The Best Chin in Fishing

Louisiana marsh stays on its feet despite big punches

Article by Steve Wright

Photo of boats cleaning up oil on the Louisiana marsh.
After the BP oil spill occured in the summer of 2012, booms were set offshore to catch new oil flows and crews worked from boats along marsh grass edges to clean those areas.

VENICE, La. – If the Louisiana marsh were a boxer, it would be former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta. He fought the great Sugar Ray Robinson six times during his career. The last occasion – on Feb. 14, 1951 – is known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Though unable to defend himself from the blows unleashed by Robinson in the later rounds, LaMotta never went down. The fight was stopped in the 13th round. It was ruled a "technical knockout" – TKO.

Somehow, the Louisiana marsh has absorbed haymakers from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and Hurricane Isaac this past August. And, somehow, these coastal wetlands have continued producing: 70 percent of the U.S. shrimp and oysters, most of its hard- and soft-shelled crabs, 30 percent of the country's total seafood by weight, and some of the best fishing anywhere on Earth.

"Even when it's bad, our fishing is better than 90 percent of the United States," said Capt. Mike Frenette, who has been guiding anglers from his Redfish Lodge in Venice for over 30 years.

Frenette wasted no time providing evidence for that statement, which was made aboard his 24-foot Triton boat as it skimmed the shallow marsh after exiting Venice Marina in early August. Less than a half-hour after he uttered those words, a 29-pound redfish exploded on a topwater lure that had been cast where Frenette instructed. The ensuing fight left a lasting impression on this particular angler. And it was the first of many "bull red battles" over the next 24 hours in August.

This is a story about fighters. Yes, the redfish around Venice are heavyweights. But they need some human help. Frenette is a fighter, having gone to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress about the BP spill. A fighter, too, is P.J. Hahn, the director for coastal zone management in Plaquemines Parish. And there are many others struggling to preserve the most valuable coastal wetlands in the U.S. But there aren't near as many as there should be.

These recent big blows – two hurricanes and an unprecedented oil spill disaster – didn't create the main problem here; they accelerated what has been 80 years of rabbit punches: the daily erosion of the marsh. A football field-size marshland melts into the Gulf of Mexico every 20 minutes, 2.5 acres of wetlands per hour, 25 square miles per year.

Mike Tidwell, is his 2003-published book "Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast," eloquently explained the situation. Yet even today relatively few people understand the scope of the problem.

"If a foreign enemy were taking away twenty-five square miles of American soil from us every year – year after year – just taking it away from this nation and not giving it back, we would certainly go to war to stop it, wouldn't we?"

That's how Kerry St. Pe, a marine biologist from Plaquemines Parish, described the problem to Tidwell over a decade ago.

Ironically, the major disasters, especially the BP oil spill, may finally have drawn the nation's attention to this critical situation. Big steps have been taken in correcting the other major environmental problems in the best of the best natural areas of this nation, as Tidwell noted: 1) the pollution of Chesapeake Bay; 2) the draining of The Everglades; 3) acid rain in The Great Smoky Mountains.

After Hurricane Katrina flooded the city of New Orleans and the BP Deepwater Horizon/Macondo Prospect spill dumped 4.9 million barrels of crude oil in the marsh, southern Louisiana may be finally receiving the attention it deserves. But it was hard-earned, to say the least.

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"Definitely, there could be an upside to this, if it enlightens people who are not familiar with what's going on down here," P.J. Hahn said.

Hahn knows a thing or two about fighting. He founded TKO Productions in 1997 to promote professional boxing matches. His company has been part of some big-time bouts, including one of former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson's last fights, a first-round knockout of Clifford Etiene at The Pyramid in Memphis, less than a year after Lennox Lewis had KO'd Tyson.

But Hahn has taken on a bigger challenge than pro boxing: slowing the demise of the largest disappearing land mass in the world. The Louisiana coast has been dissolving into the sea for over 80 years now, since this country started putting a straight jacket on the Mississippi River after The Great Flood of 1927.

Without the sediment that comes down the river from as far away as New York and Montana, sediment that once got deposited here annually when the Mississippi River flowed as wildly through Louisiana as an unmanned fire hose, the marsh loses it very foundation.

"Like sugar in a cup of coffee," is how P.J. Hahn describes what has been occurring daily in the Louisiana coastal wetlands.

The BP Deepwater Horizon incident put an exponential factor in the erosion problem. Hahn took us to Cat Island in Barataria Bay, which forms the western edge of Plaquemines Parish. Before the oil spill, Cat Island covered five acres and was thick with mangrove trees. When the oil came ashore, in addition to soiling the brown pelicans that nest here, it killed the root systems of the trees and much of the marsh grass. Once the tree and plant roots were destroyed, the erosion process kicked into a higher gear. In early August, Cat Island measured less than an acre, but it was still was being used by nesting brown pelicans nursing chicks. Two weeks later, Hurricane Isaac hit.

Photo of mangrove tress and pelicans in the Louisiana marsh.
This is what it looked like before the BP oil spill: five acres covered in mangrove trees that were heavily populated with nesting brown pilicans mostly, but other species as well. (P.J. Hahn photo)

Photo of Cat Island after the BP oil spill
This is Cat Island after the oil spill effects have literally "taken root". The crude oil covering the mangrove tree roots led to the death of the trees, and it was those same tree roots that were holding the soil in place on Cat Island, which shrunk from five acres befoer the spill to less than an acre afterwards (P.J. Hahn photo)

"Cat Island got hammered," Hahn said. "The storm really clobbered it. It was eight feet under water for 72 hours. That storm just sat right on top of us.

"A lot of people don't understand that a slow-moving Category 1 storm, like the one we just had, is worse than a fast-moving category 2 or 3."

Albertine Kimble works with Hahn in coastal zone management for Plaquemines Parish. She described Isaac and its aftermath as "a mini-tsunami" that washed over the entire parish, which is located southeast of New Orleans, along Highway 23, which connects the city with Louisiana's southern-most community of Venice.

The cleanup of Plaquemines Parish post-Isaac will continue into 2013. Cattle were found alive inside houses that had been swamped by the storm surge. When the water force blew out windows and doors, the cows walked in, looking for high ground. The Parish was faced with removing about 2,000 dead cattle, the ones that couldn't find any place to go.

Hahn has worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Vicksburg, Miss., headquarters in using computer modeling to determine the most effective way to re-establish barrier islands in the marsh. "Barrier" is an absolutely appropriate name for the marshlands that took the power out of high-water surges in the past.

"It's critical to go outside the levee protection system," said Hahn, who noted that there's little real estate left to expand Mississippi River levees that already stand 30-feet high in many places. "In order to build levees higher – to go up – you have to go out, as well. There's no place left to do that.

"But if we can build ridges out here in the marsh, we've done the (computer) modeling, every ridge has an 8-to-1 effect in knocking down a storm surge."

It takes big money to complete projects large enough to diminish a wall of water like Hurricane Isaac produced. That's where BP may prove to be a mixed blessing, instead of simply an unprecedented disaster. This summer Congress authorized that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines levied against BP and its partners will be spent for ecosystem and economic restoration in the five Gulf states. The fines reportedly could total between $5.4 billion and $21.1 billion, depending upon the degree of negligence found.

The people of southern Louisiana have never been given much reason to trust the oil giant BP Global. But that became even more apparent during Isaac and its aftermath, as official press releases from the company first denied that any oil had been left from the spill, then reluctantly acknowledged that wasn't the case, after oil globs began washing ashore in the storm, oil that had previously settled underwater, out of sight and out of mind, after another two million gallons of toxic Corexit oil dispersant had been thrown into this witches' brew.

It should be acknowledged here, too, that the oil and gas industry in southern Louisiana, which produces 30 percent of the U.S. domestic supply, is also responsible for marshland destruction. Its 10,000 miles of canals crisscrossing these wetlands have also been an accelerant in the saltwater intrusion of the marsh. Plenty of money has been made here; it's time for the industry to give back.

"In all fairness, nobody knew the effect of this at the time it was done," Hahn said. "It's only now that we're seeing the land disappear so quickly."

Hahn paused for a moment, then said, "There would be a good side to all of this, if we get that (Clean Water Act violations) money. It would be a helluva jump start on trying to fix this."

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Photo of Jarrod Gutafson, Steve Wright, Tommy Sanders, and Steve Bowman with their redfish catch
The daily limit on Redfish is five with a minimum length of 16". However, each angler may keep only one per day over 27" long. We kept one apiece and released many others. We caught none under 27". (L-R) Jarrod Gutafson, Steve Wright, Tommy Sanders, and Steve Bowman. (Mike Frennete photo)

Capt. Mike Frenette stood on the dock of his Redfish Lodge, scanned the expansive Venice Marina and said, "Everything you see in this marina was gone, except for some pretzeled steel."

Frenette was referring to the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. He said those words exactly two weeks before then-unforeseen Hurricane Isaac would pack another layer of disaster on the Louisiana marsh. But unlike most of Plaquemines Parish, Venice Marina would emerge relatively unscathed from Isaac.

It's these major catastrophes – like Katrina, the oil spill and now Isaac – that can make a man reconsider his life.

"If I'd only been in business a couple of years, yes, I would have left," said Frenette of the Katrina aftermath. "But I'd built up a good customer base, so I decided to rebuild."

Handling adversity is a way of life along the Louisiana coast. But natural disasters are one thing. It's the man-made ones that particularly stick in your craw.

"Damn BP. God Bless America," reads one sign, placed roadside on Highway 23, the artery that extends 77 miles south of New Orleans to the unincorporated town of Venice.

Frenette has to walk a tightrope. On one hand, he doesn't want to constantly sound off about the damage done to the marsh. It's bad for business. And as he said, when the fishing is bad here, it's still better than 90 percent of the rest of the country. But he doesn't want to just stand here and take it either.

The BP oil spill of two years ago has mostly left the headlines, but it will be decades before anyone knows the ultimate damage done by the worst environmental disaster in U.S history.

"Welcome. You have reached the southernmost town in La.," states another road-sign as you enter Venice, placed literally at the end of the road.

Welcome to the marsh, where Louisiana's motto – "Sportsman's Paradise" – is always in season, even after hurricanes and, yes, even after an oil spill.

Four of us made this trip to Venice, as it was an anniversary of sorts – two years after the oil spill and almost seven years since Katrina. Two days with Frenette proved both the remarkable resiliency of the Louisiana marsh, and why the most productive estuary in the U.S. needs everyone's help.

Frenette, his wife of 24 years, Lori, and their two college student sons, Michael and Stephen, have built there lives here – at the end of the road. It's pretty much fishing 24/7/365 in the Frenette family. Mike occasionally leaves Venice to compete in redfish tournaments along the Gulf, from Texas to Florida, usually teaming with his oldest son, Michael.

If you want to hear some fishing stories, Frenette's got a treasury, like the 16 ½-hour battle with a huge blue marlin several years ago. Got it to the boat, but didn't land it, like a modern version of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."

On our only full day in Venice, Frenette put a rod in his hand long enough to show us how it's done. When the drag on his spinning reel started screaming, Frenette guessed he'd hooked a jack crevalle. But it was a huge redfish, flashing the familiar spot on its tail. Frenette's Boga Grip scales bottomed out at 40 pounds, so we had to guess its weight. Based on weighing a couple in the 35-pound range earlier in the day, this fish would have easily hit the 50 mark. It was a beast.

Photo of Mike Frenette and his 50 lb. redfish
Mike Frenette showed how it's done on the second day of fishing , landing this 50 lb. Redfish that hit a Strike King Red-Eye Shad which resembles a Pogy (Gulf Menhaden) - the most abundant baitfish in the marsh. (Steve Wright photo)

Most people will never see redfish this big, much less catch one. At one point, three of the five men in Frenette's 24-foot Triton boat were hooked up with a big redfish. We saw several half-acre-size boils while slowly trolling through the marsh, after surprising a big school of redfish. The water exploded with their orange-scaled backs. In the casting frenzy that followed, it's a minor miracle no one took a treble hook in the head. Chuck and duck.

It appears there's plenty of depth in areas like this. However, Frenette's electronic depth-finder seldom recorded anything over five feet. You have to know what you're doing to navigate the marsh. Distance from standing vegetation doesn't mean a thing. It's why these vast wetlands are such a massive producer of shrimp, oysters, crabs and fish – fish of all sizes and shapes.

"That's a pogy plane," said Frenette, as a single-engine aircraft slowly made its way across the sky. There's no better example of the fertile Mississippi River estuary than the small, filter-feeding baitfish called pogies, or Gulf menhaden. You've sampled pogies from the Louisiana marsh, whether you know it or not.

An average of one billion pounds of pogies is harvested from the Gulf every year. Yes, billion, with a "b." The spotter plane pilot sees a big, water-rippling school of menhaden and relays the location to a massive "mother ship" – a ship big enough to hold two smaller vessels outfitted with purse seine nets. After the smaller boats are dispatched and the menhaden school is secured, the big ship vacuums the nets clean. It's called "reduction," when these small, silver-scaled fish are crushed for their abundant oil. Pogies are used in making everything from livestock feed to omega-3 health supplements to lipstick.

Photo of a bass caught with a pogie bait fishIt's also pogies that provide a key link in the food chain for all the predator species we love to catch, like redfish, also known as red drum. It was no accident the lure that produced most of our redfish catches – a Strike King Red-Eye Shad – resembles a pogy.

Although we concentrated on redfish, an angler has all sorts of options here. Louisiana's "tail" that pokes furthest south in the Gulf, like a miniature Florida peninsula, is where Venice sits. It makes the perfect jumping-off spot for pursuing almost any species of saltwater gamefish. Stay close and catch speckled trout and redfish; a bit further offshore, you'll find snapper, amberjack and grouper; venture out to the "blue water" and chase sailfish, tuna, dolphin and marlin. Unlike many places, it doesn't take half a day to come-and-go to the deep water from Venice, which has also been nicknamed "The End of the World."

Frenette's 30-year guide business has been built on people who want to come to the end of the world – the end of the "real world" – and do what they'd do if they didn't have a "real job" – chase big fish, drink a few cold ones and eat fresh seafood.

"Ninety-nine percent of my business is from out-of-state," Frenette said. "I've got to try and save this resource or my business is going away."

Frenette has tried to spread the word about the Louisiana coast, which is quickly dissolving into the sea.

That's, ultimately, why we were here: To see what's left of the Louisiana marsh after being hit head-on by both the biggest natural disaster in U.S. history – Hurricane Katrina – and the biggest man-made disaster in U.S. history – the BP oil spill.

We had all heard stories about how good the fishing was after Katrina, from the few people who had the time or resources to try it. Frenette was busy rebuilding the Redfish Lodge, which also serves as his second home.

"It took several months just to clean up the debris," he said.

But the oil spill? That seemed like a disaster no fish could survive. Three long months of unchecked crude oil flow figured to be a death knell.

The good news is that it wasn't. The fishing we enjoyed over two August days in Venice proved that. How many redfish did we catch? I honestly don't know the answer. Enough for me, on our second day there, to put down my fishing rod, take a seat next to Frenette at the center console and say, "I don't mind telling you. These redfish have done worn out this hillbilly."

But there is much work to do if the Louisiana marsh is going to continue like it always amazingly had done. The Mississippi River levees have interrupted nature's plan, the one that built this place.

Don't let your attention drift too far from the Louisiana marsh. What happens here will affect you, no matter where you live. It carries that much economic clout.

And despite all the disasters, it somehow remains the best place to get away from the real world. And like Jake LaMotta, it's still standing.

“You never knocked me down, Ray.”
DeNiro as LaMotta in Raging Bull  

Photo of a flock egrets flying over the Louisiana marsh
A flock of egrets flies over the Louisiana marsh. This ecosystem supports 100 million migratory, nesting and wintering birds. (P.J. Hahn photo)