30 april 2022

Gator Bait

During the long days of summer, Tara seized every available opportunity to leave work early and drive to the Pier 90 Bar & Boat Launch on Bayou Verret to rent a pirogue and fish for bass. Today she had no pressing deadlines, and the weather was perfect for fishing with an overcast sky and light southeast winds. So at 4:30 she left her law office on Canal Street in New Orleans, and by 5:30 she was pulling into the shell parking lot at Pier 90 in Luling. There she took her duffel bag out of the trunk and went into the barroom to pay and change into the fishing clothes she always kept in the car along with her fishing pole, tackle bag, and pistol.

In the barroom, two people sat drinking and smoking in the shadows at one end of the long bar while “Midnight Rider” played on the jukebox. Larry, the owner and bartender, stood behind the bar at the other end watching the news on a nineteen-inch TV with the volume blaring. There were no windows, but two large window air-conditioning units were installed and running in cutouts near the tops of two of the walls.

Tara went over to Larry and set the duffel bag down on a stool, then took a ten-dollar bill out of her wallet and handed it to him. “Pirogue, paddle, and life jacket,” she said over the TV, jukebox, and air conditioners. Larry rang it up and placed a five on the bar. “Keep it,” Tara said. “How they biting?”

“Thanks George,” Larry said as he picked up the five. “Worms in the mornings, topwaters in the evenings.” (Tara’s full name was George Bernard Taravella, so most people called her George.)

“George, if you got a minute,” Larry said as he reached under the bar and took out an envelope. “Can you take a look at this and tell me what I have to do?” He passed the envelope to Tara and lowered the volume on the TV with the remote.

Tara removed a letter and enclosures from the envelope and quickly skimmed the letter in the orange glow of a faded fluorescent Budweiser sign. “‘Workforce Compliance Assurance Service’,” she read aloud. “Uh-oh, sounds official.”

“That’s what I thought,” Larry said.

Tara continued reading aloud dramatically as “Every Breath You Take” started playing on the jukebox: “‘Dear Lawrence A. Melancon, you are hereby notified of your eligibility to participate in the Workforce Compliance Assurance Service Accident Protection Program.’ Well aren’t you lucky, Larry. ‘In order to participate, you must complete the enclosed Underwriting Instruction Form exactly as instructed and return it in the enclosed return envelope with your check, money order, or credit card authorization for the selected Accident Protection Program premium amount.’ Why so pushy, guys? ‘Failure to respond by July 27, 1988 will result in forfeiture of current eligibility for Accident Protection Program benefits.’” Tara scanned the enclosed Underwriting Instruction Form. “This is just a sales pitch, Larry,” she explained. “They’re trying to sell you insurance in case you die in an accident.”

“I’ll be damned -- I thought I owed the government money,” Larry said. “Thanks for setting that straight.” He took the papers back from Tara. “I already got more insurance than I can afford, and they didn’t pay crap when Hurricane Juan flooded the place three years ago anyway.”

“I remember,” Tara said. “You had a fire-only policy that didn’t cover flooding.” Even now the floor of the barroom was just a bare concrete slab after the linoleum got ruined in the flood. And although the walls had been painted, water lines remained visible nearly a foot up the side of the bar and on the legs of the tables, chairs, and stools. “I’ll let you know how I do with the topwaters.”

Tara changed in the men’s room from her dress pants, shirt, and shoes to shorts, a 1984 World’s Fair t-shirt, Reeboks, and a purple and gold LSU cap. Outside the air was hot and humid, but there was a lot of cloud cover, and a balmy breeze blew off the marsh. Compared to the atmosphere of stale beer and smoke in the barroom, the bayou was like a greenhouse in bloom.

With growing excitement, Tara took her pistol out of her car’s console and her tackle bag and rod and reel out of the trunk, slipped the pistol into the side pocket of the tackle bag, assembled the two-piece rod, and set the tackle bag and rod down on the rickety wooden dock adjacent the cracked and uneven concrete boat ramp. Then she grabbed a greenish-brown ten-foot fiberglass flat-bottom pirogue that was leaning on its side against a shed near the dock and carried it with two hands across the grass and dirt to the water’s edge. There she laid it flat and pushed it into the water while holding onto a rope tied to one end, and guided it to the dock and tied it to a post. She then went into the shed through an open doorway and selected a wooden paddle and an orange life jacket, and loaded them and her tackle bag and rod into the pirogue. Finally, she stooped down and carefully shifted her weight into the boat and sat cross-legged on the low bench seat. Once situated, she untied the rope, picked up the paddle, and with a rush of exhilaration, shoved off at last.

Bayou Verret varied from about fifty to a hundred fifty feet wide and originated in the marshes north of Highway 90 that used to be fed by the Mississippi River before the flood control levees cut them off from the natural flood plain. The bayou passed under a low bridge on Highway 90 just north of the Pier 90 boat launch and continued south for about four miles to Lake Cataouatche, with Lake Salvador, the town of Jean Lafitte, and fifty miles of waterways and marshes stretching to Grand Isle and the Gulf of Mexico beyond. Much of the landscape along the bayou consisted of water elm, black willow, and hackberry trees along the shorelines and maidencane grass, groundsel shrubs, and cattail in the marsh. But Tara’s favorite fishing spot was a quarter-mile stretch of bank lined with live oak and cypress trees on higher ground about a mile south of the boat launch.

Along the way, Tara tied on a weighted, weedless, purple plastic worm and cast it to the purple-flowered water hyacinths and thick aquatic coontail grass hugging the shoreline. The wind was stronger than expected, making her work hard with the paddle to keep the boat on course, but it felt cool on her sweaty skin. At about the halfway point, she cast the worm beside the partially submerged trunk of a fallen hackberry tree and immediately felt an unmistakable tap on her line as a largemouth bass inhaled the bait. She set the hook hard, sending shock waves from her arms to the fish and back again, the bass running with the line, the woman one with the rod and reel, playing the fish deftly through the stems and stubs of the sunken tree, lost for the moment in the thrill of the chase. When the bass finally wore itself out and surfaced beside the boat, Tara grabbed it by the lip and lifted it out of the water.

“Nice!” she whispered, admiring the glittery green fifteen-inch bass. She removed the hook from the side of its mouth, then took a homemade twine stringer out of her tackle bag and strung the bass through the gills and secured it through a loop on the end, tied the other end to a steel ring on her tackle bag, and dropped the fish on the stringer into the water beside the boat to keep it alive and fresh for dinner. The fishy scent hung in the air even as she dipped her hands in the water to rinse off the slime.

Tara caught two more bass on the worm, though one was very small and she threw it back. By the time she reached her destination, the sun was low in the sky, the wind had died down, and the birds, insects, and frogs had begun their pre-dusk cacophony of squawks, chirps, and croaks. At that point, Tara switched to a topwater lure as Larry had suggested, clipping the worm and sinker off the line and tying on a three-inch long silver and blue “Pop-R” with a white feather trailer, yellow eyes, and a red concave face. Gliding slowly and silently beneath the tree-hung canopy along the shoreline, Tara cast the Pop-R tight up against the bank and twitched and popped it on the surface among the water hyacinths and lily pads to mimic a wounded baitfish, softly dipping the paddle with one arm to maneuver the pirogue between casts.

On the third cast of the Pop-R, Tara let the ripples around it settle, then twitched it slightly. Suddenly the surface around the lure exploded with a violent churn and splash as a monster bass erupted like a green god out of the black water, viciously attacking the bait and sucking it whole into its literally large mouth. On reflex Tara retracted the rod, driving home one or more of the six barbed points of the Pop-R’s dual treble hooks into the bony tissue of the bass’s maw. The bass dove deep into the steep drop-off along the bank, engaging the baitcasting reel’s drag and peeling the twenty-pound-test line off the spool as it attempted to flee with all its might, actually turning and nudging the pirogue toward the open bayou. At the end of its run, the bass charged to the surface and burst halfway out of the water with wild, frantic eyes, shaking its huge head furiously from side to side to try to dislodge the hook from its mouth before falling backward into the water and diving again. But the hook and line held, and eventually the fish exhausted itself, allowing Tara to work it to the surface, grab it by the lip, and lift it into the boat.

Anatomically the bass was a female, and Tara estimated it weighed more than five pounds and was over twenty inches long. At that size, it would spawn tens of thousands of eggs each year, so Tara prepared to release it as she always did with very large as well as very small bass. Still holding it by the lip, she removed the treble hooks from two places in its mouth, then placed it back in the water and held it just below the surface to revive it. The bass wiggled a couple of times before Tara let it go, then it darted off with a splash that wet Tara’s arms and chest.

That’s when Tara saw the biggest alligator she’d ever seen. It had surfaced about fifty feet away toward the middle of the bayou, its enormous head aimed in her direction, no doubt attracted by the distressed splashes of the bass she’d just caught and released. When she was a kid, alligators were endangered and nearly extinct, and she’d never seen one in the wild back then. But now they were plentiful, and although she’d seen dozens of them in the marsh over the past ten years or so, not one had ever threatened her. Nevertheless, she kept her eyes on this one as she rinsed her hands in the water beside the boat.

Tara got strikes on just about every cast now and caught three more keeper bass. Once she glanced back to where she’d seen the alligator, but it was nowhere in sight, likely submerged and cruising somewhere below the surface. Minutes later she looked again and the gator was back, but about twenty feet closer now and still fixated on her. From that distance its bumpy black head appeared to be about a foot wide and three feet long, with shining black eyes the size of golf balls.

Tara reached down and felt the bulge in the side pocket of her tackle bag just to reassure herself that her pistol, a snubnose .38 revolver, was there. But she didn’t bring the gun to shoot alligators; she brought it to defend herself, if necessary, against people. Without a gun she was quite vulnerable in the marsh, as she learned when a shrimper in a Lafitte skiff once idled close to her pirogue and harassed her.

“Hey you’re that girly man,” the shrimper said over the rumbling diesel engine while standing behind the skiff’s steering console, high above Tara. Tara had no idea how he knew about her, other than through her activities at Pier 90. “Why don’t you climb on in and I’ll help you out,” he said.

“No thank you,” Tara replied curtly, abruptly spinning her pirogue around and paddling away hastily in the opposite direction, trying not to breathe the noxious exhaust fumes. She knew better than to confront the shrimper’s ignorance outside of a courtroom, much less alone in the wilderness.

“Catch you next time girly man!” the shrimper yelled after her. That was the last time Tara went fishing on the bayou without a gun for protection.

Nearby in the trees, the cicadas began chanting loudly as Tara cast the Pop-R and immediately got another strike, fought another bass, and boated it for the stringer. At this rate, she might catch the legal limit of ten bass before she had to start paddling back to the dock. Re-tying the stringer and picking up her rod again in the deepening dusk, she glanced back toward the alligator and gasped to see it was now only ten feet away, watching her intently with a toothy sneer. Warily she set down the rod, picked up the paddle, and tried discreetly to paddle away. But to her horror the gator came after her.

Its gaze locked on the gurgling paddle, the gator accelerated smoothly toward the pirogue, its powerful tail swirling just below the surface fifteen feet back. In an instant it was beside the boat, its monstrous head and barrel-sized body dwarfing Tara and the pirogue. Tara paddled faster, but with a lightning strike the gator snapped at the paddle, ripping it out of Tara’s stinging hands and causing the pirogue to pitch dangerously from side to side as Tara grasped the side rails to hang on and try to steady the boat. Fortunately the gator stopped swimming a moment to chew on the paddle -- splitting it down the middle -- while the pirogue continued to glide away. When the gator finally disgorged the mangled and splintered pieces of the paddle from its mouth, it turned again toward the little pirogue, now stalled and adrift.

Fearfully Tara unzipped the side pocket of her tackle bag, took out the pistol, and pointed it at the gator as it inched toward her. Her heart pounding, she cocked the pistol and shouted, “What do you want?” At that moment it occurred to her that maybe the gator wanted the same thing she did: fish.

Quickly Tara uncocked the gun and put it down, untied the stringer, and lifted the entire stringer of bass out of the water like a glistening green fleece and hurled it at the gator. With a twist and snap of its head and jaws, the gator chomped down on three of the bass and swallowed them whole in a series of gulps. Then it snapped up the other three bass that were still on the stringer and gulped them down as well, stringer and all. That seemed to placate the beast, for then it just floated there, eyeing Tara like it was waiting for another treat.

Meanwhile the sun was setting, and Tara wondered how she would get back to the dock a mile away without a paddle in the dark. Then she had another brilliant idea. Recalling how the big bass had spun the pirogue around earlier, she picked up her rod and prepared to hitch a ride with the alligator. But first she got a pair of wire cutters from her tackle bag and snipped off the pointy tips of the Pop-R’s treble hooks so they wouldn’t injure the gator or become embedded in its mouth. Then she cast the Pop-R just past the gator’s head and chugged it back popping near its snout. Sure enough, the gator snapped up the Pop-R, and when Tara gently tightened the line, the startled gator curled its thick body, slapped its powerful tail, and dove underwater as Tara grabbed the boat rail with one hand while hanging onto the rod with the other. Then the line stretched tighter, the drag screamed, and the pirogue took off like a rocket boat.

The gator swam swiftly up the bayou in the direction of Highway 90 to the north, trailing Tara and the pirogue behind it. It swam underwater at first, then surfaced about twenty-five feet ahead of the pirogue, its dark wake shimmering in the twilight. The wind on Tara’s face was so strong she had to turn her LSU cap around to keep it from blowing off. In no time the pirogue approached the lights of the dock and the Pier 90 Bar. At just the right moment, Tara released the spool on her reel, allowing the line to slacken and the gator to shake free of the Pop-R.

As the pirogue continued to glide by Pier 90 toward the highway and bridge, Tara reeled in the Pop-R as fast as she could and cast it onto the shore beyond the dock. When she retrieved it back over the dock, the treble hooks easily snagged the wooden boards, engaging the reel’s drag and slowing the momentum of the pirogue until it turned back toward the shoreline along the Pier 90 parking lot. Tara then was able to use the rod and reel to steer and reel the pirogue right up to the dock, where she tied up and got out fishless, but a happy woman nonetheless.


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