NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Sitting atop the Mississippi River levee where Leake Avenue joins Oak Street, angler Marshell Johnson launched a strip of calf liver on a moon-shot cast that didn't splash down for almost 40 yards.
It seemed like over-kill; the cafe-au-lait tide of the 2011 flood was rolling southward less than 10 feet below her perch. But Johnson was on a mission: topping the 40-pound catfish she hauled from the river the day before.
"Today I'm after the real river monster," she laughed. "Yeah, that 40-pounder was biiiiiiig! But that was yesterday.
"That river monster better watch out. I know he's out there, and he better know I'm coming for him."
Johnson knows he's out there because she's a longtime river angler. Unlike the scores of newbies who have hauled fishing gear to the levees during this near-record high water season, Johnson has been fishing the river most of her 45 years, working the levee for catfish several days a week with the same crew casting next to her today - son Terrance Johnson, 21, and brother Pete "Dead Eye" Harrington, 46.
They sport the gear of river veteran: five-gallon plastic buckets that serve as carry-alls and seats; two or three long spinning rods for casting distance and reels filled with heavy-pound test to handle river monsters; old spark plugs for sinkers and a bucket of smelly baits to leave scent trails that catfish can follow through the murky water.
This Metairie fishing family has a boat they use to pursue specks and reds in coastal marshes from Cocodrie to Hopedale. But when they want big-game action, they turn to the river winding through the heart of the metro area.
Regular river anglers like this crew know 40-pound cats are almost common, and that a day spent along the levee almost always will result in a pile of catfish large enough to feed the neighborhood, much less the family. In fact, the state record 110-pound monster was hauled from the river near St. Francisville.
Many in the crowds of non-anglers walking the levees this month to witness the flood expressed surprise not only that the river has fish, but very big fish, to boot. That's because most times the river fishing action is hidden from view. Anglers are not on top of the levee, but down near the river bank, often sitting between willow trees or woody shrubs where the batture meets the river.
As the river rises in the spring, however, the action moves away from the bank and into the open. And when, like this year, we get a really high river, anglers can be seen casting from the levee crown, conversation pieces for walkers, joggers and cyclists using the recreational path.
Better still for all those occasional anglers and wannabes, a high river also means the fishing action is accessible to everyone.
"The fishing gets better when the water gets high and covers the bank, but we catch fish here all year long - summer, winter, whenever," said Terrance Johnson. "When it gets up like this, it makes it easier for a lot of folks, because they can see the water, and they don't have to walk down there off the levee.
"But for us, it don't matter where the water is. Up here, down there. We know it's got fish."
And just like when they're cruising the marshes, the Johnson clan has its favorite spots: The Fly in Audubon Park, the river's bend across from Ochsner Foundation Hospital, the Bonnet Carre Spillway and the end of Leake Road, known by anglers as "The Powerline" because of the huge power line tower dominating the scene.
"We fish all over, up and down the levee," Marshell Johnson said, "because I'm going to find that river monster."
Fishing can be good almost anywhere where the river bank is open to public access in the metro area. Just be careful to park in a legal spot.
You'll want a medium to light-heavy action casting rod and a medium-action reel spooled with 25- to 40-pound test line.
Catfish will be feeding mostly by smell in this murky water. There are commercial blood baits as well as farm-raised night crawlers at major sporting good stores and bait shops.
This is bottom fishing. Carolina rig works fine. Just make sure you have two or more ounces of weight to keep the bait down, especially if you're fishing a spot with steady current. Circle hooks are the best choice and will prevent you from losing many fish.
A good, long-nosed pair of pliers for removing the hooks from the tough, elastic mouths of these big fish is essential.
A folding chair is necessary, and rod holders you can plant in the soil are also a good idea. Bring along a good hat and even a radio or MP3 player to help pass the time. You'll also want some heavy cord to use as a stringer to keep your catch fresh.
Just cast out as far onto the batture as you can, take in the slack and hold on. Strikes will be sudden and hard. These big cats won't play with the bait, so as soon as you feel a tug, strike back with a hard hook-set.
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com