Bar Harbour / Paradise Lost, Untitled, by Dylan Johnston
By James Seay
That is what Glyn, our pilot and fishing guide, called the Chandeleurs. The Chandeliers. A small chain of barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, beginning some thirty-five miles from the airport in Gulfport, Mississippi, and extending another fifty miles or so into the Gulf. For the ducal sum of $25 per person he was flying us to Errol Island, one of the South Chandeleur Islands. This was in 1969. We had booked the charter, which included lodging and food, with his company, B-Line Flying Service. The loaves of Wonder Bread in the bags beside me in the rear of the little Cessna suggested there was probably sliced bologna in the coolers and we should rig up as soon as we landed and wade out to cast for dinner.
To get the first three of our party of six, our gear, and two Igloo coolers of ice out to his Chandeliers, Glyn had taken the rear seats out of the plane. I was seated on one of the Igloos. There was no seat belt, but I was too keyed up to care. Despite the Wonder Bread, I envisioned a sea-weathered cabin—something redolent of vintage fishing camps. Maybe a palm tree or two marking a landing strip of crushed shell or some such. All in the service of a weekend of dedicated surf fishing.
When we were barely free of the runway and over the Gulf, the stall buzzer went off. The aerodynamics elude me, but to judge from what I’ve read, it was not solely an issue of weight. Glyn’s angle of attack, as it is called by pilots, was off. He quickly lowered the nose of the Cessna and got enough speed to level us out and get the right angle of attack. Then I noticed on the instrument panel that the oil gauge was twitching back and forth. I asked Glyn what that meant, and he said not to worry, that he had worked on the engine the day before. And that the Chandeliers weren’t far off, we’d be there soon.
I think the voicing of the word appealed to Glyn, though it may also have been a matter of local appellation. The Chandeliers. Whatever, he was pretty well on the mark. The Chandeleurs were christened by explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville when he anchored there on February 1, 1700, eve of La Fête de la Chandeleur. Candlemas, when candles to be used in religious ceremonies during the year are blessed. Candle Mass, Chandeleurs, Chandeliers, lighting both sacred and secular.
By figurative association with Candlemas, the three Chandeleur lighthouses that once stood—successively, each one downed by storms—were likened to giant candles. The final one toppled into the sea after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Errol Island, to which Glyn was flying us, was only a speck on U.S. Geological Survey maps at the time of our trip in 1969, but it no longer appears on the maps, or at least not on the October 2005 map, following Katrina. It is my guess that it is now completely submerged. There are, however, fishing charters today to some of the Chandeleurs. Of which, more later.
On our approach to Errol Island, Glyn took a low sweep over it. We could see sharks below working the clear water. Glyn said not to worry, they were either sand sharks or blacktips and would be interested only in the fish that we would be towing behind us on long stringers buoyed by styrofoam floats. I did not see the crushed-shell landing strip that I had envisioned, and I realized that Glyn was doing low-level reconnaissance to determine if anything—logs, crab traps, derelict boats—had washed up on the beach since the last storm, requiring that he find somewhere else to land.
We were clear and made a smooth landing, then taxied up to the cabin where we would lodge for the weekend. It was sea-weathered, for sure, but dignified only in the sense that it appeared to have withstood more storms than it was built for. Mostly it was scrap plywood, rusted tin roofing, and open-air ventilation. The sheets of plywood were multicolored, their placement governed more or less by color grouping. Green, blue, yellow, and unpainted. Nailed here and there to cover holes were strips of plastic tarp fluttering in the breeze.
When Glyn unloaded us and our gear, he returned to the mainland to fetch the other three members of our party. The Igloos remained in the plane, seats for two. Probably he did not want to spend time at the airport replacing the regular seats. And later he would need the coolers aboard to take home whatever was left of the catch after our dinners. We had planned to begin fishing as soon as we landed and got sorted out, but we realized that we did not know how to prepare and deploy the stringers and floats that would keep our catch at a safe distance from us. Glyn had left us some beer, so we sat in the sand and looked out over the surf, talking about whatever guys talk about when they are lifted from their routines and set down on a strand surrounded by softly dazzling water.
When Glyn returned, there was just enough time for us to rig up and wade out into the surf before dark, the stringers and floats trailing behind us like large lures. Glyn had given us very quick instructions in their use. The sharks were taken up with a school of bait fish in the distance, to judge from the fretted water, and in the short time we had before dusk we got tight with enough fish for dinner. Speckled sea trout, or specks. Sleek, feisty, caught to eat.
The Cessna and fishing shack on Errol Island, 1969. Courtesy the author
Almost all my fishing now is catch-and-release. In 2007 my friend Will invited me to join him in Montana for fly fishing. I was addicted from the get-go. There is deep pleasure in releasing a landed fish, seeing it disappear back into its mystical element. There is also deep pleasure in eating a fish fresh from the water. The freshest I’ve ever had was in Mexico, fishing out of Zihuatanejo. A Pacific yellowtail, prepared two hours after catch. The boat captain pulled into an island cove with a thatched-roof restaurant, where they made ceviche with some of the yellowtail and grilled the remainder. Foodwise, I was ruint ever after, seeking the match of that fish fresh out of the sea.
We cast for redfish along some shoals off Errol Island the next day, with no success. So we went back to the surf in front of the cabin and began catching specks with regularity. You can cast a Kastmaster lure a country mile, and we were able to get out to where the specks were working. They whittled away the bucktails we had attached to the Kastmasters, but that gave us brief spells to attach fresh ones and string up any recent catch.
I had been assigned one of the stringers. Glyn had instructed us in the use of a particular slip knot for quick release in case a shark hit. Fishing from about forty feet offshore, I felt a purposeful tug and was jerked around, my back now to the Gulf. A friend shouted for me to release the knot. I reached behind me and found a hard knot. In his eagerness to string a speck, one of our members had retied the stringer, but neglected the slip knot. Normally the stringer was attached to one’s belt. Providence had it that our man put it in my rear belt loop, and I was able to rip it loose. Watching the styrofoam float make erratic progress into the Gulf, I waded to shore and took a long break for a beer.
That night we sat under a wing of the Cessna, eating trout that Glyn had fried on his propane stove. It wasn’t raining, but we were drawn to the underwing to sit in the sand and eat our fish. It was partly a respite from the dreary cabin. Mainly, though, I think the shelter of the wing gave a faint sense of security—and paradoxically an openness to the night around us. There was a breeze off the water and a quiet surf. The wing’s shadow enhanced the moonlight; occasionally a shooting star added its quiet drama. We talked about our wives and girlfriends, our children, the ups and downs of work. For reasons I am unsure of, there was little or no talk of sex. We talked also about the day’s fishing, but that gave over to tales of fish we had lost in the past.
I recalled a fish I had hooked in the Florida Keys—a permit, which is a stubborn fish, easily spooked, and a long runner on the flats. Between Man Key and Woman Key. Uncanny. This was before I took up fly fishing, so I was using a spinning rig. My guide and I spotted the permit tailing at a distance, and the guide was able to pole our boat to within casting distance. As luck would have it, I placed a live crab out in front of the permit, and the fish took it. The fish quickly ran out over half the line of my spool, so the guide cranked the motor to follow and close some of the distance. After about twenty or thirty taut minutes of playing the fish, I felt the line suddenly go slack. My guide, a young man with whom I had good rapport, shouted at me, “You horsed it!” Meaning that, in his estimation, I had hauled back too strongly when I should have let the fish continue to run. I have contradicted a guide only twice in my fishing days, and this was one of the times. “I did not horse that fish!” Then we looked at each other and started laughing. And commiserating. I did not horse that fish.
Early the next day a plane swooped over our beach and dropped a small parachute with a canister attached. Glyn retrieved it, pulled out a note, and ran to his plane, yelling that his son had had a heart attack. We watched the Cessna fade into the distance and looked at each other in dismay, not knowing anything but that we were not now our provisioner’s main concern and we were on an island in the Gulf of Mexico without any means of communication.
Thinking back on that moment and the anxiety of isolation, I am reminded of the movie Wind River. The FBI agent Jane, in a tense moment, asks the Native American reservation sheriff Ben, “Shouldn’t we just maybe wait for backup?” Ben replies, “This isn’t the land of waiting for backup, Jane. This is the land of you’re on your own.”
But our man Glyn did return. He said we needed to break camp and head for the mainland. I do not know how his son fared, but Glyn got us back safely, no stalls, no twitching oil gauge.
As it turns out, that Cessna is still in service. On a photo I have of the plane in front of our ramshackle cabin, I identified the N-number, N8422Z, and went to a Federal Aviation Administration database. The plane is registered to Bisti Aviation and owner Donald Sitta, in Farmington, New Mexico. I was able to reach Don by phone. A Vietnam veteran and former commercial pilot, he has restored the Cessna to prime condition. On a CD from the FAA that lists the previous owners, he was able to trace the Cessna back to our Chandelier pilot and fishing guide Glyn Porter, owner 1966–69. The plane had once been stationed on a ranch near Marfa, Texas, that was so big the owner needed a plane for overseeing; it has also had owners in Fayetteville, Georgia; in Gainesville, Florida; and at a foundry in Texas, among others. It was first owned, in 1966, by Delta Aero Service, Greenville, Mississippi. It now has nine thousand hours on it. Don named it Dirty Bird:
Jim, When I purchased the aircraft, I found there were many dirty corners (metaphorically & literally) that needed attention. Open up an inspection plate on the wing and it was long term dirty. Every place you looked it was the same. What a dirty airplane. At that time (mid 90’s) there was a TV advertisement that featured some pigeons flying around looking for something nice to crap on. One of the pigeons was named Dirty Bird.
To learn of the current fishing situation in the Chandeleurs, I picked a charter service online, Due South Charters, in Biloxi, Mississippi, and called. The owner, Greg Thornton, said indeed he ran out to the Chandeleurs regularly, but does not camp out—rather, the anglers have his mothership for lodging. When I told him of my experience in the Chandeleurs, I mentioned flying out there with Glyn Porter. Greg said, wait a minute, realizing that when he was a kid he once flew out there with his father and Glyn. Same plane. The image that had registered most forcefully on him was that of sharks in the water below.
I told him of my experience with the stringer and the shark. He said anglers came to his charter with all kinds of stringer rigs, but he was against most of them, especially a net bag sometimes called a do-net. But the do-net has its online advocates. In answer to an inquiry as to where one might obtain one, a respondent, Bob (a.k.a. E-Man), replies:
There is a model call the do-net available at acadamey
and other outlets . styrofoam ring w/ net bag. works great.
Tip that may save your life!!!
find and purchase an extra ring. take the bag off the first ring and use cable ties to join the 2 rings together . replace the net bag. use a 5’ or less rope to tie this to your belt.
IF YOU WOULD HAPPEN TO GET CAUGHT IN A RIP TIDE IN THE SURF YOU CAN DROP YOUR ROD AND REEL AND LAY ACROSS THE TOP OF YOUR DO-NET , W/ 2 RINGS IT WILL FLOAT YOU.
E-Man Bob was keen on the rip tide danger but did not say what to do if a shark takes your do-net. For my part, I arrived back in Gulfport undrowned and fully limbed, perched on an Igloo full of speckled trout and unopened packages of sliced bologna. Back in the land of backup.