Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

February 2nd, 2003

Deathwatch For A Pond
By Roger Emile Stouff

There is a small pond in a subdivision development area perhaps two miles from where I live.

It was, in years past, a crawfish pond, but when the main road for the subdivision was constructed, they borrowed quite a bit of dirt from the edges around it, and it is about two acres today. There are some deeper holes, but on average it's about four feet.

Nobody else fishes it, probably suspecting that since it's so new and recently disturbed there's not much chance of more than a few small bluegill. I stumbled on it about two months ago, and found I could regularly pick up small bass, about ten inches, and a few bluegill with no trouble. Sometimes people come and work their hunting dogs in it, but I have never seen a length of monofilament, a battered bobber or any other sign that it's being fished other than by me.

I talked with the developer of the subdivision, and he told me that plans for a future phase of construction call for enlarging the pond to a forty-acre lake. Estate-style homes will be built around it and sold for a good penny. It's a few years away yet, but after that I won't be able to fish there anymore. So I spend a good bit of time working it.

Having been raised in a small wooden boat fishing lakes from the moment I could sit up straight and hold a fishing rod in my hands, ponds are new experiences to me, and difficult ones. I am slowly learning that while they share many characteristics, ponds are not mini-lakes. This particular water has a patch of willows in the center of it, but there are no trees whatsoever around its bank. There is brush along the water's edge, and the little bass and bluegill love to hide in there and assault a Spook anytime it gets within four feet of their lair. Knowing the age of the pond, the fact that once crawfish were harvested out of it, I suspected there might be bigger fish in it, but even running a wooly bugger or Clouser deep produced on a few feeble bluegill nibbles.

But I go there regularly, because it's far enough from any highways that I can only dimly hear the cars passing; it's easy casting with no trees around, though the line at my feet does tend to snag on stubble a lot. The developer keeps the area mowed fairly often. It's one of those places I've dedicated myself to becoming intimate with, this one more than any other, because I know it's demise is sure. When it's dug out, there will be a large mortality factor in the fish population, but the developer said it will be stocked again. I haven't kept fish out of it, releasing all the little bass, even the occasional one that makes the fourteen-inch minimum.

There's something of a sadness though, when I work that pond. It's a pretty place, and I think I'd like to have a house of my own near it, but with no neighbors crowding me and throwing their own lines into my secret little spot. The bass are so under fished, they hit nearly anything I throw at them. Sometimes, when the wind is up and my five-weight is giving me too much trouble casting, I return to spinning tackle and pull the little bass out with spinner baits. Each eight- or ten-inch one will probably not grow much more, after the pond is redug and enlarged to a lake for estate homes and well-to-do residents, but they'll be replaced by Florida-strain largemouth. I don't dislike the Florida bass, they're pretty and they get big. But native bass hold much more appeal for me. My ancestors go back eight thousand years on this land, for I am half Native American. My mother is French-Acadian, and my Cajun ancestors have several centuries of deep roots here as well. Perhaps that's why I like the indigenous bass more than the Florida variety. They seem to belong more to that little pond tucked away in a partially developed segment of a subdivision's sudden sprawling growth. They remind me, in a way, of myself.

Casting tiny sinking fly, I let it run down where I suspected there was a deeper hole in the north end of the pond. The wind was threatening to kick up again, that plague that fishermen will remember the early part of 2003 for. I let it sink, made a jerking retrieve, sink again, and repeated the process.

A dull thud transmitted through the line to my hand and I snapped back the rod tip. The thud immediately transformed into a dead weight, and I was sure I had hooked bottom. It was so firm, in fact, that I actually had time to walk about thirty feet down the bank, counter to the direction my line was angled, to attempt a de-snagging tug, when the snag suddenly shot out toward the middle of the pond.

It took nearly fifteen minutes before I caught a glimpse of what was swirling around down there, stripping off line, then letting me nudge it slowly toward the bank, only to catapult away again and leave my spool spinning out even more line than before. But at last, when I coaxed it close enough to the shallows near the edge of the pond, a flash of green-white both reassured and terrified me: Not a catfish, not a choupique, this was a largemouth bass.

He made two or three more half-hearted runs, but he was tired. The bank of the pond drops about a foot and a half to the water edge, and when I managed to coast him up to the lapping surface, I had to step out and into the mud to wrap my thumb under the jaw of a four-pound largemouth. I was caked in wet mud to my right knee, but stood there amazed and delighted. I never would have believed there were fish that size in that little, young pond.

The way I grew up, in a slightly-better-than-poor Indian household, with a father who could catch fish in a pothole on the street, fishing was meant for escape, for sport, for relaxation, for father-son bonding, and fish were meant for the table. In my later years, appalled by the fishing pressure in the basin and the lakes of my parish, I have begun practicing catch and release almost exclusively. I only keep bluegill for the table now. But I thought about the certain demise of the pond when the roaring diesel excavators move in, and the likely death of this native largemouth, as beautiful a creature as I've ever seen come from home waters. When the hydraulics pull the buckets down into the mud to begin creating a pristine lake for homeowners who'll have finely manicured lawns leading out to its banks and who'll either fish it or ignore it in favor of the golf course to be built in another part of subdivision, the habitat of this fish will be destroyed and surely him along with it.

It's a quandary I have never faced before. It's said the people of Easter Island once lived in a dense woodland. Little by little, they used up an extremely finite resource, until at some point, some inhabitant of the island, fully knowing what he was doing, cut down the very last tree standing. I wonder what went through his mind when the axe made its first blow to the last tree in his entire world.

Or maybe he'll somehow escape the chaos of enlarging the pond into a small lake, compete for food with Florida largemouth, perhaps having a few of the stocked fingerlings for a snack along the way. Maybe he'll escape the hydraulic buckets, survive the muddying of the water until the sediment settled, and forage for insects and baitfish, managing to survive until the ecosystem restored itself.

What would you do? Take advantage of the resource which, more likely than not, will end in tragedy and waste? Or play the unlikely odds that the fish might survive, to be caught another day by some other lucky angler.

I won't tell you what I did, released it or took it to the table. It's a question maybe we all should think about, and that's the point of this story. A little pond out somewhere, unnoticed except by one angler, who can have a dramatic impact on it in his own way, but not so harsh as the fate which looms on the horizon. Perhaps you've never kept fish for cooking, or perhaps you're a convert to catch and release like me. If your favorite lake or stream were facing almost certain loss of its population of game fish in the near future, would that justify the taking of fish? Or would you stick to your principles?

No, I won't tell you what I did with that fish, because somebody on one side of the fence or another is going to be upset. But I believe the question is worth thinking about on a windy or rainy day when the fishing is impossible. Maybe it'll give the one who ponders it a greater understanding, one way or the other, of this sport, the resource and the thing it is within us that makes us so enamored by it. Or why, in the last moments of dusk when all eternity seems to fall in on itself around that little pond and the man standing on its bank, it seems to matter so much. ~ Roger


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