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.
As darkness descended, I followed the river until the four-lane highway turned to a dirt road and the dirt road ran into marshlands.
Here I was, a map-toting tourist reversing the path of one of the nation's costliest and deadliest hurricanes. As I squinted through the descending gloom to see the narrow road in my headlights, I wondered whether my visit would feel as though I were crashing a funeral.
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 young, rosy-cheeked Louisiana native who was tying his boat to the barge.
The marina opens up into 3 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 backyard, 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. They say vultures are thriving in the delta in Katrina's wake. Would I be seen as just another scavenger?
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, would probably 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 just happy 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.