There is a mockingbird singing in the orange tree outside my window. Early mist hides the tops of the willows beside the river. Craneflies dance a cotillion around the plantation house. Eddie Adams is leaning against his pick-up. He stows my gear in the boat on the trailer: “C’mon, we’ve got a ferry to catch,” he says.
A couple of minutes down Highway 23 we turn off towards the river and cresting the levee, there is the Mississippi. The water eddies around the jetty pilings. Mid-stream, the surface is deceptively calm, reflecting the rising sun, but the roiling current speaks of the depths of a river that drains so much water from so much of North America. As we drive off the ferry and down the levee, we are below its level. An alligator lounges in a drainage ditch.
On a map, the Mississippi below New Orleans looks like the leg of a wading bird, a long stem ending in the splayed toes of the three channels that lead to the Gulf of Mexico. On either side of the river is a thin strip of bottomland, protected by levees from the Mississippi in front and the salt marsh behind. On the east bank of the river the levees end just downstream from the Pointe à la Hache ferry, the last vehicle crossing on the river.
Beshel Boat Launch is outside the back levee, a basin where shrimp and crab boats tie up. We pay our launch fee in the general store on stilts and put out on the muddy canal. Adams opens it up. Banking round a turn into a side channel, we surprise two coyotes swimming across it. The low banks open out into an expanse of water dotted with clumps of reed and grass. Adams has been guiding in the marshes for 15 years. He is standing now, looking for fish and cuts the engine when he sees some.
I have stood on the bow of skiffs like this before, poised with a fly in one hand and coils of line at my feet, looking down into pellucid water, searching out the shadows of bonefish against white sand, but this is somewhat different. The water is just as shallow and, surprisingly, almost as clear, but the bottom is dark as bog peat, and alive. There are crabs, gar, rays, mullet and, says Adams, two redfish at 10 o’clock. They charge the fly on the first cast, but do not take. They stop close to the boat, too close I think not to spook, but Adams says cast again and the lead fish simply turns its head and bites. Adams shrugs. “Sometimes they can’t help themselves.” The fight is frank and dogged, the fish coppery with a broad head and a black spot near the tail. It makes a huffing sound before it goes back into the water, leaving me, I find, smiling.
And I am smiling for the rest of the morning as we pole about the pond. There are fish tailing around clumps of reed. They take my fly. There are fish feeding in water so shallow their backs break the surface. They take my fly too. There are long casts to fish, hunting along the shore line, and the most ridiculous cast of the day is to a fish that emerges from weed at my feet – I throw the fly at its head and it takes. The afternoon is slower, but I am still smiling as we head back to the ferry.
Adams is proud of his boat; he won it in a fishing competition, he tells me next day. “Those fish you were catching yesterday, they were perfect competition fish: under 27in, pushing 9lb. A pair of those and you’re in the money.” But the marsh has much bigger fish and today we are going to look for them. Every autumn schools of big “bull reds” gather off the mouths of the Mississippi. They become more aggressive and attack surface lures. A bull red, Adams says, is any fish over 12lb, and they can get to be more than 40. It’s an exciting time of year to be in the delta, but once it has passed, the bull reds can still be found in the inner marsh and we are bouncing over Long Bay at full throttle to a spot Adams knows.
A group of tall pilings is a perch for pelicans, and beyond we find a stretch of sheltered water. We can see a redfish working along the left shore followed by a pair of white egrets. It looks like a good one. We are stalking up slowly to get into casting range when I catch sight of another shape moving out from the right bank. It is huge, a redfish of at least 30lb, and it is coming straight towards us. The width of its head is more like a bull terrier than a fish. It is calm and cruising and doesn’t spook when my fly lands in the zone where I hope it will not be able to help itself. I let it sink, and then strip it back, but the fish doesn’t react. “Cast again,” says Adams, but it’s still indifferent and turns away. “Damn, that’s as good a shot as you get at a big bull. He just wasn’t feeding.” We head back to the inner marsh and land a load more competition fish.
Foster Creppel, the owner of the Woodland Plantation, is shucking oysters behind the bar when I get in. The plantation featured on the label of Southern Comfort for almost 80 years, and over the past 18 Foster has restored not only the familiar planter’s house where I am staying, with its cool hardwood floors and Greek-revival mouldings, but also the overseer’s house and two former slave quarters. And he has gone further, moving old wooden buildings to his 50 acres from elsewhere along the river, like the old chapel he bought, cut in half and moved 14 miles upstream to be reassembled and put to new use as Woodland’s dining hall and bar. As guests gather before dinner, the doors to the kitchen swing open and trays of boiled crawfish are brought out. “Just save room for pie,” Creppel says, but I don’t.
Creppel is sure that chef Paul Prudhomme nearly did for Louisiana’s bull reds. His books’ popularising of local dishes, and in particular blackened redfish, saw a surge in demand that commercial fishermen met by using spotter planes to locate a school and then putting a purse seine around the lot of them. Fortunately, the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries stepped in and Louisiana remains the best place in the US to catch redfish. But there are other larger threats to the marsh as a whole that are less easy to fix.
I am fishing with Shane Mayfield on my last day, but it is one more suited to talking: the wind is strong, the cloud cover almost unbroken and the water is muddy. Our conversation turns to the future of the wetlands. The marsh is washing away. “We’re losing an area the size of Manhattan every year. That averages out to a football field every hour.” Mayfield was born in Port Sulphur and he’s been guiding since his late teens. “Sometimes I’ll come back to a spot I know, having not fished it for a week, and the bank just isn’t there any more. It’s worse on the west side of the river, in Bataraia Bay.”
The causes of marsh erosion may be complex, but the real problem is that the wetlands have been cut off from the river that created them. The Mississippi carries a massive sediment load, especially when in flood, and the marsh needs those flood waters running into it to be replenished. The levees stop that happening. “It took the river 1,000 years to build the delta, and it has taken us only 80 to destroy it,” says Mayfield.
There is a multibillion-dollar plan to restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, so crucial to the state’s economy and security, but Mayfield is sceptical. “We engineered our way into this mess and now we are trying to engineer our way out of it, when what the river really wants to do is to change course entirely.” What? “The Mississippi has been flapping around like a loose firehose since the end of the Ice Age. There are three older deltas west from here that the river left behind and now it wants to switch back to its old course down the Atchafalaya River. When it does we won’t be able to stop it.”
We motor along Bayou Chene and into the Delacroix Marsh looking for shelter. At the mouth of a shallow inlet we come across signs of redfish feeding and some blind casting brings a take, so at least the day will not be blank.
The skyscrapers of New Orleans’ business district cluster on the horizon roughly 25 miles away. The great feats of engineering wrought in the 19th and 20th centuries made the city one of America’s largest ports. The reconstruction programme after Hurricane Katrina has made it feel impregnable. But could it survive being left on a withering branch of the main river? The Mississippi is indifferent. (He jus’ keeps rollin’.)