Redfish Redux by John Eagle
We had not been to the marsh for a fishing trip since before Marcus died. Anyway, it was prior to January, when the cold wind punished us as we carried his small coffin for internment.
He would have liked to be in the truck with us on this dark, chilly morning. My brother took a new Johnson Silver Minnow from its blister pack as we neared his grave marker and set it down. I said a short prayer.
Back in the truck we cupped hot flagons of coffee in our hands as we spent a few minutes silently remembering how Marcus delighted in catching redfish in the marsh where we were headed this very morning.
Heading down Highway 23 en route to the Magnolia Marsh, the night was still upon us, the sky gun-barrel blue. I am sure we were both remembering the same thing. We often took Marcus fishing on “kid’s days,” those days when we fished with bait, as opposed to lures, and the kids did the fishing, we untangled lines. We allowed to him that he could attend “big boys” day when he could cast accurately and only then. So, with some pointers in the backyard, an old bucket, and a lot of patience, Marcus graduated. And what a fine fisherman he became.
It had been almost three months since Marcus died, my brother’s precocious son succumbing to the cancer that ravaged the small body that loved the fight of life, the fight of a redfish on the line.
We arrived at the launch not without trepidation. The sky was still dark and we worked quickly under that cloak to ready the boat for launching, each doing his duty silently, our breath heavy with the chill of the morning. Normally at this time we would be laying bets: Dollar, Dollar, Dollar -- dollar for the first fish, dollar for the biggest fish, dollar for the most fish.
Today all bets were off.
Heading down the launch canal I kept my eyes focused forward, looking to avoid buoys from crab traps and flotons that may have strayed into the canal since our last visit. Only the wind in my face kept my tears at bay.
I guided the boat down the first narrow trenaisse we came to, a narrow little inlet that wound its way to an open pond Marcus loved to fish. He named it the “Duckblind Pond.” Emerging into the mouth of the pond, I cut the engine and we drifted forward until the boat, listless for the lack of wind, came to a halt just shy of the derelict duck blind from which its name derived, only to be slowly moved again by a falling tide. It came to rest up against a bank and there we sat, awaiting first light and then the sun’s cresting.
There are times in the marsh when you just have to lay your rod and reel down and just marvel at the beauty. This was one of those mornings. The water was a sheet of mica from bank to bank, the waning moonlight hardly offering a fleck of light on the water.
As the first of the sun’s burning light began to seep over the horizon as slowly as the breath of sleep, iridescent colors of violet and gold and fuscia stretched across the horizon. As more light poured over the shimmering horizon, those colors turned pastel until the sky was awash in a swathe of dappled colors so vivid as to take your breath away. Finally, the sun began its painfully slow cresting – first a single bright light, then a broad and thin arc, then slowly rising to fully transcend, burning a fiery-like trail across the slick pond.
It is at this time the marsh, that frying pan that cooks up all the aquatic life that feeds the Gulf of Mexico, comes to life.
So as we as we sipped the remainder of the acrid coffee, the marsh began its journey into the day: A slight morning fog still danced thinly on the pond’s surface, the wind began to stir the water; the baitfish moving in erratic schools; a nutria plunged into the water for its morning swim before indulging on a breakfast of chufa grass, millet and cord grass, while the Roseau cane waved gently, and puddle ducks and divers streaked across the sky in early morning flight, and great schools of mullet began to turn the slick pond into a steamy-looking cauldron of activity.
And finally, the redfish begin their morning ritual of foraging the shallow pond’s bottom for crabs. We always called this trait “crabbing,” but the proper nomenclature among anglers is “tailing,” because their tails emerge above the water’s surface revealing a tell-tale black spot just before the tailfin.
We hugged ourselves against the morning chill as the day’s beginning unfolded before us, each I was sure thinking of Marcus, who ached for that first cast as we forced him to watch each day’s rebirth when out on the water. Toward the end, he finally got it and marveled at its specter in the same manner he marveled at those coppery-scaled wraiths we all loved to chase.
For his patience, he got the first cast.
This morning, we looked at each other wondering who would make that first cast at a “crabbing red.”
“I give you leave, bro,” I said, my voice hoarse and sounding strange the way ones voice does during those first raspy words of a morning.
I hopped up on the polling platform and gently shoved the boat off the bank with the long push pole and we slid slowly across the pond. My brother stood poised on the bow, rod and reel in hand, his gaze forward, swinging back and forth looking for fish sign.
From the elevated platform, I saw our first quarry of the day tailing then streaking parallel to the far bank. I said, sotto voce, “there,” pointing at the far bank and he picked up the fish trail right away. I pushed hard on the pole, getting my back into it and the boat lurched forward, nearing the fish.
“Take him,” I said.
B His long, arching cast whizzed through the soft light of the morning and gently splashed just in front, and a few feet beyond of the now stalled fish. A nice cast.
His instant retrieve of the lure brought the lure right past the foraging fish and it turned on it! The water boiled like a pot of burbling crawfish and an ominous wake began to trail his lure as the redfish raced after it.
From my spot on the polling platform, high above the action, I saw his line drift sideways as the fish engulfed, albeit gently, the lure into its mouth and I said loudly, “now,” my words seeming to echo in the silence.
He pulled back sharply on the rod and it bowed from the pressure of the fish and instantly the glassy, shallow pond erupted into whitewater. The fish bolted against the pressure of the rod and peeled off line, the drag singing in the morning calm, its sound so audible and indelible that one never forgets its music.
He loosened his drag a bit as the fish slowed its careening dash and began a slow pull, shaking its big head and shoulders, trying to throw the hook. Finally he turned the fish and it continued its tugging and shaking in a parallel move to the boat. Minutes passed and in a move so subtle and swift, we were hardly prepared for it, the fish turned toward the boat and with the suddenness of a streaking F-18, came right for us, a scenario advantageous to the fish – lots of energy and on a short line, and getting shorter by the nanosecond.
I leaped down from the polling platform, grabbed the net and began thrashing it in the water to dissuade the fish from its heading and it quickly made another long run, quartering across the pond until it slowed and began shaking its head again.
Finally, mercifully, the fish tired and my brother gradually gained line on the reel as the fish slowly neared the boat. It made one last, courageous and short run before lying on its side awaiting the inevitable.
I netted the heavy fish and lifted it into the boat. My brother quickly unhooked it, held it aloft and we looked deep into each others eyes and said silently, “This is for Marcus.”
He laid the fish in the water, held it by its tail and slowly started working the fish back and forth, forcing water through the gills to revive it, the lactic acid laying like a thin film of lave on the water.
Minutes later the fish gave a soft kick of its massive tail and glided slowly away, living to tell its tale.
We stood trembling, our hearts beating counterpoint to the now-shimmering pond, for morning had fully broken.
It was the start of a day, of a new day, of a new tradition. There would be no more Dollar, Dollar, Dollar.
The first fish would always belong to Marcus.
John Eagle is a Southern writer residing in New Orleans. He spent 15 years as a journalist/sports writer/outdoors writer, interviewing everyone from Muhammad Ali to O.J. Simpson to Eudora Welty. He calls himself a simple storyteller.