Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
The Lake Pontchartrain Basin, one of the most ecologically significant estuary systems in southeast Louisiana, stretches over 5,000 square miles between Baton Rouge and Lake Borgne. Metropolitan New Orleans covers its southern end, while many booming communities populate its northern and western portions.
Lake Borgne — which is really just a bay on the Gulf of Mexico — connects with Lake Pontchartrain primarily through two natural passes, the Rigolets and the Chef Menteur. To the west, Pass Manchac and the smaller North Pass connect Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Maurepas. Surrounded by cypress swamps, the mostly freshwater Lake Maurepas can hold saltwater fish, depending on winds, water levels and tides.
Though situated halfway between the two major urban centers of Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the most heavily populated section of Louisiana, the swamps surrounding Lake Maurepas remain largely wildernesses. Few roads run through the area, and no roads or boat launches directly touch Lake Maurepas. Without a boat or aircraft, people can only catch a glimpse of Lake Maurepas by traveling along Interstate 55 over Pass Manchac between Ponchatoula and La Place.
Several rivers and bayous, many listed as Natural and Scenic Rivers, pour their waters into the Lake Pontchartrain Basin. The Pearl River, Bayou Lacombe, Bogue Falaya River, Tchefuncte River and the Tangipahoa River all feed into Lake Pontchartrain. Bedico Creek flows into the Tangipahoa River. The Tickfaw, Amite and Blind rivers flow into Lake Maurepas. The scenic Tickfaw River rises in southern Mississippi and flows about 68 miles through St. Helena and Livingston parishes before entering Lake Maurepas near Springfield. The Natalbany and Blood rivers empty into the Tickfaw River.
Numerous smaller bayous and canals are linked into this system’s myriad elements through a wild labyrinth of channels. Cypress and gum swamps or bottomland hardwood forests dominate the landscape. Abundant lily pads, weedbeds and woody cover give fish plenty of places to hide throughout the system.
During good times, the entire wetland complex can offer anglers surprising catches of largemouth bass. Occasionally, people landed bass exceeding the 8-pound barrier, with 2- to 4-pound fish commonly hitting the decks. Some bass approached the double-digit mark. Bedico Creek, the Tickfaw River, Bayou Lacombe and West Pearl River among other streams all produced fish over 9 pounds in the past 10 years.
Unfortunately, these aren’t good times: The entire Lake Pontchartrain Basin took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005; three weeks later, Hurricane Rita, a bigger, more powerful storm that ultimately sprawled across most of the Gulf of Mexico, smashed into southwest Louisiana to finish off what Katrina started, pushing still more salty water into the rivers of the Florida Parishes.
“We lost just about all of the freshwater resources in the area east of the Mississippi River and in the Florida Parishes,” said Joe Shepard, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries resource program manager in Baton Rouge. “The areas we are really concerned about are the ones with no riverine influence. Rivers can restock themselves; fish in the upper reaches of a river can come down to the unpopulated areas.”
Salty water killed bass unable to escape to less saline environments. In addition, the storms stirred up considerable organic debris on the river bottoms. The process of decomposition consumes oxygen, and the unprecedented scale at which decaying debris robbed water of vital dissolved oxygen resulted in massive fish kills throughout the area.
“Katrina and Rita both clobbered the Tickfaw River area,” said Billy Bates, a bass tournament promoter from Ponchatoula. “Rita actually did more damage than Katrina, because we had higher water from Rita than Katrina. After the storms, we had salt water way up the rivers — all the way past Lee’s Landing on the Tangipahoa River.”
After the storms, fisheries biologists’ sampling could find no fish in the Tickfaw River or surrounding areas apart from a few mullet. Numbers of fish surviving in the rivers being so low, the 2006 spawn almost didn’t happen.
According to Mark Lawson, an LDWF fisheries biologist in Baton Rouge, electrofishing sampling in 2006 turned up very little. “All the rivers from Baton Rouge to Slidell took an almost total hit south of Interstate 12,” he said. “We couldn’t get very far up the Tickfaw after the storm because of the downed trees, but we found a few fish in the Amite River above Bayou Manchac.
“We saw some survival up the rivers, but the bass and bluegill fishery was almost completely wiped out. We saw evidence that some bass made it out into Lake Maurepas and survived. Lake Maurepas had a lot of bass fingerlings in the spring of 2007.”
Fortunately, nature can recover after such a disaster, although it might take several years. With few predators to eat them, both the remaining fish and those stocked since the hurricanes should enjoy high survival and growth rates. In addition, fishing pressure on the rivers has decreased dramatically since the storms, giving more bass an opportunity to spawn and grow. Hugely reduced competition should enable the fish hatched in 2007 to achieve quick repopulation in uninhabited areas possessing high-quality bass habitat and suitable water conditions.
Humans have also stepped in to give Mother Nature a boost. State biologists released many bluegills, catfish and Florida-strain bass into the affected areas. Operation Jump Start, a three-year process of restocking the rivers until they can sustain themselves, should — barring another devastating storm! — bring fish populations back to pre-Katrina levels. In addition, some biologists collected adult bass from tournaments in other parts of the state and released them in the affected rivers.
“Nature will do a pretty good job of restocking the waters,” said Howard Rogillio, an LDWF biologist in Lacombe. “We’ve had movement of fish downstream in rivers. The surviving pockets of fish moved out into available habitat, but we’ll try to aid in the recovery by supplementary restocking.
“It’s a good chance to put more Florida bass in some waters. We’ve been stocking Floridas for years, but they have had a lot of competition. When we put fish into an area that already has a lot of fish, the survival rate after one year is not that good. In the last few years, we started stocking bass in the 6- to 8-inch range. Their survival rate i
s much better, but we don’t stock as many of them.”
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