Though the devastating 2005 hurricane season damaged much of Louisiana's coastal redfish habitat, the fishing is coming back. But will it ever be what it once was? (April 2006)
The double hammerblows of hurricanes Katrina and Rita each ripped more than 100 square miles of marshland from the Louisiana coastline -- an ecosystem already in serious trouble as a result of erosion.
In both cases, the salty storm surge, nearly 30 feet in some areas, flooded prime freshwater and brackish marshes. As salt water poured into fragile wetlands, it killed marsh plants, fish and animals. When the floodwaters receded, people found plenty bass, redfish, catfish and many other species all over the place -- in their homes, cars, on the streets, parking lots and roofs!
Bass and other freshwater fish suffered more mortality than did saltwater species, as the briny surge poisoned formerly fresh areas. Some redfish and speckled trout, trapped in isolated pockets, died from a lack of oxygen.
"We had some mortality in areas," said Harry Blanchet, a marine biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "In salt water we had a few sporadic kills where fish got trapped in isolated ponds and died from a lack of oxygen, but nothing like fresh water. Saltwater systems are more open. Saltwater fish have a good ability to hunker down. The tidal surge brought a lot of salty water far inshore, and it stayed inshore for a long time. People were catching redfish and speckled trout farther inshore than they normally would find them, in places like the Tickfaw River."
More troubling and potentially more permanent than the number of fish actually killed by the storm was the horrible damage that the habitat suffered. Salt water killed vegetation. Dying marsh grass left gaping holes in a coastal ecosystem already in peril. When the storm surge returned to the Gulf of Mexico, it carried huge chunks of marsh with it.
"Our long-term concern from the storms is what happened to the marshes themselves," Blanchet said. "We had a lot of marsh loss, but it's still unclear exactly how much we lost. Habitat is what supports the tremendous fishing that we have down here. Redfish are dependent on the brackish marsh habitats. If you don't have the brackish marshes, then you won't have the redfish resource that we had in the past. Assuming that the habitat survives, fish and wildlife can recover quickly, but the entire geography of the affected area changed."
Debris, including entire houses, barges and ships, clogged many bayous and channels, especially in Cameron, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes. New channels formed while some formerly deep bayous silted in, making them impassable. Islands in Breton Sound and other coastal bays disappeared. In other areas, islands appeared in places where solid marsh once stretched to the horizon.
Even in good times, Louisiana accounts for about 80 percent of the wetland loses in North America. The state, which contains more than 40 percent of the wetlands in the contiguous United States, normally loses between 20 to 30 square miles of coastal marsh per year. About every 30 minutes, about one football field of marshland disappears forever, Blanchet said.
In the southwestern part of the state, Rita left utter devastation in Cameron, Calcasieu and Vermilion parishes. Debris choked huge swaths of the Calcasieu and Sabine estuaries. However, much of the marsh remained relatively intact. Created by eons of backwash from the mushrooming plume of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, hard-packed sand beaches along the Cameron coast and hard-bottomed marshes can endure storms better than can alluvial delta splay marsh.
"Sabine and Calcasieu Lake were largely unaffected in terms of fish populations, but Cameron Parish suffered major damage," Blanchet said. "I don't know that we have any good estimates on how much land was lost in southwest Louisiana. In the central and western part of the state, marsh has more stability to it. The southwestern part of the state has a lot of impounded marsh and water control structures. A lot of salt water poured into freshwater systems, but the volume of marsh that was lost will probably be much less than in the southeastern part of the state from Katrina."
Almost as soon as Hurricane Rita departed the area and the tidal surge subsided, people began fishing again in the Sabine and Calcasieu estuaries if they could find a place to launch their boats and if the storm did not destroy their boats. When the surge receded, it left clean, clear, salty water and excellent fishing conditions, with redfish and speckled trout feasting on abundant bait in most of the old honeyholes. However, anglers still need to be careful running through what was once deep water, because they may now find motor-damaging debris or a shallow bottom beneath the surface.
Hurricanes have pounded the Atlantic and Gulf coasts each year for centuries. Although terribly destructive, the storms could create long-term benefits. Nature abhors a vacuum, and when one species diminishes, others often flourish to fill the void.
"A hurricane does produce some benefits for the environment," Blanchet said. "Storm events are a natural part of the system that the fish and animals live in. Assuming the habitat survives, fish can survive and recover. Local fish kills recover quickly. The biggest hit was taken by the infrastructure and the people, not the resource. It takes much longer for the people to come back than the fish to come back."
The good news is that historically prolific fish species reproduce quickly to repopulate existing habitat after such a catastrophic event. Six months after the hurricanes devastated central Florida in 2004, anglers found some of the best fishing ever in areas hardest hit. Nutrients flowing into the estuaries caused shrimp, crabs and baitfish to bloom after the storms. Sportsmen recorded bumper crops of shrimp and crabs and game fish like redfish grew fat on the abundance of forage.
Even in Louisiana, fish began biting almost as soon as the winds died down in some places. The world watched in horror as news cameras showed the devastation in flooded New Orleans. Many predicted the death of Lake Pontchartrain as toxic urban runoff poured into the giant estuary. However, nature can clean itself quickly.
"Lake Pontchartrain was never as bad as some of the press made it out to be," Blanchet explained. "We had excellent fishing in the lake almost immediately after Katrina and it continued through the fall. It was an excellent year for fishing the Lake Pontchartrain basin."
The storms also enhanced redfishing by breaking up chunks of marsh to provide more locations to feed. Redfish need edges and shorelines where they can probe for crabs, shrimp and baitfish. A solid marsh cannot support many redfish, but a b
ay filled with points, sloughs and channels or a broken marsh separated into many tiny islands creates an ideal feeding ground.
On the downside, the benefits may only be temporary. A broken marsh erodes rapidly, and future storms or daily erosion may turn these broken marshes into open water. Open water with a muddy bottom and little structure is a nearly-sterile environment that doesn't support large populations of anything. Louisiana can't afford to lose much more marsh; once it disappears, it may never come back. It takes centuries to rebuild a vibrant coastal marsh ecosystem.
"In the long run, the challenge is to have enough habitat to support the redfish population and we are running out of that habitat," Blanchet said. "We only have so much marsh left in the bank. I don't know if we can sustain the population of redfish we have. I don't know that we can sustain the habitat that is producing that level of fish."
This spring, anglers can probably find redfish, speckled trout, flounder and many other species in their favorite honeyholes all along the coast -- if they can reach their preferred areas by car or by boat. The "Twin Sisters of Doom" destroyed so many marinas, roads, bridges, camps and other components of south Louisiana's fishing infrastructure that anglers may find it extremely difficult just to reach their favorite fishing grounds. If they arrive, they might not be able to launch their boats, find gasoline, bait or other supplies. If they know of a backdown ramp still in operation, they can launch a boat and fish, but they must bring everything they might need for the day with them.
Most of the marinas in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes disappeared during Hurricane Katrina. Those that remain mostly offer only limited services. Breton Sound Marina in Hopedale did open on a very limited basis about two months after Hurricane Katrina destroyed it. Cypress Cove and Venice Marina in Venice suffered catastrophic damage during Katrina.
Many guide services operating out Cameron, Plaquemines or St. Bernard parishes ceased to exist or moved their operations to one of the less affected areas of the state. Some still offer day trips, but they cannot offer overnight accommodations. Many offshore operations that formerly ventured from Venice moved to Fourchon. The coastline between New Iberia and Cocodrie suffered less than other parts of the state, although the two storms did smack the entire coastline.
"The central coast was relatively unaffected, but we did lose a lot of camps and had damage to levees, bridges, roads, boat ramps and infrastructure," Blanchet said. "Cocodrie might be one of the best places in the state to find redfish. Golden Meadow, Leeville, Fourchon, Lafitte and places in the central coast would still hold some good fish."
Between state Highway 57 at Dulac and state Highway 1 at Golden Meadow lies some of the best redfish waters of the state. At the upper end of Terrebonne Bay, anglers may find plenty of action in Cocodrie Bay, Bay La Fleur, Bay Madison, Bay Long and surrounding marshes off the Houma Navigation Canal, which runs south from Houma into Terrebonne Bay. Several islands and broken marshes make for excellent fishing throughout this entire area.
"Cocodrie is well known for its redfish," said Capt. Tom Turner of Cocodrie Charters in Terrebonne Parish south of Houma. "The marshes here are crisscrossed with canals that feed into smaller bays and ponds near Bay La Fleur and Bay Madison. The marshes between those two bays hold plenty redfish all year long. The area to the west of the Houma Navigation Canal also has a lot of redfish from Moss Bay to Grand Caillou Bayou and down to the Gulf of Mexico."
Anglers might also fish Little Pass, Whiskey Pass, Wine Island Pass and around Caillou Boca behind Whiskey Island. A bit farther west, Oyster Bayou near Four League Bay can produce great catches of monster redfish on occasion.
"Shrimp start arriving in the bays in early May," Turner said. "By the third week of May, we usually have giant schools of brown shrimp in the bays. Trout gang up on the shrimp."
At the north end of Oyster Bayou, some shell reefs and mudflats hold good fish. Anglers might also fish the marshes surrounding Lake Mechant, Lost Lake, King Lake or Sister Lake and tributaries off Grand Caillou Bayou. Many anglers also fish the islands in Lake Barre and Lake Pelto. During calm days, anglers fish the surf on the Gulf side of Isle Dernieres (also known in its English translation as "Last Island").
On the Golden Meadow side of the estuary, anglers might fish in Catfish Lake, Lake Felicity, Timbalier Bay, Terrebonne Bay, Lake Raccourci, Bayou Blue, and marshes off Bayou Lafourche. Many canals and marshes in this area can still provide good fishing.
From Grand Isle and Grand Terre, former home of the legendary pirate-turned-patriot Jean Lafitte, the Barataria Estuary extends from the edge of the Gulf of Mexico north almost to the outskirts of New Orleans. Lafitte used these bayous and natural lakes, including Salvador and Cataouatche, to smuggle his goods to buyers in New Orleans. Unfortunately, Lafitte probably would not recognize this area today, since it suffers from some of the worst erosion in the state. Although the area avoided a direct hit from Katrina, the storm did cause some damage.
"The Barataria Estuary didn't receive as much damage as the marshes on the east side of the Mississippi River, although places like Grand Isle did suffer extensive damage," Blanchet said. "Lafitte didn't receive as much damage as other areas. Boat launches and marinas came back into use much quicker in these areas than in other places."
Today, the glint of gold in this area comes largely from the reflected hues of big redfish swarming the fertile waters of the Barataria Estuary system. Almost as soon as the storm ended, some people began catching redfish again in the vast estuary system. People might try the Bayou St. Denis area on the northwest edge of Barataria Bay or the grassy flats of Lake Salvador north of Lafitte. Some other honeyholes include Little Lake, Turtle Lake and Bayou Rigolets.
"It's always better to leave the dock with low expectations and catch fish than with high expectations and then bomb out," said Capt. Phil Robichaux of Robichaux's Saltwater Guide Service. "Redfish stay in some ponds all year long. If you don't catch any fish, move. If you even catch just one redfish along a bank, go back along that bank. Sometimes, you'll catch two or three on the second pass. If there is something that attracted one redfish, it will attract more.
"Sometimes you almost have to hit redfish on the head to make them bite. Slow down the retrieve when fish are not as aggressive. Leave a little slack in the line and only move the bait a few inches at a time."
In western Louisiana, success at Vermilion Bay depends largely upon the flow of the Atchafalaya River and its tributaries. The awesome flow of the Atchafalaya River creates one of the few growing deltas in Louisiana where silt builds up into land almost every day. Unfortunately, the muddy river water can freshen the bay, making it unproductive for saltwater species a
t times. During times of low water flow, anglers can catch reds along the shorelines and near Marsh Island.
In some areas, it might take years to rebuild marinas, roads and lives. However, these areas should produce fishing of substantial quality as long as the marshes survive. The question is: How long will that be?