Casting their lots

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BILOXI, Miss. — Charter boat captain Mike Moore knew what was about to happen after a glance at his sonar "fish finder."

"The screen was completely lit up," Moore said later. "When I see that, there's no way the fish aren't going to bite."

At the time, though, he was too excited to express himself so fully. Instead, he turned from the tower on his boat and shouted to the guests on the deck: "Get ready! It's fixin' to happen!"

Within seconds, four of the six rods trolling from the back of his boat bent double, almost in unison. In offshore fishing's version of the Keystone Cops, the anglers on board scrambled for rods and shouted at each other in confusion and delight.

Among a group of high-fiving, wide-smiling fishermen, no one was happier than Moore. He traces his family history back to 1699 and the first French settlers in Biloxi, the capital of French Louisiana from 1720 until 1723. Moore, 35, started working on chartered fishing boats when he was 13 years old. He has a degree in marketing and management from Southeastern Louisiana University and is halfway through a masters program. That formal education will be put to practical use in the field he loves most — fishing. Even Moore's wedding band speaks to that subject; it's engraved with three fish, a cobia, a tuna and a redfish.

And now he's counting on sportfishing to help rebuild the city his family has called home for three centuries.

Two years ago, the Biloxi charter boat business was demolished along with everything else on the 90-mile Mississippi Gulf Coast. When Hurricane Katrina crashed ashore on Aug. 29, 2005, it destroyed virtually everything in its 450-mile-wide path.

Most Americans associate Katrina damage with the national disaster that was New Orleans. But a great deal of the deaths and damage in New Orleans followed the failure of the levees built around that below-sea-level city. It was Katrina's backwash that crushed the Crescent City.

"East of the eyewall" is where you don't want to be when a hurricane hits. Winds can be 40 to 50 mph higher in the right front quadrant than they are west of the eyewall, in the left quadrant. Mississippi's coastline was east of Katrina's eyewall, sticking out like a chin for the full force of Katrina's fist.

Bo Ethridge, a developer in Biloxi and an avid fisherman, remembers having one of those "uh-oh" moments when Katrina hit. Ethridge sent his family packing, but decided to ride out the storm in his Biloxi home. The cacophony of 120-mph winds kept him from hearing a tree crash through the roof of the house.

"How can you not hear a tree come through the roof?" Ethridge said. "That's how loud it was. Yeah, at that point I thought I'd made a big mistake by staying."

Kenny Barhanovich, a lifetime Mississippi Gulf Coast charter boat captain, remembers when Biloxi got hit by a Category 5 Hurricane Camille in August, 1969. It's still considered the second-most intense hurricane in U.S. history, with winds estimated at 200 mph. But Camille lasted "only" about five hours. Katrina's hurricane-force winds persisted for 17.

"It just blew and blew and blew and blew," said Barhanovich, who turns 62 in December. He waited out the storm in his 92-year-old mother's home, located further inland than his house, which got destroyed by the 28- to 30-foot storm surge that Katrina pushed ashore — a surge reported to be the highest ever observed in North America.

"When the sun came up, I opened my mother's front door and just couldn't believe it," Barhanovich said. "All the tops were taken off these 100-year-old pine trees, like grass cut with a lawnmower."

One day later, when Barhanovich was able to survey the damage to his house and the rest of Biloxi's shoreline, he got a bigger shock.

"If you didn't see it, you wouldn't believe it," Barhanovich said. "Seeing it on TV didn't do it justice."

It was the scene that prompted Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to say, "I can only imagine that this is what Hiroshima looked like 60 years ago."

When Mississippi passed legislation to allow casino gambling in 1992, the law required that the gaming areas be built on the water. When the Beau Rivage, Isle of Capri, Imperial Palace and others opened in Biloxi, the casinos were on large barges attached to land-based hotels.

Highway 90, also named Beach Boulevard, parallels the Gulf Coast here. It's lined with beach and casinos on one side and live oaks and antebellum homes on the other. The high winds and storm surge shoved the casinos to the same side of Highway 90 as the antebellum homes. The President's Casino came to rest on a Holiday Inn Express almost a mile inshore.

Those casinos, reincarnated, have fueled the rebuilding of Biloxi. To hasten recovery, Mississippi changed its laws to allow casinos to be built as far as 800 feet from the shore.

The speed of private development versus the slow-motion of government funding is captured in one Biloxi scene today. On one side of Highway 90, the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, stands in ruins. The museum, which will feature the work of George Ohr, Biloxi's famed "Mad Potter," hadn't opened when Katrina hit. The final insurance settlement was announced this past June, laying the groundwork for its reconstruction.

Meanwhile, a few hundred yards east on Highway 90, the bright lights from eight brand spanking new casinos grace the Biloxi shoreline. The Isle of Capri, for one, was open for business in December 2005, less than four months after the storm, using convention space for gambling.

The one thing Katrina didn't damage here was the fishing. Biologists have referred to the Gulf near Biloxi as the center of "the Fertile Fisheries Crescent." Redfish, Spanish and king mackerel, snapper, grouper, speckled trout, jack crevalle, cobia, amberjack, marlin, tuna and various species of sharks are abundant from the shallow waters of the Mississippi Sound to the deep blue sea 70 miles offshore.

At one time, Biloxi was known as "The Seafood Capital of the World." In 1910 the canning factories on the Biloxi coast shipped over 15 million cans of oysters, more than any place else in the world.

"We've got a lot of real good fishing," Barhanovich said. "Big schools of redfish, snapper and king mackerel ball up around here. We couldn't get fuel after Katrina. It took me a month to get my boat out of the river. I had a few calls (for charter trips), but I just told people this is no place to be."

When Barhanovich did get his boat, Miss Hospitality, refueled and running, he took his family out on a red snapper trip, just for fun.

"We could have loaded the boat with big snapper, 10- to 20-pound fish," Barhanovich recalled.

But in the months after Katrina, there was no way to accommodate the clientele he'd built since becoming a full-time charter boat captain in 1974. The storm wiped out most of the hotel and motel rooms in the Biloxi area. The rooms that were available were filled with FEMA employees and construction workers brought in for the ocean of storm assessment, debris removal and reconstruction work that had to be done.

"There were no hotel rooms all the way to Hattiesburg," Moore said. "Some people were driving all the way from Jackson to work here. The construction workers were on 14- and 21-day shifts. Nobody was fishing. That was just the reality of making a living off a business like this.

"We had 100 to 110 charter boats operating before the storm. I can name charter boat captains all day long that went out of business. People had to do other things to make a living. Most of them started swinging a hammer."

Moore's "real job" saved him. He works as the manager for destination sales with the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. With his charter boat experience, Moore hopes to accomplish two goals — bring tourists back to the Biloxi area and restore the charter operations to pre-Katrina levels.

When to hold 'em
Just as in the rapid rebuilding after Katrina, the Gulf Coast casinos provide a foundation for that economy. Bobby Carter has been the Isle of Capri Casino Resort's director of player development for the past 14 years. At first glance, it would seem like casinos and charter boats would be at odds. Why would a casino want its customers spending a day fishing in the Gulf when they could be gambling instead?

"Two reasons," Carter answered. "One, fishermen love to gamble. Two, gamblers love to fish."

That's why Carter and "Marlin Magazine" founder Bill McLellan helped start the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic in 1997. That first year, the tournament required a $2,500 entry fee.

"People told us we were crazy," Carter said. "They didn't think anybody would pay $2,500 to fish in a tournament at Biloxi."

To sweeten the pot, Carter purchased an insurance policy that guaranteed $100,000 to a tournament participant who broke the Mississippi blue marlin record, which at that time was 485 pounds.

"Louisiana's state record was over 1,000 pounds," Carter said. "Alabama's was over 700 pounds. The northern Gulf in Florida was over 700 pounds." In Mississippi, the record was a mere 485 pounds.

Carter hoped for 20 boats that first year. After seven months of promotion, he had 60. And sure enough, 18-year-old Shannon Faulkner of Windner, Ga., fishing from his grandfather's boat, weighed in a 631.8-pound blue marlin and collected a total of $130,000 in the first Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic. (A much larger fish, a 917-pound blue marlin, was disqualified due to large motor prop slashes on the fish, a violation of International Game Fish Association standards.)

The tournament, which also has divisions for tuna, dolphin and wahoo, has grown with similar assaults on the Mississippi record book since then:

1999 The Classic became a qualifying event for the World Billfish Series, and another state record fell with an 837.1-pound bluefin tuna.

2001 Total entrants topped 100, and another state record fell with a 205.8-pound yellowfin tuna.

2002 A new Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi state record was set when Barry Carr landed a 1,054.6-pound blue marlin.

2004 Cash and prizes exceeded the $1 million mark as 426 anglers from 16 states were represented in the 106-boat tournament.

2006 The Classic became the first national event to be held in Biloxi since Hurricane Katrina.

After the first tournament, the Classic entry fee was raised to $5,000. The big money is in the optional tournament, where entry fees for all categories are $37,000. It represents a confluence of fishing and gambling, in which teams essentially can bet on themselves against the other competitors.

Carter might be proudest of the '06 tournament because of all the sacrifices made to hold the event. When the Isle of Capri reopened after the storm, there was still no marina open for business and no electricity available at the tournament site, near the casino.

Boats were allowed to leave from different ports, but they had to weigh in in Biloxi, where portable generators were supplied by Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Show Management. When 73 boats entered the tournament, it was a sign that Biloxi was returning to normal.

This past June, with temporary power still required, the tournament attracted 99 entries, demonstrating its pre-storm popularity had remained intact. (The tournament entry high-water mark is 110 boats in 2003.)

"The fishing is so good here; almost everyone weighs-in fish," Carter said. "We attract great crowds to see the boats weigh-in. Hopefully, this year people realized that good times have come back to the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

A handful of marinas are in operation again, further signaling a return to normalcy. It's from Point Cadet Marina, near the Isle of Capri, that Moore hopes to resurrect the charter boat industry. Beginning in March 11, 2008, and continuing every other Tuesday through Nov. 4, a tournament series called "Hooked Up Tuesdays" begins.

With a $250 entry fee, top three prize money of $1,500, $1,000 and $500, and optional tournament pots available, Moore hopes to create a boon for anglers, charter boats, casinos and Gulf Coast saltwater fishing as a whole.

"The charter boat business is fun to be in, and you can make money at it, if all the planets are aligned," Moore said. "People are fascinated with catching something big. As long as they catch something big, it doesn't matter what it is."

Structure of the deep
"Big" is a relative term. For someone who has experienced nothing but freshwater angling, a 20-pound redfish or red snapper might be the fish of a lifetime. But the species possibilities and the size of those species are almost too numerous to mention, and they're what makes the entire U.S. Gulf Coast special.

On a recent two-day trip to Biloxi, a five-angler group spent a day aboard the "Jig-A-Low" with captain Stephen Kuljis in the blue water, 70 miles off the coast, bobbing among offshore oil rigs. The trophy fish they sought — wahoo — didn't cooperate. When one of the anglers managed to hook an amberjack, a barracuda chomped it off at the head.

But Kuljis, like Moore, has been working on charter boats since he was a teenager, and can usually salvage a day when the gamble for a trophy fish doesn't pay off.

A charter boat captain would give up his client list before he would fork over the list of GPS coordinates he has accumulated over the years. Some artificial reef structure in the Gulf includes World War II Liberty cargo ships and Sherman tanks. Their coordinates are generally available to the public through the various state conservation agencies. But there is plenty of other structure that can only be found through years of experience in these waters. "Wrecks" is a loose term, used to describe any sort of offshore, fish-holding structure.

"Private wrecks, secret stuff, it takes years to collect that," Kuljis said. "I've got over 200 spots in my book. And I keep it in a locked, fire-safe box."

It came in handy that day, when Kuljis pulled up on a nondescript spot in the Gulf, threw out a marker buoy and kept his boat hovering around it, in 180 feet of water, while his anglers caught their limits of fat red snapper.

When you're trophy fishing, you can't expect success every time out. But it's always nice to get your line stretched, even if it's not by a wahoo, before the day is over.

Kuljis and Moore have known each other since high school. While the Biloxi-Gulfport area has grown considerably in the past 20 years, it still has a small-town feel. The longtime charter boat captains here know each other and share information (to a point) to ensure that everyone's clients go home happy.

Moore demonstrated that the next day when his four anglers reeled in jack crevalle, sand sharks and, reluctantly, strained under the pull of sting rays before another captain radioed Moore about a big school of redfish a few miles offshore, near Ship Island.

That's when Moore's sonar screen blazed yellow and four rods bowed. No matter how heavy the tackle, a 30-plus-inch redfish will test your stamina. Earlier that day, one 24-year-old, relatively fit fisherman said, "I don't have anything left," while halfway into landing a 30-pound jack crevalle.

Although the hookup failed on one rod this time, the huffing and puffing started anew and continued in triplicate until three redfish were on board. The fish measured 33, 35 and 36 inches in length, respectively. Guesstimated weight — 25 to 30 pounds apiece.

"There were probably 10,000 fish in that school," Moore said. "Easy. Ten thousand."

Neither Moore, nor Kuljis nor Barhanovich — Biloxi residents and charter boat captains to the core — thought about leaving after Katrina hit.

Even though Barhanovich lost his 30-year client list and had his personal possessions reduced to what would fit in a five-gallon bucket. And even though Kuljis housed his parents, his wife's parents, his brother and five dogs for several months after the storm. And even though Moore's 1,000-square-foot cypress-built rent house floated 100 yards off its foundation and was found by county workers three weeks after Katrina, buried under the debris pile as tall as the telephone poles in D'Iberville.

None of that deterred them from remaining in Biloxi.

"Anybody kin to me and my wife within 150 miles of here lost everything they had," Moore said. "It was crazy, man. That's the only way to put it.

"I guess we're all stupid. We all live near the water."

Stupid? No.

Resilient? Yes.

Optimistic? Definitely.

"It's coming back," Moore said of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in general and the charter boat fishing business in particular. "It's coming back."

(See www.gulfcoast.org for more information on charter boat fishing in the Mississippi Gulf Coast area and "Hooked Up Tuesdays" tournaments.)