Cover Photo: Larry Lovell of Peter A. Mayer Advertising and Public Relations holds a baby alligator at Greenwood Gator Farm.
By Dan Kidder
Louisiana. The name conjures images of Spanish moss covered cypress, meandering bayous, great Cajun cuisine, warm lazy days of drifting the brackish waters in a canoe, and angling for deep sea fish. On a recent trip to the Cajun Coast of Louisiana, the Sportsman’s News crew experienced all of that and much more.
The Cajun Coast encompasses the southern region of the state and includes Terrebonne, St. Mary’s, and Lafourche parishes along the Atchafalaya basin. This rural haven sits atop the thousands of acres of silt deposited by the Mississippi River and contains tens of thousands of square miles of bayous and swamps.
Hunting and fishing is so much a way of life for the people of Louisiana that their state motto is “Sportsman’s Paradise.” Anyone who has seen an episode of Swamp People knows that gators are a major species for hunters, but they are far from the only game to be found. Those who have done it will tell you that until you have chased a whitetail through a swamp, you haven’t really been deer hunting.
In addition to a variety of big game including wild boars, the swamps and bayous are home to a wide variety of waterfowl and migratory birds, as well as small game animals. Hunters also take to field in search of Eastern wild turkey.
When not engaged in the pursuit of game, the food is some of the best you will find in the world. As an avid foody, Cajun cuisine tops my list for enjoyment. In Southern Louisiana, great restaurants abound offering the gamut of dining from simple donuts or beignets, to fresh seafood and shellfish. On this trip Sportsman’s News CEO Michael Deming and I availed ourselves of pounds of boiled crawfish on multiple occasions. A real diamond among gems was JoJo’s Café in Morgan City. Nestled along the banks of the Atchafalaya River, JoJo’s offers the best fusion of Italian cuisine with splashes of Cajun influence. We ate so well on this excursion that I gained 12 pounds and Deming lied and claimed he only gained five.
Even for those not inclined to hunting and fishing, the Thibodaux region offers outings the entire family will enjoy. On our first full day, we paddled down the Yellow Bayou as part of a tour of the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge. This 9,028 acre wildlife sanctuary is home of the protected Louisiana black bear, an endangered subspecies. While the season was a bit early for gators, signs that they were abundant in the area where noticeable and our keen eyes were peeled for any logs that might be moving with more than just the gentle current.
Paddling along the lazy canals amid the tall bent cypress, it is easy to forget about the busy world outside of the refuge. The prehistoric setting of the swamp, the gentle sway of the canoe, and the abundant wildlife all help to draw the visitor into the eerie beauty of the marsh life. Even here, we saw fishermen trolling for catfish and other freshwater species. One good old boy turned his motor boat around when he saw our video camera to hold up a large fish while shouting “I want to be on television,” as his boat careened on down the canal without a pilot.
After working up an appetite, we hit the clubhouse at the public Atchafalaya at Idlewild Golf Course in Patterson. This beautiful 18-hole course is open to the public, has reasonable greens fees, and out of bounds is really out of bounds as the course is surrounded by reptile-filled swampland. White terns and pelicans dot the course, and the gentle breeze sweeps across the finely manicured greens.
Inside the clubhouse, diners are met with a variety of fried Creole delights that please the palette as well as the nose.
From the clubhouse, we took an interesting side trip into a piece of the region’s past. Combined together in one building is the Wedell-Williams Aviation Museum and the Cypress Sawmill Industry Museum. Both were a fascinating look into two aspects that made the area famous. In the early days of aviation, Jimmie Wedell and Harry Williams were breaking speed records and creating innovations in aircraft design that are still used today. Several of their planes, as well as reproductions of their aircraft can be visited at the Louisiana State Museum at Patterson. The other side of the building houses a great display of artifacts from the hay days of the Louisiana cypress industry.
From St. Mary’s Parish we headed to Terrebonne Parish where we ate every last boiled crawfish Big Al had in his restaurant. Once we cleaned out the rest of the crawfish, we started on crabs, alligator tail, and the best charbroiled oysters I have ever tasted.
The next morning, after a quick bite to eat at a local donut shop, we were back on the road for a trip to the Mandalay Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This 4,416 acre refuge is both freshwater marsh and cypress-tupelo swamp. It is home to a wide variety of exotic birds and waterfowl. It is open to hunting, both archery deer and hog, as well as waterfowl during hunting seasons. A 45-minute hike along the nature trail provides three different habitats, but the remainder of the refuge is only accessible by boat.
From the refuge we headed to a local lunch spot, Bayou Delight Restaurant, where we chomped down on boudin bites, a deep fried sausage and rice ball. Missing great fried chicken, I overdid it and ordered a three-piece meal. I am not sure what they feed their chickens, but they were three of the largest pieces of chicken I have seen and I couldn’t finish it all. While we waited for our main course to arrive I noticed large signs around the outdoor dining area warning guests not to feed the gators in the bayou; a reminder that man and beast have come to a tenuous coexistence in this part of America.
We got to see this symbiotic relationship up close on our next visit. Tim Domangue’s Greenwood Gator Farm houses and hatches between 5,000 and 10,000 alligators each year. During alligator season, Tim and his sidekick slash tour guide Tracy Ellender or “Gator Girl” as she is known, will work with more than 40 others to skin and process the alligator hides for tanning and sale. During the laying season, Domangue and his crew visit the swamp by airboat in search of gator eggs, they then bring back to the farm and hatch. During a tour of the farm, we were able to catch baby gators, and also view more mature specimens that leapt half their length in the air to snap chunks of chicken held over their pens. While a great place to take the kids, I was as enthralled as any 10 year old as I taped the mouth of a Jurassic reptile.
As we moved closer to the area directly impacted by the BP oil spill, you could sense a greater distrust of outsiders. Our previous visits had all of the old southern charm and hospitality one comes to expect of Louisiana people. In Lafourche Parish, the Joie de Vivre was lacking, in part because the memory of so many media types overblowing the damage to the local area had left a lingering distrust of the press among those who work and live there. Most of the residents of Lafourche work in the seafood or oil industries, both of which have been directly impacted in a negative way by the BP disaster. Tourism, once a mainstay of the economy, has all but dried up since the spill. Additionally, a moratorium on drilling by the Obama administration left many oil workers without jobs. Once the moratorium was lifted, the administration refused to issue new permits, which had the same effect on the local economy as if the moratorium were still in place. One local in Golden Meadow told me that the biggest harm to the local economy was not caused by BP but by the government’s handling of the disaster.
Despite the less than warm reception by some of the locals in Lafourche, we enjoyed our time there and were ready to see the waters in question for ourselves.
The fishing in this region is some of the best in the world. On our trip into the Gulf of Mexico with Cajun Made Charters, we were hooking into drum, rays, and channel catfish with regularity. Deming was on a roll with his lucky Mardis Gras hat of gold, purple, and green sequins, at one point going eight fish for eight casts. Although the balmy 80-degree weather was a blessing after leaving the eight-degree snow of Utah, the wind was up and we were confined to the inner harbors of Barataria Bay. In the deep blue waters of the gulf, Cajun Made Charters routinely offers trips for tuna, marlin, wahoo, dorado, shark, cobia/lemonfish, tarpon, amberjack, mangrove, red snapper, trigger fish, grouper, trout, redfish or king mackerel.
While signs of oil spill recovery workers abounded at dockside, not a glimmer or smudge of oil appeared to mar the surface of the waters or ink the shorelines of this fishing haven. According to the locals, what oil was evident has dissipated, and the worst of the economic tragedy is that people think their area is ruined and stay away. For those who know better, this has made the fishing even hotter, as pressure on the fish has declined.
With warm weather during the winter months, those in less temperate climes can take a much needed midwinter respite and enjoy the hospitality and warmth that is so abundant in this part of the country.
Our trip was part of an economic recovery effort by the Louisiana Tourism Coastal Commission and included help from some wonderful people who showed us around their great state. Larry Lovell, of Peter A. Mayer Advertising, was our host, tour guide, driver, and compadre on the trip. Carrie Stansbury, Executive Director of the Cajun Coast CVB and Kelly Gustafson of the Terrebonne Parish CVB both took the time to personally accompany us on our outings and extended a warmth and friendship that goes beyond typical Southern hospitality. Capt. Chad Reinhardt was awesome and patient at putting us on fish and Cajun Charters owner Chad Moran was a wealth of information on recent events in Lafourche Parish.
If you have never been to Louisiana, or are an old hat at touring Cajun country, there is something for everyone to enjoy. Rather than spending time in the same old duck blind you have visited every year, take the whole family and create a lasting memory that will endure in one of the most happening places in America. And, while you are there, get a great bag of teals. ‘Cause if you don’t the gator gonna getcha, I garontee.
Cajun Coast Convention and Visitors Center: www.cajuncoast.com
Houma Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (Terrebonne Parish): www.houmatravel.com
Lafourche Parish Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.visitlafourche.com
Louisiana Tourism Coastal Coalition: www.visitlouisianacoast.com