During my time in central California, I made a lot of trips to the San Luis reservoir in search of stripers and largemouth bass but there was one fall trip in particular that always rises to the top of my memories of the massive San Luis reservoir and O’Neil forebay. I’m guessing that the year was around 1986, and it was a late fall weekend of fishing with the backdrop of barren rolling hills and cool-crisp mornings around the reservoir. The kind of mornings that you can see your breath and the familiar smell of campfires drifted around the shores of the lake at dawn. Back in 1986 things were very different than they are now. We didn’t have the luxury of cellphones or debit cards like we do today, with most folks using cash or check for purchases and pictures were somewhat rare unless someone in our group was a photo buff. I doubt we took any pictures of our trip, but I still have my memory and this one was a doozy, that’s why I still remember it. Oh, I had made a few trips to San Luis with my good friend Sonny since checking into the squadron 3 years earlier, but this trip was probably the best I had made in terms of numbers of fish and the size as well as shear laughter and fun we had that weekend. Here’s the way it went down….
We had been planning the weekend for a while and it just so happened that our plan all came together for a weekend of camping and fishing at San Luis reservoir, located in central California. It was going to be myself, Sonny and Tom, all from the squadron and all somewhat avid fishermen. As I remember, Tom wasn’t quite as avid a fisherman, but nonetheless he was a musician with an acoustical guitar and an interest in fishing with Sonny and I, so I saw the entertainment value right away. That came into play later on in the story, but Tom was a good friend of mine and our wives also hung out together, so he was a shoe in for our trip. Sonny had the truck and the boat, which was a 17-foot Bass Tracker that he personally picked up from the factory and towed out west to its new home in central California. Sonny and I put a lot of miles on his Bass Tracker and his little Ford Courier pickup truck. His little truck had an aluminum camper shell over the bed, and he had a big handmade wooden camping box inside the covered bed, where he kept all his camping equipment/supplies and kitchen type equipment. Common items we generally had in the back for the trip was at least 1 Coleman lantern, we generally had mine and Sonny’s. We also had a couple Coleman stoves for cooking/deep frying, as well as a few tents and sleeping bags so needless to say, with all that equipment the little truck was loaded down. For that reason, Tom agreed to ride in the floor of the boat for the duration of our trip up to San Luis. Looking back on that decision, I’m not sure that would fly by today’s standards, but we really didn’t see the harm and it was less than 2 hours away. Besides, it gave Tom a chance to wrap up in a sleeping bag and sleep a bit down in the floor of the Bass Tracker on the trip. It was Friday evening, and we were off for our trip shortly after finishing work and getting everything ready. Tom met me at my house and Sonny picked us up curbside with the boat and gear in tow. Tom crawled into the floorboard of the Bass Tracker and covered up with his sleeping bag. It wasn’t long till we hit the I5 interstate, and we were cruising north for the next hour and a half, blasting music and chatting about fishing.
Sonny and I had been up to San Luis a month earlier on a bass fishing trip and we had a good time, not only with the bass but we both caught some nice stripers as a bonus. Before San Luis, I knew very little about striper fishing and I never really thought about targeting them at the time. Sonny and I were mainly interested in bass fishing, that is until I caught my first big striper on San Luis. I can’t remember if I had caught some smaller stripers prior to catching a behemoth right before dark on our last trip, but my fate was sealed, and I found a very large interest in striper fishing from that evening on.
I can remember that Sonny and I were fishing the forebay and there was a long stretch of grass parallel to some rip rap, and we were concentrating on throwing topwater along the edges of the grass. We had caught a few nice bass along with a few smaller stripers and the sun was setting fast. State Park rules said we had to be off the lake at sunset, and we only had another 30 minutes or so to fish. I got a bad wind knot in my reel, and it looked like the reel was done for the evening. It looked like a re-string job, so Sonny told me to grab his little spinning rod with a Pop-R tied on it to finish out the evening. I grabbed Sonny’s little spinning rig and made a long cast out the back of the boat, away from the weed line and out into deeper water. I just wanted to see how the rod and reel felt before working the Pop-R down along the edge of the weed line. Sonny got his topwater snagged in the weeds and I turned to watch him work his topwater out of the obstruction. I heard a large splash in back of the boat and turned around to see a large boil and circular swirl right where the Pop-R has landed. I was confused because I could no longer see the Pop-R on the surface, but my line was very slack. I looked at my slack line and wondered if the Pop-R had somehow broken off or it had come untied. I was baffled so I started taking up the slack on the reel and when I looked down at the remainder of the line where it entered the water, I saw it slowly tighten on a very dark shadow under the water swimming towards the boat. No sooner than I saw the fish, the fish saw me, and the boat. At that point the big striper made a quick turn away from the boat and the drag started screaming off the reel. The big striper was headed for the middle of the lake with the little Pop-R and I was hanging on for dear life. The pile of line wrapped around the spool was getting thin and the striper showed no interest in slowing down, so we had to chase him down. Thankfully there was very little structure and the fish stayed near the surface for the duration of the fight. He must have pulled the Bass Tracker around for 10 minutes before we finally landed the 31lb monster and called it a day. Back then we kept everything for table fare as long as we were within our legal limits and that big striper provided a lot of meat for us Navy folks on a budget. A month had passed since that trip, and Sonny, Tom and I were returning to San Luis in search of stripers for the freezer.
The long drive to San Luis went by quickly and it wasn’t long till we were pulling into a local San Luis gas station, store and bait shop just a couple miles from the entrance of the state park where we were camping. On this trip we were only interested in stripers and the best way to catch them at the time was using cut bait in the form of frozen anchovies. The store sold frozen anchovies by the bag and there were a few dozen in the bags so we wanted to get enough to last us through the next day’s fishing. I wanted to stretch my legs and I was pretty sure Tom wanted to stretch after riding on the floorboard of the boat for a while. When Sonny and I got out of the truck we were chatting about something and I watched as Sonny reached into the bed of his truck, over the side and it dawned on me that something wasn’t right. Tom was walking up after climbing out of the boat and I realized that we no longer had a camper shell on the bed of the truck. Sonny was busy digging in a bag for cash and I asked if he noticed anything out of place? Right away it dawned on him that his topper was missing. Nothing in the bed had blown out and nothing was out of place, the topper was just gone. We asked Tom if he had heard anything, but Tom said he fell asleep and didn’t hear a thing. On further inspection, we found that the shell had hit the corner of the windshield on the Bass Tracker and did minimal damage. We debated on going back up the freeway to see if we could locate it but it was getting late and interstate 5 is a big interstate to try and find a small camper shell, so we let it go for the night, citing that we would look for it on the way back home. Money was pretty tight back then and we all pitched in for groceries and gas. After buying supplies, bait and gas we were on our way to the park to set up camp, grab a quick bite to eat and get some rest. After unpacking, pitching tents and heating up some supper we called it a night and hit the tents.
It was a brisk morning on the water and the ramp was lined up with boats waiting to launch. We got there a little late and by the time we were on the water and moving the sun was up and it was warming up to be a nice sunny morning on the lake. We found an area that had a long tapering point, and we dropped the anchor on the crown of the point in 20 feet of water. We cut the anchovies into 2-inch chunks and put them on a single hook 1 foot leader with a 1-ounce weight 2 feet below the leader. That got our cutbait about a foot off the bottom. We just dropped the baits straight down under the boat till the weight hit the bottom and we brought up the slack which brought the bait suspended a foot off the bottom and dangling from the leader. We just sat and waited for the stripers to show up. It didn’t take long, and we were all three bring in nice 2-5lb stripers. Every once in a while, one of our rods would pull down and another striper would come to the boat. Over the course of the morning, we boated 5 nice stripers a piece and headed back to the launch to trailer and have some lunch. We had 15 very nice stripers, and we were pretty happy with our catch. We cleaned the stripers right after lunch and decided to drive down to the Oneil forebay for an afternoon/evening of more striper fishing. The launch at the forebay was about 15 minutes from the upper lake and the state park where we were staying. Legally we could catch 5 more stripers a piece to finish off our daily limit and there were plenty of stripers in the forebay for us to catch. We used the same method of suspending the cut anchovies and in the course of the afternoon through evening we accumulated our limits again, including a few bigger teenage stripers. We were having a blast and it was by far the best trip that Sonny and I had been on. We had a total of 30 stripers for the day and we were going to be eating deep fried striper for our supper along with some fried potatoes to go with it. When we got back to the camp Sonny broke out the cooking equipment and I started fileting out the stripers from the afternoon trip to the forebay. Tom broke out his guitar and we built a nice fire in the firepit in the center of the camp. Tom played music as we ate fish, drank beer and sang songs into the chilly October night before hitting the sleeping bags for some rest. Nights like that have always been some of my best memories while on fishing trips.
The next morning was Sunday, and our plan was to fish the morning before breaking down camp and heading back home in the afternoon. The morning was a copy of the morning before, and it was a little chilly to start the morning. When we got to the ramp, we realized that none of us had enough cash to pay the launch toll. It was pretty ugly as we pulled up in line to launch but had no money. We had to move out of the way of the other boaters waiting to launch and we were just sitting in the parking lot with the boat trying to figure out what to do. We would need to drive to town and write a check for cash as this was before ATM machines and cash withdrawals. It was really going to screw up our morning, but Tom came up with a plan and took his hat off, broke out his guitar and just started playing songs right there at the top of the ramp with his hat turned over on the ground in front of him. It didn’t take long until a couple of the boaters dropped a few dollars in Tom’s hat and Sonny, and I stood back and watched as more boaters donated to Tom’s hat on the ground and within 15 minutes, we had enough money to launch the Bass Tracker for our morning run. It worked out just the same as the morning before and we all got another 5 fish limit of stripers before calling it a morning and heading back to break down the camp and pack for the ride home. We cleaned the stripers and packed the gear for the ride home in the early afternoon. Tom covered up on the floorboard of the boat again and we had an uneventful ride back home, not finding Sonny’s little camper shell on the way back down Interstate 5.
We made several trips back to San Luis over the next few years, but we never experienced a 45-striper weekend like Sonny, Tom and I had on that October weekend. We didn’t know much about striper fishing at the time, and we only had a flasher for electronics, but we had a blast catching those stripers and I was hooked on chasing stripers for years to follow. We also fished a lot of other lakes for stripers after that and we caught some nice ones out west including the Colorado River, the California Aqueduct and the Delta but the San Luis Reservoir and Oneil forebay is where my striper roots begin.
For me, southern Louisiana has become like an old friend that I like to visit periodically, if for no other reason, it’s just to catch up on what’s going on and reminisce about old times. It’s very hard for me to believe that it’s been almost 30 years since I first laid eyes on the Louisiana marsh and the best fishing Louisiana has to offer. Running down the Mississippi and diving into the marsh by boat is like entering another world for me; a world mixed with the timeless beauty of the marsh and the always present invasion of the ones who may eventually destroy it.
I‘m not sure how many times I’ve made the trip from the Atlanta area to Venice, but I can assure you that there has never been a faster trip down to Venice to my recollection. I’m not saying that because my friend Jimmy Sanders is a fast driver, which he is, but it’s because we were never lacking in laughs and conversation, so the miles just flew by at Mach speed. Our last meal before checking into the lodge was a lunch stop at Salvo’s seafood in Belle Chase. Salvo’s Po’boys has always been the gateway to a trip down highway 23 and some of the best red fishing in the world.
After a good lunch and about 9 hours on the road we were finally at our destination for the next few days. It was Wednesday and me, Jimmy Harmon, Jimmy Sanders and Jimmy Meadows were staying at the lodge through Friday night and leaving out very early on Saturday morning so Jimmy Meadows could make a 5pm wedding back in the Atlanta area on the day of our return.
The lodge itself is located in the Buras area and is just off highway 23. We checked in mid-afternoon and just after the fishermen staying at the lodge had returned from a day of fishing. When we parked the truck, I could see a shovel on the front of a small tractor sitting by the fish cleaning station and the shovel held several redfish, sheepshead and trout carcasses. That was a good sign to start the trip. We were welcomed by the staff right away and we were shown to our rooms for the next 2 days and 3 nights. The lodge was good sized and spread out with a very large kitchen/dining area and the was also plenty of room to relax on the lower floor. The 4 of us split 2 rooms and our rooms were located upstairs. After we unpacked, we went back downstairs and sat in the kitchen/dining area and talked with our chef, Casey while she was preparing the evening meal. Casey cooked our lunch and dinner while miss Kim prepared our breakfast for the morning. There was a group of about 10 other fishermen from a manufacturing company up north that were on a team building/appreciation fishing trip and they kinda occupied the billiard room area. I went into the billiard room and started chatting with the group who had been there for 2 days prior to our arrival. I introduced myself and told the group that we were all named Jimmy or Jim so it would be easy to remember our names. During our conversation I found out that 2 of the guys were from Kansas so that struck up a whole new conversation on growing up in Kansas. I got the 411 from the group as far as the fishing went and it sounded like it was going to be another popping cork trip.
Years back, when I lived in Belle Chase and fished the marsh, after the first year or so of fishing the marsh, I started using more and more artificial baits instead of live, fresh or frozen shrimp. For speckled trout, it was usually a sparkle beetle under a popping cork, or I was beating the banks with a jig head/ plastic cockahoe minnow combination. After many trips back to the Venice area and using different guides for inshore fishing, I see more and more guides just using shrimp under popping corks for their clients. It seems that the shrimp under popping corks is effective and fairly easy to use for the novice and there is usually plenty of action from a variety of local fish. Personally, I’d rather take my chances beating the banks with a plastic minnow than slinging a popping cork around but on this trip, I was able to compromise with a big Gulp plastic shrimp under my popping cork which yielded our largest redfish for the day.
We settled into our new surroundings and after dinner and some evening chatting we all hit the sack for a early morning wake-up.
After a 5:30am wakeup call consisting of a knock at the door from Miss Kim the cook, “breakfast time-fishing time”, we quickly got dressed and headed downstairs. Scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and a biscuit were on the morning menu and the guides for the guests were waiting around the kitchen area. One of the other guests from the guys up north let me in on a little secret and told me that the quicker you got on the road the better chance you had of getting live shrimp at the bait shop. If you were one of the last ones leaving the lodge, chances are that the bait would be gone by the time you got to the bait shop. The guys from up north were the first ones to leave followed my Jimmy Meadows and Jimmy Sanders. I was paired up with LJ and when the dust settled from all the guide boats and the clients headed down the road to Venice from the lodge, myself and our guide, a 6’6″ -280lb local behemoth named Rodger were left standing in the driveway waiting for LJ to finish his business in the toilet. Rodger wasn’t happy about the delay, and I assured big Rodger that we were just getting started and LJ usually provided the entertainment for the day, one way or another. When LJ finally came out and we got underway, we hadn’t gone 5 miles and LJ realized that he left his cellphone in the toilet. That was the final sign that it was going to be one of those special LJ kinda days. I gotta say in LJ’s defense though, he redeemed himself when he fixed Rodger’s electronics after we blew a fuse while running down the Mississippi and hitting a large wake from a barge. Our skiff slammed down hard, and all of our electronics just died. LJ had us back up and running in record time.
LJ put us in the books with his first redfish of the trip on shrimp and I jacked a few more on the Gulp shrimp before we both started throwing the big Gulp shrimp under the popping corks. Using the Gulp shrimp cut down on the hardhead action and if something hit it, it was probably going to be a big redfish.
Here’s a few fishing pictures from the first day of fishing.
We returned to the lodge, which is about 15 miles from the Venice Marina around 1-2pm and the guides promptly went to work on cleaning the fish. We grabbed a cold drink and some hot gumbo from the kitchen, and we met our new friends and new guests to the lodge, Angie and Girard. They were from Pheonix and a treat to chat with. We quickly made friends with Angie and Girard and before you knew it, we were all joking and cracking up.
Angie is a divorce attorney and Girard….well Girard did a lot of things over the years. Girard was born in Morocco and eventually made his way to the United States. Girard is 81 years old and he has led a very interesting life full of adventure and success as a businessman. He spoke 3 languages fluently and a total of 7 languages, not so fluently. I took the opportunity to chat with Girard about his life and growing up in a foreign country so long ago. Girard rubbed shoulders with some very important leadership in our country and the fact that he could speak so many different languages opened a lot of doors for him over the years. Angie shared the story of how her and Girard had met at Girard’s restaurant and we all shared stories from our lives as the time flew by on a Thursday afternoon. Both Angie and Girard were fascinating people, and we were so glad we crossed paths. Angie actually has some relatives that own a house on Lake Lanier and they visit periodically so I’m pretty sure our paths will cross again someday in the future.
Angie gave the 4 Jim’s a title while we were all chatting, and Jimmy Sanders was dubbed “The Elder”, which I thought was appropriate. LJ was given the title “The Mayor” which made his head swell to an enormous size during our conversation. Angie gave Jimmy Meadows the title of “The Gentle One” which was a good description of Meadows, and I was named “The Storyteller”. I have a lot of stories, so Angie hit the nail on the head with that title. On Thursday evening we all had dinner and hung out till time to turn in. A storm was on the way.
At 2am on Friday morning I was awakened to the sound of thunder. I knew that there was a cold front on the way, and it was scheduled to hit the area around dawn according to Accuweather. The 2am arrival was a little early but nonetheless, the earlier it got through the area, the better. The thunder I heard was followed by some lightning flashes and over the next few minutes I could tell that the storm was quickly approaching. A few minutes later the rain started pelting the window next to my bed and my mind was taken back 25 years ago and the rain beating against the window by my bed at our old Man Camp. Thought about my old Navy friends and our trips out to Man Camp and all the fun we had over the years, fishing the marsh. I laid in the bed and thought back to our drive over the big bridge at Empire and looking out at the Empire rock jetty, in the summer of 1993 it was the location of my first redfish catch while sitting out on those big rocks with a pound of fresh shrimp for bait.
The wind and rain passed over the lodge and before we knew it, there was a knock on the door and miss Kim’s voice outside the door around 5:30, “breakfast time, fishing time”. We all knew that the quicker we got downstairs and had breakfast, the quicker we could get bait and get on the water. None of us was dilly-dallying around the room and Jimmy Meadow’s and I were paired up for fishing the second morning. It was going to be a rough morning on the back side of the front. They were calling for heavy winds out of the northwest. For that reason, our guide decided to fish the east side of the river where the winds would be a bit calmer. It made sense and I was all for the calmer winds in the marsh. After getting bait we launched out of an old broken-down ramp right on the Mississippi and we were running down the big river in record time. The wind was blowing when we went into the marsh for our first fishing stop. It didn’t take long, and Jimmy Meadows put the first nice redfish in the boat but then it got bad. I noticed a lot of the water was changing colors and the wind was howling over the reeds. The heavy winds were pushing the river water into the marsh where we were fishing, and the water was quickly becoming very stained from the river and the wind pushing currents. At that point the fish shut down and we were just going from canal to canal trying to find cleaner water and a better bite. At the same time Sanders and LJ weren’t doing much better and by lunchtime we were ready to call it a day. The wind was just too brutal to fish a lot of areas in the marsh and a lot of the guides were heading in for the day. One thing I liked about our guides is that they all talked over the radio, and they helped each other while we were fishing. Here’s a few pictures from Friday morning including a sunrise looking back up the Mississippi river to the east and some approaching storms out over the gulf to the west. We had to dodge the storms, wind and lightning most of the morning on Friday, but the front moved through and by mid afternoon the sun was back out.
When we got back to the camp, I was greeted by an old friend and tuna boat Captain from about 15 years ago, when I used to come down to Venice to go offshore tuna fishing. His name was Hooper but everyone in the area knew him as “Hoop”. He was a Captain on one of the boats I went out on and he was the co-captain of another tuna boat I went out on, so we got to know each other pretty well after a few long-range tuna trips. Hoop iss an inshore guide now, and he was the guide for Angie and Girard. When Angie asked Hoop how old he was, he said that he was so old that he played in the sandbox with Jesus. LOL…He is 80 years old and still going strong. We had a chance to chat for a while and it was great to see Hoop still kicking butt at 80. I hope that I’m in that kind of shape at 80.
After a quick lunch back at the lodge we got cleaned up and sat out back of the lodge under a gazebo and chatted the afternoon away. We played a little cornhole and had a few drinks before dinner, knowing it was our last evening at the lodge as we would be leaving out a 3:30am. Each person from all the fishermen donated a fish for the chef and Casey made us all blackened redfish for dinner and it was delicious. The meals we had during our stay at the lodge were to notch and very well prepared. We ate well the whole time we were there and there were always coolers with drinks available. They had an icemaker which supplied us with all the ice we needed for our filets. Jimmy Sanders and I loaded up and iced down all of our fish filet for the trip back home and we had quite a few filets for the cooler. After getting cleaned up and packed up we chatted for a bit longer and called it a night.
We were up by 3:15 in the morning and pulling out of the lodge by 3:45am. Jimmy Sanders laid the hammer down and the big Dodge Ram was headed back to Georgia so Jimmy Meadows could make a 5pm wedding. I think I wore a hole in Jimmy’s floorboard in the back seat, but Jimmy got us all back safely and in record time. Jimmy Meadows made his wedding by 5pm and I was prepping our catch for the freezer.
Some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen and one place that I used to frequent during my Navy career but never really wrote a whole lot about was my time visiting Klamath Falls, Ore. There was a time when I thought that I wanted to retire in the area after fishing the Klamath River, the wild streams and the majestic mountain lakes for trout during our squadron visits. Klamath Falls, the town itself was small and nestled along the the Klamath River in south central Oregon. Some of the biggest trout that I’ve ever caught were out of the Klamath River and the best smoked trout I’ve ever tasted came from the trout we caught in the river and flew back to San Diego. My friend and our squadron Maintenance Officer, Lt. Dave Lopez was one of the guys in the squadron that loved to fish so he and I would visit a few streams in the mountains so he could fly fish. I was more of a conventional tackle guy but I enjoyed tagging along with Dave and throwing a rooster tail while he whipped that fly rod around. I also enjoyed fishing for trout along the shores of the Klamath River and we caught some monster trout using a floating cheese bait and nightcrawler combo from the shore while freezing our butts off.
I also like to play billiards and I was very comfortable in an old smoky biker bar or pool hall trying to hustle a little pool to offset my bar tab and compare my skills against the locals on their turf. While a squadron buddy and I were spending an evening at a pretty rough local bar I befriended a female undercover narcotics officer and spent a little time playing her boyfriend and cover for her while she worked undercover in the town to bust some local drug dealers who were dealing out of the bar. It was pretty interesting, and she was very upfront with me from the get-go about what she was doing. She showed me her badges, one of which was attached to the outer face of the holster of her handgun, while explaining what she was doing and asked me if I would help her by just pretending to be her boyfriend for a while. I agreed, hoping maybe it would lead to being her real boyfriend, but she was all about business and wasn’t looking for romance at the time. She was very fit and pretty and looked a little out of place in the biker bar scene so that’s where I came in. She had just moved to the Klamath area and the police force from south Florida where she worked in the narcotics division and since nobody knew who she was in town, she was perfect for the undercover police work. She was very determined in her work, and I was amazed at how fearless she was when it came to dealing with a very bad element. A true badass.
The year was 1988 and I was assigned to a F-14 Tomcat squadron at Naval Air Station Miramar, just outside of San Diego. Travel and training is something we did a lot of back then and it seemed like we were always on the road with the squadron. I’m not sure how it all started but my squadron got an invite from the Air National Guard unit at Klamath Falls, Ore. to come up for a couple weeks and do some dog fighting with the Air Guard and their F16’s. At the time the Air Guard had plenty of funds and offered to provide us with full per diem if we came up and played with them for a couple weeks. The story is that our Commanding Officer was single and met a lady friend up in Klamath so our trips up to Klamath became very frequent for a while. I was perfectly fine with that because I really liked the laid back area and the fishing was awesome. Every time we went up to Klamath, which was about once every couple months for 2 years, the Air Guard would roll out the red carpet and we were treated like royalty. I can remember a few trips up there where we had a party just about every night complete with steak and lobster meals prepared and guests (mostly female) were bussed in from the local area to have dinner and meet single sailors from a Tomcat fighter squadron. Keep in mind that this was just a year or two after the release of the movie “Top Gun” and everyone wanted to meet fighter squadron folks. Beer trucks were on hand and the taps were always flowing for about 40-50 of us young sailors. It was a party every time we went, and we got to be good friends with some of the locals. There were also dance bars that we frequented, and I still have to shake my head at some of the antics we pulled while running around town back in the late 80’s.
One of the most memorable trips and my last was a trip to Klamath was after about a 6 month period of no trips to Klamath for the squadron. Just 6 months prior to us returning my good friend and fishing buddy Lt Dave (Lucky) Lopez passed away as a result of a car accident while he and one of our technical representatives were returning from a fishing trip to the mountains outside of Klamath. It was a trip that I could have easily went on but because I partied the night before I just wanted to get to my rack for some much needed rest after my shift was over. I learned of the car accident the next morning and Dave was in critical condition at the hospital. Dave had a massive head injury and he passed after a few days. It was hard on all of us in the squadron but loss is something you learn to deal with in fighter squadrons. It happens and you just have to put it behind you and move on.
On my last trip it was late October and I wanted to fish the Klamath River in a section I had never fished before. I didn’t know much about where to fish along the river but a trip to the local bait and tackle shop can do wonders for a fishing trip. I was able to borrow one of the squadrons rental cars and head into town for some tackle for the borrowed rods and reels. The tackle shop was in town and it was a rainy day in Klamath. I found the tackle shop and talked with the guy running the store about a good location along the river that a friend and I could fish from the bank. The fella behind the counter was more than happy to give me a little information as soon as I told him that we were visiting town from the Navy. He told me of a little access road along the river outside of town where we could go and fish along the bank. It sounded like my kinda place so I bought the trout buffet of yellow floating Powerbait and a couple dozen night crawlers. If I needed to catch a trout out west, those two baits would be all I needed to get the job done just about anywhere.
After getting the 411 on the fishing I left the store and drove through town. When I was stopped at a light in town a police cruiser pulled up next to me and as I looked over danged if it wasn’t my old friend, the undercover narcotics officer driving that cruiser! I honked the horn and at first she stared me down and then realized who I was. We pulled into a vacant parking lot up the road and she told me the story of how they busted the drug dealers in town and how she had met a local man and they were getting married. During the bust, she had done a few shady things and instead of firing her they put her on the street instead of the narcotics division. It was cool seeing her again and it was the last time I ever saw her.
It was a Friday morning and we had till 2pm to fish until we had to go to work. We worked the night shift and got up early on Friday to hit the river. There was 3 of us going fishing, Les, Doug and myself and we had commandeered a rental vehicle for the morning. It was in the lower 40’s when we drove out to the access road in the cold rain and tried to find a good spot to set up a few shore rods. It didn’t take long and we spotted another fisherman along the shore in a rain suit with a line in the water, sitting on a rock. We stopped the car and I walked down to the rivers edge to ask him about the fishing. He was an older fella and told me he hadn’t had any luck but he shared his secret bait with me which was a old tin with some dried and salted shiners. They looked and smelled pretty rough so I decided to stick with the tried and true floating cheesebait and nightcrawlers. I asked if he minded if we set up down the shoreline in an opening about 20-30 yards away and he gave us the go ahead so off we went. The rain was cold and blowing and it didn’t take long for us to get uncomfortable, standing around in the wet and cold after we baited up and put the 3 rods we had in rod holders. I had rain gear and I found a good place to sit down around the rods while Les and Doug went up to the car to dry off and run the heater for a few minutes. I’m glad I hung out in the cold rain because a few minutes after my buddies left I looked at one of our rods as it doubled over and started pulling drag. This fish managed to tangle the other 2 lines on the way in but we had our first trout, a very large rainbow around 5-6lbs. It was a blast to fight the fish and I couldn’t help but think our old friend Lucky was with us that morning along the shoreline.
After we caught the first big trout that cold rainy weather didn’t feel so bad to Les and Doug, so we were all 3 hovering around the rods shivering and waiting for the next fish after untangling the mess from the first fish. It didn’t take long, and another rod went off and Les was fighting another good trout. We got that one in and baited back up. Again and again, we caught these large rainbows until the 3 of us had 2 nice trout a piece and we headed back to the base all proud with our catch. The funny part was that the old man fishing down the bank had paid us a visit just before we left to ask what bait we were using so we gave him the nightcrawlers and our left-over cheese bait. The plan was to freeze the fish for the trip back to San Diego and then slice them into steak slices, marinade them in Teriyaki and smoke them on my buddies Weber. As it turned out, we had to replace my buddy Les’s water heater right after we returned from Klamath on that trip, so we spent the day smoking trout and replacing his water heater. We had a lot of smoked trout, and it filled the smoker from top to bottom, so we bagged up a bunch and took it to the squadron for everyone to enjoy.
Just after that trip to Klamath it was the start of the first Gulf War and things changed fast. There were no more trips to Klamath and the focus of just about all the fighter squadrons was the Gulf War. I never went back to Klamath after that trip, but I’ll never forget the beauty of that area. To me, the air was always fresh with just a hint of the Pacific Ocean in the mix. Unfortunately, when I think of Klamath, I also remember that I had a good friend that lost his life in that place, so young and so far from home.
It’s truly is a “Sportsman’s Paradise” and once again south Louisiana didn’t disappoint. When I think back to the first time I experienced this little slice of heaven fishing along the Empire jetty, I had no idea what kind of profound effect the area would have on me. Years later I still come back to be immersed in the culture I’ve grown to love. I found my voice changing and I couldn’t help but revive the old Cajun slang that used to be as prevalent as my love for chicory coffee and a good bowl of hot gumbo. You can’t get that feeling anywhere but south Louisiana and it’s something that comes as natural as cheering at a baseball game or smiling at a newborn baby.
Since being stationed at Naval Air Station Belle Chase while in the Navy during the mid 90’s there was a history for me out in the marsh chasing redfish and speckled trout. We were old school back before GPS was a thing, and you had to learn the marsh by memory. When you were starting from scratch in a little 14 foot Montgomery Ward semi-v aluminum boat with a 25hp Johnson the learning process was a slow one. I’ll have to say this about my time in the Navy and being stationed in south Louisiana just after the height of the first Gulf War, it was pretty laid back. There was a golf course on base and golfing was one sport I love to play. Golf for me takes a close second to fishing and if there was a third it would have to be baseball or softball and playing on military softball leagues. The Naval Air Station had all that and much more. If I had a plug for the Navy it would be to join the Navy and request to be stationed at Belle Chase, Louisiana. It’s a tour you’ll never forget, especially if you are a sportsman and posses a profound love for fishing.
Bourgeois Fishing Charters
The best way to find anything these days is the internet and that’s how I ran across a fishing lodge by the name of Bourgeois Fishing Charters. I did my search on the internet by location and Bourgeois Fishing Charters was in the heart of where I wanted to go this time. I saw plenty of pictures on the website and when I called for more information the young lady on the other end of the line had the perfect voice to seal the deal. The lodge sounded first class and very accommodating, from the pictures I saw there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity. We set up reservations for our fishing trip a few weeks in advance and planned the trip during the week days. Our thinking was less traffic at the camp so we could slide in and out for a quick lagniappe. My French is rusty but something told me that the definition of lagniappe may be the word I’m looking for when describing Bourgeois Fishing Charters.
The Cajun Vista Lodge
As soon as we crossed the Huey P Long bridge and hit the West Bank I felt right at home. I knew the lodge was only a short distance away and we were going to be right on time for the first of many meals provided by the cooking staff at the lodge. Both Lisa and I were amazed there were no locked doors and no keys to your room. You didn’t need to worry about theft because it didn’t exist at the lodge. It was a gated lodge but also deep in the heart of a community where everybody knows everybody and not much goes on without somebody knowing about it. They provide a worry-free friendly atmosphere at the lodge. The lodge itself has a deep history, its actually a converted plantation style schoolhouse from years past and I’m sure it is the definition of a historic site. Most certainly the room we slept in was the room that many children from the area had received their education. We deduced each of the rooms in the long hallway was a classroom, you could almost hear children playing in the hall through the old transom windows above the tall doorways to our rooms. There were so many things to look at and absorb, just one trip of 48 hours isn’t enough time to experience it all. In addition to all the relics on the wall, you are greeted and meant to feel at home by a staff that is as authentic as the lodge itself. I haven’t even got to the fishing ……..
Captain Theophile Bourgeois IV
Lisa and I arrived on Wednesday evening, we had just enough time for dinner and a hot shower before bed. Thursday morning wake up was early, breakfast at 5:00am and fishing at 6:00am. It was starting to get daylight around 6am, we were launching for our first day of fishing so we really didn’t get a chance to take the lodge all in till after our first fishing trip. After the first fishing trip Lisa and I had a chance to relax on the screened in porch under ceiling fans that provided the perfect breeze. While we were relaxing with a cold drink a pickup truck pulled up just outside the porch and a bearded man with two younger boys jumped out and said hello. One of the boys was dressed in a baseball uniform and they looked like they could be headed to a little league ball game. The bearded man came in the screen door, walking directly over to where we were sitting with a smile on his face and introduced himself as Theophile Bourgeois or “TJ” for short. Now the pronunciation of his name is a little tricky and just as tricky as my French but the best way to describe it is ‘toe-feel’ ‘booj-waa’. Believe me, I’ve had to work on the pronunciation for the last 500 miles of our journey since leaving the lodge but I think I’ve got it down now. The funny part is that when TJ first introduced himself I didn’t make the connection that he was the owner until a few minutes into our conversation. He had an instant attractive personality and he had a way of making you feel right at home. I could tell right away the lodge was his pride and joy and his primary objective was to make Lisa and I a memory we wouldn’t forget. We told him that we had some fishing friends and it would be pretty cool for a few of our friends to come back again with us for a visit in the fall. TJ was more than happy to share some options including non-fishing activities for a few of the wives if they wanted something a little different than fishing during our next visit. We chatted about the delicious food and a little bit about the history of the lodge before we parted ways and enjoyed our evening meal. It’s not often you get to meet the owner of a lodge but just like everything else, he was as natural and authentic as the lodge itself. If you look up the definition of the French name “Bourgeois” you’ll find it to represent the working class.
Each meal was prepared by local folks and it didn’t take Lisa and I long to warm up to the cooking staff. Tammy prepared most of our meals while we were there and she also shared some of the local history for us as well. She also shared some tips from her personal cooking recipes and her bread pudding was the best bread pudding I’ve ever tasted. I believe I’d make that 10 hour drive again just for the bread pudding and good conversations about cooking with Tammy. Every meal was included in our package and we also had a sack lunch and drinks with our fishing trip. I can’t say enough about the meals, every one was delicious.
For me, fishing in the marsh is a little different than the occasional visitor to the area. One of the main reasons I picked the lodge that we picked is because it is in the same area that I used to roam some 25-30 years ago. I have some very fond memories of the area and I spent days and days in the marsh chasing redfish. If you’re reading this story in my blog I’ll invite you to read another fishing story in my blog called “Man Camp” . Man Camp will give you plenty of background into my history with the marsh and a fishing camp on a little island out in the marsh. This is where myself and some of my Navy friends spent many long weekends while in a Navy F/A-18 Squadron at a nearby air base. I was much younger then and I learned a lot about fishing during my time in Louisiana.
Our guide for the fishing was Steven, a local to the area and very knowledgeable when it came to the same areas I once used to fish. My memory of the area is fading and the marsh is constantly changing but I still recognized some of the old camps still standing after years and years of weather. Steven introduced us to the popping cork technique for redfish along the grass lines. In the past I used an older version of a popping cork for speckled trout but on my more recent trips we used moving stuff like spoons and swimbaits. Water in the marsh was pretty muddy from recent rains wind and tidal movement so we concentrated on shrimp tipped jigs under popping corks. It didn’t take long for Lisa and I to get the hang of throwing popping corks and we soon realized the redfish were right up against the grass. The closer you got the cork to the grass the better your chances to catch a redfish. Lisa started us off with the first sizable redfish but just as we were netting it the hook pulled and the redfish disappeared back into the muddy water. A little later Lisa and Steven saw a redfish tailing in a little pool so Lisa made a perfect cast into the pool. The redfish turned on Lisa’s popping cork and grabbed the shrimp, the fight was on and Lisa made sure this big redfish didn’t escape the net with a strong hook set. The bigger redfish have a very hard and bony mouth so a stout hookset is a must with a jig type hook. Lisa kept the fish under constant pressure and before long she was posing with her first redfish in six years.
It wasn’t long after Lisa caught her fish I was bringing in my first redfish in 2 years. They were both very nice fish and we spent the morning catching redfish and catfish. We moved around the marsh and fished many of the bays, ponds and lakes I used to fish years ago. We spent our morning talking with Steven and learning more about the Louisiana culture as well as Steven’s personal experiences growing up in the area. Steven was a trooper when it came to helping me find some of my old stomping grounds in the marsh. Things had changed dramatically after I left, especially after a few hurricanes.
I don’t know which I enjoyed more, running and gunning our way through the marsh or the conversation about the history of the lodge and the local seafood industry in the area. I was able to relive some of my adventures in the marsh once again as we watched the big shrimp boats come and go through the canals crisscrossing the marsh. My intention was to bring back a few larger filets for a recipe called “redfish on the half shell” and some smaller redfish filets for fried or blackened. We were blessed to achieve catching both larger and smaller redfish during our stay. I was able to put our catch in a cooler and the lodge had an ice house where you can ice down your catch until you get ready to leave. Our neighbors here at the lake house have never tried redfish on the half shell and some other Cajun delights so tomorrow, Memorial Day we are going to prepare dinner for them. Our dinner will consist of a Crawfish Gumbo, Redfish on the half shell, grilled butterflied Shrimp, grilled asparagus and for dessert, a Louisiana French Bread Pudding with a warm Bourbon sauce (Thanks Tammy).
All in all, TJ, Tammy, Steven and the rest of the staff at Bourgeois Fishing Charters made our stay very relaxing and enjoyable. They also came through in fulfilling my passion for chasing redfish in the marsh and helping me relive those special moments I had while living in Southern Louisiana.
The Florida Keys and the Key West area was always a magical place for me during my Navy career. As a kid growing up in the Midwest, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined some of the fun times I had in the Florida Keys while in the Navy. Back before, during the Reagan years and beyond there was a need for aircraft to patrol our southern borders in order to combat drug smuggling and at times our squadron was tasked with helping the feds with drug smuggler detection, interception and interdiction. Basically our squadron was tasked with finding the smugglers and the feds were tasked with apprehension. The squadron would spend a few weeks at a time down on a little known key just north of Key West called “Boca Chica”. The Navy had a small air base there and we would operate out of the airbase during our stay. The Navy also had a resort type area on Boca Chica complete with a private beach, marina, bar, restaurant and other amenities’ to make our stay more comfortable and private while we operated in the area. Unless we went into Key West which was about 10 miles from the air base, you’d never know we were there as just about everything we needed was on the base including a laid back night life at the beachside bar and restaurant after a hot day of working on the tarmac.
Once the feds got a little more technical with their surveillance tactics using satellites and radar, the need for our services dropped off but the base at Boca Chica was tasked with a new roll which was providing fleet adversary training (ACM) or “dog fighting” training to the fleet. Basically, Navy pilots have to stay proficient in different aspects of their job, one of those being “air to air” combat. The central hub for that training became the base at Boca Chica for the east coast air bases and sometimes the west coast bases as well. It made sense because the area in which the pilots operated was way out over the gulf and the Florida Keys was the perfect location to operate from. As a maintenance man, I wasn’t complaining as I loved to fish so when I wasn’t working on the jets I was probably going to be either fishing or trying to find a way to fish.
As my Navy career was winding down I was transferring from a F-18 Hornet squadron in southern Louisiana and I chose to take a I-level job which basically meant that I would not be working on the jets anymore but I would be working on the electronic gear that goes into the jet at a small airbase just north of Atlanta, Ga. called Dobbin Air Reserve Base. I would be in a repair outfit testing and repairing anything from computers to hydraulic actuators. If it used electricity and went to a Navy or Marine Corps aircraft they probably fixed it at one time or another. By that time in my career I was in a supervisory position and was the leading Petty Officer of our division. I managed about 50-75 sailors and Marines in my position and I basically sat behind a desk all day working on paperwork, doing training which included death by Power Point and managing personnel that were half my age. After 2 years of that desk job I was about to lose my mind so I cancelled my my orders and requested to go back to lacing up my boots and working on jets for one last 2 year Hooray before my plan to retire. I was able to finagle my way into a F-18 Hornet squadron right there at the base just down the road from where I currently worked. I had about 12 years of experience on F-18 Hornets so I quickly regained all my old qualifications and started my new job as a Avionics QA rep. I traveled with the squadron when they would be tasked with different aspects of the job and the squadron usually made 3-4 trips to Key West every year for fleet adversary training. On this particular trip I was less than a year from retirement and I had already “dropped my papers” for retirement.
The squadron had scheduled a early fall trip to Key West for another ACM training detachment which was scheduled to last 2 weeks. Just enough time for me to enjoy a little laid back lifestyle in the Keys and squeeze in a fishing trip before getting back to the grind in Atlanta. I knew this was going to be one of my last trips with the Navy to Key West so I really wanted to get some fishing in while I was there. When we were getting ready to spend a few weeks in Key West we always sent an advanced party of about a dozen personnel to make sure all of the logistics are taken care of before the main body of aircraft and personnel arrive. The advanced party would set up our birthing assignments in the barracks at Boca Chica. One nice thing about being a senior first class petty officer is that I rated my own private room so I didn’t have a roommate like most of the squadron personnel. That comes in handy when in Key West because sometimes a roommate could be problematic if they like the night life and you didn’t. On this particular trip my fishing buddy Chris was going with the advanced party and he was tasked with finding us a fishing charter during our stay in the Keys. We were going to work a 24 on and 24 off shift which would give us the opportunity to get in a trip or two. Chris was a great saltwater fisherman and many times Chris and I had rented fish boats from the Navy marina and fished for Mai Mai or other predatory fish around the drifting offshore weed beds and floating structure. We also fished the reefs for bottom feeding grouper and snapper at times. We dove for lobsters during the summer lobster season and fished on our own a lot but we wanted to let someone else do the guiding so we could focus on fishing on this trip. Generally the squadron would have a big beach party during our stay at Boca Chica so in addition to steaks and lobster on the grill Chris and I were going to try and provide some fresh fish for the beach party grill. In the past we had brought Mai Mai for the grill but it was late in the season and that kind of seafood wasn’t really anticipated to be on the menu for this trip.
Chris called me a few days after he arrived with the advanced party and he had found us a charter captain for a night fishing trip to the reefs for grouper and snapper. It seemed Chris had run into a commercial fishing captain who made his living catching reef fish and selling them to the local restaurants and markets as well as exporting a few up the state. Chris told me that they hit it off and the captain agreed to take Chris and I out on an all night trip to the reefs located about an hour offshore. He said that we would probably catch enough fish for our upcoming squadron party and if we would just kick in 100 bucks total for gas and bait that would pay for a night of fishing. It was mostly going to be snapper, grunts and grouper but that sounded like something we could put on the grill along with about 50-60 ribeye steaks, lobster, baked potatoes and vegetables to feed the squadron. Our plan was to leave the docks at sunset and fish most of the night. When we felt like we had enough for our party and the captain had a good amount of fish for his business we would come back in. That was the plan.
I arrived in Key West with the main body of our squadron on a Saturday and I immediately had to go to work. There was a lot of things to set up and we needed to get everything ready to start flight operations early on Monday morning. Chris and I were working as squadron QA reps and we worked the same shift which was from noon on one day till noon on the next day. Our squadron just rotated 2 separate shifts around the clock so we were flying and performing maintenance almost non-stop for 2 weeks. We made our plans to leave on a Thursday evening, fish all night and procure the fish we needed overnight then coming in on Friday morning, clean and refrigerating our catch for the beach party and cookout on Saturday afternoon.
Work went pretty smooth during the week and Thursday finally arrived. We got off work at noon and went back to our rooms for a little 4 hour power nap before preparing for our night trip. Chris and I grabbed a bite to eat, headed to the pier and found the captain just before sunset . We were joined at the dock by 2 other Navy guys from another squadron that the captain had met a few days earlier and wanted to join us. The captains boat was an older wooden fishing boat, maybe 35-40 feet in length with an open stern area and a coffin type box right in the middle of the open deck at the stern. When we boarded the younger captain introduced himself as Rob and I could tell he was of either Cuban or Puerto Rican decent. He showed us around the boat and got us familiar with his vessel. Rob was younger than me but I could tell he was seasoned and knew his stuff. He explained about the function of the box in the back. The box itself was open at the top and about 4 feet high, a good 7-8 feet long and 3 feet wide. There was a wire about the diameter size of a clothes hanger wire that ran right down the middle of the opening and the length of the box. The idea was that once you caught a fish you could drop the hooked fish in the box and pull the fish and hook into the wire and give a quick jerk and the fish would be released from the hook and fall down into the box. The box was actually the storage area for our catch and the idea keep the fish iced as we caught them overnight and to fill the box by morning. If it was anticipated that we were going to fill the box overnight that meant that we were going to be catching a heck of a lot of fish but that was fine by me. The more fish catching, the better the trip as far as I was concerned. Once we got the tour of the boat and everyone knew where the safety equipment was we were off. There was a small pilot house and Rob jumped in the captains chair and pulled the boat away from the dock right at sunset. We were heading east away from the island once we cleared the navigation channel and headed for one of the many reefs that surrounded Key West. As we pulled out into the open water the sky to the west was a mixture of orange and gray colors where the sun was last seen before setting. Off to the east in the direction that we were traveling was a far off thunderstorm and we could barely make out the lightning inside the high reaching anvil cloud of the storm. Storms offshore in the keys at night aren’t uncommon and most times provide a little bit of a light show after dark and off in the far distance. Myself, Chris and the other 2 guests got familiar while we were on our way to the reefs.
It was a beautiful early fall evening and the temperatures were very mild at the time. We were dressed for mild weather and I think we all had shorts and a long sleeve fishing shirt for attire and we only brought light snacks and drinks with us. Chris found a cast net that Rob had stored in the pilot house so about 30 minutes into our trip we stopped and fired up a portable generator and put out a large sodium light along the starboard side where there was a small winch. We anchored over a shallow area and ballyhoo started gathering around the glow of the light. Rob asked if any of us wanted a beer from a cooler he had brought and I took him up on it. Nobody else in the group wanted a beer so myself and the captain cracked a natty lite while we watched more ballyhoo gather under the light. We drank and waited as the baitfish group got bigger and Chris readied the cast net for a throw over the side on top of the circling ballyhoo. I looked out to the east and the storm over the Atlantic was growing bigger and moving slowly towards us. At the time I wasn’t really concerned because captain Rob was at the helm and working on his 2nd natty while Chris let the net fly and drop over a couple dozen nice big ballyhoo to use for bait. After we threw the net a few more times for a few more baitfish over the course of the next 30 minutes we pulled anchor to find the fishing grounds. Once again we were heading right for the storm but it was still far off in the distance. We finally found the reef and there was just a small chop on the water when we dropped anchor and back the big boat into place. Captain Rob turned on the stern lighting and deck lights which lite up the whole back of the boat. He brought out some conventional fishing gear which was just some old Penn Squider baitcasters and heavier mono on a stiff rod with a circle hook tied to the line and a small weight at the bottom. The idea was to drop a small piece of squid on the hook down about 30-40 feet, wait till you feel and jerk and then reel the fish up. Most of the fish were smaller type grunts, yellowtail and a few grouper but since Rob was a commercial fisherman he was allowed limits of fish in the hundreds of pounds vice the smaller recreational creel limits imposed by the state. Once you got the fish in you just take it to the box, drop it down, release it and bait up again. Rob, on the other hand was old school, he was a hand line fisherman. He basically had the same set up we had with the hook, bait and line but his line was wrapped around his hand vice using a fishing rod and reel. I’d experienced folks that hand lined in the past so it wasn’t anything new to me but I preferred the rod and reel method.
We all baited up and Rob dropped a couple of chum boxes down to the bottom in a wire basket to get the fish stirred up and eating. Just as soon as we dropped our bait down we had a fish on. Most of the fish were 10-20 inches in size and for the first hour or so it was fun to be catching fish that quick. I kept watching the storm to the east and after about an hour of catching fish we all knew the storm was moving towards us and we were probably going to get wet. Captain Rob told us that it wasn’t unusual and they generally passed through rather quickly without and problems but by this time Rob was working through the last of his first 12 pack of natties and I could tell he was getting a little jacked up with liquid courage. I had quit drinking earlier when I realized that the storm was going to hit us and that little breeze we had turned into a moderate blowing wind with a beefy chop on the water. It wasn’t long till we could hear the thunder and we could see lightning inside the giant thunderhead, some of the lightning bolts slammed down onto the waters surface lighting up the night sky under the storm cloud. The boat was starting to rock as the waves got a little more pronounced but we were still catching fish and having a good time. The box was getting filled fast and we had a variety of fish for the party. Rob wanted to take advantage of the good fishing and said that if it got rough we would ride it out in the pilot house till the worst had passed and we could go right back to fishing. There were a couple long bunks inside the pilot house along the wall and you could lie down and rest or sleep if need when out fishing on overnight trips. Soon the sky darkened and the waves came in with more of a rolling action. There was a beefy chop on the surface from the wind but there were also some big rolling swells which tossed the boat back and forth. The rain started and the wooden deck became slick to walk on with the pitching and rolling deck. It was still fairly warm out but the rain and the wind had definitely cooled us down and none of us brought any proper rain gear nor did Rob carry any on the boat. As the storm came in the the thunder and lightning is what made me nervous. Not so much the thunder but the lightning is something we could have done without. Chris and the other 2 fellows in our group finally broke down and put away their gear, heading for the pilot house. By this time the storm was in full swing and Captain Rob was definitely hitting the natty hard. It was blowing rain with occasional lightning and reminded me of some of the storms I endured back in the Louisiana marsh during a hot summer afternoon. The boat was old but very seaworthy and I felt the anchor release and re-seat on a few different occasions. The old boat slammed back and forth with the waves and I figured that if the big boat was going to come apart in the storm I’d rather be outside than inside so I rode it out with Rob and fished right through it. I was either holding on to the gunnel rails or clinging to the fish box most of the time but I kept right on fishing. There was a point during the height of the storm that it was nearly impossible to walk on the deck to get back and forth from the side of the boat to the fish box with a fish. It was a scary situation to fish with the boat rolling, tossing, turning and all the lightning but I figured that if this was the way I was going out I might as well be fishing when I bite it. I gotta tell you that it was rough, even in a big boat it was rough. There was a time during the storm when I was completely soaked and chilled, sliding around the deck of the boat and I said a quick prayer asking for a little help from the big guy upstairs. I wondered if all that natty light that Rob was drinking gave him the courage to stay out in the storm rather than run back to the safety of the dock but I also figured that the man had to make a living and he had 4 able bodied deck hands that actually paid to help him. He probably didn’t run across a mentally challenged labor force like us Navy guys that often and he had recruited 4 of us top notch sailors on this trip.
Finally, I could tell the storm was loosing it’s punch on us and the rain started to subside. The wind calmed and the waves turned to a small chop again. Chris and the other guys came out from the pilot house and we all went back to fishing. We continued to catch fish and laughed about the storm and everyone sliding around the deck with the fish we were catching. It was around 4 am when we finally filled the box with fish and we were all whipped and ready to call it a night so we pulled anchor, started the big diesel motors and headed west toward the dock at Key West. We chatted about our night of fishing and Rob told us about his fishing adventures up and down the east coast over the years. When we finally reached our dock at the pier I could see the sun rising off to the east in the same area I saw the approaching storm the night before. I was beat when I stepped off the boat and I had a good case of sea legs from all the rocking and rolling. Rob told us that he would dress out and half shell some bigger fish filets for us and we could pick them up Saturday morning before our squadron beach party. It worked out perfectly and we had enough fish to add to our grilled table fare at the party for everyone to get a taste of grouper and snapper from the keys. I’ve probably visited the Keys a dozen times since that trip but fishing the reefs through a storm in the middle of the night is a trip I’ll never forget.
This was a 5 day trip to Lake Guntersville and the last 2 days of fishing included our club tournament with the Greater Atlanta Bass Club. I needed 3 days to figure out a game plan for the tournament, this time of year finding fish and catching them can be hot and tough. On Wednesday I fished with a friend who knew a little bit more about ledge fishing than I did. All I was interested in was learning about ledge fishing on Guntersville. We found a few areas of small shell beds on some flats while fishing a long stretch of ledge or the drop off into the main channel. The shell beds on the flats next to the ledge just kept producing 2-5lb fish on every pass. I marked two primary beds that were producing and one bed in particular had chunk rock next to it which made a perfect spot. On every pass we made we picked up at least one nice fish. My first fish of the trip was a 7 pd’er which I lost at the boat and this fish was on the shell bed with the neighboring chunk rock so it was the first mark I made on the gps. We went from one shell bed mark on the graph to another down the stretch of ledge Wednesday through Friday. Tournament day we sat on the shell bed that produced the most fish the entire time. It’s hard to believe the amount of fish that just kept coming, it’s fair to say we caught around 35-40 fish. The fish ranged from dinks to 6lbs with Lisa catching 10-15 fish and my buddies catching a few also. Overall is was a prosperous ledge.
The tournament was a 3 fish limit which made it pretty easy given we were averaging 10-20 fish a day from that stretch of the ledge. The tournament format was a 3 session tournament with the first session being Saturday morning from dawn till noon. The second session was from 4pm till 8:30pm and the third session was Sunday morning from dawn till noon. There was a tournament within a tournament with each session having a total weight pot and a big fish pot. There was also a bigger pot for overall total weight and big fish for combined both days. I like the format because it gives more teams a chance to get in the money.
Basically for the first session we made sure we were sitting just off the shell bed at dawn. We threw a shakey head with a magnum trick worm across the shell bed and dragged it back through the shells to the boat. There were numerous fish on the ledge and you just needed to be able to tell the difference between the shaky head running across the shells and a fish picking up the bait. Once you get the feel of that, then it’s all in setting the hook. You need a good hook set because the fish figure out very quickly to run at the boat if they can’t shake the hook initially. That little tactic is by design to keep you from digging that hook barb into the hard cartilage of their inner mouths. When they get near the boat they surface, jumping and shaking their heads violently as a last ditch effort to shake the hook. Keeping the rod tip low is a must.
In session one, every once in a while the fish would turn on and we would catch a few with one or two nice keepers in the mix. My strategy was to be patient, just sit on them and wait them out…..all weekend. I knew if we could average 4-5lb we would probably do very well, so waiting for the fish instead of running around and missing the bite was my strategy. We just needed patience and trust in the plan.
It was Lisa’s first day of fishing for the week so there was a little learning curve for her to get up to speed. Unfortunately she lost a couple of good fish before she got dialed in with the feel of the bite and good hook set. Once she accomplished that she was good to go and brought several good fish to the boat. On this session I did the damage and put 3 fish at over 13lbs in the boat right away then it was just a matter of working on an upgrade.
We went to the weigh in with 13 and change, all from the same little shell bed. It was good enough for first place in the session and I had a 5+ pounder to take big fish. A lot of teams struggled to find fish and a working pattern but these club guys figure out patterns and strategies very quickly so we were glad we jumped out to an early lead. Here’s a pic of the fish from session #1.
When session 2 started a local club was having their weigh in at the ramp…. it was a cluster so getting out to our spot was a little slow. We finally reached the shell bed and it was wide open… but man was it hot! We could see a big thunderhead building just north of the lake and I was hoping it would give us some cloud cover to cool things down, and it did…. Unfortunately there was an outflow wind from the storm. The stretch of ledge was covered in white capping water, soon came cloud cover and then blowing rain. We stuck it out and every once in a while picked up a 3-4 lber. We ended up heading back to the ramp with three decent 3-4lb fish just as the wind and clouds broke at sunset.
When we got to the ramp to trailer to the weigh-in a big catamaran looking center console was launching. I didn’t pay much attention as we parked along side a couple of cool looking high dollar Phoenix boats, Lisa held my boat at the dock as I went to get the truck. When I pulled down to the ramp area I noticed the big center console was still at the ramp and the guy couldn’t get the boat off the trailer, he hadn’t backed down far enough. He quickly jumped out of the running boat and ran back up to his truck to back it down further. When he did, the boat jumped off the trailer and started heading out into the bay …. with the boat in reverse. The guy in the truck just drove away as his boat headed out into the bay, motor running, in reverse. It took me a few seconds to figure out what was going on but I quickly realized this boat was making an arc and if my trajectory calculations were correct it was heading right for our Ranger and the 2 unmanned Phoenix’s. I looked at Lisa and she was bracing for impact as the big boat was bearing down for her and our boat. She was standing at the back of our boat with our little dog Chigger in her arms. She quickly thought to take her foot and push the big center console. I knew that wasn’t going to work so I jumped out of the truck screaming as I ran for somebody closer than me to stop that boat. I was at a sprint trying to get there before the collision. Thank goodness there was one lone guy who came flying from nowhere and jumped in the center console just as it collided with Lisa’s foot and our boat. Our boat collided with the Phoenix and that Phoenix hit the next Phoenix but luckily the guy that jumped in the big center console slammed it into drive and minimized the damage. The boat owner came running down just after it was all over and I quickly said a few choice words about him driving away full knowing his boat was in reverse putting everyone in danger. There were only a few minor scratches and we needed to get to the weigh-in. We made it with time to spare but our weight was off so we ended up with 10.5 for the second segment. There were a few teams that were getting things figured out and we finished the session in 3rd or 4th but we were still leading the overall weight by a good 6lbs. We just needed to stick some good ones in session 3 to seal the deal.
It was getting late and Lisa and I swung into Burger King for a burger and onion rings. By morning we were both sick. I don’t think the whopper and the onion rings was a good idea for us…..
At 5am Lisa got sick on the way to the ramp which made me even more sick just watching her so. We were both a mess but we knew we needed to fish and finish well. We got to our spot and by some miracle it was wide open again. We had a lot of company in our spot for the first 2 sessions but the shell bed was so small nobody could get a good angle on it but us. Not long after we got into position Lisa got a nice one on, unfortunately I was a little slow getting the net and it shook the hook boat side. Lisa and I both got a little discouraged but it wasn’t long till Lisa tied into another good fish and we boated a 5+. I just held the boat in one position and Lisa cast to the same spot over and over and before long we had another 13-14 pound sack. Lisa steadily caught fish off the back of the boat on the shell bed and I made a great net man for her. It was getting hot and we still had an hour till weigh-in so we just rode around in the breeze keeping the fish cool with o2 and ice. Our little dog Chigger likes to ride in the boat so we just let him enjoy the ride. At the end of the day we finished in first place for total weight at 36+ pounds, second place was a little over 28. Here’s a picture of the fish Lisa caught in the 3rd session to win the tournament for overall weight.We won total weight and big fish for session one as well as total weight for the tournament. Here’s a few pictures and a video of Lisa’s final day weigh-in with the winning fish!!
When I joined the Greater Atlanta Bass Club back in January, one of the first things I saw was that during the year the club was making 2 trips to Lake Guntersville in Al. The first was in April and I was really looking forward to making the spring trip. For a bass fisherman, a trip to Lake Guntersville is a must but it can be a challenge. I started doing research on the lake and found a few videos and articles about the lake so I went to work on tackle for the trip. I made a few swim baits, swim jigs and crankbaits for fishing the shallow grassy lake. I also found a couple videos on frog fishing the shallow grass beds and lily pads along the shoreline with artificial frogs. I was particularly interested in the frog fishing as it looked like a lot of fun and basically, not much different than topwater fishing on Lanier. The only difference is that on Lanier there is no grass but the concept is the same, the bass are deep in the Guntersville grass and watching overhead for the occasional meal to happen by. I especially got excited about the frog fishing when I watched a fishing show on tv with Roland Martin fishing with frogs in heavy grass. Roland was just hopping his little frog on top of the grass mats and out of nowhere the bass would come from below and pop the little frog. Some of the strikes were large and some were no more than little pops as the big bass just sucked the frog in. At any rate, it was topwater fishing at its finest. I also watched a tv show with Jimmy Houston fishing Guntersville in the spring but they were doing a different kind of fishing. They were fishing way out on the main lake over the shallow submerged grass beds that are everywhere on the lake. Fishing these underwater grass beds can be fun but Jimmy also mentioned that you have to know where the fish congregate in the miles of grass. Jimmy said that if you didn’t know where the fish were you could spend all day fishing nonproductive waters and hiring one of the local guides to help is a good idea. That really wasn’t an option for me and I only had a little over a day to pre-fish before the tournament so the prospect of finding fish in the expansive main lake grass was not sounding like a winning strategy for the tournament. A few of my friends that had some knowledge of the lake said the frog bite was more of a fall bite but you could still catch a few this time of year on the frogs.
With all that knowledge I gathered the time finally came and Lisa and I were on our way to Guntersville for a long weekend and a 2-day club tournament. We rented a little VRBO cabin on the west side of the lake and there was a public launch just a couple hundred yards from the cabin. As soon as we arrived and got all unloaded at the cabin it was midafternoon so we decided to launch the boat and do a little scouting. In the back of my mind I was committed to spending some time fishing the frog if I could find some shoreline grass beds. Once we launched I started looking at my lake mapping and found what looked to be a small cut across the lake that went back off the main lake so that’s where we headed. As soon as we pulled into the cut we saw some of what I was looking for, a grass-lined pocket with some reeds in the background lining the shore. My usual club tournament partner couldn’t make the trip but loaned us his “frog box” which had an array of frogs of all types but I also had 2 little Spro frogs that I had won from Eric Aldrich in a contest from a couple years ago. I told Eric I would give them a try someday when I got the opportunity. Well I got the opportunity so I tied one on for Lisa and put the other on for myself. Lisa and I were using some medium heavy rods with a stout braid spooled on our bait casters. When we pulled along side the weed line and started casting, it was apparent right away that we didn’t get a lot of distance with the heavier braid but the little Spro held water so once we got a little water in the spro’s we could cast them well enough to get them away from the boat to cover a good distance. It was a little awkward at first but it didn’t take long to get the hang of it. We started down the weed line throwing the frogs and working them back to the boat. I told Lisa that the best thing to do was try your best to imitate the way a frog would kick and swim across the weeds, more than likely in little short jerks on the frog. I grew up in the country and as a kid I took pride in being able to shoot a frog with my Daisy bb gun while the frog was on the move to escape my wrath so I indeed knew what a swimming frog looked like.
Within minutes of throwing the frog a fish came from nowhere and whacked my frog, I felt the frog get sucked under but as quick as he sucked it down he spit it out. It was a pretty intense strike and at that point we were optimistic so our casts into the weeds had a little more getty up in anticipation of the next blow-up. A few minutes later I heard the distinct sound of a big fish blowing up on a bait and I looked back to see Lisa set the hook on the fish deep in the weeds. I could tell she was surprised by the fish and the rod bowed over. I told Lisa to pull hard and pull the fish out of the weeds. She laid into the fish and the rod went limp. We really didn’t know what happened but the braid had a clean cut when she brought the weightless line back to the boat. The braid was a little old but we couldn’t figure out what would have cut the braid unless there was a worn spot somewhere from casting. The biggest problem was we had lost one of our 2 Spro frogs and there were no frogs in the frog box like the Spro. We moved on down the weed line and before long another bass blew up on my frog and I was able to pull him out of the weeds in short order and I had my first Guntersville bass, a feisty 2lber.
After that fish we hit a lull in the excitement but we did have a few swirls and blow-ups. We decided to check the mapping and go looking for a few more weed beds to fish. It didn’t take long to find another one just up the lake a short distance and we were back at it, throwing frogs in the weed beds. We had a few swirls and blow-ups at the next spot but it was getting late and we decided to hit one more spot before heading in for dinner. At the next spot there were only 2 little weed beds but the weeds were thick and just about all the action we found came from the thickest parts of the weed beds. Lisa was throwing a little mouse/frog looking bait with a couple of little Colorado blades for legs and that seemed to be getting some interest from the fish but on the last weed bed, right before leaving a nice fish exploded on my frog and the fight was on. It was a short lived fight because I had him pinned to a pile of weeds and soon we were hoisting him and a pile of weeds into the boat. I now had my first bigger bass on the frog and I was feeling good about the frog bite. Here’s a picture of my 2nd G-ville bass…
The next morning, Friday morning, our plan was to do a lot of looking and find a few new locations and a few more tactics for the upcoming tournament. We also wanted to find and fish some rip rap and test our skills at the submerged weed beds out in the open water of the main lake. As it turned out Friday was a very windy day and a very crowded day on the lake. Not only did we have the regular traffic from bass fishermen pre-fishing for the tournament weekend, there was also a high school championship tournament with no less than 325 boats with high school teams from all over the south. We stayed away from the weed beds we found a day earlier and just fished rip rap and docks. It was just too windy for us out on the main lake so we stuck to a lot of leeward rip rap and docks in pocket and bays. We used a variety of baits from shakey head to swimbaits, swim jigs, squarebills, jigs and lipless cranks. We caught small fish here and there throughout the day but it was a hard day of looking and fishing with not much to show for it in way of a game plan for day 1 of the tournament. Our plan for day one was to hit the primary frog spot the first thing in the morning and try and pull a good fish out of the grass to start the morning and then spend a little time back on the rocks, docks and rip rap.
When we got to the ramp before dawn I believe everyone had the same idea we did, get an early start and be number one to your number one spot. We got to the ramp before at 5:30 local and it was already a zoo with a bass club launching out at the same time we were launching. We finally got clear of the boat launched and set up at our spot. We were the first to get there but the flights of high schoolers and club fisherman hadn’t got started. When they finally did there we no less than 3 boats lined up to fish the same grass line we were in but we had first dibs on the prime grass. Not too far away another bass boat started working the opposite side of the bay and the grass line there, as we got started it wasn’t long till we watched the other bass boat across the bay bring in a nice 2-3lber on a buzzbait but we just kept throwing the frogs. We watched them boat a second smaller fish on down the weed bed and I wondered if I should dig out my buzz bait or just keep throwing the frog. We kept on throwing the frog with anticipation of a blow-up and we were both optimistic that it would happen after our success on Thursday evening. At least 30 minutes went by with nothing happening and no interest in the frogs from the bass. It was getting crowded in the bay as a couple more high school boats showed up and I knew it was going to get harder and harder as boat after boat scoured the weed beds in our bay. Finally a huge blow-up engulfed my frog and I set the hooks on a bigger bass. She tried to shake the frog at the surface and then she dove into the grass but we were able to pull her out and into the boat. I guessed the fish to weigh around 6 and just about as big as my biggest from Thursday. I felt a relief that we were able to get a confidence fish in the boat to start the morning and I was hoping Lisa would be able to pull one in for a second fish. We pretty much got crowded out of the bay we started in so we moved to another spot only to find boats galore. You couldn’t find a pocket that wasn’t covered up with boats. It was a grind just to find a spot to yourself. We fished the remainder of the morning without another bite, working rip rap and some grass beds on the leeward side of some Islands. The wind had picked up and it was brutal. That’s one thing we learned about Guntersville, it’s a windy lake. Shortly after lunch we were working some rip rap and Lisa popped a good one which looked to be around 4lbs on a lipless crank. That brought her spirits up and she was eager to get another one. We kept going and a few minutes later something slammed a swimbait I was throwing. At first, when I felt the hit on the swimbait I thought it was a very large bass but as soon as I felt the fish pull I knew it wasn’t a bass but a catfish. Sure enough, when it came to the surface it only confirmed what I already suspected, Mr. Whiskers.
We spent the last hour back at our frog hole but by then the boat traffic in and around the grass had scattered the once tightly bunched beds and it looked rough. We were sure boats had been in and out of there all day and it didn’t yield another fish all weekend. We wound up going to the weigh-in with 2 fish, my early morning fish being 5.93lbs and Lisa’s weighed very close to 4lbs. Our total tally was 2 fish and just shy of 10lbs. I knew that wasn’t going to hold as we were the 3rd boat to weigh in and there were about 30 other teams who hadn’t weighed in. I was sure our biggest fish was not going to be in the running for the big fish pot but as teams weighed I started feeling better about our big fish. There were a lot of fish weighed in but not very many hit the 5lb mark. Our 5.93 barely held through day 1 and we were in the money with the big fish pot for day 1. Although we didn’t have 5 fish or the weight to compete, at least we weighted a couple of decent fish. Lisa and I were both pretty happy campers going into day 2. Unfortunately, Lisa nor I thought about taking a picture of our fish from day one but it was on to day 2.
Our strategy for day 2 was to hit the weed beds early then hit some rocks and rip rap, followed by some submerged grass out on the main lake. The wind was somewhat calmer on day 2 so more main lake grass beds came into play. We did check the shoreline weed beds early with the frogs but there was nothing there and nothing to show for it. When we hit the rocks, the first rocky point we pulled up to produced a nice fish for me on a crawfish colored lipless. We were very lucky because the fish was just barely hooked and was trying hard to jump and shake the hook. I saw the lipless just barely hooked by one barb when the fish jumped for the first time. I pulled the fish to the boat as quickly as I could and Lisa shoved the net under the big bass just as the hook released from the fishes’ lip. I was relieved and very proud of Lisa’s cat-like reflexes with the netting skills. The fish looked to be about 5lbs and a nice start to the day. We moved from spot to spot and fished the main lake grass as well as shoreline grass, rip rap and some rocky points we found with nothing to show for it. It was a nice day to be on the lake but the bass bite just wasn’t working for us. We wound up going to the weigh-in on day 2 with our one 5lb fish.
When I talked with the tournament director he told me that on day 2 if no one caught a bigger fish than our big day 1 fish we would win the big fish pot for the tournament which sounded pretty good to Lisa and I but for a fish that size to last another day of 33 tournament boats on Lake Guntersville the chances were very small. After we weighed our fish we waited and watched as everyone weighed in. There were some nice fish weighed and some good numbers. I watched as sack after sack was weighed and every once in a while a big fish would hit the scale. There were a few fish over 5lbs weighed but one in particular that I thought was bigger than our 5.93 came up just shy at 5.89. That was the winning fish for the day 2 pot so we wound up winning the big fish pot for the tournament as well as the big fish pot for day 1. Lisa and I couldn’t have been happier for our first trip with the club.
Lisa and I really enjoy traveling and checking out these different lakes and we really enjoyed Lake Guntersville. The fishing is a little different than we’re used to here on Lake Lanier but we both really want to go back again when we’re not tournament fishing and just spend a few days learning the lake as well as getting into more of that frog fishing. We had a great time and the folks in the Greater Atlanta Bass Club are some top notch fishermen and great guys. I believe the winning weight for the weekend was over 30lbs and we saw several teams bringing 5 fish to the scales, even with some spotted bass mixed in. Guntersville is just a short 3 hour drive from Lanier and I highly recommend a trip if you’ve never been.
Just last week I made my first purchase with Tackle Warehouse. I wanted to pick up a few things I needed, and as always, a few cool looking new things I wanted. I’ve been reading a lot about these topwater lures called “Vixen” on the Bass Barter and Buy website I frequent and some of the old Vixens on the site sell for upwards of $200.00. The fishermen on the website rave about these Vixen lures and I remember reading about the lures last summer in a Georgia Outdoor News magazine. In the magazine they had a cover page picture of this guy holding up a solid 5 pound spotted bass and this bone colored “Vixen” topwater lure was dangling from the fishes jaw. I could see the word Vixen plain as day on the back of the lure. That was a pretty cool picture and just about all the convincing I needed to buy a few of those Vixens.
With summer just around the corner and a shallow water striper bite in full swing I decided to take the plunge and buy the Vixen. The only color I was interested in was the bone colored pattern. The bone color is the universal color for stripers and bass. I’ve been throwing lures for a lot of years and when I think back to some of my most memorable topwater striper catches, a bone colored topwater lure made the top 10 on a few different occasions. Probably the most memorable was a few years back in the July heat of the summer, my friend Capt. Doug Nelms and I ran across a big school of stripers pushing bluebacks to the surface over deep water. We were pulling a spread of leadcore rigs and decided to take a crack at the big school of stripers with some light tackle topwater action. I circled the boat towards the surfacing school and we took a shot at the school while pulling leadcore. We couldn’t stop the boat with the leadcore lines running 250 feet behind the boat so we had to take a shot at the surfacing stripers on the fly. I had a bone colored Spook Jr. tied to a medium light spinning rig at the ready. You know, sometimes timing is everything with a topwater striper. If you put the right bait in the right area at the right time you’ll usually get the right reaction and the right result. I did all that stuff right and here was the end result:
That was my first topwater striper while trolling leadcore and casting to a single striper on the fly. My buddy Capt. Doug did an excellent job of driving the boat and circling the fish while I battled the striper on light tackle. You can see that bone colored Spook Jr I was using in the video.
Well, back to the bone Vixen. I received my package on time and timing couldn’t have been better. We have some crappie fishing friends who have a lake house out towards the mouth of our creek and this is the time of year the crappie like to hang out around docks and brush piles. Our friends enjoy catching crappie at night under their dock lights and these warmer spring nights provide some nice evenings for catching crappie. The only problem is the big stripers like to frequent the same areas at night during the spring and scare off all the crappie so striper eradication is necessary to make our friends evenings more enjoyable. That’s where I come in. If there is ever a need for striper eradication I’m your man, Johnny on the spot and ready to do battle with those pesky unwanted stripers day or night. Those three bone colored Vixens I bought were going to work right away. It was Friday afternoon and I was finishing up and order of shad baits and checking out the box my lures came in. Heck the box looks seductive in itself so I guess if the lure doesn’t work, well, you’ve got the box to look at. Here’s a photo of the lures and the box just before going into battle.
I inspected the lures and determined that the hooks were somewhat tough looking and slip ring looked a little weak but with todays new technology those slip rings were probably some kind of miniature forged metal heavy duty slip rings. Hey, it’s a Vixen and a somewhat pricey one at that so it’s bound to have good hardware. It looked sweet and I thought about a big striper blowing up on it as I tied it on my medium spinning gear with fresh 8lb test mono. I was ready.
We were settled in at the lake house right after an early Friday dinner and I was heading out towards the mouth of the creek in our little 17 Lowes. I wanted to do a little recon mission and then come back and get Lisa right after dark for the night raid on the stripers. I showed up in the pocket our friends dock is in and I cut the motor down to watch the sun set and look for stripers. They already had the dock lights on and it didn’t take long till I saw the first surfacing striper. I had to do a double take on the boil the striper created. It was big and I watched the same area for other activity. Another boil caught my eye in a little pocket to the left of area of the dock so I kicked the trolling motor up on high and made my way into the area of the boils. I saw another good sized striper in the very back of the cut and he was full on chasing bait on the surface. The little pocket came alive with stripers and boils as I approached. I took my foot off the trolling motor pedal and quietly picked up the Vixen on the spinning gear. I was right in the middle of a feeding frenzy and stripers were moving all around me. I unhooked the Vixen and watched the water to pick out a target. I was looking for one aggressive surfacing fish and as soon as I found it, I was going too put that Vixen right in the area as quickly as possible. Finally I saw a bigger striper hit the surface and I made my cast; it was perfectly placed just beyond the area where the big striper surfaced and I moved the Vixen for the first time, walking the dog back to the boat. The lure had a big clunky ball bearing in the forward area and the sound the ball bearing made banging back and forth provided some audio attraction for the fish. I saw the striper come up and swirl behind the Vixen but then left it alone as I brought it back to the boat. I liked the feel of the lure and I got ready to make a second cast when I saw the same striper come back up in the same area and was swimming on the surface like he was looking for something. I threw the lure back at the fish and within an instant he attacked it. The lure disappeared from the surface with a small pop and it took a second for me to process what happened. As soon as everything was processed I set the hook on the running striper. He was big, tearing drag off the spinning reel with no intention of slowing down. He was heading for the back of the cut, right down the middle and pulling deeper as he went. I put my foot down on the trolling motor and started chasing the striper down. He didn’t stop so I put my hand on the spool of the spinning reel for just a tad more drag on the fish to see if I could stop him before snapping the 8lb test. Finally he stopped in mid channel after a 200+ foot run. Now came the task of turning the fish and getting him pointed in the right direction. I knew just about how much force I could put on the 8lb test and I began to try and turn the fish and I pulled hard to turn the fishes head. When I did, I felt the line unload and I was cranking back a weightless length of line. It took a while to get the line back to the boat but when I did I was glad to see the Vixen still attached and ready for the next cast…. well almost anyway. Upon further inspection of the lure, I found one of the back hooks straightened. My heart sank.. I don’t mind losing a fish now and then but it stings pretty bad when losing one to faulty hardware. Especially brand new lures that cost some coin. Hey, it happens and I know that was a big striper. It looked well over twenty up on the surface and I know a big striper has a hard boney mouth so a single hook holding a striper that big is probably a pretty tough task. There are 3 big treble hooks on a Vixen for a total of 9 barbs to be used to hold a fish and the chances of just one of those barbs being used is pretty slim. Usually the fish get at least 2 sets of hooks buried in his jaw to hold the weight. I thought to myself, I should probably change those hooks out when I get back to the shop and put some bigger hooks and heavier slip rings on these lures.
I sped back to the lake house to pick up Lisa and get back out to the action right after dark. Lisa was ready to go and I tied on a blue bomber on her medium action rig. The blue bomber is my second favorite jerkbait type lure to use after dark. It has some evil looking florescent orange eyes that glow in the dark and stripers love them. Our friends were on their dock as we pulled up and we chatted for a minute and watched for surfacing fish. It was dark beyond the reaches of the dock lights but we could hear splashes off in the distance in the direction of the cut where I had lost the big fish earlier. After chatting, I kicked in the trolling motor and started moving us towards the darkness and the feeding stripers. Luckily there were some smaller lights from a couple docks in the cut and it made seeing the ripples from the surfacing fish more visible. We slipped ito the area and cut the trolling motor and waited. The stripers were swimming everywhere on the graph. We could see schools of 5-10 fish moving all around. Lisa started throwing the bomber and I went to work with the Vixen. It didn’t take long and Lisa was hooked up with a nice 8 pounder on the bomber. She was having a blast and the striper provided us with some aerial acrobatics in the darkness with the dim dock light in the backdrop. The smaller stripers were feeding and we were sitting in the middle of a striper feeding bonanza. The Vixen was a big hit with the smaller stripers and a few bass that were getting into the action in the cut. We lost as many hook ups and we landed but after about an hour of this I think the stripers figured us out and moved out of the area. Lisa and I headed back to the lake house for the night and with a plan to get back out the first thing in the morning before light. Here’s a nice striper we caught on the Vixen just after dark.
My internal alarm went off at around 4am and I gathered my thoughts before rolling out for that first cup of coffee. My plan was to have a few cups of coffee and get the boat ready for a early morning run back to the scene of the crime from the night before. I made a cup of coffee to go and off I went up the creek channel with the occasional dock lighting on both sides acting as a large runway path up the creek in the early morning hours. Lisa was still fast asleep and I would be fishing alone for the first hour or two before I went back to the lake house for breakfast. As I pulled into the area in front of the dock I saw a smaller striper just to the front edge of the dock. The striper was right at the dock and swirling on bait attracted to the light. I threw the Vixen into the area of the smaller striper and he swirled on the Vixen just as soon as it made the first rattle. After the swirl he disappeared and I briefly thought he was gone, but in a second I heard another pop and felt the line tighten of the spinning rig. The striper was smaller and I was able to horse him to the boat rather quickly and in a couple minutes I had the fish at the side of the boat using the lights on the dock to help me land the fish. It was a little guy compared to some and maybe made 5lbs but fought like a solid 10 pounder. These stripers had been spending the last month feeding on the abundant bait that had made its way into the creek in search of warmer winter water. The stripers we were catching were fat March stripers and very very strong.
As the sun was rising through the still leafless trees, I could feel the air warming and I could see a mix of pinks and blues in the eastern sky. I saw two big stripers roll on some bait very near the shore so I pointed the boat in the direction of the big swirls and splashes. I put the hammer down on the trolling motor and got ready for a precise cast. I took a quick look at the line from the lure up about 4 feet to make sure there were no scuffed up areas. The line looked good and the trolling motor couldn’t get to the area fast enough. I had about 100lbs of pressure pushing down on the foot pedal and I could still see the stripers in the shallow water chasing threadfin shad and blueback herring. They were making a big wake as they moved through the shallows and I only had a few more feet to make the perfect cast. I could tell these fish were bigger fish. Maybe 20+ pound fish and they were making some big splashes as they went. I could feel my heart beating in my chest and I know my knees were shaking as I quietly pulled my foot off the trolling motor. I put my first cast right into the area next to the mud bank and within an instant one of the big stripers sucked the Vixen down and I set the hook on the running fish. The fish made a run directly under the boat and I had to stick the rod deep in the water to avoid the fish getting tangled in the trolling motor. I cleared the trolling motor with the rod somehow and the fish was clear and heading for deeper water. My drag was set perfectly and I knew I could put some pressure on the fish as I stood on the bow of the boat and let the big striper pull the boat along. For some reason the striper wanted to stay on the surface which made my job a lot easier. If I could keep the fish on the surface it was just a matter of wearing out the fish and gaining line till he gets to the side of the boat. That’s the preferred method but sometimes the larger and wiser stripers go rouge and swim down deep, looking for that underwater standing timber or huge brush piles that riddle the bottom of Lake Lanier. I’ve been outsmarted by some big stripers before and when I’m fighting a big striper I always know that going deep is something in the stripers bag of tricks. If the striper starts going deep I always like to add a little extra pressure to the fish in hopes of turning the fish back towards the boat.
I had the fish on the ropes and I could see the Vixen in the fishes mouth as he came along side the boat just under the surface. At the sight of the boat he made another run and I held the rod up high too keep him at the surface. I just about had him turned when the line went limp and I saw the Vixen come to the surface 10 feet behind the boat. The big striper was gone, pulled off…so I thought until I inspected the lure and found the whole front hook was missing right down to the eyelet. The big striper had straightened the slip ring and made his escape sporting some new hardware on his lip. Man, the Vixen let me down again…. I felt like a dumb*** for letting it happen a second time. I pulled up the trolling motor and headed back to the house to pick up Lisa and switch out a few hooks and slip rings. Let’s just say that the ride back to the house was the ride of shame as I reflected on my inner stupid coming out in full force this morning.
The bone Vixen needed fixin and I had just the hardware it needed for these big stripers. I dug through the hardware box at the house and found some brand new Eagle Claw #2 nickel plated 375 treble hooks with 30lb stainless slip rings. Lisa drove the boat back out to the mouth of the creek while I switched out hooks and rings on the Vixens. No big deal, they just needed a striper modification. I guess those stock hooks were good for those feisty little green fish jerking around on those spindly hooks and rings but this was one of those times where I have to put the big boy pants on the bass lures to accommodate the larger variety of the bass species. I knew my new hardware modification would be up for the task. One thing that I like to do with these bigger stronger stripers once they are hooked is set the hook a few more times during the fight because these bigger fish have very big and boney mouths and a good hook set is necessary to hold the fish during the fight. The nickel plated Eagle Claw trebles were more than enough to hold the bigger stripers.
When pulled into the cove the stripers and bass were in full feeding mode with boils both large and small. We could tell the difference between the stripers boiling on the surface and the bass boils. I saw one big boil in particular near the shore. This was a bigger fish and it was working it’s way down the red clay shoreline wreaking havoc as it went. When the striper surfaced it was like a train wreck with tremendous splashes and slapping from the big fishes tail crashing the water. This fish was an upper 20’s, maybe low 30’s and I told Lisa to get ready as I made my way to the shoreline to intercept the fish as she worked her way up the shoreline. This fish was more than likely a female feeding for the upcoming spawn. I eased up in the area and put Lisa in position for a cast just as the big fish surfaced between the boat and the shore. When she surfaced again Lisa was startled by the size of the fish and she put the perfect cast just where I would of put it. She rattled the Vixen and few times but nothing came up. In the next instant the striper resurfaced to the right of where we had guessed the big striper to be and had moved on up the shoreline. I realized we had the morning sun to our backs and the big striper more than likely saw us approaching and quickly departed. I was really hoping that Lisa would get hooked up with one of the bigger stripers we were seeing and she was working the Vixen perfectly with the back and forth rhythm of walking the dog. As it turned out, that was the last striper we saw for the morning when a couple of jet skiers decided to cruise through the area several times. The stripers moved on but we stayed for a while and was able to manage a few nice bass to salvage the morning. Here’s a few pictures of some nice spring bass on the Vixen.
Here’s a good video of the Vixen in some early morning dock action with a feisty spotted bass:
As we were leaving the area just before lunch the jet skiers pulled into the dock next to our friends dock and we were able to chat for a few minutes. Turns out, the jet skiers would be renting the neighbors lake house for the next two weeks and there would be several kids swimming and jet skiing throughout spring break in the cove. I figured all the extra traffic and noise would probably run the stripers from the area in just a few days but we were able to pull a few good ones out of the area before they left. We headed back to the house to call it a day.
The next morning was Sunday and we were packing for an early departure from the lake. It was raining outside and it had been since just after midnight. We were going to grab some breakfast on the way home from the lake and watch a little nascar in the afternoon. I was pretty sure the neighbor kids next to our friends house would take care of the striper problem over the next week. Lisa told me she wanted to do a little cleaning before we left and it was going to take about a half hour….well that’s all I needed. I told her I was going to dawn my rain gear and make one more check on the dock before we headed out. She said ok and I was off in an instant. I jumped in the boat, fired it up and untied for the quick trip up the creek. The rain had let up a little and it made the run a little more bearable for the run at 30mph to the cove. When I got there nothing was happening, no surface activity except the small circles made by the rain droplets on the water. I sat and watched but nothing was happening. I figured the neighbor kids were up half the night swimming and hanging around the dock making noise and running the stripers to the next county. The rain started to get heavier again and I was just about to head back to the house when I saw 2 separate stripers come up at the same time right in front of our friends dock. They rolled on the surface again and again and I knew they were attacking a big pod of bait in front of the dock. I was just in range to make a cast so I tapped the trolling motor to get my body in position to make a good cast right in the area. The two stripers were still on the surface when I made my cast and it was a good one, right in the area the two were swirling around. I rattled the Vixen and nothing….I rattled the Vixen and just as I thought it wasn’t going to happen the big striper popped the Vixen and it was gone. I set the hook on the striper just as she took off. My rod tip was bouncing as the reel drag gave the fish the resistance needed to wear the fish down. I faced the fish and let her run. She peeled off a good 100 feet before slowing and turning parallel to the boat. My knees were shaking and my heart was thumping and I watched the 8lb test line from the rod tip to the water. The striper was coming to the surface as I watched the angle of the line rise and I could see small pieces of lake debris hanging from the 8lb mono rising above the water. The fish was pulling the boat along and I knew that if the fish stayed on the surface I had him. I pumped the Vixen a few times to ensure a good hook set. I watched the end of the line sink and the angle of the line change and I knew the fish was looking deep again. I kept constant pressure on the fish and kept the rod tip high in the air to hopefully coax the fish back to the surface away from the underwater structure that bigger fish like to get into. Finally the fish started to rise again and I felt a sigh of relief as she swirled on the surface. I went to work on gaining the line back and for the next few minutes it was a game of tug of war with the striper as she stayed near the surface. I kept the right amount of pressure on the fish and she eventually calmed down and came along side for a quick landing and photo Before being released. Here’s a photo of the striper:
She was a pretty stout teenage fish and a great fight on light tackle. She was just the fish I had been looking for to end the weekend and I considered the striper eradication to be a complete success. The neighbors called and said between the hurting we put on them and the neighbor kids in and out of the cove the stripers had cleared the area for the year and the crappie had returned to the underwater brush piles.
Here are a few more videos from our spring with the Bone Vixen.
Hop in the old Carolina Skiff with myself, Bryan and Todd on a trip up the fertile rivers of Tennessee in search of trophy striped bass during the height of the spawn. Grab a beer, sit back and enjoy the ride!
A cold front was approaching as Bryan and I set out for the drive to Tennessee. I checked the radar an hour earlier and a thick line of rain stretched from the Great Lakes to Louisiana and moving rapidly into our area. It was going to be a wet drive north. We were on our way to meet up with Todd, our trophy striper guide in Tennessee. Bryan and I were looking forward to a couple of days of trophy striper fishing in the fertile waters of Tennessee in the spring. We were hoping that we planned our trip between fronts and the weather would cooperate for us. The water temps were just about perfect according to Todd and we would probably be arriving at the tail end of the spawn. The striper spawn is a narrow window in which female stripers gain weight in leaps and bounds feeding and nourishing their eggs for the spawn. A female striper can drop somewhere between a half million and 3 million eggs during her spawn. The weight of the eggs alone is rather large, plus the fact that she eats constantly until she spawns out. These big girls can put on some serious pounds during this period and it’s a great time to catch a trophy striper.
Bryan and I left the Atlanta area around 2 pm and figured we would arrive in the area for a late dinner. The drive was brutal, battling an approaching cold front through the winding roads of Tennessee. Bryan and I are retired military folks with Bryan being a former Air Force fighter pilot and myself being a former Navy technician on fighter aircraft. We never found ourselves lacking of conversation. As we drove on in the relentless rain I worried that too much rain would stain up the rivers where we would be fishing. I worried that the rivers would be stained and full of debris. Murphy’s Law was always a factor when it comes to my fishing trips. When I plan these fishing trips in advance I’m always at the mercy of the weather. I’ve seen times where heavy rains have blown out the rivers and fishing the rivers becomes non-existent due to water levels and swift currents. About halfway through the drive I got a reassuring call from Todd saying they had caught a few nice fish before the wind and driving rain arrived and he thought the next two days should be good.
As we drove on we hit areas that the rain was heavy and times that it was very light. We finally made our destination and after a bite to eat at a local restaurant we were checked into the hotel and watching the Weather Channel. The front had picked up speed and was moving through the area quicker than anticipated. It looked like we were going to be fine; just a little post front wind to worry about.
Todd called promptly at 6 am and let us know where to meet for the launch. We were up and ready to go. The morning dawn was cold and windy on the back side of the front. The temperature was dropping as the drier, colder air moved into the area. We made it to the ramp in the back of a cove at the lake and sat in the parking lot waiting on Todd. Before long a Carolina Skiff being pulled by a pick-up appeared at the ramp. It was Todd, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to guide us on our quest for a trophy striper. I had met Todd earlier in the year at a Tennessee Striped Bass Club meeting in which I was a guest speaker. I was very impressed with the club and it’s members, a great bunch of guys and some very very knowledgeable fishermen. I knew about Todd from before the meeting and followed his progress as a very good guide in the area. It just so happened that I found an opportunity to make it up to Tn. during the spawn and Todd had an opening to accommodate us. After pleasantries, Todd gave us the skinny on what we would be doing during the day and we got familiar with the boat and tackle selection as we got ready to launch. The wind hadn’t kicked up across the lake yet and before long we were on our way headed for the river to catch our bait. Our plan was to catch a few dozen Skipjack Herring and use them to catch bigger stripers. In order to catch these Skipjack Todd had equipped us with light spinning gear with small crappie jigs. We ran up the river a ways and before long Todd brought the motor back to idle for our first drift for the Skipjack. Todd explained that the Skipjack generally traveled in groups, most times along the shoreline. We would keep the boat pointed up stream and slowly drift and cast to the shore.
Before long all three of us were chunking and winding as we drifted back towards the lake. It didn’t take long and Todd hooked up. Bryan and I threw into the same area and in a instant we were tripled up on jacks. We lost one at the boat and put two in the tank. Quickly we got the jigs right back to the area and pulled another jack in the boat before they moved on. I’ll tell you guys, if you’ve never fished for Skipjack to go catch stripers, you’re missing out. It’s like having big fun and then going on to having bigger fun. These jacks were anywhere from 1-3 pounds in weight and they put up a good fight on light tackle in the current. Stripers love them and the jacks provide the stripers with a very high fat and protein diet while fueling up during the spawn. Soon we were drifting through another pocket of fish and little by little we filled the tank with the jacks that we needed for the stripers. It was getting close to midday as we made our way back down the river and across the main lake only to go up another river with a little less current. The river was running at full pool and the afternoon sun cast shadows just beyond the overhanging trees along the waters edge. To me those shadows looked like a great place for a big fish to hang out and ambush a wandering Skipjack. We dropped the trolling motor and broke out the big boy gear. We ran the big 8/0 hook through the big Skipjack’s back and tossed him in the water to hook up the planer board. A planer board is like an outrigger at water level. They are small and effective for planing the hooked skipjack out away from the boat and into the shadows of overhanging trees. The outside planer ran just outside the shadows of the overhanging trees and the inside board ran closer to the boat in deeper water.
The wind had kicked up and the sky had not yet cleared from the passing front over night. We had a few problems fighting the wind to keep the boat from drifting us off course. The scenery in the area was just beautiful. As we moved along the shore I was in awe at the many ancient rock formations and the shoreline carved out by many many years of water flow through the river. There were a few blow downs along the shore and I knew from experience that a blow down, or in layman’s terms, a dead tree that has blown or fallen into the river, is a great ambush point for a big striper. We approached an older blow down and the Skipjack got very nervous. The Skipjack pulled hard just behind the planer board fleeing the blowdown area. The jack suddenly stopped, rolled over sideways and stiffened up just before a large boil and shadow appeared just beyond the lifeless jack. The jack was playing possum. I lifted the rod out of the holder and unlocked the spool on the big Penn reel. I fed some slack to the jack as the big striper studied the bait. Todd said to pull the bait a little and when I did, the striper made a final swirl and picked up the jack. The striper started moving off with the jack and I slammed the bail forward and layed into the big fish. Upon feeling the cold steel of the hook the big fish made a run for the deeper channel of the river. The drag was a bit loose and the fish made a turn back to the blown down. I thumbed the spool to turn the fish away from the submerged tree but it was too late. I felt the rub of a branch on the line and I knew the fish had buried into the tree. We moved the boat over the area and gave the fish some slack in hopes he would swim out. He was buried too deep and when I re-applied pressure to the fish the 50lb test finally wore through just as I saw a flash of silver in the tree below us. The fish had outsmarted us.
We re-composed ourselves and baited back up to continue our pull up the river. Todd set out a downline with a 6 ounce weight and one of our smaller jacks and dropped it just behind the boat in a few feet of water. It was our idea of a weighted transom bait. We watched the planers and joked back and forth and jawed about fishing stories from the past. I watched as the downline jack rod started bouncing wildly and the rod doubled over, popped back up and doubled over again. Todd grabbed the rod and hollared “Who wants him!!” I was just behind Todd and after Bryan waved him off, I grabbed the rod in a nano-second and was hooked up with my second fish. It was heavy, but it felt a little unfamiliar. It didn’t pull like a bigger striper and had a quicker rhythm pulling on the line. I forced the fishes head up, feeling confident about the strength of the 50lb test. The fish finally rolled at the surface and I saw the familiar grey whiskered shape for a brief second before it disappeared into the depths. It reminded me of catching the huge Blue cats on the shore of the Mississippi just south of New Orleans some twenty years back. It was a big cat; when we finally hoisted the big cat on the boga it was 24 pounds. We took a quick snapshot and we were back at it.
One thing that I’ve learned about big striper fishing is that generally you’re fishing for one or two bites a day. If you put 2 fish in the boat it’s considered a successful day. We felt good about hooking up on two fish by noon but as luck would have it, we went into a slump. It wasn’t for a lack of fish. We had several blow-ups by bigger fish over the next few hours but sometimes the big stripers, in my opinion, become very territorial and sometimes lash out at a bait without eating it. Around mid-afternoon we moved to another spot, much like the first with shadows lining the edge of the shore and the hanging trees. Shortly after putting the baits out, one of the planer boards shot straight to the middle of the river and the board released from the line. The rod was next to me and I grabbed it out of the holder and pulled hard on the fish in an effort to bury the hook and turn her head back towards the boat. The resistance I felt wasn’t the kind of the resistance I’d felt before from bigger stripers. She gave up too easy and I knew the fish was probably a spawned out fish, more than likely fatiqued from the spawn. My suspicions were correct as we lifted the the 23lber up on the Boga. She may have weighed 30+ before spawning out. She was a good fish to warm up on and after a quick snapshot she was released back to the shadows. We had one big Skipjack left by early evening and the sun was setting as we decided to make one more pull back up the shoreline before calling it a day. Todd was frustrated at the amount of blow-ups we had on our bait without getting good hook-ups. Here’s a picture of what our biggest Skipjack looked like shortly before he met his demise.
Todd hooked up our biggest jacks for the final pull, up wind and up river. I sat in the front of the boat and looked back at the planer boards and thought of what a great day it was. Plenty of action, including some awesome skipjack fishing. The blow-ups created by the big stripers were something to witness. Watching the big blow-ups made me very optimistic about tomorrow’s trip back out to this area. The glare of the sun made it almost impossible to see the light colored planer board. From what I could see, the board stopped, which indicated a change in the jacks swimming habits. Todd yelled “Blow-Up”!!! I strained to see the board through the glare and realized it was on the front rod where I was sitting. I saw the jack roll over on it’s side in an attempt to fool the big striper into thinking he was dead. The jack was locked up and the fish was no where to be found. Todd waved his arms and let out a hearty curse at the big fish for spoiling our hopes. I still had the rod in my hand as I laughed at Todds frustration. I felt a hard jerk on the rods tip and knew the fish had returned. For the next few minutes the fish nipped and pushed at the crippled jack. It was frustrating to me that the fish would play a game of cat and mouse with the jack. The jacks head would bob up and down out of the water like he was doing some kind of Skipjack death dance. The fish moved the bait back into the glare and I was working by feel with the rod. Todd was at a different angle and told me to pull hard to take the bait away from the big striper. When I did, I couldn’t see the result through the glare but I felt the fish inhale the jack and in a second I was setting the hook on a running fish. This was a bigger fish. She wasn’t giving ground but taking drag at will.
I’d like to say that the fish was tearing drag at breakneck speed or pulled off hundreds of feet of line, but with 50lb test, I was pretty confident I could put some serious pressure on the fish. For that reason she didn’t run far. I kept the constant pressure on the fish and worked to gain and get her to the boat. In my opinion, the quicker the fish is caught and released, the easier it is on these big spawning females. You can easily kill a bigger fish by prolonging the battle. The first time she rolled Todd said it was a nice fish… in so many words. I knew she was big but I wondered if she was bigger than the 38lber I caught up here a few years back. I honestly couldn’t tell. When she came to the surface a second time she had company with her. Another smaller striper came along side for a brief moment and then disappeared back to the depths. Todd and Bryan assured me that the fish was over 38 pounds. Once I saw the big belly on the fish I knew it was over 40. Here’s a little video to explain what happened next. There is a couple of bad words during the video so I wouldn’t show this to the kids.
Before we released her we took a length and girth measurement and her stats came to 42 inches in length and a girth of 29 inches. She swam off after a little coaxing and last I saw she was headed back to the shadows. High fives and fist pumps followed and we were all elated at our success. I had a new personal best striper and we had another day to work on Bryans new personal best. It was after 7pm and we were exhausted. A solid twelve hours of fishing was behind us but it only felt like a few short hours. It seemed like everytime I looked at my watch another hour or two had past. It was time to call it a day. The sun was setting behind the trees, we were getting tired and Todd had done more than his fair share to show us a good time. We parted ways at the ramp and agreed on the same time, same place in the morning.
When Bryan and I stepped out of the hotel early the next morning we were greeted with record low temps. It was 37 degrees at sunrise and when Todd called to check on us, he said he had an inch of ice in the bottom of his boat. When we met at the ramp we were a bit discouraged at the layer of fog over the lake. It was thick and we decided to wait a few minutes before heading up the river. The warmer water and cooler air temps made for a tough situation to navigate through when heading up lake. We took it slow and hit pockets of less fog till we hit the river. It was thicker in the river so we decided to drift a little ways to see if we could locate any Sikipjack. It started slow but we finally hit our stride and pulled in a couple of dozen jacks of various sizes over the course of the first few hours. We had a few mongo jacks in the 2-3lb range and we decided to hit the same area as we did early the day before.
I was banned from touching the rods since yesterday I caught all the fish as Bryan was a humble rider. Today was Bryans day. His personal best was 24 lbs and we felt very optimistic that his record would be shattered. I took my place in the front of the boat as we made our first drift. This time we put a big jack straight out the back on a float and our 2 planer board baits running parallel to the shore. It wasn’t long until we had our first action. The big jack on the float took off for another zip code with a large wake in tow. The float dissappeared in an instant and Bryan grabbed the rod. Bryan pulled hard as the big 8 foot rod doubled over. Bryan keeped the fish in front of him as the big fish paced back and forth 30 yards behind the boat. Todd warned Bryan that there were trees in the area of the fish as we tried to reposition the boat for a better angle on the fish. Bryan pull hard and tried to impose his will on the fish but the fish found the strcture she was looking for. The rod went to dead weight and our fears were confirmed as the line snapped and the rod came back to neutral. Another loss to the trees. She was a big fish and before the line break, I thought for sure Bryan had his 30’s fish. It wasn’t meant to be and soon we were baited back up and moving along. We joked and cut up for the next couple of hours. Every once in a while we would see some sign of fish in the form of a tremendous blow-up or a nervous jack trying to escape what was lying just beyond the shadows. It was getting close to lunch and Bryan was still on the hook for a fish. Finally, as we were talking about making a move a fish slammed the jack on the float behind the boat and the float was headed south at a high rate of speed. Bryan snapped to life and grabbed the rod. Once again Bryan faced the fish a kept the pressure on her. She stayed up on top as Bryan worked the fish to the boat. Todd brought the fish in the boat and Bryan was on the board with a solid 27lber.
She was another spawned out female. During the height of her spawn she was a much larger fish, possibly a mid 30’s fish. We decided to make a move and hit the spot the 46lber came from the day before. It was early afternoon by the time we got the baits back out. Bryan and I decided to make this a much earlier day as we knew Todd was tired and we had a long drive back to Georgia. We worked hard over the next couple of hours trying different tactics and bait presentations. We had our share of blow-ups but getting a fish to commit was not in the cards. We decided to make one more pass before calling it a day. It was getting into late afternoon and we were getting a bit desparate for one more fish. These big stripers seem to take a break through the afternoon and they don’t get cranked back up till early evening. I feared that would be the case on this day. We pulled out all the stops and put our best baits out for the final pull. If it was going to happen it needed to happen soon. As if on que, our outside board skidded backwards as the big fish hammered the fresh jack. Bryan grabbed the rod and layed the hook into the fish. The fight was on. We knew it was a bigger fish by the way she ran towards the deeper water. Bryan kept the pressure up and the fish slowly gave ground and eventually pulled along side of the boat. Todd snatched the fish from the water and soon the big fish was hoisted with the Boga. Bryan had his 30 pounder. The big girl weighed just over 30 and provided more high fives and fist bumbs.
Bryan was pleased with his fish and we both knew it was time to go. We all felt the same way. Pulling in the baits to end the day was like pulling teeth. It’s the most painful time of the day. Bryan and I both left with a great feeling. Our experience is one of those fishing trip neither of us will ever forget. I’ve been on a lot of fun fishing trips, and fishing in Tennessee with Todd and Bryan was one of the best fishing trips I’ve ever been on. Todd was a gracious guide and really over extended himself to show us a good time and put us on a trophy fish. Fishing the spawn is a small window to getting a trophy fish. Stripers are an elusive fish and a worthy advisary for fishing. If you’re ever in the mood for a trophy striper or maybe some great fishing action give Todd Asher a call from Shadnasty Guide Service (www.shadnastyfishing.com/)865-789-1991
Tell him Jim and Bryan sent you. You’ll have a blast!
No women allowed! That was the first rule of Man Camp. It was a standing rule that had been in place for the last 10 years. The reasons for this rule we’re written in blood over the years. It didn’t matter to me. In my opinion Man Camp was no place for women in the first place. Man Camp was a private fish camp located deep in the marshy bowels surrounding Barataria Bay, south of New Orleans. The camp itself sat atop a small island in the middle of a small brackish lake only accessible by boat and heavily guarded by the only full-time occupants, 2 large German Shepards. Not everyone could come to Man Camp, it was by invitation only and not many folks got that invitation. It was the mid-nineties and I had finally left California and headed east to start my new tour at a small air base south of New Orleans. I was looking forward to the change of scenery and I knew that Louisiana was referred to as the “Sportsman’s Paradise”. That sounded like my kind of place. Shortly after arriving at the airbase, I bought an old 14-foot flats boat from my dad up in Oklahoma and brought it down to Louisiana to fish the marsh. My job in the military was slowing down a bit just after the first Gulf War and I had a lot of down time to fish the marsh for reds and specks. I had a few buddies who had been stationed there for a few years ahead of me and they showed me the ropes for fishing the marsh. After a few trips out with them I started going more and more by myself and learning as much as I could. I learned the habits and feeding locations of reds during the different seasons. I learned tackle and tactics, as well as what to look for when looking for signs of actively feeding fish. The most important thing I learned over a few years was navigating my way around the massive maze of channels that were integrated into the marsh. A friend of mine from the base, Eric liked fishing the marsh as much as I did. We got together every chance we could and hit the marsh in search of reds. We knew of three or four different spots where we could catch reds just about every time we went. We meet up with another fisherman, Jerry, who was in our squadron also. He had bought a Sea Ray walk through ski boat after fishing with us for a few months. Eric bought an old aluminum 14 jon boat, so me, Jerry and Eric all had our own boats. We either fished with each other in one boat or we each took our own boats out and made a wager on who would catch the most fish. We had a lot of fun. Jerry met a kid who had grown up in the marsh and joined the Navy to see the world, only to be stationed 3 miles from his birthplace. His name was Trent, and he knew the marsh and red fishing like the back of his hand. Trent was tall and thin and a true marsh rat from way back. Trent and Jerry fished together a lot. They got to be good friends and soon after Trent introduced Jerry to his neighbor, Mr. Tom. Now Mr. Tom was an old, retired Navy Chief from Louisiana. He was a big man, well over 6 feet tall and well respected around town and in the political circles. He was the type of man who was always looking for a reason to smile. He was good natured and came to be a good personal friend of mine. Jerry, Trent and Mr. Tom would have a few beers from time to time, usually in Trent’s back yard while throwing horseshoes. One afternoon Mr. Tom ask Jerry if he and a few of his buddies from the squadron would like to come out to his Camp out in the marsh for a weekend. He said that the camp slept 14 comfortably and had a 100-foot fishing dock complete with 12 boat slips, running water, heat and air and a big diesel generator just in case we lost power. Yep, power. Mr. Tom had the Parish electrical company run electricity to the camp, 8 miles across the marsh. Mr. Tom had friends in high places. Jerry passed the invitation on to me, Eric and a couple of our pilots who liked to fish, giving us all the details about camp. We also had a couple of our F-18 pilots in the squadron that liked to fly fish for redfish in the marsh and had their own aluminum flats boat they fished out of. These guys did a lot of Florida flats type fishing together and were going to join us at lunch on Saturday at the camp and then stay Saturday night. One of the pilots was my Division Officer and I talked with him often about fishing. His name was Lt Dan, and he was much like me, raised in a small community and loved the outdoors. The other pilot joining us was our Squadron Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Rick, and he was all about learning to fish the marsh, having recently moved to the area and hearing so much about the fishing. He was our squadron skipper, the highest-ranking officer of the group and later he proved to be the Entertainment Officer for the trip.
We all coordinated a weekend when we could take off work early on Friday and get to the camp at a decent hour. Well, like any well laid plan in the military it all went to hell in a handbag. Eric and I wound up getting the whole day off, but Jerry and Trent couldn’t make it out till the evening. Mr. Tom was going to ride with Jerry in the late afternoon and Trent and a couple of his buddies were bringing up the rear later after dark. The two pilots were still coming on Saturday and bringing us fresh lunch from a seafood restaurant in Belle Chase called “Salvos”. Belle Chase was the town I lived in, and Salvo’s restaurant had the best Po’boys in town. Eric and I decided to take his boat since my motor had been acting up. We loaded up the gear in the boat early Friday morning and Eric and I set out to fish the marsh all day and meet up with Jerry and Mr. Tom at 4 pm at the entrance of the lake from the main canal and follow the power lines to the island. Since Eric’s boat was just a bit small for running a marsh lake in adverse weather, we planned to have Jerry cut a wake in the Sea Ray if need be, and we would follow close behind. I don’t know that I’d ever attempted that maneuver before, but we figured it would work. As it turned out, the weather was adverse. It was late fall, and a cold front was passing through the day of our departure. Fishing wasn’t that good for Eric and I as we boated several smaller reds and a few short specks but nothing worthy of the Igloo cooler. The weather was a little windy at times but when you’re fishing canals sometimes you can find canals that are fishable in the wind. We found a canal with a small grove of trees that made for a good wind break, and we decided to anchor and fish the bottom while waiting on Jerry. Eric like to have the occasional cocktail and pulled a fifth of Seagram’s Seven out of the cooler and made a big tumbler full of 7 and 7. We chatted and caught a few rat reds and hard heads as the afternoon past. The front was getting closer, and it started raining as we pulled into the canal out of the marsh to meet Jerry. We could see his Sea Ray coming up the canal from our position. As he came by we pulled in behind him and we were off. Jerry’s Sea Ray was a 21-footer with a Volvo inboard. Eric’s little flats boat had a little Merc tiller motor. Needless to say, Jerry had to lay off the throttle for us to keep up. When we got to the mouth of the lake at the power lines the wind was kicking up some large chop across the water. We all looked across the lake and then each other. It wasn’t good. Jerry yelled over “what do you guys want to do”? We both wanted to go but Eric and I both knew there was going to be an element of danger involved. I asked Eric how he felt about it and he ask me if I wanted to drive the boat. He knew he had one to many of those 7 and 7’s to handle the boat in those kinds of conditions. I was pretty good with a boat, have had on most of my life. I looked at it more as a challenge than anything else. Yes, there was an element of danger, but I felt confident we could pull it off. It wasn’t going to be easy because there was driving rain as well as a good beefy 2–3-foot chop on the water. It was like a 2–3-foot wash tub to be exact. I told Jerry we would try it. I told him not to get far ahead and keep a close eye on us in case we decided to bail and head back. I switched places with Eric and grabbed the tiller. I got behind Jerry and we entered the mouth of the lake. Jerry sped up and we tried to stay about 50-100 feet behind the Sea Ray. We were soaked in the driving rain, and I tried to keep my focus on Jerry’s prop wash. Eric had moved to the center seat in the jon boat after getting hammered by water coming over the bow in the front. He was facing me and hunched over covering his head. His body actually shielded some of the rain as I squinted hard to keep Jerry’s boat in site. Sometimes I could see Mr. Tom looking back and watching us from the passenger side of Jerry’s boat. I’ve been it some tough conditions on the water, but this was by far the most dangerous position I’ve ever put myself in when it comes to boating. The weather was brutal. It was just about all I could do to work the tiller in the driving rain. With Eric in the middle sometimes the bow of the boat would rear back when taking a wave. The boat would slam back down onto the water. I shuttered every time the boat would slam down. We had another mile or so to go when I started hearing a popping noise. We were sitting in ankle deep water in the boat, so I reached back and pulled the drain plug. We had a lot of rain in the boat. We kept on going, getting battered by waves as we went. The popping noise continued, and it seemed we were taking on water. I decided to just keep going. I knew we were getting close and pulling the plug helped drain the water as it came in. Eric was hollering saying that the bottom seam was splitting, and the popping was the loose rivets giving out as the boat slammed hard in the water. I told Eric we didn’t have time to worry about the leak, just pray that the boat doesn’t fill up before we get to the island. Jerry and Mr. Tom had no idea what we were dealing with back in the jon boat. They were battling waves also. The lake was dotted with shallow reefs and oyster beds so navigating around these areas could be tough. I kept checking the bottom of the boat and the depth of the water. I felt good about our chances. I could see a dark shape in front of Jerry as the island and the camp came into view. I was relieved. We just needed to beach the jon boat as quickly as possible and drag it ashore. We pulled the boats to the leeward side of the island and Mr. Tom pointed out a little area of the island to beach the boat. I circled the boat on the leeward side of the island to drain more water out of the boat before beaching. I got a run at the mud bank and ran the boat up as far as I could in the mud. Eric and I dragged the boat up on the bank and unloaded the gear to get out of the rain. As we walked up to the camp, Jerry and Mr. Tom were coming up the dock from the boat slips. Mr. Tom stuck out his hand and said, “my name is Mr. Tom and welcome to Man Camp”!
And so, it began….. It was the start of something that has stuck in my mind for years. Mr. Tom’s camp was surrounded by water with heavy pillars below the camp and a good 10 feet from ground to the floor joists over head. There was a 100 ft dock on the front side of the cabin facing the bay with 6 boat slips on either end of the dock and a lighted cleaning station on the dock. There was an old rusty barge that was half sunk in front of one end of the dock that served to cut down on the erosion of the island from heavy tides and the numerous storms the island had weathered. Mr. Tom’s two German Shepards greeted Eric and I as we surveyed our new surroundings. The two dogs were introduced to us as the only two full time occupants of the island and I knew from being around dogs, these two dogs would tear a man to shreds had he dropped by unannounced. These dogs were big and very intimidating but tolerated us without getting too friendly. Mr. Tom gave us the tour of the camp and we found our bunks for the night. Once the gear was brought in and stored, we headed out to secure the boats for the night and prepared for a long night of rain and rum. Trent pulled into one of the slips as we were checking the extent of the damage to Eric’s boat. “What happen to the boat” Trent asked as he was walking towards us. “She’s broke big time” Eric said. Trent looked at me and just shook his head and laughed. I didn’t really know Trent that well until that night. I guess you really get to know a person over a few gallons of rum and a few late night poker games. By the time we left the camp it was like we were old buds. Trent was much like me, we both loved to fish and you could see it in our eyes as well as the dedication we put into our fishing. I was like a sponge when it came to fishing the marsh. I observed and absorbed everything I could possibly learn on every fishing trip. Trent was the same. When it came to fishing, he was very serious and very good at it. Trent opened the ice chest in the jon and looked at Eric and I with a disappointing grin. “No fish for dinner”? I laughed and told Trent that I would take care of that problem in short order and grabbed my spinning rig. On the far end of the island there was a small channel or “cut” as we called them. During tidal movements and wind drive currents, those small cuts can hold redfish in an ambush mode at or near the entrance and exits of these areas. My absolute favorite jig for redfish was a 1/2-ounce lead jig head in a hot pink or bubblegum with a soft plastic cockahoo minnow in a black over pearl color. It was a deadly combination for reds and the occasional speckled trout or flounder. As I made my first cast with my trusty bait I thought I could have set myself up for embarrassment if I failed to catch a fish or two around the island. As I fan casted the mouth of the cut I thought about how cool the camp was, complete with a big brick woodburning fireplace in a western style living area with leather sofa beds and a couple of leather lazy boys. The dock out in the front had big sodium lights pointed towards the water to attract bait, shrimp and fish. The fish cleaning station was large and had lighting and a plug in for my electric filet knife. We were set. I worked my way around the cut and scoured the shoreline. If you’ve never walked the muddy areas of the marsh, I have to tell you, it takes practice. The area we were in was rich in the mineral sulfur, and the smell of the sulfur leeched its way through the ground, to the surface. The surface was very soft, and the mud was very grey, very soft and very smelly. One thing I learned quickly was to stay away from clear muddy areas. There were big clumps of marsh grass and all around these clumps were big clear exposed muddy areas that served as landmines for sinking up to your waist in mud. If you have never experienced sinking up to your waist in mud, take it from me, it’s no fun and getting out of that situation can wear you out very quickly. Once you do free yourself from the mud, you have to carry around the stench of caked on sulfur mud which attracts flies and those little jewels of the marsh called “noseeums” or nat bugs. They are not your run of the mill nats but the little biting nats that left little red itchy welts on your skin. They attack any exposed skin and they attacked in numbers, not just one or two. The best way to navigate the marsh is to step on or around the big clumps of marsh grass and stay away from open muddy areas. Just as I was getting ready to move to the other end of the small cut, I saw my line quickly move from the shoreline where the jig had just entered the water. I very quickly realized something had the jig and was headed out of the cut. I set the hook on the running red and the fight was on. I worked the fish to the shore near my feet and pulled a 5–6-pound red onto the muddy shore. Finally, a decent red to add to dinner. The rain started again and very quickly the cut was filled with large droplets coming down in blowing sheets. I placed the red up on the bank in the grass and went back to work in the same vecinity as my first catch. A lot of times if you find one redfish in an area, others may be close by. In this case, there was a big ole muley trout nearby. My second fish caught from the same area was a nice 3–4-pound speckled trout. Compared to the bulldog style pulling of the redfish, the speckled trout was far more active and wilier on the hook. A speckled trout has a head shake that can throw a hook in a heartbeat. I can honestly say that I have lost just about as many specks as I have caught. From experience, I knew to keep good pressure on the fish and get it in as quickly as possible. If you give a big trout the chance to escape the hook they will. My philosophy was the less time in the water, the less time for escape. I piled the big trout up next to the redfish and went right back to work in the same area. I could see Jerry and Trent back at the camp on the front deck. They were watching me through the rain. Jerry gave the universal “any luck” signal with a wave of both outstretched arms and I walked back over to the fish and held up the red and trout for them to see. I could barely make out the sounds through the driving rain but I was fairly certain there was a positive comment judging from the thumbs up from Trent and a quick bird from Jerry. I laughed and went back to work. I felt like I could get a few more as I worked my way down the cut towards the exit. Another red jumped on my little cockahoo jig and much like the first, a nice sized fish to put with the others. The redfish in this area were deep and rich in dark gold and copper colors with randomly placed black dots around the tail area. They were strong, thick shouldered and a relentless fight for the casual angler. As table fare, they were excellent. I had learned different ways to prepare redfish from the locals and each dish was nothing less than delicious when it came to redfish. I heard voices coming from the marsh behind me towards the camp and I turned to see Jerry and Trent coming my way. They stopped by the pile of fish on the bank, and I walked over to chat with them. They didn’t have any tackle and Trent ask if they could take the fish to the camp to filet and prepare for the grill. “Heck ya, have at em” I said to Trent. Trent explained that he had a pretty good recipe that involved a mustard paste on the whole filet side of the fish and cooked scales down on the grill. I soon learned that Trent was a master at grilling redfish as well as another way to prepare redfish. After I let them know, I’d be up to the camp soon, they departed for the cleaning station and the much dryer camp. It was very near sunset, and I had worked my way to the exit of the cut and scoured the area at the tip of the island. I looked across the marsh in the direction we had crossed the lake and I saw the power lines heading towards the east and I could barely make out the distant flames of the refineries along the Mississippi near the mouth to the gulf. The rain had tailed off and I could see a bass boat coming towards the island along the power lines. I knew Trent was expecting some friends from his squadron and I figured that was them coming in right before dark. Every once in a while, the wind would carry the scent of charcoal and lighter fluid down to me on the shore behind the camp. I had one more sizable redfish for the grill when I called it quits and headed back to camp. I could hear loud voices and laughter coming from the front deck and I knew we were in for a great evening. As it turned out, I knew Trents buddies from our softball league, but we didn’t really know each other except for pleasantries during softball games. They played for a rival team, and I knew them by their abilities to hit the ball. Ken was the biggest, well over 6 feet in height and broad shouldered. At the plate during softball games, I knew Ken as a ringer home run hitter. He was the reason we were in a “3 home run rule” league. His job was to crush the ball over the fence with his bat. He was also the coach of our base All Star team and I was trying to make the All-Star team as a first basemen that year. It was great to have Ken in the camp. Steve was Ken’s friend and the owner of the bass boat they rode in on. Steve was a little older that most of us. He was another softball player and pretty good for his age. As I made my way up the steps to the deck the party was in full swing. Trent was working the grill up on the front porch and just about everyone was standing around with a cold drink. I could hear talk of crossing the lake in the weather earlier and I knew Eric was sharing our story with the group. I had another redfish to clean and it was getting dark fast. The sun had set across the lake, and I could see a clearing sky of orange and blue looking west off of the dock. It was a great feeling, hearing all the laughing and chatting as I dressed out the red filet for the grill. I wanted to try Trent’s redfish recipe, and I had the perfect filet to put on the grill. Jerry came down to the dock with a cold drink for me and we chatted about our game plan for the morning. With Eric’s boat crippled and unusable, it was going to be a bit cramped with the three of us in Jerry’s Sea Ray. Trent and Mr. Tom would fish out of Trent’s skiff and Ken and Steve in the bass boat. The three of us had fished out of Jerry’s boat before so we knew the drill. Jerry told me that Ken and Steve had brought Mr. Tom a gift from Puerto Rico. It was a full case of Puerto Rico’s finest rum freshly flown in a day earlier courtesy of our local P3 Orion Patrol Squadron returning from parts run to Puerto Rico. Jerry and I discussed our strategy for the night’s poker game. The way it stacked up was Eric, Jerry and I were fighter squadron guys and the rest of the guys in camp came from the P3 patrol squadron. That could make for an interesting poker game, especially if we added a little of that imported rum. Dinner at the camp was nothing less than five stars. We had plenty of fish, cooked several different ways and side dishes that would make Long John Silver’s jealous. Everyone wanted to know about fishing locations in the morning and the best tackle to use for the day. I was really interested to see a few new places in the marsh, and I looked forward to the challenge of catching fish in unfamiliar waters. Darkness fell on the old camp as we cleaned up after dinner. There was no lack of help for the clean-up, as we all knew what a gift it was to be at the camp, and we definitely wanted to leave a good impression for Mr. Tom. A few of us smokers went to the front deck overlooking the water for a after dinner smoke and some fishing chatter. The big sodium lights were on along the outer edge of the long dock and the water was lite up in small half dome shapes cast out by the lights. Off in the distance, across the bay I could see a shrimp boat working the surface with its butterfly nets and familiar navigational lighting. Jerry and I leaned against the deck rail looking out over the bay and we chatted about what a blessing it was to be standing there. I don’t think a beer and a cigarette ever tasted better than that moment in time.
If you’re not familiar with the Navy and its ways, you’re probably not familiar with how important “Sea Stories” are to us. By this, I mean there is an art to telling sea stories and there is also a pecking order to the stories told. The more senior members who told their stories got a little more attention and respect. Sometimes there was a lesson to be learn from some stories so us younger guys listened intently to the more “Salty” or as I like to call them “Crusty” sailors. Generally, the fighter squadron guys had the best stories and as a seasoned fighter squadron guy with 12 years’ experience in sea going fighter squadrons, I had a few stories myself. Most sailors these days will rotate from 3 years on a sea duty tour to 3 years on shore duty tour. In my case, I was back-to-back to back sea duty tours in fighter and fighter attack squadrons. It would probably be unheard of today, but I really liked jets and I was good enough at my job to stay in the fighter community way longer than I should have. Most folks never get a glimpse of what it was like in a full-blown fighter squadron as a maintenance man with a bunch of young men and women who are very good at what they do and what they do is charged up with adrenalin during every waking hour. When you work in an environment where mistakes can cost you your life or limb, things are pretty serious. There is an intensity that starts just as soon as you walk out onto the flight deck or tarmac, and it doesn’t end until you collapse from exhaustion at the end of the day. Fighter jets are big and dangerous. They suck like giant vacuums in the front and blow like cat 5 hurricanes out the back end. They make enough noise to drown out every sound around them which takes away a person’s sense of sound while working around them. If you put your foot in the wrong area, they can smash your foot into something that makes roadkill look palatable. Loss of life was not uncommon in my early years in fighter squadrons. A lot of lives lost were caused by work related stuff, but I think just as many were lost to alcohol related incidents. I can remember my first detachment to the Nevada dessert with eight of our brand spanking new F-18 Hornets. We had just received our eighth jet and went to Nevada for our first training mission in the hot Nevada dessert. By the time the 2-week detachment was over, I had lost every penny I had to gambling on my first trip to the casino. I had also met a girl who had a big boyfriend and I promptly wound up in jail with a fat lip after fighting and resisting arrest. It was all in fun until the last day when one of our pilots crashed one of the taxpayers 50-million-dollar aircraft into a shallow water lake in the middle of the desert. He augured in upside down and never had a chance to eject. Probably didn’t even see it coming from the vertigo of flying over water. That was one of my sea stories for the evening’s poker festivities. Jerry and I walked back into the camp, and we began making preparations for some poker.
When Jerry and I walked through the door Mr. Tom invited us back to the generator room which was a small shed attached to the back deck of the camp by a small wooden gangway. When we entered the generator room we saw a big ole Cummins generator mounted to the center of the floor with a big drip pan under the unit. Mr. Tom explained that if the camp lost parish power, the generator would pick up the load and power the camp. We experienced power outages on later trips to the camp but on this trip we never had to fire up the big Cummins diesel. Mr. Tom told us stories of the camp back in the day when his sons were younger and they had a pool table, a full bar and wild parties at the camp. Sometimes women were brought out to the island camp and with a little alcohol added to a few jealous men, there was bound to be trouble. There were fights and damages to the camp, and for a while the camp was very popular amongst the locals. Over time, the Mr. Toms boys grew into men and moved away from the area and the camp traffic slowed down. Mr. Tom invited a few investor friends into the camp, and they fixed some of the issues with the camp and installed the big dock with boat slips. The inside was remodeled, and the bottom of the camp was reinforced with heavy creosote-soaked pillars to hold the massive structure above the storm surges that sometimes engulfed the island in high tides. Mr. Tom told us a story about a grounds keeper who used to stay on the island full time and a guardian and handyman around the camp. A storm blew up in the gulf and slammed the camp before Mr. Tom could get to the camp for a rescue. The fella had to ride out the hurricane force storm at the camp on the little island as the storm surged wiped out the dock and tore the roof away from the camp. When they were finally able to get the groundskeeper back to shore, he left town and was never seen or heard from again.
We went back in the camp and through the kitchen to the kitchen table where Trent had gotten out the poker chips and cards and made preparations for some serious poker. For the next few hours rum was consumed and money was won and lost. We had plenty of laughs, we told and heard stories from our past experiences and Mr. Tom, although professing to have quit drinking, came out of retirement for a big tumbler of fine rum while watching us play cards. He could see over Jerry’s shoulder from his perch behind the kitchen bar and I tried to read Jerry as well as Mr. Tom who was sometime privy to Jerry’s hand. Every once in a while, we would take a smoke break and walk out on the deck overlooking the bay. We were hoping the wind would lie down before light but when dealing with the back side of a storm front, the wind is always a factor. Our plan for morning was finalized during the poker game and it was decided that Trent and Mr. Tom would take us to a general area where we could spread out and work the bank in search of redfish. This was a time before we had the use of gps and navigation was usually memory based so we wanted to stay close in unfamiliar waters.
We all wound down and managed a few hours’ sleep before we were up and preparing for the morning trip. Mr. Tom was in the kitchen making breakfast with Trent helping out. Eric and I were just fine with a thermos of coffee and a Honey Bun. Eric had the coffee pot going and we both had our old heavy duty Stanley thermos and that held enough coffee for the morning. Actually, it wasn’t coffee at all, but chicory. That was the New Orleans blend of coffee and a staple in just about every household. Chicory coffee can make Folgers taste like cat piss and vice versa. It didn’t matter to me; I was usually just looking for something warm to put in my stomach and something tart enough to clear that rum cloud out of my head. After a little chatting and joking about the night before, we were loading gear into boats and warming motors for our departures. Eric had gone over our gear the night before and we were all set for some red fishing on some new turf. Trent and Mr. Tom pulled out into the bay and waited for the rest of us to gather with them. We joined in the boat parade with Steve and Ken in the middle. We crossed the bay heading west to connect with a main channel that led to the gulf. We were going to be fishing marshy cuts, some oyster beds and little bays just inside the coastline. During high tides the redfish would frequent these areas in search of a diet of crabs, oysters, shrimp and baitfish. They are very strong fish and very heavy eaters as Redfish grow at incredible rates due to the abundance of food in the marsh. They have strong shoulders and I’ve often said that in comparison with a Georgia striped bass, the Louisiana redfish is a bit stronger, only because you have to be a little tougher to live in Louisiana.
Fully loaded, we left the bay and entered the main channel heading for the gulf. The channel was wide and deep to accommodate the heavy oil business related boats coming in and out of the gulf. I could tell from the shoreline that we were in a high tide which was perfect for the type of fishing we were going to be doing. I could see the gulf, looking west down the canal when Trent and Mr. Tom slowed their boat and made a sharp right turn into a narrow winding cut. We followed, bringing up the rear and watching for signs that we could use for landmarks. The small cut widened a little and an anchored shrimp boat came into view. Sometimes the shrimpers would anchor in small canals to sleep during the day and run their butterfly nets all night and I wondered if the shrimp boat was the same one, we saw out in the bay the night before. We passed the shrimp boat and soon we found a large open area that was nothing but thick marsh with large open areas filled with oyster beds and smaller winding cuts to explore. The tide was moving in, and the marsh was flooding as we started our morning of fishing. Mr. Tom told us that we could spread out across the marsh and just start casting and looking while moving slowly in different directions and if we found a large group of reds, we would try our best to get the other boats into the area. Mr. Tom told us that there should be pockets and points that held redfish, it was just a matter of finding the right area. Jerry, Eric and I moved to the opposite side of the little bay from Trent and Mr. Tom. Jerry’s Sea Ray had the old style dual trolling motors mounted on the transom. We kicked in the trolling motors and started down the shoreline looking and blind casting the points and pockets lined with the heavy marsh grass. We joked around and drank coffee while moving slowly along the shore. I looked ahead of the Sea Ray after something caught the corner of my eye. It was something moving along the shore, creating a wake as it moved. I focused on the wake and soon I saw a bunch of grass shrimp scatter from under the marsh grass canopy along the shore. The water erupted in a big splash and several boils on the surface, and I shouted, “Big Redfish”! Jerry nearly spewed coffee as my shout pierced the morning silence. We watched as the pack of redfish worked the shore out ahead of us. We need to catch up and pass the moving reds so we could get into position for a few good casts out in front of the reds. Jerry kicked in the trolling motors, and we swung the boat wide, to the opposite side of the wide cut we were fishing. We watched as we passed parallel the moving reds, they were in full feeding mode, and they were attacking anything that moved. That’s one of the things I learned about redfish years ago, they are very aggressive eaters and fairly easy to catch with a variety of baits when they are feeding. When they are not feeding, they can be frustrating and make a seasoned angler look like a fool. I’ve pulled into a small open bay from a cut before and watched every redfish file out of the bay, right by my boat and out the cut. They can be spooky at times, but I also found something very interesting and a sure sign of feeding redfish. It was pretty basic if you stop and think about it but when redfish are in a feeding mode, they are also dropping turds as they go. Believe it or not, a 30-inch redfish turd can be somewhat big, and they resemble a miniature dog turd, and a big pod of redfish can produce a lot of floating turds in a feeding area. I suppose they float for a while before being swept away by the tide or they biodegrade into the marsh. At any rate, I found it to be a sign of feeding reds on almost every occasion I saw the flotilla of dark green colored fish turds.
We got out ahead of the moving reds and positioned the boat to where we could all get a good cast into the pod. The reds slowly worked their way into the area we could cast and on the count of three we all three cast into the same area where the fish were moving. These were bigger redfish and when the first lure hit the water a redfish swirled on the plastic minnow Eric had thrown. I watched and felt the boat shutter as Eric set the hook and said: “Got Him”! Jerry’s rod doubled over, and I looked down Jerry’s line and saw a big muddy swirl where the line met the water. It was a double and I needed to get on the board for a triple. I burned my little jig head and plastic cockahoe minnow back to the boat and quickly threw back into the area while Jerry and Eric were busy fighting their fish. Just as soon as my minnow hit the water, I felt a larger red hammer my jig and did what most reds will do when hooked, and that’s to head to deeper water. I think a natural reaction for just about any fish is to head for the safety of the depths. My fish headed for the middle of the cut, off the stern while Jerry and Eric fought their fish up towards the bow. It was a nice triple of big fish first thing in the morning. “These reds would be great for the cooler and tonight’s dinner” Jerry said as we netted the three nice reds. We regrouped and looked at the shore where we ambushed to reds, it was a muddy mess with churned up water in the aftermath. The reds were long gone, and we started moving down the shoreline again, we were all looking for the same signs as the first group we ran across. We wondered how the others were doing and hoping they were on the same pattern as us. We could see the silhouette of the other boats as week looked to the west, but we had no idea how their morning was going. As the morning progressed and we continued down the shoreline, we determined that the best areas to find the occasional redfish was the little pockets or pools off the main channel of the shoreline. The redfish waited in the pockets for the occasional passing mullet and our little swimbaits were just enough to capture the redfish as they hid in the pools. I think Jerry, Eric and I finished the morning with 2-3 nice redfish a piece and a couple of specks that would occasionally surface in the deeper parts of the channels while we ran the shoreline. We made our way back to the area we had started fishing and found Mr. Tom and Trent in the area we had saw the shrimp boat anchored in the early morning hours. They were waiting on us to come out and we joined up to head back to the camp for lunch. The camp wasn’t far and when we pulled out of the main channel and headed across the lake in fron of the camp I could see the others already walking around the big dock facing the lake. Our 2 pilot friends were out on the dock and waiting for our arrival with a full sack of Salvo’s delicious Po’boys for lunch. We were pretty excited about our morning in the marsh, and we were looking forward to getting backout for the afternoon. When we pulled into one of the slips at the dock, we were greeted by Rick, our Commanding Officer and Dan, my Division Officer, with a sack of Po’boys. Most of the time I wouldn’t turn down a shrimp Po’boy, but I also loved the oyster Po’boy and they had one with my name on it. Rick told us to stick around outside because they had a big surprise for all of us in the group standing on the deck. It was mostly for Mr. Tom and his hospitality, but it was also for us enlisted guys to enjoy. Rick checked his watch and said, “any minute now we should see XO (executive officer) returning from his cross-country flight”. This meant that our XO was going to give us a little airshow. We were all standing on the dock, eating lunch and looking off to the west because the XO was returning from California. We figured that he would be flying low and fast across the lake to the left. We were all waiting and watch when out of nowhere that joker, the XO, came from behind the cabin from the south, about 50 feet off the deck and hauling ass at about 500 knots. It scared the shit out of us all. He hit the afterburners right over the top of us and shot straight up vertically and started rotating as he went. He disappeared to the west, and we were all watching to see where he was. We couldn’t really see behind the camp, and he dropped down to our south again for another pass. This time he blew right over the top of us and the dropped down to about 20 feet off the water just getting it. The exhaust from the jet churned up the water behind him and then jerked the stick back for another vertical climb. Jerry and I were high fiving each other and laughing on every pass. It’s not very often that you get your own personal airshow, but I can tell you that I was very proud to be an American and very proud to be in the Navy at that moment. I think Mr. Tom had a permanent smile on his face from all the flyovers at his camp and I know he never forgot it.
When Mr. Tom passed a few years later, our squadron aircraft did a flyover at his funeral. I was not present for it because I had transferred, but I was told by Jerry that the city of Belle Chase told the pilots that they could not fly lower than two thousand feet due to a giant water tower and a few radio towers in the area of the cemetery. In true VFA-204 River Rattler fashion, six F-18 Hornets dropped down to 100 feet in altitude at 600 mph and Gave Mr. Tom a sendoff like no other. The city of Belle Chase just had to deal with it.
After lunch we all headed back out to the same general area with our new guests, the fly-fishing pilots. We all spent the afternoon doing the same thing, just running the banks with swimbaits, making cast after cast, and catching the occasional redfish. When we converged back at the camp right before dark, everyone had caught a few reds and trout, so we had plenty of fish for dinner. The pilots had also brought a big bag full of ribeye’s, so we were eating like kings. The night was filled with food, more rum, poker and a little night fishing down at the dock. The big sodium lights were on, and bait was all over the lit dock. The two pilots took their fly rods down to the dock and caught a giant mess of sea trout and speckled trout with the fly-fishing gear. Jerry and I took a break from our poker game at one point and walked down to the dock to visit with the pilots. They were so stoked to be able to enjoy fishing in this setting and Jerry and I just laughed at them catching those trout. They were like two kids in a candy store. Officers usually led a more refined kind of lifestyle than us enlisted folks and sometimes the rough rhetoric could be a little much for the more refined pilots. While I was down at the dock, the pilots asked how they could get an invite back again and Jerry said, “if Mr. Tom wants you back, he’ll give you an invite back. I took note of that and hoped he would invite me back.
Everyone was pretty tired from a full day of fishing, and we all turned in a little earlier than the previous night. Another front was moving in overnight and we were greeted by heavy weather in the morning for our trip back home. Jerry, Eric, Mr. Tom and I rode in Jerry’s boat while towing Eric’s disabled boat back to the launch and during the course of our boat ride back to the launch Mr. Tom told me that I could come back anytime, and he really enjoyed my company as well as the others in the boat. I had hoped to make a good impression on Mr. Tom, and I did. He knew I loved to fish, and I took to the camp like a fish to water after that.
Myself, Jerry, Eric and Trent made more trips to the camp with Mr.Tom over the next year or so, till I had to transfer. I never got back out to the camp after leaving the area and Mr. Tom passed 2 years after I left.
I’ve really wanted to finish this story for a while, but I just didn’t know how to end it. I never really wanted those times to end so I’ve never ended the story until now.
My good friend Jerry Thomas was the one who gave me the first invite to Man Camp, and I wanted to finish this story for him. One time I asked Jerry why he hung out with a guy like me, and I’ll never forget what he told me for as long as I live.
Jerry said: “Jim, when you surround yourself with successful people, that shit can rub off and that’s why I hang out with you”. -Well, it certainly rubbed off on me Jerry. RIP buddy.