Ferry ride to better fishing turned light on for 80-year-old paddler
How long have you been kayak fishing? Do you think you will do it for 20 years or more? Mike LaFleur of Baton Rouge has ticked that mark and is still going. Sure, several in the sport have have hit that milestone, but how many of them are 80 years old?
LaFleur has a rather unique story. He grew up on the California coast and started body surfing at age six. He and his friends were too small to carry big balsa wood surfboards. He was in the water every chance he got. While in high school, Hobie Alter from a few miles down the beach invented light, foam core boards and LaFleur continued surfing through college. Despite his affinity for water, he never fished.
In college, he was heavily involved in rugby, but also took up sailboat racing in San Fran Bay. A few years later, work transferred him to Spokane, Washington. No rugby or surfing there, but he bought another racing sailboat and also took up snow skiing. Still no fishing.
Fly fishing school
In 1980 he was sent to the wilds of Alaska as a mining executive to open up the Red Dog Zinc Mine above the Arctic Circle. The air transport com-pany used by the mine put together a fishing trip for several of the mine’s staff members. At age 42, LaFleur helicoptered down to the Kenai area for his first ever fishing trip. Of course they caught fish and of course he had fun. Near the end of the trip, one of the guys pulled out a fly rod and wore out the salmon. Intrigued, LaFleur asked how he could learn to fly fish.
“Fly-fishing school, the guy said, and told me that the only one he knew of was in West Yellowstone, Montana. Two weeks later, I was in that school. I was hooked,” LaFleur said. He continued fly fishing and traveled back to Montana for at least a week every year for the next 35 years. After moving to Albuquerque, he also fly fished New Mexico, Colorado, and Alaska. Not bad for someone that waited so long to try fishing.
When LaFleur moved to Baton Rouge where his wife is from, he joined the Red Stick Fly Fishing Club where they only use fly gear and refer to everything else as “Commie Tackle.” He wanted to wade fish, but learned that much of south Louisiana is not conducive to such. However, a group of club members headed to Grand Isle to surf fish the Gulf — his first saltwater fishing experience. He became a regular in the surf at Grand Isle, the marshes of nearby Elmer’s Island and also added road fishing to his repertoire.
He caught plenty of fish, but LaFleur was dismayed at regularly seeing redfish tails out of reach of his 100-foot casting distance with no way to safely wade or walk closer.
One day while bank fishing along Hwy 1 with fellow fly angler Marc Pinsel, Grand Isle ladies Ann Smith and Lecta Bourgeois arrived to fish out of their kayaks. What? True kayak fishing pioneers they were. They suggested that LaFleur and Pinsel should be fishing deeper water and offered to ferry the anglers out to a nearby marsh island next to a deep hole. Bourgeois had a tandem kayak and ferried the anglers off the roadway.
“This was my first kayak ride,” LaFleur said. “A light went off in my brain about kayaks.”
First kayak at 60
A few months later, his kids bought him his own kayak for his 60th birthday — a Wilderness Systems Ride. A few of his Red Stick friends also got kayaks and so it began. They found kayak fishing nirvana. Getting to places untouched by boats, LaFleur recounts fishing the glory days.
“For many years, I never blind casted,” he said. “I would see fish, cast to them, and they would eat. We were in heaven.
“From five of us fishing the marsh to now having the Bayou Coast Kayak Club with nearly 500 members and the Ride the Bull Tournament with nearly 750 participants, my how Louisiana kayak fishing has progressed.”
LaFleur believes recruitment is the key to fishing’s future and consequently, that of kayak fishing. While acknowledging that youth are a key component, LaFleur speaks from experience when he says that targeting adults is being overlooked.
“There are many efforts to recruit youth and that is great,” he said. “But look at me, I’m a prime example. We need clubs and individuals to target older men and women who will also get hooked on kayak fishing if only provided the introduction and opportunity.”
But LaFleur won’t just hand out information. He will take you with him in order to get the full experience. Mentoring at its finest.
LaFleur went from fishing school to schooling fishermen. Twenty years, two new knees and a new hip later, he’s still out there doing it.
“I’ve come full circle from my first Hobie surfboard in the 1950s to my newest kayak, a Hobie Compass in 2020,” he said. “You’re never too old to learn and you’re never too old to teach.”
An amazing comeback
A few months after the trip for this article, Mike LaFleur sustained a serious stroke. He had lost the use of both legs and the doctors told him he would likely never walk again. His insurance cut him off of a rehabilitation program stating that he would not recover and therefore it was a waste of money. Convinced otherwise, LaFleur spent moths in the hospital and would wheel himself to the gym and self-exercise. When he started, he could not even lift his toes. With six weeks of 20 minutes a day determination, he saw minor, but incremental progress.
However, due to his unwavering spirit and tenacity, he progressed to moving his legs again. He was finally released with the use of a walker, but continued his workouts at home. He no longer relies on the walker.
“I’m proud of my progress and tenacity,” he said. “I have not yet been able to fish, but it is one of my biggest goals. I’ll be back in the kayak for both physical and mental therapy.”
LaFleur is quite an inspiration to all. Besides being an avid kayaker at 80 years old, he defied all medical odds and is on his on his way to being able to do it again. The light still burns.