"Thibodaux, Fountainaux, the place is buzzing"

Hank Williams, Sr.Jean Lafitte...sang the great Hank Williams, Sr. Well, I can’t say that I found Thibodaux exactly buzzing, but, unlike tourist mecca New Orleans, it had small town southern character, slightly tawdry around the edges, but with flavor both historical (Vive Jean Lafitte!) and musical. Unfortunately, I got there the day after the weekly Cajun jam session at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center. Ah well, you can’t make ‘em all. Anyway, my primary goal in going to Thibodaux was not to pick, but to fish.

I had met Louis (call me “Tu Tu”) Gros a couple years previous in a campground in Dubois, Wyoming. He was practicing his flycasting on the wide lawn and we struck up a conversation. The first thing you notice with Louis is his great accent. Pure southern Louisiana coon-ass. (Yes, that’s what Louis and his friends all referred to themselves as: coon-asses, with no racial or ethnic slur intended.) No other accent sounds anything like it. In the course of our conversation in Wyoming, he had invited me to visit him if I was ever down in his part of the country. Never one to forget invitations or toss away phone numbers, I called him from North Carolina a week earlier. Truthfully, I don’t think he remembered me, but didn’t hesitate to invite me to come on down. Later, after we had renewed our friendship, he said that he did remember me, but I’m not so sure. More than likely Louis was just extending me that fabled southern hospitality.

In addition to a common passion for flyfishing, we are also members of the Brotherhood of High School Teachers. So I guess we were meant to be friends. Louis lives in a small, aging shotgun house near the center of Thibodaux. While he has had lived alone for many years, I could see why Tu-Tú (accent on second syllable) didn’t seem at all lonely; friends and family were constantly dropping by. Plus he has his hunting, his dogs, and his fishing to keep him thriving. His bookshelves were overflowing with instructional videos and books. Clearly, Louis pursues his hobbies with a passion.

Though it was in the middle of the week, Louis generously took a day off work to take me fishing. So it was that Bayou and treesthe day after my arrival, we rose before dawn, hitched his skiff to the back of his pickup, then headed south. It was still dark as we drove through the dense fog along the bayous. As the morning eased from dark to gray and we descended deeper into the delta, I could just discern the ghostly shapes of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. It looked like something out of a coon-ass version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The houses we passed looked quite normal -- except for the fact that they were built on six feet off the ground. The only things you can be sure of in this world are death and taxes and that there’s going to be hurricanes and flooding in the Louisiana delta.

By the time we reached the marshes in the extreme southern delta, the fog had lifted and calm water and blue sky surrounded us. The temperature was rising as we sped in Louis’ boat across a endless maze of marshes and tidal flats, separated from the Gulf only by narrow spits of lowland and thickets of reeds. On some of the islands we saw what Louis called fishing camps, but to me they would be better described as upscale vacation homes – all perched, of course, on stilts. Owned by the wealthier sportsmen, these “camps” were perfect getaway spots for the good ol’ boys to do a little fishin’ and, no doubt, some serious drinkin’. Most bizarre was a house perched on stilts that sat all by itself a mile off shore in a huge salt-water lake. Game wardens had used it until storms pummeled it into disuse. Good location for a horror film.

Shack on waterNow is this a setting for Stephen King novel or what?
We fished hard all day. I used mostly a spinning rod with a spoon (no, not an eating utensil, but a flat, shiny minnow imitation). Greg and redfishLouis fished with a casting rod and top water bait. I felt like I was on a cable TV fishing show as we consistently pulled in some nice fish, mostly speckled trout, plus maybe half a dozen or so of the elusive redfish. Our primary prey, redfish are bottom feeders (like bonefish) and feature big orange scales and a distinctive black spot on the tail fin. And they’re big, at least in my book. After catching a couple of reds on spinning tackle, I finally managed to hook one on a fly, only to lose it when it took off running and got off the hook. I quickly learned that the hard, muscular setting off a hook on a redfish is nothing like the delicate hook set on a mountain rainbow.

Fishing slowed as the day wore on and tides changed. Finally, with the light waning and the boat’s live well filled with “reds” and “specks,” we cranked the boat back up onto the trailer and headed north for Thibodaux. It had been a fine day on the water. Thanks, Tu Tu!

Thibodaux buildingThe next day I strolled (in the south, you don’t walk, you stroll) around Thibodaux. While not really known as a tourist town, some of its older buildings feature the distinctive second floor balconies with wrought iron railings so ubiquitous in New Orleans. Truthfully, though, Thibodaux has seen better days, and owes its continuing existence as the home of Nicholls State College. Louis rather wistfully explained that Houma, a town some 30 miles south, had won out over Thibodaux as the commercial center of that part of southern Louisiana. I would guess that the fact that Houma sits on the trade artery called the Mississippi River had something to do with it.

Oak Alley plantationHoping to sample a true taste of the Old South, the next day I drove an hour north through burning cane fields to Oak Alley Plantation. Lined with twenty-eight 300-year-old live oaks, the entrance to the “big house” is unbelievably gorgeous. The classic antebellum mansion is a prime example of the Greek revival architectural style so popular with wealthy Southerners back in those faded days of glory. The tour guides, all ladies dressed in Southern Belle finery, related in their most genteel accents what it was like to live this opulent lifestyle back in the 1800s until The War (there’s only one war in the South) changed everything. You could even sip a mint julep and fan yourself on the veranda. I noticed that the extensive slave quarters, which had been located a hundred yards to the rear, were long gone.

Roadside site: A campaign sign: "Vote for Stan Beauboeuf for Sheriff." Literally translated: Stan Handsome Beef. Not sure if that's an appropriate name for a lawman or not.

Not only is Tu Tu is heck of a fisherman, the man can also cook, which he so ably demonstrated the last night of my stay when he whipped up a mess o’ trout almondine and blackened redfish. I don’t know how the word got out – might’ve been the smell wafting from his kitchen – but neighbors started showing up around suppertime to enjoy some of Louis’ fine cooking. Later, the local game warden brought over some of his new guns to show us. Most interesting, though, was the chance to try out his night vision glasses. Putting them on and peering into the blackness of Louis’ back yard, I was amazed to see every tree and trashcan clearly outlined in an eerie, glowing green. It’s bizarre and a little spooky to be able to see that clearly in the pitch dark. Is there nowhere to hide anymore?

The next morning, after finally managing to staunch the bleeding after cracking my head on the corner of the bathroom sink (don’t ask), I loaded up and headed west. Again avoiding the interstate, I wound through cotton fields and small delta towns. But finally, needing to make time, I reluctantly eased back onto I-10 at Lake Charles and aimed straight for Texas.

Next: T for Texas…

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