The Pickets Reborn
Cooperative habitat effort saves an iconic Louisiana fishing spot.
Capt. Ricky Brondum had the look of a man heading to a funeral rather than one who was guiding a fishing trip on a surprisingly mild mid-August day in 2014.
By chance, Brondum had four Louisiana outdoor writers and a videographer with him that day to see the very last piling being pulled from the water from The Pickets, a legendary area in western Terrebonne Parish known for big and plentiful speckled trout.
“It almost makes me want to cry,” said Brondum who had been fishing the nearly-three mile long row of oil and gas well heads, platforms, pilings and drill pipes for more than 25 years. “I’ve been fishing out here since I was fishing with my daddy, since I was 16 or 17 years old.”
Fellow Terrebonne Parish guide Travis Miller also watched The Pickets’ slow death as piling by piling was removed throughout the spring and summer of 2014, victim of federal policy that requires non-producing oil and gas wells to be removed regardless of their value as fisheries habitat.
“I felt like we were being picked on,” Miller said. “We kept asking ourselves ‘why us? Why can’t they just leave them out there?’ Everyone knew where The Pickets were. It wasn’t hurting anything for them to stay.”
Both guides had heard CCA Louisiana was working with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Apache Corporation and Fieldwood Energy to attempt to replace the productive vertical oil and gas structures with artificial reefs. Both were skeptical.
“My understanding is they have some big plans for an artificial reef,” Brondum said. “Gosh, I hope they’re right.”
Turns out, “they” couldn’t have been more right. The three crushed-limestone reefs covering nearly 13 acres are arguably the hottest speckled-trout catching spot in Louisiana in 2015, less than eight months after the last rock settled to the bottom.
“If I had to sum it up in one word it’s ‘incredible,’” Brondum said. “Just as an example of how good it’s been, I had a husband and wife and their four-year old and six-year old sons with me in early May out there and we caught over 100 speckled trout in less than two hours. I’m shocked it has become so productive so quickly.”
The idea of building a reef at The Pickets was hatched by Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries and then developed fully by Apache and Fieldwood Energy, the companies responsible for decommissioning the wells and platforms in the Ship Shoal 26 block. With water depths averaging less than 12 feet, the companies knew a “rigs-to-reefs” project was not feasible so other options were considered. CCA Louisiana, which has helped build 14 reefs across Louisiana’s coast using limestone and crushed concrete, stepped in to recommend a limestone reef that would alleviate the navigation-hazard concerns.
With a game plan in place, Apache and Fieldwood donated $450,000; the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Artificial Reef Development Fund funded $600,000; CCA’s Building Conservation Trust contributed another $100,000, and contractors DLS Energy and G&H Barge contributed about $80,000 in in-kind work to acquire, transport and deposit the more than 14,000 tons of limestone. Construction began Oct. 16, 2014 and, thanks to good weather, was finished by Nov. 1. Three vertical red buoys now mark the reefs’ locations.
CCA Louisiana Vice President of Conservation and Habitat John Walther said the reefs are undoubtedly proving a worthy replacement for The Pickets and attributes the productivity to the attention to detail in how the limestone was deposited.
“I’m not surprised these reefs are holding as many fish as they are in a short period,” Walther said. “It’s a hard bottom in an area that has lost a lot of its natural oyster reefs over time. It doesn’t take long for the biomass to start making that hard bottom its new home. Plus, we paid very close attention to what the bottom looked like in the area and built the reefs to enhance the contours already there.”
Apache and Fieldwood scanned the bottom at The Pickets extensively before removing the pilings and found scour holes that had formed over decades by currents passing through the structures, Walther said. Rather than simply spreading the limestone over the area and hoping it would attract fish, the holes and humps were left in place and made more pronounced by how the rocks were deposited.
“We tried to pile the rocks up to give the area more bottom relief because that vertical relief is what gives the bait a place to hide and the fish the place to ambush the bait,” Walther said. “We also tried to spread the structures out to accommodate as many boats as we could. At any time when the bite was hot at The Pickets, there would be 30-40 boats there fishing comfortably. We wanted to try and duplicate that as well.”
As explained by Fieldwood’s vice president for decommissioning, John Seeger, “Our employees not only work in the Gulf of Mexico, many of them use it as their top recreational spot, and have since they were kids. Fieldwood always understood the importance of this legendary fishing spot and we wanted to preserve it as well as we could while still fulfilling our legal obligation to remove the picket structures. With some ‘outside the box’ thinking, it looks like we succeeded. We couldn’t be happier about that.”
Miller and Brondum both said they tried to keep the area a relative secret when the fish first showed up in early April but word quickly spread about how many fish the reefs are holding.
“I’ve been out here with more than a dozen other boats, even when it’s choppy, and everyone seems to be catching fish and there’s plenty of elbow room,” Miller said. “Seeing how productive the area has become so quickly, the question is can we get a couple more just like it?”
Vermilion Bay’s Redfish Point, about 80 miles west of The Pickets, is slated for the next CCA Louisiana build, Walther said, but additional work in Terrebonne Parish has already been discussed.
“We’re talking to all of our chapters across the coast to determine the best locations of reefs,” he said. “Given how productive and popular The Pickets reef has become so quickly, I suspect we’ll be building more in Terrebonne soon.”