JoAnn Burke remembers a time, decades ago, when dozens of children gathered on a small stretch of the Lake Pontchartrain sea wall to fish.
Today, she’s in a dwindling majority of New Orleans residents who recall such a sight.
That’s why she was beaming Tuesday morning when 35 youngsters ages 8-15 turned out for the second annual John C. Burrus School of Fish Program. Organized by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Burke knew the clinic would be held again the next day to another capacity crowd of 35 different young anglers.
With assistance from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the kids learned how to tie various knots, how to identify fish species common in the area, picked up some nifty casting skills, and spent time fishing on the seawall just outside the LPBF offices and the New Canal Lighthouse.
The three-hour clinics stirred special memories for several of the adults who were on hand to assist. And Burke, the LPBF’s Education Director, was in that number.
“For us at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, we worked so hard to restore the lake,” she said. “Our big issue now is public access and getting people back on this beautiful resource. In order to do that, we have to bring up a whole new generation (of people to appreciate the lake.) We lost people going back to the 1970s, who couldn’t or wouldn’t use the lake because it was in such bad shape.”
Lake Pontchartrain’s decline was well-documented. Population booms on the North Shore and South Shore caused wastewater seepage and runoff that often fouled the lake. Shell dredging compounded the problem by stirring up the lake bottom on a regular basis.
That combination led to, as Burke pointed out, a lost generation of would-be boaters, anglers, crabbers and anglers missing out on what their parents and grandparents had enjoyed about Lake Pontchartrain.
That’s why the LPBF was founded 25 years ago to help fix the situation. And as recent studies on the lake have shown, the hard work paid off. The state’s largest natural lake is as clean as it has been in decades.
Still, events like the School of Fish program introduce a new generation to the wonders of the lake. The free clinic is named after Burrus, an avid angler on the lake, until his passing. His daughter, Marilyn Mislove, is an LPBF advocate, and she donated money for School of Fish in her father’s name.
“We lost that piece of time from 1970 to the 1990s,” Burke said, harkening back to the lake’s darker days. “And when the lake finally was removed from the List of Impaired Water Bodies, we were in the throes of (rebuilding) after Katrina. So from 2005 up to about a year ago, the Army Corps of Engineers had just about the entire lakefront closed for levee work. Essential, yes, but it was hard to get out here.”
The children and families who came out for the School of Fish program had no such difficulties. Nearly half of them had never fished before and needed plenty of guidance. Others took to the different activities like, well, a fish to water.
Belle Chasse resident Kelly McCoy attended with her 9-year-old daughter Kelsy and 8-year-old son Mason. Though they live at the gateway to Plaquemines Parish, perhaps the state’s finest fishery, no one in the trio had ever fished before. In fact, Kelly said they had never been on the water before, until a canoe trip with Kelsy’s Girl Scout troop earlier in the month.
The McCoys patiently sat on the top step of the sea wall, with the children casting ably into the waters below. The only nibbles they had Tuesday were from a small fish that kept stealing bait shrimp from Kelsy’s line.
“My son has been bugging me for about a year that he wanted to learn how to fish,” Kelly McCoy said. “We heard about this and knew we had to come out. … We’ll do it again. It’s been fun.”
Angie Gelaya, an 11-year-old from New Orleans’ Mid City area, had never been fishing either, so she was wide-eyed when LDWF biologist Betsy Seals presented a group of kids with a table of fish to identify: bass, catfish, mullet, sheepshead, and many more, among them. Though a newcomer, Gelaya didn’t shy away from grabbing some of the bounty with both hands.
“It was kind of slimy, but not too gross,” she said. “It didn’t hurt. I’ve never been fishing and would love to do this again.”
Jack Rive, another 11-year-old, has been fishing with his dad numerous times, so he wasn’t thrown by the dead fish and had little trouble with casting skills. He did, however, learn to tie several knots at the clinic, which made him happy. Rive said fishing is as cool as playing football, basketball or the drums — three other pastimes he enjoys.
Karen Stanton, another LDWF biologist on hand at the clinic, said it’s important to introduce children to outdoors activities at an early age.
“If you get them interested when they’re young, they can develop a lifetime habit of fishing and conservation, to be interested in nature and the resource,” Stanton said. “It’s important to keep the traditions alive. Outdoors recreation has seen a decline in the last few decades. So to get kids, especially those in the cities, and give them a chance to experience fishing is great.”
Burke couldn’t agree more. She knew that with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation at the vanguard, anything was possible.
“The will was there to (heal the lake), and that was half the battle,” she said. “You just know it’s going happen. You just had to be patient.”
For more information on the LPBF and its programs, go online to www.saveourlake.org.