By Todd Masson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune on September 17, 2014 at 11:24 AM, updated September 17, 2014 at 11:29 AM
Capt. Dudley Vandenborre is the E.F. Hutton of South Louisiana. When he talks, anglers listen.
A standing-room-only crowd gave their full attention Tuesday night to the Jedi Knight of Lake Pontchartrain speckled trout fishing during a seminar hosted by the Coastal Conservation Association at the Tchefuncta Country Club in Covington.
Vandenborre’s talk was part venting, part instruction, part pontification, but 100-percent thought-provoking. The engaged attendees heard him rail against BP, expound on this year’s slow fishing, point out the bright spots and even give an innovative and delicious-sounding recipe.
Below are some of the highlights.
On this year’s slow speckled trout fishing: “There definitely is a short supply of speckled trout in Lake Pontchartrain. Everybody’s got opinions about why we don’t have any fish, but it’s not just us. It’s from the (Louisiana/Mississippi) state line all the way over to Vermilion Bay; it’s been down historically this year.
“Three years ago, I said, ‘It can’t get any worse than this.’ Last year, I said, ‘It can’t get any worse than this.’ This year, I’m not saying it. Each year, it’s gotten worse than the previous year.
“My son’s a commercial fisherman, and you will see a comparison between what he’s catching and what we’re catching. If I go out and catch a bunch of trout and he crabs the same day, he’ll smoke the crabs. He’ll come in and say, ‘I had 1,500 pounds,’ and we will have limited out on trout.
“Now, a good day is 300 or 400 pounds of crabs.”
On the extensive nature of the tough catches: “I fish Venice a lot, and I fish with a fellow named Ed Sexton, who’s one of the best trout fishermen out there. In the past, we’d go fishing out of Main Pass, and we’d fish some of the rigs out there. We’d go fishing about 5 o’clock in the morning, and by 6:15 a.m., I’d have to tell him, ‘Everything we keep has to be bigger than what we’ve already got in the boat’ because we were fishing tournaments.
“All day long, we’d be throwing 5- and 6-pound (speckled trout) back. Ed would keep track, and there were days we’d catch over 300 trout. We’d have 65 redfish and two or three lemonfish. The last couple years, we’d fish for three days and catch maybe 25 one year, 16 another year. So that tells you how much they’re down.
“You hear guides in Venice say they’re catching all these fish. Well, they have to say that so people keep coming. If they’re honest, they’re running all the way out to the Chandeleur Islands to catch those fish. In previous years, they would have gone to the Main Pass rigs, or they would have gone down to South Pass and fished by the Coast Guard cut. The fish just aren’t there anymore.
“The guides are running farther out to catch fish. Now, they say they’re having great years. I don’t know what they were catching before that.”
On fresh water being the cause of slow fishing in Lake Pontchartrain: “I’ve fished Lake Pontchartrain for 55 years. Whenever we had a spillway opening, after they shut it, the fish would be at that 5 or 6 parts per thousand (salinity) line coming back in.
“Before the (Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet) came through, at Unknown Pass, we’d catch 5- and 6-pound trout. Yeah, the MRGO changed the route of them, but I don’t think you can use (the closure of the MRGO) as an excuse. The fresh water isn’t the issue. It’s 15 parts per thousand right now in the Rigolets. The other day I checked, and it was 19 (ppt), so fresh water can’t be the issue.
“When we were catching our biggest trout (in past years), every 10 fish or so was a gaspergou, and they need fresh water. It was 2 parts per thousand some days.”
On what he thinks is the cause of the problem: “I’m not a conspiracy guy, but I think that BP spill and the sinking of the oil hurt those fish more than most people think. I think we lost several generations of fish. We aren’t catching 3- and 4-pound (speckled trout) anymore. Because of the salinity level where I fish, most of those fish aren’t born there. Most come in with the shrimp and crabs or whatever it is they’re feeding on.
“There are generations of fish that are completely missing out of the stock. This is the first year I only had 70 fish over 4 pounds. I’ve never seen that size fish completely missing out of the equation. We’ve got lots of little and undersized fish, but where are those bigger fish? Nobody can come up with an answer.
“That’s a bread-and-butter fish for us — that 2 1/2- to 4 1/2-pound fish. We get only two runs of them a year now — May and October. We’ll catch them next month, and there will be some people who say, ‘Oh, the fish are coming back.’ But what you’re catching is all that’s there.
“I can remember when nobody fished out there sitting at the Twin Spans in January. Me and my dad would both have 5-pound trout on our lines, and we could see the boats passing by on top the bridge. I’d look at my dad and say, ‘Where are they going? Where could it be any better than this?’
“When we would go out fishing and catch a hundred (speckled trout), when we would come back in, my customers would call their friends and say, ‘You’re not going to believe this. We caught a hundred 5-pound fish.’ Then they’d strawberry the box. They’d put all the little ones on the bottom and the big ones on top. Those fish are not there anymore.”
On limited seasons of plenty in Lake Pontchartrain: “In May, I had a stretch of about 15 days that were good. I went one week and caught a hundred every day. The next week, I had a hundred on Monday, a hundred on Tuesday, a hundred on Wednesday, 60 on Thursday, 30 on Friday, three on Saturday and never saw those fish again.
“We’re going to have a run in October. It’ll be a decent run, and everybody will be saying it’s back. People used to come back to the lake in October because it was the World Series run. They’d fish October, November and December, and then they’d come back for April, May and June. Then the fish would move off.
“What has happened is those windows are getting smaller every year. Now, you get two or three weeks instead of two or three months on each end.”
On redfish in Lake Pontchartrain: “One thing that’s up is redfish. We’ve lived on redfish all year. A typical catch for me now is 20 or 30 trout, a limit of redfish, eight or 10 drum, five or six sheepshead and a few flounder.
“My son was telling me, ‘Dad, when I put my drum lines out, you wouldn’t believe how many redfish I catch. Sometimes I get 500 in a day.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ One day, I decided to take a hundred tags. On the first one-mile line that we ran, we tagged a hundred redfish. A lot of the ones we caught I couldn’t tag because I was already tagging one when he pulled another in. He’d just let it go. That’s how many reds are in the lake right now.
“For years, I didn’t think redfish were in open water, but he puts his lines out in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain, where you’d never think a redfish would be — about 10 miles off the shoreline. You’d think they’d all be bulls, but one will be 18 inches and the next one on the line will be 31 inches.”
On potential harm all those redfish might cause to speckled-trout stocks: “They compete for food, but I think the trout are faster. When we’re fishing in the Rigolets and those trout are in there, those bigger reds will bully the trout out of there. You’ll be catching trout, and all of a sudden, the reds come in and the trout leave. A big trout will stay in and fight with the reds. At the Main Pass rigs, you’ll catch a lot of bull reds. You might catch six or seven (bull reds), and then your next cast you catch an 8-pound trout. He’s faster than the redfish.
“A lot of times when reds are in open water making that mud stir up, the trout will be on the outside of them. The redfish will kick up shrimp or crabs, and the trout will swoop in and eat them. The trout are fast.”
On what to do with all those redfish once you get them home: “Fillet the redfish, and cut all the red out of the fillet. Boil the fillet in Louisiana Creole seasoning; the bigger fillets work better. The secret to it is you don’t want to overboil them. As soon as the fish flakes, you cut off the fire and take them out. My wife will mix it with onions, shallots, bread crumbs and egg, and make patties out of it. She’ll then dredge the patties in Italian bread crumbs and sauté it in olive oil. It’s incredibly good.”
On flounder in Lake Pontchartrain: “There’s going to be a big run of flounder this year. My son is getting about three-quarters of a basket every day in his crab traps.”
Todd Masson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.232.3054.