Faces of the Gulf Coast: Tommy and Emmy Ware

Father-daughter fishing and hunting buddies from Mississippi share their oil spill story

by Chris Jennings

Author's Note: I traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast recently to meet with waterfowl hunters and conservationists who could be affected by the oil spill. The goal wasn't to seek out oil globs—it was to show what's at stake in Mississippi and Louisiana waters. I learned that the true cost of this spill could be a way of life.

Tommy and Emmy Ware on the Mississippi Gulf CoastA waterfowl hunter can be defined in several ways, but Tommy Ware, from Diamondhead, Mississippi, can only be described as a duck hunting fanatic.

"I love it. I think about it every day," he says, wearing his Ducks Unlimited visor and committee shirt. "I love to fish and deer hunt, but duck hunting is what I live for."

Ware is an avid hunter and dedicated conservationist. He understands the importance of conserving the Prairie Pothole Region and other key habitats in North America, which in turn will help waterfowl numbers in his area come fall. That's why he is a volunteer for DU and has been for several years.

"I learned about DU right before I joined the Army," he says. "That was in 1990, and I've been involved ever since."

Sitting in the back seat is his favorite fishing partner, his daughter, Emmery "Emmy" Ware. At 6 years old, she's excited for a day on the boat with her dad and the possibility of catching some fish. Her blond hair is tucked under her Greenwing DU hat, and her blue eyes light up at the thought of catching some fish with Dad today. Emmy is a Legacy Greenwing member, and her name is etched onto the placard at Trim Cane Wildlife Management Area, something that Ware hopes she will come to appreciate and value in the future.

Ware launches his 21-foot Carolina Skiff along the Pearl River, which winds through a stretch of marsh where he hunts in the fall before it runs toward the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the marsh is a lush green, and mottled ducks and whistling ducks flush from the banks. An occasional alligator, egrets, herons and hundreds of other birds weave in and out of the bayous.

"I like to get up in here in my pirogue with a bag of decoys," Ware says, as he points out a small cut in the marsh, which leads to a pond visible only when one is standing on the bow of the boat. "We have had some great hunts in there."

The marshes around here have not yet been impacted by the oil spill, and Ware, along with everyone else, hopes they never will.

"In some of these areas there is a really strong tidal surge," he says. "When the water comes in, it all floods. That would put oil into the heart of the marsh."

At every stop along the way, Emmy asks if it is time to fish. She reaches for her short spin-casting rod and gives her dad a look.

"Not yet, we will go out and fish in a little bit," he explains. Then he looks over and says, "That's my buddy right there. She loves being out here and loves fishing."

The skiff turns toward open water after cutting through the bayous, and Ware points out several places where oil boom, left unattended, has washed deep into the marsh. The yellow and orange oil boom stretches for miles in some areas, but the current and wind have pushed it up into the tall grasses, where it clings sometimes five feet off the water.

"It's hard to maintain this boom, I'm sure," Ware says as he passes more of it dangling in the grasses. "At least they have it out right now."

Ware anchors the boat off an inshore oil rig where people have been catching speckled trout. This area of Louisiana is still open for fishing, and shrimp trawlers hastily make way in every direction. The rig is crowded as 15 boats bob around it, perhaps due to restrictions on fishing in other areas.

Emmy makes cast after cast as the boat rocks and pulls against the anchor. Ware explains that her very first fish was an 18-inch speckled trout, a nice fish even for an experienced fisherman.

"Yeah, she just kind of said, 'Hey, Dad,' and then got real quiet. I thought she was snagged and then got it unhooked," he explains, proud of his favorite fishing partner. "Then she kept reeling, and by the time I noticed, she had the fish all the way to the boat and nearly touching the rod tip. I was pretty proud that day."

With nothing biting Emmy's offering, Ware turns the boat back to shore, and after Emmy sits next to her dad at the console, he fires up the engine. The skiff moves through Lake Borgne, through The Rigolets, and into the edges of Lake Pontchatrain.

"If the oil were to get in here," he says, "it would be devastating."

He cruises at little more than idle and discusses the possible impacts the oil could have.

"That's the thing, we talk about it and talk about it until people just don't know what else to say," he says. "Unless you live down here or farther south around Venice and fish and hunt down there, it's hard to explain to someone."

Ware spends quite a bit of time hunting out of Venice, Louisiana, where he can access Pass a Loutre WMA, an area severely impacted by the spill already and a place where Ducks Unlimited has done some habitat restoration work. He explains that duck hunting down there isn't just what the locals do; it's how many make their living. Through leases, guiding, hotels, and restaurants, waterfowl hunting helps supplement income from fishing.

"I'd hate to think that it's going to be a wasteland," he says as he remembers a few of the best hunts he's been on down there. "That's the hard part; it's such a beautiful place, words can't even describe it."

A storm moves across the water from the southwest, and Ware takes the boat under a bridge to try to avoid the rain. Making every effort to keep Emmy dry, he ties the boat and pulls a tarp up the side of the bimini top to protect her from the wind and rain. Of course, when the boat is stopped, Emmy decides it's time to fish and stands in the rain, making cast after cast–a dedication to fishing handed down to her from her father.

As the storm clears, the boat moves along the shore, and Ware spots a chance to catch redfish in some old pylons. The boat passes more oil boom, and Emmy, not really knowing what it is, never blinks an eye and keeps casting.

The boat drifts along the shoreline, and Ware watches Emmy casting into some pylons, hoping to hook up a redfish. The conversation turns back to waterfowl hunting and the oil spill.

"We are worried about the habitat," Ware explains. As he is talking, Emmy points out a small crab climbing a pylon. "That's what is getting hurt right now by the oil and chemicals—the smaller creatures along the food chain. When that happens, everything is impacted. These smaller crabs and stuff, most people tend not to notice them, but kids do. They see it all, and that's where it starts for the fish, the birds and even the ducks."

Cast after cast, Tommy Ware and his little fishing buddy, Emmy, churn the waters hoping to catch a fish. With boom floating along the bays, the immediate threat of oil isn't far from their minds, just as it weighs on the minds of everyone who lives here. There is no news crew showing pictures of oiled birds or workers vacuuming oil from the shorelines, but the threat is there.

The oil spill has yet to affect the waters where Ware fishes regularly, but it's what's at stake. The chance that Tommy would miss even one day on the water with his daughter because of the oil spill is a painful thought. The father-daughter combo stood on the bow, each casting a different direction.

"She loves doing this," he says, looking across the bay. "This is how families down here spend time together. This is what's it's all about; it's our way of life. Fishing and hunting, that's what we do. I just hope this doesn't stop us from doing that."

The Wares step back onto the bow and continue to cast.