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New Orleans: Hook, Line and Sinker

September 12, 2007

Nick Marinello

Gone Fishin....If you concentrate, you can almost tune out the shouting and focus on the gentle tug of the tide on your fishing line.

Here, beneath the Seabrook Bridge, where the Industrial Canal opens into Lake Pontchartrain, amidst the shattered hunks of concrete and iron twists of rebar that comprise the shoreline, the fishing is generally pretty good, and the show is often better.

It’s Saturday morning and the sun barely made its way into the world when the dispute began between a number of guys on the fishing pier and those angling from a boat anchored offshore.

At issue is whether or not the boat, pitching gently over the deepest part of the shipping channel—where, presumably, fishing is best—is too close to shore to be in compliance with local ordinances.

Mercifully, it is far enough away to allow for the histrionics of fist-shaking and name-calling while keeping both parties perfectly safe. One pier fisherman goes as far as to threaten to cast his heavily weighted line at the boat, and maybe the ab-surdity of the threat is enough to humble everyone into silence, or maybe it has occurred to all of them that fish don’t really like the sound of people. In any case, quiet finally settles upon the water and fishing resumes in earnest.

Fishing is a strange way to pass the time. Depending on your skill, fishing is little more than untangling lines, fumbling with knots and reaching for another shrimp after your hook has once again been liberated from its bait. Or maybe it’s an excuse to wake up early, find some space to cast a line and stare at the morning’s horizon, the single strand of twine sloping into the water separating the fisherman from the total goof-off. In any case, there will be 75 seconds less daylight tomorrow than today, and only so many days of summer, and only so many summers.

“If I told you that I’ve caught 1,000 speckled trout with this rod in the last year I would be lyin’ to you,” says a guy named Jim, holding out a lightweight pole into the midmorning sunlight. “I’ve caught nearly 2,000.”

Wow. That means Jim catches an average of five-and-a-half trout per day, assuming he’s fishing seven days a week, which doesn’t give him much time to sell used cars, or whatever it is he does for a living. You look for the twinkle in his eye that lets you know that he knows he’s full of bunk, but Jim has turned away, crouching down to his tackle box and pulling out the flat, shiny lure that has snagged a couple thousand reds.

Fish are renowned for their lack of personality. Not so with fishermen. You have to go no further than the Bible to know this. Or go out to the Rigolets when the wind and tide are just right and find a guy named “Rock” tending to the hooks, lines and sinkers of a small group for a day of fishing.

The Rigolets is a strait that connects Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne, the group is a collection of out-of-town volunteers helping in Katrina rebuilding and Rock, wearing a Saints cap and sleeveless T-shirt, is a tough-as-beef-jerky local who at the moment is cast in the role of charter boat captain/kindergarten teacher as he keeps the half-dozen lines baited, untangled and in the water.

They are fishing off of the hobbled remnant of a pier that belonged to a fishing camp wiped away in the hurricane. There is a spooky, industrial-strength beauty in the mix of water, concrete and splintered wood. The volunteers measure their footsteps over the bric-a-brac as they gather for a demonstration on how to hook a wriggling, live shrimp through the second joint of its tail. In a few minutes Rock will be showing them the way to hold a freshly caught, 8-pound sheephead—by first jamming your thumb into its eye socket.

It’s no time to get squeamish. “You want a photograph with that fish then you will hold him like that,” he says, with the patience of not so much a saint but of the construction foreman he is.

The volunteers nod, and soon they are casting for themselves and even baiting their own hooks—until a rumble rolls in from somewhere in the middle of Lake Borgne. A rogue thunderhead deepens on the horizon. Lightning flashes in the gut of the storm. Rock shrugs. No big deal. Only so many days. …

The volunteers look at each other. They shrug, tough like beef jerky, and keep fishing.

Nick Marinello is Tulanian features editor.

Summer 2007

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