Louisiana's Redfish Culture is Running Out of Marsh

On a quiet January morning New Orleans seems to sit lower than the water surrounding her. The city is still recovering from Katrina, but the beads are starting to fly again in the Big Easy. Photographer Tim Romano and I were shown the very best of it this past January, as we traveled south in search of monster redfish. Our plan was to fish for four days with Capt. Gregg Arnold , a local guide based in New Orleans who has caught several state and IGFA world record redfish from the Biloxi Marsh, about an hour's drive from the city in St. Bernard Parish. Gregg also arranged for us to fish with his friends Travis and Bryan Holeman, two renowned tournament redfish anglers who live in the fishing hamlet of Hopedale, which is situated at the edge of the marsh. Arnold wanted to introduce us to the unique culture of those who make their living on the bayou. A culture that is vanishing along with the wetlands that support it.Tim Romano
We started in the city. This street performer and his posse performed in front of historic Jackson Square. A steady stream of horse drawn carriages rolled by in the background, carrying loads of pre-Mardi Gras revelers. In the aftermath of Katrina many people worried about the fate of this tourism in this town, but Bourbon and Decatur Streets have risen from the waters, and "the Quarter" is back in business, baby.Tim Romano
Drinking in the streets and dogs in the bars - you're in the Big Easy, where its all about the party. But be warned - the shooters, Hurricanes and Hand Grenades are poured with a heavy hand, and will have you singing the Dog House Blues when its time to get up and go fishing the next morning.Tim Romano
We stayed with Arnold at his home in New Orleans, which meant that our fishing days always began early, and with a mandatory stop at Penny's Cafe. Behind the counter BB keeps the coffee flowing and the biscuits and gravy rolling. Bacon and eggs, pork chops and grits, it's as Southern as it gets. When you're wiping up the grease and BB asks you "What would you like for yo' lunch today, my sugah?" order the po-boy.Tim Romano
Here's why. Soft-shell crabs on a bun. Penny (the owner) is in the kitchen, and when she whips up a po-boy it's a Louisiana lunch fit for Louis XIV. It might look like a recipe for a heart attack but later, on the marsh, it'll seem like the best sandwich you've ever eaten in your life.Tim Romano
In 2004, National Geographic referred to the Mississippi delta as "the hardest working marsh in America." Louisiana is second only to Alaska in annual seafood harvest by weight. It's also the nation's third leading crude oil and second leading natural gas producer. Fishing here means floating over oyster leases in view of offshore oil and gas rigs. But years of engineering projects that dammed the river and channeled it with levees to protect low-lying communities from flooding have left the marsh vulnerable to storm erosion. Louisiana currently loses about 25 square miles of wetlands per year. Since the 1930's an area roughly the size of Delaware has washed into the Gulf.Tim Romano
Each year more than 10 million pounds of oysters are harvested in Louisiana, making this state number one in the nation in oyster landings by weight. Some, like these, are landed in the small fishing hamlet of Hopedale, and there's no better place to slurp one down than right on the dock at the Breton Sound Marina, where we launched our boat each morning before heading out into the Marsh.Tim Romano
On our first day out, Captain Gregg Arnold searches for redfish as he poles us through an area of the marsh he called the "Land of Giants." If it's a big fish you want, Arnold is the man to fish with; he's guided his anglers to more state and IGFA records than anyone else alive. He's also guided the state record black drum and sheepshead. Strong winds made fishing tough, but Tim managed to land a respectable 22-pound redfish. It wasn't a record, but not bad for day one.Tim Romano
Redfish are damn good eating, too, but are no longer a commercially harvested species. Sport fishermen must adhere to a slot limit and a daily allowance of 5 fish per day. On our second day out, we took a few smaller fish home for dinner, and later that evening feasted on Redfish a la Arnold, a specialty prepared by Gregg himself.Tim Romano
Pelicans also thrive on the bounty of the marsh, as do hundreds of other species. Large flocks of them were always at the marina in Hopedale, feasting on the scraps of oysters brought in by commercial fisherman. Although not often recognized, the vast wetlands of the Mississippi delta are as rich and diverse as the better-known Florida Everglades. They're larger, too.Tim Romano
We spent our third day with Travis Holeman, who gave us a glimpse into the world of competitive redfish angling. Here Travis "gives her the onion," goosing his skiff to 80 miles per hour. In tournament angling such speed is necessary; you need to get where you're going ASAP. For us, it was just plain fun.Tim Romano
Travis shows us a prime example of why the Biloxi marsh is known for trophy redfish at this time of the year. We guessed that this fish weighed almost forty pounds; it was the biggest one we saw during our stay.Tim Romano
Bryan (aka "Bear") Holeman, Travis's brother, performs his redfish dance for us on the poling platform to build our big fish mojo. It worked. We fished with Bear on our last day, and Tim and I landed at least a dozen reds, none smaller than twenty pounds.Tim Romano
Bear shows us how it's done. He's battling a trophy sized bull redfish, what people down there call a "pumpkin." On sunny days the reflection off the red sides of these fish makes them glow orange in the tea stained waters.Tim Romano
Food that fights back. Our guide Gregg Arnold messes with a mudbug and gets what he deserves. After our final day of fishing we celebrated with a local feast. There are more than 30 species of crawfish in Louisiana, and there's no dish more quintessentially Cajun than a crawfish boil. Each year over 80 million pounds of them are harvested in this state. They were declared the official state crustacean in 1983.Tim Romano
Revenge is sweet. Does it get any better than a crawdad feed following four days of casting to monster redfish?Tim Romano
After our gut-splitting dinner Bear kicks back, stretching his legs and the heavy duty spring on the makeshift lounger at the Breton Sound Marina.Tim Romano
When they're not out guiding, tournament fishing, or unloading oyster boats to supplement their incomes, a favorite after-hours activity for Bear and Travis is scouting the flats at night, bowfishing for reds and black drum. Like everything else in Hopedale, recreation relies on the riches of the marsh. All you need is a skiff, some high-power halogen spotlights, a portable generator and something to shoot. Famous last words? "Just hold my beer and watch this."Tim Romano
Huge boats thrown high and dry and buildings laid to waste bear silent testimony to the hurricanes. During Katrina, St. Bernard Parish was pounded by winds in excess of 125 mph and swamped by a storm surge over 14 feet high. The storms were always with us when drove to Hopedale.Tim Romano
Hopedale still reels from the storm. Signs of the devastation are everywhere. Some have given up and left this area altogether; others struggle to rebuild. As the marsh disappears, so does a unique lifestyle and culture which depends upon it.Tim Romano
Sunset on the Louisiana wetlands is beautiful and eerie. The skeletons of dead trees betray the plight of the vanishing marshes and everything that depends upon them. The livelihoods of sport and commercial fishers, a distinct culture born of the bayous, and hundreds of species of fish and wildlife all face an uncertain future. Down but not out, Hopedale locals struggle to rebuild from the ravages of Katrina, Ike and Gustav. Massive redfish still run strong in the swamps, but for how long? It's a sobering thought. These marshes define not just the coastline, but the very soul of this state. A Louisiana without them would be like New Orleans without the French Quarter. Unimaginable.Tim Romano

Louisiana's redfish culture is running out of marsh. And when it's gone, so disappears a unique group of people with a laid-back approach to life and salt in their blood.

To fish with the cast of characters featured in this story and get lost in the low-country vibe, call or visit their websites below:

Captain Gregg Arnold
(504) 237-674
fishinthelandofgiants.com

Captains Bryan & Travis Holeman
(727) 644-4347
holemanbrothers.com