What’s your top outdoors story for 2015?
For hunters and fishermen, the biggest factors are the usual plans made in January: Maybe it’s the individual quest to take that trophy buck you’ve seen skirting just outside rifle range, or improving your gunning abilities for the next waterfowl season, or laying out a schedule for any number of fishing trips for speckled trout, redfish, offshore species or staying in shallower waters for the pleasures offered in catching bluegill, sac-a-lait and bass.
And the hope is that all those plans and dreams came true.
In the bigger picture, 2015 held several top newsmaking stories that put them above others: RESTORE Act funds becoming available to help heal our coast, the seemingly never-ending battle over red snapper, the gubernatorial election and a new secretary for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. There was also a new timetable for setting waterfowl seasons and a new zone map for the next five duck seasons, head-knocking over the setting of the current duck season, the possibility of new goose-hunting zones, an already announced plan for an Atchafalaya Basin deer-hunting area, and fish, monster fish, that set this year apart from any since the turn of the century.
Tarpon, mangrove snapper
There’s nothing like giant fish to pump up the excitement across Louisiana’s 64 parishes, but it was the coast and the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico that stirred this pot.
Five state records were established this year: Tim Champagne’s 18.63-pound mangrove snapper and David Prevost’s 246.33-pound tarpon made the biggest headlines.
Both men avow they are die-hard fishermen, and Champagne’s catch turned out to be an International Game Fish Association world record. His mangrove snapper was nearly four pounds heavier than the old record and more than a pound better than the former world record.
Prevost’s massive “silver king” made news across the Gulf of Mexico, and his story was made even more intriguing because he’s pursued tarpon with his longtime friend Jeff DeBlieux for more than 20 years. He was fishing off Grand Bayou and was near another longtime friend and renowned tarpon chaser “Coon” Schouest when he hooked up on the giant fish. The tarpon broke a 21-year-old record of 230 pounds.
What made this fishing year even more special were five other state-record catches: The 54-pound black grouper taken by Mike Hebert; Royden Lynch Jr.’s near 5-pound ladyfish; and, a monster 12.4-pound gray triggerfish caught by Chad Bonvillain in the Rod-and-Reel Division; Dr. Vic Tedesco’s continued assault on the Fly Rod records, this time a 46.04-pound alligator gar; and, in the seldom-entered Pond Division, a 3.12-pound black sac-a-lait caught by Louis Brupbacher.
As in most years, there is one category that outpaces all others, and, for 2015, that was Broadbill Swordfish, a species initially targeted by offshore charter skipper Peace Marvel some 10 years ago. Five broadbills made the state’s top 10 list this year, topped by William Ray’s 228-pounder.
What made Champagne’s catch even more impressive is that it’s the third world record snapper caught off the Louisiana coast. It joins “Doc” Kennedy’s decades-old, 50-pound 4-ounce red snapper and Marion Rose’s 124-12 whopper of a cubera snapper.
Red snapper brouhaha
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council defied the sentiments of fishermen, who testified against dividing the recreational sector into private and for-hire subsectors and give each respective seasons. The new “for-hire” charterboats were given a 44-day season, while the private anglers had a 10-day season.
Further developments came from Congress and the push to move red snapper management to the five Gulf States, and to demand that federal fisheries managers used improved and expanded methods to study red snapper populations.
Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries’ second year of La Creel, a more real-time determination of recreational catch numbers made big strides in being recognized as a more exact fisheries management tool and was being examined for use by other states.
A new governor
With John Bel Edwards taking the election, it means new cabinet appointments. Current LDWF secretary Robert Barham made it known in late summer that he was going to retire, and Edwards announced former congressman Charlie Melancon from Napoleonville was his choice for LDWF secretary.
Barham’s tenure has been filled with natural and man-made disasters: major hurricanes; the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil disaster; a personal quest for protection of funds in the state’s Artificial Reef Program; dedication to the more than 20 years of work by LDWF staffers to de-list the Louisiana black bear; and, his commitment to supporting the LDWF’s Marine Fisheries Section to counteract federal fisheries managers’ plans and give state fishermen extended opportunities to catch red snapper.
Four years after the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission approved a new three-zone (Coastal, East & West zones), two-split duck-hunting plan — it broke away from a decades-long East and West zones configuration — after squabbles erupted about opening-day dates in the Coastal Zone for the 2015-16 season.
The seven-member commission disregarded duck hunters’ calls for later season dates in pushing the Coastal Zone to the first Saturday in November, which moved that zone’s closing date up to Jan. 17 two weeks before the Jan. 31 close for East Zone hunters.
Because of a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan to allow states to set waterfowl hunting dates up from August to April (Louisiana’s 2016-17 duck season dates will be proposed Jan. 7), squabbles arose about establishing new boundaries for the three zones.
The commission approved new boundaries November, a move that cut the Coastal Zone by more than half, moved lands and marshes east of the Atchafalaya River into the East Zone and moved rice fields in at least two parishes from the West and Coastal zones into the East Zone, the latter move to take advantage of the historically later-in-the-year East Zone duck-season dates.
The commission also open the door for a two-zone season for 2016-17 goose season.
2015’s state record list catches
Fish that made the state top 10 fish records list during 2015 through November with species, the fish’s weight in pounds, the angler and its place in the top 10 in rod-and-reel, fly fishing and pond divisions as certified by the State Fish Record Committee of the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association. Places listed are for the fish when each catch was certified for the state records:
Rod-and-Reel Top 10/Saltwater
Gafftopsail Catfish: 5.42 pounds (8th place) & 5.15 pounds (10th place) Joshua Courtney.
Cobia: 108.8 pounds, Grant Derouen, 3rd place.
Black Grouper: 54.38 pounds, Michael D. Hebert, 1st place.
Rock Hind: 2.26 pounds, Brad Tuminello, 8th place.
Speckled Hind: 9.44 pounds, Austin Van Horn, 3rd place.
Ladyfish: 4.82 pounds, Royden J. Lynch, Jr., 1st place.
Gray (mangrove) Snapper: 18.63 pounds, Tim Champagne, 1st place.
Yellowtail Snapper: 6.95 pounds, Jared Chustz, 7th place; 6.64 pounds, Mary Holly Robinson, 9th place.
Southern Stingray: 132 pounds, Joseph C. Fox, 6th place.
Broadbill Swordfish: 228.3 pounds, William Cullen Ray, 5th place; 214.8 pounds, Vladimir Kamenov, 5th place; 173.5 pounds, Leigh Moore, 6th place; 187.2 pounds, Max Timken, 7th place; 175.6 pounds, Charles Earle, 8th place; 183.4 pounds, Sarah Laqua, 9th place.
Gray Triggerfish:12.4 pounds, Chad Bonvillain, 1st place.
Tarpon: 246.33 pounds, David Prevost, 1st place.
Blackfin Tuna: 33.3 pounds, Brad Tuminello, 9th place.
Rod-and-Reel Top 10/Freshwater
Blue Catfish: 96 pounds, Craig Durbin, 5th place.
Channel Catfish: 2.03 pounds, Zachary Elliot, 3rd place; 1.72 pounds, Clint Elliot, 4th place; 1.47 pounds, Luke Elliot Jr., 5th place.
Fly Rod Division
Alligator Gar: 46.04 pounds, Victor Tedesco, 1st place.
Black Crappie: 3.12 pounds, Louis Brupbacher, 1st place.