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Tiny Venice, Louisiana is reeling 'em in again
A platinum sun set on a warm March afternoon as I drove from New Orleans' Louis Armstrong Airport 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.
As I rolled south along Louisiana 23, past the small towns bordering the Mississippi, the signs of damage were more obvious. Storm-ravaged homes, boats, barges and cars, broken like beaten piñatas, their contents spilled onto lawns, marshes and cypress groves.
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.
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."
Travel agents and fishing guides warned me before I arrived not to expect the niceties of a traditional vacation spot. A few hotels in Venice were back in business, but only two eateries had reopened — a sit-down place called the Riverside Restaurant and a walk-up barbecue shack. But banks, post offices and supermarkets? Nothing within 70 miles.
Still, Gros and other Louisiana boosters insisted there is more to do here than assess hurricane damage. Between fishing trips, Times photographer Mark Boster and I explored the back roads of this region, from the mouth of the Mississippi to the shores of Lake Borgne. While he captured some expertly framed moments in the life of the people, the landscape and the wildlife, I jotted down a few scenes from my own experience in post-Katrina Louisiana.
These are my snapshots.
On our first night in Venice, Leah Harvey, manager of the Venice Sportsman's Lodge, stood in the kitchen frying pork patties with potatoes and asparagus. The lodge's original cook never returned after Katrina, so Harvey stepped up. Realizing that Boster and I would arrive after the town's only restaurants had closed, she wanted to make sure we didn't go to bed hungry.
In the parking lot of Cypress Cove Lodge, a hotel about a mile from the Venice Marina, four workers from an oil cleanup firm were boiling crawfish, potatoes and corn on the cob in a 60-quart stockpot over a propane burner.
The hotel's restaurant was still under repair, so the men had built this makeshift kitchen on the blacktop to serve lunch for 50 workers at the company. The steamy smell of salty seafood wafted across the lot.
Late one afternoon, a fire-burst sun melted into a nearby marsh, a few yards from the lodge. Sunken cars and broken hulls poked out of the shimmering surface. The burn-off tower from an oil refinery flickered like a candle in the distance. The water sparkled orange and red, silhouetted by decades-old cypress trees as black cormorants perched on branches dripping with Spanish moss.
Each night, sunburned fishermen hauled their deep-sea trophies onto the Venice Marina and hung the fish from a wooden rack for photos. One night, Eric White, a medical technician from Shreveport, La., won bragging rights for landing a 171-pound yellowfin tuna that took three men to lift.
As a deckhand sliced White's catch into chunky steaks, a zydeco version of "Bad Moon Rising" blasted from the marina's outdoor speakers. White considered celebrating his catch with a nice meal, but when he heard that all the restaurants and bars in Venice were closed or under repair, he scratched his chin and laughed. "It looks like I'll be barbecuing my fish tonight," he said.
And then there was the "Midnight Lump," an underwater salt dome about 50 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, a renowned beacon for monster fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
On my last day in Venice, Gros and I spent four hours on the lump, 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 today 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.
Boster and 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.