovely hit on the hook, the brief whine of line as the fish makes a desperate run. It doesn’t take long and the first speckled trout lies flopping on the slippery deck, with two very wet fishermen whooping and yelling. Well, maybe it was just the first mate whooping and yelling, I don’t recall. I take another fish a few minutes later and the captain begins to look grave: this is not good when the first mate, the newbie, the guy that just about fell out of the boat earlier in the day, out fishes the captain. My joy and needling is short-lived and unfortunately for me that is my last speckled trout of the day and the captain forthwith takes the lead and catches 5 or 6 very nice trout, more than enough to feed the family. I will not hear the last of this I am sure.
But even though the speckled trout spurn my line, I am not a has-been quite yet. My ten minutes of real fame come just as the rain stops and the southern sun come out to dry us, and then burns us, red like lobster. As I absentmindedly watch the dip and swell of the waters, my line suddenly takes a hard hit, whining furiously as the fish, or whatever it is (a whale, a shark?), heads out to sea, eager to shake my hook. I sprint around the boat, trying to follow this wild creature and listen to the captain screaming advice—”Whatever you do, do NOT let it go under the boat!!!” I then let it go under the boat. We survive that little run and continue to fight, finally getting the creature close enough to the boat to net it. When all was said and done we have ourselves a lovely 25 lb. Red fish, the scianops ocellatus to you purists who are persnickety about your Latin fish monikers. The captain expresses his desire to throw the fish back, stating things like “bull Red fish really need to stay in the water to propagate the species” and other heavy scientific jargon that goes in my left ear and straight out the right. I am having none of it. We will keep this fish to show the family and to prove once and for all that I actually can catch a fish that amounts to something—see, I am actually worth keeping around and not a bad hunter-gatherer after all, fishing being a part of that genre, I’m sure. The good captain, after listening to me whine about keeping it, benevolently assures me that we could probably fix it up to taste quite nice. As I would eventually learn, “taste quite nice” involves a lot of Cajun blackening.
Shortly thereafter I notice movement off the starboard beam and watch with growing fascination as a school of dolphins swim by, smoothly arching their sleek glowing bodies, splashing in play. I point them out to the captain, who, I see immediately, does not share my sense of pleasure and fascination. He tells me, his voice gravely with gloom, that where there are dolphins there are no fish. They eat fish. They scare fish. They are the bane of fishermen. As long as they are in the vicinity we may not get a bite. As much as I enjoy their water dancing, I wish then that they would move on and splash somewhere else.
We leave Stone Island around noon sunburned and feeling skunked, not having had a catch for a couple of hours. The captain “hit it,” the bow lifted high, and we headed for the bayou, stopping off at another little estuary that opens up into a large shallow lake. We cast about here for a while, once again with no luck, and finally head for port where we load up the boat without incident, tired, sunburned, and windswept.
Now in the daylight the Sweetwater Marina and the village of Delacroix show their colors: crab and shrimp boats line the narrow bayou, tied up to fishing huts and smallish wharves where fishermen and fisher ladies clean and separate the days or weeks catch of crab and shrimp. A produce truck or two is wedged into the narrow loading docks or parked beside the road to take on the fresh seafood to delivery to restaurants, destinations unknown. On the other side of the road, across from the diminutive wharves and docks, stand small houses, mostly trailer-house type, perched high on tall poles, surveying the bayou from 30-50 feet in the air. Hurricane Katrina, back in 2005, destroyed most, if not all, of this area; houses, wharves, piers, quays, and docks, spreading vessels of all sizes hither and yon. These folks have now built high, being safe, away above the waves but, it would seem, still at the mercy of the wild and treacherous winds.
From Delacroix we make a slow circle through New Orleans, and the French Quarter in particular. The French Quarter is a fantastic kaleidoscope of color and sound, busy narrow streets, old European style buildings housing a vast and wild array of psychedelic bars, wrought iron cafes, dirty delis below, hotel rooms above, all windows flanked by polychromatic shutters and flowers. Just inside the Quarter lies the French Market, an outdoor seller’s metropolis, selling fancy leather purses and rugs among a gazillion other things, from what I can see from the road. Towing the boat is a mixed blessing as it does prohibit us from parking and taking in the sights more intimately; on the other hand, we are certainly prepared if waters from another hurricane should suddenly flood the city.
Traffic is slow but the time spent sitting in downtown New Orleans is not wasted, that is, if you find humans the most interesting animal on the planet. Rich and poor, polished and rough, crossing the street in droves, dark sunglasses, white suits, couples hand in hand, crowds milling around the Marriot and Hilton on the edge of the Quarter, all the throbbing heartbeat of the inner city. We eventually break through it all and sail onto the I-10 right into more traffic. From there we drive slowly on to Slidell, a smallish town on the outskirts of New Orleans and there we exit, the captain determined to feed me the best Fried Oyster Po Boys ever. We pull up behind a little fish market and enter the premises where they sell not only fresh red snapper, speckled trout, crab and shrimp—all glistening on beds of ice—but also operate a little restaurant where they churn out Po Boys filled with lovely sea things like oysters and shrimp which come half-dressed or full-dressed, packed with onion, tomatoes, and lettuce among other succulent offerings. Now for those of you who are epicuranistically ignorant, a Po Boy is like a sub sandwich, only a touch more exotic, and more, well, Cajun, New Orleans and the coast all packaged together inside a small loaf of bread. Speaking of bread, this particular place produces, first of all, the best, which is altogether crusty on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, a lovely little suitcase in which to hide such tasty delicacies as the breaded and deep fried oysters. They also produce onion rings and sweet potato fries, all crunchy, salty, and utterly delicious, not to mention artery searing fatty and cholesterol laden.
We leave with a large bag of this fatty goodness and dig in, dressing spilling down our beards, flakes of crust dusting the floor, the odd oyster lost at sea, unmoored from the Po Boy package. We head north, leaving behind the Sea of Lost Fish, the French Quarter of Broken Dreams, and all the intriguing and mysterious Cajun wonder anyone would ever want.
That night we arrive back home bleary-eyed and contented, having chain-chewed through a couple packs of gum on the way, anything to keep the eyelids from shutting on the Interstate. We show off the fish, carrying the big one inside to the screaming delight of the kids and even the wives, I think, beamed slightly, making small “get out of here!” gestures, fluttering their hands at us. Later, in the warm and humid southern air, we hunker down on the concrete apron outside and flay the silver treasures, water everywhere, scales glinting in the light, the kiddies splashing at our sides, reaching out to touch the wet and shining textures of these dead creatures of the sea.
The next evening we prepare the fresh filets (pronounced “fee-lays” with the accent on the “fee”) for the banquet; the speckled trout rolled energetically in Cajun seasoned dry batter, and then deep fried in peanut oil (if it’s not peanut oil, don’t bother). The red fish is heavily rubbed with Cajun blackening, the seasoning kneaded deep into the light pink tissue, and then fried in copious amounts of butter over a very hot fire in a white-hot cast-iron fry pan. This is done outside as to do it inside would, according to the captain’s wife, saturate the curtains with smoke and limit visibility in the region for the next few days. This proves to be true, for as the filets are laid in the pan, the white smoke that rises in small mushroom clouds does indeed render the fish unseen for a few minutes. Later, the fish, done to perfection, are served up with a sweet corn casserole, a salad, and corn bread muffins. The meal is delicious and memorable, the fitting end to a trip filled with wonder and fascination, an introduction to a new addiction and the dreams of another midnight trip to the Gulf.
And besides all of that, I can say now with famous philosophers from ages past that “I fish. Therefore I am.”