Artisanal fish. All photos by author
Moving to New Orleans from Florida in 2000 seemed a really sketchy thing to do at the time. Plenty of my old friends had gotten the hell out of the Sunshine State, but none of them had moved to the South’s murder capital. I figured the city’s vibrant music culture and cheap rents (the key to personal freedom) made it a risk worth taking, and New Orleans looked like the perfect place to hide out as the rest of America marched forward into the corporate maw.
Alas, in the last few years New Orleans has fallen victim to the same kind of gentrification afflicting every other “cool” city. Waves of relatively well-off, seemingly rootless young people have flooded in and co-opted and perverted and “improved” everything from the rents to the cuisine. The trendier parts of New Orleans now feel like Austin, which is to say a bit like Brooklyn, or Portland or… you get the idea. Invited here by politicians and other opportunistic natives, money and its attendant cultural trappings have more or less killed our blessed isolation and, in turn, a bit of the romance of living here. Where New Orleans’s landscape was not long ago dotted with beautiful, naturally occurring acts of originality by many different races, nowadays you can’t throw a gluten-free small-plate entrée without hitting a young, healthy, upwardly mobile person intent on creating something “cool.”
In times like these I’m thankful that fishing will never be cool.
The ocean was my escape from the entitled jocks and nitpicky, conservative old folks of my Floridian childhood (I still maintain that if you stand on the shore with your back to humanity, Florida is one American’s nicest states). I have recently run back to the water to get away from New Orleans’s trendy, tattooed and pierced lookalikes. The ancient art of fishing has become my antidote to encroaching gentrification.
The author as a budding young angler.
See, one big reason the nostalgia-obsessed, status-seeking, upper-middle-class folks we shorthand as “hipsters” are such magnets for ridicule is because most everything they do is useless. After the apocalypse, most of these people will be of no service to anyone—well, I guess some of them must know how to cook, as evidenced by New Orleans’s new flood of food trucks. But in order to wrap their tiny, over-priced, culturally hybridized, frou-frou “products” in duck bacon and then deep fry them in whatever crumbs we are left with after paying $1,300 rent for half a shotgun house, someone else must acquire the damn food for them. Wild animals aren’t just going to line up to jump into your adult ball pit.
Fishing from Louisiana’s shores is pretty pathetic, not least of all because of the ankle-deep layer of trash everywhere. To really fish in this state, you need a boat. And so, in the same way I might have once creeped Facebook late at night befriending say, burlesque dancers, I began trolling for charter captains and others posting photo albums full of “fish porn.” In the same way I used to write about music in order to get into shows for free, I pitched a few fishing stories to the local papers and landed myself some over-the-top charter trips I couldn’t have afforded otherwise.
The first to take my bait was 29-year-old Jared Serigne, a videographer who films people killing animals for Louisiana Sportsman magazine’s Sportsman TV channel—no arthouse BS for Jared. He drove me out to St. Bernard in his truck blasting the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Along the way he talked to me about wind direction, tides, and salinity. And goddamned was that refreshing. Jared possesses knowledge of things that matter. When the shit goes down, he’ll be feasting on fish, wild game, web developers and “image consultants.”
Around 7 AM we launched Jared’s boat and headed for the marshes between Delacroix and St Bernard. Jared drives an aluminum flatboat that can operate in a foot of water, cutting through all mud and vegetation with an air-cooled engine designed specifically for Louisiana duck hunters. We blasted out past more alligators than I’ve ever seen in one place and dolphins frolicking between them. I’d never been anywhere a fisherman could see both gators and dolphins while catching both freshwater bass and saltwater redfish. Post-Katrina transplants can chase all the second-line parades they want, but until you’ve explored the Louisiana marshlands, you haven’t experienced Louisiana.
A redfish in its natural habitat.
Early in the day the sun was already too bright for both me and the redfish. “You’re looking for that one- or two-hour period where the redfish are active,” Jared schooled me. “That, and usually some kind of tide movement.” The marshland has a tendency to shift around, but Jared managed to locate his two favorite shallow ponds, where the water transformed from something akin to chocolate milk into plant-filtered, drinkable water. “These shallow ponds used to be land,” Jared said. “The river water came in and left nutrients behind, which attracts tons of bait and acts as like a steroid that helps the vegetation grow thick.” Redfish hid in the grass from the sun.
Jared told me to climb up on his boat’s tower and spot the redfish. We casted weedless gold spoons blindly into the narrow channels hemmed in by grasses until Jared’s extra pair of polarized sunglasses helped me finally spot our prey: blunt-nosed, mud-colored redfish that turned as orange as angry koi once they snatched the spoons. The biggest fish of the day, a 27-incher, missed Jared’s spoon on its first several attacks, but Jared kept serving it back to him. Watching it play out was fascinating—on the third cast, you could see the aggressive fish getting pissed off at the inanimate spoon. On the fifth cast, Jared finally got him.
Jared and friend.
My next fishing trip came courtesy of Ace Charters captain Aaron Gelfand, who liked my writing enough to help me land a gig handling PR for City Park’s Big Bass Rodeo, where he serves as the official weighmaster. Of course, no one will need PR after the apocalypse, but at least I’m keeping my wagon hitched to the fish dudes.
Aaron took me out in search of tripletail. Also called “blackfish,” these guys float atop the water, sometimes on their sides, playing dead near crab traps, buoys, and other debris, waiting for baitfish to wander past their slow, bristly mouths. We were joined by Thomas Peters, who helped run Osprey Charters for 16 years before recently opening [Basin Seafood](http:// http://www.basinseafoodnola.com) restaurant in the city, and his friend Rachel. Peters is considered by some to be the best tripetail fisherman in the state; he studied the fish during his stint driving a water taxi for the Coast Guard during the 2010 BP oil spill. In 2011, Thomas and his brother caught 60 tripletail in a single day and released nearly all of them, keeping a massive 29-pounder and a 26-pounder. “The tripletail is a mystical fish,” Thomas told me. “It is prized by real fishermen as the closest thing to crab meat.”
We hauled Aaron’s 24-foot Skeeter boat out to Empire. Along the way we discussed the pirate Laffite’s Barataria Bay smuggling ring, spotted children swinging from trees in modified shrimp boat buoys, and listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The eye of Hurricane Katrina had passed near Empire, and Freilich’s bait and convenience store was selling homemade videos of the event, plus photos of shrimp boats tossed onto the interstate. We launched from Delta Marina off the Empire jetties. Blasting reggae music on Gelfand’s Skeeter, we shot out past boats netting small pogies—baitfish used in cat food and makeup—and anchored at an orange channel marker.
As opposed to sight-fishing tripletail that might float on the water, Thomas hunts for the bigger fish deep below the surface. “The lack of current is good because tripletail are slow,” Thomas claimed. “You have to hang [the bait] right in their faces. And once they take it down, you count slowly to three before setting the hook.”
Any spot thick with tripletail provides action immediately, so following a dearth of nibbles at the first spot, we moved to another, then another. “Maybe tripletail just don’t like reggae,” I snarked.
“All fish like reggae,” Aaron declared.
Still, he turned the music off and we chilled for a moment, rocking softly on the water. Aaron told us he spent the previous day partying with a gaggle of ladies who’d fished on his Skeeter then drank Coors and posed for sloppy pictures in his lap. I pointed out to the two fishermen that they’d achieved a version of the rock-star life: getting paid to do what they wanted to do every day and answering to no one. “I have friends in bands who have ‘made it,’” I gushed, “and they don’t enjoy as much freedom and pleasure as y’all do.”
They shrugged me off and baited up. And moments later we had action. Aaron and I each lost one hook apiece to something big that ran the bait directly between the ladders of a nearby decommissioned oil well. Thomas figured it was a massive tripletail—but then he hooked and handily brought to the surface a 25-pound redfish. It was beautiful, but not what we wanted.
Thomas, Rachel, and their big redfish.
As they plotted the next move I couldn’t help slipping back into the water for one more try. My cork quickly sank down, I counted to three, and the thick rod bent perilously. It weighed “only” 12 pounds but fought with the strength of something huge and desperate and ugly. When I got it in the boat, I saw that along with two extra back fins that give the fish its ace-of-hearts shape, the tripletail also sports a sharp row of spikes across its top and razors imbedded in its gill plates. Mine was the color of dirty stormclouds. “Not really a very pretty fish,” I remarked.
“It’s a gorgeous fish,” Aaron corrected me.
The author and his tripletail.
Soon, Thomas had spotted a huge floating tripletail and began dancing on the bow. He sunk a dead shrimp almost 18 feet deep and his cork dove violently downward. He walked his line to the back of the boat and quickly pulled up a 15-pound tripletail. After the big one found the ice chest, Thomas landed a five-pounder that, oddly, jumped from the water and landed in the boat. This smaller tripletail was brighter and prettier, its bluish scales catching the sun like a cichlid’s.
A wee bit disappointed with the day’s “meager” catch, Thomas and Aaron stopped along a pocket in the marsh for redfish to cheer themselves up. Dragging lures around in the mouth of that small canal landed us a dozen redfish in 20 minutes. Though we’d caught only three tripletail, we came home with enough to feed a whole village of social media managers.
All this isn’t to say that the wetlands are some bucolic sanctuary from modern life. In a sense, they’ve already been gentrified by dredgings and developments and conservation efforts, always at the mercy of human error and whim. The beauty of the coast is evaporating just as quickly as cheap rents in the Ninth Ward. I’m aware that just by writing pieces like this that tout the virtues of angling, I’m making it more attractive to the trust-fund-and-suspenders crowd—maybe soon they’ll be making treks down to fishing holes armed with old-timey rods and reels and vintage rubber hip waders.
Until then, fishing is how I clear my head of societal noise. And when the apocalypse descends and that noise is quieted for good, I will thank the flaming skies that I learned how to fish.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.