The cast was a foot right of perfect, and the Boat Monkey float settled in the center of the concentric rings forming around its landing. A sea gull swooped down to check it out, only to turn away perhaps repulsed by the orange bobber —which suddenly was gone, jerked completely out of sight below the surf.
“Got one,” I hollered at Billy Grantham of Biloxi, who had promised a good March nearshore trip. “Not sure what though, but feels pretty good on this light tackle. Hope it’s edible.”
The 6-foot spinning boat was bent in an arc, and the 6-pound mono was stretched tight, even as the small reel gave line when the fish surged. It had been the first cast of the day.
“Just keep tight,” Grantham said. “Ain’t nothing down there he can snag you on to break you off. He’ll quit resisting in a minute.”
Right on schedule, I could feel the fish turning and, reluctantly, coming toward me. Grantham had the net and had moved by my side in the stern of his 22-foot center console.
“Let’s see what you got,” he said, dipping the rubber net below the surface, a target for me to guide the fish. When it got in reach, Grantham made a quick swoop and lifted the fish over the gunwale.
“You wanted edible, you got it; look at the thick slab shoulders on that sheepshead,” Grantham said. “About 6 pounds; he’ll eat good, baked whole with some tomatoes, onions and garlic.
“That’s a bonus catch today. We don’t usually catch sheepshead in this area, but when we do, we usually catch several. They usually prefer deeper cover in March, like bridge pilings and reefs. I do catch them occasionally here behind Deer Island, but it’s always a surprise. We catch more of them on the Gulf side of the island.”
Grantham put the fish on ice and turned to get his rod out of the holder.
“Dadgummit, look, I got a fish; wonder how long he’s been on there?” he said. “Hope it’s another sheep.”
It was, and so were the next four 3- to 5-pound fish we put in the boat in the first 20 minutes. We had made a short run after launching from Point Cadet, crossing behind the Golden Nugget Casino to reach Deer Island. Between the shore and the island, we were protected from the almost constant wind that plagues March fishermen on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
“That’s the main reason I like this place,” Grantham said. “March is still winter at least for three weeks and then the cusp of spring. We can have 80-degree days, and we can have freezing-degree days. We can have strong north winds, and we can have strong south winds. Here, it doesn’t matter. The wind has so little fetch to build any sizable waves.
“Three other reasons that make it a good March choice are, one, it takes less than two gallons of gas to fish all day; two, if the weather does go crazy quickly as it is apt to do, we are at the dock in two minutes; and, three, we always catch fish here. Don’t ever discount the importance of getting bit.”
Grantham prefers live shrimp for all of his shallow-water fishing, but in March that can be a difficult buy.
“We’ve got minnows and finger mullet today, stuff I caught in a net yesterday afternoon in the bay and out front of the island,” he said. “This time of year, shrimp eaters become minnow eaters. We have dead shrimp.”
After putting the six sheepshead in the ice chest, the action slowed, and Grantham pulled up his Power Poles and used his trolling motor to move us about 50 yards east. Down went the Power Poles, and out came the rods again.
“If we’re going to catch any specks today, this is the spot. It’s an old shell bed I found years ago. I think it’s where somebody was dumping oyster shells, probably to build a private fish attractor,” Grantham said. “Go with the bigger finger mullet, and let’s see what happens.”
Ten minutes in, Grantham’s float disappeared.
“Throw over there! Throw over there where I hooked up!” he yelled to me. I had just reeled in to check my bait and was ready to follow his command. As soon as my float and mullet hit the water, Grantham told me to pop it one time “and hold on.”
Bam! The shock of the vicious strike traveled up the line and through the rod. I set the hook with a sweeping motion used with live-bait hooks.
“That’s no speck,” I said.
“Wanna bet,” Grantham said.
He was obviously right, judging by the undeniable trout-like commotion on top of the water. His speck was closer to the boat, while mine was still out by the site my float had landed. Both were splashing.
“Big ones,” Grantham said.
Soon, we added two 3-pound specks to the ice chest, then two more — another 3-pounder or mine and a fat 5-pounder from Grantham. After that, the size fell off considerably, but we were able to add five 15-inch keepers before the bite stopped altogether. Grantham raised the poles, cranked the 250 engine and started idling back across toward the casinos.
“You know those rods I tied for flounder? Grab one, and put a piece of that dead shrimp on the hook,” he said. “You wanted some flatfish? Well I’m taking you to a secret spot. Don’t tell anybody or write about it. Just tell them we fished some jetty rocks.”
A promise made, is a promise kept, especially about a fishing spot. But Grantham did explain that the key was finding a place in the rocks where there was some water movement from one side to the other. His spot was just such a hole, and one that he admits he added some legal structure to for the purposes of attracting and holding flounder. Exactly what he put down, he didn’t share. Suffice it to say, it worked.
We put four platter-sized flounder in the boat in 15 minutes.
“Let’s have a beverage and a sandwich and let it (the spot) reload,” Grantham said, winking. The 20-minute break seemed ridiculously short for fish to move in, but it wasn’t.
On each of our first two casts, we boated flounder.
Grantham is a recreational fisherman who makes a lot of money at his day job, playing the stock market in his robe at home. He has never considered fishing for a living, as a guide, but he could certainly make a go of it.
March and April are his favorite months, he said, “because the fish come to us.
“That means they move shallow and close to shore. I don’t have to make the long runs. On days like today, on a strong south wind, we couldn’t have fished in the Mississippi Sound even if we could have crossed it to reach the north sides of Horn, Ship or Cat islands. We could have caught fish there, probably more and bigger, especially redfish.”
Grantham said it’s just not worth the risk of running across the potentially rough sound, which can build quickly.
“Actually, in March, I prefer to fish the shallow reefs south of Cat and around Horn, because I can catch more fish concentrated in a few areas,” he said. “I catch come of my biggest specks in March on the man-made reefs in 4 to 6 feet of water within a few hundred yards of the islands (south side of Deer, north side of Horn).
“At Horn, I can get a limit of reds, too, usually in an hour, if I can find them small enough to fit in the legal slot (18 to 30 inches). Sometimes, it’s hard to find anything under 30 inches, but boy is it fun.”
When he has friends that want to tie into something big, Grantham will seek the black drum, aka puppy drum, that will weigh up to 8 pounds. They are plentiful on the bridge pilings and around nearshore artificial reefs.
“We can use dead bait shrimp and catch keepers, or we can use cut chunks of mullet and try for the big black drum over 25 and 30 pounds,” he said. “In 2017, in March, my cousin from Atlanta caught our biggest of the year, a 52-pounder on a mullet on 15-pound braid with a foot-long piece of 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. Took an hour.
“It was fun.”
And, when it was over, they were just a mile from the launch.