| 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
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 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
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
Gulf Coast Outdoors Magazine; http://www.rodnreel.com/news
Louisiana Fishing Guides; http://www.1fghp.com/la
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
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
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 -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Jon Griffin Donlon, Ph.D.
/ Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon, Ph.D.