ESPN2: Strong post-Katrina fishing in brine

  • Watch re-airs of the "BassCenter" episode with a post-Katrina special this Wednesday and Thursday, June 14 and 15, at 5 a.m. ET on ESPN2.

    "I'm just getting off the water after a charter — can I talk to you in about an hour?"

    Such was the response from Louisiana marina operator and fishing guide Barry Brechtel to my mid-week phone call.

    A year ago, such a comment might have seemed pretty normal.

    This year, with life anything but normal nine months after Hurricane Katrina's deadly rampage through southeastern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi and Alabama, such a comment brings a smile to the face.

    Today, as weather forecasters and storm weary Gulf Coastal residents keep an eye to the sky for what is expected to be another busy Atlantic hurricane season, the news from Louisiana is mixed.

    At least in terms of recovery to the region's commerce, infrastructure and homes that were devastated by the storm that killed more than 1,800 people.

    But in terms of the area's saltwater fishing, the signals are all good for the moment. (Tune in to ESPN2 this Wednesday and Thursday, June 14 and 15, at 5 a.m. ET as "BassCenter" offers a detailed look at southeastern Louisiana's surprisingly good saltwater fishing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.)

    "If the pre-Katrina (saltwater) fishing was good — and I'd say it was about a 9.5 — then now I'd say it is a 10," Brechtel said, adding that the inshore angling for spotted sea trout and red drum is "… almost perfect now."

    That hardly seems possible after Katrina roared ashore with 125 mph Category 3 winds and a 15 to 20 foot storm surge in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 29, 2005.

    As a result, the region's sport fishing industry — not to mention its coastal communities and barrier islands like the Chandeliers — took a savage beating following the storm's landfall near the Plaquemines Parish hamlet of Buras-Triumph, La.

    Case in point was Brechtel's Breton Sound Marina, which prior to Katrina had housed nearly 300 boats and a charter-fishing lodge in Hopedale.

    "My partner, C.T. Williams, he and I got back to the marina three or four days after the storm and everything was destroyed," Brechtel said, noting that one Hopedale diehard refused to evacuate and literally rode the storm out by tying himself to the top of a tree.

    "Our big charter lodge, it had foot-and-half steel I-beams that were one inch thick, but were twisted.

    "You were like 'What in the world could possibly do that?' since you couldn't take a crane and twist it.

    "When you saw things like that, it that made you shiver."

    And that's saying something since the 40-year old Brechtel is no stranger to tropical cyclones, having gone through 15 plus storms in his lifetime including Camille, Georges, Ivan, and now Katrina to name a few.

    In fact, Brechtel was actually born in Alabama in 1965 thanks to another nasty N'Awlins hurricane named Betsy.

    "My dad sent my mom to Gulf Shores and said 'I want you to go stay with your parents while we clean this mess up,'" Brechtel said.

    "So I was born in Alabama and not New Orleans because Betsy wiped things out."

    But if Brechtel knows the wrath of Gulf Coast hurricanes, he also knows the region's epic fishing.

    And very early on after Katrina's unwelcome visit, he knew that at least a portion of that piscatorial asset had survived.

    "One of the first things that struck me was that the water was pretty," Brechtel said. "It was blue-green and there were plenty of baitfish jumping around."

    A little more than a month later, with a new boat and motor in hand, Brechtel was up and running charters again, taking advantage of the surprisingly good saltwater fishing being discovered in Katrina's wake.

    "The recreational fisheries came out really, really good — and that's both inshore and offshore (waters)," agreed Harry Blanchet, fin-fish programs manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.

    "As far as inshore fishing we had a very good winter and a very good spring.

    "And right now, May and early June are usually a very good time of year for us, but even with that being said, this seems to be an unusually good May and June."

    Bo Boehringer, press secretary for the LDW&F, agrees.

    "In terms of the general reports that we're hearing, they would mirror Barry's comments," Boehringer said.

    "We're hearing of good catches all along the coast as long as people have the wherewithal to get where they want to go."

    Of course, given the magnitude of Katrina's destruction — to say nothing of Hurricane Rita's Category 3 wrath less than a month later in the southwestern corner of the state — having the wherewithal to go somewhere is saying something.

    "With the marinas having to rebuild, things like working gas pumps and live bait facilities are more difficult to find," Boehringer said.

    "In those instances, fishermen that are going down there know that ahead of time and are at times having to procure bait elsewhere or bring a day's worth of fuel before going down there."

    With each passing day, the situation improves in many of the more famous fishing areas as marinas slowly but surely rebuild and try to respond to the anglers who want to get out on the water.

    "They're hearing those glorious reports and hearing that the fish are there," Boehringer said.

    Indeed they are, something explained by the sheer abundance of shrimp in the briny water.

    "Our early shrimping season showed that there are record numbers of shrimp in the water," Boehringer said.

    "Obviously, with all of that bait in the water, the predator fish are on top of that — it's just simply one resource feeding off the other," he added.

    That certainly has been Brechtel's on-the-water experience as the operator of BigFish charter service.

    "We had two or three months (last fall) where the shrimpers weren't able to shrimp," Brechtel said.

    "As a result, there are shrimp everywhere and shrimp is the file mignon for trout and redfish.

    "The fishing for our speckled trout and redfish is about as good as I've ever seen it and I think that's just simply due to the fact that their food source is in abundant supply."

    The Cajun charter skipper says that's not just true in inshore waters either since the blue-water fishing is pretty salty too.

    "We had a very good yellow fin tuna season," Brechtel said. "In fact, there was a real monster yellow fin caught recently."

    "Plus, the snapper season was very good and the bill fishing season is off to a good start already — there have been a lot of tagged marlin already."

    As word gets out, anglers are returning to the area with gusto, eager to get a hook in on the sizzling action.

    "There is a reduction of fishermen with so many people being displaced, but it's not as much as you would think," Brechtel said.

    "(And) there are a surprising number of people from out of state that are fishing — the fishing is that good and fishermen will always find (the) fish."

    Where are these anglers staying?

    For starters, Brechtel said that the downtown and French Quarter hotels in New Orleans — not to mention the city's world famous restaurants — are back in business.

    Add in the fact that outfitters like Brechtel either already have or will be shortly opening up brand new sleeping quarters near the water's edge and there's really no reason not to come down and sample a big fishing trip in the Big Easy's backyard.

    "The infrastructure isn't all there yet, but there is enough for you to have a very safe and comfortable fishing trip and adventure down here," Brechtel said.

    "Not to mention that every place you'll sleep right now, every mattress is new, every sheet is new, and every trailer and lodge is new."

    And keep in mind that for hard-core fishermen, it's never really about the accommodations anyway, but always about the fish at the end of the monofilament line.

    And if there can be any sort of a silver lining to the deadly and destructive cloud of Katrina, then that would have to be it — the fishing.

    "Our assets are seafood, fish, the water, the outdoors, and tourism — it's what we were built on before and most of those assets are still here," Brechtel said.

    "It's not an ideal world, but the commercial side (of Louisiana's fishing industry) is delivering and from what we hear, the recreational side is enjoying banner catches (too)," Boehringer added.

    And such piscatorial action brings smiles to many weary faces, offers hope for the future, and is providing an economic shot in the arm to a region badly in need of it.

    "The fishing is great — come on down," Blanchet said.