Fishing Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana

The big oil freighter sails down the swollen Mississippi River at 20 knots, fast and wild as if it were a toy in the bath tub.  “She’s from Greece,” my fishing guide, Ryan Lambert informs me, as we stare at the ten- foot high wake receding behind it. It separates the river into a monstrous wall of water, building waves that lap at our feet like the ocean.

“That ship is so heavy, it’s sucking water. Her butt is sagging like an old woman,” Ryan talks local lingo.

He brought me down to the river to have a look and explain what this narrow spit of land called Plaquemine’s Parish is all about and the people who call it home.

Plaquemines Parish is a watery place, a narrow finger of land jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. It is radically exposed, bearing the brunt of the hurricanes that batter the South. It is made up of 845 square miles of land but 1,584 square miles of water. From space, this area of the Mississippi River Delta looks like radiating capillaries and veins. No matter how many times the residents get nailed by storms, and most would say a few too many, they rebuild and stay. They are a different breed. Add to that problem, the 2010 BP oil disaster and their ongoing disappearing marshland. Yet the fishermen still stay.

The land and the water is their way of life. Many began their connection as lads running trap lines. They could skin seventy-five nutria (coypu- semi-aquatic rodent) and muskrat a day, thinking nothing of sitting atop a pile of skins, meat and guts while they eat their sandwich over lunch. Ryan’s grandfather was a fisherman, and Ryan has been guiding ever since he was 24 years old. “From the time I could remember, I only ever wanted to hunt and fish.”  These men learned the bayous and inlets and tributaries and where the best and the biggest fish hang out.

Plaquemines Parish is a place that pulls hard on the heart-strings, whether you are third generation here like the Lamberts or just stopping in to catch some fish like myself.

The Mississippi is high and moving at 7-10 knots. Ships have to sail faster than the river to maintain steering and “just hang on for dear life,” Ryan says. The freighter is heading for Pilot Town, which sits fifteen miles south of here, and then the Gulf beyond. Pilot Town is merely a series of elevated catwalks connecting a handful of buildings, seemingly floating above the Gulf. Pilot Town is not “at the end of the road,” but a helicopter or boat is necessary to access it.

Venice, fifteen miles south of where we stand on the Buras riverbank, is the official “end of the road.” It is also the jumping off point for the oil and gas men who work rigs on the Gulf, as well as ship captains. These are the main occupations here in Plaquemines: oil, gas, and boats. Commercial fishermen (oystermen, shrimpers, fishermen) as well as recreational fishing outfitters like Ryan are the main ways to make a living.

Here in Buras, we are not far from the Southwest pass of the Mississippi, the main channel and major shipping lane to the Gulf since 1853.  A ship captain must relinquish control of his rig when he comes through here, employing a specialized pilot to negotiate the complicated arteries of the Lower Mississippi. It is a lucrative job, bringing in $60,000 to captain each ship from Pilot Town to Baton Rouge.

Soon after the freighter sails by, a tug pushes a container ship upriver, its contents chained down on the flat deck. “Everything imaginable is in that ship, coming from China: everything you wear, in your car, your home,” Ryan tells me.

My fishing buddies and I will cross this busy shipping lane tomorrow morning, a risky maneuver considering the traffic. But we feel in good hands. Ryan has been escorting clients like me on fishing trips for over thirty-five years. People come to Plaquemines Parish because its waters team with a huge assortment of fresh and salt water species, creating some of the best fishing in North America. Just being in the Mississippi River’s presence tonight is enough to build excitement for tomorrow’s fishing adventure.

Sunscreen, baseball cap, micro-fiber long-sleeved shirt and a sense of adventure is all that’s needed for our fishing adventure. Come morning, Ryan launches his big twenty-four foot “Skeeter” bay boat into the Mississippi River on the west bank. He guns the 300 hp Yamaha engine across the mile wide, 190-foot deep muddy river to the east bank. I find this wildly exciting, as I scope upriver and downriver for ships.

Frigates perch on top of posts on the river’s west bank, these relatives of the pelican with their bright red gular pouch.

Anglers can easily get into trouble fishing the Mississippi River. First off, they are fishing in t-shirts with warm temps of 70 degrees. But in the winter, the Mississippi drains cold places up north and the water can be in the low forties.  Ryan tells me a sad story about a group of anglers whose boat got overturned when their engine died and the current and tides flipped them. They had their life jackets on and hung onto the boat’s side, hopefully awaiting a rescue. But in thirty minutes, they all died of hypo-thermia. You must keep your boat powered up all the time when the river is high and pushing hard.

You’ve gotta be on your toes all the time, and it is best to fish with someone who knows the waters. Ryan tends to fish close to shore, where he can “walk home” if he gets stuck Out in the Gulf, the monster lunkers live. These breeders get up to 40 pounds but one must travel 50-80 miles offshore to get there. It is 3,000 feet deep out there.

“My anchor doesn’t reach that far,” explains Ryan. “What do you do if you boat catches on fire, drift? Jump into the water and hope someone rescues you?”

Ryan cuts the boat around the Ostrica Locks (Yugoslavian for oyster) where the water swirls in whirlpools and confusing tides and swift currents. Ryan easily bullies the fishing boat through the twists and turns, then speeds across Quarantine Bay to Lemar Bay, four miles from launch.

Many different species of fish can be found in the waters surrounding Plaquemines. Before the tragic oil spill, there were even more species. Trout have become scarce as of late, but the crowning jewel, the reds, are healthy and prosperous. It is not uncommon to pull four to six footers out of these waters though I do not have such high hopes for myself.

Once situated, Ryan shows me how to take my Quantum rod and reel and bait my hook with artificial lures on the fifteen pound test line. My fishing comrades haul in one 4-6 pounder after another. These 20-22 inch fish are approximately two-years-old, Ryan tells us. They live here in Louisiana’s swamps for about four and a half years. They move offshore to the Gulf of Mexico to breeding schools.

When I do not get results with an artificial lure, Ryan slides on a slimy shrimp, then later still, a sight indicator. He says, “Some people get addicted to this, like a predator species, trying to outsmart the fish. It is part of the hunter-gather instinct in us,” he laughs. While the men seem to be naturals, I am challenged with setting my hook.

My fishing buddies want to see me be successful probably more than I do, so they help me set my hook and are amused to see me thrust the rod’s handle into my abdomen for leverage and work hard to crank it in. Seeing the fish’s shining body sliver through the water is a thrill, helping to build my confidence and want more.

I am enjoying watching the wading birds and flapping ducks, smelling the rich scent of the river, and feeling the warm sun on my face, happy just to be here in the waters of Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish. For me, these sense impressions are even more enjoyable than catching fish, which is just a perk. If the cooler fills with fish or doesn’t, so be it, although Ryan tells me they will sure taste fine at dinner.

Ryan’s Cajun Fishing Adventure Lodge in Buras, is a set of three lodges providing beds for thirty-five. My friends and I are staying in the Main Lodge, a massive, impressive log building that sleeps eighteen.  It sports oversized leather chairs, a big screen TV, pool table, Jacuzzi, pool and a long wooden dining table that encourages conversation and camaraderie over meals- swapping fishing yarns, for the most part. Sport Fishing Magazine rated Cajun Fishing Adventure Lodge one of the five top lodges in North America in 2011.

Tonight’s dinner begins with huge plates of steaming shrimp and bowls of hearty gumbo, then our red fish for the main course. Thirty percent of our nation’s seafood is harvested from these Louisiana waters. It is the most tested, regulated and safest seafood in the world.

Ryan has his chef prepare a special recipe (“Ryan’s Redfish”) where two filets are stuffed with a shrimp mixture, layered with sliced tomatoes and lemons and smothered in a rich cream sauce. Ryan jokes, “Nothing is light at my lodge except the light bulbs!” Some folks are still hesitant after the spill to come to Plaquemines to fish, Ryan explains, but the fishing is alive and good. I have personally never tasted seafood so delicious and fresh.

He tells me that although Hurricane Isaac was devastating for property, water quality was greatly improved. The storm resulted in flushing out the stagnant water and ridding the marshland of algae. Ryan did notice that the speckled trout have been a little scarce since the oil spill as they move around more and are affected greater by water temperature, which involves food availability. The red fish however, adore dining on crabs, are always in the marshes and provide excellent fishing year round. Autumn and spring are the most popular times to come fishing, but winter is great and Ryan offers additional duck hunting excursions.

After dinner, Ryan pulls out a large satellite map mounted on foam core to explain an even worse problem than the oil spill. What shows up as land on this slightly dated map is now gone, under water. Even since the river was engineered with levees, canals etc. beginning in the 1930s, the land has suffered from saltwater intrusion and is disappearing. A football field size chunk of land sinks into the gulf every forty minutes.

Before the levees were built, the river would flood its banks in the spring, and the result would be new land being built. With the levees in place, the river’s natural ability to build land is gone. Since all the freshwater, and sediment is shooting straight out into the gulf, saltwater is able to intrude in fragile marshes where fresh water plants are growing. The saltwater kills these plants’ root systems and, slip, another football field turns to a soupy mud and slides into the Gulf.

Now, Ryan has to frequently use a GPS to find his way around and cannot rely on sight or memory, regardless if you have been sailing these waters for generations. One million acres of grassland in southern Louisiana has already been lost. No other place on earth is land disappearing at such a rapid rate.

The newly passed Restore Act, however, is a bright spot in Plaquemines Parish’s future. Money from the Clean Water Act will build diversions that will punch big holes into the levees bringing sediment and fresh water back into the marshes. “Water running at 250,000 cf per second will be like returning life blood to the starved marsh on the east side of the levee,” explains Ryan.  Aquatic food, animals, plant life, fish and land will hopefully all return.

“As soon as that first hole is punched in the Myrtle Grove Diversion, our future in Plaquemines Parish will grow brighter.”  To the residents like Ryan Lambert, it will mean that their fishing lifestyle will endure, and for all the rest of us, great fishing will continue to be enjoyed.

(This story will appear in an upcoming issue of Louisiana Life Magazine)

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