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Lure of the Bayou
A Fly-Fishing Tale in Louisiana That's This Big -- Really!

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.

It is a dream fishery. On his best days, Authement says he can hit a fish with almost every cast for more than an hour. About all that can go wrong is the weather.

Ours tanked. For two days, winds howled, whined, hissed, whipped, squalled and hammered, tugging long beards of sickly gray Spanish moss off cypress trees and churning the marsh water into chocolate milk, robbing water of oxygen and turning fish lethargic.

Drops of rain hit our deck with such force they erupted. The temperature was 51 degrees, the humidity 86, and gusts were hitting 25 to 30 knots. Trees did the watusi outside our fish camp -- a borrowed three-bedroom party cabin planted in marshland muck on creosote posts and decorated with posters of the New Orleans Saints, a mini display of John Deeres and a fine-line drawing of John Wayne, whose thin lips seemed to coil in a rattlesnake sneer as the weekend progressed.

Authement, eager to please, paced the cabin deck, nose to the air, waiting for a change, a break, one long sustained breath that would allow us to hit the water. "We just have to be patient," he said.

Patience came to mean many things over two days and nights in our end-of-the-road hangout. It meant playing serial Scrabble, never adding up the scores, and finally, recklessly, awarding triple-word points for fish and fish-related words: L-U-N-K-E-R.

It meant "Animal Planet" on the TV and a mocking redfish on the wall. It meant chasing mosquitoes with fly swatters, and escalating, with chemical abandon, to a can of Raid. It meant hitting the streets at fish camp between squalls, marveling at the cabins built on stilts, logs and concrete blocks, repeating the musical names of the inhabitants: Picou, Montet, Robichaux, Dupre.

It meant serious analysis of Authement's ingenious hand-tied tackle -- a tiny blue crab made with a fabric swatch, knotted rubber-band legs and a sexy little spoon created from a fake fingernail bought at Wal-Mart, then decorated with gold glitter and a coat of epoxy.

Always, it meant telling stories. My guide, a self-described blue-collar redneck in a white-collar job, proved a master. He talked about growing up with French-speaking parents, when French was a stigma and kids "down on the bayou" were considered ignorant. His dad gave him his first gun at age 6, a shotgun with five inches cut off the stock. By his teens, he was adept at cooking up his kill: duck, rabbit, raccoon, the large ratlike nutria, even a beaver dragged home by a friend. "I said, 'Okay, it's dead, let's try it,' " said Authement.

And? "It wasn't as good as raccoon."

Finally, cabin fever forced us into his big green truck with a "Nowhere but Louisiana" decal plastered on the back window and a toy alligator named Phred on the dashboard. We hit a two-lane highway to Houma, paralleling murky bayous where snowy white egrets craned necks into question marks, alligators slumbered and derelict shrimp boats listed to starboard against swampy banks.

The 45-minute drive took us past aboveground cemeteries with hand-lettered markers for "Ma" and "Pa," sugarcane plantations, stands selling pecans and Satsuma oranges, and signs advertising fresh catfish, salty oysters, sweet potatoes and shrimp -- shrimp toast, shrimp spaghetti, shrimp boulette, popcorn shrimp, butterflied shrimp. A drinking hole advertised Elvis karaoke and Schlitz beer, and a sign at a gas station just outside town was selling strawberry daiquiris, $15 a gallon.

I thought I was seeing things. "Daiquiris?" I asked Authement. He laughed and turned the wheel, heading for one of Houma's several drive-through daiquiri stands. On the menu were such curious concoctions as Jungle Juice, Bananasicle, Chocolate Bar, all frozen, all alcoholic. "This ain't a snowball stand, Sugar," he said, ordering a Cajun eggnog daiquiri. I got the regular, lime, a small 12-ounce for $3.95 that gave me a piercing case of brain-freeze.

I asked about open container laws. "This is laissez-faire country," said Authement. "People here like to have a good time." That let-it-be philosophy applies to eating, too. "People eat all this deep-fried, fattening stuff, and they know it can kill 'em, but they don't care," he explained. "It just tastes good."

As proof, we stopped for lunch at a small mom-and-pop shop in Houma where TV sounds in the kitchen mixed with the snap of sizzling grease, and the oiled air was almost palpable. Despite a Nervous Nellie Northwest palate, I ordered the deep-fried bacon-wrapped shrimp po'boy and a side of sweet potato fries, salty and sweet. My mouth soon felt like it had been swabbed with melted Crisco. My stomach, still awash in drive-through daiquiri, lurched like a car stuck in first.

But it tasted good, and I didn't care. By evening, I was doing it again, pounding down fried shrimp in the dance hall at Houma's Jolly Inn, where the Cajun band Couche Couche set kids and teens and uncles and grannies gliding in a carousel circle under fluorescent lights with the joyous sawing of fiddle and squeeze box. We watched from a communal table covered with empty paper cups of gumbo and abandoned beers until we couldn't stand it anymore. "Dansée?" I asked Authement, who was tap-tapping a Corona Extra on the plastic checkered tablecloth.

Fish guide and client, wives and friends danced into the night, hopping into a Zydeco train to weave outside the building, wave to truck drivers and sashay back in. "Ai-eeee," yelled the long-haired fiddler, under a string of red crawfish lights. We accompanied him on tit fer (iron triangle) and frottoir (metal rub boards), under fish nets decorated with strings of Mardi Gras beads, reeling and yelping to the leaning one-two beat, letting the good times roll, chhr.

After an hour, I'd almost forgotten my plans to join the fishing elite.

The sun, that glorious mass of self-luminous gas, came out early morning on our last day of fishing camp. The wind's scream had died to a soft lament and the water's chop had momentarily smoothed. Hearts in throats, we hopped into the mudboat, fired up the Go-Devil -- a motor that can run in an inch of muck -- and tore out to the fishing grounds.

It was a fine morning. Duck guns popped in the distance, mullets danced silver on the water's surface, brown pelicans and roseate spoonbills, the color of much-needed Pepto Bismol, wheeled against blue skies. We holed up against one of the islets of mud and golden cord grass, another bit of fragile wetland rapidly being eaten away by the salt-water intrusion tied to industrial channeling of the landscape and river levees that block new deposits of sediment.

The whisper of wind grew more urgent as we dug out our gear. Authement attempted a few graceful forward casts on the fly rod, but even his mighty arm couldn't power the fly out to fishing grounds. When he suggested, instead, that I try the heavier spinning gear, I sensed my evolution as a fly-fisher was taking a nasty downturn.

Within a half-hour, even the spinning gear couldn't cut the trickster wind.

That's when Authement pulled out the cooler. Inside were hundreds of tiny dead shrimp. And they weren't for deep-frying, butterflying, boiling or sauteeing.

They were our bait.

I laughed and shook my head, thinking how fish stories always get grander in the retelling, and knowing this one had a far different fate. We threaded shrimp on hooks, put bobbers on the line -- how low can you go? -- tossed the mess out about 25 feet and relaxed, sun on our faces, sea salt in our hair. I quickly reverted to type, happy to have a little meat on the end of my line, curious to see what it would attract.

Fishing is such sweet mystery. A line sinks under water and something dark and unknown tugs on it. Suddenly, hunter and hunted connect and all hell breaks loose as the white-hot fury of one animal struggling to break free meets the steely intent of another trying to subdue, tame, conquer.

So when my bobber plunged and I set my first strike, I had no idea what would be on the other end of my line. In short order, I reeled in a half-dozen speckled trout, several sheepshead -- odd black-and-white striped scavengers with tiny humanoid teeth ideal for cracking oysters -- and a small black drum.

Maybe it was the 30th cast, maybe the 50th, when I hit my redfish. It was a small thing, six pounds, but, Sugar, it was lively. It rocked and reeled and set off for the Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles away as the crow flies. Maybe I had a fish on my line, maybe a short-circuited bumper car.

As I subdued and tamed and conquered, my fishing guide nodded approval. Already the wind was rising, skunking up another day. But we'd scored one. Sure, it wasn't pretty fishing, and it wasn't a monster catch, but it would fry up good. Never mind my fly-fishing pretensions. Those belonged to another day, another place.

"Ya do what ya gotta do to catch fish," Authement said simply, shrugging his massive shoulders, shining me a grin and powering up the Go-Devil.

M.L. Lyke last wrote for Travel about underground Seattle.

DETAILS

FISHING: Fly-fishing is still a fledgling sport in Terrebonne Parish's delta lands, but several guides now offer charter trips, including "Marsh Madness" with Marty Authement (2014 Savanne Rd., Houma, 985-873-8279, www.marshmadness.net). Full-day trips cost $150 for one person, $250 for two, and include travel inside the parish, lures,bait and cold drinks. For the hunking red bulls caught in the Gulf of Mexico, you'll need to book with a coastal charter. Thirty miles offshore, the boats go after marlin, tuna, wahoo and mahi mahi. For information on fishing and hunting guide services, contact the Houma Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (see below).

GETTING THERE: Fly into New Orleans (advance round-trip rates from D.C. start at about $225), rent a car and head south toward the gulf. The nearest city to hot-action fishing grounds is Houma, an hour's drive from the Big Easy. It has a dozen hotels/motels and colorful bed-and-breakfasts. For more adventurous travelers, there are nearby campgrounds and trapper's cabins on the bayou. One B&B swamp cabin, operated by Wildlife Gardens, suggests that visitors "feed small alligators from porch." Contact the visitors center for lodging specifics.

TOURS: Locals in Houma joke about omnipresent swamp tours, a good way to soak up Yankee bucks while spinning yarns about resident turtles, 'gators and monster catfish. Some tours rise above the fray. One is Annie Miller's Swamp and Marsh Tours (504-879-3934). "Alligator Annie," as she's known locally, is famed for calling up 14-foot reptiles named Mikey, Pete and Baby D and telling them what sweet little boys they are. At 86, Annie's still going strong. Tours run March to November.

For other backwater adventures, contact the visitors bureau; to bone up on the natural habitat, swing by the Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum (7910 Park Ave., 504-580-7200).

MUSIC: The good times roll at the Jolly Inn in Houma (1507 Barrow St., 504-872-6114), an authentic Cajun dance hall and eatery. Each weekend, local Cajun and zydeco bands set the place reeling to the sawing of fiddles and shouts of "Ai-eee!" At the town's La Trouvaille Cottage, off Highway 56, home-cooked Cajun meals are accompanied by traditional French ballads sung by the Dusenbery family. Other eateries around town, including A-Bear's (809 Bayou Black Dr.), also bring in Cajun bands on weekends.

INFORMATION: Houma Area Convention and Visitors Bureau 800-688-2732, www.houmatourism.com. Louisiana Office of Tourism, 800-677-4082, www.louisianatravel.com. -- M.L. Lyke

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