This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Today there is a brown thrasher singing at the top of a 60 foot sweetgum tree. It is another sign that the seasons are progressing to the degree dictated by our climate, and the thrasher is announcing the progression from winter to spring. It is always a surprise to me to see that bird at the top of the highest tree it can find, totally exposed to the entire world. If you know how very reclusive it is all the rest of the year, you know how odd it is to see it anywhere but under a bush thrashing through the leaves in search of things edible. It just seems so out of place up there. And yet, that’s where it belongs at this time of year, at this time in the cycle. The double notes are what sets the song of the brown thrasher apart from its close kin – the mockingbird. The latter will sing in a similar way, but it repeats the notes more than two or three times, usually. It really is pretty noticeable. Chances are these birds can be heard these days anywhere we happen to live, if we pay attention, and look up. Just like a person trying to get a message out, they seek the highest perch and start announcing.

Noah Evan, our latest grandchild, was born last night. He reminds me that his cycle is beginning today. If all the history of life, from the beginning, could be thought of as on a moving train, we boarded the train when we were born, and we will get off at the station appointed to us. During the time we are on the train, all of our life happens, and the train keeps moving all the while – my part of the train has picked up computers along the way, my father’s part of the train had none. But his part of the train learned of automobiles for the first time. Now, Noah Evan has just boarded the train, and he will be carried along on it for the time he has. And I wonder what wonders the train will pick up while he is on it?

This picture has always had a cyclic feeling to it, for me. The elderberry flowers seem to symbolize promising new life and, the old brown leaf, life that has experienced the train ride.

The river is at 5.4 on the Butte La Rose gauge today, and it looks like it will take a stand, as they say, at about 5.5 for the next four or five days. The Mississippi and Ohio are still falling. No water coming yet.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, February 24, 2006

Old Wood

Sunrise this morning, a cold east wind blowing.

Yes, I like old wood, old cypress to be specific. Unlike the wood I buy at Home Depot, old cypress has an interesting past, as well as a present and a future. Pressure treated wood is great for uniformity, durability (yes) and availability in almost any size I want. But what is the story of the past in that wood? It is cut out of monoculture pine forests, dried in ovens, sliced up, planed away from its stated dimensions (2X4? – right!), and then, most dramatically, it is infused with chemicals that will kill whatever wants to eat it – be that fungi or termites. I use it. I respect it. But I don’t like it. It has a present and a future, but a past with no charm or character.

Old cypress wood, on the other hand, is rich with information about a past that began who knows how many centuries ago. What did that tree experience during its two, or three, centuries of life? We feel limited by our own imagination, so much more would have happened than we would ever even think of thinking about. There would have been snakes on its lower branches before it got too big to have lower branches. There would have been wasps building nests ten feet up. There would have been branches broken by wind, leaving holes in the trunk that great horned owls nested in. When it got tall enough, eagles and ospreys would have raised young in it on huge nests, but not both at the same time. Young ospreys make plump young eagles. Raccoons and black squirrels lived and fed in that tree, and made love and watched ivory billed woodpeckers come and go, and had to watch that they didn’t become eaglet food too. Spanish moss grew in such profusion on its branches that car seats in Michigan eventually shared the bounty from that tree, and Mr. Henry Ford would use the wood from the crates that shipped the moss to make trim for early station wagons. Eventually, the tree got so tall that it stood out above the forest around it. It could be 300 years old by now, and the majestic size might draw the attention of a passing summer storm, and in a flash that shook the air around it, the top of the tree caught fire and a blue streak ran down the trunk to bury itself in the roots. There must have been an awesome silence then. But later, if the tree wasn’t damaged too badly, would-be owners of the swamp would harvest it and make from it some of the finest lumber that has ever been. The heartwood would never be eaten by an insect, and it would almost never rot. The ten-foot tall stump, perhaps a little hollow, eventually would be cut in pieces by some swamper needing poor-man’s-lumber. He would hammer a wedge into it and split surprisingly uniform boards for his fences, his paddles or siding for his house.

This is the kind of story the old wood can speak of. Every time I see an ax mark on hand-split plank or a little square hole in the side of an old stump (another story), I think of what a wonder it is to have lived so long and now to still be here in useful form, a piece of an old tree that refuses to go away.

The board lying diagonally across the cypress driftwood is a hand-split plank that would have sufficed as a 1X4 around many a Cajun house. This plank may be 130 years old, and it might have come from the old tree imagined above.

Why is that cat always there when a camera comes out?

The river is at 5.6 on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 5.1 by Mardi Gras. The Mississippi and Ohio are falling almost all the way up. Basin crawfishermen will have to wait a while longer for water. Right now it would be hard to even drag a pirogue in the swamp.

Rise and shine, Jim

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Yep, things are changing out there every day. The bright yellow groundsel (Senecio sp.) is popping out all over the place, in yards that haven’t yet been scalped by mowers, in low fields along the highways and just about everywhere else there is a little sun and some moisture. It really is just about the earliest jubilant thing out there – wildflowerwise. This one is in our yard, which hasn’t seen the ministrations of Mr. John Deere since November.

Bird stuff. I saw four little blue herons at dusk today flying out over the river and headed for a comfortable roost somewhere in the swamp. This is the first of these that I have seen since they pretty much all left for warmer climes last year. Pretty soon there will be hundreds flying over at the end of the day, going somewhere to sleep. Also saw the first painted bunting, a female, in the yard last weekend. That green color resembles nothing so much as a parrot, it seems to me. I reported it during the Great Backyard Bird Count on Monday, along with three others that were reported by other people in the state. And, a red-shouldered hawk was eating carrion on the roadside, kind of demeaning for the raptor, but, hey a free meal is a free meal.

The river is at 6.2 on the Butte La Rose gauge today, going to 5.0 by Sunday. Ohio and Mississippi are in a slow fall.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Swamp Thoughts

This posting should be taken in context with the earlier posting for today: “Atchafalaya Is”. That piece is the result of some soul searching on my part, occasioned by being at a meeting where a public relations firm from Virginia (I believe) was proposing its definition of the Atchafalaya Basin. I listened to a well written and expertly presented proposal to adopt their definition. I think their wording was adopted, but I came away from the meeting with a vague feeling of unease. This was four years ago. That day I came back to my office and couldn’t get the wrongness out of my mind. There is a sense of significance that we have for some things, a sense that can’t be expressed in sterile wordcraft or polished speech. I come from a system that teaches us to not simply express rejection of something without having something to propose in exchange. So, I decided to write down, as fast as I could, what the Basin means to me – and the piece in the earlier posting was the result, my definition of the Atchafalaya Basin. I wrote it in 20 minutes and didn’t change a word when I finished. I still stand by the strong personal meaning in each line. As a matter of fact, at some point I intend to take each line individually and write my relationship to it, and make each one a blog posting. There will be births, and drownings, and smells, and alligators, and caged giants and worthy adversaries, and grosbecs in the pot (is there a statute of limitations on that?). I will tell you a lot about Rut Gajan in these stories. He showed me that the Basin is a place of harvest – fish, game, yes, but also the harvest of the smell of willow in the air in spring and the feeling of being in the lake in a lightning storm. I hope my grandchildren can some day relate to something that will remind them of things like this. The memories are treasure.

Anyway, my daughter says when I talk about something, I should try to put in a picture of it. Can’t always, but the rough cypress bench I made the other day for the deck is this one. Why does a saw make those marks? Napoleon seems to always be there, doesn’t he?

The river is at 6.6 today on the Butte La Rose gauge, and falling to 5.2 by Saturday. Like I said, Basin bass fishermen should be doing well, especially in the old swamp around the two Pigeons. The Mississippi and Ohio are starting to show some of the water that has fallen up there this week. It'll take a week or so for us to see it.

Rise and shine, Jim

Atchafalaya Is

The Atchafalaya Basin is:

Beyond ownership;
A place where a great river lives;
Where most of our crawfish used to come from;
Where commercial fishermen make a living;
A place of memories for a lot of people;
A home for ghost stories;
A place of great living complexity;
A controlled spillway;
A changing entity;
A smell in Spring;
A scalped wilderness regrowing its trees;
An escape for pleasure fishermen;
A revenue-bringer for sports shops;
A home for alligators;
A migratory terminal for grosbecs;
A place where once you could make a living picking moss;
A magical place for children;
A place where the Corps of Engineers has a huge debt to pay;
The future home of the Mississippi, like it or not;
A place where preservation is impossible but conservation isn’t;
A place that could die of inattention;
Where many have drowned;
Where many have been born;
A place that once welcomed the village of Bayou Chene;
A caged giant;
A vast residence of the Great Mother;
A place cold in winter and hot in summer;
A place where I live;
An unbroken path to Canada and the Gulf of Mexico;
A worthy adversary;
An idea;
A source of inspiration;
A place for old people to teach young people;
A different thing to each person who is touched by it.

Spring, 2002

Monday, February 20, 2006

Cold Morning

It was cold on the river this morning, and foggy. Rusty and his crew (of two) from Simmesport were out there at 7:00 am, all wearing slicker suits of various mix and don’t-match pieces. Anything to keep the wind off of you. The temperature was 38 degrees. Sure glad I don’t have to do that, sure wish I did. Funny, hunh? One memory of how cold your hands get, especially with the wind blowing, is enough to make me not wish too hard for a return to the good old days. Still, the discomfort seems to be the first memory to fade, leaving the good times to keep you company. Self deception or self protection or just plain denial, I’m not sure which. The picture is actually Rusty’s boat in the fog this morning. Click on the picture to get a better look. They were picking up their nets and taking them away to someplace else. I don’t know where.

One of the early signs of spring is the onset of dewberry blooms. I still can’t believe we won’t get a hard freeze before spring comes. Both of my mulberry trees are in full bloom already, and they got fooled like this last year. We got almost no mulberries because of a late freeze. I hear that people are planting tomato seeds, so the fever has started – the can’t-keep-my-hands-out-of-the-dirt fever. Good for them. Maybe I can trade some catfish for some homegrown tomato plants this year.

The river is at 7.0 this morning on the Butte La Rose gauge. It is still falling, to 5.0 in the next four days. Now I have to shovel off all the sediment that covers the parts of the dock that were covered by the little rise we had. The Mississippi and Ohio are rising minimally, no drama there.

Rise and shine, Jim

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Purple Martins

Well, it’ that time again. Time to make sure those houses, gourds, or whatever, are cleaned out and ready for the 2006 occupancy. As for ourselves, we have one of the 12-compartment aluminum houses and we keep it down by the river. Pictured is Napoleon’s view of purple martins, they are SO out of reach. I must say that in the six years we have lived here on the river, we have had little success in attracting martins. Maybe the house is too close to the branches of a nearby tree (10 feet), or maybe there just aren’t a lot of martins being raised the previous year and now need new nesting places. There are colonies nearby, some in unlikely, unkempt houses but we haven’t lured any away. It is my observation that there are fewer martins in our part of the Gulf coast than there used to be, but I don’t believe that is a documentable trend yet. We have been hosting purple martins for many years, in all the places we have lived for the past two decades, until now. Maybe this year will be different.

Why do people like to play host to these birds? Well, they eat mosquitoes, some sources say, but if you watch them carefully, they also seem to eat a lot of mosquito hawks (dragon flies). And it is well documented that these dragon flies do eat a lot of mosquitoes. It seems that fewer dragon flies would equate to more mosquitoes. So why keep the martins in your yard? For one thing, they flatter you by choosing your property to live and nest on. And it gives you a sense of being in touch with nature to interact with wild creatures in that way. For myself, I like to listen to them. To my ear, their voices sound so much like water falling down and over rocks in a fast stream. It is a pleasant thing. Also, I like to see them come in to roost late in the afternoon when they dive from high up with wings folded until they almost collide with the house. That apparently takes some practice as I have seen some youngsters try it and not quite stop in time.

Different people have different ways to correlate the first purple martin arrival in the spring. Most use the calendar, as “mine always arrive on February 11th” or some other date. But I like to watch for the first big emergence of crane flies to predict when the martins will show up. It always seems to work, and it could be that the arrival is timed for the availability of this ready food source for the birds. The crane fly, often mistaken for an impossibly big mosquito, is pictured here. It is a delicate, harmless animal.

The river is at 7.7 on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 6.4 in the next five days. This is messing up my dock and ramps and I have to reset them. If anybody is fishing bass in the Basin lately, it should be really good on this falling water. The Mississippi and Ohio are still falling a little but there is a lot of water coming down as both snow and rain up there. It has to come down to us eventually.

Rise and shine, Jim

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

River to Freezer

Sunrise behind the clouds this morning.

The line had ten more catfish on it and two gous. I didn’t rebait it, shrimp are scarce. After I ran the line, I set up to clean the fish I caught yesterday and today – a pretty good bunch. Catfish are easy to clean compared to gous, for me at least. Even with skinning the gous instead of scaling them, you still have to take off the dorsal fin by running a sharp knife along both sides of it and then grasping the tail end of it with the skinning pliers and pulling forward. It kind of unzips and all the little bones associated with it come out. Same for the anal fin with that big spine in it. I shouldn’t complain about the spine though, it is one of the easiest things to identify in American Indian kitchen middens in the Basin (will put that stuff into a future posting). But, back to cleaning gous. You have to remove the fat along the back, if there is any, and the fat inside the body cavity. Finally, the kidney, the dark tissue along the top of the body cavity, is hard to reach because it is actually nested back between the ribs. I take out as much of this as I have the motivation to, which is mainly measured by whether my wonderful wife is watching me clean the fish. Once it’s cooked, she doesn’t ask. Catfish, as mentioned, are easy to clean. In the old days when our income depended on how fast you could do all the chores involved in commercial catfishing, I could do a catfish in seventeen seconds. I think I can still do one in less than 30 seconds. But gous take a while longer. After all the mess is cleaned up, I use the new double guard plastic ziplock bags. They really seem to protect fish better than anything else on the market. Freezing in water is best but it takes a long time to defrost them, at least I feel that way.

Ever notice the difference between a channel cat and a blue cat once it’s cleaned? The channel cat has a golden hue to the meat, while the blue cat has pink flesh. Take a look next time. Which is which in the picture? Click on the picture for a full sized image and a better look.

Anyway, after cleaning the fish I usually take the heads, skins, etc. out to the middle of the river and recycle them. Today the recycling started with a single ring-billed gull picking up anything that floated in my offering. It must have been doing this for at least 30 minutes, and I thanked it.

The river is at 8.1 feet at the Butte La Rose gauge, and will fall slowly to 7.7 feet by Sunday. Both the Mississippi and Ohio are falling pretty fast. I have to watch this because if the big logs on the raft get left up on the bank in falling water, it will take a good rise to get them off. This happened a couple years ago and it looked crippled until the water came up and rescued the raft. If this happened and the water didn’t come up enough to refloat it, it would be stuck on the bank for most of the next year. Prevention pays.

Rise and shine, Jim

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Mixed Bag

Can you say that about fish? A mixed box? Mixed creel? A “boxamixed” as Humberto says? I don’t know, but that’s what was on the trotline today. It caught five gaspergou, four channel cats, 16 blue cats and one eel. Off of 100 hooks, that’s not bad. Twenty six percent is actually pretty good. Most commercial guys would have been ok with that years ago when I did it, if you could multiply that by 10, that is. A rig would have been 1000 hooks, not 100. Anyway, the gous are especially welcome because we like to always have some containers of courtboullion in the freezer and we are out of it. The gous I caught today are just the right size, about five pounds each (the 14 pounders in the picture are way too big to eat, I think). That way they are not so big that there is a lot of fat mixed in the meat, and yet big enough to cut into chunks, leaving the bone, and cooking it that way. There is something about the bones that gives a gou courtboullion a special flavor, so my friend Kirk says, and I agree. Another thing, you can skin gous just like you do catfish and you don’t have to mess with the scales. It really works. I baited half the hooks as I ran it, shrimp were scarce. The eel was the first of the season; sometimes I get seven or eight on the line at one time. What a mess – the slime. Last year an eel did a good thing for me though. I was about halfway down the line when I felt a real pull ahead of me. That’s always a real good feeling. The line just sinks down and down and down, instead of the frantic thrashing that small fish do. Well, when I got to the fish it was a 20 pound goujon (flathead, Opelousas cat, Pylodictis). At first I couldn’t see how it was hooked – the stageon just went on into its mouth and I couldn’t see the hook. Then I noticed what looked like an eel alongside the big catfish. It was just swimming there, it seemed. When I got up to the fish and took a good look I saw that the fish wasn’t hooked at all, but the eel was. What had happened, I’m sure, is that the catfish came up and tried to eat the hooked eel (about 30 inches long). It took the eel into its mouth, but have you ever tried to hold onto a good-sized eel? They are so full of slime that they can tie themselves into a knot and then back out of whatever is holding them. The eel in this case backed out of the fishes gills and of course neither the eel nor the catfish could go anywhere after that. It was a nice catfish we got to eat, but I never would have thought to bait a line with a 30 inch eel to catch a goujon.

Spent a good bit of time today making a bench out of a big, rough cut, cypress plank. It’s amazing what you can do with just a drill and a sander attached to it. I made two pedestals out of cypress 2x4s and 1x3s to support the big plank. It came out good, as some say.

Napoleon went out in the boat with me today, had his fish, and had to clean up after we got back to the dock.

The river is at 8.5 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling slowly. The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling pretty hard, so we could see a moderate fall here in about a week.

Rise and shine, Jim

Monday, February 13, 2006

An Ordinary Day

That’s what today was, kind of. The trotline needed cleaning so I ran the shrimp traps and got probably 250 shrimp. I cleaned the line and baited it. It had buried itself in the bottom in two places. If you have never experienced this, it feels a lot like the line is hung up on something. But, if you put a strain on it and tie it off on your boat, and just sit there for a while, it gradually begins to emerge from the sand and pretty soon the whole line comes up. This reminds me of how a starfish opens a clam – just create constant low pressure and what you can’t do by direct force you can do over time. It works. After I baited the line I came back to the middle of it (where I have a buoy to mark the middle) and ran the first half back to the dock and there were three fish on it already. A good sign, I think. We need some fish for the freezer so I’ll be glad to see what is on the line tomorrow.

A few days ago I got some old cypress lumber from a house that was torn down by Gene Seneca. As usual, it was full of nails and had to be cleaned and the ends squared, and the split pieces ripped into usable lengths. It’s fun to think of the stories the old wood might tell. There were no square nails in this wood, but it still could be over a hundred years old because wire (round) nails were in common use by 1900 – so the books say. One board, 11 feet by 13 inches by 2 inches, will be used for a bench down at the deck. It gives the feeling of solidity.

This afternoon I heard a red-shouldered hawk calling from the yard. It sounded pretty close but I couldn’t find it, and I spent some time trying. I thought it sounded kind of strange, sort of between a red-shouldered and a red-tailed – the difference between them being how long the “keeuurrr” is. Short for a red-shouldered and long for the other. The only bird I saw in the vicinity was a blue jay. Tonight I was looking at red-shouldered hawks in Sibley (Guide to Birds), and wow, he says blue jays often mimic red-shouldered hawks and other raptors. It’s fun when something you see and wonder about is explained later like that. I guess the blue jay didn’t quite have the hawk call down because it sounded like a medium length call, or sort of between the calls of the two hawks. But there it was, a mystery explained.

Napoleon spent time today wishing he could make windows disappear. He just never understands that he can’t reach the birds on the feeder outside my office window. He makes that sort of shuddering, trembling thing with his mouth, and swishes his tail like crazy.

The river is at 8.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge today, and the current has noticeably lessened. The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling so we might have to wait for the snow to melt to send some Ohio water down.

Rise and shine, Jim

Sunday, February 12, 2006


Living here is living with mosquitoes. They don’t come and go; they just come in larger or smaller numbers. The smaller numbers seem to come during the dryer times, although they don’t disappear altogether. The larger populations show up about three to five days after really big rains. I’m told that this is due to the females laying eggs in places where water will collect after big rains. So, they don’t actually need water, they are programmed to anticipate it. Pretty disheartening trying to eradicate an animal like that by removing the sources of water in your yard when they can tell where it will be in the future. We tried one of those Mosquito Magnets ™ but we gave up after a couple months. The machine caught and desiccated a lot of mosquitoes, but the sheer numbers of the enemy in this location was just overwhelming. That machine is OK, I guess, for backyards with swimming pools and cabanas, but the great Atchafalaya Basin is too rich an environment for it.

And it’s not only we humans who provide the blood feast for our insect neighbors. Apparently the females need to feed on blood in order to complete the production of eggs, but the source of that blood can include cold-blooded animals like frogs, snakes, etc. The picture here is a gray treefrog in one of our birdhouses. The mosquito on the floor at the left corner has just finished feeding on the frog. There were several frogs in the box being drained by several mosquitoes. I wonder if it makes the frog itch, like it does us. The other picture is of something that I always heard but never witnessed: that female mosquitoes must have blood but males feed only on nectar or other flower products. Well, on our mayhaw bush there are flowers right now and on one of the flowers these two male mosquitoes were tanking up. You can tell they are males by the feather-like antennae they have. Females have antennae that look more like a single rod and are almost unnoticeable, but the males look like this. For now, so far this winter, the other gender, the blood-hungry one, is not too numerous, and I’m not quite sure what that correlates with. Another mystery.

The river is at 9.0 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge today. It has been that for a couple days and will apparently stay there for another few days. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling now, but look out if that big snow storm is followed by more snow and rain. We may get some high water yet.

Rise and shine, Jim

Friday, February 10, 2006


The time between dawn and sunrise is a good time to go out and listen to the world coming alive for another day. It is a good time to close your eyes and just hear what is happening. With a little practice many birds can be identified just from the sounds they make, especially at this early time of day. This morning I could hear towhees on the opposite bank, and cardinals all over the place, and Carolina wrens doing some of their unbelievable array of sounds. Crows are common morning callers, as are chickadees and, especially, titmice. These are all easy to identify if you close your eyes and listen, and practice a little.

Ray came out today and collected shrimp from the traps. He got a couple hundred of various sizes, mostly smaller ones. The combination wire cage/myrtle bush looks like it will be very effective. The trotline is very tight because I haven’t been able to clean it often enough, but the water is falling so the pressure should ease somewhat.

Posting to this site probably will be suspended until Sunday. They did some maintenance on Blogger last night and it's not working well right now.

The river is at 9.4 feet today on the Butte La Rose gauge, and is predicted to stay around there for several days. The Mississippi and the Ohio both show slight rises, nothing dramatic.

Rise and shine, Jim

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


This past weekend was the first annual Eagle Expo, in Morgan City. It would be an understatement to say it was a success. By almost any measure it exceeded expectations, from the boats that ran on time to the wonderful cool weather to the profusion of magnificent eagles. No one could quite believe that by just driving to Morgan City you could see so many American Bald Eagles. On Friday afternoon, in a space of three hours on Lake Verret and Bayou Magazile we saw 17 individuals and we saw them 29 times. We saw them as immature brown birds and we saw them as the white-headed, white-tailed adults. We saw them sitting majestically atop huge, old cypress trees and we saw them on 2000 pound nests tending young. We even saw them catching fish right out there in plain sight. And when we saw them at a distance to begin with, suddenly they would fly right over the boat at a height of 30 feet. Even the cheapest cameras got good pictures of eagles.

But, oddly enough, the eagle was not the highlight of my birding weekend. No, it was a single peregrine falcon, sitting in silhouette with the fading sun in the background. My first peregrine falcon in Louisiana, although my friends seem to see them pretty often. There is something about that bird and the stories about them. They don’t scavenge carrion like eagles. No, they descend from heights at over 100 miles per hour and knock their prey dead in a single blow. That kind of power seems to deserve that we notice them, and be impressed. Sometimes they seem to get carried away, apparently, and kill for the sake of doing it – not for food. Maybe they have to practice? Mike told me a story this weekend about some peregrines that spend the winter on Marsh Island. They learn to follow the airboats and when ducks flush from the boats, the peregrines dive on them and knock them out of the air, and often don’t eat them. He says when you’re driving the boat and you see ducks get up and you look back over your shoulder, you see this pigeon-sized bullet coming down from the sky shaped like a feathered fist. And wham! Of course something does eat the ducks, the mink and otter and coons are only too happy to find an easy meal.

Anyway, I like peregrines, and it was the top bird for me that weekend – even with the eagles on parade, as it were.

The Carolina wren picks weevils, I think, out of the black oil sunflower seeds. I know it sure scatters the seeds looking for something, and weevils might be that something.

The river is at 10.0 feet at the Butte La Rose gauge today. It will fall a foot or so more and then it should take a stand. The Mississippi and Ohio are just kind of being sedate for the time being.

Rise and shine, Jim

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


It was really windy on the river yesterday. It blew steadily from the east southeast all day at what seemed like 30 miles per hour, with gusts higher than that. I know that I am nervous when the wind blows, even now. I remember it always seems to make everything harder to do on the water when the wind blows. The boat doesn’t stay where you want it. You can’t predict which way something is going to go because you have both wind and the current to contend with. The wind pushes you upcurrent and the line gets snagged on logs on the bottom that were not a problem before (I guess that’s hard to visualize). When it’s cold, the wind makes it seem ten times colder – especially if you have to have wet hands all day and they are numb and you can’t hold the hooks very well and they hook you. Boats don’t fit on trailers when the wind blows at a landing, or it seems like they just don’t want to climb the trailer right. You get wet when the wind blows and you have to run an open bateau in the waves, and the hard, cold spray takes your breath away when it hits you in the face. When I used to smoke (37 years ago), and I would run my boat with the wind, the smoke from the cigarette would follow along without moving – at 30 mph. Looked unnatural.

These mornings I see cat prints in the frost, and Napoleon still gets his fish most days.

The river is at 10.8 on the Butte La Rose gauge, and starting to fall slowly. It will fall two feet more in the next few days. Still nothing much on the Mississippi and Ohio.

Rise and shine, Jim

Monday, February 06, 2006

Bees and Birds

The image of the goldfinch through the window after the rain this morning is a good one I think. It sure shows the winter plumage well. As a sure identifier, the black and white wings are hard to miss. Some of the goldfinches are starting to convert to their spring color pattern already and it’s pretty early to be doing that. A couple years ago quite a few of these did that and people were asking about the new kind of bright yellow bird with the black cap that suddenly showed up at the feeders. It was hard to convince some folks that it was the same bird as the drab one we usually see. We just don’t get to see them in their bright colors, they go north too early, usually.

The bees are taking over the hummer feeder near my window. I didn’t think they could get enough out of it with the bee guards on the ports, but they obviously do. This morning I saw the female rufous hummer come and clear out the bees and feed – actually I saw her do this several times within the space of a couple of hours. The bees didn’t threaten her, as far as I could see.

The river is at 11.0 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge today. It will fall almost three feet during the next week. The Ohio and upper Mississippi are rising very slowly, probably about enough to hold our water at about seven feet for awhile. I did manage to get the tree off of the dock, and off it went downriver to bother someone else.

Rise and shine, Jim

Sunday, February 05, 2006

River Shrimp

If you depend on line fishing to make a living, one of the ongoing things you have to do is catch bait - not buy - catch. Not buy, partly because you need too much, and partly because the difference between making a living and not quite making it is how little overhead you have. There isn’t much room to move around in line fishing economics. One way to catch enough bait is to use river shrimp, Macrobrachium ohione (Google for more details). Through much of the water cycle in the Basin, this is the bait of choice – it is plentiful (if you know what you’re doing), is easy to bait with, and it really catches fish. Because my rig was 1000 hooks, it was necessary to catch at least that many shrimp a day, and usually we baited that 1000 hooks more than once. Catching the shrimp was always satisfying, if you got what you needed. If you do it today, depending on the preferred technique, you can use traps made of ¼ inch wire or bushes made of wax myrtle and dipped with a big dipnet. Before wire was available, the old guys used to make shrimp boxes out of slats of cypress nailed to a frame, similar to the fish boxes discussed in an earlier posting. The flues, or throats, were ½ inch slots the whole length of the front and back of the box. The whole box was maybe 20”X20”X30”. The box usually had to be in the water for a while before it got really good, it had to be slimy and smell sour. If you add dead fish parts used as bait, the aroma was unique. Somehow wire just doesn’t have the character that the old boxes had, but just like most everything else we do now, it is easier. Many things could be written here about these shrimp, but I try to keep these postings to less than two pages because I don’t care to read long things on the computer screen, and I suspect you don’t either. I might mention that these shrimp are aggressive. They will kill anything they can catch and hold down long enough, including each other. They are so sensitive to the danger of being attacked by their kin that they appear to maintain a minimum distance from each other if they possibly can. I don’t know what that distance is, but if you watch 200 of them in a trap in shallow water, at night, they crawl around inside the trap in what might be called a panic mode. I think this may be because there isn’t enough space in the trap for them to separate from each other - rampant speculation, that. The pictures included here should illustrate the traps I use and the size of the shrimp suitable for bait. Maximum size is about 3.5 inches, but not many get that big.

The river is at 10.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge today. Still not much drift, but a big tree has become stuck to the side of my dock. Too much current to work it off right now but the river will start to fall and drop about a foot in the next five days, hopefully making it easier to move the tree. The Mississippi is falling and so is the Ohio. The trotline should lose a little of its tension, and that’s very good.

Rise and shine, Jim

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Old Tools

I don’t know why people feel comfortable, or interested, in the presence of these things. Some folks collect old hand tools like saws and planes, others collect old kitchen ranges (I stayed with one such last week), and others, others. As for me, it just seems to make me feel good to be around tools that people used to use and don’t anymore. I’m thinking now that I am often asked about the raft that is tied to my floating dock. The raft falls into the “old tools” category, I think, actually it is a replica. The likeness attached shows the raft. It is 30+ feet long, about 12 feet wide, and is supported by cottonwood logs (usually three). Only cottonwood is mentioned in the old stories – it comes in big logs, floats high, and floats virtually forever. I have the raft because it reminds me of a time when people were born, lived their lives, and died in the Basin. It was an essential part of houseboat living – in essence it was the back yard when the water was high. Bear in mind that the water in the Basin didn’t always have the great fluctuation it has now, so that in the early half of the last century a yearly rise and fall of only four feet was usual, but that was enough to cover the natural banks from time to time. It was possible to keep chickens and pigs “on the bank” along the bayous in the old swamp, during low water, and these fed the families and no doubt served as pets for the kids. But when the water came up in the spring, there was no place for the animals to go, so the raft (actually called a “crib”) would board the livestock until the water receded. It also served as the place you kept your fish box. A place was provided between the logs to fit this 3 foot by 4 foot (size varied) “fish car” – made of cypress slats nailed onto a frame. The fish car kept the fish alive until a fish boat (buyer) came to visit and took the fish. There was no ice so the fish had to be kept alive. The over-stuffing of these fish boxes during warm weather, and the subsequent losses, caused the only regulation setting out a closed season on catfish that this state has ever had. More on that later.

So, even though I do maintain the raft/crib in the river for nostalgic reasons , in fact it is still useful even in our time. I work on it when I need an open space, I hang shrimp traps from it, and it’s a good place to sit and fish in the winter when you want to be in the sun. Even now it reminds me of a back yard, and although it’s a pain to keep up with it as the water rises and falls, and it’s ugly, I’m probably more fond of it than I am of the floating dock it’s attached to.

It was cold the other morning and Napoleon didn’t seem to like the frostiness.

The river is at 10.0 feet at the Butte La Rose gauge. It will stop rising there and come to a stand for a few days. You can tell it’s not rising anymore by the fact that there is almost no debris (drift) in it (good, I can stop cleaning the trotline). Watch as you cross Whiskey Bay, not much floating downstream. The Mississippi will rise very slowly for a couple more days, but the Ohio is FALLING, like 4 feet a day, and that will pull the plug for this early rise.

Rise and shine, Jim