Spear-Fishing for Flounder in Bay St. Louis Noah Adams goes spear-fishing for flounder in Bay St. Louis, the Mississippi town hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina last August. His fishing partner is Doug Niolet, a retired Hurricane Hunter pilot who flew into the eye of Hurricane Katrina two days before it made landfall on the Gulf Coast.
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Spear-Fishing for Flounder in Bay St. Louis

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Spear-Fishing for Flounder in Bay St. Louis

Spear-Fishing for Flounder in Bay St. Louis

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Because of hurricane Katrina and reporting assignments, I have come to know a lot of people in Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast. On my last trip I had a chance to go floundering. I met a guy named Doug Niolet, in his town of Bay St. Louis. He said yeah, we'll go out, the moons dark and that's good, I'll check on the tide and the wind. And when the time came, we met on the beach, he showed me a wooden pole, with a steel spike on the end, and his floundering light.

So tell me what that is.

Mr. DOUG NIOLET (Fishermen, Mississippi): That's just a Coleman lantern that's modified with the reflective pan, so that it reflects the light away toward the water. I just run in on propane now. It used to be with the fuel you would pump up to light - from here would just head out to the water and look for the flounders.

(Soundbite of water)

ADAMS: We leave his truck and my car up by the road and wade out into the Bay of St. Louis, which opens directly into the Gulf of Mexico. It is just after 2:00 a.m., dark, the air is moist, the salt water warm, the tide is streaming out. Doug's light reveals wavy patterns in the sand a couple of feet below the surface.

Mr. NIOLET: (unintelligible) by now.

ADAMS: Doug Niolet hasn't been floundering for about three years - just hasn't, he says. Usually a couple of people go together. Doug's father, he tells me, liked to go out alone.

Mr. NIOLET: I used to fly a lot, till midnight, in the Air Force reserves. And I'd come home and I could tell me dad because his light was always was doing like this, big sweeps, and I'd just stop and walk out there and he'd be out there floundering by himself.

(Soundbite of water)

ADAMS: His father died of a heart attack a few years back, and Doug still has his Dad's light and flounder gig. He found them above the waterline, after the storm surge backed out of his town.

Mr. NIOLET: You want to make sure you're back behind the light.

ADAMS: Doug Niolet is 55, grey hair, glasses, a few pounds heavier than he had planned to be when he retired this past spring. He is wearing a green t-shirt that says Hurricane Hunters. He flew the WC-130Js out of Keesler Air Force Base, flying into the hurricanes, gathering data. He did it for more than 20 years.

(Soundbite of water)

Mr. NIOLET: Now, right where my light is shining is a shape of a flounder, right over there.

ADAMS: We've been dragging our feet along the bottom to keep from splashing, wearing old running shoes to avoid glass and shards of metal and the stingrays. With the light we see minnows and green needle fish and crabs, but we are looking for a discoloration of the sand, a shadow in the shape of a flounder.

Mr. NIOLET: See that over there?

ADAMS: Flounders were coming close to shore and settle themselves with a flapping motion. They hide under a thin layer of sand, waiting for a meal of tiny fish.

But there are other dark shadows.

Mr. NIOLET: But you don't see the shape of that flounder?

ADAMS: I see the shape of the flounder, yeah.

Mr. NIOLET: Okay.

ADAMS: I take the light and Doug takes a solid stance, raises the gig high, pointing straight down and strikes.

Mr. NIOLET: Just go right for the head.

(Sound of fish being speared)

Mr. NIOLET: Hold the light, and go up under his - under him. And there he be, that's the flounder.

ADAMS: A leader is strung through the flounders gill and mouth, and a short vigorous struggle comes to an end. We keep on waiting and trying to spot flounder, and at 3:30 in the morning a train comes from the East across the bay. The CXX Freightliner, it was wrecked during the storm and quickly put right again.

A nearby highway bridge - a U.S. highway - is still down.

Mr. NIOLET: We're going to head on toward the bridge.

ADAMS: I was thinking about Katrina, and figured this might be a good time to ask Doug Niolet about his experience. I knew he'd been a hurricane pilot. I'd also heard that he'd stayed home in Bay St. Louis when the water and the winds came. Doug said on the Friday before the storm he and his crew were flying overnight, a 10-hour mission down on the Gulf. They crossed the eye of Katrina five times, emailing back and forth to the Hurricane Center in Miami. He later told a friend this could be the bad one that gets us.

(Soundbite of water)

Mr. NIOLET: I want to go to the right for a little while.

ADAMS: On Saturday morning he landed, and that afternoon drove home to help with the boarding-up. Sunday he called Keesler Air Force Base, expecting to do what he always did, go with the planes. They would fly to a safer place. But this time, the last plane was already leaving for Texas.

Mr. NIOLET: So then the plan was to just evacuate. My wife and my mother-in-law was evacuated, my daughter. And so that was the game plan.

ADAMS: As Doug Niolet puts it, the girls left town. He decided to stay. He and some friends gathered at a bed and breakfast, a very old, very sturdy house. It turned out to be the wrong choice.

Mr. NIOLET: Of all the buildings we had options to stay in, the only one that is totally gone is the one we stayed in.

ADAMS: Bay St. Louis, Mississippi sits on a bluff more than 20 feet above sea level, but the storm surge was higher. Monday morning, August 29, Doug Niolet, in the house with Nadine and Dick Stan(ph), three other friends, and two dogs, tried to climb away from the storm.

Mr. NIOLET: Once the water got so high we decided our nest on the first floor wasn't probably good, we'd go to the second floor. But as we go to the second floor, the roof is being blown off. The bottom floor with the stairs gets washed out from under us and the top floor became a boat, and a very poor boat at that.

The walls started coming in on top of us, so our only option was to step out on the debris, then find a tree to get into. But on announcing that, Nadine says, I can't swim, I'm not going anywhere. But she did step out of the house, and she laid down on a roof section that was kind of rough, and her husband laid behind her and she was clutching her medicine.

He was a heart survivor, he was a cancer survivor. And the dog, Bear, who had been on a leash for the longest time, finally Steve had convinced Sara to turn him loose and take the collar off because it was going to kill him or her or both trying to hold on to that dog.

Bear and Dick and Nadine just floated off what we thought to Never Never Land, you know. We didn't have much hope for them surviving, but they did.

ADAMS: It took 31/2 hours for Katrina to pass through the town of Bay St. Louis. Doug Niolet spent a lot of that time in a tree. Waves would rise over his head. He'd hold his legs up to avoid debris. He would find out later in the day that all of his friends from the house made it. One was severely injured, and both dogs were okay.

(Soundbite of water lapping)

ADAMS: I'm still seeing in my head the story that Doug just told me. But Doug, even while talking, has been paying attention to the flounder.

Mr. NIOLET: Surely there's one more flounder out here, but it might not be in the cards tonight.

(Soundbite of metallic tapping)

ADAMS: It is now 4:00 in the morning. It's been a good night to be awake and out on the water with Doug Niolet, listening to the stories of life along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

Mr. NIOLET: A lot of the times when I go floundering by myself I used to have this big dog named Buddy. And Buddy would go with me, and he was a good dog, didn't make too much racket as long as you got him deep enough, but Buddy and I would go floundering and then we'd go to the good life, Ernie's Bar afterwards. That's when they let Buddy in there. After a while they decided you can't be bringing a dog in here. It's not right. So we had to quit going in. He'd have to stay outside.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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