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The dense coastal fog made the pre-dawn blackness seem impenetrable that cool December morning. Yet the 29-foot Cobiasco steamed on south toward the barrier islands that offer Biloxi, Mississippi, some protection from the open Gulf of Mexico. Our destination: distant offshore oil rigs.
An odd pre-dawn sea, oily smooth over a lingering low swell, kept our cruising speed a bit less than maximum, but once we'd put about 40 miles between us and the northern Mississippi coast, tiny distant spikes began to appear on the pink-tinted horizon. At about 50 miles, I could make out more readily the varied structures of offshore oil — from huge Eiffel-tower-like platforms to single-pole antenna rigs.
I glanced around to make sure that, in my 4 a.m. stupor, I'd put my baitcasting and spinning rods aboard. As I did, I recalled my conversation with Kyrt Wentzell of Biloxi weeks earlier. He told me I could bring my light tackle and reasonably expect to use it without any weight because the red snapper will come to the boat. "But don't expect many small fish since you won't hook many little ones — and we'll get plenty of sows."
In the ensuing weeks since that conversation, I recall wondering about that thin line distinguishing confidence from arrogance. After all, Wentzell - who makes a device called the Chum Churn - sounded pretty darn sure of himself. He based that on knowing where to fish and how (with his Chum Churn, of course). But if this was just a sales pitch, it had worked: Here I was, ready for Wentzell to put up or shut up.
In another 20 minutes or so, Capt. Shayne Malpass had eased the bow up to one of the single-pole antenna rigs in 120 feet of water while Wentzell "gave it the hook," sliding around part of the platform's base the 6-foot-long, Bo-Peep-like stainless hook that serves rig-fishing skippers out here in lieu of anchors.
"A lot of people blow on by these 'little' rigs," Wentzell told me as he threw a couple of wraps of rope around the bow cleat. "So they get less pressure." Also, they "sprout legs" down below, offering more structure than the single pole visible above the surface.
Moments later, back in the cockpit, Wentzell quickly loaded his churn with whole menhaden — 5 pounds or so — and held it over the gunwale. He thrust up and down, forcing the blades to chop the baitfish on both up and down strokes. As I tied a 30-pound mono leader onto my 8-pound double line with a Yucatan or "no-name" knot, I could hear the distinct "swoosh" in the water upon each thrust.
"You'd better hurry up," Wentzell advised. "We'll have snapper under the boat in about two minutes."
Yeah, right, I remember thinking. If anything, that made me even more skeptical. I've fished enough to know that it takes a while to establish a chum trail and get the scent flowing before fish will come to or near the boat, if at all, from deep water.
"Good one!" came a shout from the stern. I looked up as I pulled my double clinch tight on the long-shank 4/0 bronze hook that Wentzell had handed me. My actions took on some serious urgency as I saw Malpass' rod arcing out away from the port corner and heard Wentzell's hoots of excitement. Less than a minute after Malpass had dropped over an unweighted cigar minnow, he'd hooked up.
By the time I'd baited up and gotten to the rail, flashes of scarlet greeted me as Wentzell netted that first red snapper. OK, it wasn't quite a sow at 12 or 13 pounds, but it was a start. And I was about to become a believer.