VENICE, La. — Capt. Mike Frenette stood on the dock of his Redfish Lodge, scanned the expansive Venice Marina and said, "Everything you see in this marina was gone, except for some pretzeled steel."
Frenette was referring to the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. He said those words exactly two weeks before then-unforeseen Hurricane Isaac would pack another layer of disaster on the Louisiana marsh.
It's these major catastrophes – like Katrina, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and now Isaac – that can make a man reconsider his life.
"If I'd only been in business a couple of years, yes, I would have left," said Frenette of the Katrina aftermath. "But I'd built up a good customer base, so I decided to rebuild."
See images of fishing in Venice, La.
Handling adversity is a way of life here. But natural disasters are one thing. It's the man-made ones that particularly stick in your craw.
"Damn BP. God Bless America," reads one sign placed roadside on Highway 23, the artery that extends 77 miles south of New Orleans to the unincorporated town of Venice.
The BP oil spill two years ago has left the headlines, but it will be decades before anyone knows the ultimate damage done by the worst environmental disaster in U.S history.
"Welcome. You have reached the southernmost town in La.," states another sign as you enter Venice, placed literally at the end of the road.
Welcome to the marsh, where Louisiana's motto – "Sportsman's Paradise" – is always in season, even after hurricanes and, yes, even after an oil spill.
"Even when it's bad, our fishing is better than 90 percent of the United States," said Frenette, who would provide proof within minutes of uttering those words.
It sounded like someone had tossed a concrete block in the water, when a redfish crashed on a topwater lure less than 30 minutes after we left Frenette's dock on our first evening in Venice. With a seven-foot spinning rod and 25-pound test braided line, the 29-pound redfish was finally reeled to the boat, then released, but not before it had made several drag-screaming runs.
Four of us made this trip to Venice, as it was an anniversary of sorts – two years after the oil spill and almost seven years since Katrina. Two days with Frenette proved both the remarkable resiliency of the Louisiana marsh, and why the most productive estuary in the U.S. needs our help.
Frenette, his wife of 24 years, Lori, and their two college student sons, Michael and Stephen, have built their lives here – at the end of the road. It's pretty much fishing 24/7/365 in the Frenette family. Mike occasionally leaves Venice to compete in redfish tournaments along the Gulf, from Texas to Florida, usually teaming with his oldest son, Michael.
If you want to hear some fishing stories, Frenette's got a treasury, like the 16 ½-hour battle with a huge blue marlin several years ago. Got it to the boat, but didn't land it, like a modern version of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."
On our only full day in Venice, Frenette put a rod in his hand long enough to show us how it's done. When the drag on his spinning reel started screaming, Frenette guessed he'd hooked a jack crevalle. But it was a huge redfish, flashing the familiar spot on its tail. Frenette's Boga Grip scales bottomed out at 40 pounds, so we had to guess its weight. Based on weighing a couple in the 35-pound range earlier in the day, this fish would have easily hit the 50 mark. It was a beast.
Most people will never see redfish this big, much less catch one. At one point, three of the five men in Frenette's 24-foot Triton boat were hooked up with a big redfish. We saw several half-acre-size boils while slowly trolling through the marsh, after surprising a big school of redfish. The water exploded with their orange-scaled backs. In the casting frenzy that followed, it's a minor miracle no one took a treble hook in the head. Chuck and duck.
It appears there's plenty of depth in areas like this. However, Frenette's electronic depth-finder seldom recorded anything over five feet. You have to know what you're doing to navigate the marsh. Distance from standing vegetation doesn't mean a thing. It's why these vast wetlands are such a massive producer of shrimp, oysters, crabs and fish – fish of all sizes and shapes.
"That's a pogy plane," said Frenette, as a single-engine aircraft slowly made its way across the sky. There's no better example of the fertile Mississippi River estuary than the small, filter-feeding baitfish called pogies, or Gulf menhaden. You've sampled pogies from the Louisiana marsh, whether you know it or not.
An average of one billion pounds of pogies are harvested from the Gulf every year. Yes, billion, with a "b." The spotter plane pilot sees a big water-rippling school of menhaden and relays the location to a massive "mother ship" – a ship big enough to hold two smaller vessels outfitted with purse seine nets. After the smaller boats are dispatched and the menhaden school is secured, the big ship vacuums the nets clean. It's called "reduction," when these small, silver-scaled fish are crushed for their abundant oil. Pogies are used in making everything from livestock feed to omega-3 health supplements to lipstick.
It's also pogies that provide a key link in the food chain for all the predator species we love to catch, like redfish, also known as red drum. It was no accident the lure that produced most of our redfish catches – a Strike King Red-Eye Shad – resembles a pogy.
Although we concentrated on redfish, an angler has all sorts of options here. Louisiana's "tail" that pokes furthest south in the Gulf, like a miniature Florida peninsula, is where Venice sits. It makes the perfect jumping-off spot for pursuing almost any species of saltwater gamefish. Stay close and catch speckled trout and redfish; a bit further offshore, you'll find snapper, amberjack and grouper; venture out to the "blue water" and chase sailfish, tuna, dolphin and marlin. Unlike many places, it doesn't take half a day to come-and-go to the deep water from Venice, which has also been nicknamed "The End of the World."
Frenette's 30-year guide business has been built on people who want to come to the end of the world – the end of the "real world" – and do what they'd do if they didn't have a "real job" – chase big fish, drink a few cold ones and eat fresh seafood.
"Ninety-nine percent of my business is from out-of-state," said Frenette. "I've got to try and save this resource or my business is going away."
Frenette went to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress after the BP mess. He has tried to spread the word about the Louisiana coast, which is quickly dissolving into the sea.
That's, ultimately, why we were here: To see what's left of the Louisiana marsh after being hit head-on by both the biggest natural disaster in U.S. history – Hurricane Katrina – and the biggest man-made disaster in U.S. history – the BP oil spill.
We had all heard stories about how good the fishing was after Katrina, from the few people who had the time or resources to try it. Frenette was busy rebuilding the Redfish Lodge, which also serves as his home.
"It took several months just to clean up the debris," he said.
But the oil spill? That seemed like a disaster no fish could survive. Three long months of unchecked crude oil flow, an estimated 4.9 million barrels, with another two million gallons of toxic Corexit oil dispersant thrown into the mix figured to be a death knell.
The good news is that it wasn't. The fishing we enjoyed over two August days in Venice proved that. How many redfish did we catch? I honestly don't know the answer. Enough for me, on our second day there, to put down my fishing rod, take a seat next to Frenette at the center console and say, "I don't mind telling you. These redfish have done worn out this hillbilly."
But there is much work to do if the Louisiana marsh is going to continue to produce 70 percent of this country's oysters, 70 percent of its shrimp, most of its hard- and soft-shell crabs and unmatched fishing opportunities. This continues to be the fastest-disappearing landmass on earth. The straight-jacketing levees built ever higher beginning with the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 have interrupted nature's plan, the one that built this place.
It's the daily miniature disasters that are the big story here. In a normal year, erosion has been dissolving the Louisiana coastal wetlands at a rate of approximately a football field a day. That amounts to an area the size of Manhattan every 10 months, 1,900 square miles in the last 70 years. Katrina, BP and Isaac, the major disasters, have accelerated that rate. The marsh has given until it hurts, and it's definitely hurting now.
If anything good can possibly come from the BP oil spill, a hint came this summer when Congress authorized 80 percent of the water pollution fines to be used for ecosystem and economic restoration in the five Gulf states. BP and its partners could reportedly be fined between $5.4 billion and $21.1 billion under the Clean Water Act, depending upon their degree of negligence.
Don't let your attention drift too far from the Louisiana marsh. What happens here will affect you, no matter where you live. It carries that much economic clout.
And despite all the disasters, it somehow remains the best place to get away from the real world.