There are times near water that the feeling of being on the edge of the world hits me. When I’m on a beach, I can’t help thinking about jumping in a boat and going just about anywhere from there.
That feeling was especially keen last weekend while standing on a wide, dark beach in Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands wading out into the pounding Gulf surf and casting for redfish. The beach stretched on and on in both directions and a large flock of pelicans stayed about 100 yards away crashing into the water again and again, no doubt having more luck than I was.
The only other human was my friend, Shaw, down the beach in the surf, being equally unproductive. Eventually we wandered back toward the skiff anchored on the calm side of the island. The place was a shell collector’s dream, covered with seemingly every variety. We stopped to check out some giant hunk of metal rusting away on the beach. And as I walked along I saw plenty of evidence the war against plastic straws might not be easily won.
That was the end of two days of fishing in a place I hadn’t been in at least 40 years. I have vague memories of my father, younger brother Matt and me flying a tiny little prop plane out there one cold December when I was a kid and landing on a beach. It was so windy the plane was actually picked up and put in the water and the pilot, my dad and other men on the trip had to push it out before we could leave. Two bull redfish were the prize for all of that.
The Chandeleurs have lived in my memory ever since as a quasi-mystical place populated by massive fish. Several months ago Shaw texted to offer to take several of our group of college friends out on the 65-foot steel-hulled shrimper he’d converted to a “Chandeleur Boat” renamed “Hobo.” I was quick to say yes.
But what fishing trip in mid-October would be complete without a Cat 4 hurricane barreling through the Gulf? We all watched nervously as Hurricane Michael churned toward land, then decided to destroy part of the Florida Panhandle, leaving us able to stay on schedule and set out Thursday afternoon from Gulfport. But a 20-25 mph north wind was there to remind us a hurricane had been relatively near.
The trip got off to an inauspicious start when we decided to grab lunch at the Gulfport Yacht Club before disembarking. Apparently our reminiscing about our Supreme Court-ruining antics at Spring Hill College got a bit loud and an older lady who was part of a group playing bridge came over to chastise us for “trashy” language and tell us to shut up. We apologized and made for the door lest Shaw get in trouble with the commodore.
Passing Ship Island, there was Fort Massachusetts, a low-slung brick embattlement that served both Confederate and Union forces during the War Between the States. I marveled it was still there, as it sits precariously close to the water and was doubtlessly submerged when Katrina leveled the area in 2005.
Not much past Ship Island something happened that would dramatically affect our trip — we all lost cellphone service. No more texts, emails or phone calls to tend to. Our constant electronic companions immediately had few uses other than as cameras or jukeboxes. The first several hours of being out of cellphone range I was checking my pockets like a heavy smoker reaching for a pack of cigarettes he’d already smoked. Our last brush with technology came when Michael broke out his drone to get some shots of the Hobo cruising along and it didn’t want to land. Bill had to stand on the roof and grab it out of the air.
The Hobo was impressive, with six bunks in the former ice hold, a full-sized kitchen and bath, and plenty of room to walk around. She handled the choppy waters with ease, and not long before sunset Shaw had us anchored in a protected spot and Bill was catching the first of 43 hardhead catfish he would haul in over the weekend. He was like The Catfish Whisperer.
Sunset did not disappoint, nor did a crescent moon hot on the sun’s heels that turned bright red as it quickly disappeared over the horizon a little later. For just a couple of seconds it seemed as if an angry red horn was sticking out of the water.
Light pollution proved harder to escape than cell signals. The night sky was dark enough to see the Milky Way and more stars than any of us city dwellers normally experience, but the glow from New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and even Pascagoula was still visible on the horizon.
The next day we lowered the skiffs and set off to fish over the grass beds along the shallows of the Chandeleurs. The wind had died from a howl overnight to a whisper Friday afternoon and the water was flat as a skillet with fish that needed to be caught breaking everywhere.
The islands themselves are very low and have been hammered over the years by hurricanes. Still, they are a haven for many types of birds and the nutrient-rich water attracts plenty of fish. We caught our share, but it’s the one that got away we mostly talked about. Paul fought a huge cobia for 25 minutes, the fish passing under the anchor rope twice before we got smart enough to bring the anchor back into the boat. We got two shots at netting the monster before it suddenly spit the hook and swam away.
There was also an unfortunate incident Saturday in which the occupants of one skiff mooned the others while driving by at top speed, but that memory hopefully will be suppressed soon via PTSD.
With no constant input from the World Wide Web to bother us, we told stories, played songs on the guitar and gave serious consideration to moving aboard the Hobo permanently. We had ideas for monetary survival that included creating obscene T-shirts or perhaps human trafficking, but none got beyond the initial planning stages.
We woke early Sunday and made our 9-knot-per-hour trek back to Gulfport with planes to catch and places to be. Not far south of Ship Island a family of dolphins decided to play along the bow, putting a nice punctuation on the weekend just before the cellphones began beeping back to life.
From Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning we had been cut off from the world, the longest time in years for most of us. Naturally we each had 200 emails and 50 texts waiting when the electronic leash was snapped back on, but that’s the price you pay. No wars had started or any major tragedies, just a few college football upsets.
As Shaw expertly maneuvered the Hobo back into her berth, we were already planning another trip. I can’t wait to get back to the edge of the world.