Surfing with alligators, shrimp boats: Louisiana surfers find a sweet spot off the coast

·10 min read

Bryson Corso, 50, from Houma, Louisiana, has been surfing for more than 35 years. Some of his first memories include board wax and riding waves on the nose of his dad's longboard.

But, it’s where he surfs that might surprise you. Corso caught some of his first waves off the coast of Louisiana in Port Fourchon.

Just west of Grand Isle, Louisiana, Port Fourchon was where Louisiana surfing began in the 1960s. Throughout the decades, various surfer groups formed to share the coastline. For years, the waves of Fourchon remained the state's best-kept secret.

"Once I was old enough to be able to drive and go to the beach when I wanted, because Houma, is like an hour and 20 minutes from Grand Isle, I always went to Fourchon before that closed. And I've just been going there my whole life. Anytime there's waves, I'm there," he said.

Bryson Corso catches a wave between rock jetties in Grand Isle
Bryson Corso catches a wave between rock jetties in Grand Isle

Fourchon is the closest thing Louisiana has to a deep-water break. And at its peak, the beach would attract over 40 surfers. Eventually it was made private and surfers had to find new ways to ride the waves.

In true Louisiana fashion, they adapted by hopping on boats and catching Fourchon's waves from vessels instead of beaches.

Where the Fourchon Crew — a tight-knit group of surfers Corso grew up riding with — used to access the beach is now a dead end. On a two-lane road tittering into the ocean is a public boat launch – where they typically head out. When the waves are head high, waves breaks can be seen from where the bridge to access the beach had been.

"If we wanted to go to Fourchon, we would have to sneak on, go by boat and just try to be incognito, and it doesn't always work out. We've gotten run out of there several times, threatened with like fines and tickets and whatnot so, but we still go," Corso said.

Sharing spaces with dolphins and bathing in mosquitos

The rich water of the Gulf and marshes is teeming with wildlife. Most surfers have stories to share about riding with dolphins, pelicans and the occasional alligator.

"There's so many encounters with dolphins, it's not even funny. They love the area just as much as we do apparently," Corso said.

He’s seen coyotes, deer prints, rabbits, many types of birds, hermit crabs, and plenty of mosquitoes. From his board, he’s watched a pelican feeding frenzy, dive bombing into the water, or flocks of a 100 pelicans air glide feet from the water.

Grand Isle surfer and dolphins
Grand Isle surfer and dolphins

Enduring the walls of mosquitos on the beach at dusk is "worth it" to Corso.

"I love nature. I find joy out of just seeing a flock of pelicans fly by," he said.

Louisiana surfer Kristen Stanley, 46, remembers being caught in the middle of a feeding frenzy off the Grand Isle coast. She had a break from work mid-week and went surfing in The Cove alone. But it was inundated with life. Dolphins were feeding off Redfish that were hunting smaller fish, and above were hundreds of birds getting in on the action.

Paddling out, she started to question if it was safe. But then a dolphin popped its head above water to size up Stanley.

Dolphins play in the surf off Grand Isle while a surfer watching in the rain
Dolphins play in the surf off Grand Isle while a surfer watching in the rain

“And then they kind of all backed up a little bit and there were fish everywhere with birds and dolphins. And then this big sunbeam came through and then all of a sudden I said ‘Just let go.’ And then I had the best day,” she said.

At the beginning of 2020, Stanley was surfing in a similar spot when she saw police lights at the end of the beach. She assumed they were closing the beach to the public due to COVID-19. But instead a seven-foot alligator was discovered washed ashore. Upon finding out, she waded back into the water.

"If your heart's not in it, you're definitely not going to be at those beaches," she said.

Stanley learned how to surf while living in Florida and upon moving to Covington, Louisiana, she wasn't aware of any places to surf there. That was until her late partner Jacques Favret, who died suddenly earlier this year, discovered Pontcha Surf Club.

After finding out about a group of people that traveled to Grand Isle to surf, Favret had one question for Stanley.

"You want to go?" he asked her.

A few days later they headed out to Grand Isle and met what ended up becoming Pontcha Surf Club.

To surf Louisiana, you must understand its challenges

Down a two-lane toll road inching toward the edge of the state, past sunken barges and hurricane shredded homes, is the surf of Louisiana. Ocean swells are created by many things — wind, depth of sand bars — but in Louisiana, waves come from weather anomalies. And the hunt for the perfect ride is ever evolving.

Louisiana surfers never know what they’ll come across in the Gulf. From those who work in the gulf — drilling rigs and shrimp boats — to natural disasters — hurricanes and oil spills — and every day Grand Isle life — shifting sand, sharing the water with sports fishermen and wildlife.

Corso describes the waves of Louisiana as "finicky." Ridable waves come in different forms throughout the year. In the wintertime, surfers look for cold fronts. The head of a cold front draws air out of the south and after the front passes, north winds are produced. But surfers must be fast to catch the wind and ready to dip into the winter water.

Pelicans fly overhead as a surfer finds a ride between the white wash and an oil rig looms in the background
Pelicans fly overhead as a surfer finds a ride between the white wash and an oil rig looms in the background

During the spring and summer, waves are produced by random weather events in the Gulf, including tropical storms and hurricanes.

"You really have to know what creates waves in the Gulf of Mexico because it's not like an ocean where you have ocean swells. The Pacific Ocean is so vast, there's always several storms at any given time somewhere in the Pacific that's going to produce a swell. The Gulf is like a lake. You got to throw a rock in it to make some ripples," Corso said.

The most reliable surfing spot on the Louisiana coastline is The Cove, though it’s not what it once was. Grand Isle beaches have gone through many forms — pre-Hurricane Katrina, post-Katrina with rock jetties, to the current "beaches" at Grand Isle.

To dissuade erosion and maintain Grand Isle's place in the Gulf, rock walls and sand "burrito" levees replaced the island's dunes to keep storm surges at bay. But it doesn't take long for the levees to be exposed again.

"It's not a stable coastline," Corso said.

The beaches of Louisiana are "dynamic" according to Corso. The unreliable, silty sand erodes quickly and constantly. This changes the sandbar depths, adding further turmoil to the surf's variabilities.

A surfer catches a wave off Grand Isle in the silty, rich water of the Gulf of Mexico
A surfer catches a wave off Grand Isle in the silty, rich water of the Gulf of Mexico

Earlier in the year, the sandbar at The Cove shifted and the waves stopped coming through. Surfers started scouring the coast for other spots.

“That part is frustrating. But it forces you to go explore and find new places. And let me tell you, I've found so many great waves by doing that, just walk over the levee on a hunch," Corso said.

One of those hunches led Corso to a new spot on Grand Isle called, "Birch Lane" though some dubbed it "Bryson's Point," while The Cove was in a lull and the sandbars shifted. The Cove was recently restored over the winter. Since then, the sandbar has lit back up.

"I thank God for every day I get to spend in the water. I put God first then family and surfing is considered a blessing," Corso added.

Long-time surfers and the next generation find common ground

Louisiana's eroding coastline provides a dynamic jigsaw puzzle to those willing to ride its waves, a group of about 70 dedicated surfers. They are made up of a combination of old and new — old style, new mindset.

Pontcha Surf Club has gradually reintroduced surfing into Louisiana's coastline over four years.

"I think with surfing, it's not just about the surfing. It's more, 'What can we do to help Louisiana become the best it can be?'" Pontcha Surf Club co-founder Keegan Matthew said.

Matthew, 30, founded Pontcha Surf Club in 2017. As Pontcha was just getting off the ground, established crews met new crews when Matthew met Corso by accidentally running into him with his board out at The Cove. Now they rub elbows in the silty water.

On the beach, the two examined a map and discussed sandbars they could paddle to from The Cove.

"This is how we scout for new places," Matthew said.

Sport fishermen head out on boats as individuals wade out into waist-deep water — a few dozen feet out — fishing line in tow.

Surfers in Grand Isle catch waves as the sun rises
Surfers in Grand Isle catch waves as the sun rises

Sitting on the gnawed beach of The Cove are two commercial fishermen working in Grand Isle for the summer. Beside them are two surfboards rented from Island Adventure Rental in Grand Isle, Matthew's first steps toward a surf shop on the island.

"Those were my first two boards," Matthew said with a bittersweet smile on his face.

He has a vision for the beginnings of a surf shop and club spot with a courtyard of boards to choose from and people pay a monthly or yearly fee for access to a "crazy collection." The space will also be a safe location to leave personal boards. He got the idea from a club along the California coast called Traveler Surf Club where people have access to surfboard storage and hot showers.

‘We’re from Louisiana, darlin’'

Matthew got his first surfboard from a skating friend for $50 in 2013.

"It's still in Pensacola in my condo. I've actually never ridden it, but it's a little commemorative piece. It's like 'This started this whole thing,'" he said.

He took the board in the water but never managed to stand on it while surfing in Alabama. An orange board the commercial fishermen had was the first board Matthew caught a wave with.

"But now I've got a whole rack of boards in a warehouse. My, my, how things have changed," he said. "It's become a life."

Keegan Matthew
Keegan Matthew

Matthew's Pontcha Surf club started to gain attention and people inquired about the surf in Louisiana — whether a transplant, local or original Fourchon Crew members.

"Locals only" is a common mindset along other coastlines where locals are only allowed to surf. But in Louisiana, most people that surf the Gulf aren’t locals, essentially extinguishing the ego a locals only mindset creates.

"No locals, only kooks," Matthew said with a laugh.

"This is the accepting crew. We're from Louisiana, darlin'," Stanley said.

The surf crew's mentality is one of "laissez le bon temps rouler." They revel in knee-high waves, sharing spaces with dolphins and bathing in mosquitoes. They're driven by community, compassion and camaraderie.

The club has one rule to join: "We’re open to anyone. Doesn't matter. Just be nice."

Myriad obstacles come with surfing along the coastline and Louisiana surfers are fiercely dedicated to appreciating and upholding its authenticity. Those who choose to surf in the Gulf state do so, not for the idea of being a surfer, but for the love of surfing.

"We've kind of fully understood that we don't get surf all the time but when we do, it's epic. And we want to share that with the world," Matthew said. " ... I think it's more important that people see Louisiana for everything that it can be. I think that's my mission."

Follow Victoria Dodge on Twitter: @Victoria_Dodge.

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Surfing in Gulf of Mexico is Louisiana's best kept secret

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