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May 12, 2008

Louisiana Lake Trout

Any cast might produce the next state-record speck on a rejuvenated Lake Pontchartrain

In August 2005, the world watched in horror as New Orleans tried to survive the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. As the flood waters receded, black, smelly slop - dubbed "toxic soup" by some reporters - oozed into Lake Pontchartrain on the northern edge of the city. Full of sewage, dead creatures - including humans - rotting debris and all sorts   of detritus from the wounded city, the putrid sludge prompted many piscatorial pundits to proclaim the death of this rich 4,000-year-old estuary.

As Mark Twain once quipped, "The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated!" If Lake Pontchartrain could talk, it would say the same thing.
 
"The speckled trout resource really wasn't hurt by Katrina," says Harry Blanchet of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Marine Fisheries Division. "Biologically, there was no real impact on trout. We also had a mild winter in 2005-06, so that gave trout good conditions for survival, making 2006 a remarkable year for speckled trout and redfish."
 
Fish moved to uncontaminated areas as tides flushed the system. Nature cleans itself much faster than humans can. Even immediately after the storm, people could catch all the speckled trout they wanted - if they still had a floating boat and could get it into the water!
 
"About 10 days after Katrina hit, we saw more fish in Lake Pontchartrain than I ever saw in my life, and I've fished the lake for more than 45 years," says Capt. Dudley Vandenborre (985-847-1924; www.rodnreel.com/dudley). "We saw big schools of fish. The lake filled up with shrimp. Lake Pontchartrain has a tremendous amount of bait."
 
The storm surge from Katrina pushed more than 20 feet of salty water into the normally brackish-to-fresh estuary. The system stayed salty into 2007 because of a drought. High salinities led to abundant trout spawns in 2006 and 2007. Fish spawned in 2006 should weigh about 3 to 4 pounds now, Blanchet says. In addition, fishing pressure virtually disappeared in the months following Katrina as people focused on rebuilding their lives.
 
"Since Katrina, I've never seen the fishing so good," Vandenborre says. "People can limit out with 2 1/2- to 7-pound trout almost every time they go. We catch a lot more fish in the 16- to 18-inch range now. That might have something to do with the good spawns after the storm. It's not hard to catch 100 fish. Before Katrina, we might have caught 40 to 50 fish a day, but they would have averaged a bit larger."

Trophy Trout Lake
Decades ago, few people considered Lake Pontchartrain a trophy trout lake. Shell dredging disturbed the soft, muddy bottom, removing natural reefs and tearing out grass beds. Waves carried silt throughout the system, turning the water murky. Shell dredging stopped in 1989, and the bottom became more firm as natural sea grass sprouted again. The filtering sea grass oxygenated and cleansed the system. In addition, the state banned gill netting in 1995. By the late 1990s, people began to notice as anglers occasionally landed monster specks.
 
In January 1999, Kenny Kreeger caught an 11.99-pound speck, the biggest trout seen in Louisiana since May 1950 when Leon Mattes set the state standard with a 12.38-pounder. Nine months later, Jason Troullier yanked an 11.24-pounder from the Rigolets, one of two passes that connect Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne, an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. That fish holds the number-three position on the state record book list. In April 2002, Vandenborre caught a 10.50-pounder, a fish currently holding the number-nine slot. Another angler landed a Pontchartrain trout approaching 12 pounds but refused to submit the catch through the official record process.
 
"Even back in the 1970s, trout were always in Lake Pontchartrain," Vandenborre remembers. "There was always a group of people who consistently caught big fish in the lake. I can remember fishing with my dad under the Twin Bridges (Interstate 10) and each of us having a 5-pound trout on our lines as people drove across the bridge to fish elsewhere. Fishing with my grandfather many years ago, I remember catching big trout that could not fit into an ice chest without bending."