For many weeks this spring and summer, it seemed there had never been a worse time to try to fish the northern Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana.
Yet for a few skippers in the western half of the state, there hasn't been a better time.
By running to open areas — stretches not closed by NOAA to all fishing — anglers in the western part of the state were finding a wide-open bite from bull reds near shore, to snapper, grouper, cobia, jacks and more species around rigs and rocky areas, to yellowfin and other pelagics in blue water.
Yet the word on the street would suggest that this international fishing Mecca was ruined by oil. Even as the feds began to shrink the closed area near the end of July, fishing pressure remained minimal. That in turn meant that the state's coastal economy, particularly fishing-specific businesses, were suffering terribly.
I wanted to find a way to show the nation and the world that Louisiana's incredible fishing is no less worth the trip than it ever had been. So I convened four influential members of the national recreational-fishing community to join me for a couple of days walking the walk with Louisiana charter captain Tommy Pellegrin (www.customchartersllc.com) of Houma: Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation; Rob Kramer, president of the International Game Fish Association; Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association; and Ted Venker, director of communications for the Coastal Conservation Association and editor of the CCA's Tide magazine.
A week or so prior to our trip, we added one more prominent angler: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
If Pellegrin was nervous with so many leaders on his boat, he didn't show it. "If the weather's right," he had told me, "We'll catch fish."
Well, the weather was right and we caught fish.
In words spoken and written, for many years, as one who's fished many countries, I've rated Louisiana's recreational fishing as among the very best in the world. While there's no doubt that limited coastal areas in eastern Louisiana have been affected by oil and may be damaged (though the jury's out on that), the vast majority of the state's coastal and offshore waters here offer spectacular fishing.
To reach the first rig we'd fish, a bit over 50 miles out, we crossed a great expanse of Gulf waters where Pellegrin said he would normally stop to fish, but they remained closed by NOAA. Going out and returning, we saw not a drop of oil; in fact, Pellegrin said very little oil ever reached this part of the coast. Jindal added that "so much of our coast has not been touched by oil."
At our very first stop, we had almost immediate multiple hookups on what most anglers would consider trophy-size grey (mangrove) snapper and the ubiquitous red snapper. The 55-day season (shortest on record) for keeping reds, of course, had already closed, so all had to be released, most after venting. A cobia of reasonable proportions crashed the party after the first couple of mangrove snapper came aboard.
The governor enjoyed the action, noting that this was hardly his first time fishing. Jindal ("Just call me Bobby") proved to be an unpretentious, easygoing member of the outing. He also acknowledged the devastating impact from the many anglers who would normally be here in this peak fishing season staying away (since the April rig break), citing the critical importance of recreational fishing to the state's economy.
But as for my colleagues and me, for the governor also, this was far more than just a great day of fishing. "The most important thing is to show people across our state and our country that Louisiana is still The Sportsman's Paradise," Jindal told me, mentioning the official state slogan. "Recreational fishing is worth more than a billion dollars a year to our economy, but more than that, fishing is a way of life for us, a great family tradition."
Jindal — who was scheduled the next day to meet with the BP CEO — cited an agenda per the oil spill with four general goals: coastal restoration, revitalizing the state's economy, holding BP accountable for mitigation and "getting our fishermen back out on the water." It was certainly gratifying to see the governor out there fishing with us, leading the way on that fourth point.
Angers, Kramer, Nussman, Venker and I fished one more full day that included a stop before we headed offshore in a shallow delta known as Lake Pelto where we had great action from bull redfish on Gulp! plastics. By drifting near some of the many small flocks of terns, wheeling and diving, Pellegrin had rods bent and anglers running around the boat to keep up with big reds on light lines.
We fished a bit farther offshore on this second day, and started over an area of open Gulf where the relatively smooth bottom showed only small areas of relief — but that was clearly all it took in these productive waters for good fishing (and for the opportunity to use somewhat lighter gear since we didn't have to pull fish away from an adjacent rig). Drifting with bait or (particularly) working jigs produced more red snapper (some real monsters) and large silk snapper, scamp and yellowmouth grouper, blackfin tuna, almaco jacks, king mackerel and more.
By the time we hit the dock that evening, I was reaching for some ibuprofen for sore arms — a sure sign of just how much action we enjoyed. Yet offshore, we saw not a single boat with sport fishermen all day. Many weeks with almost no fishing pressure has left fish abundant and aggressive. For anyone looking to plan a domestic fishing trip now or anytime soon, smart money's on Louisiana. (The only caveat is to nail down securely your accommodations and other arrangements in advance, since some areas remain pretty crowded with workers there to deal with the oil spill, though their numbers should continue to fall in coming weeks.)
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