Thursday, July 21, 2011

Exploring Gulf Coast Barrier Islands in Driftboat

Five Days in April 2008

As we prepared the boat for launch a sun wrinkled local man walked up and asked, "Are ya'll going out today?" Yes Sir.  "In that boat?" Yes Sir.  "Your going to die.  There is a 6 foot chop out in the bay."  The wind was blowing about 30 knots and it did look pretty gnarly out there but we had driven all the way from Little Rock and had to give it a try.  Darryl and I had discussed the situation prior to this warning and had decided to go ahead and  see what it was like out there.  We could always turn around if it got too rough for us.  We finished loading the boat and parked the truck and trailer at the Hard Rock Casino parking lot in Biloxi Mississippi. 

Map of our trip
The barrier islands south of Biloxi consisted of Horn, East and West Ship, Deer, and Cat Islands.  They are about 8 to 10 miles off the coast of Alabama. Our plan was to motor out toward East Ship Island in our 16 foot wooden drift boat and camp.  We could then explore East Ship and nearby islands and hopefully eat some fresh fish along the way. Our 5 hp Nissan four stroke motor could run about 100 miles on 3 gallons of gas so we had plenty of range.  It gets better gas mileage than my truck! 

Soon after launching we turned the boat into the wind and hit 2 foot chop.  The wind was still very strong.  I brought a GPS and could track our progress and keep us on route.  There was a lot of spray in the air and visibility was about 2 miles.  As we headed toward East Ship Island, I kept an eye on the GPS and it consistently gave me an ETA of 11 hours to the island.  That would put us there after midnight.  My 5 hp motor just couldn't push through the wind and waves.  After trying for about 30 minutes we gave it up and went to plan B, which was to head to Deer Island downwind only a mile and camp there for the night and hope for better weather. 

Our first camp on Deer Island

It was a good decision.  We caught supper and had a pleasant time fishing and making camp.  The next morning the wind had subsided and we thought we had a good chance of making it to E. Ship Island.  We loaded the gear and headed out.  The GPS gave us favorable readings with an ETA of 3.5 hours.  The waves started out small but grew as we headed out into the bay.  After about 30 minutes of motoring we were in some nasty confused water with 6 to 8 foot waves.  I was nervous.  Maybe the local's warning was legit.  We were literally the only boat I saw on the bay that day except for a 40 ft. sailboat.  No other small craft but this driftboat.  I had never been out in the Gulf with this boat and I didn't know how it would handle the conditions. 

All senses alert as we negotiate the nasty conditions

 I was quickly gaining confidence in the boat as it rode wave after wave like a champ.  I soon found out just how maneuverable the boat is.  I could quickly turn the boat into a wave, ride up the side, and turn it sideways down the wave to keep it from slamming down the backside of the wave.  It was one hell of a ride.  We were both soaked from spray and had to bail the boat out three of four times.  It was so rough a ride there were no piss breaks, if you had to go you just had to let it run down your legs.  We finally made visual contact with the island after two and a half hours.  Just over three hours we made landfall.  I was one happy fellow and really felt a strong sense of accomplishment. 

West tip of East Ship Island(good fishing!)
East Ship Island is a barren isolated spit of sand and felt more so with the weather we had.  We had landed on a sandy beach on the eastern tip and quickly noticed the osprey nests not too far from shore.  The park service had placed a do not enter fence around the rookery to conserve the nexting area.  We rested a bit and then loaded up to find I suitable camping area and headed toward the western tip of the island. We set up camp and went off to fish, landing several nice speckled trout.

Our camp on the western tip of East Ship Island

East Ship Island Pelicans. This is the rough water we road in on.

The next morning we decided to head east to Horn Island.  It looked to be around 4 miles away and the weather had turned very nice.  We made Horn without a problem.  The water had turned from the muddy confused water into calm clear tropical water.  We got our fishing gear out and fished the northern bank of Horn, looking for a nice camp spot along the way.  About midway on the north shore of Horn we came across the ruins of an old military ammunition bunker. 
Baby bull shark caught on Horn Island

We decided to camp there.  We set up camp and started fishing and it was good.  We caught speckled trout, redfish, and one shark.  We only kept a couple of fish for supper and released the rest.  Darryl and I motored around the island and into lagoons and shallows.  The driftboat proved to be an incredible exploring machine, needing very little gas and very quiet. It was able to handle a huge variety of conditions from 8 inch deep water to 8 foot waves.

Cruising along the north shore of Horn Island

Approaching storm from the South

The next morning brought another stormy day and wind from the north.  We were headed home that day and it would be another bumpy ride heading straight into the wind.  This was our first trip to the Gulf Coast Barrier Islands and we would eventually make two more.  We were able to see these wonderful islands before the BP oil spill that has caused so much environmental and economical damage to the area.  I haven't gone back since the spill.  I just don't want to see the damage.  Maybe someday.

1) Mosquitos are bad! Camp near tip of island away from vegetation and where there is wind.
2) Bring a strong tent that can handle the wind.
3) No water on Horn or East Ship.  You must bring it all.
4) Make sure the boat is well secured to shore or anchor (we almost lost ours).
5) Be prepared for sand in EVERYTHING including food.
6) The driftboat was perfect for what we did.
7) Camp high enough to keep tides off your gear.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome adventures! from snake hunting to baby bull sharks! love the YNP story, too! My feet were cold when I finished reading! :)