The birds. The fish. The alligators. It was my second trip to Lake Charles, LA, in a few months. And the place was better than ever.
You don’t necessarily think of Louisiana and eco-tours together. But it turns out Lake Charles, just 30 miles from the Gulf coast, on the west side of the state near Texas, is a major route for migrating birds in spring and fall. We’re talking thousands of birds. Hundreds of species. So close, you can actually photograph them without having to heft a back breaking, multi-thousand dollar telephoto lens.
And don’t forget the alligators, maybe the area’s number one draw. Four and five foot (and larger) gators, seriously up close and personal.
Plus, there’s this incredible fishing. But more about fish … and painting fish … later.
Birding in the Lake Charles area is a bit of a secret outside Louisiana.
“It’s unknown, really. It’s not been heavily promoted,” said Dave Patton of the local Audubon Society. “But those people who do know about the birds in this area treasure it.”
There are many ways to see the birds … hiking on a boardwalk, driving a three mile loop, taking various tours.
I tried them all but what I really loved was the tours. These folks know what they are doing. They know where to go. They’ve got the equipment (namely the boat). Yes, my best gator encounter was on a road but for birds, nothing quite beats nosing around a marshland or bayou in a boat, looking for nests and crowds of wings.
Okay, folks here don’t think it’s strange that an oil company runs eco-tours on reclaimed wetlands, but for outsiders, this is a fascinating look at coexistence. Sweet Lake Land and Oil built a dike around 484 acres of marsh to keep it flooded year around. And now, it’s home to nearly 500 species of birds who massively come through each spring and fall.
The company first created the permanent wetland so they could stock it for bass fishing. It’s strictly catch and release here, with folks sometimes snagging 50, even 100 fish on a trip. But a few years ago, the company decided to add eco tours for the birders, said manager Bobby Jordan.
We went out with the company’s Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours in a flat bottomed, open boat that could easily skim through the water lilies and grass to nose up close to birds and nests.
In fall, you get tons of birds in the trees. In spring, there’s the added nests and the babies with tufts of feathers and open mouths. We eased our boat in to inspect a nest with eggs almost close enough to touch. For nests with hatched babies, you keep more distance, but not so far that you can’t get a shot with your cell phone.
The birds in the trees were amazing. We’d float by and see half a dozen cattle egrets sitting on branches, orange breeding tufts clearly visible on their heads. And the huge ibis were stunning. You don’t realize how large they are until you are near one and it stretches out its wings.
Gators, Swamp Tours, Fish On!
But for up close gators, nothing quite beats Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. Pintail Wildlife Drive has a half mile boardwalk where we could photograph blooming water lilies at our leisure along with one curious gator who swam right up to where we stood. Even better was the three mile gravel loop drive. You can’t hike or bicycle it, for safety reasons that soon became obvious, but in a car, you can still get close enough to alligators to photograph their eyeballs.
We stopped to watch one six footer as he stretched out in the sunlight. He slowly opened his mouth, which is a gator’s way of regulating heat. And we all got a LOT of pictures.
“Gators are our number one draw,” said Anne Klenke of the Lake Charles CVB. “There are few other places you can get so close and see them so often.”
I grew up in south Florida and used to bicycle in the Everglades and never saw an alligator out of the water so close.
There’s also swamp tours. On a previous trip, I went out with Jimmy Miller down a local bayou and into the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge where we saw anhingas, cormorants, bald eagles and yes, an alligator Jimmy has named Lollypop. Man, those critters go fast when they want to.
And then, there’s the fishing. But first, the fish painting.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place quite like Arts’ Desire in Lake Charles. The idea is to play with art, kind of like you might have done in elementary school. You can paint a scarf, make pottery, design your own jewelry.
And, best of all, the fish. Owner and resident artist Raejean Clark-German uses real fish, which she conveniently stores in a freezer. The thawed fish is wiped down, then painted (the brighter the colors, the better), pressed onto paper, a board or ceramic platter, then the fish is peeled off.
What remains is a form of Japanese art called gyotaku that looks somewhat like it’s been stenciled on.
As for the fishing … sadly, a ferocious storm canceled our scheduled trip, but here’s what we learned….
There are seven lakes that folks fish in the Lake Charles area, all connected by channels, and dozens of fish guiding services. Many guide services have lodges as well as guided trips.
For light tackle salt water fishing, Big Lake Guide Service fishes Calcasieu Lake with 10# test line. The average trip is eight hours and on an average day, three people can come back with 40 fish. Or more.
“It’s brackish or salt water, depending on the time of year and you can fish year round all the way to Lake Charles, clear up to the casinos,” said Big Lake owner Jeff Poe.
“The redfish are sometimes so thick, you can’t get away from them. And there are days the baitfish cover the water like a blanket.”
They use lures rather than live bait because, “Heck otherwise we’d hit our limit in an hour,” he added.
So what do folks do with all that fish?
“They drive in with coolers, take it home, smoke it, freeze it or, I guess, feed the neighborhood,” Poe said.
Poe’s service will clean the fish, bag it or if people fly in, freeze it for travel.
Locals swear what Poe claims is no exaggeration.
As we drove from Poe’s lodge, I was already calculating how much it would cost to bring my son and his family from Atlanta, a nine hour drive away.– Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor
IF YOU GO
The Lake Charles, LA, area in SW Louisiana is on the path of all five routes for migrating birds. Bird viewing is best March through May and August through October.
For fishermen, flounder runs usually also happen in spring and fall.
Brand new in the area is the Catch And Cook program. You can now take your catch to participating restaurants and have it cooked for you by a top chef.
Your first stop should be the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point office just south of I-10 at exit 20. There are four wildlife refuges in the area managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They offer bird watching, boardwalks, loop drives, docks to launch boats, fishing, crabbing, duck hunting and more. Plan on a day to do the Creole Nature Trail main loop and another day for side trails that will take you to Rutherford Beach and other eco areas. And for fishing or crabbing, still another day.
* Lake Charles –www.visitlakecharles.org
* Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point – www.visitlakecharles.org/adventurepoint
* Creole Nature Trail – www.visitlakecharles.org/creole-nature-trail/
* Cameron Parish nature – hcameronparishtouristcommission.org/listing/pintail-wildlife-drive
* Grosse Savanne Eco Tours – www.grossesavanne-ecotours.com/
* Swamp tour – Annie Miller’s Son’s Swamp and Marsh www.annie-miller.com/