By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan
There’s nothing worse than watching an old friend suffer, particularly when your pal positively impacts countless lives. That’s how Capt. Ryan Lambert feels about the Mississippi Delta — the southern terminus of America’s largest river and home to some absolutely stellar bass fishing.
“The Delta’s largemouth bass action is incredible,” said Lambert, who opened Cajun Fishing Adventures in Buras, La. in 1994. “Toledo Bend has always been great, but the local waters here (in Buras) where I cut my teeth will always be my favorite. And if you go down the Delta to Venice, that’s something special there — you can catch 100 fish a day. When the river is low, there’s no better fishery.”
A Louisiana native, Lambert has made his living as a guide and lodge operator for 39 years. He hosts about 4,500 sportsmen a year through his Buras lodge and also has a partnership in a hunting/fishing facility in Mexico.
“Before I started guiding full-time, I worked for a chemical company for 21 years,” he said. “I would work all night and guide all day for 15 of those years, until fishing got bigger than working.”
Lambert mostly targets redfish, speckled trout and other saltwater species, but he’s a big fan of the Delta’s bass fishery. He never tires of the saltwater scene, but those greenback gluttons are his hidden passion.
Lambert knows well the potential of flipping jigs and Texas-rigged plastics into Roseau cane pockets or punching hyacinth mats with creature baits. But long removed from his days of competing in B.A.S.S. Federation events, he’s now content to move off the heavy vegetation and pursue more enjoyable action with spinnerbaits, crankbaits and light worms fished along outside grass lines.
“I like to fight the fish, not just jerk them in the boat,” Lambert said. “If you do it for competition, that’s okay; but I put on a little 4-inch worm, move out to the secondary grass lines where I can fight the fish and have more fun.”
Now, coastal erosion threatens what he holds dear; but Lambert’s not going to sit still and watch it happen. An outspoken proponent for Delta restoration, he’s been on an urgent mission to stem the tide, so to speak, of natural forces and shift the momentum.
An unrestrained Mississippi River would have no problem maintaining its Delta landmass, but an unrestrained Mississippi River is a powerful beast with devastating potential. Case in point: the Great Flood of 1927; the nation’s worst flood, which inundated some 27,000 square miles throughout Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas.
The event prompted the Flood Control Act of 1928, which directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the world’s longest system of levees. Good news for folks living and operating agricultural businesses along the river’s course, but bad news for the Mississippi Delta.
By channeling the Mississippi and eliminating its normal seasonal flooding, the levees sequestered the river from its coastal marshes, which depended on regular sediment deposits throughout its flood plain. Since the levees were built, the majority of all the fertile topsoil that the river collects along its course mostly flushes past the Delta marshes, out the passes and off the continental shelf.
Lacking the natural ability to maintain itself, the Delta marsh has been left to the mercy of the Gulf of Mexico, which has been steadily gnawing away some 16 square miles of land a year. With entire islands and countless banks and bars disappearing, saltwater intrusion reaches ever farther into traditionally freshwater areas, killing aquatic vegetation and thereby loosening more land for erosion.
“If we allow this to continue, it will kill one of the best bass fisheries in North America,” Lambert said. “The saltwater is intruding 60, 80, 100 miles into Louisiana and it’s pushing the bass further and further inland. When they can’t go any further inland in the bayous, they’re gone. Bass, crappie, bream, freshwater catfish — everything dies from saltwater intrusion.”
Now, that’s tragic stuff for sportsmen, but Lambert points to an even more ominous outcome of Delta erosion.
“For every mile of marsh you have it will knock down the storm surge by a foot,” he said. “We have less protection now than when Hurricane Katrina hit (2005). If another storm like Katrina hits, it will make Katrina look like a joke. Since Katrina, we’ve lost 192 square miles of land that could have protected us from storm surge, so another major hurricane would be catastrophic.”
And if you doubt Lambert’s perspective, visit his Buras lodge and you’ll see a dark line marking the wall well above the second-story handrail. That’s the waterline stain left by Katrina’s gutting flood.
The complexity of political and governmental wrangling affecting Delta restoration is a well-documented drama. But that has not dissuaded Lambert, who admits his patience with platitudes has expired.
“I’ve spoken to everyone who will listen to me, but I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to interact with people who just talk about it; I want to be with people who are going to turn a shovel,” Lambert said. “I’m turning 60 this month and I don’t have time to talk about it anymore. I’ve gotta get stuff done so I can see (the results) while I’m still walking this earth.”
To that end, Lambert has worked with Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the National Wildlife Federation’s Vanishing Paradise program and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to devise a way to capture the sediment that flows through natural and manmade “diversions,” which allow river water to pass through the levees and into the marsh.
Essentially a network of muddy mounds dug with a marsh buggy and a backhoe, these terraces slow the water and allow suspended sediment to drop to the bottom, where it builds up to the point of creating new land masses. It doesn’t take long for aquatic vegetation to take root, thereby anchoring the new land and trapping even more sediment.
Lambert said his project has grown 1,000 acres of new land since 2006 — a number enhanced by the immense amount of associated aquatic vegetation (bass habitat) that has recently established itself around the created sites. Recently, Lambert coordinated with Ducks Unlimited to obtain a million-dollar grant to create more sediment-trapping terraces projected to grow about 2,800 acres of land.
Lambert is currently in the planning and permitting process for his grant-funded project and expects to commence by July 2018. The ultimate goal: Help restore the Delta he loves and preserve the angling abundance he’s seen create countless smiles.
“The best part about my job is taking people who have never hunted and fished before and introducing them to the sport,” he said.
That sentiment continuously stokes the fire of Lambert’s motivation, a significant part of which involves working with legislators for regulatory reform. His biggest headache — bureaucratic red tape.
“It’s all about the legislation and getting legislators to streamline the permit process to let the existing grant money flow into work,” Lambert said.
It’s a small piece of a big puzzle, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Is there more to do? You bet. Is this a good start? 100 percent.
The Mississippi Delta is a fishery like none other and its demise is the environmental tragedy of the modern era. Somebody had to take the initiative and bass anglers should thank Capt. Ryan Lambert for being that man.