Louisiana - 4:30 am - Individual alarms resonate through the rustic fish camp as a group of friends awaken to the moment they have been waiting for weeks to arrive. Most of the group has driven more than 12 hours through the rain-soaked panhandle of Florida with skiffs in-tow. This is the middle of nowhere in southern Louisiana, a former fishing village that has been beaten down by hurricanes, rebuilt, and beaten down again. This is the type of place where you see five boats a day, the type of place where sometimes when speaking with locals you wish for subtitles.
As the bacon and coffee smells linger through the camp we begin to groggily load up our boats waiting for the first light of day to begin our adventure. The red morning sky leads way to the sun creeping over the horizon and gives us a clearer view of our surroundings. Every house is on stilts in hopes of avoiding hurricane flood waters. There are boats tied up that look like they have been through hell and back but still manage to provide sustenance and a way of life for the locals. You could easily get lost here. A failed GPS, motor issues, no cellphone service, or just bad luck could strike at any time. It may be days or weeks until you see another vessel.
We are an eclectic group. The ginger trout guide from Montana, a couple of guys who fly on black hawk helicopters, the Florida man army ranger turned guide, a corporate media guy from North Carolina who lost his voice mid trip, a Budweiser-inspired marine, an office dwelling transport guy, a photographer, and a couple of HVAC-working Louisiana locals. On paper we may not have much in common but we all share the same passion: the love of the water and sight-fishing for beautiful redfish. We feel that each one of them has a story to tell and something to share with us.
Our boats split up to explore the veins of the marshes, searching for exposed tails, pushing wakes, and dark shadows.
“ Two fish, one o’clock.” The ginger captain calls out from the platform.
These two are fifty feet away, backs out of the water, coming towards us. I take a swing and miss; I pick up and try again. I spook them and they go scooting into clouds of mud. Where we come from this is a rare opportunity to get such a picturesque chance at fish. With jittery nerves, cold hands, and a couple of horrible casts I managed to blow it. About five minutes later I caught a glimpse of a fish only a few feet from us, a sloppy drop cast and he ate. It was too easy; he acted like he had never seen a boat. We continue through the days seeing hundreds of fish and listening to the glee-filled calls and hoots from across the marshes of our other boats.
This place is like no other. There are monster fish that live here. Fish that are older than anyone who tries to catch them. There are fish that will pull the boat for hundreds of feet and then spin you around. There are fish that will bend hooks and take your breath away. These fish are the ones that campfire stories are told about. I met one of these fish.
As we are slowly poling through one of the canals I catch a glimpse of a tail about ten feet in front of the boat. All I saw was his basketball sized tail descending into the water below. I throw a short cast to where I think he might be and wait for the fly to sink.
He bites and with a sudden jerk I felt like I had snagged a Volkswagen. Our partner’s boat is watching over the tall grass in confusion as my rod is bent over and now we are heading the other direction. He pulls our skiff and we just go along for the ride. One hundred feet, two hundred feet. Every time I try to get in a rotation on the reel I am met with hard resistance. This bull is angry, shaking his head, and heading into the more complex marsh. We try to put the brakes on but he just keeps pulling. Three hundred feet. My arms are tired, and I am getting nowhere. Maybe he will tire out, maybe he will just give in. Ten minutes pass and I try to get a few more turns on the reel. On the third spin the fly shoots to the surface and I watch the wake of the fish vanish into the grass. The overwhelming feeling of emptiness and frustration pulses through my veins. I bend down in defeat to rest my arms. So many “what ifs” spill through my brain. I pull in the fly to see a hook that is bent and twisted like nothing I’ve ever seen. The knots held, the rod held, I actually did an okay job trying to land this monster. There was no failure other than this fish not wanting to be caught.
Later that evening around the smoky grill we share our stories of the days, the huge redfish, the fantastic eats, and the hog black drums we caught. In conversation with a fellow camper he told me, “You learned more by not catching that fish that you would have by catching him.” This resonates so true, as each fish we catch has a story to tell and a story we will share, that moment of bliss, that agony of defeat. Sometimes the ones you miss are worthy of the story too.
We caught and released over a hundred fish over these few days. These fish and this place brought us all together to break bread, share laughs, drink a bit too much, and make unforgettable memories. I feel so grateful to be able to travel with a group of old friends and new to a place that is now a part of all of us.
We should all be grateful for those who lead us into the wild so we have a chance to share stories like these.
Words and Photos by: www.jabberpics.com