Lake Pontchartrain’s Causeway is the longest bridge in the world, but anglers see it as Earth’s longest artificial reef.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a two-part series examining fishing techniques at Lake Pontchartrain’s bridges. Part two will appear in the May issue.The Causeway is a double-ribbon of steel and concrete crossing right down the middle of Lake Pontchartrain.
Stretching from Jefferson Parish on the south shore to St. Tammany on the north, the 24-mile-long double spans constitute the longest bridge in the world.
Before Katrina, some 32,000 commuter vehicles made the trek across it every day. But according to Causeway General Manager Robert Lambert, that number has increased to an average of 42,000 vehicles per day since Katrina, making the bridges busier than ever.
But automobile and truck commuters aren’t the only ones who traverse the spans. Anglers like to fish just beneath the elevated roadway, where more than 9,000 concrete pilings that support the structure provide a vast underwater habitat for a wide variety of fish.
Mackerel, sharks, jacks, drum, redfish, sheepshead, croaker, catfish, gaspergou, mullet, pinfish, flounder and trout all like to patrol along the bridge, making the Causeway a very attractive destination to those who fish.
I almost never fished the Causeway before Katrina. For me, living in St. Bernard Parish and so close to Bayou Bienvenue, Delacroix, Hopedale and Shell Beach, it just didn’t make sense to drive farther to get to the Causeway — especially since the Causeway’s reputation is that it’s fickle and hard to fish.
It’s no secret that it takes a good bit more finesse to successfully fish the Causeway or any of the bridges traversing the lake — unlike the places I just mentioned, where you can snap on a cork over a soft-plastic lure, and simply drift a lake, bay or lagoon and wait for your cork to disappear. So easy, even a caveman can do it! Even I can do it!
But the bridges over the lake are different. The water is deeper, and so are the fish, which means, if you don’t get your bait all the way to the bottom, you just don’t catch fish. And they don’t always hit your lure aggressively. Often, all you feel is simply a nudge or tap on the end of your line. Usually you just feel a little resistance when you reel in, like your lure has snagged something on the bottom. Actually, that’s probably a fish because that’s how they bite at the bridges.
The point being, it takes some skill, some finesse and some patience to successfully fish the bridges over Pontchartrain, especially the Causeway.
Previously I never felt the need to put in the time to learn to fish it, but nowadays, since Katrina, I live within walking distance of the Williams Boulevard public launch in Kenner, which makes fishing the Causeway a far more interesting and convenient option, and one I want to get much more familiar with.
The way I figured, if you want to learn to catch fish along the Causeway and learn where the hotspots are and the best techniques for success, go with the guys who ought to know, the anglers who fish it most often.
I went first to Dudley Vandenborre (985-847-1924), truly an all-around angler who has the rare ability to find and catch speckled trout and redfish anywhere along the coast. He consistently mops up whether he fishes in Venice, Delacroix or Grand Isle.
I called him in late February just after he returned from fishing for trout in Texas, and just before he left to fish for trout in Alabama. You gotta love fishing when you guide for a living and take vacations to fish in neighboring states.
While Vandenborre has made his reputation fishing the bridges on the east side of the lake, he also runs to the Causeway to fish it when the action turns on there or conditions warrant it.
Like most guides, Vandenborre runs his boat hard year round, so when the fishing action slows down in February and early March, he takes that down-time opportunity to have the boat worked over and readied for the big trout kick-off in the spring.
When I called, he was actually boat-less awaiting delivery of a new 24-foot Skeeter, so we met at the Williams launch and climbed into my boat.
Southshore anglers who fish the Causeway usually head out from the closest launch at Bonnabel Boulevard. Otherwise, it’s about a four- to five-mile run from the Williams launch. For northshore anglers, the Mandeville Harbor Launch is most convenient, but quite a few anglers make the run from the Madisonville launch.
We headed out in the thick fog of early morning, but halfway to the bridge the sun came out, the fog broke and we were alongside the bridge in short order.
Vandenborre says he normally fishes the north end of the bridge between the 4- and 8-mile markers, so we made the long haul to that end before we dropped the trolling motor and began fishing.
“We’re here about a month early,” Dudley said, “which might make for a tough day. The action on the Causeway usually turns on real good in April, and once it turns on, it stays good until the fall.”
I knew the reports for early March in the lake were poor, but a few sunny days at the end of February raised the water temperatures and made me hopeful we could at least catch something.
We snaked Deadly Dudleys in blue moon/chartreuse on 3/8-ounce jigs, and began casting right up alongside the concrete pilings as we made a slow troll down the center of the two spans. By staying in the middle we could actually work both sides of the bridge and cover more ground. Vandenborre said that once we caught a few, we’d know which side of the bridge they were holding on and that would be the side we’d concentrate on.
“You have to come with a different mindset out here,” Vandenborre said. “It’s not like fishing the Twin Spans in the east, where we can actually fish the entire length in a day. The Causeway is 24 miles long with over 9,000 pilings, which you couldn’t cover if you fished it all day every day for a week!
“That means the fish are strung out over a much wider area here, and finding them becomes the key to success. Sometimes they’ll be concentrated on one side of the bridge and only in a relatively short section. Usually if you don’t see any boats for miles and then you see them lined up along a particular stretch, you can bet that’s where the fish are. Work that area over thoroughly.”
Vandenborre also said he has frequently fished for an hour or two without a single bite, and then he’ll get into a flurry of action along a short section of the bridge, and put a dozen or more fish in the boat.
I settled into a routine of trolling along the bridge while casting up close to the pilings, and allowing a few seconds for the bait to sink all the way to the bottom. The challenge for me is to keep my line tight enough to feel the ever-so-slight tremble when a fish takes up the bait. Vandenborre says they’ll actually suck the bait into their mouth for a taste and then spit it out almost in one motion. So, if you can’t distinguish that slight action, you’ll miss fish all day long that you could’ve caught.
We fished almost oblivious to the drone of passing commuters above us, and in spite of the beautiful weather we saw very few other boats over the course of the day. What was interesting is that when we did see other boats fishing, they were almost all at the “crossovers.”
Lambert says there are seven crossovers along the bridges, designed so vehicles — particularly emergency vehicles — can cross over between the north- and south-bound spans.
“From the south shore, the crossovers are at the 3-mile marker, one on each side of the 8-mile marker, at the 12-mile hump in the center of the lake, one on each side of the 16-mile drawbridge and at the 20-mile marker.”
Because the crossovers require the support of many additional pilings, they provide that much more structure to attract fish.
Capt. Dennis Bardwell (985-969-0408), who has fished the Causeway frequently over the past 6 to 8 years, says he concentrates almost all his attention at the crossovers, or as he calls them the “turnarounds.”
“On a typical trip, I run from the northshore, and fish from 4 to 12 miles out,” Bardwell said. “I like to fish the Causeway because it’s just so convenient, and we have some good trips catching fish averaging between 1½ to 3 and 4 pounds. And once in a while we catch a 5- or 6-pound speck out there. I also fish a lot out of Venice, which is a speck haven in the spring and summer, but it’s not an easy or convenient trip.”
Bardwell says when he fishes the Causeway, he chooses not to run any farther than mid-lake for safety’s sake.
“I’ve seen this lake turn extremely ugly in a very short period of time, so now if it threatens to get bad, I head for shore. Better to be safe than sorry,” he said.
Bardwell says he heads straight to the turnarounds and works them over thoroughly. If one doesn’t pay off, he heads to another.
“I use a ½-ounce jig with a Deadly Dudley lure in either blue moon or salt-and-pepper, and throw it right up against the pilings. Remember this: There is no such thing as fishing too close to the pilings, but you can fish too far from them,” he said.
When he does troll along the legs of the bridge, Bardwell says he prefers to fish the west side span, the “two-piling” span.
“The east side span has three pilings, and you’d think the three pilings might provide a bit more structure and hold more fish, but for some reason we always catch more fish along the west side two-piling span,” he said.
“The one thing you absolutely have to have, is moving water,” Bardwell added.
Vandenborre agrees, and says he usually finds the best action at the seven crossovers, the 8-mile hi-rise, the 9-mile cell tower at the old crossover, the bascule drawbridge at the 16-mile marker and trolling along the west-side span.
“Anywhere that there is a big concentration of pilings, that’s usually a good place to focus,” he said. “In the late spring, once live shrimp become available, I see anglers fish at these spots with live bait under a sliding cork. Sometimes they sit there and limit out in one spot.”
Lambert, who has been on the job since 1971, said the 9-mile turnaround where the cell tower is now was always a very popular fishing spot.
“There’s just so many pilings there,” he said. “In the old days, back in the ’60s and ’70s, cars used to park along the section of the old turnaround where the road dipped down low and made a sweeping circle. There were street lights that lit that whole section up at night, and folks would park and fish off the bridge down there, and they often caught a lot of fish.
“Katrina knocked that lower section all down and it simply isn’t cost effective to repair. Fishing off the bridge anywhere is strictly prohibited nowadays, so all of that is just a memory.”
Hmmmm. That got me to thinking. Wouldn’t it be great if that whole lower turnaround at the 9-mile marker could be rebuilt, strictly as a fishing pier? They could open 24/7, charge a fee, limit access to so many vehicles at a time, rent a space for someone to sell bait and refreshments.
Yep, it certainly has me thinking.
I wonder if the Causeway Commission has an opening for new members.
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