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, April 29, 2006

Bateau Building II

Yep, day two on the apprenticeship boatbuilding project. Today was another good day. Edward and his sons Kevin and Larry worked on the boat and Justin joined us later in the afternoon after being run off of Timbalier Bay. He pilots a 30-foot crew boat and ten-foot waves were more than he could handle out there. In fact, that south wind was so strong today that the water rose in Bayou Teche, where we were, about two feet. It rose in the Atchafalaya at Butte La Rose about one foot due to the wind. That’s a lot of water to back up in a major river.

Anyway, we started on the boat where we stopped last Saturday. At that point we had finished the gunnels, bulkheads and the timbers behind the bulkheads. Today we started by using the three sets of jigs (above) to “bring in” the gunnels at the front of the boat. Both bottom and top strain had to be used on each jig to shape the curve of the bow to the way Edward wanted it look. This is not easy. I have always been intrigued by the fact that there is nothing simple about boatbuilding, mainly because almost nothing is square or straight, and that holds true for shaping the bow of this boat. But they did it. After that, the head block was the next feature to be built. That too was not simple. After quite a bit of time spent measuring, planing, beveling and almost cussing, the head block was nailed and glued in place. It was time to place the front four timbers in and then we moved to the stern board. Even that is not as simple as it might look. The main thing I noticed about these guys is that they HATE to have any space left when two things are supposed to be joined tightly. Note the picture of the timber joined to the gunnel; ALL the joints are like that. The last picture below shows how far along the boat is. The next step next Saturday is to place the ribs on the timbers in the front of the boat and start on the stripping that will finish the top on the sides and the deck. We also have to put the final shape on the head block and the stern board before the boat can be turned over to fit the bottom on it.

Big rain here tonight, don’t know how much yet. But the frogs sure know we got some. They are yelling like crazy in the ponds in the front yard – mostly Gulf Coast Toads and Gray Treefrogs, with a few Green Treefrogs mixed in. It’s good to hear them. Looks like a good night for a survey tomorrow night.

The river is at 7.7 on the Butte La Rose gauge, reflecting the stong south wind, and it will go to about 8.0 by Tuesday, and then start to fall slowly. The Mississippi and Ohio are rising a little bit way up north but nothing dramatic.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Friendly Hummers

How many can you count in this picture (click on it). Hint, I get between 20 and 25. Just can’t get enough of the amiability of these hummingbirds! Every once in a while you see one zoom after another one, but by and large they don’t bother each other. It probably won’t be like this when they thin out, but for now they don’t mind communal dining. The feeders are a foot outside my office window. It is a double pane window and sometimes the flash gets caught in the glass. In the picture below you can see two and even three birds using the same hole to feed from at the same time.

This morning there was a spotted sandpiper (full of spots now) resting on a log out in the river. Seemed strange to see one not constantly moving and bobbing the tail.

I am intrigued by a guy in the Corpus Christi area who is able to use radar (and similar) technology to see flocks of birds leaving Yucatan and central Mexico for their flight over the Gulf of Mexico. By watching them and knowing what the weather conditions are along the Gulf coast, he can predict when there will be a “fall out” of migrating birds at the coastline. He is announcing this to people who are interested in time for them to get to the coast and see these migrating species and observe the phenomenon. What a remarkable use of meteorological technology.

Note the ghost coming in at the upper left. It has landing gear and rudder down, and flaps up.

The frogs were not as active as you might think after the rain last night. There was a chorus of chorus frogs in the barpit at the levee and a few gray treefrogs too, but not the huge response you might expect. Maybe this weekend.

The river is still about 6.5 on the Butte La Rose gauge, and the north wind will push a little more water out. The Mississippi and Ohio are not set to produce any more rises for us at this time.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Three inches of RAIN

Sunset before the storms last night.

It took almost continuous lightning to do it, but we got a good three-inch rain last night! I am always amazed how fast people complain when conditions aren’t just right for what they want to do at the moment. One moment we are in a drought of unprecedented character (driest three months on record), and then we get a generous rain, and still people complain. I remember what it was like in 1999, 2000 and 2001. A lot of things were dying by the time it rained enough to make a difference. This included azaleas and camellias that were ten feet tall, plants that were older than I was. Ever since then my motto has been “Never curse the rain, unless it’s life threatening”. No matter what my plans might be for outdoor activities, the motto stands, no matter what. My activities might be affected, but without rain everything is affected. While I know that it is unlikely to ever happen, in extremes nothing that we are used to can live for long without water from the sky. We can irrigate our home gardens and lawns, but ever notice how little growth comes from that? Mostly it just seems to put things in a holding pattern – they don’t die, but they usually don’t grow much either. Larger-scale forced irrigation using pumps pulling up groundwater, or bayou water, may not be an alternative much longer. The groundwater supply is finite, and the price of fuel to run the pumps is anything but predictable, which may eventually make the fuel finite as well. Water from the sky, we have to have it. Smell it, walk in it, listen to it, feel good when it happens, and, worse case just say “Oh, well”. Never curse the rain.

The hummers were back at it this morning as though nothing happened last night. How do they withstand the force of the elements like the storms and wind we had? And how fortunate to be here instead of 200 miles out in the Gulf when the rain and wind comes and maybe sweeps them out to sea? I’ll bet the oil platforms are covered with them at times like that, as well as all the other birds unfortunate enough to not make landfall before the storms hit. There is evidence to that effect from monitoring studies that were done on the oil platforms several years ago. The data from those studies is still not available, as I am given to understand by some who did the surveys. Too bad, it would be interesting, particularly with the new proposals to place wind turbines in the Gulf. Who knows which way the evidence would point if we could see it?

The rain will also make some water available for frogs to finally make some headway with breeding this year. We missed the second LAMP run completely, and the period for the third run starts tomorrow. We’ll do that one this weekend hopefully, or early next week.

Napoleon is an outside cat, more or less. There is a place for he and Alcibiades to sleep in bad weather in the garage, but the lightning and thunder must keep him up because this is how he is on mornings after storms.

The river is at 6.8 on the Butte La Rose gauge and will stay there supported by local rain for several days. The Mississippi is rising a little, also from local rains, but the Ohio is falling pretty steadily – and that’s the big pump.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Bateau Building I

The levee at sunrise this morning on the way to Myette Pt. It doesn’t look like the door built to hold back high water pulsing from the North – it looks too serene. A little further down, I saw two eagles on Lake Fausse Point, one immature and one adult, not together but both up close. They are at least as common as ospreys down there now, it seems.

How many of us are able to produce a tool suitable to make the difference between survival and not? In that question, I think there may be something more important than is immediately apparent. People who can provide for themselves and their families the things that can be converted into food and shelter may have a way to build a self respect that many of us don’t have. They may develop a confidence that carries strength when difficulties appear. Because they know they have the ability to intervene, in times of trouble they may be able to see the difference between defeat and just a setback. That is one reason for admiring the people who live and lived intimately with the Atchafalaya Basin. There were no specialists to call when something needed to be done. If a neighbor couldn’t do it, or the person in need couldn’t, it either went undone or someone learned how to do it in case it happened again. Each time this happened, a confidence grew.

If we lived fifty years ago in the Atchafalaya Basin that skill might be building a boat. That was a tool that your family could rely on. It was transportation to a doctor, and it would convert to food, and it got you to a preacher to get married, and you even used it to build your house on. The ability to build that tool was a transforming skill. And today, the people who can still do this have a sense of self confidence that you can see in their presence and carriage - at least in the people who once practiced it as a part of their livelihood. I am privileged to know a few people like that.

In two earlier postings (see “Edward” and "Cypress Resurrection"), I mentioned how we were in the process of getting cypress wood to build a traditional outboard-powered bateau. The project will teach the skills to build a boat through an apprenticeship program funded by a grant from the state. In this case the apprentice is Edward’s son, Kevin. Well, today we began the process. Edward has the pattern for this boat, including all the angles and lengths and techniques in his head, not on paper. The picture above is Edward Couvillier and his three sons, Kevin (dark shirt), Justin (glasses in pocket) and Larry (far left) - all three of whom are now learning how to build a boat the way their father does. Each picture below is pretty much in sequence with the steps we went through today. Ain't that wood pretty?! We cut out the gunnels (sides); set in the two bulkheads - this sets the angles for the sides and determines the width of the boat; put jigs on the bow end of the gunnels for bringing in the boat to the desired bow width; set in the timbers across the bottom and then the ribs that go up the sides; and the final picture shows how far we got today. Most of the work was on the back of the boat, we start to shape the front next week. Wow. We got home-quality video of the whole thing, too bad we couldn't get a pro to document it.

The river is at 6.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, staying steady for at least the next five days. The Mississippi and Ohio are both rising slightly, but nothing to get excited about.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Thrushes in Feliciana

Last year when the Mississippi kites decided to nest in the big gum tree near the river, I caught this picture in the fog early one morning. The silhouette is haunting, I think. It reminds you of a kite, without showing you one.

I got to walk around in the mixed pine/hardwood forests of the Felicianas this morning. What a beautiful forest! The purpose of the trip was to experience a turkey hunt from the point of view of a camera lens. The camera was ready, the turkeys were not. We did see one hen and she talked to us and came in close enough for me to get a really good look. She got a good look too, apparently, and took off running faster than I thought a turkey could run. And then she took off and blasted her way through pine limbs to get above the trees. What a noise! Earlier, at daylight, as we walked through the woods we were surrounded by a nice array of singing birds, a very nice array. Without really concentrating on it, I could pick out 32 species from sound alone within 30 minutes of sunrise. Of particular note was the large number of wood thrushes – at any one time there seemed to be at least ten calling from close around us, their song so melodious that you think someone is playing a flute behind each tree. Summer tanagers almost equaled the thrushes in numbers, but their calls are so muted that you have to pay attention to notice them. There should have been frogs calling all over the woods, but a few lonely bronze frogs calling from the little pools of a small creek were the only frog sounds being made. It is so very dry. There are supposed to be good numbers of timber rattlesnakes in that area but one medium-sized water moccasin was the only snake we saw. Getting to see a big rattlesnake would have been a nice bonus. Yep, a good morning in the Felicianas. Thank you, Gary.

This afternoon Carolyn and I fished a little more and caught two cats, three nice gous, and a couple short nose gars. Those things can be a pest when they get started. Napoleon and Alcibiades shared a small catfish. And I finally got my tomato and cantaloupe plants planted. It HAS to rain soon, doesn’t’ it?

The river is at 6.5 on the Butte La Rose gauge, and will stay about the same for the next five days. The Ohio is rising again, about 1 foot/day, and that may hold some water in the Mississippi for the next week or so, may even give us a little rise. That’s a good thing. Crawfish are down to about 2.50/lb boiled in the Felicianas. Still,….

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, April 17, 2006

Pregnant Shrimp

Morning fog can do some interesting things, like what it did this morning at sunrise.

Spent most of the day at the computer, sometimes you just can’t avoid it. The bees and the hummingbirds are getting along pretty well. There must be about 20 hummers feeding outside my window, and about 200 bees at the same feeders. The bees ring the feeder ports (seven or eight bees at each port) and the hummers perch on the feeder and stick their beaks in right past the bees. I have watched pretty carefully to see if conflict occurs, and I have seen none. Amazing.

Today the first-of-season swallow-tailed kites and the Mississippi kites both arrived over the river. I don’t often see both species at the same time but today they were both there and the swallow-tailed put on an acrobatic display catching dragonflies, while the other kites soared high in the distance. The osprey joined the other raptors at the river. For a while now, it’s been coming by every day. So there were three easy to see birds that are always good to look at.

We fished a little at the dock late this afternoon, using river shrimp as bait. We caught two catfish, two gous and one shortnose gar. The gous really fight, more than the catfish by far. Carolyn caught most of the fish.

My trotline was hung up on the bottom, a result of something floating onto it during the higher water we had in early spring. I can usually take care of this without losing any line, but this time it was hung in two places about 30 feet apart. I had to cut the line and retie it, losing about six hooks worth of line in the process. It should be OK now. This will be the first time I will have been able to leave a line in the water for the whole year. The water didn’t rise enough for me to have to take it out. It can handle up to 14 feet, and it only got up to 11.5 this year. I will have to change the stageons soon because the swivels are coming apart, as you would expect them to after this long in the water.

The river shrimp are running hot and heavy right now. I’m catching several hundred to the trap without having to bait them. Today’s catch included the first female of the season with embryos – they look like what we would probably call “eggs” under the tail. The old fishermen say they never bait with a shrimp with “eggs” because fish don’t eat them. Might be an interesting project to find out if the shrimp acquire some distasteful characteristics when in that condition. Still catching eels in the traps, although most of them are less than 24 inches long now, and only one to the trap.

It has been so dry that I have been reluctant to plant the tomato and cantaloupe plants that I have. My beds are made of that high organic flowerbed builder they sell in bulk and it’s really hard to wet when it dries out for a long time. It has dried out, of course, really dried out. So, I buried ten one-gallon jugs in the beds, right up to the very top of the jugs. Each one has small holes drilled in it so that when I fill it with water, the water slowly leaks out into the surrounding soil and does a good job of getting the water deep into the bed. Tomorrow I will plant the plants, I think. I was pleased so see some earthworms about a foot deep in the beds where some moisture remained.

After a long absence, the mosquito population has appeared. There is absolutely no water anywhere for them to breed in, and I understand they don’t use the river (really?). Where are they coming from?

The river is at 5.8 on the Butte La Rose gauge and will rise to 6.4 by Thursday, but that’s about it. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling hard and so will we in about ten days. I feel for the Basin crawfishermen, some of them in the levee towns rely heavily on crawfishing for most of their income for the year. The betting crowd might be slim at the city park baseball games this summer.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Cypress Resurrection

I got a chance to walk around in the old cypress forests today. Or almost. I did get to look at some of what’s left of them anyway. Believe me I’m not complaining, since it’s as close as anyone will ever get to the real thing. The opportunity came about because we are working on the apprenticeship boatbuilding grant, and the next step in the project was to get the wood for the boat. We already got a piece of marine plywood for the bottom, but this was to buy cypress for the rest. Edward (on right) knows the Anslum brothers in Morgan City, who are descendents of Basin dwellers from the Bayou Boutte and Fisher Bayou area. Previous generations of that family acquired large numbers of cypress logs and “bedded” them down in the Basin. These logs are retrieved as needed by the brothers and dried and sawn into some of the most beautiful lumber you will ever see. Some time ago we placed an order with them for the wood to build the boat, and today it was time to go and pick it up. I had never been to their place before, but once there, I almost didn’t leave. On that property you are surrounded by the history of the old wood, there are old logs in various piles, and singly, and sawn and whole. And old machinery for making lumber and newer machines too. It is not tidy, how could it be? It is gutsy, and wonderful, and sad, and resurrecting.

The pictures show a little of how we got the lumber we needed. The big old log is about 50 inches in diameter and is solid. They take these logs and saw them into lumber of various sizes. We needed one inch and two inch pieces, the latter for the headblock and the stern board and the “timbers” (ribs). They feed the rough-cut boards through an ancient 30 inch planer, and it is awesomely effective! The rough wood is one inch thick and Edward wants it to be 5/8s for the boat. The mountains of shavings from this reduction make you want to take them away too, so as not to waste the wood. The planed wood is about as pretty as cypress gets, I think. I have mentioned chain dogs before, but I had never seen one until today. It was explained to me that this device was usually used to attach a log to the cross piece that spanned across the boom of logs, attaching each log in this way in fact joined each one to the whole raft/boom. Both Edward and I came away with a chain dog as a gift from the Anslums. Some of the logs on the property still have the chain dogs attached (by one end). I wonder when they were hammered into the wood. And by whom?

What a day! It turns out that the Anslum brothers were actually raised in a houseboat in the Basin. And there are pictures! It’s wonderful that they will share these memories with the rest of us, and the pictures too, for scanning. Being that they are only in their 50s and have the stories they have, they are a rare find for an oral history seeker like me.

Yes, and the river is at 5.0 on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 5.7 by Wednesday, but the raft is free! Some joy riders in pretty big boats passed several times today and their large wakes rocked the big log free of whatever it was stuck on. Blessings sometimes come in unexpected packages. And it’s a good thing too; the Ohio and Mississippi are falling hard again after giving us a very modest rise.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, April 14, 2006

Cloudless Sunset

I just wanted to use this picture before I forgot it because sometimes a sunset without the cloud display is really pretty too. This is sunset here last night. And the reflections on the still water are really nice too, I think.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Shad and Swallows

Took an hour down at the river around lunch to see if anything was biting. I like to put one line out with two hooks on it and a weight below them and let it sit on the bottom. Also it’s fun to use an ancient flyrod (it’s made of fiberglass, for god’s sake) that I have. I put a hook at the end of the leader with a split shot a few inches above the hook, and a whole live shrimp on the hook. The line just kind of drifts in the current and eventually finds its way to the bottom. I have gotten some good barfish that way, and they do fight on that flyrod. Today I caught two channel cats (about two pounds each), two gous (medium), one nice three pound goujon and one eel. The goujon will be just right for a meal for Carolyn and me. One of the cats was on the flyrod. Napoleon watches the line to see what will come up on it, he really does.

Migrant arrivals are all over the yard right now. All day you can hear flycatchers, warblers, vireos and gnatcatchers – in addition to the usual flock of residents. At least four of the nestboxes have material in them. Not sure what is nesting, but I suspect prothonotaries, chickadees and bluebirds. Maybe a Carolina wren too, but they don’t like boxes as much as shelves and hanging potted plants.

I saw a barn swallow do something wonderful today. This bird was flying down the river heading straight for me at eye level. When it got about 30 feet away it must have seen some edible insect above it and very close by. It did a perfect Tom Cruise maneuver from Top Gun. It lowered both fully flared wings, spread it’s tail completely out, and went from wide open straight forward to almost straight up, just like Tom Cruise did to get the MIG. I’ll bet the swallow caught the bug, too, but I didn’t see it. I know the whole event didn’t take more than a half second! A nice memory to think about tonight.

Speaking of swallows, last week when I was at the Old River Control Structure (actually the hydroelectric plant next to it), I stepped outside behind the visitor center to see some swallows that were really flying all over. As it turns out they were nesting under the eves of the back porch. And they were cliff swallows, or at least I think they were. It was one of those situations when you see a bird and are sure you recognize it only to get back home and realize you should have looked harder because it could have been something else – cave swallows. However, the nests were complete globular mud structures, and that’s what cliff swallows are supposed to do, as opposed to cup-shaped nests for cave swallows. So, I guess it’s safe to call them cliff swallows, and it turns out this is a good place to see them. They nest by the hundreds around the control structures.

While at the hydroelectric plant you can look down and see people netting shad in the tailrace below the “dam” as you drive over it. It is amazing to see a guy with a long-handled net just dip his net into this swirling, boiling water and come up with at least several pounds of shad – on every dip! Two boats a little further away are carrying at least 500 pounds of shad in them already, and one of the guys is leaning back smoking, watching the others still working. What gets you is realizing how much shad there must be in that water, to just be able to dip down and fill a boat with them! I believe all this shad is sold for crawfish and crab bait. The fishermen don't get much for them.

The river is at 5.2 on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 6.1 by Monday. The Ohio and Mississippi don’t have much to keep things going but they are still rising moderately. Just give me enough to float my raft, just that much, that’s all I ask.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Snakes and LAMP

The hummers seem to be coexisting with the bees. The birds actually land on the same places where the bees are gathered around the holes and put their beaks in right past the bees.

A diamond-backed water snake swam by the dock today. At one time this wouldn’t have been a very noteworthy event, but there are very few snakes around the river now. For years I have been saying that you don’t see water snakes in the abundant numbers that you used to. Growing up on the bayous you saw water snakes on just about every limb and stump, sometimes several, but they are not that common any more. I realize that you really can’t count on anecdotal evidence like this to provide conclusions about observations, but observant people notice things, and when the scientific types hear these anecdotes often enough, they begin to wonder if there is a fact hidden out there to be discovered. From that point it’s hypothesize (ask the question and suggest an explanation), formulate a testing procedure, do the testing, determine the results, check to see whether the results are possibly due to chance or that they really describe a proof of the hypothesis, publish the results of the experiment, and then sometimes wait to see if other people can duplicate your results. So simple and direct, if you have the time, the money and the skills to put your reputation into print. Our colleagues who do this are to be admired and appreciated; they provide us with facts with which to hold back the wolves of superstition and fear. It was not always so. Reflect on the time before rational thought ruled the day, a time when a + b didn’t necessarily = a + b, a time when anything might be the answer to a question, no matter how irrational that answer might be. That time was not so long ago when it could be that the snake I saw would be explained as a sign from my mother-in-law, or the lack of snakes was due to my not washing my house enough. But now, at some point, someone will rationally determine if water snakes are becoming scarce, and if so, what to do about it.

Awareness of the worldwide decline of amphibians began this way. People noted an observed decline in some populations in various parts of the world, and when enough of these anecdotal reports came to the attention of alert people who had wide options for communication, almost suddenly we realized there was a crisis of major proportions building among amphibians on several continents. From this began the Declining Amphibian Population Task Force, an international group that seeks to define the extent of the problem and helps direct activities to determine the causes. What we here in Louisiana do with the Louisiana Amphibian Monitoring Program is part of that effort. Volunteers are trained to identify frog voices and then go out at strategic times to collect data on the presence/absence and size of the populations (if present). This project, LAMP, has been active since 1996 and always needs people to volunteer to help with gathering important scientific data on Louisiana amphibians. The purpose is to establish a baseline for populations of Louisiana amphibians so that, as more data are accumulated over the coming seasons, there will be some basis for saying whether the populations are growing, reducing, or remaining stable. We cannot make that determination with the data we have right now, but we are getting there.

Amaryllis sure do perk up a yard about now.

The river is at 5.1 today on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 5.7 by Saturday, and going up from there next week. We will get a good slug of water from the Ohio to help raise my raft, whew. The Ohio and Mississippi are rising at the rate of 2.5 feet/day.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, April 10, 2006


This morning I have a bee problem, which is actually better than having no bee problem due to having no bees. I have a wild bee hive in the yard because about four years ago I built a rather large “roost box” out of western cedar, and attached it to a tree. To my knowledge, no roosting ever took place in the box, but two years ago a vagrant group of bees took up residence and they seem likely to remain. So, local bees are always around and that’s not the problem. Having NO bees would be a 10 on a scale of 10, having my problem is maybe a 1 on that scale. Come to think of it, given the overall situation, maybe it’s not even a 1. What it is, is, the hummer population has increased at its usual pace and they were taking down 8-oz feeders in one day or less. This morning I switched to the larger feeders and one of these is the problem. It is the one right outside my window so I see it up close all day. The design of this feeder is such that it has the vent holes around the top rim of the base. I’m a little sloppy, I guess, when I fill the feeders and I leave some sugar water on the outside, even though I do rinse them off. Well, the bees found this new feeder about ten minutes after I put it out this morning, and if you ever had any doubt about them talking to each other in the hive and telling their sisters about where the new source of food was, you would have had to have seen what happened. About twenty minutes after I put the feeder out, shortly after the first bees found it, there were at least 300 bees around that feeder. Even as aggressive as the hummers are, you could tell they were more than a little impressed by the sheer numbers of bees flying around. I have nothing against committing this feeder to the bees, but they were so active that more than a few were finding their way through the vent holes, into the base and actually drowning in the nectar. I finally had to go out there and take down the feeder while this swarm was still focused on it (ancillary information: apparently not Africanized bees) and do a temporary patch job on the vent holes . I stuffed cotton into the vents all around the base – result: air in, bees out (picture shows the cotton). Again re the communication efficiency they have, within ten minutes the big bunch had disappeared. Now I see one or two, could these be keeping in touch in case the big food source suddenly reappeared? Of course not, or at least I doubt it a lot…. I think...

I had a lot of items to put in here today but I’ve been trying to finish writing this post since about 10:00am and I’ve only gotten this far due to various interesting things. I have to wrap it up.

One more thing, Ray was out here this afternoon to get shrimp from his traps (there are a lot) and while he was I took the opportunity to push the raft out from the bank a little. Well, no. It’s stuck, so I jumped in the water/mud and tried to pry it off of the bank, no luck. There is plenty of water to float the logs near the bank, but apparently the big log on the outside has found something about six feet deep that it’s hung on. I’m thinking that here we are until next December. But keep reading.

The river is at 5.2 on the Butte La Rose gauge and staying steady for the next few days. Hold the phone! All those big storms that went through the Midwest last week are making a difference in the Ohio, causing rises of 3 feet/day or more at Paducah (Tennessee/Ohio River confluence) and Smithland. That water will begin to reach here in about a week, and my raft should float off of whatever it’s hung on. Ain’t nature great! Unfortunately more water won’t fix the fact that the trotline is hung up too. I have to fix that tomorrow. Oh well….

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Just Before Dark

Today I had an opportunity to go on the “high water trip” down the Mississippi River with the Corps of Engineers. A friend took me as a guest, thanks Carl. I will write a note about that in a day or so. I mention it because it was the reason I only had only a few minutes down at the dock today. I would like to note here what I experienced in those few minutes just before darkness.

There was a pair of barred owls sounding off across the river. I bet this is one of quite a few common birds that most people can identify by sound. I was always taught that they were saying “I’ll cook today, you cook tomorrowww” and that always sounded OK to me, putting off the cooking I mean.

Purple martins from the surrounding area always visit the river late in the day. Thirty or forty were feeding and drinking on the wing, and making some of the pleasant sounds they make.

Big buffalo rolled on the surface of the river, looking for all the world like dolphins in salt water. The roll they do is quicker than dolphins, and you have to be already looking in the right direction, but the head, back, fin and tail all come up and go down in a rolling motion. Some of them were really big fish!

The osprey was back and I think it roosts in the willow tree at the edge of our property. It came and lit there right at dark.

Green treefrogs and one-inch long cricket frogs (picture) were warming up for a night’s serenading. The girl frogs should be getting interested soon. Usually you have to wait for 70 degree nights, but that might not be very far off.

A roseate spoonbill flew by. This was a very rare bird in this area not long ago. Their breeding and feeding range seems to have been expanding to include central south Louisiana. They sure are pretty in that late afternoon light, showing off that intense pink color.

Not as many heron/egret type birds flew by this evening. Usually there are hundreds going this way and that all over the sky. Not tonight. A couple flights of little blue herons and a few night herons, that’s all. The night herons were calling…think Pavlov and salivation.

A mockingbird chased Napoleon all over the walkway to the river. It’s kind of funny to see him, the arch enemy of birds and such, being made to run away from a bird. And he does get bothered by it, you can tell. He kind of looks embarrassed.

Of great importance is the absence of chicken sounds. Ever since we moved here six years ago there has been an annoyance from a yard two houses away where they raised wild jungle fowl – read fighting cocks. Not many, less than 15, I think. But, while I recognize that these are bird sounds no different from all the others, they do tend to monopolize the soundscape with their volume and persistence. They crow at night, and at dawn, and at sunset, and periodically throughout the day. And that’s just the roosters, you have hens celebrating the passing of large, white objects through their southern ends at any time. And every time they make a proclamation, it sets the roosters off again. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live within earshot of places that raise hundreds of these birds. But for the past week, there have been no chicken sounds. I don’t know why, but I sure hope it lasts.

All this took place in about 15 minutes, just before dark. Assume all the resident and just-arrived songbirds were singing away, because they were, and the list is too long to put in here.

The river is at 7.4 on the Butte La Rose gauge today, going to about 6.0 by Sunday. The Mississippi and Ohio aren’t going to provide water any time soon. During the trip on the Mississippi today, I talked to the manager of the hydroelectric plant at the Old River Control Structure , and he sees no hope for a high water season this year. I'm having to retie the dock every day as the water falls.

Rise and Shine (anyway), Jim

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Flat Stanley

Morning on the dock with a cup of coffee is nice. I wish you could all be here to sit and look and talk. Reminds me of those free and loose days when we used to stay up all night to watch the sun come up in some pretty place, like a desert vista or a range of mountains or a seashore. But you know, there’s something about a river, moving along, with ripples or not, carrying pieces of things that came from somewhere up there and going to somewhere down there. Emigrating, one might say, because they are never returning to where they began. There is something about a river that feels alive, in a sense maybe more so than deserts or mountains. When you stand in one place and look at those, they are like a painting – beautiful, immobile and knowable if you look long enough. A river never stays in one place, is never the same if you blink and look again where you looked before because in that blink of an eye that place is occupied by something new, something different. With a river, you have to like change.

This morning some friends were taking up some nets they put overboard last week. I watched them and they didn’t catch much, and the nets must have been buried in the sand because they had to struggle to get them up, which was odd because they were in only six to ten feet of water. They were only 21/2 foot hoop nets but there were five of them strung in a row all on the same anchor. These “little” nets would have had a fairly small meshed webbing and it looked like it caught a lot of trash because of that, making them that much harder to pull up. They were baiting with pogies (menhaden), so I guess they were after channel catfish.

We had experiences with Flat Stanley yesterday. Flat Stanley got mailed to us from Austin, TX, with the request to have him take part in some river activities. We took pictures of Flat Stanley doing these things and will mail the pictures, and him, back to Austin to our granddaughter Lauren. She will share him with her third grade class and talk about how Stanley’s visit was like her own trips to Butte La Rose, or maybe not. He did some things she hasn’t done, I think – like catching a shrimp and a fish in each hand.

If water is a basic element for the gathering of people for contemplation and other things, so might fire be. Friends invited us to the banks of Bayou Grosse Tete to eat a pig with all the trimmings and to share time with friends we knew and friends we didn’t know we had. In a nice big, open, safe place they built a fire with pecan wood donated by the hurricane. During the evening I was reminded why you should never put candles or other similar things close to a Christmas tree, especially if it’s in the house. Several left over trees were put into the fire one at a time. It is one awesome sight to see these things ignite, almost explosively. I tried to get Ray to stand next to the fire so I could get some comparison for size, but he declined twice, citing fondness for his beard. A very nice evening. Thank you Alice and Oliver.

The river is at 8.0 on the Butte La Rose gauge going to 6.2 by Sunday, and staying there for a few days. The Mississippi and Ohio are rising slowly up north, but nothing big. Boiled crawfish are $4/pound in Houston.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, April 03, 2006

Brass Wheel

I’m holding an almost antique in my hand, a technological relict as outdated as typewriters and mechanical calculators. But it is one of those things that is packed so full of memories that it might as well be a water balloon in that last moment before bursting. And when I look at it a flood of stories does indeed spill out.

As you can see from the pictures, it is a brass propeller. This one happens to be sized for a 50 horsepower Mercury engine. Most people, now, will not remember the way it was fishing crawfish in the swamp 31 years ago, in 1975. What you had to do and how you had to accommodate the conditions was a good bit different than now. Of course there was always a boat and a motor, but the boats, many of them, were wooden skiffs – although aluminum was becoming dominant as the better material. My boat was wooden and you learn quickly how fast a cypress knee can come up through the bottom. The engine on most of these boats was no more than 50 horsepower; of course, much bigger motors are used these days. But then, a 50 seemed adequate for a 14 foot boat and one or two people, although some even considered it too big - but its back-up power was what you really needed. You couldn't make much time if you couldn't stop quickly at each trap by reversing the motor and have it stop the boat immediately. On a smaller motor the wheel was too small to catch enough water and the boat would just drift right on past the trap - very aggravating!

The business end of this whole operation was the propeller/prop/wheel that was on the motor. It was not as easy to provide yourself with the right wheel back then as it is now. There have always been aluminum props, and they have always been worse than useless. Worse because a novice would take a motor out with one on and hit something and break a blade and suddenly you look for paddles. They provided nothing but false security. Most people replace them with stainless steel props now; you just go and order the wheel you want and that’s all there is to it. But in 1975 you couldn’t do that, there were no stainless steel props back then. There was aluminum and there was brass. Now brass wheels were more substantial, and not as fragile as aluminum, but the blades were still so thin that you hit one stump kind of hard and the blade would curl over like a taco shell. You could, however, do something with brass that you couldn’t (or we didn’t) do with aluminum; you could have it strengthened considerably. We would buy a new brass wheel and take it to Toup’s propeller works in Abbeville. They would add brass to the blades of the wheel, especially around the base. They would increase the thickness of the blades at least double and I think more likely triple and the base of the remade blade where it contacts the hub was ½ inch thick or more. You can see the marks at the base of the blade on the picture at right. Now, why was this necessary? It is hard to explain swamp crawfishing to someone who hasn’t done it simply because it’s hard to believe you do the things you do with/to a boat and motor. If you have 300 traps (a modest number by today’s standards), and they are in thick swamp, on each run you will probably hit at least 150 things with the motor, and jump over maybe 20 logs . Some runs would have more than this, some less. Each of these things tries to ruin the prop or break the shaft or strip the slip clutch (picture at left shows this ribbed device in the middle of the prop). The brass wheel from Toups would usually stand up to this abuse. The one I have did. When I stopped fishing in 1979 I sold everything I had that was connected to commercial fishing except this wheel. It sits at the side of the fireplace on the hearth now, and reminds me of those times 31 years ago. I took it to Toups in 1990 and had them stamp it.

The river is at 9.6 on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 7.5 by Friday. The Mississippi and Ohio are both rising slightly in response to the rain they are having up there, and that may be enough to hold what water we have left, but probably not much more than that.

Rise and Shine, Jim