I lived there. I was born and raised there. I raised my children there, and they were raising their children there. It wasn't always a convenient place to live, but it was home.
And it was progressing. New businesses were opening, new subdivisions were developing and the population was growing.
But Katrina changed all that overnight. Now, to see what's become of my hometown is almost unbearable. The stores are closed. The houses are silent. Electricity is scarce.
But to say it's a ghost town would be inaccurate. It's more like a city trying to emerge from a nightmare — like London after the German blitzkrieg.
Signs of activity are all around. Traffic is returning, and lights are coming back on. Debris is being hauled off to who-knows-where. FEMA trailers are popping up everywhere. The parish is struggling, clawing to crawl out of the premature grave Katrina dug for her. Her pulse is weak, but her heart is strong, and somehow I know she will survive.
On the five-mile ride from the Junction to Yscloskey, where 50 or more houses once stood, I counted four still on their foundations, and two of those were badly damaged.
The destruction is incredible, indescribable, unimaginable.
Between Yscloskey and Shell Beach, where dozens of houses and camps lined the road, nothing remains but rubble. The Proctor's Landing and Fort Beauregard developments were decimated, with very few camps intact. Blackie Campo's Marina and house were obliterated.
Surprisingly, the two sets of condos in Shell Beach survived. In fact, once water, sewerage and electricity are restored, mine will be livable. But nothing else survived the fury.
On the drive from the Yscloskey bridge to Breton Sound Marina in Hopedale, only one structure survived — the tall Quanson hut-like structure owned by Warren Dudenhefer. Amazingly, it looks to have emerged unscathed. Perhaps the experts should study its construction so it can be copied.
Not a single other structure escaped the storm surge. Where a hundred camps stood, now only pilings and debris remain. Dudenhefer's old marina is gone, probably never to return. Pip's is gone, its future uncertain.
Breton Sound Marina was badly damaged also, but by persistence and hard work, the owners — Glenn Sanchez and Barry Brechtel — put a trailer on the site, hooked up a generator, managed to acquire a live-bait supply, and had the backdown ramps reopened within two months after the storm. By the time you read this, electricity should be restored, and they should be close to having the hoist running again.
I had a 1 p.m. date to fish the afternoon with Brechtel and Sanchez. When I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed their long line of boat sheds were obliterated, and in the distance I could see boats and debris piled in heaps like wind-blown trash. I counted a dozen or more vehicles with trailers in the parking lot, which I considered to be a good sign. People were fishing!
Several boats were returning to the dock, and the fish-cleaning table was a beehive of activity. It was obvious that most of the anglers had made a successful trip. It was great to see such signs of life and activity. It gave me a feeling of some kind of normalcy, a feeling I hadn't had in quite a while.
Fishermen were plying the waters, coming back to the marsh, exercising their favorite pastime, and the fishing action they've been finding has been outstanding. Almost every angler I asked had a limit, and no one had a single complaint.
"The fish have been almost stupid," Brechtel said. "They're hitting live baits, soft plastics, topwater baits; no matter how ugly your bait is, no matter if you fish it under a popping cork or tight-line it, the fish are hitting everything, and no one has had to travel far from the dock to get in on the action.
"A lot of anglers are back at the dock by 10 or 10:30 in the morning with their limit of trout; it has just been absolutely incredible."
Reports like that get my adrenaline pumping. I was eager to get into some of that action and happy just to be back on the water after my long absence.
I loaded my gear into Brechtel's brand-new 24-foot Hydra-Sport, a replacement for the three just like it he lost in the storm, and Sanchez dumped a bucket of beautiful live shrimp into the baitwell. On the ride toward the Ship Channel, the entire length of the right bank of the bayou was lined with broken boats that were tossed like toys by Katrina's fury.
But once we entered the Ship Channel, everything took on the face of familiarity. Sanchez pointed to where some of the concrete rip-rap lining the bank of the MRGO had peeled back, and once we entered Bayou LaLoutre, I noticed there had been some obvious erosion.
But other than a few trees floating half-submerged in the bayou and the fact that the marsh grass was almost completely brown, everything mostly looked the same.
Brechtel said the Biloxi Marsh area fared pretty well. Some cuts in a few places are wider, some small islands are gone, and there's undoubtedly been some sandbar shifting here and there, but everything looks almost like it did before the storms.
"As far as we know, there aren't many obstacles in the water to contend with either," he said. "A tank of some kind wound up submerged in the north end of the Hopedale Lagoon, and we've had a few boaters bump it with their skegs, but we are unaware right now of any other obstruction in the water."
Naturally, all boaters should exercise extreme caution when traveling anywhere right now until absolutely sure the waterways are clear of obstructions and not silted in.
Brechtel turned the big boat into Bayou St. Malo, one of the few places where scrub oaks continued to scratch out a meager existence surrounded as they are by salt water. But the trees looked completely dead, barren of leaves or greenery — more victims of the hurricane. We turned into Bayou Muscellini and stuck the Cajun anchor at the first curve.
"The weather hasn't really turned cold yet, so the fish aren't deep. They're hanging just off the flats," Brechtel said.
We tossed live baits and Deadly Dudley Shrimp Maulers, and let our baits flow with the current. Once the baits moved off the shallow flats and dropped into a few feet of water, the trout were there, waiting in ambush.
We landed a quick half-dozen trout, several of which were throwbacks.
"The marsh is chock full of these perfect eating-sized trout right now," Brechtel said. "There is a lot of bait in the water, and there are very few boats putting pressure on the fish, so anybody with a boat should be able to get in on some excellent action in the marsh," he added.
Capt. Frank Moore
Capt. Frank Moore lost his boat and both of his camps on the bayou in Shell Beach.
Vowing to return and set up a new camp, he's now either fishing the marsh out of an 18-foot center console, or guiding anglers in their own boats. His comments virtually echoed those of Brechtel's.
"The action is so good right now, it's hard to imagine it getting any better," Moore said. "The fish are everywhere. I've either limited out or almost limited out on every trip I've made so far since the storm, and we're catching everything on plastics."
Moore says most of the marsh he's seen so far looks pretty much the same, but cautions anglers to look for sandbars, stumps and debris, and the possibility that some passes could be silted in.
"There are some big clumps of grass and silt between Pete's Lagoon and Cut Off Lagoon, and some silting on the outside of Mac's Pass. Other than that, things look pretty much the same, only somewhat worse for wear," he said.
Moore says if you plan to fish this month, try Stump Lagoon if you have enough tide and if the weather is not too cold.
"Drift along the cut that takes you up into Mussel Bayou, and if you get into some action, stick a Cajun anchor over and try to sit on the fish," he said. "If the action stops, resume your drift or go back and re-drift the same area.
"Bounce a tightlined soft plastic cocaho off the bottom or along the ledges, and you'll pick up some trout. There's a lot of fish in that area right now.
"If the weather gets cold, try drifting Bayou LaLoutre, bouncing soft plastics off the bottom, either singles or tandem. I like to drift the back area, around Stump and the Drum Hole.
"The biggest problem you face in the winter is not the cold, but the current. If you drift too fast, the fish just won't bite on those cold, frigid days. Their metabolism slows down, and they only hit a bait that slaps them in the face.
"You can slow down your drift with a drift sock, which is the best bet, or you can improvise and throw out a five-gallon bucket. If that doesn't slow you down enough, throw out two buckets.
"And try fishing both upcurrent and downcurrent. It's important to use enough weight to get all the way to the bottom; usually a ¼-ounce jig will do. But on hard-current days, switch to a 3/8- or even a ½-ounce jig.
"The problem is, too much weight will cause you to keep snagging up on that heavy oyster bottom. But too little weight, and you won't get all the way to the bottom on a hard current, so you might have to experiment. It'll be worth the effort.
"Then, when it warms up, the fish will move from the bottom to up along the ledges in the same area. Toss your bait up along the shallow shoreline, and let it work its way down along the drop-offs. That's where the trout will be waiting to pounce on it."
On the ride back through St. Bernard Parish, as I made my way back to my new (and hopefully temporary) FEMA trailer home, I felt a mixture of both sadness and hope.
I'm saddened by our losses. As an outdoorsman, I'm saddened by the continual loss of our marsh. As an angler, I'm saddened by the losses so many of my friends and fellow fishermen have suffered.
The commercial docks are gone. The fishing camps, once bustling with chatter and activity, gone. The marinas and my good friends — Campo's, Pip's, Serigne's — gone. Their futures, uncertain.
But there are also signs of hope. Breton Sound Marina is open, and the guys there are determined to keep it going. The backdowns are in good shape, they should have electricity by now, live bait is available and their hoist should be working soon.
The marsh itself, though eroded, battered and bruised, is still alive. Green stalks can be seen struggling to emerge amidst the brown leaves. The scrub oaks, shrubs and brush look dead and brown, but I've seen them look this way before. They are incredibly resilient, and I won't be at all surprised to see them leafy and green in the spring.
And for the most part, the waterways will still look familiar, and most areas are readily navigable. Maybe the best sign of hope is the fishing itself. Phenomenal! Incredible! Excellent! Outstanding! I run out of adjectives describing the reports from anglers everywhere.
It was dark as I headed out from the marina. My fish were cleaned (thanks, Glenn), and my heart was full of emotion. But it was on the drive back through the parish, heading toward the Junction that what I was seeing really registered. I saw fires. Many fires, here and there, just off the side of the road. Not brush fires, but fires intentionally set in 55-gallon barrels. They were fires made to light up the thick, black darkness, keep off the gnats and provide some warmth from the cold.
And by the soft glow of the fires, I saw campers, both trailers and tents. And I knew. There are people here, living amidst the ruin and rubble. People who lost everything, but will not surrender. These are hardy people, like the early pioneers. These people will rebuild.
If you are looking for signs of hope, look no farther. They don't call this area Hopedale for nothing.
Capt. Barry Brechtel and Glenn Sanchez can be reached through Breton Sound Marina at (504) 610-6914.
Capt. Frank Moore can be reached at (504) 881-9966.