Casting from a Bateau
Fly fishing in Louisiana
The author, Roger Emile Stouff, fishing in Louisiana waters.
Pete cooper Jr.
The fisherman is hunched slightly forward as if ready to bolt; in his hand, 9 feet of fly rod moves upward and back in an accelerating arc and stops abruptly just past his head, lifting a length of a mint-green line with it that gracefully unfurls behind him. At the last moment before the line loses momentum, the fisherman pushes the rod forward again; the line follows, flat and straight, across the water. At its tip, a colorful concoction of perhaps cork, feathers and razor-sharp steel comes to rest at the center of an expanding series of ripples.
There is a sudden, explosive boiling of the limpid surface, and the fisherman snaps the rod tip up, the green line drawn taut. As the hooked fish struggles, there is tumultuous clamor of splashing, and the long, slender rod bends toward the water. The tether between angler and fish has been fashioned.
Although it might sound like this scene involves a rugged fisherman on a Montana river or the landed gentry beside an English brook, it’s just as likely that the fisherman is surrounded by cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin, casting from a bateau or bass boat. He may be standing knee-deep in a small stream between the ancient hills stretching from Central and Northern Louisiana to the Florida parishes. He can be found in kayaks, canoes and high-powered bay boats.
“The first redfish I caught on a fly in Louisiana waters was in June 1971,” says Pete Cooper Jr. from the St. Martin Parish town of Cade, author of Fly Fishing the Louisiana Coast and Redfish. “I was bass fishing from a pirogue in a canal southwest of Venice when it stuck its tail out of the water not far from me. I doubted the fly –– a size 4 short-tailed popper –– would inspire the fish, but I made a cast at it anyway. The red ate the fly like an alligator eating a blackbird, and some 20 minutes later I almost capsized my pirogue while I was netting it. That one was 33 inches long!”
Both of Cooper’s grandfathers, one on a Texas Hill Country ranch and the other a Baton Rouge resident, had “almost-identical bamboo fly rods, automatic reels and semi-rotten silk lines. I used my Texas grandparents’ outfit to probe an artesian spring-fed creek and by age 13 had become fairly decent at catching bass with it in flowing water. After half a century, that remains my favorite kind of freshwater fishing. On vacations to Baton Rouge to visit my other grandparents –– who had a nice-size pond in their backyard –– I learned the basics of still-water fly fishing. In both cases, there was no mystique about any of it –– fly fishing was just another way to catch fish, and it worked at times when my casting rods and ‘plugs’ didn’t. While that first redfish was an accident of sorts, it showed that they would eat poppers, which proved to be valuable information when I was fishing for them in very shallow, grass-choked water in later years.”
Over the decades that followed those Hill Country and Baton Rouge bass, Cooper found “other settings –– mostly in saltwater –– where fly fishing out-fished other methods. … So, for many years, fly fishing was a practical means to catch fish and nothing more than that.”
A conventional fisherman casts bait or a weighted lure tied to a thin monofilament line. The rod flings the weight at the end of that line, towing the monofilament with it. The fly angler, on the other hand, casts mostly very lightweight flies by coercing the fly line into motion. In obverse, then, the fly comes along for the ride when the line is given energy and speed by the rod.
For Glen Cormier of Baton Rouge, it is “the ultimate light-tackle experience. It requires some level of skill to cast a fly rod and extra skills if you get involved in the crafts of our sport. It’s trite, but it’s true: There is no greater fulfillment than catching a fish on a rod that you built and a fly that you tied.”
Cormier is the owner of Louisiana Fly Fishing, a Web-based clearinghouse for every aspect of fly fishing in the state, including a half-dozen clubs whose members meet regularly to sponsor conclaves to participate in fly tying, fly fishing and casting demonstrations; hear lectures from experts in the sport; or just gather to tell fish stories.
Cormier says Louisiana’s fly-rodders are mostly white males, primarily 55 and older or 30 and younger. “Although modern fly fishing was conceived by a woman –– Juliana Berners in 1692 –– there isn’t strong female participation here,” he says. “However, in some states, such as Georgia, there are as many women as men who fly fish. Another oddity is that our sport has never caught on among African-Americans yet is growing by leaps and bounds among Hispanics and Asian-Americans.”
Some conventional fishermen buy a fly rod to jig for sac-a-lait with minnows without actually casting the rod and line. Lake Charles angler Tom Nixon was among the first to take the fly rod from the trout streams to the Bayou Country. His Fly Tying and Fly Fishing for Bass and Panfish, first published in 1968, includes such bass flies as the Calcasieu Pig Boat, which he devised in 1951 and named after a beloved river. Nixon became a national celebrity in the warm-water fly fishing community and a familiar face at conclaves and seminars before his death in 2003.
“A pioneer to me isn’t just someone who created flies or innovated a technique or established a method for catching certain fish,” Cormier says. “Most importantly, they promoted and taught others about the sport we love. Tom Nixon, Pete Cooper, Tony Accardo and Jeff Guerin were the influences that transformed me back in the ‘80s from a young sometimes-clueless fly-rodder to someone who, with a fly rod in hand, was a threat to all fish species.”
Recognizing the diversity of Louisiana’s species and environs led those early fly-anglers to adapt and find ways of catching fish on tackle once found only far north. “We have many types of water, a wide variety of game fish and lots of them, decently clear water in many locales and an abundance of various food items for fish to feed on –– nearly all of which can be imitated with flies,” Cormier says. “Some Saturdays, I have a tough decision as to where to go and what to fish for; there are so many good choices.”
He says the only area in which Louisiana lags behind other states is public access, which he would like to see increased.
The fly fishermen in Louisiana, however, still have many fishing opportunities to choose from. There are feisty spotted bass in the Louisiana Scenic Rivers System flowing over white sand and sometimes sandstone. The vast expanses of the Atchafalaya Basin offer fantastic largemouth, sac-a-lait and bluegill action, and the marshes and bays along the coast are home to many species of game fish that will readily take a fly.
The rods are most often graphite and typically 8 to 9 feet long; the flies can be feather, fur, cork, balsa, tinsel, wire or just about any material the tier can get his or her hands on. Many tie their own flies, a practical approach to obtaining tackle that has resulted in imitations of natural fish forage that border on art in their complexity and beauty. They can range from scarcely larger than the head of a match to hand-long concoctions for raising saltwater fish. Some fish Louisiana’s marshes in kayaks in what has been dubbed a “Cajun sleigh ride.”
The angler can be as technical or casual as he wishes; he may concern himself with the measurements and jargon or simply learn to cast a fly and catch fish. Fly fishermen will nearly come to blows over which 5-weight fly line is best but happily let a fellow angler they wouldn’t trust around their wives cast their favorite rod.
Like all fishermen, they tell tall stories and hold jealous secrets.
Considered “the contemplative sport,” fly fishing is often described as relaxing, deeply methodical and downright spiritual. Norman Maclean’s claim in A River Runs Through It that “in our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” rings true to generations of fly fishers, whether casting dainty caddis imitations or large saltwater flies.
Already recognized as a destination for inland and offshore fishing, Louisiana is quickly garnering a reputation for premier redfish and speckled trout fly fishing.
Contrary to popular belief, fly fishing can mean big fish. Cooper and Cormier hold multiple top-tier state records in both saltwater and freshwater fly fishing divisions, including Cooper’s 36-pound redfish and king mackerel of the same size, and Cormier’s nearly pound-and-a-half black crappie. His son, Kevin, beat Dad at an even pound-and-a-half in that category.
Often the lure of fly fishing sends Louisiana anglers on journeys conjured by the sorcerer’s wand with which they fish. Cormier listened to his grandfather’s stories of cold-water fly fishing, and the passion was planted early: “My maternal grandfather fly fished and tied flies. After his retirement, he joined up with a couple of buddies from Jeanerette, and they’d drive to places like Wyoming and South Florida. He’d come back with photos and stories that captivated me, and I knew this is what I wanted to do when I grew up. I’ve been blessed to have gone those same places many times with my own kids, all of whom love to fly fish.”
To some, the ultimate expression of traditionalism in fly fishing is a bamboo fly rod. The only form of fly rod available until the 1950s, these exquisitely crafted fishing instruments are made of a solitary variety of cane that grows only in China. The bamboo is split, planed into equilateral triangles, tapered and glued back together into a hexagonal rod with what bamboo enthusiasts says is a textile and organic feel no graphite rod can duplicate. Harry Boyd of Winnsboro is a nationally recognized bamboo rod-maker, and Doug Blair of Lafayette is also making rods and garnering a reputation of his own.
The sport continues to attract new apprentices. Cormier’s LaFlyFish.com and WarmFly.com, owned by Larry Offner of Denham Springs, have become focal points of news, instruction and bragging rights for Louisiana fly-anglers. Ron Begnaud of Lake Charles also operates RedChaser.com, catering to the saltwater fly-anglers of the southwest part of the state.
“The future’s so bright I have to wear shades,” Cormier says. “We now have a considerable number of retail outlets carrying products. One key to growing the sport is exposure to the equipment. Another is education. Many of these retailers –– Bass Pro, Cabelas, Orvis, Uptown Angler and others –– hold classes or promote local clubs and events that help their customers learn the sport. I mentioned there’s a large and growing demographic of fly-rodders 30 and under in this state. Part of that is associated with the kayak fishing craze. When you’re fishing in 12 inches of water –– or less –– you need a cast that can be redirected instantly and a lure that casts quietly and swims shallow. Fly-casting and flies are the solution. Many young ‘yakkers’ are making that connection and choosing fly tackle.”
Cooper echoes this sentiment: “Louisiana’s fly fishing opportunities are both numerous and varied. Besides lakes and bayous of all sizes scattered across the state that offer largemouth bass, warmouths (goggle-eyes), bluegills and crappie, among others, a number of clear, hard-bottomed and often wade-able creeks are present in the state’s ‘high-country’ and host populations of spotted bass. Many of these streams are listed in the state’s Scenic Rivers System and are quite pristine as well as productive.
“For anglers with a more salty appetite, the coastal marshes are full of fly-appreciating red drum, spotted sea trout and flounder, and many areas that hold these fish are accessible by paddle-craft. Finally, offshore waters hold such beasts as king mackerel, cobia and blackfin and yellowfin tuna that are taken on flies more than occasionally. That opportunity, though, is best experienced with a guide. Simply put, if you want to fly fish, then Louisiana has enough opportunities to satisfy most everyone.”
Louisiana’s fly-anglers probe the surface and depths of swamp and bayou, marsh and bay, stream and river with long rods and imaginative flies. Whether aboard boat or paddle craft, from a grassy pond bank or, as author John Gierach chided, “standing in a river waving a stick,” fly fishing has crossed the geography of the frigid North to find a welcome home in the Sportsman’s Paradise.