Here it is — April. Your freezer is empty and you are hankering for fish. Your favorite fishing hole, the fabulous Atchafalaya Basin is overwhelmed with muddy, flood-stage river water.
Well, if you are like Dustie Latiolais, you go fishing in the Basin anyway — you just go to town.
This is a wilderness swamp. What town?
Butte La Rose — the only town in the 260,000-acre Atchafalaya Basin.
Latiolais was headed to Butte La Rose Canal, the aquatic main street inside the confines of the little village.
“It’s one of the last places to get muddy from rising river water and one of the first places to clear up,” he explained. “It doesn’t get active water flow the length of the canal. One end of the canal dead-ends at the protection levee and the other end opens into the waterway along the levee, which connects to the Basin proper.
“I regularly catch catfish, bluegills and (red ear sunfish, aka chinquapin) in it.”
It was a weekday. Latiolais is executive chef and general manager for Crawfish Town USA, a position that works him odd hours but gives him a lot of time off.
He uses that off time fish.
“From late February through November, I fish four times a week,” he said, grinning. “I work a lot of nights and I fish a lot in the morning. I always have time to fish.
“Yesterday, I worked in the morning and fished in the afternoon.”
Latiolais’ vehicle chugged through Henderson and down the levee road before crossing a pontoon bridge into Butte La Rose. His destination was the Dick Davis public landing. Launching the kayaks didn’t take long.
He stowed a kayak crate immediately behind his seat to hold his tackle and extra rods.
“They make a kayak crate that costs about $120,” he said.
His is a recycled plastic milk crate.
“The crate costs me zero dollars, and I spent $25 on the rod holders,” Latiolais said.
He started fishing along the bank immediately across from the landing. He explained that the focus of his fishing would be along tall cutgrass clumps and woody brush hanging into the water.
This wasn’t a wilderness experience. While one bank, the one he fished, was a tangled jungle of natural vegetation, the other bank consisted of one manicured home or camp lawn after another.
Still, it was peaceful. It was a weekday and the camps were all empty.
He slipped the kayak slowly from spot to spot. When he picked up a bite, he quickly dropped an anchor from each end of the small vessel. When the action played out, the kayak’s nifty pulley system allowed him to easily raise the anchors without moving from his seat.
Other times, he just drifted slowly along the tree-lined bank, flip-casting into openings in the brush or under overhanging limbs.
“This is what my mornings consist of — going down these bayous flipping along the sides,” he quietly explained. “A good morning is 35 bream and four or five bass.”
A boat with two attractive late 30-ish women idled past us in the narrow bayou.
“Oh, y’all look so cute,” one of them cooed with a smile.
Latiolas scratched his stubbly, black beard.
“I’ve never got that before,” he grunted in a low voice.
Latiolais’ tactics steadily added fish, mostly bluegills but also channel catfish, to the stringer tied to his kayak. Every time he strung a fish up, the tattoos on his arms flashed.
He had a half-sleeve tattoo on his left arm that depicted a farmyard that included cows, chickens, pigs — the whole menagerie. The inside of his right forearm had a pig sectioned into the various cuts of pork.
“The next one will be a crawfish with an Acadian flag,” he announced after catching me checking out his ink.
Note the common thread in his body art: Everything is edible.
The cork on his line seldom stopped bobbing. Often bluegills, even the biggest ones, would just give the cork a nudge. Catfish invariable snatched underwater.
One second it was there, the next millisecond it was gone.
As the morning wore on, catfish seemed to make up a larger share of his catch.
“I don’t like dealing with catfish,” he said. “They are slimier than regular fish, and they have prickers.”
But he kept every one.
“I collarbone (de-headed, gutted and skinned with the backbone left in the fish) my catfish to cook them, but I fry bream whole,” he said. “I fry the bream until the fins are hard; they crunch like potato chips.”
I mentioned that I like to fillet my bream.
“You fillet bream?” he asked incredulously. “They are best eaten on the bone.”
He didn’t leave much room for debate.
By mid-morning he was ready to head for the kitchen (to fry his catch, not to work). He paused during the paddle back to the landing.
“I like that I can come out here with my kayak and compete with my buddies who have big boats and laugh at me,” Latiolais said. “People are really competitive. They want to catch everything and beat everyone else to a spot across the lake.
“This is relaxing. It’s right here. It’s close. There are no other boats. There is no pressure.”