Nate Monroe / The Houma Courier

GRAND ISLE Gil Hildebrand cleaned about a dozen speckled trout, throwing scraps over the dock where seagulls fought to nab the morsels before they fell into the water.

'The fish are back. It's on now,' he said Thursday. 'It's like it was in the past.'

Grand Isle has been a favorite vacation destination for Hildebrand, 55, recently retired from construction business, most of his life.

He missed making the annual trip from his home in New Orleans last year, when public access to the beach and bayside was restricted because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

'It was horrible,' he said. 'You couldn't get here. You couldn't fish. Everything was closed.'

The small barrier island that serves as a vacation spot for thousands of area residents is returning to normal after the spill, which started April 20, 2010 with the deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

For months, a different kind of crowd packed the island. Hotels and many of the colorful camps with names like 'It's Our Dream' and 'Makin' Waves' that line La. 1 were rented out to work crews. The beaches were closed, and response vehicles packed the only highway in and out.

The continued presence of work crews through the winter was wearying to some island residents, who normally enjoy the quiet isolation in the months before its busy tourism season picks up and the local population, normally about 1,500, swells to more than 10,000.

There were subtle differences too. Sarah's Diner was packed for lunch this past summer and winter, when day workers ordered and scarfed heavy afternoon meals, but they had little business otherwise.

'We were busy for lunch and then nothing. It was a different crowd,' said Gina Chaisson, a 42-year island resident and waitress at the diner. 'Tourists eat all day. We turn tables for every meal.'

Bridgeside Marina began stocking hardware for workers when sales fell for bait and tackle.

Cleanup workers in HAZMAT suits on oiled beaches have now been replaced by families enjoying the surf for the Fourth of July weekend. Sarah's Diner was busy for all three meals, and dozens of fishermen were inside Bridgeside Marina looking to buy live bait and tackle.

Most of the oil, officials said, has been gone for months, but beneath blue skies and towering white clouds more than a year after the blowout, the pain appeared to be finally receding.

David Sandifer, a Baton Rouge resident, said rumors of good fishing conditions drew him to the island.

'It was kind of a last-minute thing,' he said. 'We are looking for the fish again.'

Mary and Dale Robicheaux, from Cut Off, said the island is a convenient vacation getaway that they make frequently. Like many regular visitors to the island, those trips were disrupted last year.

'We had to cancel last year,' Mary said. 'This is something we really enjoy. This is our home.'

That sentiment was shared among many beach goers.

'I didn't know what to expect,' said Bob Nagle, a New Orleans resident who took his first trip to the island since the spill this week. 'It's great.'

Nagle was keeping a watchful eye on his three grandchildren playing in the water.

'The kids love it,' he said.

Rodney Doucet, a member of the Lafourche Parish Council, and his wife Jan took their two grandchildren to the island for the entire week.

'We wanted to raise them the way we were raised crabbing and going to the beach,' Jan said. 'This is our beach. You never know when it will be taken away again.

Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle was eating lunch at Sarah's Diner, a daily routine he said he missed during the chaos of the spill and its aftermath, when national reporters descended on the island and he made frequents trips around the state and to Washington, D.C. He said the town, Jefferson Parish and BP officials worked tirelessly to open the beaches by spring.

'We only get five or six months to make it,' he said.

All the island's beaches are open to the public, including neighboring Elmer's Island. Fourchon Beach remains closed while oil-spill cleanup continues.

Chaisson said she is happy to see families coming back to the island.

'We missed our tourists,' she said. 'They're like family, some of them.'

Dodie Vegas, who owns Bridgeside Marina with her husband, Buggy, said the Independence Day weekend is typically the marina's busiest. The marina holds a fireworks show each July 4, a show that has become a staple in the island's celebrations.

'Everything looks good so far,' she said. 'We've seen a lot of families.'

The Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, one of the area's biggest summer celebrations, is on track to return. It is set for the last weekend in July. The rodeo was canceled last year in the spill's wake.

BP, Camardelle said, is still monitoring the beaches, but there have been no signs of oil recently.

'The island is as clean as it ever could be,' Camardelle said. 'Everything is wide open.'

He said the island needs visitors to help recover the lost summer, and he is hopeful that will happen.

'You can see more and more vehicles by the summer homes,' he said. 'Grand Isle is expecting a crowd.'

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