Biloxi Reds

Wrestling redfish on the Louisiana Marsh

Photo: Squire Fox

“There is NOTHING — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” — Water Rat, The Wind in the Willows

Amen to that Rat!

And here we were again, my friend Jimbo Meador and I, two long-standing disciples of the Water Rat, this time in a 16-foot sand-colored tandem kayak designed for precisely the kind of messing about we cotton to. I sat in the bow, holding an eight-weight fly rod, while Jimbo sat in the stern and poled us out of the main channel into one of the countless little bays within the grassy wilderness of the Louisiana Marsh that are too muddy to wade and too shallow to enter in anything other than a kayak. At the rear of the bay the wake of a cruising redfish swaggered along just off the bank, and the kayak moved over four inches of water, silently as a thought, towards an intersection with it. Jacked up on the pure aboriginal exhilaration of bringing exactly the right tool to a job, I began to sing to myself (oddly, you might think — so did I) some of the words to W.S. Gilbert’s lovesick water rat song: “For she is such a smart little craft, such a neat little, sweet little craft, such a bright little, tight little, slight little, light little, trim little, prim little craft…”

“You might want to cast,” interjected Jimbo, since I was now close enough to the redfish to touch it with my rod and mesmerized by that fact — simply in love with how close to this still unconcerned fish our sweet little, trim little craft had brought us. I flipped out the fly and the redfish charged and ate it. Then he ran out to the middle of the bay and came unhooked. Jimbo and I looked at each other, grinning like… well, like Forrest Gump.

It is said that, during the media furor created by the release of the movie version of a novel written by his lifelong friend Winston Groom, Jimbo was asked in an interview with a big city journalist if it were true that he was the real life inspiration for the main character of Forrest Gump. “I guess,” Jimbo replied, then added after a pause, “all but the idiot part.”

Photo: Squire Fox

What makes that line particularly funny to his many friends is that no one we know has led a less idiotic life than Jimbo. A man about whom it is impossible to find anyone to say anything even slightly disparaging, he owns a Sufi elder’s fortune of kind and generous imperturbability, amassed over a lifetime of following his bliss as implacably and enthusiastically as a beagle on a rabbit scent. Jimbo’s bliss has been his freedom, and that freedom has always been found on the water and in boats. His first was a 14-foot cross-planked cypress rowboat, given to him by his father when he was seven or eight. The family lived in Mobile, Alabama, and, in summer, in Fairhope, where Jimbo still lives. A man named Duke Cox did odd jobs for them, and he and Jimbo would take the rowboat into Mobile Bay to seine shrimp and catch speckled trout with Calcutta cane poles and popping corks to sell to the fish market in Fairhope. When he was fifteen he graduated to a Stauter-Built skiff with a 15-horse Evinrude and to plug-fishing and dragging a shrimp trawl; then later to live-bait fishing in the Gulf in an 18½-foot deep-V Negus.

After discovering that college wasn’t wet enough, Jimbo worked on a tugboat all over the Gulf Coast, then for a stevedoring company, on a bay shrimper, and as manager of a seafood processing plant. When that last job got too office-oriented, he bought a Hewes flats boat and started guiding recreational fishermen in Mobile Bay and repping for Hewes. Giving fly casting lessons for the Orvis Company led next to a job as the company’s Southeast business manager, and when that turned into driving more cars than boats, he became director of sales for another flats boat company, Hell’s Bay Boatworks.

While working for Orvis and later Hell’s Bay, Jimbo spent a lot of time fishing the Louisiana Marsh, and other skinny waters around the Gulf Coast, where he was constantly being given the fin by redfish and specs up in bays and creeks too shallow for even the lightest of skiffs. By this time he had owned dozens of boats, from skiffs and canoes to deep-Vs and sailboats, and had become a student of the subject. After some pondering, it seemed to him that a kayak was the answer to his problem, but he knew of none on the market designed for fishing. Then, at an outdoor retailers show in the mid-nineties, he met Andy Zimmerman, at that time the owner of Wilderness Systems, Inc., who, as it happened, had been working on a prototype angling kayak. Andy sent one to Jimbo, who began fishing from it in the Gulf marshes — possibly the first person to do so since the Indians — and immediately loved everything about it: Its simplicity and long history with native peoples; the exercise, solitude, and silence it afforded; the way it allowed him to become an integral part of the marsh, subject to its winds and currents, rather than an engined intruder; and, not least, the environmentally footprint-less access it provided to otherwise inaccessible fishing.

Photo: Squire Fox

Setting out on the Louisiana Marsh

The more Jimbo fished from the Wilderness Systems’ kayak the more applications he saw for it — from bonefishing in the Bahamas to stalking stripers on the flats of Cape Cod’s Monomoy Island — and the more ways he saw to improve its design. Not long after their original meeting, Zimmerman sold Wilderness Systems and signed a five-year non-compete agreement. During that period he and Jimbo traded ideas about the perfect fishing kayak, and when Zimmerman’s non-compete period expired, they decided to try to build it with boat designer Joe Walton. A little more than a year ago, Zimmerman started a new company in Greensboro, North Carolina, called Legacy Paddlesports and made Jimbo vice president of kayak fishing and development. Under the brand names Heritage and Native Watercraft, the company now turns out around a hundred and sixty fishing kayaks a day, both sit-on-top and sit-inside models, ranging in size from a 9½-foot, 38-pound Featherlite to a 16-foot, 78-pound tandem. Built of a light and durable superlinear polyethylene, the little boats conflate a decade of Jimbo’s and Andy’s design ideas: a patented tunnel hull that allows for enough stability to stand up and fish, astonishingly comfortable seat and foot-rests, clips for rod holders, a groove in the bow to lay your rod tip in, and a sliding anchor-trolley system. All this makes for a sort of claw hammer of a boat — something designed to do one thing better than it has ever been done before — and I am here to tell you that the only possible response to your first time being in it when it does it is to grin like Forrest Gump.

“That looked like a robart hook-set,” shouted Gary Taylor from his skiff at the mouth of the bay where he and photographer Squire Fox and Squire’s assistant, David Sullivan, had just watched me lose my fish. Robart is the name of an angling-challenged mutual friend of mine and Gary’s. I wondered if Robart was often singing little ditties to himself when it came time to cast or strike a fish, and determined to dislocate the jaw of the next redfish to eat my fly.

Gary Taylor is one of those guides who let you know from the git-go that while you are on the water with him he expects you to fish single-mindedly and well, and who make you want to do so — to bring some small excellence of your own to the party with his superb guiding skills and the vast, incomparable fishery he takes you to. That fishery is known as the Louisiana Marsh, or the Biloxi Marsh if you happen to be from Mississippi. It is a 650-square-mile maze of unpeopled grassy islands, oyster bars, channels, and bays some sixteen miles offshore of Gary’s hometown of Slidell, Louisiana, and it offers up what is likely the finest shallow-water redfishing on the planet. Despite that fact, you rarely, if ever, see another recreational fishing boat in the marsh, and that is because of both its distance from shore and the serious dues that have to be paid to learn where its fish are, to fish it effectively, and even to keep from getting lost in it. Gary has paid those dues for almost two decades, and no one knows the marsh better. Moreover, he has found an ingenious solution to the problem of needing both a good-sized seaworthy boat to cross the often rough Lake Bourne between Slidell and the marsh, and, once he’s there, a poleable, shallow-draft flats boat to fish from. That solution is the “Mr. Champ,” a 210-diesel, 31-foot Lafitte Skiff rigged with an electric winch and cradle to carry a flats boat on its deck. As Gary is one of a growing number of guides whom Jimbo has sold on the glories of the kayak, it is also rigged to carry two of those on the wheelhouse roof.

Photo: Squire Fox

With all these moving parts, a fishing day is neither easy nor short for Gary Taylor. Typically it begins at 4:00 a.m. and ends after dark, with a run across Lake Bourne lasting between forty-five minutes and two hours each way, depending on where in the marsh he is going, and it is filled with more manual labor than most guides do in a week. Also, since the marsh is in unprotected open water, there is often too much wind to fish it at all. What makes the effort and chanciness more than worth it — to him and to his clients — are those days when there is little or no wind, and sun enough to see the fish: Days like the one Jimbo and I and our friend Tom Montgomery had with Gary a few years ago, in January, with the big Gulf reds in the marsh, when, before lunchtime, we caught on fly rods sixteen fish between fifteen and twenty-five pounds. Or the day when a married couple he was guiding caught reds in one-pound increments, from sixteen to thirty pounds. Or one of the many summer days with the marsh literally crawling with smaller redfish, when good anglers can release more than twenty apiece, averaging eight to ten pounds…

Or even today perhaps, I thought, as my second red came unstuck from the fly, this one after a five-minute fight, and my hook-set was again compared to Robart’s. After all, it was only ten o’clock on a beautiful April morning of workable wind and sun. Sure, it was a little unusual to have two fish in a row come unhooked, and more than a little inconvenient for Squire, who was trying to get a picture of one, and for Gary, who was poling his ass off behind our kayak to help Squire do that. But there were plenty of fish around; they were eating, and Jimbo was poling the kayak up close enough to net them. The black dog would go home for lunch, I told myself. I couldn’t possibly lose a third fish.

But he didn’t, and I did. And then a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth, before finally bringing in a 7-pounder for Squire’s long-awaited photograph.

A few years ago, the aforementioned Tom Montgomery and I were fishing with two guides in the Everglades, and had camped out for the night in one of those little huts on stilts they have down there. After dinner, as we sat on the deck of the hut chatting and smoking cigars, one of the guides lit an expensive kerosene lantern. After a while, I stood up to go get something and accidentally knocked the lantern over and broke it. The guide looked at the shattered glass a bit wistfully, said the obligatory things about how it really wasn’t my fault, and lit the other one he had brought. A half hour later I got up for something else and broke it, too. At that point there was only silence. I went to bed. The next morning Tom told me the three of them had sat in the dark for a full ten minutes before the guide who had owned the lanterns finally broke the silence. “Jesus,” he said. “It was like the guy was on a mission.”

After the fourth or fifth fish, Gary’s jibes and Jimbo’s soothing “not your fault”s gave way to that same stunned “how is this frigging possible?” silence. I don’t think any of us had ever seen anything like it. If I knew how to repeat it, I could probably get rich doing it as a magician’s act.

And I could not have cared less. At another time, it might have made me try to swim back home. But on that day, as we ghosted into virgin channels and bays watching mullet jump and redwing blackbirds and swallows sortie above the tan grass, I felt not a twinge of appropriate embarrassment; rather, only a growing elation — a sort of Zenned-out “it’s-the-journey-not-the-destination” well-being in simply moving as naturally as an alligator through that blessedly pristine place, with no noise marking our passage, and the bending of the fly rod through its lovely arc like wind bending the grass. If the fish wanted to spit out my hooks till kingdom come — well, hey.

Such was my euphoria over the magic of kayak fishing that, as far as I was concerned, the black dog could have quit swimming behind us and just ridden around with Jimbo and me enjoying the marsh. But he went home that afternoon, when Jimbo and I caught plenty of fish blind-casting with plug and spinning rods in separate 14-foot kayaks. And he stayed there the next day, too, when Gary also got into a kayak and the three of us — each in his own neat little, sweet little craft — took some rods and, again, went messing about in boats.