VENICE, La. &
A platinum sun set on a warm March afternoon as I drove from New Orleans toward the mouth of the Mississippi to a place known as "the end of the world." When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana nearly two years ago, it must have felt like the end of the world. But as I scanned the New Orleans skyline from a freeway overpass, the only signs of destruction were the ones playing in my head, the flashbacks from TV news clips during the storm. The Superdome, once battered and overrun with evacuees, had a new roof, and the dry city streets flowed with activity.
Here I was, a map-toting tourist rolling south along Louisiana 23, reversing the path of one of the nation's costliest and deadliest hurricanes. Since the storm, most media accounts have focused on the recovery of New Orleans (even being used as the setting for a police melodrama on TV this fall), but I was heading 75 miles south to Venice, a delta town at the southernmost tip of Louisiana.
I came here to do what thousands of people have been doing in Venice for decades, through rain and sun. I came to participate in the pastime that has made this town of about 500 legendary among sportsmen.
I came to fish.
Seagulls cawed. The motor of a fishing boat roared. Then a loud rap on a door.
I awoke in the Venice Sportsman's Lodge, a 130-foot-long barge moored at the Venice Marina.
The knocking came from Susan Gros, a guide and world-record angler who had helped arrange my trip. Gros formerly was a corporate manager who gave up the 9-to-5 grind to become a full-time fishing guru and promoter of Venice.
We stepped into a warm, blue-sky morning, and she introduced me to our guide for the day, Brandon Carter, a rosy-cheeked Louisiana native who was tying his boat to the barge.
The marina opens up into — million acres of wetlands, cut by a network of waterways, that protrude from the southern tip of Louisiana like a giant peacock feather. This is Venice's back yard, and this spectacular confluence of fresh and salt water is the reason some consider the Mississippi delta the nation's finest fishing spot.
I had mixed feelings about being here. As an avid angler, I was eager to drop a line, especially because I had heard reports that the fishing was better than ever. But I was uneasy with the thought of casting a lure while the struggle to rebuild was so clearly visible.
Carter's 24-footer cut a foamy wake as we motored out of the marina and into a wide waterway past thickets of wheat-colored Roseau cane, littered with wood planks, upended barges and dozens of forgotten ice chests. White egrets and blue heron hunted for fish amid half-sunk boats and submerged cars. Katrina's mess, I thought, probably would litter the wetlands until the next hurricane blew it all out.
Near a sandbar where the Mississippi forks to the south, Carter cut the boat's engine, and we started casting. A chorus line of seagulls watched as I landed a 12-pound redfish, the size of a car muffler. For a Southern California angler content with catching 2-pound rainbow trout, this was nirvana. But a 12-pounder is typical for Venice, a place where boats outnumber cars and kids learn to cast a line before they learn to ride a bike.
Carter grew up fishing these parts. At the ripe age of 24, he knows where to catch spotted trout and where the redfish thrive. Like a couple of siblings, Carter and Gros, who's 54, tease each other about their catches. When Carter landed a 15-pound redfish, Gros joked that it was probably closer to 8. I was happy just to get a bite.
Toward the end of our outing, Carter steered his boat toward a tall steel lighthouse that stood like a lone sentry over an island of Roseau cane. It marked the site of the historic New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club, which once hosted tournaments and dinners in three white wood-frame buildings.
The club opened in the 1950s and was accessible only by boat or helicopter. Carter described the place with the kind of reverence you might give a church or a war memorial. Katrina's 175-mph winds reduced the club to broken boards, pylons and a wooden boardwalk.
In a nearby channel, we came upon two burly men in mud-splattered shirts rebuilding the storm-damaged roof of a small barge, known in these parts as a fishing cabin. The men waved at Carter and invited us onboard. One of the men proudly walked us through the immaculate two-room cabin, with cypress paneling and track lighting.
As our boat pulled away, Carter shook his head.
"That's one thing about Louisiana people: You don't mess with their fishing or hunting," he said. "I've seen people who haven't rebuilt their homes, but they are rebuilding their fishing cabins."
On my last day in Venice, Gros and I spent four hours on the "Midnight Lump," an underwater salt dome about 50 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, catching only a couple of 4-pound vermillion snappers and some small bonitas. We were about to give up and head back when a weighted line hanging from our 32-foot catamaran began to squeal. I grabbed the rod and shoved it into my fighting harness. A few minutes later, my hands started cramping. Gros just laughed. "Come on," she yelled. "Bring it in!" I recognized, under the surface, the distinct shape pulling at my line &
the streamlined body, the pointed nose, the protruding dorsal fin. This was no tuna or marlin. That afternoon, I returned to the marina with a great fish story about the 7-foot spinner shark I set free.
The evening sky glowed pink and silver over the wetlands as I drove out of Venice, north to West Pointe a la Hache, where I had reserved a room at a bed-and-breakfast called Woodland Plantation.
My back ached and my clothes stunk of fish and sweat from my tug-of-war with the shark. I needed a shower and a good night's sleep before catching an early flight out of New Orleans.
Woodland is a 50-acre estate on the west bank of the Mississippi. Cypress trees, shrubs and blossoms border the main house. A black-and-white drawing of the building, sketched in 1871, was chosen by the distillers of Southern Comfort for the label on their bottles. Foster Creppel and his parents bought the property 10 years ago in an auction and began to restore it.
As I pulled onto the plantation's gravel driveway, I decided to reschedule my flight to spend more time here.
It was dinnertime, and a group of loud, boisterous men was swigging beer and eating baked oysters in Spirits Hall, a former Catholic church that's a restaurant and dining hall for the property. Creppel later told me that the site had been the location of several brick slave quarters, destroyed in a previous storm. Somehow, moving a church to this spot seemed appropriate.
I joined the men for steaks. We talked about Iraq and NCAA basketball and found some room for agreement before calling it a night.
The main house exudes history. It is a wonderful blend of Southern Gothic and Greek Revival, with worn wood floors, antique furniture, vintage glass chandeliers and a wide, sweeping veranda facing the Mississippi.
Before sunrise, I lay in bed listening to the scuffling feet of men headed out to fish. I was happy to sleep in so I could enjoy a breakfast of eggs, grits, sausage and biscuits, served in Spirits Hall, where the morning sun rained through the blue and gold stained-glass windows.
After breakfast, Creppel drove me in his pickup to a stretch of wetlands about a mile away, where we spent a few hours trout fishing from his aluminum skiff. "Isn't this great," he kept saying.
I had to agree.
Louisiana's lure remains a fine catch
VENICE, La. &