Lure of the Bayou

By M.L. Lyke
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 8, 2001

I was pumped. I had a saltwater rod, borrowed from a friend, and a boxful of floozy flies, gaudy as befeathered showgirls in a Las Vegas lineup. My Louisiana guide had described the "ripping attack" and "blinding fast runs" of our tenacious prey -- the redfish, a k a red drum.

I could almost feel the heat of line screaming off my reel as I headed into Cajun country for a taste of the slow-simmered culture and fast-action angling.

True, I didn't know jack about fly-fishing. I'm a lowly bait-plunking girl turned spin-caster, near-Neanderthal on the evolutionary scale of angling. I've stooped to corn and worms and mini-marshmallows in my time. But I was ready to move on, and up, to the fishing elite, that heady class of light-geared anglers who fish not to fill a cooler with carcasses but to achieve high art in the graceful rolling cast and the perfectly placed fly, delivered, like manna, to some lucky fish with elevated taste.

I boned up with a few workshops and lessons, managed a few casts that didn't curl up and die at my feet, then headed off to a fishing camp in Louisiana's southeast Terrebonne Parish for a weekend of what my guide, Marty Authement, called "Marsh Madness." This fine madness involved fly-fishing the productive shallow waters of Terrebonne's saltwater flats for speckled trout and black drum and the brutish redfish, while being poled along in a flat-bottomed mudboat by a genial 'gator-eating native with long, curly black hair, shoulders like a Mack Truck and a slow, gentle voice that could drag a vowel down Main Street and back.

"I like to see y'all catch fish. I like it as much as catching 'em myself," said Authement, pronounced "Oh-de-mo" in the lilting aural shorthand of Cajun French. Before trip's end, he'd be calling me "Sugar."

Fly-fishing is considered pretty high-falutin' in Mississippi Delta country. Here water, like time, moves slow and thick, and the black mud gives off the skanky smell of decomposition. Old-timers stick to the fundamentals: bait. They want food, not art. "Fly-fishing was an ugly word around here for a while," said my guide, who doubles as a lifestyle editor at the local daily in Houma, the governmental seat of Terrebonne.

Authement has been hunting and fishing local swamps, bayous and estuaries for at least 30 of his 36 years. He converted to flies five years ago and is now one of a handful of guides offering chartered fly-fishing expeditions in the region. "It's still a grass-roots thing. If I see another fly-fisherman once every 10 to 12 trips, that's often," he said, whipping up a little something for supper that first night in fish camp, about a two-hour's drive south of New Orleans.

It was chicken and sausage gumbo. Our chef started with an artery-hardening roux (half flour, half oil), added the "holy trinity" (onion, celery and green pepper), then stirred in meat, broth and spices (salt, pepper, garlic and bay leaves). We washed down the happy mix with red wine, slapped at a mosquito or two, and played our first game of Scrabble.

Little did I know how desperate those games would become, how many dive-bombing skeeters we would massacre, how longingly I would eye the cabin's badly taxidermied 12-pound redfish, and how low my standards would fall before trip's end.

State license plates describe Louisiana as a "Sportsman's Paradise." That's not idle hype in Terrebonne Parish, with its abundance of ducks, marsh hens, coots and dozens of fish species. Sunrise and sunset, skinny Cajun canoes called pirogues crisscross pinkened wakes of flat-bottomed mudboats as duck hunters and anglers navigate a maze of cookie-cutter islets in search of prey.

Fishing is a passion in Terrebonne, located at the ball of the foot on the boot of Louisiana. The rich marsh waters and gulf shorewaters yield blue crabs, oysters and beaucoup shrimp, trapped in billowing butterfly nets that blow in the wind like shirts on a clothesline.

Nothing here stirs blood like the red drum. Big bulls fished on the gulf with whole live crab run 40 pounds and up, and hit like a runaway freight train. Our prey was considerably smaller -- five to 12 pounds -- but still fiery. Authement described the adrenaline rush of watching water boil and shrimp and minnows fly as redfish thrash in a feeding frenzy, their backs cutting intersecting V's in foot-deep water.

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