Buddy Russell is in his element, sitting on the wharf at his Point Clear home. Gazing upon Mobile Bay is a constant reminder of his 40 years in fishing. But to Buddy, the aquatic outdoors provides more than just a pretty view. It offers adventure.
He recalls tales of pursuing speckled trout in missions covering 100 miles, fishing by day and sleeping on boats or in tents by night. Buddy fished with friends, often traveling in two or more vessels during a three-day journey at sea. Occasionally, as they commandeered open waters, friendly fire between boats erupted; manning cannons with ill intent, the crews launched barrages of water balloons at one another.
There was also the time the Eastern Shore angler chartered a boat whose captain, Buddy suspects to this day, was a pirate — at least by demeanor. Buddy also learned speckled trout devotees were not always human, and he has the shark tales to prove it.
But wow, what a ride. “It was so much fun,” Buddy, now 77, says, recounting days when schools of specks were measured in square miles. “Let me tell you about it,” he adds, as we sit on his wharf unfolding a nautical map and popping tops from two Coronas.
And just like that, the fisherman sets his hook, reliving adventures spanning almost a half century. You may fish for specks. You may travel by boat. And you may be cool. But you are not Buddy Russell cool.
“Now, I am no expert,” he says. “I started speck fishing in the 1960s and fell in love with wade fishing.”
He adamantly states that wade fishing is not surf fishing. Surf fishers are usually onshore, often within sight of their hotel rooms. Wade fishers often travel by boat for miles, as Buddy and company did. Once a good spot is secured, they go overboard and slowly walk through knee-deep-or-higher saltwater, casting lines and reeling in specks.
Wade fishers are limited only by water depth. One might stay near the vessel or far away from it. “There are guys better than me at wade fishing, but nobody loves it more than I do,” Buddy smiles.
“The best speck fishing back in the 1960s through the ’80s was around the Chandeleur Islands,” he recalls. The uninhabited 50 miles of small islands in the Gulf of Mexico start at coastal Mississippi and stretch almost to the mouth of the Mississippi River. Getting there, Buddy remembers, was half the fun. In the early days, Buddy and friends chartered “head” boats. “If you remember the old Humphrey Bogart movie, The African Queen, our charter resembled that boat. It reached top speeds of about 8 miles per hour.”
The fishermen would cast off from Bayou La Batre in the afternoon and sleep all night on board as the vessel set a course for coastal Mississippi or Louisiana. They’d awakened the next morning in the Chandeleur Islands. “The boat had the converted hull of a shrimp boat with no air conditioning, but it was comfortable and worth it,” Buddy adds.
The crew disembarked their African Queen on small skiffs and ventured into shallow water. From skiffs, they jumped out, wading, casting and reeling in fish for two and a half days. “I think my record speck trout haul is about 40 in one trip,” Buddy says.
The Chandeleur Islands offer much diversity. The Gulf side provides typical wade fishing. The inland side has grassy beds, attracting bait fish which draw specks. But that’s not all.
“The key to speck fishing is to go where the mullet are,” Buddy says. “The two feed together. Mullet schools often mean speckled trout schools.”
On one trip, fishing companion Greg Leatherbury shouted, “Y’all need to come over here!” Greg was in a school of mullet that covered acres. “Suddenly, the water literally exploded,” Buddy recounts. Mullet leapt from the waves like Polaris missiles.
It was then that large fins breached the water’s surface. Greg was being corralled by sharks. Much like the leaping mullet, the fishermen ran to their boats as fast as wading boots allowed. Fortunately, the sharks were more interested in eating mullet than people.
“It was scary,” Buddy recalls of the Jaws encounter. “Greg had transformed from the hunter to the hunted.”
To pass the hours of boat travel, Buddy and friends in another seacraft often waged war against one another with water balloon battles. They (the other side) had a huge launcher, comparable to military grade, only for water balloons. It was a two-man operation. One guy loaded the launcher. The other guy pulled back the sling and let it go.
At first it was amusing, as they were not very good at it. But then, with practice, their aim became more precise and the opposing boatmen ducked for cover.
They eventually stopped maritime ballooning when, one morning, a surprise attack almost took Buddy’s eyeglasses off.
There was also the time “Captain Bligh” was hired as charter boat captain. “I can’t remember his real name,” Buddy says, “but Captain Bligh (the tyrannical chief officer from the movie, Mutiny on the Bounty) fits. He let you know who was boss.”
Bligh insisted his two-man crews return to the boat at sunset. Now, Buddy and friend defined sunset as the astronomical phenomenon of earth’s orange star visibly setting in the horizon. Wrong.
The captain meant the official world time clock for the sun setting on that specific day. At that point in time, Bligh hoisted anchor and left.
“We saw him leaving and jumped in our skiff, finally catching up to him and boarding the vessel,” the forlorn fisherman adds. The trip home was somewhat awkward as Mutiny on the Bounty Part Two was contemplated.
But overall, life was good at the Chandeleur Islands. The water was crystal clear, and the fishing was great. After about a half-century chasing speckled trout, Buddy could write a book about lessons learned.
His first rule for those wanting to jump over the side of the boat and wade fish: “Always ensure your boat is well anchored and secure. Fishermen have drowned while attempting to swim out to their unmoored vessel drifting away.”
He adds, “You never want to see a porpoise. Speckled trout are a delicacy for porpoises and speckled trout know it. At the first sight of a porpoise, specks take off — gone in a flash. You might as well leave, too.”
As for gear: “Some speck fishermen look like they stepped out of an Orvis catalog. They are dressed to the hilt. Others go fishing with the bare minimum, and that would be me,” Buddy says. “Less is best.”
Another gear tip: Never use wire stringer cable which fish cannot bite through. “I was fishing when a shark started eating the fish on my stringer,” the angler recalls. “I beat the shark’s head with my fishing rod, and it swam away, or so I thought.”
Moments later, Buddy was almost jerked into the water as the shark returned, grabbed the line connected to the fisherman’s belt and swam away with the entire stringer of fish.
When asked if he knew what type of shark it was, Buddy laughs. “Eh, no. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.” The moral of the story is: Do not use wire stringer. A shark cannot bite through it either, which means it could lead you like a kite on a string.
As for stingrays: “I’ve seen them 4 feet long,” the saltwater wader says. “Always shuffle your feet when wading so you don’t step on a ray. I also wear lightweight wading boots that I can get out of easily if necessary.”
The 1970s and ’80s brought changes to speckled trout fishing and the Chandeleur Islands. Not all was for the better. Boats became bigger, faster and more luxurious. Fifteen-hour trips to a good fishing spot at Breton Island (a Chandeleur Island chain favorite) could now be accomplished in 4 to 6 hours, depending on the destination. Also, more people were fishing. It became crowded.
Local casinos established offshore opulent houseboats, literally hotels at sea, complete with cooks, nice beds, air-conditioning and other amenities. “They were floating Taj Mahals,” Buddy says. “The staff ran anglers to the good spots and, after a day of fishing, brought them back to the luxurious houseboats or casinos.”
He refers to the fishers’ population explosion as one of the three-way punches that would be the Chandeleur Island’s demise. The second punch was Hurricane Katrina. “That storm just clobbered the islands,” Buddy says. The third factor was the BP oil spill. “It killed the grass beds, which destroyed bait fish habitats. Speckled trout need to feed on those bait fish.”
Years have passed since Buddy last made the 50-to-70-mile-by-sea venture to the Chandeleur Islands. “There is not as much fishing there now,” he laments. “But I’ve heard it’s making a comeback. The grass beds are growing again, but the islands are not like they were.”
He looks back with nostalgia at the times he and great friends shared — such as when one of their eight cars towing eight boats in a caravan broke down on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge. Of course, the other seven vehicles and watercraft pulled over to help their friend in need, making Team Buddy about as popular in New Orleans as canceling Mardi Gras.
Today, he continues his quest for speckled trout, but, this time, closer to home. “Specks are a great fighting fish and good eating,” Buddy says. Typical fishing spots include Dauphin Island, Sand Island and the Fort Morgan area.
“In my early days, it was all about catching fish,” he reflects. “I still love fishing, but now I appreciate the tranquility of nature, the beauty of birds and just listening to the surf.”
All of these conditions are in place today as he gazes upon Mobile Bay’s vista on the Eastern Shore. We watch a relaxing sunset from the wharf, sipping our Coronas. And there’s not a single worry of having to catch up with Captain Bligh.