MY BUDDY DON LIVES on a bayou in Mississippi. He fly-fishes all the time. His girlfriend is a Pilates instructor who likes to bake bacon pralines. Don's got the life.
To get me some of that life, I convinced Don to show me the Pascagoula River swamp, just east of his home. The Pascagoula is one of the largest free-flowing rivers in the lower 48. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of it; the Pascagoula is the Gulf Coast's best-kept secret. It has no whitewater. What it does have is the biodiversity of a tropical rainforest. Its bayous weave through 9,600 square miles of wilderness. At least 109 species of fish have been found in the Pascagoula, including endangered ones like the Gulf sturgeon, which has been nosing through these waters for 63 million years. Hundreds of bird species depend on the swamp. Ivory-billed woodpeckers are rumored to still haunt it.
Don and I met up with Gene Cossey, a 23-year-old guide for the South Coast Paddling Company. Gene lives near the swamp, and from the time he could walk, he's been eating things from it: bass, mullet, gar, redfish, crappie, crawfish, frog, duck, nutria, beaver. Gene is locally renowned for his stir-fried Szechuan beaver.
We put in our kayaks at a place called Poticaw Bayou and slipped beneath a canopy of oak, sweet gum, and swamp maple. Floating shacks, fish camps, and, in one case, what appeared to be a camper driven onto a barge lined the main channel; many were decorated with antlers, skulls, fishing poles, grills, and sofas on the porches. "Certain people out here you don't want to meet," Gene allowed.
A few miles downstream, bald cypress took over, jutting their skeletal selves out of the marsh grass, platforms for osprey nests. By midday the trees gave way to reeds. No shade. Mississippi. July. Sweat. After convincing Gene to take us frog-gigging that night (Don had told me that Gene's grilled frog legs were to die for), we retreated to Don's for some Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale.
At dusk we slid Gene's skiff into an old oxbow lake. Cypress trees dripping Spanish moss rose out of the shallows like columns in an ancient flooded temple. We poled the skiff through them, breaking spiderwebs with our faces. Alligators' red eyes submerged as we passed. Tree frogs trilled in the ferns. Cicadas crackled. Croak croak went the banks. Something about cypress swamps tugs at your inner hunter-gatherer.
Don froze a bullfrog in our spotlight high on one bank. It was the size of a goddamn chicken. I squatted in the bow with my right arm pulled back, the ten-foot spiked metal gig in my hand. We inched toward shore. "Hold still, baby," I whispered. At last I was within range. I waited, took a breath, and jabbed—way, way too slow. The tip of my gig thwacked into the bank as the frog launched itself straight at my head. I made the kind of squeak that no man in a Mississippi swamp should ever make. The frog glided past my ear into the water. Somebody snickered. And my inner hunter-gatherer started thinking about the rest of the beer back at Don's.
EXPENSE REPORT: Two nights at the Days Inn Moss Point Pascagoula (daysinn.com): $132; or at Bluff Creek Campgrounds, 20 minutes from Poticaw Bayou (bluffcreekcampground.com): $60. Full-day guided kayak tour (southcoastpaddling.com; ask for Gene): $60. Evening guided frog gigging (ask Gene real nice): $60. Two out-of-state small-game licenses (mdwfp.com): $69. Boiled peanuts for lunch: $4. Two shrimp Creole dinners at Aunt Jenny's Catfish in Ocean Springs (228-875-9201): $30. One six-pack of Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company's Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale: $8. Total: $291–$363