By Jerry McBride
Just down Hwy. 190 from the Boondoggle campground, Shannon Griffin sells fishing tackle, camping gear and licenses, and rents kayaks and bicycles. More importantly, Griffin was blessed with an extra-large portion of small-town friendliness, even by legendary Southern standards. She's also happy to share her insider's knowledge of fishing and local points of interest–all of which make her Bayou Adventure a one-stop shop for gear and an excellent starting point for advice-seeking out-of-towners arriving for the October 9-12 event at Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, Louisiana.
According to Boondoggle's Mark Watanabe, Fontainebleau State Park impressed his associates with its size, location and facilities as they scouted potential 2015 venues. "It was perfect," Watanabe recalled. But what cemented the deal was the people. "We met Shannon Griffin, and she introduced us to the Tammany Parish people. They made the decision easy for us."
Ostensibly, the top priority for many of the 600-plus Boondoggle attendees is fishing. Even marginally proficient anglers would be remiss in failing to take advantage of this particular Boondoggle's location and timing. This is Louisiana, home to mass quantities of some of the dumbest—I mean least sophisticated–redfish and spotted seatrout on Planet Earth. If kayak anglers can't catch fish here, it's seriously time to trade that tackle-toting sit-on-top fishing boat for a cozy sit-inside bird-watching model. According to Griffin, anglers don't even need a boat.
"In October, specks and reds move into Lake Pontchartrain," Griffin told me. "You can catch fish from the shoreline along Lake Road, without ever putting a boat in the water."
Charter captain and kayak tournament competitor Casey Brunning concurs that Louisiana is littered with fishing options in October.
"If the Boondoggle folks want to drive a little, Grand Isle and the dam at Hopedale are stacked with bull redfish in October. You can catch one every cast," Brunning told me. "As far as fishing in the immediate area of the Boondoggle event, the trout should be starting their transition inside. The bridge trestles at Slidell should be packed with trout, flounder and sheepshead. Giant jack crevalle might still be running the shoreline of the lake, so kayakers throwing topwaters have a shot at being dragged around by 40- to 50-pound fish. A few bull reds run that same shoreline, and they'll also eat a topwater or spoon.
"Pontchartrain is pretty shallow for such a big lake," Brunning continued. "Most of the water near the event is probably in the 4-foot range. Live bait or artificials, the fish aren't picky about what they eat. If you like fishing freshwater, Bayou Lacombe is full of largemouth bass, with reds and trout mixed in around the mouth."
Shannon Griffin recommends that visitors, particularly those with children or anyone lacking a long attention span, try an alternative Louisiana specialty.
"The limit is 12 dozen per person," Griffin said in advocating a day devoted to crab fishing. "Campers can pick up crab string and baits here at the shop, and keep the kids busy all day long watching for the string to move and pulling in crabs, right along the road." Griffin can probably help you out with a Cajun crab recipe if you ask nicely.
Lots of stuff to do here, so a good breakfast is essential. Liz's Where Y'at Diner opens at 6 a.m. five mornings a week (7 a.m. on weekends), followed by lunches featuring daily Cajun and Creole specialties amid a quirky décor. It comes highly recommended.
"The food's great, and you won't find a friendlier place anywhere," according to Griffin. "Liz will likely end up at your table, checking to make sure you're having a good day."
Friendly or not, Liz locks the door at 2 p.m., so you'll have to find something to do other than eat. Griffin has some thoughts on that, as well as how to work up another appetite. That's paramount when visiting Louisiana.
"For people who don't want to fish, I suggest they bring or rent a bike, and head over to Abita Springs to visit local attractions and restaurants."
More food. Great idea. You're in Louisiana.
Boondoggle bikers and hikers can intersect Tammany Trace right at Fontainebleau State Park. The 31-mile, 200-foot-wide trail occupies an abandoned Illinois Central Railroad line, and features an asphalt path as well as a parallel horse-riding trail, for those who packed a pony along with their kayaks. The Trace spans the communities of Covington, Abita Springs, Slidell, Mandeville and Lacombe, creating a scenic wildlife conservation corridor. It links a variety of parks while traversing 31 bridges, many of them original timber railroad trestles converted to pedestrian use. Average October low temperature is 62 and the high is 75, so biking conditions should be perfect.
Along the route, one absolute, must-see stop is the Abita Mystery House (abitamysteryhouse.com), which John Bullard, Director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, describes as "the most intriguing and provocative museum in Louisiana." Locals toss out terms such as "madman" and "genius" in attempting to describe John Preble's eccentric creation. Behind the vintage gas station entrance in the middle of Abita Springs, visitors with an appreciation for the offbeat will discover thousands of unique treasures such as Darrell the Dogigator and Edmond the Allisapien. All for the astoundingly low price of three bucks.
For that rare Boondoggle attendee who favors beer over fine art, look no further than the nearby Abita Brewery, which offers tours and—this is the fun part–samples of hand-crafted classics such as Wrought Iron IPA, Purple Haze and Turbodog. Of course, hardly anything goes better with Wrought Iron ale than good Cajun food. With this in mind, visitors can take the party to the Abita Brew Pub, a mere keg's toss down the road.
Finally, should Boondogglers find themselves in an irreversibly romantic mood following an idyllic weekend of Louisiana charm, Shannon Griffin–ordained minister, former Justice of the Peace and dispenser of all things outdoors–is available to bestow legally wedded bliss upon couples back at Bayou Adventure.
Like I said, one-stop shopping.
For Boondoggle registration or further information on St. Tammany Parish lodging, restaurants, fishing and events, visit kayakfishingboondoggle.com .