You’d have to be among the oldest Louisiana’s coastal fishermen to remember the days when catching a sawfish wasn’t all that unusual.
Recalling their childhood days, there are some in their 60s and 70s who can remember seeing and hearing the sights and sounds around docks and camps when skiffs rolled up with the biggest fish they’d ever caught, and that fish had the funniest “thing” sticking out from its face.
The old salts told youngsters it was a sawfish, and it was those days when a saw came out to separate the fish from its most distinguishing feature. It was a trophy, some of which continue to be treasures of the “briny deep” today.
Those memories came flooding back Saturday, when Turner Graham set the hook on something gobbling up the live pogey he was using for bait to lure speckled trout.
Most times when something heavy pulls back after setting the hook it’s a redfish upwards of 30 pounds, or a bullish jack crevalle, or a stingray.
Anyway, the battle was on for the Baton Rouge fishermen in the desert-hot heat that settled over south Louisiana for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, and it was more than a few minutes later when Graham, and his Point Fourchon fishing buddy, Chris Landry, were able to see what was giving Graham such a tussle.
Landry, using his cellphone, was able to snap a single image of the behemoth.
“They were only about 30 yards away from us,” Rennie Carter said, telling the tale of his nephew, Graham, and Landry.
“We knew it was something big. We were catching trout, trout big enough to place (on the Golden Meadow-Fourchon Tarpon Rodeo leaderboard), and we were fishing toward the west end of East Timbalier (west of Belle Pass), and we were in only three feet of water,” Carter said. “Chris got a picture of the fish, and right after that the fish broke everything, broke rod, broke the line and took off.
“It was exciting.”
In his book, “Angler’s Guide to the Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico,” retired marine biologist Jerald Horst wrote the smalltooth sawfish was, “at one time quite common and distributed throughout the Gulf of Mexico in nearshore and estuarine waters less than 50 feet deep. The species has experienced a severe population decline and is now rare everywhere except in (Florida’s) Everglades National Park. Even there it is uncommon.”
Horst’s description also identifies this member of the ray family “averages to 18 feet and over 700 pounds,” to indicate Graham’s catch was a juvenile fish.
With the Atchafalaya Spillway remaining high — and it was rising again earlier this week — and with near-record summertime temperatures holding across other waters, dyed-in-the-wool sac-a-lait chasers are wondering where their quarry has gone. Even Old River, where, by this time, sac-a-lait have settled into summertime haunts along deep-water drop-offs, are not there because the Mississippi River remains high for early July.
“They’re not here,” Bobby Jennings said last week after visiting Old River. “By this time, sac-a-lait have pulled out to the (flooded) cypress trees or to the edges of the flooded buttonwoods, but they’re not there yet. And with the Atchafalaya River up and down, then up and down, it’s been hard to locate the fish there, too.”
Then, last week, Verret Basin die-hard Steve Fontana — yes, the same guy who produced that winning, near 15-pound bass stringer from the Belle River area — showed off a monster sac-a-lait catch from the Lake Palourde area at the southern end of the Verret Basin.
“The sac-a-lait are reacting to the same things as the bass,” Fontana said. “It’s hot, and the fish will be in the shallows chasing shad and minnows in the very early hours of the day, then they’re moving to deep water.”
His not-now-so-secret method is using shiners — live bait he almost has to hand pick from live-bait tanks.
“I use big shiners. I guess the fish where I’m fishing want big shiners,” Fontana said. “I can’t catch these fish with a (plastic) jig.”
That’s a disconnect for most live-bait sac-a-lait fishermen, who prefer smaller shiners because they know even a 2-3 pound sac-a-lait — a giant for these parts — will dine on small critters.
Not where Fontana is fishing, and, he said, “It also means you can hook into catfish, and big catfish, some that will take the rod out of your hand, like a 25-30 pound big blue cat.”
Fontana said last week’s numbers were above the norm, that two guys catching more than 20 sac-a-lait in those few morning hours is more than he expected.
“Where we’re fishing is a place that has big sac-a-lait, but not the numbers of fish you find in other places,” Fontana said. “I’m looking for deeper water, too, or places that have access to deeper water.
“But you have to go early,” he said. “By 10 o’clock, it’s over. The sac-a-lait are gone.”
While Louisiana’s recreational red snapper season remains open out to nine miles, Florida announced this week that its 2016 Gulf recreational red snapper state season will close July 10, but reopen Fridays through Sundays in September and October, and on Labor Day.