In late February the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began pulling needles on the Bonnet Carre Spillway, allowing up to 250,000 cubic feet of Mississippi River water to flow into Lake Pontchartrain, and, ever since, anglers from Belle Chasse to Brusly have been wailing and gnashing their teeth.
That’s because spillway openings utterly wreck spring and summer fishing for fat Pontchartrain speckled trout, shoving them from their prime feeding grounds when they’re trying to fatten up for the spawn. The spillway opening transforms southeast Louisiana from Sportsman’s Paradise into a fish-free zone.
Or at least that’s the narrative.
But it’s completely bunk, according to veteran Lake Pontchartrain charter skipper Kris Robert.
A veteran of five spillway openings, Robert says all that fresh, muddy water changes things, no doubt about it, but it also makes the fish far more predictable.
“When the (Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet) was open, it didn’t matter if they opened up the spillway because all the saltwater would just push up against that fresh water,” he said. “You could just run to Seabrook or to the corner of the Trestle, and you’d wallop them in there. I’m talking big trout.
“Well, since they cut off the MRGO, they removed one of the veins that brought saltwater in, so now, everything on the south shore goes to trash, but everything on the north shore from Bayou Lacombe to the Rigolets gets really good.”
On a trip this week, Robert took a client to the train trestle in eastern Lake Pontchartrain, and put 15 speckled trout in the 2- to 3-pound range in the boat. They then went to the shoreline near Lakeshore Estates, and crushed the trout.
“The freshwater jams that saltwater up against the north shore,” he said. “If you look at the satellite photos, they’ll show you that everything on the north shore is beautiful and clean.”
That’s true for a while, Robert said, and the action is stellar, but eventually, the muddy water also inundates the north shore stretches of Lake Pontchartrain and pushes the speckled trout to cleaner pastures.
When that happens, Robert simply moves with them.
“With all the maps available now, you can see what course the freshwater is taking, and that’s how you determine where you want to go,” he said. “The last two (openings), it would blow toward Bay St. Louis and Gulfport, and it sealed off Lake Borgne, so we were catching fish on the rigs in Lake Borgne — the Compressor Rig and the Tulane Rig. I’ve got the coordinates for a bunch of the rigs they’ve pulled out of Lake Borgne, but the shell pads are still there. We just fished a lot of that stuff. The Castle really got good. The MRGO also got good because those fish got pushed into that area.”
Depending on the duration of the opening, sometimes Lake Borgne will even muddy up, Robert said. When that happens, he bypasses it and fishes Comfort Island and Isle au Pitre. Those days cost him more in fuel and time, but the fishing is good and the specks are large, he said.
“I’ve got a bunch of buddies who guide in Mississippi, and they love spillway openings because they push so many of our fish over there,” he said.
Robert understands why anglers feel inconvenienced in the short term by spillway openings, but he said he tries to focus on the positives rather than the negatives. In addition to making the fish more predictable and concentrated, a big plus to spillway openings is the quality of action the region will experience in the autumn.
“Fall fishing in Lake Pontchartrain is always incredible after a spillway opening,” Robert said. “It puts so much nutrients in the lake. There are tons of river shad in there, and you’ve got a bunch of (bream) in there. Speckled trout are opportunistic feeders. They’ll eat anything when they’re in their feeding mode. If you fish Delacroix and Hopedale a lot, you’ll see trout with (bream) in their bellies.”
Robert said the fresher water also benefits submerged aquatic vegetation, giving juvenile speckled trout and redfish, as well as shrimp and baitfish, cover to hide in while they grow.
A 250,000 cubic-feet-per-second flow is a spoonful of medicine to take to get there —the flow could be much greater — but Robert will bide his time staying out in front of the filth and catching the trout pushed there.
This is the fifth time the spillway has been opened in the past 11 years. The structure was opened only eight times in the previous 80 years.