Up until Christmas, 2010, I had absolutely no thoughts about having a blog-site. Then a friend, Jimmy Lewis, offered to set one up for me as a present, my son-in-law, Chris Disher, assisted in the effort, and so now here I am – sort of.
The idea was for me to continue sharing my knowledge of fly fishing, fishing-fishing, and some aspects of hunting, since many of my erstwhile markets for magazine articles are no more.
I began writing full-time in 1989 after a 25-odd year career in the south Louisiana oil patch. Many of my initial topics were about fly fishing in that state’s coastal areas, me having practiced that general exercise since I was about age 10 and in many areas across the south. My credentials included several state fly fishing records, some of which were species that had previously never been considered as fly-fishing targets hereabouts. Those articles eventually led to seminars, several fly-fishing courses at the University of New Orleans, and two books.
Hunting migratory gamebirds, trolling for tarpon, and cooking also took up some time and even warranted a few articles scattered here and there. That’s just to drop a hint that you may find some material on those subjects herein. And I just might drop a line or two on the status of the birds at the back-yard feeders occasionally. My wife Barbara and I have had some rather rare ones come a-visiting, both at our pre-K. home in Buras and our present residence near Lafayette. Anyway, I still fish – mostly with flies – and still do pretty good with at least the redfish. And I still love creeks – where my fishing roots are set. And I still hunt, though I usually don’t shoot much. I should have said “seldom shoot anything” when it comes to specklebellies, which are my latest challenge.
Barb and I have been married for over 43 years and have one daughter and two grandsons. That’s just lagniappe, but I couldn’t be any happier with any of them. Come to think of it, I could not be any happier about any part of my life. It has been an exceptionally good one comprised of dear people, wonderful places, time to enjoy the various parts of it, and the means to do so.
I almost feel a little guilty at times – almost!
A Paradise Lost
Satellite and aerial photographs taken of the lower Mississippi River Delta shortly after hurricane Katrina’s passing were enough to grieve even infrequent visitors of this one-time angling paradise. Familiar buildings were gone – literally. Others were torn apart and flooded – some deeply flooded. Boats of all types and sizes, barges, and mobile homes lay askew across the landscape, both highways, and each other. The marinas were scenes of total convoluted devastation. The levees that once protected the low-lying interior areas from flooding by the river and the Gulf were breached to the point of uselessness. Many areas were completely unrecognizable.
The scenes that those internet-relayed images revealed were truly heart-rending, but none of them clearly displayed the status of the areas outside the levees – the fishing grounds. Still, for a resident of almost 40 years, that was not too difficult to imagine.
My wife Barbara and I moved to Buras in the lower Delta in 1968 – the result of an oil-field job transfer that was sweetened by tales of the great saltwater fishing there. That was made known on my first attempt at prospecting Delta waters. While walking along the bank of a nearby canal I hooked a redfish that was much larger than any I had previously encountered during my formative years on the central Texas coast. The fact that the fish pulled the hooks from my spinnerbait just as I was about to slide it ashore did little to squelch the enthusiasm that was created by the event.
Over the next year I explored many of the lower Delta’s western bays and then expansive spartina marshes and found reds and specks in numbers and sizes that were previously unimaginable. After returning from a five-month absence caused by hurricane Camille, I discovered redfishing that would never be equaled in the almost fresh marshes surrounding the Venice Dome oil field – the infamous “Wagonwheel” – near Tidewater. Not long thereafter I happily realized that due to the very clear, very shallow, and very grassy water in the interior reaches of the field, fly fishing for them with poppers was the most effective technique there. And for over two decades I fished the center of the “Wheel” frequently and almost always without any competition.
A similar area roughly half-way between our home and Tidewater offered the same opportunity. Here, though, rather than having to piggy-back a small boat in my skiff in order to reach the best water, I could access the fish from that small boat – a pirogue. Because of the ease of access to those waters, I could fish for a couple of hours after work, and for three years I did a lot of just that. And I caught a lot of reds on poppers – and here, too, competition was almost non-existent.
But that little sweet spot was the first to be lost. Toward the end of the period a “hurricane buffer zone” inundated that lovely patch of marsh with sand and silt dredged from the river. At the time the plan was reasonable, though not nearly extensive enough, creating solid ground for roughly a quarter of a mile beyond the marsh-levee between Empire and Venice. On the other hand, a navigation channel – the “Buras Canal” – dredged along the outer edge of the buffer zone was not. Within very few years the high-salinity water from the Gulf that had begun entering the canal and its adjacent outer marsh began to kill the grass. As the grass died, the ponds and bays within it got larger, and therefore so did the wind-driven waves that scoured out the shallows to the point where they would no longer support emergent vegetation. And the amount of open water grew as the grass washed away.
Still, for a while the fishing continued to flourish. At times it was almost too good – too good to last. The remaining and rapidly diminishing grasslines and islands in this area concentrated the redfish. During fall, on warm winter afternoons, and in early spring gangs of specks would gather around bedded oysters and oil-field rubble on rising tides. Both created easy pickings for the area’s growing number of guides – which themselves created harder times for casual recreationals seeking a decent un-occupied spot on a nice Saturday morning.
And oysters and the oil field, even though they were the foundation for so many memorable trips over so long a time, eventually did as much to undermine the Delta’s western marshes as the Buras Canal did. The oil field’s canals allowed Gulf water introduced by the larger navigation channels to spread over more of the area, eventually killing more grass. And the oyster “farmers” – who leased their “farms” from the state for two dollars an acre and got their “seeds” free – sued or threatened suit against that very source of their livelihood if any attempts to save or restore the marshes were enacted. So the grass continued to wash away, the shallows deepened, and long before the end of the last century very little remained that once created and defined my sweet spots below Empire and Buras.
And then the storms came.
Tropical systems were far from rare to us throughout the entire time we lived in the lower Delta, but for the decade following the nuisance of “Juan” in late 1985, we were not badly affected by them. During that time the Chandeleur Islands, long a popular and productive venue for anglers all across the northern Gulf coast, became very special to me. That was in great part, I’d imagine, because of a rapidly growing but very short-lived friendship with Capt. Bill Herrington – a charter skipper I met at Dave’s marina.
Dave Ballay – an oil-field buddy of some years back – had opened the Venice Marina right after Juan quit messing with our minds as well as our possessions. He and I soon began to fish together regularly, mostly offshore. And it would shortly come to pass that I began expanding my saltwater fly fishing interests and would eventually become recognized for doing so – a pioneer of sorts who showed the way to many offshore species herabouts.
Strong interference began with “Opal” in 1995. Beginning somewhat of a trend, Opal skirted the Delta just to the east. In doing so it destroyed most of Curlew Island in the mid-reaches of the Chandeleurs. That was a place I had only fished once and had not become attached to it, but the storm also destroyed Little Gosier Island, just to the south. That one was a favorite and the source of my two largest fly-caught specks
Two years later “Danny” intensified to un-forecast strength during the night as it sneaked across West Delta while the weather wizards slept and devastated the Buras Marina which, by that time, had become a straight shot across open water from the Gulf. And with the subsequent removal of the sunken boats and sundry debris that resulted, there ended almost a quarter of a century of surprisingly good speck fishing at night under the various piers’ lights. But by then Little Gosier was rebuilding.
(Buras Marina after Danny 18 July 1997)
Sadly, though, its recovery was short-lived as “Georges” rendered it once again into shoals. Also, the south point of Grand Gosier – the next island to the south – was lost forever. That was really a treasured spot – the place where I got the state’s first fly-caught bull redfish with Capt. Bill one drop-dead gorgeous February afternoon and where, not two years later, we spread his ashes on a December morning much better made for fishing than for final services.
With the passing of Georges, the eastern reaches of the Delta were beginning to show signs of severe erosion from wave-action. The thick brakes of roseau cane that made up the outer reaches of the Delta National Wildlife Refuge and the Pass a l’Outre Wildlife Management Area were being reduced inward at a shocking rate. Northeast Pass – a two-mile journey from its head at Southeast Pass to Blind Bay a decade ago – had been shortened to less than half a mile a month before Katrina’s passing. All the little nooks and crannies along the outer canes that once created such outstanding habitat for specks and reds had been washed away long ago. There was still some good fishing down there toward the end of last summer, just not where it had once been.
Without a doubt, Katrina caused massive damage, if not complete destruction, to the dwellings and commercial buildings inside the lower Delta’s levees. Structures constructed outside of them fared much worse. So did what was left of the inshore recreational fishery there.
But from my eyes the loss of my little paradise – along with the displaced guides, the sunken and grounded boats, and the devastated marinas – was not sudden but the cumulative result of events that occurred over a period of almost four decades. There were many causes, and many fingers pointed in blame; ignorance and politics certainly helped in its destruction.
But the underlying cause of this great tragedy is not a result of ignorance or politics. It is the simple fact that the Mississippi River ran out of shallow water where it could continue to build and replenish its delta. And the ocean never stops its attack on the land.
My paradise was lost long before the first eddy in the breeze that was to conceive Katrina.
(Salt Water Sportsman, March 2006)