The sandbars stretch out in parallel lines about three or four hundred yards from the shore. This is what we – my brothers and I – called “those winter lows.”
There is almost no place left to fish in my beloved Mississippi Gulf Coast community at this time of year. Even when the tide is in, the fish know to go to deeper waters where there is a bit more warmth.
By experience of eight decades, I know this, but when I left New Orleans a couple of days ago I was given a command. It was a friendly command, more a wish transferred from my neighbor to me: “Go catch a big fish.”
Normally, I would not even try, but a couple of weeks ago, when it was still in the high 70s, I had lost a big flounder in the hole in front of Sandy Bayou, and I thought there might be – just might be – another one there.
And so it came to pass that I bought some bait, dead shrimp. Nice size, clean and fresh Gulf shrimp. I never mind having bait left over, and usually separate it into two packages beforehand. That way, if I don’t catch fish, at least I can boil and eat the bait. But this time, I took the whole pound of shrimp to Sandy Bayou and tried as best as I know how but still got not even a nibble.
From there, I went to the end of the beach road, where stands the one of our Mississippi tax bases, a gaming house. (As in Louisiana, they call it gaming, because gambling is bad, maybe even illegal.) This structure is land-based, right at the mouth of Bayou Caddy. There is a fair ebb and flow to this waterway which snakes deep into the wilderness area of Hancock County. It is used by fair-sized commercial vessels, like oyster luggers and shrimp boats, and their screws keep the mouth from sanding up. The result: deep water, and maybe a fish or two.
Often I have seen people fish here, but always assumed that fishing would have been against the casino’s rules. It is, after all, not the safest place to be: there are remnants of the superstructure of what used to be mooring for a large casino boat before Hurricane Katrina. Twisted I-beams and chunks of concrete mix together in crumpled heaps just as the storm left them, some of the wreckage lying about six feet below ground level. Still, in spite of the eyesore, the wall separating the parking lot and road from the bayou is an invitation to hang a fishing rod in the water.
Three uniformed guards were nearby chatting, probably on break. I asked whether it was OK to fish over by the wall, figuring they would tell me no and that I could get on with going home to boil the bait. However, the answer came back surprisingly that, yes it was fine; that I should just park my car in one of the regular parking spaces.
Happily, I began fishing, knowing that it might be difficult to bring a good-size fish up to ground level and over the wall if I should be so fortunate as to hook one. At first, that was not the problem, although I caught several redfish. It happened that they were not “keepers,” meaning that they were not legal size.
Even so, I was having fun, and soon an old car drove up and I could see fishing rods sticking out the side windows. Three black men got out, two of them young men and the third middle-aged. As the last came close to me, I volunteered that there were fish here, but no keepers yet. I told him that I had been getting bites after throwing toward the middle and then reeling in to the wall of the bulkhead.
Younger than I and more adventurous, this man decided to climb down the wreckage almost to the water level. It was at this point that he realized that he could not reach his tackle box. Because his companions had moved upstream a little ways, he turned to me and said, “Sir, could you push my tackle box a little closer to me?”
I was pleased that he asked, but I was conscious of the word “sir.” Already my mind had been searching for how long it might have been that three black men would even feel comfortable enough to fish on the beaches of Mississippi. Certainly it had not been so in my earlier experiences here, decades ago. The only exception would have been on the limited frontage of Gulfside Methodist Assembly, a Chautauqua facility dating back to the 1920s for young African Americans. A fine organization, it was known to have successful cultural exchanges with the towns along the coast. However, it may not have ever come into being had its founder, Bishop Robert E. Jones, not been able to pass for white.
Still, the main building, formerly the plantation home of Andrew Jackson, Jr., burned down to the ground one morning in 1935.
Once stirred out of my musings, I was happy to comply and move the tackle box where Marvin could reach up to it. About this time, he said, “My name’s Marvin. What’s yours?” I answered and asked where he was from. To my surprise his answer came back “Chicago” with a quick explanation that he was visiting relatives in Hattiesburg and had come to the coast just to fish.
I told him of my good friend who is a retired fire fighter from Chicago and other conversation followed between catching a couple more small reds. I learned that he had taken early retirement – a buyout offered by his employer of many years. And he loves to fish and likes warm weather.
But Marvin had not been getting much action down below and so I told him to come back up to the street level and fish where I was casting. He did so.
It was about in the middle of our exchanges when I hooked a good one, a red that made several runs, peeling line off my drag. Soon, I was able to pull it to the wall and started to hoist it up. That’s when it happened, as it does with so many big ones: the line broke and he was gone. Marvin saw what happened. In unison, we both cried, “Oh, no!” but a chuckle followed on reflection. After all, that’s fishing, and neither of us was about to go hungry.
Marvin said, “If you get another one like that we’re not going to let you lose him.”
We went on fishing and continued to catch what my brothers and I had been taught when we were children to call “rat reds.” I so instructed Marvin, and presently I did have another big one on, not a rat red but a keeper. At this point he said, “When you bring him in this time, don’t try to raise him up. Just see if you can bring him to where I can reach him.” With that he scrambled back down between the twisted rebar and concrete chunks to the water level. I was able to guide the fish close to him after a few minutes and Marvin reached out and grabbed it by the gills and with one motion flipped it on to street level.
We measured him at four times the length of a dollar bill, 24 inches and certainly a keeper. Marvin and I had a hearty handshake and laughed, loudly this time.
I told Marvin that if I got another one it would be his. He said, “Oh, no,” and seemed to mean it, but I meant what I said too.
Presently, as the sun was setting and darkness was closing in, I did catch one more fish, a good-sized speckle trout, and into Marvin’s box I dropped him with authority. He accepted as he should have.
There exists an infinitesimally small probability Marvin and I will cross paths again. We are like two rails on a train track; if viewed from a distance they seem to come together, but the reality is that they are forever separate. Nonetheless, I will in the future celebrate this passage, as we were two men, more alike than different, with common goals, and willingness to cooperate rather than compete.
We parted company with another handshake and a manly hug, my friend Marvin and I.
p.s. The redfish weighed in at 10 lb. 8 oz.