By Jerry McBride
My soft-plastic frog landed among the tall grass on the edge of the bayou, within a few inches of where a small bass had just blown on minnows hiding in the vegetation. A single twitch, and I felt the strike.
Textbook bass fishing. I set the hook, and my catch came flying out of the grass.
First fish of the day: A 3-foot cottonmouth. Apparently I wasn't the only predator drawn to the commotion at the water's edge. Fortunately, the snake had the decency to let go of the frog next to the kayak. I like snakes, but that catch-and-release would have been a bit more awkward than most.
I arrived a day and a half before the official start of Boondoggle in Mandeville, Louisiana, hoping to get the lay of the land prior to being inundated by hundreds of kayakers attending the event. My legs already ached from a 20-mile ride on the incredible Tammany Trace bike trail the evening before, but one had to be reinvigorated by the cypress scenery and potential fish habitat along the upper Bayou Lacomb. I didn't even mind that the supposed 2-mile paddle down to the north edge of Lake Pontchartrain actually took over an hour and a half at four knots. Each way. It was hard to hurry as I noted the shorelines transform from elegant cypress and Spanish moss to grassy marsh as I approached the coastline
Other than one green trout (AKA largemouth bass to anglers outside Louisiana), the fish proved to be in the bottom mile of the winding estuary. The closer I got to the lake, the greater the hint of salinity in the water—not enough to deter the bass, but enough to support a very healthy population of specks (spotted seatrout) and an occasional redfish in the creekmouths. In a 100-yard stretch just inside the mouth of the bayou, I caught all three species, plus a gar, a very strange phenomenon for a Florida angler accustomed to a generally clear delineation between salt and freshwater species.
As I emerged into the big lake, two things immediately caught my attention: The gray silhouette of New Orleans 20 miles across Pontchartrain, and more importantly, an unbroken string of migrating finger mullet lining the beach, pushed ashore by a strong south wind. I hung a right, and was rewarded with a seatrout or two on virtually every grassy point that protruded into the lake. Nothing big—a 20-inch speck is considered a good one in Louisiana—but the 17-inchers acted like they'd never met a topwater plug they didn't like.
It took a setting sun and a phone call from arriving Boondogglers that I'd miss dinner at Fontainebleau State Park campground event headquarters to force me to turn upriver for the long trip back to the Mainstreet boat ramp. I love freshwater launch sites—no need to rinse kayaks or gear.
Arriving after dark, I anticipated a tent city, but was met with an array of elaborate mobile homes and travel trailers that outnumbered more traditional and primitive camping setups. Meals were equally impressive, as regular attendees, bearing food, converged at selected campsites. None of that living-off-the-land, back-to-Nature crap here.
While some kayakers made dawn-to-dusk fishing their top priority, the vast majority of campers were obviously more influenced by the social opportunities provided by the Boondoggle expedition. Kayak, accessory and food vendors set up their wares next to the park pavilion, and the Saturday night raffle attracted an enthusiastic—okay, raucous—crowd. Food and beverage were the obvious stars here, with sampling and sharing of exotic concoctions continuing long after the kids were shuffled off to bed.
Surrounded by a sea of colorful plastic, local recreational anglers and crabbers launching on Lake Road and other Northshore boat ramps must have thought they woke up in Kayak Hell during the Boondoggle event. It was obvious that locals were unaccustomed to sharing the water with so many kayaks, as they immediately idled boat throttles whenever they encountered the invading plastic navy, apparently unaware that modern kayaks are actually capable of withstanding the onslaught of an occasional foot-tall boat wake. Out for a 40-mph sunset cruise with his wife, the obviously inexperienced driver of a bowrider yelled, "Look, he's got pedals. That's cool." To get a better look, he slammed to a halt 30 feet behind me, sending my unprepared kayak into a tailspin as the resulting 3-foot wake broke over my stern. But otherwise, boaters were embarrassingly polite in yielding right of way to our little boats.
October is a time of transition in Louisiana, with cool nights and autumn's first cold fronts chilling the water. As winds switched each day, kayakers encountered distinctly different conditions every morning. This region of the Gulf of Mexico generally experiences just one high and one low tide each day—which is hard enough to figure out for East Coast kayak anglers–but water levels along Lake Pontchartrain's North Shore are more a product of wind direction and intensity than tidal pull. North winds blow the water away from shore; south winds push the water in. So each day became a unique fishing adventure and learning experience. The first-day mullet stacked for miles along the shore—and the trout ambushing them–were gone the second morning.
As usual, I tried to separate myself from the crowd, zigging left at the mouth when everyone else went right. I was rewarded with an occasional trout stalking scattered bait schools 50 yards offshore. A big swirl missed my topwater Spook, but hammered the followup cast with a suspending twitchbait. I thought I'd hit the jackpot, only to have a dreaded 45-inch gar scream past the kayak. With just a 4-pound rod, it took 25 minutes to conquer the beast and retrieve my lure I paddled a mile upriver, and dredged up specks—the only constant all four days—from an 8-foot-deep bend in the bayou, drawn by immense schools of menhaden (pronounced "pogies" in Louisiana vernacular) that had taken up residence in the channel.
Surrounded by weekend recreational crab trappers and speck hunters on the main bayous and lake, I headed off into the shallow, weedy salt marshes in search of solitude Saturday afternoon. Other than an occasional blue crab or mullet sighting, the hydrilla-clogged water initially appeared surprisingly lifeless, and locals I had talked to certainly weren't encouraging when I asked them about fishing there.
This isn't easy fishing. The water is generally a couple feet deep, with vegetation growing within inches of the surface, even at high tide. Central Florida bass fishermen will feel right at home here. The swamps' biggest attraction was that they appeared devoid of human life; I hate fishing in a crowd. I saw just one other kayaker the first day. Minuscule green trout latched onto my topwater plug just often enough to keep me interested, and when the water finally exploded and my drag screeched, I fully expected to discover a giant gar buried in the hydrilla. But as I unwrapped the salad-cloaked fish, a wide, dark-bronze tail emerged. I towed the 32-inch redfish to the nearby mouth of the marsh, where a passing Boondoggler from Georgia was kind enough to shoot a few pictures before I took the fish back where I caught it for release. I landed three more before calling it a day.
Hoping for the same tranquility, I was disappointed to find higher water levels the next morning. That made the fishing much easier, but also encouraged half a dozen kayakers, and, much more disruptively, a recreational crabber who insisted on circling me several times in his hours-long, unsuccessful attempts to net blue crabs from the bow of his outboard-powered johnboat. It probably wasn't coincidence that my first 28-inch redfish catch didn't come until after the crabber left and the last kayaker was literally paddling out of the marsh at 3 p.m. Fish in small bodies of water are nervous, and don't like being run over. They require stealth to successfully stalk, which is why they are my favorite places to fish.
Even with higher water levels, the only lures effective in the dense hydrilla proved to be topwater plugs and bass spinnerbaits retrieved just beneath the surface. While the other kayakers struck out along the seductive shorelines, I found the redfish and bass gravitating to a slightly deeper trough in the middle of the pond. Success was largely a matter of perseverance; the fish gave only rare indications of their presence among the dense vegetation, but if a lure happened to come overhead, they would spring from the hydrilla to crush the source of noise or vibration. It took hundreds of casts to cover all the potential hiding places.
Three more nice reds and numerous small bass followed, and I left them biting. I didn't want to miss the infamous Sunday night finale dinner at Fontainebleau.
"This is my favorite time of the whole Boondoggle," camper Holly Jones told me as she and husband Stan hosted an incredible potluck dinner Sunday night for campers staying an extra day. Twenty-five comparatively subdued, exhausted Boondoggle regulars somehow found the energy to create personal specialties to share around the campfire and three picnic tables swamped with homemade recipes.
Other than a few mosquitoes and garbage-stealing raccoons, the cool evenings at Fontainebleau State Park provided a comfortable setting for the Boondoggle event. With Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge literally next door, frequent deer and wild hog sightings provided entertaining alternatives to the human shenanigans. Upon arriving at Campsite 74 the first night, I found kindergartner Hannah Jones already cuddling a 3-foot rat snake found in camp. One of my personal highlights was encountering five big otters, probably returning from a crab-stealing foray (I was told they've learned how to open and dump the crab boxes of fishermen along Lake Road). Four of them humorously hissed and barked at me for blocking their path across the causeway.
Next up: Spring 2016 Boondoggle event, Ginnie Springs, north of Gainesville, Florida on the Santa Fe River.