I‘m stretching the definition of “famous” here a lil bit. But people seem really impressed when I tell them I sometimes fish with Tulane University historical geographer, Richard Campanella, “famous” for his comprehensive books and NOLA.com articles about New Orleans. It says something good about this city that we celebrate Richard like we would a musician. The giant, sex-themed Mardi Gras krewe, Krewe Du Vieux, made Richard their grand marshal in 2018, and based their parade’s theme (“Bienville’s Wet Dream”) on one of Richard’s books (Bienville’s Dilemma). Having a Mardi Gras parade dedicated to you and your books while you are still alive and young — that’s about as famous as you can get, round these parts.
Richard and I met after he criticized one of my books in one of his books (He wrote that my Underground Guide [LSU Press] omitted Bourbon St. because it lacks hipness. That statement is officially the only time I’ve ever heard Richard Campanella be incorrect about anything. For the record, I love Bourbon St., maybe more than the average local in fact, but my book omits anything that tourists already know about, or anything that will be aggressively pushed on them). Either way, twas an honor to find my way onto Richard’s radar, and so I invited him out fishing on my boat. The handful of times we’ve hung out were all on the water. Wherever we go, he tells me something I didn’t know about a place where I’ve spent a lot of time. He always adds another layer.
This was especially true when I took him to Shell Beach, and recorded an episode of a fishing show for radio station WHIV in 2018. The following is a transcript of that day, with my narration:
The first thing I ever did with my new boat, was drive it to the very tip of St. Bernard Parish, to Shell Beach, LA on the southern shore of Lake Borgne. [music] There’s no real beach at Shell Beach. Well, technically there is but…it’s more of a beach for fish…we’ll explain later… Today I’m fishing with my musician buddy Todd Voltz who is recording us, and our special guest, Richard Campanella.
RC: I’m ahistorical geographer at Tulane University.
MPW: Have you ever caught a fish?
Shell Beach is about an hour or so east of New Orleans. We pulled the boat out there together in the dark at 5:30 after purchasing three cups of coffee and a bag of ice from Brothers food mart.
RC: We should take St. Bernard instead of Judge Perez; this the more historical route… All roads lead to Rome here… You’re going through interesting scenic river road instead of a 1970s suburb. If this were Perez we’d be driving through K-Marts…
Fishing is all about talking. If you don’t catch anything, you’ll at least have great, expansive conversations. Just on the ride out to Shell Beach we discussed in detail freshwater intrusion, Dockville Farm and Mirot Foundation Tower, and the new plans for a beach in the city of New Orleans proper…
RC: Pontchartrain Beach opened in 1930, and the amusement park closed in 1983, making the beach completely off limits. for a whole generation of New Orleans. When the new version opens, it will be a hit from opening day, as long as fecal tests are favorable. The sheer novelty of being able to take a bus to a beach or bike to a beach, and would really diversify the range of things you can do with a family.
The farther we drive east from New Orleans, the roads shrink down to thin strips of tar with water on either side. These same precarious roads begin winding even more precariously through docks alive with commercial fishermen, crab men and oysters men…until finally we arrive at Campos Marina on Shell Beach…hands down one of the world’s best fishing spots. As we unhook, unstrap, and otherwise ready the boat, I pump up Campanella and Todd a bit with stories from other great Shell Beach trips I’ve made.
MPW: Black drum, sheepshead, redfish, trout, you can catch anything here. I’m always looking for redfish, the biggest most fun fish to catch, and they stay good in the freezer. But Shell Beach is gonna be the trout spot coming up, once the salt rolls in… Grande Isle is the closest place that has actual salt all the time. Shell Beach has just enough salt to ruin your boat if you don’t clean it… Salt cleans the water, but the water’s kind of dirty now, and trout can’t see, so they leave. But redfish are just pigs snarfin along the ground until they hit something.
We pay the $7 ramp fee and buy 100 live shrimp at 35-cents apiece, which entitles us to fishing advice from Campos Marina owner, Frank Campo., who has been catching bait professionally for his family business since the age of 12. His advice on this windy day was stay inside the MRGO, or Mr. Go, to hide from the wind and pluck the few trout that have moved back in despite the weather not cooling off like it should have by now.
[sound of the boat’s engine starting]
One of the best things about Shell Beach is the sheer number of nooks and crannies and rocks and ponds and cuts you can fish. Louisiana fishermen are always on the lookout for clean water that is also moving, and there are a million places to check here. If the weather is a little bit off, you’ll almost always still find someplace, some special angle, where you’ll be comfortable AND catch fish.Which is good, cause today it’s a little windy as we pull out of Campo’s Marina.
RC: That monument there is the ‘Katrina Cross,’ with the listing of the St Bernard dead…
Normally I’d head straight to Lake Borgne, but given the wind we decide first to cruise down the calmer Mr GO, to fish a few cuts. When the tide is falling, water drains out of the green marsh grasses, bringing with it crabs and baitfish and all types of other surprises.
We stop and throw the anchor into the muddy marsh.
MPW: I stopped here because there are multiple cuts, and the water comes pouring out of the marsh and gets pulled into the lake. The farther back you can go into the marsh, the cleaner the water is
I have to tell Richard to stop saying he is a terrible fisherman
MPW: Why do you tell yourself that?
RC: I catch nothing.
MPW: Well of course not if you tell yourself that.
That sound you hear in the background is an oxygen bubbler, which keeps the shrimp alive. We should either call this fishing show The Bubbler, or I should buy a quieter bubbler before the next episode. For now I’m just glad the shrimp are alive — keeping them alive is an ongoing dilemma for many fishermen.
Campanella doesn’t get out on a boat much, so unlike me he doesn’t become antsy after we don’t catch anything for 15 minutes. He’s mesmerized by the marshes.
RC: They’re just a golden line, like photographing the inside of a forest.
As he muses, I catch the day’s first fish, a largemouth bass, that weighs probably about one pound.
MPW: Largemouth bass, they love live shrimp. They inhale it.
RC: A bass here would have been all but unknown ten years ago.
Because of the MRGO carved into the marshes and a thousand other smaller human diversion projects that allow fresh river water into saltier areas, Louisiana is one of very few places on Earth where one can catch a bass in the same hole as a redfish, and see porpoises swimming out with the alligators.
Richard is miffed that I would throw the bass back:
MPW: I don’t eat those. I am anti-bass. Possibly a bias from growing up in Florida.
RC: Where I come from, bass was the Rolls Royce of fish. Flakey white meat.
MPW: I guess I just feel like saltwater fish are more delicious. Though bass eat well; they don’t eat anything that isn’t moving. Redfish will eat anything, dead or alive. Trout are also prized because they generally won’t eat anything they don’t think is alive.
RC: They are foodies. Tapas with a hook.
We lift anchor and move the boat to one of strips for which Shell Beach is named. At our next stop, the dead white oyster shells are so thick they push up onto the land, creating a beach that wouldn’t feel very nice on your bare feet.
MPW: Most fish, trout especially, love a hard bottom of oyster shells. This strip of shell beach also has a sort of gully drop off running all along the shore. Predators get down in that gully and just swim up and down it, eating vulnerable baitfish. I’ve seen a lot of porpoise hanging around that gully having way too good of a time.
But even here at my best spot, fishing remains slow, so far. There’s not enough water movement, and at the same time the wind is just strong enough at a bad angle where it’s hard to keep the boat anchored in one spot — every time I get a hopeful nibble the boat drifts away from the spot.
Attempting to somehow spin this win to our advantage, we start the boat again, and go brave the shores of Lake Borgne proper. There, I’m able to position us with the wind at our backs, casting toward the rocks, which were put here to shore up the deteriorating marshes — luckily, fish seem to like those rocks as much as they like the natural grass.
RC: Lake Borgne. Borgne means “a one-eyed man.”
The wind isn’t much worse out here, and I can see baitfish being blown against the rocks. [casting sound]. I throw a heavy weight about ten feet off the rocks and feel them nibble my shrimp the moment it nears the bottom. Almost immediately, I feel a substantial thump on my line, and lose my bait entirely…
MPW: There are a lot of fish here guys. The redfish will chase the bait into the rocks, so that on a calm day you can see the bait jumping onto the rocks trying to get away.
I kept tossing toward the rocks until finally, I turn my first truly substantial strike into the day’s first redfish…about four inches short of 16, the legal size limit. It looks fat and perfect to eat but…
MPW: A little “rat red” they call that.
We throw him back. I keep throwing my bait toward the rocks and pull several more nice, undersize fish. I catch a few black drum — the redfish’s less pretty cousin who nonetheless tastes just as delicious — but they’re all under the legal limit of 16 inches.
MPW: These little black drum stealing all my shrimp!
RC: You ever fish the river?
MPW: The Mississippi? So poisonous and gross. I’d do it just for the joy of dragging up a 50lb catfish.
This leads us to talk of recent dredging projects at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi.
RC: It’s a suit of scores and scores of projects in three categories: Shoreline Restoration, Sediment Diversions, and then dredging and siphoning — the 2nd one is most controversial. No one’s against the shoreline projects, and siphons work really well until you stop — it’s not sustainable , there’s no stasis, it’s a verb, not a noun. They’re aiming to change the plumbing of the river to bring the Birdfoot Delta down to Plaquemines, so the mouth of the river would be disemboguing into Breton Sound on one side, and Barataria on the other, much closer to populations, and filling in those saltwater areas… It’s end times…
Todd was so enthralled absorbing Richard’s specialized knowledge that he wasn’t ready with the camera when I finally nailed the day’s first keeper redfish.
MPW: We did catch this 16” redfish! Hopefully he doesn’t freeze and shrink to 15” just as the marine patrol rolls up!
After I put that lil snack in the cooler, Todd just had to fish — which meant he also missed recording the massive black and white striped sheepshead I nailed.
MPW: Sheepshead have teeth like a goat or like a person because they eat mostly barnacles, crabs, and shrimp. You are what you eat, and sheepshead is just made out of crabmeat. Sheepshead also have a very tough rib cage and it takes like a chainsaw to filet them.
Luckily, Todd made sure he was totally at the ready when the day’s biggest fish hit my line — but then I missed the [bleep] thing.
MPW: Damnit! Luckily, Redfish are one of the very few fish that will give you a second try. Do-over fish. They just sit there like a cow waiting to be fed.
I tossed my shrimp back in the same spot, and he couldn’t help himself…
MPW: Oh my ever loving christ this is a big one. Get the net. But here’s the thing about the net: you can fuck it all up and break the line if you put the net in the water too early.
Richard nets my big redfish.
RC: WOW! Look at the size difference!
Though I suspect I might could pull one or two more fish out of this hole, we decide to head to Fort Proctor before the predicted heavier winds arrive. I’d invited Richard to be my guest to Shell Beach after he told me he’d never seen Fort Proctor up close.
[Boat engine sound]
A regular lil boat like mine can only take you to the edge of the mote surrounding Fort Proctor — whereas a little kayak could get you over the moat and into the fort. We remain on Borgne’s shoreline.
RC: This is Fort Proctor, also known as Fort Beauregard, what’s known as the third system of defense, after the War of 1812, clear into the 1850s, like Ft. McComb, Battery Bienvenue. Ft. Proctor dates later… This area was a backdoor to New Orleans. The British took that route in 1814, and this fort was finalized just before the Civil War. But by that time, new artillery technology rendered them obsolete. Cannons were able to penetrate them, so they saw very limited action. A lot were abandoned. Rising sea levels and eroding coast has rendered this one vulnerable. They put a barrier around it to protect it from rising seas.
As we explored what we could of Fort Proctor the wind really began to pick up. On the way back we get turned around; the marshes can mess with your sense of direction. In many area the grasses even shift around, making a laughing stock of your GPS.
Finally back at Campo’s marina, I show the boys how to filet a redfish. As the blood flows, Richard summarizes the trip, what he learned, and how the experience might even effect his work:
RC: I spend a lot of my time thinking about the urban history and geography of New Orleans, and I live in Uptown and I spend most of my time in the core of the metropolis. But this city more so than just about any other, you need to understand the periphery and the environmental context of New Orleans and it being on a deltaic plane. So I particularly appreciated the opportunity to go out on a boat — which I do not have — and explore some of the deltaic fringes of the metropolis. It was a great experience for me. And I got to practice my fishing if not my catching of fish.”
Richard did not prove himself wrong about being bad at fishing, but at least he’s clearly smart in other ways.
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