The Sound and the Fury
In fact, let's cut to the chase: We caught so many red snapper that day, along with the inevitable mix of other fish (including a couple cobia of 30 pounds or so, the first out of a group of four that also homed in on our enticements) that I ended up with no idea of just how many. I would have kept only one or two, anyway, but on this day we had no need to worry about keeping snapper or keeping track of our limits, since this was 100 percent catch and release. (Releases were facilitated by the fact that these reds were hooked very near the surface rather than hauled up quickly from the depths, which would have caused their swim bladder gases to expand.) The 2014 federal red snapper season opens on June 1 and runs just nine days, the shortest in history. We'd planned on releasing anyway, since the red snapper season was closed. That was fine with me. I wasn't there for meat; I was there for proof.
Wentzell made good on his guarantee. We didn't catch a single red snapper under the then-legal 15-inch minimum, and I can remember only two or three snapper that were even anywhere near that small. Mostly, I remember solid reds of 7 to 16 pounds or a bit more and several sows well over 20. And except for one stop at a huge rig known by locals as "Mr. Gus" late in the afternoon, most of the fish were in fact taken on free-lined baits which seldom sank more than 10 or 15 feet before being gobbled up. It was an eye-opening day for this old weight-dropper.
Wentzell customarily guarantees and delivers such action. From his explanation of what makes his patented Chum Churn work so effectively in getting fish to the boat in just minutes, one might cite the sound and the fury. The sound is something Wentzell never thought about when devising the long PVC tube and razor-sharp, swirling blades. But, he says, it makes sense.
"When those blades cut up fish, it evokes the sound of predators busting baitfish at the surface," he says. "The chum only flows in one direction — back with the current — and it takes a while for the scent to disperse through the water. So why do snapper show up in less than two minutes, as a rule? Sound travels almost instantaneously and in all directions, not just one." The sound, Wentzell is convinced, can be the only logical answer.
That sound also helps entice snapper away from the rig. "It's typically hard to chum oil rigs because you tie up and chum flows out with current and away from the rig, so snapper under the rig may not find much scent. But noise of the churn draws them out" initially, Wentzell says.
Once they're in the neighborhood, the fury keeps them around. After I'd made a few plunges of the handle, I could see swirls of fine bits of chopped fish flowing out amid a cloud of blood and oil and the multitudinous flashes of baitfish darting through. As long as someone reaches over and repeats that 30-second process once every few minutes or whenever the action lulls (which any angler can do with one hand, keeping his gear ready in the other), it's easy to keep a great chum slick flowing and do so with surprisingly few pounds of baitfish.
Wentzell started using conventional chum blocks shortly after he'd gotten his own boat some years back, but he wasn't entirely pleased. "I'd buy boxes of chum to last the day, but the stuff's expensive. It's five or six bucks a box; you put it in a mesh bag and it dissipates in 15 or 20 minutes. Add cigar minnows for bait and I was spending $40 or so."
Wentzell recalls coming up with the idea for his Chum Churn while working as a floor supervisor at the Biloxi casino crap tables. Shortly after, he made a prototype of stainless steel. (Wentzell's father is an inventor who holds several patents; "I grew up helping him and learning how things work and how to make things.") He says, "It was big and heavy, but it worked" - until he forgot and left it dangling over the side during a run from one rig to another, thereby losing his first prototype on its first day. He has since refined the design and gone to tough, lighter PVC and sells several hundred of the 2 1/2-foot-long tubes per year.