Editors note: This is the final part of a two-part series on the "Brees on the Seas" event in Venice, La. To read part one, click here.
VENICE, La. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees kicked back on the deck of the Bay Ranger boat, smiling as the wind cut over the top of his visor and through his hair.
He was smiling because he was on the water, which he has loved since he was a kid fishing with his grandpa in Arizona. He was smiling because months of preparation had come to fruition and it was finally time to play. He was smiling because the kid standing behind the wheel pretending to drive who at the age of 9 had cancer on the defense was smiling.
"I love all fishing, but I prefer saltwater," Brees said as they cruised out toward the Gulf of Mexico just outside of Venice, La. The boat cut through the protected, calm water, breaking up the reflection of a clear blue sky. The air was cool and its smell carried the ocean's perfect blend of fish and salt. "I did a lot of bass fishing at Canyon Lake, which is about an hour above San Diego," Brees said. "Caught a lot of 3- to 6-pound bass, but I really like it out here."
It was his second time to team up with a children's hospital for "Brees on the Seas," which is organized through his charity, the Brees Dream Foundation. He was a Charger when he hatched the idea and he ended up on a charter in southern California with 30 kids who had forgotten about their problems. This time, with the help of his friend Capt. Andy Mnichowski, he was in one of 14 boats carrying a Saints player and at least one ecstatic kid, and this time, he was in saltier water.
Growing up in Austin, Texas, Brees was a three-hour drive from the nearest taste of saltwater. But that didn't stop him from pursuing his love with help in part from a rich uncle.
"My uncle had a place and a boat down in Port Aransas and we used to go down there and stay the night and fish," Brees said. "We had a small plane, so it was a real easy trip."
Brees had fished with Mnichowski once before in Venice and had the trip of a lifetime, so he knew it wouldn't be long before they were reeling them in. The captain, worried that weekend boaters would be on his best spots, slowed and anchored beside a small island, one of the last crumbs of land before an endless seascape.
The target fish was a bull red (a redfish larger than the 27-inch slot limit), and the bait of choice was real shrimp. As Mnichowski was arming the rods and reels, he saw a few small baitfish jumping in the area, which told him he stumbled upon a goldmine.
Mnichowski gave Mickey Maitre Jr. as experienced as an angler can be at 9 strict instructions on what to do. "When that cork goes down, start reeling," he said. Mnichowski threw the line near the island's shore, and before he could hand the pole to Mickey, the cork dropped.
It had taken one cast for Mickey to hook the largest redfish of his life.
"Ohhh baby, here we go!" the captain yelled as he handed the pole to the wide-eyed child. Mickey fixed his cap and sunglasses and readied for war. The boy's father, Mickey Maitre Sr., watched in amazement as his 70-pound son pulled in a 12-pound redfish after about two minutes of fighting and reeling. And it was just as amazing when Mickey broke that record by pulling in an even larger bull on his second cast.
Brees' wife, Brittany, called him on his cell phone to get his location. "I'm not even sure where we are, but Mickey has already caught two 12-pound redfish," Brees told her, taken aback by all the quick action. "Y'all have a good time, we're going to catch some fish. I'll call you if we move to deeper water, but we're pulling out 12-pounders on every cast."
Mickey's line hit the water again, and again, the cork dropped within seconds.
"Mickey, you are a fishing machine, do you know that?" Brees said. The quarterback reached for his own rod, eager to get in on the action. Mnichowski impaled a fresh shrimp onto the end of Brees' line, and the quarterback threw a bomb toward the shore. His orange cork hovered on top of the water as he watched Mickey pull in his fourth in as many casts, with the boy's father instructing, "tight line Mick, tip down."
A few minutes passed and still no action from the orange cork.
"Look at that, Drew can't even catch one," Mnichowski told Mickey. "Your cork would have gone down already."
Brees was not quite as amused. He reeled in the orange cork and threw it back in. After only a few seconds, his cork dropped. But it was just a little too easy to reel in.
"Stupid rat," Brees said as he pulled a small saltwater catfish to the side of the boat. Little did he know, that catfish was the first of many.
The redfish flurry continued for the next half-hour with Mickey and Brees both bringing in their fair share. All of the bulls were thrown back (the law allows one bull red a day for every boater, but the group decided not to keep any), and the two caught within the limit were kept to be eaten later. But when the tide descended around 10 a.m., the fishing got tough, and the self-proclaimed "Catfish King" earned his crown.
Mickey decided to take a small break, exhausted from the first hour of action. His arms, more bone than muscle, had been through a beating and finally talked the rest of the body into stopping. He wiped his hands off in his jeans shorts and scoured the ice chest for a Reeses.
Brees planted himself on the bow of the boat with a look of determination in his eye. Mnichowski moved the team to a new location, and explained where to throw the line. Brees pulled the rod back and hit the receiver in stride, landing his cork exactly where Mnichowski had suggested. The cork dropped but the line didn't run. Thirty seconds later, Brees was staring down another small saltwater catfish.
"I hate these stupid rats," Brees said as Mnichowski carefully pulled it off the hook and tossed it back. The saltwater catfish looks just like its freshwater kin, but that's about as far as the comparison goes. You can't eat them, and if it's even suggested in front of Mnichowski, he'll immediately yell "horrible!" and squish his face together like he had been force-fed the fish deep in a Chinese prison. The "rat" also has deceivingly sharp fins. Even the smallest prick by one of them can cause some real pain, and a full-fledged stick through the skin is that much worse, causing swelling and nausea.
"So what good is it even having them in the water?" Brees asked Mnichowski, to which he had no reply.
But it seemed like the more Brees' hatred festered for the whiskered sea rats, the more they took his bait. "Hey Mick, how does it feel to set an all-time record for percentage of casts with redfish landed? Mickey is catching a redfish on every 1.2 casts," Brees said. "I set the record for most catfish caught in a redfish zone."
More casts led to more catfish, which led to more frustration. "Don't write that I just caught a bunch of catfish," Brees said, kind of joking, but kind of not.
After pulling in a couple catfish of his own, Mickey had become uninterested in the fishing. Too nervous to say much in the four hours on the water, he was content to revel in a dream come true, and save the stories for the next time he sees his friends. When asked who was a better fisherman, him or Brees, Mickey just shrugged his shoulders and smirked.
Not a single redfish was reeled into Mnichowski's boat outside of the whack-fest in the first hour, but it didn't matter. The damage had been done. Mickey's mouth was stretched. He was the man of the hour not only because he got to spend a day on the water with his idol, but because he landed a ridiculous amount of redfish which was a few more than the quarterback he literally looked up to. Brees had no trouble bowing to Mickey as the best angler of the day, and Mickey didn't mind too much, either.
"He got me today," Brees told the group of cameras waiting for a report back at the marina. "I had a couple get away from me, but Mickey was just reeling them in. He was a stud today. A total stud."