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Earlier this month I had an opportunity to get back out in the still-new-to-me kayak, the Crescent Crew, and settled on fishing down around Shell Beach, over in St. Bernard Parish. The wind forecast on the eastern side of the state looked a little more favorable than that of the central coast, which drove my decision to fish over there. I made it out after sunrise and paddled my way toward some familiar marsh. The water clarity was a little stained in some areas, but crystal clear over the thickly vegetated ponds. I started with one of the bigger Ron Braud stippled poppers I won last year, working it at the usual fishy looking spots – points, cuts, intersections, potholes, and the like. I caught a few cookie cutter 10-12″ largemouth bass and then decided I would start looking for redfish.

The white flowers of the arrowhead were blooming in the marsh, interrupting the sea of green of the Spartina grass. It was pretty cool to see so I stopped to snap a pic of one to help me figure out what plant was actually blooming; that’s when I realized that if I was taking pictures of flowers in the marsh than the fishing was pretty darn slow. Five hours passed, nearly the entire morning, before I caught my next fish. I caught those three bass pretty early and then had very few opportunities at redfish after that. Those opportunities I did get were all botched. Either I messed up the cast, saw the fish late and he spooked, or it just wasn’t a great situation to get a good cast off, nothing went right in that time. I did eventually put it all together and ended up catching three reds on back-to-back-to-back chances.

Those three fish all came after I tied on a new fly. I tried my darnedest to catch a fish on the awful Clouser minnow I tied at the first Flies & Flights, but it was honestly off-putting and scaring them away. I switched to a fly that David Rodgers gave me and it was just what I needed to be throwing. The flash tied in made the fly glow in the water and the slow sink rate was perfect for these grassy ponds. I took the pic above just to give anyone reading an idea of what the water looked like. The 30″ red was big fish on the day and he was one of the smartest fish I’ve ever caught. It was a hell of a fight on my 7wt! He would bulldog himself deep in the grass, I’d then have to paddle over to him and negotiate my rod trying to free him without coming up with pounds of matted grass on the leader, then when I’d get him out, he’d do all over again a little further away. It was a forearm workout for sure. I was thankful that my knot and my tippet held and I had something to post up for the fly rod category of the BCKFC Massey’s Fish Pics tourney. I failed to catch anything else after the stroke of genius I had catching those three redfish in a row. I didn’t stay out long after that, but there were more opportunities that were blown. I slowly made my way back to the launch content to call it a day.

A few observations I had on the day:

  • Gar were all over the place and the spawn was on for some of them. There were mostly spotted gar, but there were a few big alligator gar out there as well. I didn’t fool with them too much, but that’s as good a place as any to target gar.
  • I still need to figure out a better way to sight fish from the Crew. My paddle clip belt has worn itself out to the point where the paddle falls out unless it’s perfectly situated. As soon as the paddle falls out it makes a loud bang on the deck and you may as well be playing death metal underwater when that happens. Nothing will eat at that point. It seems like a long way down to drop a paddle and that deck is loud.
  • Speaking of long way down, I need to shorten the distance between the fly rod and myself while standing. In most of my Jacksons, I don’t remember that ever being an issue, but in the Crew it just seems so far away. The seat riser helps, but I’ve got to figure out how to raise up my rod without impeding my paddle stroke.

I’ve got a fix on the way, or at least ideas, for both of those situations, so hopefully I can hammer it down and be totally comfortable sight fishing out of this boat. I like it, it paddles great, but it needs a little help to turn it into a fishing machine.

I recently revisited that old brownline from last year to see how the fish were doing. As Spring progresses into Summer there are still a few local species I can add to my catch list for the 2022 edition of the Red Stick Fly Fishers Jambalaya Challenge, and I was hoping to do that here.

The water in the ditch was low and clear and made for some exciting and challenging sight fishing. We’ve had drastically less rainfall this year when compared with last. We had the wettest year I’ve ever seen in Baton Rouge last year, but this Spring we’ve been dealing it’s been a mild drought. A mild drought here just means more of these ditches are fishable as the water isn’t super dirty from runoff, so in terms of my local fishing a drought is not the worst thing.

When I walked up to the first “hole” I could see the male sunfish actively protecting their beds. You could see the blues, greens, reds, and orange flanks of sunfish flash through the water as they swam in circles around their nest. These fish will do this all summer as they spawn multiple times in a year. Here in south Louisiana we have a much longer spawning season than locations to the north, so you may see male fish on their bed from March through September, depending on the species of sunfish. I’ve noticed they don’t all spawn at the time. As they are doing this the bass are not far away. They patrol the periphery and show up when they see an opportunity to prey on a weakened fish. The bass have already spawned this Spring, so they’re ready to eat. I targeted the bass first, catching a few small ones, but really today was a sunfish-fest. They are so aggressive this time of year it’s hard keeping them off the hook.

Largemouth bass
Redspotted sunfish
Bluegill

When I call it a sunfish-fest, it was really the longear sunfish-fest. They were the stars of the show today and I love them for it. They are arguably the most attractive fish in any body of water at any time, but right now, in full spawning regalia, they really are putting on a show. Their variability, even within the same stretch of stream, is impressive. Some are more blue or turquoise while others have more reds and oranges. The size of their opercle is never consistent; on some fish they are quite large, and others they are not. The forehead too. They don’t have a massive cranium like a Rio Grande cichlid, but they can develop a case of fivehead and make for interesting looking fish. I sometimes catch longear, especially the larger ones, with long black tendril-like tips on their pelvic fins. There is just so much to look at on a longear and I think it’s cool how no two look the same.

I was having a great time catching longear and seeing how different they were from fish to fish, but I had yet to catch a species I had not logged this year to up my Jambalaya challenge tally. I made it to a bit bigger “hole” where I found a few spotted gar. They looked like they were busy doing the spawning thing too and really weren’t interested in flies. Soon after I found one tucked up next to the bank I was standing on and ran a blind Clouser minnow (a poorly tied Clouser that lost his lead eyes) and had a strike and a hookup. I quickly muscled him onto the bank where the fly broke off and the fish began to flop. I took a quick pic and got him back in the water. Not ideal, but like Charlie Kelly, gar are wildcards.

Note: I wrote this piece late last year and held onto it, foolishly thinking someone else may want to publish it. I don’t think that’s happening so now is a great time to let it loose.

I really enjoy the time that I spend fishing upland streams, far from my home, where the water is clean, clear, and filled with life. I often seek out creeks that are off the beaten path, sometimes deep in the woods; places that give you a feeling that perhaps you’re the first person to fish here, maybe not ever, but in a very long time. Those are special places to me.

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The places I have locally are not those types of places. Sure, there are creeks that are an hour or more away that may fit the bill and illicit those same feelings, but the ones I’m referring to as local, those within a few miles or minutes of my house, are a far cry from what I would consider the ideal stream for an immersive fly fishing experience.

These are drainage ditches. Brownlines to me because that’s often what they look like. The quality of the water is probably closer to that of a sewer line than an upland stream. They are not places you would want to step in if you had an open wound and you certainly don’t want to wet your line with your mouth when tying on a new fly. Sure they are little blue lines on a map, but these streams and bayous have been altered by man, with no thought given to what lives in and around the water. Their design is one of purpose and function and not one of form. They carry water away from metropolitan areas and take it somewhere out of sight and out of mind for the majority of the population. They make the news when the rain falls too hard for too long and suddenly these streams end up in your backyard and people remember they are there. When they are tame they are forgotten places. The trash that lines their banks tells that story. These are places very few people care about and for the longest time I was one of those people.

I ignored fishing these places because frankly there wasn’t much of an appeal. I had time to travel a little further and fish somewhere more “worthy of my presence”. Life has a funny way of changing things though and as my family has grown, time has gotten tighter, and over the past few years I’ve been forced to fish closer to home. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the brownlines. There is beauty in them if you’re willing to overlook the ugly on the surface. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there for people too.

I’ve discovered a handful of places around town over the past few years that have become some of my go-to spots now, mainly in the interest of time, but also because they’ve proven themselves to be productive little fisheries. These are ditches where you can walk the banks, not feel like you’re right in someone’s yard, and not sink in soupy mud. Creeks where the water actually has a decent amount of visibility to it. There aren’t many places around here like that and I continue to search for ones that stand out.

Back in August I finally made time one Friday afternoon for a ditch that I drive over and always take an extra long look as I pass.

I’m glad I made the time too because it ended up being loaded with some of my favorite sunfish, longear, and they were in full spawning regalia.

I was able to fool a couple largemouth hanging around, but passed on the chance to fight a big spotted gar on light tackle.

It was a good enough time that I made it back out there the next Friday to walk the banks in the other direction. The little largemouth were still very active, but I ran into some other usual ditch denizens as well.

Green sunfish

With four bridges on this ditch in less than a creek mile there’s no mistaking this for one of those upland streams I love to fish. The constant hum of traffic and the trash lined banks made that very clear. With the pictures though I do hope to convey that despite their surface appearance these ditches do have life in them and the greenspace they provide to wildlife is important in our urban/suburban environment. Someone needs to show love for these places and the fish that call them home.

Redspotted sunfish

I ended the day with a nice little mixed bag and a new appreciation for a ditch around the corner from my house.

While walking the bank back to the truck I thought about how nice it would be if my fellow Baton Rouge residents actually cared about their waterways and the floodplains they run through. If parks were developed with sidewalks and paths that ran along the stream to provide access and recreational opportunity. It would be a resource for the public. It would also make them suddenly visible for all to see. Then maybe the litter problem would be forced into their consciousness when they realize they don’t want their greenspaces to look like a landfill, which is often the experience when you spend time on the drainage ditches that run through our city. I see the potential to turn these ditches from brownlines into bluelines, I just wish others did as well.