February 16, 2012
VENICE, La. — The Louisiana Marsh comes with a reputation — coon asses and Zydeco mixed together in its own special gumbo.
But it's the lush green and golden expanses of marsh grass and cane surrounded by tons of water that draws so many sportsmen to this paradise for hunting and fishing. Or at least that is what we may think.
Out of sight, out of mind applies well in this case. As the Duck Trek kicked off its final stop at the end of the Mississippi River Flyway, the lush green and golden expanses of flora were surrounded by the black and gray of mud and muck.
The full moon, combined with steady north winds for several days, had created an abnormally low tide for the area, sucking water out into the Gulf and leaving behind thousands of ducks with muddy feet.
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Mike Frenette had options. If there is one thing the Louisiana Delta provides is opportunities to do other things. The early morning start winding through the canals and ditches of the Louisiana Marsh revealed the tide was too low to slip into the potholes ducks were using. In places more than a foot of mud stuck out of the water separating the canal from the pothole.
In most other places it would have been a simple muddy walk to get into position to shoot ducks that were just as comfortable sitting in a mud hole as a water-filled pothole. But in this marsh, the mud is deeper than the water.
One step into it and a body can sink as far as the waist. It was a perfect, impenetrable barrier to hundreds of waterfowl.
Our only choice for the duck hunting was to wait for the tide to turn. Any other place in the flyway, the wait would have created a desperate twiddling of thumbs, but not in the Louisiana Marsh.
All that mud, cane and grass creates the perfect feeding ground for redfish, so Frenette dropped the shotgun and picked up a fishing rod.
"There's no reason to not do something worthwhile,'' he said, casting a jig to a mud bar. In seconds he was laughing like you would expect a Cajun to laugh when he ties into a 35-pound redfish and really enjoys it.
The laugh can be infectious, so can the catching. In just a couple of hours, redfish that ranged from 30- to 40-pounds were brought to the boat. Frenette, A guide and former professional on the Redfish Cup, was in his element.
“You can always count on these big boys to bite,'' Frenette said. “And you can always count on me loving to catch them."
He moved the boat to a different area where the tide was washing around cane and the water was clearer. Within the first few minutes he pointed to a redfish that was cruising past the boat into the shallow water.
The first cast kerplunked next to the fish, sending it darting toward the gulf. Frenette's cast landed a few inches in front of the fleeing redfish and within a half second he had it hooked. Even when a redfish is fleeing for its life, it can be counted on to bite.
"That's because these fish are thugs,'' Frenette said. "They are the gangsters of the marsh, all they are doing is eating and kicking butt wherever they go. He may be running from us, but he's going to kick everything else's butt that gets in his way."
In a half-day of sight casting to reds no less than 200 pounds of the brutes had been caught.
By the time the tide had turned and started filling up the potholes where the ducks lived, Frenette had to be reminded that this was the Duck Trek, not the Redfish Trek.
In most of the Mississippi Flyway, water is the key ingredient that makes everything work. In the Louisiana Delta it's the mud, or better said sedimentation, that makes this place tick.
For countless years, sediments and fresh water have consistently and constantly made the migration down the Mississippi River and spilled out into the marsh. It's virtually the same trip ducks make every season.
The sediment stays, though, creating the final stop of the Mississippi Flyway that consists of bits and pieces of every stop along the way. For the eons it's been doing this, it's created a forest of grasses and cane that can only be described as vast.
Ducks find shelter and food in it, along with redfish and a variety of other fishes. And all that gooey mud has been a natural buffer against the impacts of hurricanes.
Years of channelizing, dams and building of levees above stream, though, have kept a lot of that sedimentation from making the trip. The result is a loss of mud and the grasses that come with it.
"There aren't nearly the ducks that come to the marsh as use to come,'' Frenette said. "And it gets worse every year, because it's not building. We're losing it."
Some scientists estimate that as much as two football fields of marsh are lost to erosion every day. After Katrina, as much as 100 square miles of the marsh was lost, accelerating the wane. But the ducks still come.
They drop into potholes, where they feed on invertebrates and duck weed. On low tide, they sit on the mud. Frenette started duck hunting the marsh more than 30 years ago.
"I didn't know diddly squat about duck hunting then,'' he said. "I didn't know the difference between a pintail and a gadwall. But we shot the heck out of them.
"I got hooked early on. It's changed a lot since then, but there are still a ton of ducks that use the marsh. You just have to be a little more mobile and pay attention to the tides and where the ducks are using."
Duck hunters here use multiple boats to navigate the canals and the shallow flats. Many of them carry pirogues in larger boats, dropping them off on the edge of shallow flats and paddling to stretches of Rosa cane where they pull themselves into cover and wait for the coming flocks. Others pull smaller flat-bottoms outfitted with direct-drive mud engines well into the maze and take similar positions.
There are very few places where a duck hunter can stand, let alone wade. Retrievers are a must in most places and even they have a difficult time navigating the muck.
Regardless of the style there is always something to look at or to call to. The whole marsh system is crisscrossed with canals and ditches, where there is constant activity from everything from duck hunters and redfish anglers to shrimp boats and huge ocean liners.
Every time a boat passes, ducks and geese are stirred and moved around. It's a gumbo feast for the eyes.
We watched and hunkered down in the cane as we worked flocks of teal, pintails, gadwalls, mottled ducks and the occasional mallard. In between those spurts of duck action, the sky was always moving with Ibis, cormorants, pelicans and gallinules.
The day produced a teal, a gadwall and a mottled duck in the two hours the tide allowed for hunting. But in that short time it also revealed how special a place the Louisiana Marsh is at the end of the road for migrating waterfowl.