The Gulf Coast of the United States is a self-contained biosphere. The selection of things you can do to entertain yourself is as unique as the culture, and boats piloted by Cajun sea captains are as abundant as the restaurants selling etouffee and crawfish. Frequently trips leave the Louisiana shores on expeditions out into deep water where adventurers hunt for yellowfin tuna hiding below the waves.
A few years ago I left on one such voyage out of Venice, Louisiana. Unknown until the recent BP oil spill, Venice is a bit removed from the regular, beaten path. If you’re unfamiliar with its exact location, it is seven hours east of Houston and two hours south of New Orleans. From there, you drive to the end of the world, go through a frozen sea, past the dead floating bodies of pirates that have lost their way, and over a giant waterfall.
Venice is eleven miles past that.
My grandfather was an avid fisherman his entire life and instilled the love of the sport in me. From the day I could walk, I can remember standing on jetty rocks and throwing my line into the deep. A cooler full of redfish and speckled trout would accompany me and my grandfather home, where my grandmother would fry them up. My childhood is a collection of Saturday afternoons filled with the smell of hot oil in the air and a pan full of freshly cooked, cornmeal covered fish on the table.
I cannot begin to count the nights that I’ve spent on one beach or another, stoking a fire to burn away the dark’s chill and waiting for the first fingers of sun to reach over the horizon. Mornings spent waist-deep in the ocean with a fishing rod in my hand have always been the most peaceful, even if not necessarily safe. When you’re in the water, it is seldom efficient to walk back to shore with every fish caught. A stringer tied to a belt loop will often suffice, with each fish added to the string until you hit your limit. I vividly recall having had that string hit by a massive force and jerked out towards deeper water before the pressure released. Pulling it in, the half of a fish dangling off the end is all that is needed to remind you that sharks are quite present. They’re usually black-tips though, and I have shared the water with them my entire life.
As teenagers, we used to fish specifically for them, swimming out to the second or third sand bar with a fishing pole and a piece of bloody meat attached to a large hook, casting from the shallower water, and then swimming back with the pole to wait for an indication of a hit. Swimming with blood-drenched chunks of flesh through the murky gulf probably doesn’t rank high on my Brilliant Things I’ve Done list, but it is exhilarating.
And though I’ve spent a lot of my life on the water, I had never been offshore to fish. I knew only of the tales of snapper and tuna that my friends brought back with them when they went out. Venice would change that.
My brother Jeremy called me to meet him at the last minute. We needed a break, he said. He and his friend Scott had chartered a boat and the other two people going with them had suddenly backed out. Our cousin Marshall and I had been called in as replacements. I, though, was the only rookie on the tour. Offshore fishing was a regular pastime for Jeremy, Scott was a lawyer that owned his own boat and went frequently out on the Gulf down in South Texas, and Marshall had worked as a hand on a vessel for most of his life. It was the perfect crew, as long as I could manage to hold myself together.
“You’re gonna get sick,” Marshall said. “It’s okay though. Everyone does their first few times. Just make sure you throw up over the side.”
“And you may want to take it easy on the alcohol tonight,” my brother added. We were sitting on the deck of the house boat at the fish camp and I had just poured another massive glass of Jack Daniels, sans mixer. I’ve always found it disrespectful to the whiskey gods to add anything to it but ice. The three of them had been there for a day already and were well rested. I had just driven in from Texas.
“I’ll be fine,” I said confidently. They chuckled together at my ignorance, then Scott began to brief me on what to expect aside from the inevitable sea sickness. The weather had been bad he said, but a hole was opening up in the morning and that was when we were going. It was January so it was going to be cold, but worth it. On top of it all, he’d found the perfect captain and the perfect boat. Money can’t buy a better trip, he swore, and then he was interrupted by the skipper himself.
Though Scott was a bloodthirsty demon of a fisherman himself, he had gone to great lengths to find a captain that was even sicker than he was. Captain Al was the kind of guy that went spearfishing for mako sharks in his down time; just him, a pointy stick, and five-hundred pounds of muscle and teeth in the water at the same time. I had always considered myself somewhat brave for swimming with the black-tips, but this man chose to virtually French kiss the fastest fish in the ocean for fun. He was a young version of Captain Quint.
“I don’t want anyone in this goddamn boat that doesn’t want to kill stuff!” he began. “You got that? This isn’t a goddamn pleasure cruise! We’re coming back with fish, and if we can’t catch ‘em and reel ‘em in, then I’ll stick raw meat in my pockets, jump in, and bite them to death myself. I’m serious here, people. We’re going to war!
I know where they are, and if they’re not there, I know where they’re hiding. We will hunt these fish down and we will kill them. We’ll kill their families. We’ll kill every one of their goddamned fish friends. We’ll even kill other fish that might owe them money. Nothing is safe out there! I swear to God, if I have to put hooks in my face and swim down there and wake ‘em up, we’re coming back with fish. Now get some sleep. We leave at 6:00 am.”
With that, he slammed a double shot of Jack and went to bed.
Following his lead, the four of us retired as well. Final advice was given to me as we drifted off in our bunk beds. Scott’s multiple offshore trips a month qualified him to brag and explain his strategy for soaking up the sure-to-come excitement of the next day.
“No cameras. That’s the first rule,” he said. “There are a lot of things that not everybody gets to experience and this here’s one of ‘em. I don’t carry a regular camera and I don’t carry a video camera and I don’t carry any of them other kinds of cameras. You gettin’ what I’m sayin’ here?” He was drunk, and his Texas accent was getting thicker.
“I don’t neeeeeeed a camera ‘cause I keep all the pictures right here in my head. Right here.” It was pitch black, but I assumed he was pointing at his head. He continued. “You can’t print it, because it’s all in my head. There’s a lot of stuff up there that no one will ever get to see. Places I’ve been. Fish I’ve caught. Memories that will never go away.”
There was a long pause.
“A lot of fat girls in there, too,” he finished.
We drifted off to sleep with perfectly justified high expectations for the next day, and then somewhere through the night, Murphy’s Law stepped in.
We awoke the next morning to find Captain Al storming up and down the dock and screaming into a cell phone. As we made our way out of the house boat he finished his call and informed us that our plans had changed.
“Someone stole my goddamned gear in the middle of the night! I don’t know who it was yet but I when find that sick sonofabitch I’m gonna cut him the fuck up, eat some of him , and feed what’s left of his ass to the goddamned pelicans! But don’t worry. I got everything under control.”
Not only had all of his equipment been stolen, but the weather was deteriorating as well. Still, Al had arranged a replacement boat and a new captain to take us out in his stead. It was up to us to decide whether we were going to attempt to salvage the trip or not, and like any group of testosterone driven, still slightly drunk males, we did.
The four of us climbed into the new boat and headed fifty miles out to the Midnight Lump, a salt dome in the Gulf of Mexico that is legendary among deep sea anglers. The three of them laughed a bit more at me, satisfied that I was going to lose what little food I had eaten somewhere on the ride out. I wasn’t very confident myself. I had never been this far out on a boat before. I had driven seven hours, slept very little, and eaten even less.
It was forty degrees outside before the spray hit, and when that happened it dropped to absolute zero. The water temperature would not have been an issue had it been avoidable, but the seas were anything but calm, as if Poseidon had been up drinking the night before as well, perhaps playing quarters with Davy Jones. The 2-4 foot waves we had been expecting quickly turned to fifteen foot swells which we were hitting at 140 miles per hour. That may be a bit of writer’s embellishment on my part, but still, 4-6 foot waves in a fast boat sucks.
If you haven’t done it, do this instead. Crawl into a rock tumbler, put that in a clothes dryer, get someone to push the whole thing off a mountain, land on a trampoline, and bounce into the side of a moving train.
While you have to pee.
Charter services usually provide bean bag chairs so the passengers can flop down on the ride out to deep water. They do it because the bags absorb a lot of the impact as the bottom of the boat smacks the surface between swells. That, and who doesn’t love bean bags? I rolled over in mine to see my brother’s face buried in his rain slicker. He looked slightly green. Weird, I thought. I feel fine.
I pulled myself up to the center console to watch the waves as we hit them. As I did so, I noticed my cousin attempting to hang his head over the rail. Every time he tried to throw up, he was launched backward and away from the side. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“I will be. Gimme a bit,” he replied, groaning.
“So when does it get bad?” I asked. “Because this is awesome so far!”
He rolled his eyes upward at me from the deck. “You. Shut. Up.”
Scott was in a similar position on the other side of the boat, retching violently into an even more violent sea. The grey rain ran in ice cold rivulets down his brow as he turned to me. “How the fuck… are you… not throwing up?” he managed to ask, and then his head flopped forward again.
I didn’t have an answer for him. It was a bit disturbing to find that my body didn’t consider any of that abnormal enough to react. Then again, where was the difference between being out on that water and any of the other things I’ve forced my body through over the last two decades? Years of riding rivers, climbing rocks, jumping out of planes, combat landings and sideways helicopters and a million other things probably made my body feel like it was on vacation bouncing around in those waves.
I held onto whatever I could find, savoring every moment of it. The butterfly feeling hit my stomach and left again, only to return as we launched off another wave. I let go of the rail for as long as I could, only to be tossed haphazardly back onto my beanbag, and then I clawed my way back up to do it again. “Wooooohoo!” I yelled as the spray washed over my face.
If there was a letdown at all, it was finding out that you can’t catch big fish without a boat full of people working together. With the sport of it over, I was left to soak up the rollercoaster ride by myself as we headed back in.
“We’ll have to do this again when the weather is better,” my brother said as another plume of icy water broke over us. “It’s way more fun.”
“I don’t know how it could be,” I said. “This was amazing.”