An Upstream Journey: Dispatch #2, from the Louisiana Marsh

Written by: Paul Moinester

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Capt. Danny Wray hoists a big redfish from his beloved Grand Isle marsh.

photo courtesy Paul Moinester

[Editor’s Note: Paul Moinester has embarked on a six-month, 20,000-mile adventure to exploring the upstream battle to protect wild fish and their habitat. (Check out his introductory post here.) He will be posting dispatches on the Fly Fishing blog throughout his journey.]

After two and a half weeks down in the Keys and Everglades, I left the tarpon of South Florida to chase redfish in the Louisiana Bayou. Along the way, I stopped in New Orleans to pick up my buddy Micah, who decided to spend his law school spring break fishing with me.

Micah and I became friends my junior year of college. Being night owls and seriously overcommitted at school, we spent many a night together hunched over our computers and slamming down energy drinks. When we weren’t working, you could often find us out on some body of water chasing bass. A little older and wiser, we were making a serious upgrade from the bass ponds of the St. Louis suburbs to some of the most prime fishing territory in the country.

On our way down to Grand Isle, I called Captain Danny Wray from Calmwater Charters, who, I was told by numerous people, is “the guy” to talk to about fishing Grand Isle and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup. When I called Captain Danny to see if I could rent two of his kayaks and buy him a beer in exchange for some stories about the oil spill, he told me to swing by his house and he would hook us up.

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The author finally caught his first redfish on the third day.

photo courtesy Paul Moinester

As we pulled up to his house, perched high atop stilts (like most houses in this hurricane-prone area), we were greeted with the warm welcome of the redfish captain. Appreciative of what we were doing, Captain Danny let us borrow two of his fully outfitted personal kayaks, told us everything we needed to know about where and how to catch reds, bid us good luck, and sent us on our way.

Despite Captain Danny’s expert advice and recommendations, we didn’t catch many fish the first two days. On day one, I hooked a big red on a popper but thanks to a poorly tied knot, it broke off. Micah managed to land a small sea trout, and that was it. Day two saw a bit of an improvement with Micah catching a few small redfish, a sea cat, and a ray while I struck out entirely.

Each day when we got off the water, I had a voice message waiting for me from Captain Danny inquiring about how we did that day. When I called him back on the second day and let him know that we still weren’t really hooking into reds, we were summoned to his house for some more tips and a conversation about the oil spill cleanup.

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The author’s buddy, Micah, testing out his lure.

photo courtesy Paul Moinester

The FUbp bumper sticker proudly displayed on Captain Danny’s pickup truck did not leave much to question about how Captain Danny felt about BP. Having grown up in Grand Isle and worked on the oil rigs that dot its horizon, Captain Danny is not anti-oil-production nor is he a NIMBYist (“not in my backyard”). He is just angry and frustrated with BP for their gross negligence and incompetence that resulted in the deaths of 11 oil rig workers and the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Shortly after the spill, Captain Danny was hired as part of the Forensic Rapid Assessment Team to help evaluate the damage from the more than 200 million gallons of oil that spilled into the Gulf. For two years, he worked with biologists collecting oil samples and monitoring animal behavior. Overall, Captain Danny is pleased with the recovery and the present state of the redfish population in Grand Isle. However, he still questions the impact of the spill every time he sees something abnormal. He struggles to ascertain whether this oddity is natural or an effect of the spill. It’s an ever-present question that lingers in the back of his mind.

One thing Captain Danny is certain about, however, is the resiliency of Grand Isle – its people and its redfish. Over the last few years, the island has been hit with a series of crushing blows, from Hurricane Katrina to the Deepwater Horizon spill. But like a bloodied boxer who miraculously gets up after being dealt an apparent knockout blow, Grand Isle and its redfish continue to fight on. It’s a story of resilience that will hopefully continue.

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A kayak allows for an intimate experience with the marshes.

photo courtesy Paul Moinester

The morning after our conversation, I awoke to the whooshing sound of my tent’s rainfly thrashing in the mighty gusts ripping through the campground. The wind had been blowing strong all week but it had now reached a menacing level. Lying in my tent, afraid to leave for fear that it might blow away, I did not have high hopes for fishing that day.

The red fishing had been hard and slow all week and, with the dark sky and battering wind, today looked even less promising. Hearing Micah stirring in his tent, I yelled to him over the howling wind that I think today should be a workday. He agreed and we made plans to go to a nearby bar and spend the day writing, eating po’ boys, and drinking a beer or two.

Climbing into the car with our laptops in tow, I looked down at my buzzing phone; it was Captain Danny. Answering the phone, I was greeted with, “We’re going to catch some reds today boys! How long until you can be at my house?” I told him we would need forty-five minutes to load up the kayaks and get there. He said, “Hurry, the conditions are perfect and won’t last that much longer.” Despite the ominous sky and furious winds, we loaded the kayaks and fishing gear into the car and sped off to Captain Danny’s.

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Micah unhooks a small ray from a march creek.

photo courtesy Paul Moinester

Eager to share the wonders of his piece of fishing paradise, Captain Danny took us to his secret honey hole – a spot that required permission from a fishing buddy to take us. He had promised us fish and had the upmost confidence this stretch of Louisiana marsh would deliver.

Within minutes of arriving, Micah landed a giant redfish on his baitcaster. Five minutes later, he hooked into another one. Captain Danny was right – this spot was a honey hole for the ages. For the next two hours, Captain Danny and Micah traded fish, catching 7 or 8 between the two of them.

I was still fishless, my spoon fly failing to entice one bite. Micah and Captain Danny continued to try and convince me to switch out my Orvis fly rod and spoon fly for a baitcaster and a live minnow – a notion that gained appeal every time I heard them yell “fish on” and “got one.” Steadfast in my desire to catch a redfish on the fly, I resisted the temptation.

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Oil rigs line the horizon off the coast of Grand Isle.

photo courtesy Paul Moinester

My determination paid off because a few casts later I felt a subtle take as my spoon fly drifted slowly through an eddy. I set the hook and my line went tight. A redfish emerged from the dark eddy, slowly swimming into shallower water towards me. Seemingly unfazed by the hook in its mouth, the fish peacefully continued to swim upstream. Having heard countless stories about the dogged fighting style of redfish, I was startled by the fish’s calm demeanor. I did a quick double take and set the hook again to ensure it was firmly set in its mouth.

The second hookset sent the redfish into a frenzy – it boiled, made a serious of sharp thrashings, and took off upstream. I fought the fish for a solid two minutes – a nervous look affixed to my face the entire time. After nearly three weeks on the road and not one big fish to account for and a recent stretch of losing every decent-sized fish I hooked, my sanity hung in the balance as I fought this feisty red.

As I coerced the fish to the shore with my rod doubled over and my reel holding firm, Micah reached down, grabbed my leader, and pulled the redfish onto shore. I bent over, let out a deep sigh of relief, and yelled “FINALLY!” A few pictures later, the fish was safely released into the water and I was fishing again, the enormous weight lifted off my back.

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A second redfish for the author cemented a successful day on the marsh.

photo courtesy Paul Moinester

Over the course of the next hour, we continued to hook fish, and I managed to land and lose one more. With the sun dipping toward the horizon and facing a long kayak ride back through the maze of marsh, we bid farewell to the honey hole. Grateful for the fish it yielded and Captain Danny’s generosity and expert guidance, we paddled through the marsh even more appreciative of Grand Isle’s incredible fish and people.

Every few days a story pops up in the news cycle raising new questions about the impact of the BP spill. Stories about dead dolphins floating to the shore and sea turtles strandings at rates far above normal certainly provide compelling evidence that refutes BP’s claims that all is back to normal in the Gulf. As Captain Danny noted, all of the visible oil is gone, but only time will tell what the true long-term impact of the spill will be on this critical ecosystem and world-class fishery.

Despite these frequent unnerving stories, I still hold out hope that the Grand Isle fishery will prove to be as resilient as the island’s residents. That it will not only bounce back from this seemingly insurmountable knockout blow but come back stronger.

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On their last night on Grand Isle, Micah caught this fat black drum.

photo courtesy Paul Moinester

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