VENICE, La. — As fantastic as redfishing continues to be in southern Louisiana, prospects for catching speckled trout have just as stunningly diminished. If any fisheries biologists know why, they aren't saying.
"I have not seen one speckled trout on a spawning bed since the (BP Deepwater Horizon) oil spill," said Ryan Lambert, who owns Cajun Fishing Adventures.
"Since the oil spill, our trout are gone," said Mike Frenette, who owns Venice's Redfish Lodge. "When I tell you they're gone, they're gone.
"I used to could go and catch five- to seven-pound speckled trout religiously. This year I haven't caught a total of 15 trout."
Fishing stories, good or bad, are just that – anecdotal. But these stories about the lack of speckled trout, also known as spotted seatrout, represent something bigger: In the intricate mess left by the BP oil spill, many of the facts are locked tight in attorneys' offices.
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The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries performs annual net samplings – in the same places and dates – that would add precious scientific data to the speckled trout anecdotes. But with so many billions of dollars riding on the final BP damage settlement, the LDWF has been told by its lawyers "not to share its interpretation of the data with the public for now," as reported by Bob Marshall of New Orleans Times-Picayune.
So, for now, all we have is anecdotes about speckled trout. Lambert and Frenette make their living from the world-class fishing of southern Louisiana. It's not in their best interests to talk about the disappearance of one of the most popular gamefish in the U.S. But it's not in their best interests to lie about it either. One unexpectedly bad speckled trout fishing trip doesn't make for return customers, who are the heart of any guide's business.
From 1993 to 2003, the annual harvest of speckled trout in Louisiana averaged over six million – from a high of 9.6 million in 2000 to a low of 2.6 million in 1990, the year after freezing weather wrecked the spawn.
With a daily limit of 25, as opposed to the redfish limit of five, catching a bunch of specks was often on the agenda of anglers visiting "Sportsman's Paradise," as Louisiana is known.
"Scientifically, I don't know what happened," said Lambert. "I've been guiding here for 31 years. I've seen high river; I've seen low river; I've seen freezes; I've seen hurricanes. I've seen everything that could possibly be thrown at us, but I've never seen no fish.
"Our speckled trout are down 95 to 98 percent in the last two years. Scientifically, I don't know what it is. I just know that since the oil spill we're in trouble."
Marine mammal biologists were able to pinpoint severe ill health problems in bottlenose dolphins sampled from nearby Barataria Bay. Thirty-two live dolphins were given comprehensive physical examinations in the summer of 2011, one year after the oil spill. Many were underweight, anemic and/or had symptoms of liver and lung disease. Researchers feared that many of those dolphins wouldn't survive long, and one of the 32 was found dead in January.
But Lambert has seen hardly any speckled trout in this area, not even ones in poor health.
"No, there are no dead fish. It has moved them," Lambert said of the oil spill. "I'm vice president of the (Louisiana) Charter Boat Association, so I talk to a lot of people, and I keep track of who's catching what and where.
"The fish have just moved out. They've moved to North Breton. Last year, Cocodrie had them and now Cocodrie doesn't even have them, so the problem has moved further.
"Mississippi and Alabama are catching more speckled trout than they ever did before. That's a good thing for them."
So south Louisiana guides, like Lambert and Frenette, are left to ponder what has happened to an entire species of gamefish, one they had always found in abundance, even in "down years," after the spawn had been affected by unusual water levels or untimely cold snaps.
And their no-fish stories are all any of us have as evidence of the BP oil spill aftermath. The fisheries biologists – the people who are paid to know the facts and interpret them – have been told to keep their mouths shut.