The Lake Pontchartrain basin took a direct hit from Katrina, but thanks to human effort and natural healing, the area's bass populations are coming back. (September 2007)
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."
The same thing happened to the Atchafalaya Basin after Hurricane Andrew destroyed that fishery in 1992 (Somewhat ironically, it was from the waters of the now-stressed Lake Pontchartrain Basin that biologists collected bass for release in that case.) The state then imposed a 14-inch minimum-size limit in many areas, the object being to allow more bass to survive through at least one spawning season. In Louisiana, bass generally grow to nearly 12 inches in their first year and begin to spawn in their first spring.
The plan in the Atchafalaya Basin worked exceptionally well. After a year, anglers caught many tiny bass; then they started catching a few keepers. By the late 1990s, Atchafalaya Basin anglers bragged about some of the best bass fishing in years. The system even produced a few 10-pounders, something that had never happened previously.
"Usually, it takes at least two to three years for fish to recover in an area," Rogillio said. "We're starting to see some improvement now. People are starting to catch some fish. With more Florida bass in the system, the potential for producing a 10-pound or better largemouth bass greatly increases. In a few years, some of those areas stocked with Florida bass might start producing some really impressive fish."
Departing from the strategy for the Atchafalaya Basin, the state left pre-storm regulations intact for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin area: Up to 10 bass per day may be kept, and no minimum-size limit is in force. Bates hopes that the state at least imposes a minimum-size limit.
"It's going to take some time and some help to bring this area back to what it was," Bates said. "What we need more than anything around here is a size limit. I'd say put on at least a 12-inch minimum limit on bass. People keep too many 8- to 10-inch bass that never spawn. Some people don't even bother with the 10-fish daily limit -- they keep everything they catch. When they put a 14-inch size limit on bass in the Atchafalaya Basin after Hurricane Andrew, that helped a lot. It allowed a bass to at least spawn one time before someone ate it."
By spring 2007, anglers started catching more small bass in the Tickfaw system; a few fish exhibited respectable size. Anglers must really look for the fish, which remain widely scattered in small pockets.
"It started to come back in the spring of 2007," Bates said, "but nothing compared to what it was before the storms. People were starting to catch some big fish and better numbers of small ones. We've had some 5.5- and 6-pound bass caught since the storm. Before the storms, people were catching some bass over 8 pounds."
After the storms, anglers came back more quickly than did the fish. In the summer, the rivers again churn with an armada of cruisers, pleasure boats, ski boats and personal watercraft. Several bars reachable only by boat operate along the Tickfaw River, catering to summer pleasure-seekers. The wakes thrown up by these boats pound the riverbanks mercilessly, chasing fish off the shorelines.
"Tickfaw was a good river for people who knew how to fish it," Bates observed, "but people had to get out really early in the summer before the big boats started moving. Boat traffic on the Tickfaw River is horrible; in the summer, it's just atrocious. We have some really big boats running the river. They throw a lot of wake that beat the shorelines. The boat wakes mess up the shorelines and scare the fish away; sometimes the fish habitat gets washed away. In the summer, people need to find some backwaters or tributaries and get off the banks to find fish."
The problem has grown steadily worse over the past decade as ever more people have moved from New Orleans or Baton Rouge to the scenic rivers north and west of lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas. After the storms of 2005, many couldn't return to their homes in New Orleans and surrounding parishes, and the population exploded exponentially, with people who had lost their homes relocating to "higher ground" in the Florida Parishes.
"The population of this area really grew in the past 10 years," said Scott Mullins of Tickfaw Marina in Killian. "Subdivisions are going up everywhere, and that brings in a lot more fishermen. That puts a lot more pressure on the fish and on the river system."
Fortunately, boat traffic greatly decreases as the weather cools from late September on. In the fall, winter and early spring, you can often fish at leisure, dropping worms and craw worm-sweetened jigs around dropoffs in the main river. After the traffic diminishes, anglers fling topwaters or spinnerbaits at the cypress stumps and knees along the shorelines. As bass attack baitfish in the fall, shad-colored crankbaits will work as well.
"I recommend hitting the upper ends of the Tickfaw or Amite river systems with jigs, worms or lizards," said Ronnie Addison, an angler from Hammond. "As temperatures cool in the fall, fish lizards on the outside edges of cypress trees where the bottom drops off. The outside bends will be a little deeper. I throw a black, blue and purple jig with a No. 11 pork chunk on it."
The Manchac and Ruddock areas at the eastern edge of Lake Maurepas will probably recover the fastest, Bates predicted. Many bass tournaments launch at either North Pass or Ruddock Landing, an old logging town about six miles south of Pass Manchac along I-55. After fishing the surrounding swamps, the bass clubbers release their catches near those landings. In addition, the more isolated, swampy and stumpy Manchac and Ruddock areas attract less boat traffic. Those large boats that do launch at North Pass typically head to the open waters of either Lake Pontchartrain or Lake Maurepas.
Along I-55 and old U.S. Highway 51, canals run parallel to the highways for about 25 miles between La Place and Ponchatoula. The deeper canals offer good fishing at times -- if you can stand the trucks rumbling overhead. It's reminiscent of a long, skinny reservoir, as one canal flows under the twin spans of the raised interstate causeway. Both canals interconnect at various places. Between the spans the canals average about 8 to 10 feet deep, with little structure away from the edges. People can also fish the Owl Bayou area where it intersects with the highway canals.
"Probably my favorite area in Manchac would be where Owl Bayou hits the highway canal near Pass Manchac," Addison offered. "I also like to fish the north shore of Lake Maurepas around Galva Island. There are a lot of stumps where Owl Bayou meets the lake. I fish topwater baits early in the morning, and worms or jigs later in the day. In the evening, I'll throw crankbaits along the points."
The rivers may ebb and flow with varying conditions; sometimes they flood and run brown with mud after a heavy rain. The highway canals generally offer more stable water conditions. In the canals, people can pitch lures along the swampy side, working baits among the many roots, cypress knees, weeds and shorelines. If that doesn't work, they can drop baits next to the concrete pilings of the bridges. In colder temperatures, the concrete of the bridge pili
ngs radiate more heat into the water column.
Many people opt to fish the canals and lower rivers during a falling tide. At high tide, brackish water from Lake Pontchartrain enters the canal system and rivers through the passes. A falling tide pulls bass and forage species out from the swamps and concentrates them in main channels. Many tiny ditches pour from the swamps, flushing crawfish, minnows and perhaps even shrimp into deeper water. Bass and other predators wait at the mouths of these drains for lunch to flow toward them.
"I prefer an outgoing tide," Addison said. "The first couple of hours on an incoming tide are pretty good. But if I only had three hours to fish, I would rather fish the last three hours of an outgoing tide. Fish are pulled out and more concentrated. That makes them a bit easier to catch."
Toss white and chartreuse spinnerbaits or crawfish-colored crankbaits into the drains and work them downstream. If that doesn't work, throw wacky worms or unweighted soft plastics as far upstream as possible and let them tumble down naturally with the tides. Where the drain drops into the deeper channel, work black, blue or red shad Texas-rigged worms or jigs around dropoff edges.
Opened in the late '90s, the roughly 1,200 acres of Tickfaw State Park, near Springfield, offer three miles of frontage along the Tickfaw River. Boats may be launched at Blood River Landing, Warsaw Marina or Vacajun Marina in Springfield, Tickfaw Marina in Killian, and Val's Marina in Maurepas.