Take it Outside

Springtime in Louisiana means it’s time to get out and explore.

Rightfully dubbed the Sportsman’s Paradise, Louisiana offers abundant outdoor recreational opportunities, including bird-watching, camping, biking, horseback-riding, hiking, canoeing, boating and unparalleled fishing adventures in both freshwater and saltwater for many species all year long.

Across Louisiana, more than a million acres in wildlife management areas, or WMAs; 500,000 acres of national wildlife refuges, or NWRs; and 22 state parks preserve diverse habitat ranging from salt marshes to upland hills traversed by tiny streams. These public lands offer people unlimited recreational opportunities.

Most activities outside revolve around water in some capacity, either on it or next to it – with good reason! Louisiana contains about 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the United States. Nearly 5,000 miles of navigable rivers, bayous and creeks plus more than 11,000 miles of canals crisscross the aptly nicknamed Bayou State. This doesn’t include countless unnamed tiny streams that feed a vibrant ecosystem.

The granddaddy of them all, the Mississippi River changed course at least five times in the past 5,000 years. These course changes created many of the lakes and bayous of southeastern Louisiana. At the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve Visitor Center south of Marrero, exhibits explain how the Mississippi River built the wetlands of South Louisiana over millennia and detail the rich flora and fauna of the region.

Streaming down from the Great Plains, the Red River slashes through about 250 miles of Louisiana from Shreveport to Simmesport. It joins the Mississippi through a series of water control structures in Avoyelles Parish. The Atchafalaya River, which means “long river” in Choctaw, breaks off from the Red River near Simmesport and flows about 140 miles southwest toward Morgan City, taking about 30 percent of the Mississippi River flow with it. The Atchafalaya River creates the largest swamp in North America, a million-acre wilderness in the Cajun Amazonia.

In northeast Louisiana, D’Arbonne Bayou, designated a Louisiana Natural and Scenic River, flows into the Ouachita River. Other major state streams include the Pearl, forming part of the Louisiana-Mississippi line, and the Sabine, which creates part of the Louisiana-Texas line.

Rivers offer excellent places to fish, paddle, cruise or see birds and wildlife. Louisiana regularly attracts more than 450 bird species each year and some occasional visitors. On any given weekend, bird-watchers might spot 50 to 70 different species, possibly more than 100 during peak fall and spring migration periods.

Each winter, the state attracts millions of ducks and geese, but most waterfowl depart by April. However, mottled ducks and colorful wood ducks remain all year long. Depending upon where they go in the state, birders might also see pink roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, pelicans, blue herons, ospreys, great horned owls, sandhill cranes and possibly even rare whooping cranes or red-cockaded woodpeckers among other species.

Larry Reynolds, chief waterfowl biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Baton Rouge, says Louisiana is the most important state for waterfowl in the contiguous U.S. The state, he says, winters half of the ducks in the Mississippi Flyway and provides habitat for many more birds that migrate through.

At the southern terminus of the Mississippi Flyway, the most significant of the four major North American migration routes, the Mississippi and Atchafalaya river deltas offer jumping-off places for numerous birds heading farther south in the fall. Upon their spring return, many birds first stop in southern Louisiana after crossing the Gulf of Mexico. They land and rest at such places as the 115,000-acre Pass-A-Loutre WMA and the 48,800-acre Delta NWR south of Venice or the 137,000-acre Atchafalaya Delta WMA south of Morgan City.

The Wetland Birding Trail includes 264 sites across the state, including spots along the Red River and the Mississippi River. The Zachary Taylor Parkway Birding Trail runs about 150 miles through diverse habitat from central Louisiana into the Florida Parishes north of Lake Pontchartrain, providing 27 bird-watching sites in 10 parishes.

Lake Pontchartrain covers about 628 square miles and connects to the 162,505-acre Lake Borgne through the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes in eastern Orleans Parish. Pontchartrain also connects to 57,900-acre Lake Maurepas through Pass Manchac and North Pass. Several rivers also flow into the 5,000-square-mile Lake Pontchartrain Basin.

With such a tremendous amount of water, these lakes and tributaries offer excellent boating and other recreational opportunities. On any given day, people might spot anything from a kayak to an ocean-going yacht on the lakes. Sailboats roam the lakes on beautiful days. Many people also canoe through adjacent wetlands, which supply some of the best fishing in the world. There is also abundant fishing and crabbing on the seawall bordering the south shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain.

With soaring gasoline prices, paddle-powered crafts provide an inexpensive option. With a canoe, kayak or pirogue, sportsmen can venture into many areas where large boats cannot go. Sometimes, paddlers find virtually undiscovered waters, frequently just a few yards from busy highways. In these hidden waters, big fish may die of old age without ever seeing lures. In addition, paddlers gliding along silently can spot more wildlife walking the banks of these undisturbed streams.

Several public lands bordering the lakes provide outstanding hiking and paddling opportunities. Between Slidell and Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Big Branch Marsh NWR contains 17,367 acres on the transition zone between piney uplands and brackish marshes.

Entirely within the city limits of New Orleans, Bayou Sauvage NWR covers 24,293 acres of fresh and brackish marshes. The largest urban refuge in the nation attracts a huge bird population. Visitors might also see alligators, nutria, deer, otters, mink, raccoons, feral hogs and other animals in this urban wilderness. Sportsmen can paddle or fish the freshwater lagoons, bayous and ponds for largemouth bass, crappie, catfish and bluegills.

The refuge also provides an excellent place to catch crawfish. Place nets baited with some form of meat in likely spots. After letting the nets sit a while, lift the net from the water and dump the succulent crustaceans into a container until ready to boil them. Besides Bayou Sauvage, sportsmen might catch crawfish in the Atchafalaya Basin, Honey Island Swamp near Slidell, the Manchac Swamp near LaPlace and a few other places.

While north of Lake Pontchartrain, bikers may want to challenge the Tammany Trace. Converted from 31 miles of abandoned railroad, this paved ribbon connects five communities in St. Tammany Parish. People who don’t ride bikes may walk the trace, ride a horse or even rollerblade along its length. For more challenging biking, Lincoln Parish Park in Ruston provides a rare opportunity to ride up and down hills. The park even includes a 120-foot downhill ski jump for bikers.

Although many public wilderness areas offer hiking, the Kisatchie National Forest provides the most opportunities. It spreads across 604,000 acres in seven parishes. Named for the Choctaw words “kusha,” meaning “reed” and “hacha,” meaning river, the forest divides into five separate ranger districts with the headquarters at Pineville. Composed mostly of piney hills and hardwood bottoms, the forest provides many activities at more than 40 developed recreation sites.

“The Kisatchie National Forest offers approximately 400 miles of hiking, biking, horseback-riding and motorized trails,” says Amy Robertson, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman. “Kincaid Lake in the Calcasieu Ranger District is a perfect spot for bird-watching. In the spring, the dogwoods and wild azaleas are beautiful along extensive hiking and biking trails. Longleaf Vista in the Kisatchie Ranger District is a lovely spot for picnicking and hiking, as well as viewing breathtaking mesas, buttes and sandstone outcroppings.”

Kisatchie Bayou in the Kisatchie District flows about 20 miles and includes some rocky rapids, quite an usual canoeing experience for a Louisiana stream. Forest visitors might also wish to see the butterfly and hummingbird garden or the Iatt Lake Viewing Area, both in the Catahoula District. Saline Bayou, a National Wild and Scenic River, runs through the Winn District, a great place for paddling and bird-watching. Many people ride the Gum Springs Horse Trail in the Winn District.

“While visiting the Kisatchie, you can stand in one spot and see longleaf pine, carnivorous plants, bog flowers and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers,” says Jim Caldwell, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. “I can’t think of another location which offers the full spectrum from primitive camping along clear running streams to lake sites with full motor home hook-ups, quiet hiking trails to motorized trails, open flower-laden meadows to deep hardwood forests. Kisatchie Bayou is truly an unusual Louisiana experience. The sound of cascading water, rocks and rapids, a canyon with clear water and sand beaches – what an experience! Kincaid Recreation Complex is one of the most beautiful sites I have seen anywhere.”

West of the forest, Hodges Gardens in Sabine Parish contains more than 700 acres of wild and cultivated landscape restored from an old quarry not far from the 186,000-acre Toledo Bend Reservoir. Varieties of roses, azaleas, tulips, dogwoods and other flowers create an incredibly beautiful mosaic amid waterfalls and natural rock formations surrounding a 225-acre fountain-studded lake.

Near Ville Platte, the Louisiana State Arboretum preserves about 300 acres of beech-magnolia forest as a living botanical museum. More than 150 species of native plants grow in this preserve. Adjacent to the arboretum, Chicot State Park offers visitors 6,400 acres of rolling hills blanketed with towering trees that might remind someone of the Tennessee Smoky Mountains or Arkansas Ozarks. A 1,700-acre heavily wooded lake wholly within the park boundaries holds largemouth bass up to 13 pounds.

Lacassine Pool, a 16,000-acre impounded freshwater marsh on Lacassine NWR, also holds many double-digit bass. Primarily a waterfowl sanctuary, the pool is open to fishing from March 15 through Oct. 15. Some sections only allow access by paddle-powered boats. At the 35,000-acre refuge near Lake Arthur, birders might catch a glimpse of roseate spoonbills, specklebelly geese, fulvous and black-bellied whistling ducks, sandhill cranes, ospreys – and perhaps even bald eagles, peregrine falcons and other feathered species.

“It’s amazing how many birds we see on the refuges each winter,” says Diane Borden-Billiot, a Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex spokeswoman. “In the spring, we get lots of birds trickling through from points farther south. By mid-April, we see peak populations of birds passing through on their northward migrations.”

The 180-mile long Creole Nature Trail, designated an All-American Road, links Lacassine, Cameron Prairie and Sabine NWRs in the “Louisiana Outback.” East of Calcasieu Lake, Cameron Prairie covers 9,600 acres, including the Pintail Wildlife Drive. Situated between Calcasieu Lake and the Sabine River south of Lake Charles, Sabine NWR spreads over 124,500 acres of marshes where the Mississippi and Central flyways meet. The largest coastal marsh refuge on the Gulf Coast, Sabine provides critical habitat for more than 300 bird species, 26 mammal species and 132 fish species.

“Cameron Prairie is one of the hot spots for birding,” Borden-Billiot says. “The visitor center has many interactive exhibits and videos. At Sabine, the Wetland Walkway goes through a freshwater environment and the Blue Goose Trail goes through a brackish marsh to Calcasieu Lake.”

Many people crab at Sabine NWR. Bait twine with fish heads or chicken necks, and toss them into the water. As a crab takes the bait, slowly pull the line toward shore, and then scoop up the crustacean with a long-handled net. Crabbing can provide hours of low-cost entertainment for the entire family. Usually, crabs provide enough steady action to keep even the most impatient children interested.

Grand Isle State Park on the only inhabited barrier island in Louisiana also offers good crabbing. Visitors can also swim or wade one of the few Louisiana beaches accessible by car. Grand Isle also serves as a jumping-off place for outstanding saltwater fishing. In adjacent waters, anglers catch redfish, flounder, speckled trout, king mackerel, cobia and many other species. Farther offshore, anglers tempt blue marlin, wahoo and sailfish.

Whether fishing, hiking, camping, biking, swimming, paddling or pursuing other activities, Louisiana sportsmen don’t need to travel far to find something to do. This spring, get out to see what the Sportsman’s Paradise can offer you!