A Vanishing Way of Life
Captain Rene Dandry, who as a child spent summers with his grandparents at Lake Hermitage just north of Buras, shares Lambert's concerns. "I've been fishing and hunting down there since I was a little boy," says the 24-year-old Metairie native. "I spent every day in the marsh fishing for redfish and trout. When I go there now, it's amazing to see what's gone. It blows my mind. The places I used to fish—it's all open water now."
Dandry, who obtained a captain's license at age 17, participated in oil spill cleanup work in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. His duties varied from state to state, ranging from oil reconnaissance to actual cleanup with absorbent booms to hauling government agency personnel into the marsh.
While the oil spill took away many traditional regional jobs, it also created employment opportunities during the cleanup. Twelve of Lambert's 14 charter boat captains worked in some capacity on the spill.
"The summer provides the main part of my income that holds me over through school," Dandry says. "I was worried last year because I never had any other kind of job besides charter fishing. We were fortunate to be able to work for BP. At first, everybody was really angry at BP, and many people still are. But BP also kept a lot of people working after the oil spill happened. That's the honest truth."
Dandry, who is pursuing a degree in agriculture at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, took time off school last year so he could keep working well into the fall. He is also among a handful of charter boat captains scheduled to participate in a study this spring that entails catching fish, such as tuna and grouper, which will then be tested by biologists for oil contamination.
"Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill were eye-openers for me," Dandry says. "I was happy working in Venice as a guide. I didn't plan on going to school. But the storm and the oil showed me that you can't take all of this for granted and assume that it's going to be like this forever. Just like that, it could be gone."
Dandry, a DU member, is also a duck hunter. A member of Haydel's Game Calls pro staff, he began waterfowl hunting at age 12 in the Buras and Venice areas. He has since become an accomplished caller, having finished in the top five in the state duck calling contest the past three years.
"Hunting and fishing is a way of life down here. It really is," Dandry says. "That's all I've ever done. It kept me out of trouble. I have no other hobbies."
This past duck season also proved memorable for Dandry. "There was an enormous amount of feed," he says, a reference to the abundant submersed aquatic vegetation produced in marsh ponds when river water keeps them in a freshwater condition. "You had to find certain ponds, but a lot of people didn't realize that the interior marsh didn't get the oil. I was there the first week of the season and the hunting was unbelievable.
"Venice is unique, especially in the winter," Dandry adds. "You can go shoot a limit of ducks in the morning and come back and catch a limit of trout in the afternoon."
Because of the time he has spent on the water, Dandry is well aware of how great a challenge it will be to simply conserve the coastal marsh that remains. "Where I live now, in Lake Charles, people my age recognize the problems," he says. "Those who grew up hunting and fishing like I did see the differences in the marsh. They pay attention to it. People who are just getting into it, they don't understand what's being lost. They don't know what it was like before."
Unless coastal wetland loss and degradation issues are addressed on a grand scale—and soon—future generations are destined to never know. The marsh and a treasured way of life are vanishing before our eyes.
BEARY EMBODIES STATE'S RICH DECOY-CARVING TRADITION At age 78, Andrew "Tom" Beary figures to be a senior statesman within the Louisiana decoy-carving fraternity. The carving tradition runs deep in the state—well into the 1800s.
There is little wonder why. Located at the terminus of the Mississippi Flyway, Louisiana has hosted millions of wintering waterfowl for eons. Hunting ducks and geese has been a way of life here since before European settlers first pitched a tent.
A native of Thibodaux, Beary has been turning chunks of tupelo gum and cypress root into decoys since 1956. His mentor was the late Reme Roussell of nearby Raceland, recognized by many as being among the state's all-time finest artisans.
"I used to go and sit and watch Reme Roussell make decoys," Beary recalls. "He would let me stay all day if I wanted to. I use all my own patterns when I make my decoys, but Reme Roussell helped get me started."
In 1994, former DU board member George Secor researched and published The Index of North American Decoy Carvers and Factories. This reference book provides a compilation of names of carvers from across the nation. Five pages were devoted to Louisiana, with a listing of more than 1,000 documented carvers—the most of any single state.
"The old-timers, they would carve their decoys out of cypress root, which they could easily find when channels were dredged. Cypress root is hard to come by these days, so tupelo gum is used more now," Beary says.
The Louisiana decoy-carving tradition has experienced a resurgence. The state now has more than 100 active carvers. The roster reads like a Cajun telephone book: Allemand, Aucoin, Badeaux, Boudreaux, Brunet, Chavin, Cheramie, Duet, Hebert, Lefort, Legaux, Monnier, Verdin. Many of these contemporary carvers are members of the Louisiana Wildfowl Carvers and Collectors Guild (lwccg.org), which will host its 34th annual show and decoy-carving competition this fall at the Louisiana Wildfowl Festival.
"A lot of the old decoys were lost in storms and fires. But they're still out there," Beary says. "People down here just don't want to let them go."