“If there’s reincarnation God, then please don’t let me come back as a crab.”
Such is the mumbled prayer of my fishing guide as he rips all the legs and pincers off a live crab, then cracks the body into four pieces. He sticks the quivering meaty bits on hooks and then casts a line far out into the bayou.
“Fishing is fishing.”
That’s the bulk of fishing advice I get from Captain Gene as I stand with my rod in hand, watching the grey-green waves and waiting for that telltale tug from below.
“You got a fish on your line, Andrew,” he says, pointing to the glass thread that’s barely bouncing in the air.
“I do?” I wonder, then start to reel in. Sure enough, something big starts fighting back.
Captain Gene knows what it is just by watching the line, “Oh, that’s a big black drum you got—he’ll be too big to keep.” But I pull it in anyway—a huge fish, some 30 inches long and probably the heaviest I’ve ever caught on a line. I take a picture and then Gene tosses him back with a mighty splash.
Fishing in coastal Louisiana is totally different from any other kind of fishing I’ve done. For one, the water is shallow—sometimes only five or six feet deep. Also, the fish are much bigger than I’m used to.
Back at Coco’s Marina the night before, I witnessed some admirable fishing trophies—a 700-pound bluefin tuna, modeled in fiberglass and mounted on the wall, one very scary-looking bull shark, and an impressive 66-pound redfish.
And redfish is exactly what I catch next—at 18 pounds, it’s no trophy, but it’s still the biggest fish I’ve ever caught in my lifetime of sporadic fishing adventures. Captain Gene was genuinely happy for me and showed me how to hold the fish when posing for a fishing picture.
“Gros poisson!” He remarks in Cajun French. Big fish.
Eugene Foret was born and raised right here in Chauvin, Louisiana and spoke French before learning English. He’s been fishing these marshy waters since he was four years old and spent the last 22 years as a fishing guide. He loves fishing so much that whenever he has a day off, he still goes fishing.
“My wife asks me why I gotta go fishing so much and I tell her that I can either go out fishing and enjoy all this,” he sweeps his hand across the blowing sea grass and the blue water, “or I can sit inside four walls staring at the TV and getting fat.”
Fishing is life on this coast where the myriad rivers and bayous merge into the salty delta at the Gulf of Mexico. Out here it seems every boat and building is dedicated to catching fish. As we hum across the bayou, I notice dozens of fishing camps—most of them tin and wood shacks balanced on stilts out on the shallow water. Rudimentary structures that are only accessible by boat, these bayou huts are a fisherman’s paradise—as long as the weather stays nice.
“You can’t get any kind of insurance on these places, so people don’t put a whole lot into ‘em.”
But a few do. Among the ramshackle water huts there were also a few fancy houses. Our boat tears past one of the more impressive fishing “camps”—a grandiose three-storey weekend home right on the water. Gene points to it and shakes his head, “Hurricanes love shit like that!”
Captain Gene tells time not in years but by the names of hurricanes past: Ike, Rita, Katrina and Andrew. Each one was different. He points to one house, “That’s perfect for standing up in a Rita,” but then looks at another, “but that one’s better in a Katrina.”
Out here it’s the storm surge that people have to consider, which is why nearly every home is raised at least 10 feet off the ground. Seasonal storms are as much a part of life as the fishing—which is good. Very good.
So good that I catch a total of 66 pounds of fish in a single morning. If someone like me can catch fish like that, then I know the fishing is good.
What’s the biggest fish that Captain Gene ever caught? I ask him and he gets pensive. He’s remembering: a 160-pound tarpon that he pulled in not far from here. That’s what he tells me when I ask in English. The second time, in French, the fish grows to 170 pounds.
“Anyone can catch a fish like that,” he adds, modestly. “You just gotta pay attention. That’s all you gotta do when you fish. You gotta watch what’s going on all around you.” He looks at my line, “Hey, let’s check your bait.”
I pull up my line and it’s empty—my crab bait is gone and the empty hook wags in the wind.
“We got a saying for that,” Captain Gene stares at me with a stern face, “You’re fishing on credit, boy.” Then he laughs and laughs.
He offers me a few more words of encouragement, “Fishing is simple. A two-year old can catch a fish.”
As we head back to shore to cook our fish, I ask him for fishing advice. He steers the boat silently and then smiles.
“Just listen to the Captain and you’ll catch a fish.”