Cold weather chills catfish catch

Dufrene nets a white catfish
Dufrene nets a white catfish, the few he’s catching in one of the worst seasons at this time of year that he’s seen in his more than 50 years fishing in Des Allemands.

Des Allemands fisherman says worst season in decades

It’s was a cold, dreary morning on Dufrene Ponds in Des Allemands and another disappointing one for fisherman Dennis Dufrene as he continued to find few catfish on his lines.

“This year’s catch is one of the slowest I’ve seen in decades for this time of the year,” said Dufrene, who has fished these waters more than 50 years. His meager catch is tossed onto his boat, barely pulling one to two fish per line and, on some, no fish at all when he said, “It’s bad.”Against the panoramic of a gloomy, rainy day, he moves on to the next catfish line.

As Donald Spahr maneuvered the boat, Dufrene looked for the moving line in the water, which means a fish is on the hook. There was nothing so they moved on to the next line and the next until he saw movement on only one line.

“I’ve not seen it this bad in plenty of years,” he said, blaming the low catch on a winter that he has seen get later and later over the years. It’s frustrating for Dufrene, who said at the same time he’s catching less fish he’s also seeing more demand for wild-caught catfish, especially at places like Spahr’s Seafood Restaurant on U.S. Highway 90 that can be seen on the shore of Dufrene Ponds.

The restaurant is a popular eatery for catfish and a symbol of Des Allemands’ renown as the “Catfish Capital of the World.”With blustery winds tossing the waters of Dufrene Ponds, Dufrene explained how March’s colder temperatures has kept the fish from being hungry enough to take the bait on his lines. The fish stay in a semi-hibernation in the chilly waters, which means they don’t eat or move as much.

This time last year, Dufrene’s catch averaged 400 to 500 pounds of catfish a day, but now he’s averaged 50 to 60 pounds despite having 400 to 500 baited hooks in the water.

Historically, less fish hasn’t meant more money for Des Allemands fishermen because restaurants fall back on pond-raised catfish if their wild-caught fish is in short supply, he said.

As he cleaned the few fish he caught that morning, Dufrene tossed the remains to several brown pelicans that had gathered by the dock hoping for an easy meal in hard times.

He observed, when the weather finally warms up, they will go fishing on their own. But, in the meantime, the Des Allemands fishermen – Dufrene, Spahr and Lane Foster Jr. – enjoyed their comical company and even boasted of making a “music video” with their feathered friends. Spahr whipped out his cell phone and displayed a video of the pelicans bobbing and swaying in unison, although he admitted it was to the rhythm of a fisherman swaying a piece of fish in front of them. Still, it’s a pretty cool video, and some of these big birds have even gotten bold enough to walk up to the camp to get a fishy nibble.

Like the pelicans, Dufrene is looking for his catch, waiting on the warmer water that will bring the fish.

So is Harlon Pearce, owner of Harlon’s LA Fish in Kenner, who agreed the lower catch is a problem.

This time last year, Pearce said he was buying 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of catfish a day from Des Allemands, but now it’s 6,000 to 8,000 pounds a week. Mother Nature really controls the harvest, but the consumer decides whether wild or pond-raised catfish ends up on the plate. And, right now, the consumer is swinging the market back to wild-caught fish.

“It’s better,” Pearce said of the quality. “You’ve got all your Omega-3 [acids]. Pond-raised catfish doesn’t have the flavor or texture or health benefits of wild.”

Demand is there for wild catfish and, when the weather warms, he expects his sales to hit bigger numbers again soon.

“The market is strong, but production is soft right now because of weather,” Pearce said. “But it’s going to be a rebound of wild catfish because the pond catfish basically doesn’t have the production it used to have. Many markets are falling back into wild catfish markets.”

As chairman of the Gulf Seafood Institute and past chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Board, Pearce knows the market and the state’s production capability.

“Our life blood is the fisherman and we’ve got to find ways to keep them,” he said. “And, of course, in Des Allemands they know how to do that.”

Dufrene and his lines are ready.

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