Swedish version

Fly Fishing the Atchafalaya Basin
Swamped with Fun

By Jon Griffin & Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon


  The idea of fly-fishing in the Atchafalaya Basin is fairly new. The Atchafalaya Basin is one of the great wetland areas in the United States, a scenic semi-wilderness, which offers superb fishing. While the Basin, itself, is fresh water, within twenty minutes anglers can access the brackish water of the Basin's coastal edges, and the salt water that edges the Gulf of Mexico. In these varied regions, anglers who come to Louisiana can seek out bass, bream, catfish, redfish, sac-a-lait, speckled trout, and other species-using lighter tackle in fresh water and heavier gear in salty areas.

  For generations, people have been fishing the region for commercial harvests and for sport. Indigenous Native Americans established communities in the Basin or arrived as nomads; Europeans who settled in the area made full use of the fish and wildlife; other American settlers migrated to the region during high season, acting primarily as commercial agents. The Basin has, as has the entire southern part of Louisiana, been exploited for its cornucopia of natural resources by successive waves of human groups. Its waters have provided transportation, food, drink; and its flora have offered wild food, flavorings, medicine, and wood for all sorts of construction, including Indian canoes, "Cajun" pirogues, and fisherman's skiffs. All the while, its stupendous visual splendor has fed the hearts and souls of residents and visitors alike.

  Lured by Solitude

  The Atchafalaya Basin's 833,000 acres include sloughs, copses, hardwood forests, cypress swamps, marshes, streams, seasonal ponds, open water, and bayous. Nothing about the place is static or mundane, from the hissing of the gators eying their nests of heaped leaves and mud, to the local residents' effortless hospitality and tale telling. Anglers in the Basin now increasingly use traditional fly-fishing methods, where spin-casting was once king. If fly-fishing is about tranquility, then the Basin's ancient solitude is the right place to be. Snags, sawyers, and grassy shallows, shaded by cypress and tupelo, are typical of the Basin's swampy, peaceful domain.

  Well established fly fishing methods include that of matching look-alike lures with the natural habitat, as well as popping bugs. Although the popular image of fly-fishing often involves working in near-freezing high streams, watching for torpedo-shaped trout to "gulp" the short lived "bug" along its growth cycle, the reality is much more varied. The "fly" is often designed to mimic either a mature insect-or "hatch"-or to duplicate an insect during one of its phases in life.

  In the Basin, using the hatch is less common. If anglers do use it, they do so because they enjoy the notion of matching the hatch. What is more common is copying the food fish: minnows, shiners, frogs, tadpoles, crawfish, and conceivably tiny birds. Regardless, the fly is manipulated by difficult casting, or, rather, it is "presented" to the individual fish, with a pride-worthy amount of skill. Fly-fishing in the Basin places the angler squarely inside one of the world's greatest swamps.

  Swamped with Wildlife

  Expansive as it is varied, the Atchafalaya Basin's expanse is home to some this country's most productive habitats for fish and wildlife, a reality predicting its attractiveness to fly-fishers, many of whom deepen their activity with a keen interest in natural history. Our image of the ripe, fecund Atchafalaya River Basin is likely to be marked by wading birds, scuttling crawfish, abundant wildlife, and stately stands of orange-trunked cypress reflected in dark, still water. Ecologically, seasonal high water flows over the banks of the river, a process which improves the water quality of the swampy areas serving as nurseries for birds, bugs, and a bazillion other living things. But the same wetting and drying cycle that nourishes and sustains the Basin's enormous bio-network of life, contributes to sedimentation that can bury, cover, fill, and destroy it.

  William Nierling, a faculty member at Connecticut College, explains that "not so long ago, Americans believed their marshes, swamps, and bogs were wastelands. These wetlands couldn't be farmed, and they harbored mosquitoes, cottonmouths, alligators, and other disagreeable creatures, to say nothing of malaria. Clearly the best thing to do was drain them, clear them, and control them." The role of the wetlands as nature's nurseries was not clearly understood. Thousands of acres of wetlands were lost prior to the development of a coherent national preservation policy. Today, areas such as the Atchafalaya Basin are increasingly well managed.

  According to Louisiana's specialists, "the bird, fish, wildlife, outdoor activity, and related recreational and commercial values of the Atchafalaya River Basin are so high that cooperative state and federal efforts are now underway to preserve and manage the area." The Atchafalaya Basin Program is one such governmental effort. In 1996, the State Department of Natural Resources in Louisiana was directed by Governor Mike Foster to be the Lead Agency with its federal partner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Together, the state and federal agencies are working in cooperation with other organizations to conserve and restore, where possible, the environmental quality and traditional uses of the Basin. Sandra Thompson Decoteau, the Executive Director, is leading the Program in its efforts to ensure traditional uses of the Basin, to conserve old-growth forests, to undertake water management projects, and to construct recreational facilities.

  Another such governmental effort is the Atchafalaya Trace Commission, which was established in 1997 to manage the Atchafalaya Trace Heritage Area. The state heritage area, which consists of thirteen parishes, is currently seeking National Heritage Area designation by the United States Congress. Its mission is to interpret the relationship of the Basin's culture and environment, to conserve Basin resources, and to create new sustainable cultural and eco-tourism activities. The Basin Program and the Trace Commission have recently cooperated to build a new Butte La Rose Visitor Center on I-10, in the Atchafalaya Basin. The Visitor Center will offer state-of-the-art cultural interpretation to promote all that the Basin can offer.

  Starting Out

  Starting out in fly-fishing is easy enough, especially now with high tech materials allowing the economical production of rods and reels of extraordinary utility. And, unlike many other sports, fly-fishing has three or so components: the activity, the process of tying flies and learning to tie them, and consuming the literature, both narratives of fishing and the natural history of fish and food. Participants are free to enjoy both outdoor and indoor recreation, to devote days or moments to its enjoyment. As with all angling, lying about one's astonishing skill and luck constitutes a fourth, especially entertaining, component.

  Dirk Burton, a Louisiana resident, points out in the Louisiana Conservationist that fly fishing is a "minimalist's sport," possibly carried out with a single rod, a tiny box of flies and tippets, and a few tools to snip and clamp. My own kit weighs just a very little bit more than the fresh water hand pump, now necessary world wide, I toss in my knapsack. The rod breaks into five pieces and weighs less than the hard plastic pipe piece I pack it in. But fly-fishing can also expand greatly, to a world of enjoyment in reading natural history-to understand what fly might be best for what fish in which season-or exotic holidays in far beyond the beyond. As Burton says, "Fly fishing isn't a particularly easy sport. It is harder to cast with a fly rod than it is to cast with a conventional tackle." Therefore, a good deal of pleasure rises from skills acquisition and display of prowess.

  If you are a beginner, a sound recommendation is to buy one of the packaged fly-fishing sets, read over the magazines, check out videos from the library, and try to recall if any of your acquaintances are anglers already. It's also useful to look into fly-fishing clubs, how-to workshops offered by community recreation centers, or enrichment classes through the local university. Even specialty shops and mass merchandisers are increasingly identifying the wants and needs of newcomers and offering pamphlets, selections of books, and coaching

  One approach is to begin hanging out with a fishing pal and to enjoy that time together in the outdoors. Or you may prefer to start with another person as new as you are to the sport, prompting and supporting each other along the process. The gear involved may be basic and inexpensive, as noted. Or, depending on taste, the hardware can be hellishly expensive, involving reels hand machined by old world craftsmen, rods constructed with lots of costly labor from tiny, long, thin wands of exotic, slow-cured bamboo-beautiful stuff to handle that offers great pride of ownership.

  Deep Roots

  Those who choose fly-fishing are participating in a complex and challenging sport, with roots going way back. Not very much is known for certain about fly-fishing in the medieval period, when the most basic contours of its methods slowly developed. And much of what we do know is assumption drawn from analysis of bits of text, images in paintings, or stories, songs, and scenes in tapestry work. We do have fair reason to believe that fly-fishing was known, practiced, and reasonably commonplace as early as the beginning of the 13th century-or as some anglers might put it, the torture started then and ain't stopped yet. Scholarship today identifies a romance of about 1210 by one Wolfram von Eschenbach as the first reference. Eschenbach's hero, Schionatulander, angles with a fly, standing shoeless out in a shallow stream. Remember, this all took place about 300 years before the first reference to the new world as "America," in 1507.

  Mentions from the mid-twelfth century seem to indicate fly-fishing as the preferred method for commoners from Switzerland to the Mediterranean (evidencing a curious reversal of outcome and class association with today). By the 14th and 15th centuries, significant numbers of documents mention fishing in Britain, but none really provide in-depth insight into how the sport was performed. One text, a record maintained by the warden at the abbey of Tegernsee in Bavaria, lists several dozen varied fly patterns for carp, pike, catfish, burbot and salmon in addition to the routine trout and grayling. This, too, indicates a change in taste from historic fishing to today.

  Little detailed information exists about how people fished a fly before about the 17th century. Apparently fourteen feet or more in length, the rods back then were fitted with twisted horsehair "line" attached to their tips. It's not likely that the fly fisher of the 15th century used cord or line very much longer than two times the rod length. Speculation has been made that anglers worked their line, casting it rather than letting the wind take it willy-nilly.

  According to one authority, the so-called false cast was not invented until the 1800s. Perhaps more importantly, these early roots of the sport give no indication about fishing up or down. Based on the tackle, those early medieval sportsmen probably sought out trout, big salmon being beyond the pale of this gear. No doubt salmon were caught, but it's hard to imagine that this was the common or typical thing, as much as the nut at the end of the rod enjoyed the event.

  As basic as the 15th century gear must have been, the handler was still proficient enough to catch large numbers of fish, large enough to be considered professional. These characters did have to fish more at the pleasure of the weather: it would be hundreds of years before weighted or invisible line would be available. They wanted the wind to roughen the surface, but be blowing in the right direction when it did so.

  Even the earliest texts offer the same advice anglers get now: don't make a racket or let the prey see you, avoid letting one's shadow fall over the fish, and so on. If fly-fishing is and forever will be about quietude and tranquility, Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin is, itself, a timeless lure for those interested in "the quiet sport."

- Useful addresses and e-mail/web sites -

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries; http://www.wlf.state.la.us
Gulf Coast Outdoors Magazine; http://www.rodnreel.com/news
Louisiana Fishing Guides; http://www.1fghp.com/la

  - Fishing Regulations/handling of fish -

  Carefully Follow the Rules of Good Conduct and Lawful Fishing

  The accuracy of the information contained within various publications, including websites and books dealing with fishing cannot be guaranteed nor presumed to be necessarily accurate. Thus the angler is reminded that it is the responsibility of the citizen to apprise him/herself of the relevant laws in effect at any given time: the Louisiana Revised Statutes, particularly Title 56, the official regulations of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, federal laws, and any local or parish ordinances. According to sources, "fishing regulations on state Wildlife Management Areas and Refuges may differ" from those contained in various pamphlets which may be available. Please consult the separate Hunting and Wildlife Management Area Regulations pamphlet or contact the nearest Department office for WMA regulations. Contact the appropriate local Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement Agent for specific information: Baton Rouge 225-765-2999, Minden 318-371-3049, Monroe 318-362-2417, Alexandria 318-487-5634, Ferriday 318-757-3072, Lake Charles 337-491-2580, Opelousas 337-948-0257, Slidell/New Orleans 504-568-5616, New Iberia 337-373-0032, or Thibodaux 504-447-0821.

  Advice from the Louisiana Dept of Wildlife & Fisheries

Releasing Fish - Due to the increasing number of species with size and creel limits, anglers may be required to release some of the fish they catch. If handled properly, released fish have a very good chance to live, grow and provide further opportunities for Louisiana anglers and visitors alike. Proper handling techniques include:

1. When angling, do not use a slack line. Set the hook immediately. This will reduce the chance of getting the hook deeper into the throat or gut, and increase changes of survival.

2. If a fish is to be released, do not let the fish become exhausted. Retrieve it quickly.

3. Do not handle the fish more than absolutely necessary - do not take it from the water if possible. Handle with a wet hand, wet towel or wet glove to minimize removal of mucus (slime). Use a landing net only when necessary. Do not let the fish flop on a dry deck or beach.

4. Use one of several tools available to remove the hook from the fish if the hook is visible and not in the gills.

5. Where practical, use barbless hooks or flatten down the barb with pliers to make hook removal easier.

6. If the hook is deeply buried, cut the leader close to the hook.

7. Immediately put the fish back into the water. If it is sluggish, gently hold it and move it forward and back to get water moving across the gills. Even fish that seem in poor shape have a chance of survival. Treating them with care increases that chance. Be conscientiously working to reduce stress on released fish, all anglers benefit.

  - Quickly Ice Down Fish -
  This sounds elementary, but there are those who get swept up in the thrill of catching fish and forget this important step. Fish should be placed on ice immediately upon being caught. Be sure you have ample ice before leaving the dock. Take full advantage of your ice. This means pouring the ice out of the bag and making sure there is a layer of ice above and below the fish. Fish placed in an ice/water slurry chill faster than those placed on ice alone. Leave water in your ice chest as long as an adequate amount of ice stays in the water. Water temperatures will stay at or near 32 degrees Fahrenheit and help keep fish cool.

  Another technique effective in keeping fish fresh on hot days or for extended periods is to gut the fish and pack the body cavities with ice. That chills the fish faster. Caution: It is illegal to fillet saltwater finfish before returning to the dock. This means that those with camps in the marshes and swamps must keep their fish intact, though gutting is allowed. For the purpose of consumption at sea aboard the harvesting vessel, a person shall have no more than two pounds of finfish parts per person on board the vessel, provided that the vessel is equipped to cook such finfish and such finfish does not exceed applicable bag limits. Bank and surf anglers often use stringers and live baskets to hold their catch. If using a stringer, put the stringer through the jaw tissue and not the gills. Those using baskets should be aware that overcrowded fish could easily die. Anglers with live wells on their boats also should be aware of this danger. A bit of attention to details will ensure that fish stay fresh longer and taste better when cooked. It may take a few more minutes, but the result will be a more enjoyable and memorable trip.

* See the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries web sites and publications for further and other authoritative information and advice on this and related topics.

© 2002 Jon Griffin Donlon & Jocelyn H. Donlon. All material strictly protected by any/all available copyright or other regulatory apparatus. All use or possession, in part or in whole, expressly forbidden as provided by law, including all means of communicating, recording, reproduction, distribution or other mode or method currently existing or to be invented in the future. To the best of my knowledge, this is my/our own work except as is indicated in text in any fashion, by the presence of appropriate grammatical marks, or by any other means, or as may be introduced by error or omission by author, agent, publisher or other person or action.

(225) 267-5746 -- 5261 Highland Road, #154l Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 70808 -- jhdonlon@hotmail.com

Jon Griffin Donlon, Ph.D. / Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon, Ph.D.




To get the best experience of the Magazine it is important that you have the right settings
Here are my recommended settings
Please respect the copyright regulations and do not copy any materials from this or any other of the pages in the Rackelhanen Flyfishing Magazine.

© Mats Sjöstrand 2006

If you have any comments or questions about the Magazine, feel free to contact me.

Mats Sjöstrand

Please excuse me if you find misspelled words or any other grammatical errors.
I will be grateful if you contact
me about the errors you find.