Requiem for an Island

Life and times of the Chandeleurs

The Chandeleurs were once the most precious gems in Louisiana’s chain of barrier islands. I met them in 1964 on a crew-boat ride to a drilling rig in Mobil Oil Co.’s Main Pass Block 6 field. Our location was a short distance off the southern tip of the big island –– Chandeleur Island itself –– which glowed beckoningly in the sunset of a clear evening.

I recall gangs of cobia circling the rig’s legs from time to time, and one day after supper, I caught my first one from the deck of that rig.

But the Chandeleurs themselves are not notable venues for cobia-fishing. They are best-known for their specks and redfish, and those include trophy fish as well as skillet-material. Because the islands are a long run from the marinas near the home that I eventually built in the lower Mississippi River Delta –– and because of a wealth of the local, and quite good, opportunities there –– more than 20 years would pass before I would see them again.
 

During that time I heard many inspiring tales of the outstanding fishing the islands offered. Finally an opportunity arose for a trip to them: a late-spring run to Breton, which is the southernmost in the chain. There, in the surf off the lower end of the island, I took the biggest speck I had caught in years. The following October a friend and I braved Breton Sound in his 16-foot bass-boat to experience one of the maddest flounder melees of my life –– again at Breton but this time at the edge of the lush spartina marsh that graced the island’s sound-side back then.

Those two trips proved that fishing the Chandeleurs just might be as good as it was reputed to be, but because I had no boat suitable for reaching them, I was able to make only a few trips to them over the next half-decade. During that time my life changed considerably. A long and rewarding career in the oilfield ended; I became a full-time writer of magazine articles about fishing and hunting activities; and I renewed an old friendship with Dave Ballay, who was also an ex-oilfield hand and who built the Venice Marina, and we began to fish together regularly.

Captain Bill

On the trips to the marina, I eventually met Captain Bill Herrington and his wife, Sandy. He was a fishing guide, and Sandy cooked and cleaned for his clients who chose to spend the nights between fishing trips on their houseboat. We soon became friends, and in the process we discovered that we both thoroughly enjoyed wade-fishing.

That was Bill’s preferred technique, and the Chandeleurs, being one of very few wade-able places along the Louisiana coast, were his regular grounds. My first trip out there with him was a lifesaver of sorts, as one of my editors had come down to the delta to do an article on the fly-fishing in my life. For three days before his arrival, the wind howled, the bays turned the color of café au lait, and I got desperate! But on the night before our intended trip, Bill rang my phone, said the water on the backside of the islands should be clear enough, and did we want to go see?

To this day I have no clue as to how he knew my situation!

Anyway, our destination was Grand Gosier, one island above Breton. It was also my first trip there. The wind was pretty stiff from the east by the time we arrived, but even so, the water behind the island was indeed surprisingly calm and much clearer than I had imagined. And I caught just enough reds and a nice speck for my editor to get his story and the associated pictures.

I can’t honestly say that it was love at first sight, but Grand Gosier assuredly got inside me that morning, and my affection for it grew with every visit. Bill had a special fondness for it, too, and on all but one of the trips we made to the Chandeleurs together, Breton was ignored. Occasionally we’d make a run up to Little Gosier, just north of the larger island, and we did catch some fine fish up there, but we always seemed to spend the biggest part of the day somewhere on Grand Gosier.

Changing Landscape

Dune islands are not very complex –– at least not to the inexperienced eye. On the other hand, they are dynamic, their configuration, elevation and makeup often changed radically by winter storms and hurricanes. Early on in my relationship with Grand Gosier, those changes only made the island more intriguing: Spots that produced fish along it last year were often washed away, while potentially productive pockets and troughs had been created. It seemed like there was something new every time we went out there.

The island faced the Gulf with a sand beach, littered here and there with driftwood and odds-and-ends pieces of flotsam. Its north end swung a bit to the east, and that bend, a result of the prevailing currents, would build and recede over the coming years, creating a lovely pocket one year, losing it the next, only to regain it by the following spring, at least in part. Along much of the backside of the island was a sparse-to-moderate growth of various grasses, and within that, the gulls, least terns, skimmers and pelicans nested in the spring and raised their young. Because of the large population of birds there, the Chandeleur Islands were designated a wildlife refuge.

With the exception of the racket from the birds, Grand Gosier was a very quiet place. On calm autumn days after the birds had left –– and on those rare late-winter afternoons when the only description of that island that is adequate is “drop-dead gorgeous” –– the only sound would be the surf, gently lapping at the beach. The water around it was usually considerably clearer than it was at Breton, and the bottom was much firmer and easier to wade. It didn’t take long for me to become as fond of the island itself as the fishing around it, and that appeal grew immensely after my first trip to it during the cooler months.

That one took place just after the Thanksgiving that followed my first trip out there with Bill. That afternoon he caught his first saltwater fish on a fly from a trough that ran through the flats behind the island’s south point: two nice reds. “Nothing to this,” he said. Yeah, right! Come to think of it, I believe that was the same spot that gave up my first Grand Gosier fish earlier that year!

The following February I caught what is believed to be the first bull red taken on a fly in Louisiana waters –– 22.5 pounds –– again from the island’s south point but this time surfside. That afternoon I discovered that there isn’t much that’s better than standing at the edge of a winter sea with a fly rod in hand, catching your biggest redfish while a good friend is watching, even if that fish hadn’t earned the top spot in the state’s fly-fishing records. We raised sundowner glasses to that red’s memory many times.

We had plenty of other memorable days out there, and even though Little Gosier would give up some notable catches from time to time and Curlew, farther to the north, with its submerged grass-beds, would occasionally beckon with its siren song, we always felt that in going on to either one, we would probably be passing up more fish at Grand Gosier than we could ever hope for. And that was probably the case.

Big Winds

On Oct. 4, 1995, Hurricane Opal raked the Chandeleurs with 150-mph winds. Curlew was shredded into islets, Little Gosier and its lush interior marsh was washed entirely away, and Grand Gosier’s deep interior pocket and its short offshore leg were wiped out. But most of the island, its grass and the troughs and bars off its south point –– both in the surf and through the backside flats –– remained basically unchanged.

November was drawing to a close before Bill and I could get together for a trip out there to see what had happened. The day that we were finally able to go was handmade, a day that could not be better spent than with a best buddy, alone and thigh-deep in the calm, clear autumn surf of a barrier island. Late that afternoon we found a gang of reds, again in the trough through the southern end of the island’s backside flats, and we had a ball catching them! If there had to be a last trip to the island together, it couldn’t have been any better.

Four Boats

Three weeks later Bill suddenly and quite unexpectedly passed away.

On a bright, crisp early-December morning, four boatloads of us hauled-to just inside the south point of Grand Gosier Island. There, dressed more for church than for crossing an island’s backside flats, we waded ashore to spread Bill’s ashes and hang a wreath on a refuge sign. Grand Gosier would never be the same to me again.

Yet it still produced soul-cleansing afternoons, fine catches of specks and reds and a few unforgettable memories. The following summer the editor I mentioned earlier and I made a fine hit on the specks there. By the early spring of 1997, we discovered that Little Gosier had reformed, and the redfish were thick around it. But even better news was that the outside leg of Grand Gosier had regenerated and built a bit to the south, causing the island to resemble a horseshoe more than a comma and forming a large and fairly deep pocket within it that later proved to be very attractive to specks –– and to one particular bull redfish! The future looked bright.

Then on the night of Sept. 27, 1998, Hurricane Georges undid all the good that had taken place since the passing of Opal. Still, even though a trip out there the following April revealed that Little Gosier had again been beaten beneath the waves, the larger island had suffered only the loss of its offshore leg. Its bars, troughs and grasses were alive and well –– and so was the fishing.

The Big Pocket

The following March we were again thrilled with the regeneration of Little Gosier and treated to one of the biggest redfish aggregations I have ever witnessed. And later that month we realized that Grand Gosier was again forming into a horseshoe with what was once the surfside of its south point now the west edge of a big interior pocket. But what a pocket it proved to be!

For the next three years only four moderate-strength tropical storms affected the Chandeleurs. Any changes in them that were noted on initial spring trips were minimal. Once again, grass began to grow on Little Gosier, and it began to expand on Grand Gosier, though some of that was the result of plantings by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Productive troughs and pockets around the larger island became familiar and produced fine catches, year after year.
By the spring of 2004, the big offshore leg of Grand Gosier’s horseshoe had subsided into a shoal, though the deep interior pocket remained. However, winter storms had also eroded away a productive point on the backside of the island and filled in a long and fairly deep trough surfside. Fishing there became difficult, a pattern that had shown signs of beginning a year earlier, and although every trip to the islands would still begin at Grand Gosier, they would now almost invariably end at Breton.

The wreak and ruin caused by Hurricane Ivan on that godforsaken day in late September affected me a lot more than it did the rest of my island-fishing buddies. I’m sure that was because I had –– and must admit that I still have –– more emotional ties out there than they did. On the first trip to the islands after the storm, we discovered that Grand Gosier had been reduced to shoals: no more grass, no more pocket, no more south point. And no indication of where Bill’s remains had been scattered.

And that really hurt.

But not nearly as much as I hurt a year later from the passing of the archfiend.

I am almost certain that I will never see Grand Gosier again, not even its remaining shoals, but others may. I hope with all my heart that some of them will one day experience the wonders of fishing it, especially on a handmade winter day like those spent with Captain Bill that I remember so well, and grow to consider it a very special place, like I did. The storms of winter can heal an island, not entirely, for sure, but enough to return life to it. I’ve seen it happen twice at Little Gosier. But if Grand Gosier does rise from the ravages of the waves, it will be as a barren bar, not an island as we knew it. Time –– much time –– will be necessary for the return of the grass, the dunes, the feel of the place that was once so soul-soothing yet so exciting –– time without batterings from hurricanes.

And I wonder if time like that will ever come along again…

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