If not for Bayou Woman, I might never have known the joy of a mother-and-son fishing trip. I probably wouldn’t have glided through the teeming marshes of Terrebonne Parish or watched an alligator in the wild. I doubt I would have ever really appreciated just how much is at stake in Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands.
Yep, Bayou Woman reeled me right in, and that’s exactly what Wendy Wilson Billiot had in mind with her charter fishing trips and marsh tours for women. Billiot is a lifelong angler and licensed boat captain who had a hunch that, given the opportunity and a non-intimidating environment, women would enjoy fishing just as much as men.
She envisions all sorts: women who already know how to fish but don’t have a boat or anyone to take them; Moms who want to take their children; females who want to experience the natural beauty of the bayou; beginners who would like to learn the basics in an environment where, as Billiot says, it’s okay to “make boo-boos.”
We meet up at Falgout Canal Landing on Bayou Dularge, the westernmost of the five bayous radiating out from Houma like fingers. As Billiot explains, the land and the major roads follow the five bayous. The area between the bayous is the marsh. Southwest of New Orleans on the Gulf, the area is called the Terrebonne estuary system.
It is a cool, gusty morning when we board her twenty-foot pontoon boat modified for fishing. Counting Billiot and Seth, her thirteen-year-old son and highly capable first mate, our excursion consists of three moms and three boys, including my eight-year-old, Andy. It reminds me of a playdate with bait.
But not the creepy crawly kind. At first I assume our intrepid guide is joking when she remarks that she doesn’t really like handling live bait. But as it turns out, she isn’t. As she quickly points out, however, frozen shrimp and artificial lures are less trouble and just as effective as worms or minnows, so why bother? Plus—and this is just my own observation—artificial bait enables you to say fun stuff like “Sparkle Beetle” and “Deadly Dudley Junior Blue Moon.”
Otherwise, there is nothing especially girly about our fishing trip for chicks. There are no pink tackle boxes—just sleek, Shimano gear—and no mention of Oprah. In the interest of full disclosure, there is a brief, female-bonding moment over the topic of some cute towels at Bed, Bath & Beyond. I also notice Billiot using an awful lot of hand sanitizer for someone who blogs under the name, Bayou Woman, which has me expecting a tough old broad in otter pelts and a pirogue. (For the record, Bayou Woman is a ladylike Mom-type with blonde highlights and dangly alligator earrings.) But then she tells me about the flesh-eating bacteria in marsh water that can enter the bloodstream through a tiny nick (like you’d get from a fin or fishhook) and cause body parts to rot off. I say bring on the Germ-X, baby!
Since it is too windy to cross Lake DuCade to trout-fish or visit the last living cypress grove, Billiot takes us up a nearby canal. It is divided by a strip of land about fifteen feet wide running lengthwise up the middle. Seth ties the boat up to a small dam or “weir” that allows the tide to flow from one side to the other. “This is a good spot because the tide is going out and carrying the small bait fish with it,” Billiot tells us. “The big fish wait here for the little fish to come through.” Here we can fish from the boat or the land.
"Y’all just watch out for water moccasins and gators,” she adds, oh so casually. “The gators like to eat the birds who like to eat the bait fish.” Usually, only small gators intrigued by humans or bait are a problem. Recently, a juvenile made a pest of itself and ruined one of Billiot’s fishing trips.
Our attention turns to less alarming thoughts as Billiot shows us the finer points of open-face reels or “spinning casters.” (They just make you feel “more like a big girl,” she says.) “Don’t jerk it…Just pull it to the side when you feel something tugging on the line…..See how I have it resting against my tummy?...Keep the slack out of the line so you can feel it tug.”
It’s all very relaxed. “I love to teach women to fish in a laid-back environment where they can be at ease and make a few mistakes and get tangled up and not feel embarrassed,” Billiot says. “I mean, I’ve been fishing for years and I still make boo-boos.”
Under Billiot’s patient tutelage, Andy snags the first one of the day—a sheephead too small to keep but still the World’s Biggest Fish to a boy accustomed to punier freshwater varieties. In all, we catch only a few sheepshead and redfish—probably too windy—but we have decent luck with blue crabs, which latch onto our lines or blunder into our traps—a surprise activity Billiot planned for us.
The fishing is slow but we never get bored. Thanks to Seth’s sharp eye and impressive ability to identify birds by sound as well as sight, we spot beaucoup species, including a rarely-seen green heron. After a couple of hours, we move on to another place for better sightseeing and a primer on the damaging effects of saltwater intrusion into these once-freshwater inlets.
Billiot also uses these guided forays as eco-tours to raise awareness for her pet cause: saving the wetlands. “If people in our own state don’t understand what we have here,” she wonders. “How can the rest of the nation?”
Because of manmade and natural threats, a football field-sized area of wetlands is being swallowed up by the Gulf of Mexico every thirty minutes. At this rate, experts predict Terrebonne Parish could be completely underwater within a hundred years, among other disastrous consequences for the state and the nation.
"I’m a wetland advocate first and foremost,” says Billiot, who moved here from north Louisiana thirty years ago. “I was an outsider who fell in love with the culture and the people of this area. Once I moved to south Louisiana, that was it.”
Growing up in Bossier City, Billiot and her family fished Toledo Bend for “bream the size of a man’s hand,” as her late father said. She graduated from Louisiana Tech and went to work as the secretary for the president of Baker Brush, a large paintbrush manufacturer. When the company closed, friends told her about high-paying jobs in the offshore industry. She moved down and became one of the first women in the rough-and-tumble oilfields, working as a dock roustabout and crane operator. She did her first bayou fishing from the roadside with a rod and reel purchased at a local barber shop. Eventually, she married Russell Billiot, a Houma Indian and crew boat captain. She went to work for him in the Gulf and learned about saltwater angling.
For years she’s watched the shoreline eroding and cypress trees dying due to saltwater creeping in from the Gulf. Manmade canals, levees and myriad other factors are steadily destroying the delicate balance of Louisiana’s marshes.
“When the coast is gone, that culture is gone,” Billiot said. “There are a lot of people here who can’t speak for themselves, but I can. That’s the basis for all this.”By “all this,” Billiot means the staggering boatload of other hats she wears in addition to fishing guide. In 2004, she self-published a charming children’s book about wetland erosion, Before the Saltwater Came, which is in its second printing and takes her to schools and speaking engagements around the region. Billiot photographs and riffs about bayou life at www.bayouwoman.wordpress.com. She is an award-winning outdoors writer for newspapers and other publications. She just finished remodeling an eighty-year-old fishing lodge, Camp Dularge, that she rents to the public. Currently Billiot is planning a new enterprise: Becoming A Bayou Woman Weekend getaways that will offer hands-on activities such as fishing, crabbing, cooking, card games, bird-watching, photography or Cajun storytellers. And—oh by the way—she and Russell have five children, the two youngest still at home: one is a special needs child and the other—Seth—is home-schooled.
I can’t think of a woman who deserves to go fishing any more than Billiot.
For the second part of our day, we skirt around the edge of the lake into the Levi canal and head deeper into the grassy marsh. Billiot kills the motor and we drift and absorb the soundtrack of the marsh. The banks are thick with purple Louisiana iris and plaintain. We pause to observe the first of several baby alligators floating on the surface.
"He is curious about you,” Billiot says, then adds, “We don’t feed the alligators. Some
swamp tours do. I want the alligators to be afraid of us and we need to be afraid of them. There are people out here in kayaks and pirogues. You do not want alligators approaching them, looking for a potato chip or something…
“I don’t ever guarantee wildlife. Whatever we see is what nature provides. I don’t promise gators, but if we see them, it’s lagniappe.”
The baby bald eagle flying clumsily from one tree to another is a rare treat, too. Billiot notices the bright red tail of a garfish splashing on the surface. We see dark waterfowl called gallinules, snowy egrets, redwing blackbirds, kingfishers, great blue Herons, brown pelicans and tri-color Herons.
Not everything Billiot shows us is so wonderful. We also see a swimming nutria, the south American rodent that eats the roots of marsh plants and is wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. On the horizon, we see a ragged line of dead live oaks—more victims of saltwater poisoning.
As we head back to the marina, the conversation turns back to the topics that never fail to get a group of women gabbing: home, children and family. Our incredible, can-do leader tells us about helping her sister dismantle a jungle gym and re-purposing the parts to make a chicken coop. “We’re thinking about starting a club called WATTs: Women Armed with Trucks and Tools,” she jokes.
As our chatty coffee klatch bounces over the waves, it occurs to me that perhaps another new sorority is in order. All we need now are the fabulous fuschia tee-shirts that say WARR: Women Armed with Rods and Reels.
Writer Melissa Bienvenu is a mid-life convert to fishing. As a teenager she did a little casting for bream with her grandparents at their lakefront retirement home in Guntersville, Alabama, but mainly she was interested in working on her tan or waterskiing. Now she enjoys fishing with her family in the ponds on their Franklinton farm. Any activity that lets a busy mother, wife and writer just sit there and hold a pole can’t be all bad.