Riviera Roulette

Betting the Farm on the Gulf Coast

May 28, 2009
Outside Magazine
Paddling, St.George Island

Paddling, St.George Island    Photo: courtesy of Journeys of St. George Island


Spend four days with your better half, a guide, and your pick of the thousands of tiny islands that pepper Maine's coast. Carpe Diem's 51-mile trip starts and ends in Jonesport, passes some 40 islands, and laps nesting puffins on the granite outposts of the Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge. $500 per person, food and tents included; June–October; carpediemkayaking.com


IN LOCAL VERNACULAR, the 400-mile stretch of barrier islands and antebellum traditions between New Orleans and Tallahassee is affectionately referred to as the Redneck Riviera. The name alone made me think $500 would easily sustain a three-day road trip—my only goals were to consume as much shellfish as possible and catch a few redfish. Plus my buddy Mace, a Tallahassee native, has a black belt in budget travel.

Now, 36 hours and 320 miles in, I'm contemplating calling Outside HQ to ask for more bread. The ugly budgeting started where so many trips go wrong—on Bourbon Street, where we downed four sazeracs and consumed two dozen oysters. Then there were the ten pounds of crawfish in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and a night of bushwhackers at the legendary Flora-Bama bar, near Pensacola. Even some good fortune at a Biloxi, Mississippi, roulette table—one bet on black and we walked out $20 richer—didn't bail us out.

"We're screwed," I say over bad doughnuts and worse coffee in Panama City.

"Well then," Mace says. "Time to go fishing." So we do.

A friend, Breck, has agreed to meet us on St. George Island for some redfishing. The 28-mile-long barrier island was sliced in half in the fifties by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Cut, as the locals call the channel in between, is full of barnacled jetty rocks and teeming with big, ugly redfish. With Breck piloting his 17-foot Montauk, Mace pulls in two keepers; me, nothing. I head to nearby Eastpoint to buy a cooler full of salty Apalachicola Bay oysters, and that night, camping at St. George Island State Park, we eat ourselves sick.

The next morning, Mace catches fish. Breck catches fish. I catch the bottom. On the penultimate pass, Mace hooks a 30-incher and hands me the rod. Rather than punch him, I reel it up in silence. On our final drift, I feel a tug and yank my rod up; it bends in half. Twenty minutes later, a 37-inch bull red rolls to the surface and we pull it aboard for pictures—bragging rights for the year. When we arrive in Tallahassee that night, I realize we've somehow come in under budget, so we blow the remaining money on cheap beer to use as bartering chips for grilled oysters at a cookout we find. Fishing is good like that. Especially when your buddy owns the boat.

EXPENSE REPORT Three-day car rental: $232. Miscellaneous calories from boiled peanuts, shellfish, and cocktails: $83. One night at the Passport Inn (850-769-2101), in Panama City: $69. Campsite: $20. Fishing licenses: $34. Bait: $11. Total, with boat-owning buddy: $449. If you don't have a boat, rent a $60 kayak on St. George Island (sgislandjourneys.com) and paddle on the mainland side of the island to the far end of the Cut, where you can fish from shore. Avoid going in the red by betting on black (+$20).