By Jerry McBride
"How do you feel about alligators?"
The answer to that poignant question will generally determine the direction of the conversation regarding a kayak rental or guided kayak tour at Bayou Adventure—assuming the client doesn't run screaming to the car in search of some blissfully boring utopia where there's no need to ask such questions.
"If it's clear they're uncomfortable with the idea of paddling around gators," proprietor Shannon Griffin explains, "we send them to Bayou Lacombe. Not many gators there. It's pretty, and the fishing can be excellent.
"However, we like to give people the full experience of Louisiana, and alligators are part of that experience. To me, Cane Bayou is the perfect paddle."
Bordered by Fontainebleau State Park to the west and Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge to the east, Cane Bayou flows into Lake Pontchartrain along the north shoreline. One of many paddling options available in St. Tammany Parish, Cane Bayou remains largely in a uniquely natural state despite hundreds of years of area development.
"If someone just walks into my shop and tells me to show them the real Louisiana, it's an easy choice: I'd take them for an evening tour on the full moon in Cane Bayou. It's got everything; very swamp-like at the source, then pine forest, then salt marsh, with wildlife refuges on both sides. Lots of wading birds and ospreys. From the mouth, you can see the lights of New Orleans very clearly, even though it's over 20 miles across Lake Pontchartrain. We'd watch the sun go down—we have beautiful sunsets here—put our headlamps on, and paddle back. All the time we'd be hearing gators bellowing around us in the swamp, and we'd see their red eyes glowing in the lights. It's just so cool.”
That tour generally takes three or four hours, and costs $55, Griffin says. But the outfitter can customize a tour to accommodate individual wishes. "If people tell us what they're looking for, we'll find a way to do it."
These same protected bayous work equally well for those who take their water straight up.
"We generally schedule group paddleboard events on weekends," says Mark Salvetti of Bayou Paddle Company. "We get regulars from Baton Rouge and lots of other places just because this area offers so much in the way of accessible, scenic water. We do tours out of Fontainebleau State Park and the Tchefuncte River."
Those wishing to join one of the tours can check for scheduled outings on the Bayou Paddle Company Facebook page. Salvetti recommends another event for October visitors.
"The Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival in October is huge. Antique boats, cars, great music and food. The best event is the boat-building contest. Contestants stay up all Saturday night building a boat from scratch, and then race them on Sunday. It gets pretty funny at times." The 2015 Wooden Boat Festival takes place on October 10-11.
Forgot your board? Contact Rob Cole at Seal Sports in Mandeville for rental information.
Anglers can likewise find something to fit their tastes. St. Tammany Parish fishing is all about diversity, according to IFA kayak event winner Elliot Stevens.
"You've got so many options. The estuary goes from fresh to brackish to salt. You can catch bass in the morning, then specks and reds in the afternoon. Just a real diverse area. Depending on salinity levels and the time of year, you might find a 10-pound trout or a 10-pound bass. At Slidell, you've got trout, reds and flounder. Areas of Lake Pontchartrain, including the mouth of Cane Bayou, are solid white sand, so you can get out and wade-fish. The trestles at each of the major thoroughfares hold fish. Very few people realize that we even have tarpon running through the lake in late summer."
Because of the diversity and close proximity of species, it's a good idea to purchase both a saltwater and freshwater fishing license.
Local kayaker and another IFA tournament angler, Kalon Johnson, offers these recommendations:
Bayou Cane: Great place to fish for bass. This area produces great in the fall. I like to use spinnerbaits and baby brush hogs.
Bayou Lacombe: Trout and redfish move into this area in the fall months during the bait migration. Matrix Shad and Vortex Shad get the job done for both species. Spinnerbaits along the banks work great for the redfish, and also bass.
Lake Pontchartrain: Great trout fishing, but the open water can get dangerous for kayak anglers very fast due to its size. About two miles out from the mouth of Bayou Lacombe is a reef that starts producing big trout in November. The bridges and trestles produce great fishing as well.
Kayak anglers can opt for a guide or try their luck on their own.
"We sell a map with all the best fishing spots marked," Shannon Griffin says. "It tells people what species they're likely to catch in each spot."
This being Louisiana, a bit of interpretation might be required; locals generally attach colorfully descriptive names—often more than one—to many species. Green trout? The rest of the world refers to them as largemouth bass. Goggle eye? Bream. Sac au lait? Who cares—just get out the frying pan, because they're real tasty. It'll probably save a lot of awkward explaining if you don't even bring up gaspergou.
Of course, there's more to life—at least for some people—than kayak tours and fishing. The 31-mile-long Tammany Trace offers a scenic, paved bike trail that connects the parks and towns of Tammany Parish. One of those towns, Abita Springs, features the Abita Brewery and Abita Mystery House.
And, according to Shannon Griffin, the city of Covington maintains a very active nightlife.
"The downtown is really picturesque—lots of bistros, very lively, parties in the street, outdoor concerts. And it's all within walking distance of the Third Street Landing kayak launch."
–For information on Tammany Trace kayak launch sites, lodging, restaurants and events, visit www.louisiananorthshore.com.
–And learn more about the annual Kayak Fishing Boondoggle on October 9-12 at Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, Louisiana.