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Marsh Madness


Cover for "a full net" by Susan Daignault

Susan “Sue” Daignault was practically born with a rod and reel in her hand. Nearly from her birth, she and her family spent entire summers surfcasting for striped bass along the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. That love has followed her through her days in the Coast Guard and to her home on the coast of Maine and to some of the most beautiful, and fishy, places in the world.


The excerpt below has been adapted from the "Marsh Madness" chapter from A Full Net.





 

The coastal marshes of Louisiana cover about eleven thousand square miles and comprise some forty percent of the nation’s coastal salt marshes. Wetlands, including submerged grass beds, coastal mangroves, floating marsh, swamp, and scrub are prominent. This is the largest contiguous wetland system in the lower forty-eight states. The Mississippi Delta, the confluence of the Mississippi River with the Gulf of Mexico, is a three-million-acre area of land and water that stretches from Vermillion Bay on the west to the Chandeleur Islands in the east. It is the seventh largest river delta on Earth and is the nation’s largest drainage basin, running off over forty percent of the contiguous United States into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s big and they don’t call it the Mighty or Muddy Mississippi for nothing. It can be as thick and murky as chocolate milk, but notwithstanding storms, the waters clear up quite quickly in the Gulf. 


My twin sister, Sandy, started her family outside of New Orleans and has lived there ever since. She is now a grandmother, so I remain somewhat tethered to the area, visiting every few years, and always include at least one day fishing. During my Coast Guard career, I was assigned to New Orleans and spent some serious time fishing for redfish (red drum or spot tails) and speckled trout (spotted sea trout) whenever I was mobilized for hurricanes or other emergencies. While there for six weeks after the BP oil spill, I spent my $72 per diem on fishing guides for the weekends, taking different crew members out with me to share in the fun and thank them for their six day per week, twelve-hour shifts; it was a small token of appreciation for the grueling schedule. Reds and specks are the best eating fish on the planet, so I packed some up for Sandy and her family as I could. I was serving it up in my New Orleans suite most evenings. I’m certain the housekeepers weren’t happy with the smell of my flat, but I tipped them well to leave me to it, also begging for more dark roast. I am a neat and tidy cook so the mess wasn’t so bad, but the smell of fried fish was inescapable down the entire hallway of the wing I was holed up in.


Fast forward to the wedding of Naomi, Sandy’s oldest daughter and my niece. I was heading down for several days together and I tacked on a bit more time to visit with Lurilla, a Coast Guard Academy classmate and a dear friend. She’d been begging me for some time to go fishing together so this was our opportunity. 


I tracked down a guide who had nice reviews, but honestly it was his business name that caught my eye. It was late March in the middle of the Final Four college basketball tourney when we were visiting, a time often referred to as “March Madness.” “Marsh Madness,” the name of a Louisiana fishing guide business, seemed an omen I should roll the dice on because Lurilla and I had played basketball together at the Academy. Marty Authement was the owner and his website said “guided fishing . . . nestled in southeast Louisiana is Terrebonne Parish, which means ‘the good earth’ in French.”


Duly forewarned he had one know-it-all and one novice along, Captain Marty was game to take us. Most guides know that when a sport claims to know how to fish, they usually aren’t quite at the skill level they claim. I explained my honest evaluation of my ability as “experienced with more to learn” while Lurilla was green and knew it. We mostly wanted quality time together and to get her into any fish, so the decision was to tussle with some reds. Turns out Marty’s first priority is safety, followed by fun, sick jokes, and yes, nice reds. It was perfect.


We enjoyed some visiting time and got underway early to meet Marty an hour from Lurilla’s home in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Marty was an outright Cajun gentleman who spent winters in the south and summers north in Montana guiding trout fishing. We knew right away it would be a treat. 


The day started a bit slow. I put Lurilla on the bow for most of the initial shots, wanting mostly to see her have the best of them and really enjoy herself. Generally, when two anglers are on a small boat one takes the shot while the other waits. We were sight fishing, that is, waiting until a fish is spotted before casting. I was fly fishing and she was learning to use a spinning rod. The last thing you want is to have fifty feet of running line out on a cast prospecting for fish that you haven’t seen and the bull redfish of your dreams comes gallivanting by ten feet away. By the time you strip the line in and recast, that dream is a distant memory. So we hold the fly in the line hand with a bunch of line stripped and ready on deck or in a stripping bucket and stand at attention awaiting the sighting and the highly trusted guide’s command to cast. The guide usually spots fish first with their well-trained eye and barks out the position with clock designation (for example, three o’clock is ninety degrees directly off to your right) and the approximate number of feet away. Now I have learned that we all understand twelve, three, six and nine o’clock well enough to hit the general area; but the concept of distance varies from person to person. I go over it before fishing starts to be well-calibrated with my guide. Marty laughed as we did that but later we were both glad we had.



three people with a redfish
Marty, Sue, and Lurilla with a redfish.


Lurilla was learning to cast the spinning rod and getting better with each lob. She wouldn’t mind me saying her first few looked pretty funny. Captain Marty and I exchanged winks as we watched. On the first sight of a fish, she hooked into a decent redfish and fought for a while before the line went limp. I think we three screamed the same unrepeatable swear word simultaneously. I actually have a short video that shows Marty biting his tongue almost to the point of bleeding. Then we laughed and soldiered on. She landed a nice fish after that, and one or two more while I was thrilled to see my friend enjoy success. In her sweet southern drawl (which never really left her even after decades away from her Louisiana upbringing), she said, “Sue, I can sure see why y'all love this sport!”


The weather warmed up, jerseys were shed, jokes became nastier, and the day was drawing closer to an end. Four o’clock looming and I had landed only a few small fish on the fly. Out of the blue, Marty boomed “pair ’o hogs on the far bank, two o’clock, eighty feet. Sue, can you hit ’em?” Well, I can cast pretty well and my accuracy isn’t too shabby, but eighty feet isn’t easy for anyone unless the conditions are just right. And the wind was off my right quarter, the worst for trying to get that much line out such a distance. 


I confessed, “No, not happening, let’s see if we can get closer.” He handed me a spinning rod, “How about with this?” I didn’t say a word. Before those two hogs ever suspected, I shot a bullet directly at them, clobbering one of the bull twins off the shoulder; while its mate shot off in one direction and the dumb one that ate my plastic booked it in the other. We were on, the spinning reel screeched with that sound only an angler recognizes as music to their ears, while I held on for dear life. Lurilla is a calmer Southern gal but when she gets excited you know it, so the usual “holy s—, Sue, that’s a nice one” was the only thing I recall. Marty was firing off the motor, preparing to make chase. Redfish fight like stripers to me, but their pull just feels more muscular. They aren’t sprinters like bonefish and they don’t jump per se, but do break water and struggle right to the finish. I could feel the weight of this being bigger than any I had previously caught. I logged a forty-seven pound striper as a teen and this wasn’t that, but it was nice. Maybe twenty pounds, but all anglers embellish a bit on the size of fish they catch, right? We landed it sweetly, released it, and headed to homeport full speed ahead. Mission accomplished.


Lurilla and I thoroughly enjoyed fishing with Marty and highly recommend him to guide anyone in Montana or Louisiana, or wherever he may be. His mantra,“the drug is in the tug,” with a long southern accent is cute, funny, and so true. We fish in hopes of, at the very least, enjoying the time outside on a river, stream, marsh, or bay. We secretly do hope for a tug and yes, landing the big one. As some say, it’s not about winning, it’s about playing. I wholeheartedly agree. Fishing is about time with loved ones or quiet time alone and shouldn’t be about what we catch and how big they are. To be honest, any day fishing is enhanced by also catching fish and when someone catches a nice one, we all celebrate. Lurilla and I reunited after years apart, and we shared something we both enjoyed and will truly not forget. Catching a few nice bull reds together definitely helped and we have the pictures to prove it!


 


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