Escape to the Marshes

Now that Covid 19 Restrictions are being lifted it was time for a road trip! Seeking to do some onsite research for a book I am writing about life in early 20th century Louisiana, I have been wanting to do some marsh fishing in the waters south of New Orleans for some time now. My wife was not interested in fishing, so I asked my favorite beer buddy, Mitch, to join me and was pleasantly surprised that he agreed to go.  I had some marsh fishing experience, but it was decades ago.  He had never been marsh fishing before and felt a need to get away from work for a while, so we made plans for a three-day trip down south. He asked if we could take the long way via Mobile so we could check out Mobile and a brewery he was interested in south Mississippi, which would be on our way on the short ride from Mobile to New Orleans.

I had previously been in touch with Rojas Fishing, a fish guide service I found located right on Bayou Barataria in Jean Lafitte village, the area that is the central scene for much of my book. My family was originally from Grand Isle and owned a farm at Crown Point when my Dad was a kid.

 A week before, long range forecasts indicated that the weather might be bad on the Wednesday we booked to go fishing. CJ, the owner of Rojas advised that it was too early to tell, as the “weatherman can’t accurately predict tomorrow’s weather,” let alone a week into the future, so we decided to take our chances and left for Mobile Monday morning.

We arrived at our Airbnb rental in downtown Mobile that afternoon and were able to check in early. The landlord was there and advised us on some good places to eat in downtown Mobile, a short four block walk over from our apartment. After a quick bite, we went to see the USS Alabama, a WWII battleship preserved at Battleship park, located on the bay along Old Spanish Trail.

Funded entirely by private donations and entry fees, this park has preserved the battle-scarred warship along with a WWII era submarine, both open for self-led tours. You can also find a wonderful museum of aircraft, and other military artifacts.  

I wish we had arrived earlier. We only got to spend about two hours on site. For the best experience you really need at least four hours to see the two ships, and all day if you want to read most of the exhibits. A small restaurant is available on site for lunch as well as a gift shop where you can buy some souvenirs.

That evening, we walked downtown for dinner and had a wonder street side meal at an interesting eclectic eater known as Squid Ink. Mitch had a well-prepared burger with a bowl of red beans and rice on the side. He said it was the best beans he had ever had. I had the Tuna Poke bowl, which was well prepared, spicy, and deliciously filling!

Next morning, we headed west along Highway 90 toward Pascagoula, Mississippi. We decided to avoid I-10 to see more of the local scenery. Pascagoula was not too impressive a place. We visited the fishing wharf and walked along the beach at Beach Park, the site of a Spanish American war army camp where soldiers were processed for discharge after the war. There is not really a beach here, just a sandy strip protected from the gulf by a short concrete sea wall. The large park across the road is well shaded by large live oaks. All in all, not worth the stop, though we did get a nice walk in as we looked around.

We left and continued our travel toward Ocean Springs, a small beach town that is definitely worth visiting. Mitch was trying to find “Ocean Springs Brewery”, but it was nonexistent in Ocean Springs, so after walking around the beautiful live oak shaded small-town downtown for a while, we were hungry. We stopped at Hero’s Sports Bar. It had a fairly good beer selection of about twenty beers on tap and even more in cans or bottles, as well as good food ratings on Yelp. There we enjoyed a great meal of Maui Maui Tacos and a few beers before resuming our journey.

As we continued our journey, we decided to use I-10 West because it was getting late, and we needed to arrive at our rented cabin by 4 PM to check in. Passing through New Orleans and over the Mississippi bridge, we journeyed through the west bank to Bayou Segnette State park and checked into our cabin. The cabins are built on pontoons and float on a canal that intersects with Bayou Segnette.  In fact, since the water was a bit high when we arrived, the parking areas were flooded with about three to six inches of water, so we had to wade onto the bridge to the cabin!

There were about sixteen cabins, all well separated for privacy. Each had a large screened in porch on the water side, with a boat dock and a fish cleaning station with running water. They were well built, well provisioned, clean and comfortable, although a bit institutional in character. The only negative was the bedding, with plastic mattress covers that were somewhat sweaty to sleep on. Everything about these cabins was obviously designed to survive a lot of potential punishment from hard partying Cajun (except the screen doors, which were literally falling off their hinges)!

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Tuesday night we ate at a west bank eatery called New Orleans Food and Spirits, where you can find many traditional Cajun dishes and beverages. Located in a rather typical strip center in Harvey, we found the food to be well prepared and tasty. I had the “Crab Cake Pontchartrain”, and Mitch had the “Catfish Loozianne” [sic].  Both dishes were delicious, but I thought there was much too much pasta in my dish. Both dishes had copious amounts of crawfish tails in the sauce.

By the time we returned to the cabin, it was getting dusk. Sitting out on the porch, we saw a few small alligators approach the cabin, apparently hoping we had cleaned some fish for discard in the water. As it grew darker, we heard the most wonderful symphony of water creatures, as they sang to each other.

As it turns out, the weatherman was right, and storms were still in the forecast for our Wednesday fishing day. I texted CJ Tuesday evening and he was still hopeful the forecast was wrong, so we agreed he would text me at 5 AM Wednesday to check in. Next morning, at five, he texted that he needed more time to be sure, and that he would text me again a seven. We decided to postpone the trip to Thursday and stay another night instead. CJ was ok with that. We speculated that he did not want to be the first to cancel, knowing we had come a long way to fish with his crew.

It heavily rained all Wednesday morning. Mitch took a long nap on the couch while I spend the time reading on the porch, watching it rain. Around noon, we decided to head the French Quarte for lunch. We decided to get a muffuletta sandwich and a Barq’s root beer from the original creator, Central Grocery on Decatur Street. It was as good as the first one I had when I was a visiting college student many years ago. It’s nice to know they have not compromised this classic over the years.

After walking around a bit, we got bored as the French Quarter still had not recovered from the Covid lockdowns and was relatively deserted. We drove back to the West bank to explore my ancestral homeland located near Crown Point, in the Bayou Barataria area. The area has changed from the farming and fishing community my great Grandparents knew, but still was scenic with many huge live oak trees with Spanish moss-covered branches. It was easy to see remains of the old farming subdivisions, which consisted of narrow bands of land extending inland from the bayous until they met the swamplands beyond. The plots are now subdivided into individual homesites, and the area appears to be relatively prosperous

Not the best view of Crown Point, but all I have

Early the next morning, we headed out to Rajas for our fishing trip. The weather was beautiful, clear, and cool with low humidity. We arrived at the marina at 6 AM and left promptly with our guide Casey. Rojas dock is located at Jean Lafitte Village on the Bayou Barataria, a large bayou I estimate to be about three hundred feet wide or more. We headed “down bayou” (or south to everyone else) toward the southern marshland waters where we would spend the day. As we moved south, the waters edge changed from being completely lined with boats, docks, homestead, and light industrial facilities to three corner grass, small shrubs such as mangrove and the occasional cypress tree, dwarfed by the wind, the latter of which became increasingly rare as we approached more open waters. The sky was blue and cloudless, typical of the air behind the recent cold front that had produced so much rain the day before.

Photo not taken the day we fished. I was too busy casting to take any photos!

Also, a result of the rains, the water was dark with silt, washed out from the north. As a result, our guide recommend we use shrimp as bait, as the water was too murky for the fish to see an artificial lure. They can “smell” the shrimp, he advised. I later wondered if our leads were too long as the tide was low. We were told the water was only a few feet deep, plus or minus.

After a short course in casting techniques we started fishing. Cast after cast came up short, with not even a bite. After about twenty casts or so each, we moved to anther site. This would turn out to be the story of the day, moving from place to place, as the cold front, the low tide and the murky waters made for a bad fishing for everyone our guide was in contact with during our outing. As a result, we had a poor catch of only three barely regulation sized redfish that day. When we returned, CJ advised that fishing in the spring was always hit and miss, as the frequent cold fronts make the fish behave in less predictable ways. We were disappointed but still had fun being out on the water on such a beautiful day. My only regret is that Mitch’s first marsh fishing experience was not a good one, as I would like to make this an annual trip and as I enjoy his company, would like him to come on the next trip with me.

CJ advised that the best fishing was in the summer, as there were no cold fronts to disrupt the fish. Unfortunately, you have to deal with temperatures in the 90’s and air so thick with humidity you can cut it with a knife. You can’t even count on a breeze that time year to cool you off. No thanks!

The guide had cleaned the fish for us to take with us. After a stop at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery for some vegies, we returned to the cabin where Mitch would roast the vegies in the oven while I blackened the fish filets in butter seasoned with “Slap yo Momma” Cajun seasoning. This was the best (but most expensive) fish dinner I have had in a long time!

Saturday after we had returned to Birmingham, my cousin Mark, a NOLA native, (like almost all my relatives), sent me a text with photos of his fishing trip in the same area. Apparently, the fishing had returned to its normal status on Friday. His fishing party of three caught a total of twenty-two redfish, keeping eleven that were regulation sized. Too bad we couldn’t have waited another day. He did acknowledge that no one reported good fishing on the same day we fished, so my guide was honest about it being an unusually bad day for everyone.

All in all, we enjoyed our trip to the coast. It was nice to get out of town after being stuck in place by last year’s Covid restrictions. I look forward to another trip to the Louisiana marshlands, and chances are, next time will be more productive. My wife was so disappointed I came home empty handed. I would love to have a freezer full of redfish!

Maybe next time!