“When Chuck Uzzle does not start off a phone conversation with, “What’s up Cuz?” …you know something is up! He called late last week more than a little miffed at the scouting practices of some of the visiting Oberto’s Redfish Cup anglers. Bottom line was that he had observed one of them abusing a resource that he has grown to love and respect.

He knew that I had been on the water virtually every day for the past month and was curious as to my own personal observations. With the Port Arthur based event set for next weekend, the number of wrapped Bay Boats scouring the backwater for redfish had increased dramatically.

Meeting a boat more akin to a NASCAR vehicle in every bend in the bayous surrounding the lake was to be expected, the abuse of backwater lakes in the Sabine Game Reserve was not. Because we can no longer guide in the Reserve, I had noticed only those competitors running backwater bordering the Federal sanctuary.
Over the past couple of years, a very small contingent of local guides like Chuck and Mike Rector have tailored their guide businesses to accommodate shallow water anglers. Mike spends most of his time in Bessie Heights and Chuck is all over the Louisiana marshes.

Very few visiting anglers care to take their chances with the underwater pipe and wellheads in Bessie Heights, but the Louisiana marshes are most appealing. The problem from a logistical standpoint is that there are miles of marsh to check out in a very short period of time.

One of the techniques used to quickly inventory potential hotspots is termed “burning the marsh.” It very simply involves making a quick lap or two around the marsh pond with the big engine, thus driving the resident fish out of the grass and into the open water. While it seems a little unethical, it is not illegal, unless you are within the boundaries of the Game Reserve.

The lasting affects of this practice lie in the fact that a significant amount of vegetation is reduced to slaw and the bottom of the ponds are left with lasting scars. Even idling through these secluded lakes on the big engine is detrimental and is in violation of Federal regulations.

Recreational anglers are permitted to fish all over the Reserve and they can run their big engines in the canals from March 15 to October 15. What they cannot do, is run the big engine in any of the lakes off these canals. This magnificent area was established primarily as a sanctuary for birds and wildlife and the various grasses are the heart and soul of this fragile ecosystem.

Chuck spends most of his fishing time silently poling fly fishermen through acres of pristine marsh bordering the reserve and was scouting for an upcoming trip last week when he observed a practicing tournament angler motoring across a Reserve pond. He hoped to point out to the offender that this practice was against the law, but found it difficult running down a high performance Bay Boat in the bayou with a modestly powered flats rig.

Due to the relentless winds, we had been reduced to catching and releasing some very nice reds in a marsh pond located well off the south end of the lake prior to last Tuesday. That morning, we idled through the winding canal all the way back to the pond only to discover two tournament anglers plowing their way through the mud and grass after making a wrong turn.

It appeared that they had already burned the relatively small lake by the time we arrived as the surface was covered with shredded grass and decayed material churned up off the bottom. In truth, because the pond was so small, I do not know if they burned it or just cut it up trying to get out!

I have only seen a very small number of the visitors doing this, but the few I have seen are repeat offenders. After recently taking the time to remind one of these fishermen that he could not legally burn a Reserve pond, we saw him in the same area two days later.

The field of anglers was limited in 2008 to fifty or so handpicked teams that had fished the entire circuit and projected a positive image over the years. I bring this up only because we fished this same tournament last year and attended the Captain’s meeting the night before.

At that meeting, the tournament director, Bob Sealy, made it a point to explain that you could not run your big engine in the Game Reserve ponds. You have to believe that the majority of those same anglers make up the field for this tournament as well. Apparently, a few of them have a very short memory.

While I can no longer fish the Game Reserve with clients, I grew up in these pristine marshes and still enjoy fishing the area with friends when not guiding. It is a special area unique to most of the entire Gulf Coast. For those reasons alone, I am not especially fond of any fishermen that would knowingly and willfully destroy habitat in the pursuit of a dollar.

The fact that it is legal to “burn the marshes” outside of the Reserve makes the practice no easier to accept. I know of not one resident angler that practices this technique, yet they will be left with the destruction when the last wrapped boat makes its way out of town.

The knowledge and techniques derived from Troutmaster Tournaments and Redfish events have made us much more efficient anglers, but at what price? I would rather struggle to catch even a single fish than see their natural habitat laid to waste!