What Really Happened To Louisiana’s Fishing

the freshening cover photo.jpg

Louisiana’s coast is not a static thing, nor does it exist in a vacuum. It is always changing, and some of those most prolific changes are a direct result of something else happening on the continent.

If I could identify and name one such change, it would be The Freshening.

And it’s very important that I do so because people have a notoriously short memory! This is an opportunity to identify this important event in Louisiana’s history, while we are still close to it in time. That and it’d be great to have this resource to point to and say « remember that? »

So, I begin with explaining exactly what it is:

What is « The Freshening »?

The Freshening is a period from 2011 to 2020 where Louisiana saw historically high amounts of river water delivered to her coast.

During this period we saw multiple openings of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, consistently high river levels during times they should have been low or dropping and, most shocking of all, a never before seen back-to-back spillway opening in a single year.

The kingpin of this event was the Mississippi River, but other rivers bear responsibility, too.

In 2016 we saw 500 and 1,000-year floods of the Pearl and Amite Rivers, both of which empty into the Lake Pontchartrain Basin. Even further down the coast in places like Alabama, the Mobile River was much higher, leading to more widespread river water.

Out west it was the same story at the Sabine, with Toledo Bend hitting a record lake level of 174.4 feet in March 2016, leading to the largest release of water from its spillway gates.

Of course, because it is connected to the Mighty Mississippi, the Atchafalaya River was also historically high, drastically influencing the Vermillion Bay complex by inundating it with record amounts of dirty river water.

In short, Louisiana’s salty coast saw a lot of river water, way more than normal. So much that places that were traditionally salty became pretty fresh.

This affected the inshore species of fish that live here, as well as changed the landscape.

Let’s go over both those points, beginning with river water’s affect on inshore species:

How did The Freshening Affect Inshore Species?

River water is an important element to a thriving inshore fishery. Without it we are in the hurt locker, and that’s because river water helps build the food chain from the bottom up.

Dirty river water delivers valuable nutrients to the sea, giving food for plankton and aquatic grasses to grow, which in turn feeds oysters and menhaden (that we call « pogeys » here in Louisiana), which in turn feed the rest of the food chain.

cocktail analogy

Think of Louisiana’s coast as being like a carefully mixed cocktail. Too much of one ingredient can cause an imbalance, and a less-tasty drink that’s not so enjoyable.

But too much river water can reduce or outweigh those benefits. All the extra river water (and believe me, we got a lot of it) had dire impacts on Louisiana’s coast.

Let’s start with the bad stuff:

  • high oyster mortality rate
  • spawning grounds for specks and reds ruined
  • fewer places for inshore species to go
  • this results in more concentrated fish
  • which creates more pressure exerted on fish
  • other fish species also decline

Oyster Reefs Killed Off

Places like the Biloxi Marsh saw mortality rates as high as 100% on private oyster leases and public seed grounds.

This is because the Biloxi Marsh sits in the direct path of river water as it exits the Lake Pontchartrain Basin.

Places that historically enjoyed a good mix of river and salty water now got straight dirty river water.

find oyster reefs

What you see here is a small chunk of a productive oyster reef. If this dies off, the rest of the food chain goes with it.

Do not underestimate the importance of the oyster! Oysters filter the water and stabilize the bottom, making for clearer water, as well as enough relief for bait to hide and grow in.

When an oyster reef dies, the rest of the food chain goes with it. Fish will move on to other places to find food. I’m sure you understand the concept of decreased supply and increased demand.

Spawning Grounds Flooded

Speckled trout and redfish require higher salinity in order to spawn, about 15-17ppt or so. For reference, average strength saltwater is 35ppt.

But when an historically active spawning ground is completely blown out by river water, that salinity drops below the required level and fish aren’t able to spawn in that location anymore.

Now, in all fairness, nobody knows exactly where every spawning location for speckled trout and redfish are across Louisiana’s coast.

But they still have to go somewhere else. Now, I’m no marine biologist, but it’s my understanding that there would be more recruitment across the wider expanse of Louisiana’s coast if there are more spawning locations available to inshore species. 

What is recruitment?

Recruitment is a ten dollar word describing the number of fish surviving to enter a fishery. That is, the number of fish that survive from being eggs, to larvae, to juveniles, to the point they’re eventually big enough to be caught with fishing tackle.

The number of these fish starts out very high with the number of fertilized eggs released during spawning, then decreases as they experience mortality due to a broad range of factors.

In the case of The Freshening, I am assuming that dirty river water was one such contributor. 

If you are a marine biologist, and if I am getting this wrong (or right), then please let me know in the comments below. Or, if you’d prefer to not publicly embarrass me, my contact page is always a good option.

Anyway, because there’s been fewer places for fish to spawn and grow, we’ve seen a drastic decline in fish stock, namely for speckled trout and redfish.

LDWF speckled trout female spawning stock biomass

This chart shows the population of spawning female speckled trout. Note how it takes a dump about when The Freshening begins.

That’s just for speckled trout! Redfish have taken a hit and other species have become scarce or virtually non-existent since The Freshening began:

  • channel mullet
  • flounder
  • spanish mackerel
  • big croaker
  • puppy drum
  • big white trout

These are all fish that we caught routinely in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin before The Freshening changed the area. It has been the same situation in other places that saw lots of river water, too.

Coincidentally, the one area we did not see inshore species seriously decline, especially speckled trout, is the Grand Isle area, from Port Sulphur to Timbalier Island.

This broad area is somewhat equidistant from the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers, so they were not completely blown out by The Freshening.

In fact, I had good fishing trips to that area during this period of time, noting how much easier it was to find and catch speckled trout from scratch than other areas I had been to (that had been affected by The Freshening).

With that said, The Freshening did more than affect the water quality of Louisiana’s coast. This phenomena had a more lasting effect, and that’s what we look at next:

How did The Freshening Affect The Marsh?

The Freshening of Louisiana’s coast did more than alter the fishery through change of water clarity and salinity. It also altered the landscape.

This is important, because the change in fishery can be recovered, but the landscape is something that’s more permanent and will affect how our coast fishes going forward in the years ahead.

Now, these things are not necessarily bad, I’m just noting their occurrence, as they can really only happen when the rivers rage high.

New Crevasses Formed

The Mighty Mississippi has created new paths to the coast. What would start as a meandering trickle eventually turned into a large pass, moving many cubic feet of water. 

First, there was Mardi Gras Pass, formed on Mardi Gras Day in 2011. This radically changed the salinity in the immediate area there on the east side of the river in Pointe à la Hache.

Before the opening of this pass, people called the area a « paradise » for catching speckled trout! Now, it’s far more seasonal and, when the Mighty Mississippi floods, trout are pushed out.

Should Mardi Gras Pass be Closed?

With that said, it’s worth noting that the area has become far better suited for largemouth bass and redfish.

In fact, this YouTube video was filmed not too far from Mardi Gras Pass and, if you watch it, you’ll see that I had no problem catching a limit of redfish in the most fun way you possibly can: sight fishing.

After Mardi Gras Pass there is Neptune Pass, which was formed about ten years later.

I could go on about it, but Dr. Alexander Kolker has this excellent presentation describing its formation and just how big it is.

My overall point here is that these passes change how water flows and salinity settles out along Louisiana’s coast, especially on the east side of the river.

Once The Freshening is over and things return to « normal », these passes will continue to contribute to an overall lasting effect. It’s a permanent change worth noting.

New Land Built

Another permanent change worth noting is the creation of new land resultant from the Mississippi River’s classic land building quality.

You really only need to pore over Google Earth Desktop to see these features.

The outfall areas of Mardi Gras Pass, West Bay and Neptune Pass are good places to begin looking.

Make no mistake, this is actual land being built! It’s not soft marsh mud, it is hard sand!

This « new land » has surprised me more than once in the last seven years, causing me to destroy a lower unit at this location then, years later, completely ground my boat so bad that I needed an airboat to come to the rescue.

Aquatic Grass Grown

Aquatic grasses are not as permanent as land, but they do help shape the fishery in a positive way.

We have had a lot of aquatic grass, mostly a kind of milfoil, grow on Louisiana’s coast as a result of The Freshening.

This kind of grass is great for filtering the water and offering habitat for bait to live and grow in.

aquatic grass in redfish pond

The best fishing I’ve experienced, whether that be for speckled trout or redfish, has been in areas where there is aquatic grass, with rare exception.

So, what does this all mean for the fishing? Let’s explore that next:

Will The Fish Recover? What will happen going forward?

Yes, the fish will recover. At least I think so. Let me explain why:

See, I think the trout and redfish stocks would have taken a beating even if we never fished for them in the first place during the entire Freshening.

Obviously conservation works. Duh. I’m not giving you a license to haphazardly kill everything you come across then be surprised when the fishing sucks.

I do genuinely believe that if we all practiced a little more conservation there would have been more fish to catch all along, but I do have a feeling that the overall reduction in fish stock is contributed to The Freshening and — for the most part — was out of our control.

So, I think that once the fish get their spawning grounds back, once they have more marsh to recruit to, that the fishing will become better.

It could even return to what we used to easily do fifteen years ago!

After that, we got some new land out of the deal. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing and maybe it will give our coastal scientists something to study in order to draw better conclusions on how to save Louisiana’s disappearing coast.

And, while they do, I hope they also factor in just how devastating too much river water can be for inshore species.

Just remember that cocktail analogy.

Is The Freshening Still Happening?

No, The Freshening ceased in 2021 when we got through the year without a spillway opening and saw the Mississippi River fall to single digits during summer then remain their for the entirety of fall.

This was clinched the following year 2022, with similar results. Here are two charts of the Mississippi River, one from 2019 and another from 2022, just to give you an idea as to what you’re looking at:

The Freshening 2019 Mississippi River Carrollton Flood Gauge Chart
2022 Mississippi River Carrollton Flood Gauge Chart

You can see the obvious pattern of « river goes up, river comes down ».

I can elaborate on this more, but that is literally a small book and will have to save that for another time. Diving into historical flood data of the Mississippi River is a deep rabbit hole that only the nerdiest of inshore anglers can fall into and crawl out alive.

Trust me. Let’s stay out of that rabbit hole.

Anyway, getting back on track:

Here and now in 2023 we are seeing the Mississippi River do the same thing, just at a faster rate: she is getting lower, sooner.

She only got above 13 feet for less than a week before promptly falling. At the time of these keystrokes she is sitting pretty at 3.83 feet. *chef’s kiss*

2023 January to June Mississippi River Carrollton Flood Gauge Chart

Without falling into the aforementioned rabbit hole (this article is already over two thousand words), I cannot tell you the last time she got into the low single digits in June, or when she got below ten feet in April (as she did this year).

So, this is new! This is earth-shattering! We are seeing the coast change once again and nobody is talking about it!

You read it here first on Louisiana Fishing Blog!

But, if the coast is changing yet again, then what happens next? What can we expect?

The Freshening is over! So, what happens next?

Going back to the cocktail analogy I used earlier: if Louisiana’s coast is a cocktail of dirty, fresh, river water mixed with clear, salty, sea water, then from 2011 to 2020 she sure got too much of one ingredient.

This made for a gross drink, metaphorically speaking.

But now that one ingredient has reduced to its desired proportion. And, speaking strictly from an anecdotal point of view, the fishing has gotten better.

Better fishing reports are hitting the pages of social media, especially for speckled trout, but more flounder, channel mullet and spanish mackerel are making an appearance as well.

The fishing is still a shadow of what it was ten years ago, make no mistake! But there’s hope.

And I think that we could be entering a new period that I have coined « The Saltening ». It is one that we have not had in nearly twenty years!

I will write more about in the future, so be sure that you are subscribed to my newsletter so that you don’t miss it.

Over To You

What do you think? Have you fished areas affected by The Freshening and, if so, what did you observe?

Do you feel that The Freshening was the chief factor affecting inshore fishing on Louisiana’s coast in the last ten years?

Do you believe that Louisiana’s fishing can be restored to her former glory?

Whatever you believe, you are welcome to contribute to the completeness of this article by adding your thoughts in the comments section below.

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