The marshes, lakes, and bays of western Terrebonne Parish are extraordinary places to fish.
A late-April trip I took to the fresh and brackish marshes near Lost Lake produced constant action on chunky bass, bluegills, and crappies from the edges of the endless grass beds. Bream-baited jug lines caught a dozen fat blue and channel catfish. Mixed in with the freshwater species were hearty redfish that aggressively attacked my weedless soft plastics and spinner baits.
That same weekend, the winning stringer in an Elite Series Redfish Tournament was caught in Lost Lake, more than two hours by boat from the tourney’s take off in New Orleans. Those fishing Lost Lake had to cross Lake Decade, undoubtedly one of South Louisiana’s most consistent and productive fall and winter speckled-trout waterways. Just south of Lake Decade, Lake Mechant’s oyster beds were giving up limits of early-spring specks making their way out of the marshy mazes and inland lakes toward the outer bays and, eventually, the Gulf.
Judging by the thousands of crab trap floats forming slalom courses through Bayou Decade, Jug Lake, Bayou Penchant, and Carencro Lake, it’s safe to say these waters are some of the Bayou State’s most fertile commercial crabbing areas as well. Scores of alligators patrolled the shorelines, as the last of the bluewing teal took flight for points north.
Satellite images of the marshes west from Lake Decade to Lost Lake and north past Lake Penchant show some of Louisiana’s healthiest and most intact marshes. A closer look shows an even greater variety of habitat, including stands of cypress trees, willow-lined banks, floating marshes, ridges, and run-outs. There are deer stands and duck blinds, bass boats and bay boats, crabbers’ skiffs and oyster luggers, shrimping skimmers and deep trawlers—and they all get plenty of use.
Contrast that area with the marshes of eastern Terrebonne. Once just as vibrant, varied, and extensive as the parish’s western half, eastern Terrebonne has seen dramatically-increased erosion rates from saltwater intrusion, subsidence, man-made canals, and hurricanes.
Very little freshwater makes its way into area marshes to support submerged vegetation, and there is virtually no source of sediment to feed area wetlands, except for what gets distributed by hurricane storm surges. Skinny, porous marsh ridges are all that separate interior lakes and bays from the Gulf of Mexico. The mouths of bayous—once easily navigable, well-defined channels—are now barely recognizable, marked by dots of remnant marsh banks and islands that become smaller with each passing year.
The stark difference between the health of marshes in western and eastern Terrebonne boils down to the simple fact that water and sediments from the Atchafalaya Basin course through western Terrebonne, while the eastern part gets very little freshwater and even less sediment. So, to move sediment-rich freshwater farther east, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is designing an ambitious plan using oil-spill recovery dollars from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Existing man-made and natural waterways, like the Intracoastal Waterway and Houma Navigation Canal, are expected to help move the waters east.
A lock planned for the Houma Navigation Canal, near the town of Dulac, is being designed to limit hurricane storm surges coming north and to slow saltwater intrusion, while still allowing safe passage of boat traffic. Another project, to restore more than 900 acres of marshes and ridges separating Lake Mechant from Lake Decade with dredged sediments, was completed in 2009.
Marshes that had been pummeled by punches from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike were allowing saltwater to take over the southern shores of Lake Decade, an area popular with bass fishermen less than two decades ago. But, despite lower salinities in Decade, the area continues to be a go-to spot for fall-to-late-winter speckled trout. And, persistent flood stages in the Atchafalaya River this spring and early summer haven’t prevented western Terrebonne Parish from boasting unmatched catches this year. With these efforts to ensure that the Atchafalaya’s waters and sediments continue to flow into Lake Decade, Lost Lake, and beyond, those speckled trout will be sharing space with bass, alligators, redfish, crabs, and ducks for decades to come.
For more information about the important role freshwater and sediment play in building and sustaining marine fisheries habitat in the Gulf, read the 2013 report “Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability.”
Chris Macaluso is Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Marine Fisheries Director.