Big Lake for years was off limits to wholesale oyster harvest, with tongs being the only legal means of taking the succulent muscles from the lake. And that meant there were abundant reefs around which trophy trout lounged.

Dredging in the Southwest Louisiana water body was opened in 2006, but it still wasn't a huge deal because the southeastern portion of the state supplied most of the market demand for oysters.

But Hurricanes Gustav and Ike was followed by the BP oil spill last year, and that kicked things into high gear on the lake, raising concerns that Big Lake will soon be devoid of the oyster reefs upon which the lakes reputation as a big-trout mecca has been built.

"There are a few spots that they completely wiped out last summer and, from what it looks like to me, they're working on those that are left," long-time guide Capt. Jeff Poe said of the dredgers. "You don't see that many fish holding on the reefs. Birds are all you have."

There's no doubt that the lake has attracted more attention from oystermen since many of the oystering grounds were decimated from the one-two punch of hurricanes and freshwater diversions in the wake of the oil spill.

SeaGrant agent Kevin Savoie said Thursday (March 17) that Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries numbers show 137,000 sacks of oysters were harvested during 2010, which is far above the traditional take from the lake.

Poe said he believes that just too much from a lake that, despite its name, isn't all that sizeable.

"Today (March 16), there's like 100 bouts down there," he said. "Normally when you fish down there, you're getting hung up all the time.

"It's no longer that way."

Poe, owner of Big Lake Guide Service, said he believed many of the boats were from out of state, come to take advantage of the dearth of oysters in the market.

"There are a lot of boats from Mississippi and Texas," he said.

However, Savoie said he doesn't believe that's the case.

"I've heard that rumor, too, but it's a bunch of local fishermen," he said. "Honestly, I don't think there are a whole lot of vessels out there that aren't local."

Either way, Savoie said the number of boats has certainly swelled over the past two years.

"We went from about 70 to 80 licensed vessels harvesting oysters in that lake to 148 in January 2010," he said.

But Capt. Sammy Faulk, who runs Gotta-Go Charters on the lake, said he doesn't believe there is a real issue with the dredging.

"Dredges can't pick up everything," said Faulk, who has served on the state Oyster Task Force. "There's still a bed out there."

Savoie agreed, pointing out that oyster dredges are pretty inefficient machines. He said the dredges have teeth that are only a few inches long that basically just scrape the top of the oyster bed.

"What they want is for these teeth to just kick up the mud and flip that oyster into the bag," he explained. "If it doesn't flip an oyster into the bag, that oyster is now exposed. All the shells and undersized oysters go back to the reefs.

"It's a way of breaking up the old reefs and spreading them out."

That's exactly why Faulk said he believes dredging could actually be a good thing.

"It should be that they have exposed (reefs)," he said.

He did admit some oyster fishermen don't kick the cast-offs right back into the water, instead piling them up on their boats and then dumping them in a single spot instead of spreading them out.

"If you're running across the lake, you can hit one of those piles," Faulk said.

But there also is another benefit of oystering that both Faulk and Savoie pointed to.

"Those reefs were infested with hook muscles," Savoie said.

These muscles have grown over the top of existing oyster reefs, hampering oyster growth.

"(Dredging has) broken off those hook muscles," Faulk said.

And all of those shells are scattered along the bottom.

"It's increased some of the size of the reefs," Faulk said.

In addition, the dredges are limited to 36 inches in width – which is very small.

"The (oyster fishermen) from the southeast part of the state would look at those dredges and laugh," Savoie said.
 
That means that, even if boats concentrate on particular reefs as Poe charges, there's just no way to get all the shell off the bottom, he said.

"Even if there's a lot of boats in there, I have a hard time believing they can get them (all) out of there," Savoie said.

Combined with the inefficiencies and small sizes of the dredges, a daily limit of 10 sacks per boat decreases the risk of depleting the resource.

That 10-sack-per-day limit was implemented this year, down from last year's 15-sack daily limit. And that was brought about by local oyster fishermen.

"The local oyster task force requested that lower limit, and the (Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries) commission went with it," Savoie said.

That proves the oyster industry isn't out to ruin the lake by taking every last muscle from the lake.

"The industry is not opposed to making some changes," Savoie said. "They don't want those boom and bust years. They want a consistent harvest year after year."

But he understood the concerns of anglers like Poe, who have to adjust when dredgers hit their favorite areas.

"According to the LDWF, we've harvested a small percentage of the resource," Savoie said. "But if you've got a favorite fishing spot and it's been worked over, you probably aren't going to like it.

"Whether it's real or perceived, it's becoming a problem."

That's the problem in a relatively small lake where anglers and commercials interests collide.

"It's called 'Big Lake,' but when you find it really isn't when different user groups have different interests," Savoie said.

Poe was quick to say he didn't want to see oystering ended, however.

"I'm not interested in outlawing oystering," he said. "I like to eat them.

"I just don't want to see (oyster reefs) wiped out completely. You can't just whack them out."

And even if some of the reef beds are left after oyster dredges move on, Poe said the remains are a shade of what he's used to.

"As far as catching fish on the reefs, I don't see it," he said.

Savoie said LDWF officials have told him they are working on a plan that would address concerns of anglers while continuing to allow oyster harvest. Calls to the agency were not returned.

The bottom line, Savoie said, is that there is room on the lake for both oystering and recreational angling.

"It drives a part of the state economy, and is an important part of the local economy," he said. "But we have to (oyster) conservatively."