Henderson: Gateway to the Atchafalaya Basin

Aug 28, 2020

St. Martin Parish, personified: Sherbin Collette

Sherbin Collette has been the mayor of Henderson for sixteen years. But ask him what he does for a living, and his answer tells you a lot about his hometown has changed.

“I’m a fisherman,” he’ll say. “I’ve been in politics for twenty-six years, but if I could still make a living fishing, that’s what I’d be doing.”

That’s a common thread for residents of Henderson—the town strung along the top of the levee that holds the Atchafalaya Basin back from towns like Breaux Bridge, Cecilia, and St. Martinville. Generations of Mayor Collette’s family have made their living on the waters of the Basin. His grandfather fished the Atchafalaya River until the Great Flood of 1927, when flooded-out families salvaged what they could, rebuilt their community along the levee, and Henderson was born.

From that relative high ground folks carried on doing what they knew best—harvesting the bounty of the Basin’s swamps and waterways. According to Mayor Collette, Henderson’s fishing heritage is has always been what set it apart from other St. Martin parish towns.

“Where other towns had farming, we were always primarily about the fishing industry,” he said.  “When the fishing went bad people went into oil & gas. Or dredging work. But only if they couldn’t make a living fishing.”

Henderson folks might not all be making their living fishing anymore, but that heritage means they know America’s largest river basin swamp better than anyone. So it’s no coincidence that Mayor Collette’s town is officially known as the “Gateway to the Atchafalaya.”

“You come here, you’ve got to get inside the Basin,” he says. “It’s a place that, once you see it, you’ll never forget it the rest of your life.”

Up and down the Henderson Levee, numerous tour operators offer visitors opportunities to get up close and personal with the Atchafalaya’s waterways, landscapes, and wildlife. Outfits including Atchafalaya Basin Airboat Swamp ToursMcGee’s Swamp & Airboat Tours, and Mequet’s Swamp Tours offer guided trips into the swamps aboard boats that range from the self-propelled (kayak and canoe rentals & tours), to the family-friendly (comfortable swamp tour boats), to the high-powered (600 hp airboat rides).

At The Atchafalaya Experience, father-and-son team Coerte and Kim Voorhies offer photographers and nature lovers customized guided tours to visit some of the swamp’s most beautiful and secret spaces. And for those wanting to keep the adventure going, Houseboat Adventures at Cypress Cove Landing will set you up on one of five fully self-contained houseboats, which they’ll deliver deep in the swamp, leaving you to spend the night with just the stars—and the glittering eyes of the alligators—for company.

Even if you prefer to keep your feet on dry land, Henderson’s fishing heritage is easy to enjoy, too. Restaurants including Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Crawfish Town USA offer menus that put the Atchafalaya’s bounty front and center, from catfish and rich gumbos and etouffées, to alligator bites and crawfish served every way imaginable. However you choose to experience the Atchafalaya, there’s no place like Henderson to begin your journey.

Things to Do in Henderson:

Take a Basin Tour. To find your way around the Bayou State’s wildest place, turn to the locals who know it best, like Wendy Thibodeaux of Louisiana Tours—read about our one-on-one Atchafalaya excursion here.

Eat, Drink & Dance at Pat’s Fisherman’s WharfHome to the Atchafalaya Club, the historic venue at the center of Henderson’s nightlife since 1948, Pat’s hosts live zydeco and swamp pop bands on the weekends. Make sure you eat plenty of food to fuel you up for a fun-filled night of two-stepping into the early hours of the morning.

Embark on a Houseboat Adventure! There’s no better way to immerse yourself within Louisiana’s legendary landscape than a houseboat stay. Read more about the Basin’s houseboat culture here.