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Catching fish while dodging storms in a delectable, dramatic New Orleans adventure

Louisiana’s 'Catch and Cook’ program delivered, but not without a dash of rough weather

The fishing was excellent, but a line of thunderstorms abruptly ended the charter and prompted a race to shore. Before the storms, more than 40 fish were caught, and a few were served for dinner in a New Orleans restaurant later that day. (Kevin Ambrose)

“Have fun before one,” remarked Capt. Markham Dickson of Salty Dog Charters as we boated away from Hopedale, La., at sunrise July 12. “One” was his reference to 1 p.m., the time when storms often erupt near the Louisiana coastline. The captain’s words proved prophetic.

Vacationing in New Orleans, I was participating in Louisiana’s “Catch and Cook” program, and my goal was to have a fresh seafood dinner at a local restaurant with fish I caught the same day. I particularly love redfish, also called red drum. When it’s served freshly caught, it’s hard to beat.

Ultimately, the fishing trip was successful. Our group caught more than 40 fish. But thunderstorms chased us off the water in a big hurry. It was a little scary at times. And the storms occurred at 1 p.m., right on schedule.

Below is my story of catching fish, dodging storms and enjoying a fresh seafood dinner in the Big Easy.

Fishing the waters of the Mississippi River delta

I met Mike Nelson, executive chef at GW Fins, at 5:30 a.m. in New Orleans for a day of fishing off the coast. Our target was redfish.

Less than an hour later, we were boating out of Hopedale on the Salty Dog charter. The plan was to bring our catch back to Mike’s restaurant in New Orleans for a seafood dinner later that day.

After boating south for about 30 minutes, we stopped and began to fish along the edge of marsh grass using live shrimp for bait with a hook and bobber. The location had produced redfish the previous week, but all we caught was a sail catfish. Unfortunately, the redfish weren’t biting yet.

We then moved a short distance to a group of pilings and fished the bottom, also using shrimp. The pilings quickly produced several redfish, a stingray and a sheepshead. The sheepshead eats small shellfish and has teeth that resemble human teeth, used for crushing shells.

An hour later, we ventured five miles offshore to a line of submerged rocks, or a small jetty. We fished with shrimp on a hook and bobber, cut bait on the bottom and a crankbait lure.

Within minutes, the fishing turned hot. Fish would strike on almost every cast, particularly sheepshead. And big redfish were biting, too.

According to our captain, the tide was starting to move, helping to improve the fishing.

Most of the fish at the jetty were caught with shrimp, but a catfish was caught using cut bait.

By that point, we had landed 24 sheepshead, eight catfish (sail and hardhead), six redfish, five stingrays, one croaker, one speckled trout and a blue crab. The majority of the fish were caught in three hours. The catfish, stingrays and croaker were thrown back. The other fish were put in a cooler on ice for consumption later.

We planned to return to our first fishing location with the marsh grass, hoping the redfish were biting with the running tide, but our plans were thwarted by a line of thunderstorms moving toward us.

Dodging thunderstorms

Small, isolated showers formed over the water for much of the morning while we fished, but they were slow-moving and easy to dodge. The temperature was in the 80s, and there was a strong breeze, which made fishing conditions quite comfortable for Louisiana in July.

As the clock ticked past noon, the fishing was so good we were not focused on the weather. The sky did not look threatening, and we were busy catching fish. It was fun!

About 12:40 p.m., Mike announced, “We gotta go!” He had received a text message from a friend showing a line of thunderstorms moving toward us from New Orleans. Our boat’s lightning detection display was zoomed in to cover the water but did not reach north to New Orleans.

The captain expanded his lightning detection display, and it showed a band of dense strikes well to our north. Our fishing for the day was over.

We quickly pulled in the lines, stored the rods and reels, and prepared for a fast trip back to shore.

As we began the trip back, the storms on the northern horizon became visible. At first, the storms did not look ominous, but we had a long boat ride back over open water, and there was plenty of time for the situation to worsen.

The captain ran his boat at full speed, which was 52 mph. I was happy with the quick pace on the water.

As the minutes ticked by, the horizon darkened and a shelf cloud marking the leading edge of the storms became visible. However, the accompanying gust front, or surge of winds, had not reached us, so the water was flat, and the boat continued to run at max speed.

It soon became apparent the shelf cloud and its gust front would hit us while we were on the water. But at least the lightning and heavy rain seemed to lag a few miles behind it.

I decided to get a video of the boat running directly toward the shelf cloud. My camera bag was strapped down and out of reach, but my phone was in my pocket.

I carefully removed my phone from my pocket and started a video. With a 52-mph head wind in my face from the boat’s speed, I was worried the phone would blow out of my hand.

I gripped the phone tightly and shot video of the storms, panning the horizon from left to right. Fortunately, the water remained flat while I shot the video and the phone made it safely back into my pocket.

As we boated under the shelf cloud, the gust front hit us, but we had reached shallow water surrounded by tall marsh grass by that time, so waves were not a factor. Of course, the water was choppy, but we didn’t have four-foot waves, which was the worry if the gust front hit us out in open water.

Behind the shelf cloud, raindrops stung like hailstones because of the boat’s speed. Fortunately, the heavy rain and lightning had not reached us yet, but rain showers behind the gust front made the last part of the ride back uncomfortable. If there was thunder, we could not hear it over the boat’s engine.

As we neared the shore, the captain sped through open channels in the marsh at high speed. The boat hardly slowed while it zigzagged down the winding paths through the grass, pushing us to the left and the right. The marsh seemed like a giant maze, and I’m glad the captain knew the way back without pause.

We arrived at the dock and quickly took cover minutes before the heavy rain and lightning hit. The captain did a great job finding the fish and getting us back to shore safely and rapidly. And I know a lot of anglers have similar stories about racing thunderstorms back to shore.

Racing to shore as a line of thunderstorms moves south from the Louisiana coast. The boat’s speed was 52 mph. The shelf cloud pushed over us, but we made it to shore before the heavy weather hit. (Kevin Ambrose)

A fresh seafood dinner

After departing the marina, our first stop was the GW Fins restaurant to deliver our catch. Mike mentioned he would prep and help cook the fish, and they would be ready by 6:30 p.m.

My wife, Elisa, and I arrived at the restaurant a few minutes early, and Mike was waiting for us at the bar. He joined us for dinner at a table in the front of the restaurant.

Earlier in the day, Mike had described some of his delicious dishes, including “fin wings,” which are eaten like a chicken drumstick, tempura redfish bellies, and blackened and fire-roasted redfish.

My expectations were high going into the meal, and I was not disappointed. Plate after plate of tasty and superbly presented seafood were brought to the table. And it was all prepared from fish we caught earlier in the day.

We capped off the evening with two GW Fins signature desserts, white chocolate bread pudding and a “Salty Malty” ice cream pie. It was some of the best seafood and desserts I’ve ever tasted.

Note: Multiple restaurants in Louisiana offer Catch and Cook. During my trip to New Orleans, I stayed at the beautiful Higgins Hotel, which offers “Fish & Dine” and serves your catch at its Café Normandie and Rosie’s on the Roof. Depending upon the restaurant, prices generally vary from $20 to $30 per person. Notifying the restaurants in advance is necessary.

Mike Nelson, executive chef at GW Fins in New Orleans, teaches how to filet a fish to get 30 percent more meat. The video shows how to cut fin wings and redfish bellies. Mike has been instructing chefs in Louisiana with his method for increasing meat yields when filleting fish. (Kevin Ambrose)