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September 29, 2006

Sportsman's Paradise: Open for Business

Renowned Venice Fishery Rebounds After Katrina

Almost 20 knots of southeast wind sailed through the tops of the roseau cane, tingling my face as we ran toward Delta Bayou below Venice, Louisiana. Powering down in 4 feet of water, we snugged the bay boat close to the shoreline and began picking at a patch of submerged grass. We cast jerkbaits and plugs repeatedly to points and edges, which we hoped would hold untold numbers of fat seatrout and redfish, enough for a feast of plenty and a spicy Cajun story to tell back home.

Just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina came through here in August 2005, reports began filtering out about the once-legendary Venice fishing and how it had come back - gasp - even stronger! (Could it be?) When the human element - the marinas, ramps and stores - began to recover in late May, we decided to find out.
Paradise Derailed
Aerial pictures of Venice Marina after Katrina showed demolished buildings and docks and giant shrimp boats lying on the littered landscape. Eighty miles to the north, New Orleans lay underwater.

Along the lone highway between those two points, most communities lost a high percentage of their businesses and homes. Venice became virtually isolated, cut off from precious commodities like fresh water, food and gasoline.

Undaunted, Louisiana anglers started hauling their boats anywhere they could find workable ramps, even while officials removed debris and cleared the waterways. Web forums buzzed about the great inshore fishing and the lack of pressure.

In Venice, brothers and marina co-owners Mike and Bill Butler studied their options. "We're too young to retire or quit and too old to move," Mike Butler says. "We decided to become totally self-sufficient, so that even if there's just a gravel road between here and New Orleans, we can provide everything people need to fish."

By the time our group visited Venice in late May, the new marina building - designed at twice its prehurricane size - was almost complete, despite the fact that electricity had just returned to the region five weeks prior.

The Butlers had upgraded the marina's wiring, improved the bulkheads, built new docks, opened 12 cabins and a floating-barge hotel - the Venice Sportsman's Lodge - and were providing water, fuel, ice and bait to guides and visiting anglers.

The Butlers say the $1.5- to $2-million price tag to rebuild includes Wallop-Breaux grant money to help with the on-site roads and parking and a lot of assistance from volunteer groups. Most Venice residents were displaced by the storm, so finding employees has proven tough. Insurance companies apparently won't write wind policies, Mike Butler says, so the rebuilding of homes and necessities such as grocery stores and gas stations has lagged.

Indeed, the stretch of Highway 23 from Belle Chasse down to Venice held very few people and fewer amenities as we drove south from the New Orleans airport. Much of the debris has been removed, but instead of houses, you see vacant concrete slabs. Upon arrival in Venice though, anglers find lodging, excellent meals (at the Sportsman's Lodge), food supplies at the ship's store and a restaurant.

"We're really trying to capitalize on the traveling traffic," Mike Butler says. "People are still driving down here. And whether you have a 16-foot skiff or a big sport-fish, we'll give you the same good service and treatment."

Mission In May
To facilitate our Venice reconnaissance, Sailfish Boats, out of Cairo, Georgia, brought down a 2100 Bay Boat so we could fish the often-skinny waters of Louisiana's bayous and creeks, although more than 20 guides already work out of the newly rebuilt marina. With a jack plate assisting the 150 Yamaha, we could wander into knee-deep water where we'd see head wakes from passing mullet and fish.

But on that first day, after that first half hour of plugging Delta Bayou with the wind and overcast sky, some of us became a mite discouraged.

Our guide, Bill Butler, had no such lapse of faith. He pointed the bay boat to an adjacent bank, ran for a few minutes and then dropped the anchor. And that's where we stayed most of the day.

Melee In The Marsh
"He hates it. He hates it!" Sailfish's Vice President of Sales and Marketing Denny Warren said, laughing, as another 3-pound seatrout smacked a topwater bait in an eruption of water, fish and plastic.

"But I love that sound," quipped Sailfish regional sales rep Joby Davis, whose Top Dog Jr. had just been hit.

We were anchored in 2 1/2 feet of water, and the trout were tearing up the place. A school of pogies had just pushed through, and that had apparently raised the ire of these snaggletooth predators. With the cloudy sky conveniently silhouetting topwater plugs, we cast and pulled as fast as we could.

Twenty or 30 trout later, Bill Butler hollered out to the fish on his line: "Who's yore daddy?" then answered himself by reeling that fish to the boat and adding, "? Well, grease gonna be yore mama tonight!"

Trout gang up to spawn in May and June and fall victim to topwater plugs in this often vicious display. Redfish prowl the marshes around Venice year-round, though they go on and off the feed based on weather variables. For trout, Butler prefers a high falling tide because he can motor into more locations, especially when an east wind blows out the best areas and churns the water to a lovely shade of mud.

If he can't find a pod of fish willing to bite, he prowls the hard mud banks that often feature oyster bars. He'll toss a jig head tipped with shrimp - colloquially called a "Cajun cricket." But reds also take plastic cocahoe minnows fished on a spinner bait or a plastic tail fished from a jig head under a popping cork such as an Old Bayside Paradise Popper. 

Redfish Points
As the topwater trout bite subsided, Butler reluctantly agreed to leave and hunt for reds. Redfish in Louisiana could be considered a "signature" fish - pretty much a given, even in the harsh, chilly climate of January and February.

In estuaries, reds position themselves in eddies just behind points of marsh and oyster reef swept by tidal currents. Trying to find a place out of the wind, Butler motored into a pond surrounded by tall cane and holding multiple islands of grass. There was sufficient water to float the bay boat, but the tide was just low enough so shrimp and mullet showed near the surface.

"We ought to be hearing redfish along those banks," Butler said, just as he felt a tug on his spinner bait. A quick setup brought a brief fight and a groan as the fish came boat-side - catfish.

Butler switched to a topwater plug since the clouds were still creating a prime backdrop. He nudged the trolling motor along as Davis cast a cork-cocahoe combination tipped with shrimp.

Spring also brings bull reds to the Chandeleur Islands across Breton Sound from South Pass. But the heavy winds we experienced prevented a trip to those uninhabited islands, which had been swamped by the hurricane and no doubt rearranged.  

In addition, bigger redfish lurk around nearshore oil rigs. Anglers hook into them when bottomfishing with chunk bait. But these giant spawning fish must be released and seem to suffer greatly even when brought up from depths of 40 feet.

On the final day of our post-hurricane exploration, Davis ran the skiff out Baptiste Collette to Breton Sound. Our buddy boat, a 30-foot deep-V, headed to Battledorf Reef to drop baits on the shell beds beneath that rig while we ran to the shoreline at Taylor Point.

The long, low shoreline of dark mud topped by chartreuse-colored grass looked like redfish central. We watched for reds pushing mullet along the edge, and Davis anchored near the point, where water poured off the flat like a gushing river.

Multiple casts produced no hits, so we motored along the shore. "Stick and move. Stick and move," Davis chattered, casting repeatedly toward shore. "C'mon baby," he coaxed the fish. "Cold steel tastes just like chicken!"

Fishing With Ease
One of the best and most miraculous aspects of fishing out of Venice, and most places along the Louisiana coast, is the total ease of picking off fish - under most circumstances. As we found out in late May, an east or southeast wind can virtually shut down the usually prolific redfish bite. But on just about any given day, all you need is a plastic bait tail and a jig head. Tie directly to your line or use a short shock leader, and put the jig in the water.

If you choose to get fancy, you can switch to spinner baits or put a jig under a cork. While many anglers now use plug (conventional) rods and low-profile or round baitcasting reels instead of spinning gear, either will do.

Common outfits include 6- to 12-pound-class tackle. Spool up with a braided line if you'll be fishing near any structure, including oyster bars, but mono is fine for plugging most shorelines and points.

When the water clears, tie on a short length, 2 to 3 feet, of fluorocarbon leader. If the water muds up, try a flavored Gulp! shrimp on a jig head or tip jigs with fresh shrimp.

Hurricane-battered or not, Louisiana's Delta still provides excellent bang for your buck both inshore and offshore. And before the crowds start coming back, you might just find yourself alone on a pristine oyster bar or near a patch of grass, hauling in trout and redfish for the skillet that night. The good times are still rolling.


Photos by Chris Woodward

Find out more in the October 2006 issue of Sport Fishing.