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.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Mullet, Napoleon and Beavers

Tonight there are storms coming in off of the Gulf due to a disturbance that is not tropical, they say. Still, they call these storms rain bands, and after last year that’s enough to make you nervous. But the heavy clouds at sunset tonight are pretty, and the breaks between them are really bright in contrast – like hope in the darkness.

Some postings ago I mentioned that schools of mullet were the main thing that helped consume the decomposing alligator. This was just out of character, as my understanding of mullet behavior existed at the time. Today a bunch of them were doing more what you expect, grazing on plant material. In this case, the plant material was pollen and algae drifting along on top of the river and collecting as a floating mat in front of the dock. You can see it just below the cat. The fish were coming to the surface and vacuuming the floating green material. They make a strange sort of popping sound when they feed on the surface like that, not like when they are caught in low-oxygen water and are “piping” on top to get some relief. When they do that they don’t make much of a sound at all. Napoleon was attracted to the movement and sounds in the water. I truly believe that he could be taught to dive in and catch (or try to) fish for himself, provided they were near the top of the river like these mullet were. He gets up and does that rear-end-wiggle that cats do before they leap at a prey item. It wouldn’t take much. I’m always tempted when he isn’t paying attention like that, to just kind of help him overboard, but no, I won’t. One picture shows the school of fish just as they notice the cat and panic. The other one just shows the school.

Another animal that is easy to see at the river right now is the set of beavers that live around here somewhere. They are always doing something interesting at night, and as long as that something isn’t chewing my dock or ropes, it’s OK. Right now they are grazing in the thick growth of cocklebur along the banks. Every year we get this almost pure stand of cocklebur that grows from the waterline at low water to about 20 feet up the bank (the bluegreen plants on the left below). The beavers just wade out of the river and walk into the thick growth and begin making these munching sounds. You can almost see those big teeth gnashing their way through the hard stems on the plants. The other food you see them eating is willow bark, of course, and the evidence is all over the river in the form of white sticks floating down the current. The beavers do me a favor and then take it away sometimes. They ring, or partially cut, big willows across the river and these trees die and make wonderful places to see birds (hawks and kites mostly) as they sit up high in the dead branches. But the beavers eventually finish cutting the trees and the birds move to some other place on the river, sometimes nearby and sometimes not. Right now the ospreys that used to sit on snags across the river in easy view have moved to some other place. The snags they used to use near here have fallen. But I have faith in the beavers, they are probably out there killing new trees for me as I write this.

The river is at 3.3 feet now on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 3.0 by Thursday. The Ohio and Mississippi are a little up and a little down, kind of staying in place overall.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, July 21, 2006


I’m usually totally impressed with the sunsets we have been getting, but a while back two events presented at the same time: the moon was rising while the sun was setting. The images show the two events happening 180 degrees from each other, simultaneously. It was kind of a two-wow thing.

We spent most of a week at Toledo Bend about mid-month, explaining the lack of postings for that time.

As I posted earlier, the shrimp migration has begun in the Atchafalaya. At first there were only a few but it has been building up every night and continuing last night when you could see hundreds pass on the surface, going upstream to who-knows-where. At Berwick (44 miles below Butte La Rose), the massive shrimp movement is awesome – many thousands passing all night long. I built a trap made out of window screen wire. It would take that to hold them, they are so small. It was placed in the river last night in the path of the migrating juvenile shrimp and they promptly detected it and went around it. You could easily see them do it, like a canoe avoiding a big rock in the current. One thing, I did catch a couple of them and I took them out of the trap and threw them back into the water this morning. When I did, they didn’t instantly submerge like all the other, larger, shrimp do. They stayed on the surface and swam the six feet or so back to the dock. Very different behavior, stored for future reference.

There was a wonderful surprise waiting to happen for me this morning at the river. I was checking one of the shrimp traps and saw movement downriver a little ways. When it happened again I saw it was an otter, a large one, and it was swimming toward the bank about 50 feet below the dock. It came to the water’s edge and proceeded to jump up onto the land and lope up the bank into the cockleburs. It disappeared into the small, but dense, vegetation/woods behind the house. I watched for about 20 minutes more but it didn’t come out. I wonder if it is interested in making a den here. It sure would be welcome from my point of view, but it’s always dangerous for any wild animal to make a den too close to humans (other humans). Whoever shot the big alligator earlier this month would probably do the same to an unwary otter, given the chance. Anyway, it’s always a fine thing to see an otter. My pond-crawfish fishermen tell me another story, not one that shows appreciation for these big, smart weasels. It seems they reach into the open-topped traps and help themselves to the bait and the crawfish, and tunneling into levees is counter to water retention by the ponds. There is probably a lot of exaggeration in the stories about the damage they do, but I have no doubt that they do take advantage of our presenting them with food so easily obtained. Still, I like otters a lot.

The cardinals are finished with the nesting and young-raising for this year, or mostly finished anyway. And they look really ratty, just about all of them. There is not one pretty, fully feathered, proud-looking cardinal in the back yard right now – not one of the 40 or so I see every day. The image is taken through a dirty window and that’s not helping to spiff this one up any.

The river is at 2.9 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, and staying about there for the next five days. The Mississippi has a small rise coming, nothing exciting, but the Ohio is falling hard now, and that predicts even lower water than we have had so far. That’s actually good for the people who are beginning to find sunken boats on river/bayou banks and some of these relicts (the boats, not the people) are being investigated for archaeological significance.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Dead Moccasins Bite

Sunset today, another pretty one. They just keep coming.

A long time ago, early in the last century, a man whose story I have recorded built a houseboat for his family in the Atchafalaya Basin. He was a fisherman, and a moss gatherer and a timber cutter. Working with the trees, he was able to find logs to take to lumber mills and in those days the mills would saw the log up for half of the lumber derived from it. He met his wife to be during the 1927 flood. She was 13 and told her mother that today she had seen the man she would marry. She had seen him as he pushed a skiff with oars up the bayou near Stephensville where many boat people waited for the high water to recede. It would be two years later, but she did marry that man when she was 15. She was a small woman, a little over four feet tall and she was worried that a judge would think she was too young to be married, so they took a bateau across Grand Lake to Charenton beach. They were met by the judge that would marry them right there on the beach. No one mentioned her age or her size, and the judge didn’t object – he was blind. Anyway, it was for this new wife that he built the houseboat that would see them raise a large family, supported by the things the Basin offered to those who knew how to get them. He built the barge and house out of the old, virgin cypress that was his half of the logs he brought to the mill. Many years later, when the time came for the houseboat communities to leave the Basin, in the 1940s, he winched his houseboat over the levee and settled down to what must have been a strange existence on land after a lifetime of floating freedom. His odyssey continued about three decades later when he was forced to move from the levee by the Corps of Engineers, who said they needed to raise the levee and he was in the way. He did move and his house came to rest for the final time at the community of Oxford near Franklin, on Bayou Teche, along with many other families who had once been swamp people. He died at this place several years ago, and so did the wife he built the house for. His house was torn down last month by the last owner, his great-grandson. The lumber from the ancient trees that had supported the roof and provided shelter for all those years is stacked under a shed now, waiting for the next time it will become something useful to man.

Today I rode down the levee to Myette Point to pick up two child’s swings made from that lumber by a man who reveres the old wood even more than I do, the old swamper’s son-in-law. The picture shown here hardly does the old wood justice, but the wood will be cherished for many more years in the form of this swing. It will hear children’s honest peals of laughter as they learn the freedom of flying through the air securely supported in this swing. I feel good about having a piece of the house that the old man lived in so very long ago in the old swamp on Bayou Pigeon, and Bayou Smith, and Bayou Boutte. A piece of it will be on my front porch now, waiting for the next child to use it to make a memory of its own.

Coming home after picking up the swings this morning, as I drove back along the levee road past Lake Fausse Point State Park, I noticed a couple dead water moccasins on the road. I stopped to look at them and since neither of them was badly mashed, I picked them up and put them in the bed of my truck. No, they didn’t come to life back there, they really were dead. My interest was to try to process them for the skeletal material they could add to my collection. To do this, I had to skin them so that the bugs would have easy access to them. To skin a snake, all you have to do is split them up the middle and start on one end with a pair of pliers and just peel the skin off, pulling it to the other end. As I did this to the one that was hit pretty badly, the head came off unexpectedly and I very nearly buried one of the fangs in the heel of my hand. In other words, I nearly made the snake bite me. It didn’t happen, but it got my attention. I skinned the other snake in the other direction, pulling the skin toward the tail, not the head. Some lessons are easy to learn.

The river is at 2.3 right now on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 2.9 by Wednesday. The Ohio and Mississippi are experiencing a mid-summer rest from the rigors of high water, even though we didn’t get any of that this year.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Shrimp are Back

Sunset today on the river.

Yes, they are, the shrimp are back. I first noticed the nighttime migration of juvenile river shrimp last year, and it turned out that the observation is sort of a new thing. Not that it wasn’t observed before, it was, but not by very many people and not publicized in scientific circles. Now the scientists are aware and interested and we all were anxiously waiting to see if the shrimp would return this summer. They have, by the millions, and ON THE SAME NIGHT that I first saw them last year. It certainly could be a coincidence, but maybe not? Another returnee in the last couple days is the annual upriver movement of salt water shad (pogies and threadfin). I see them every year when the water gets low and warm, sometimes in immense schools swimming on the surface. They come from the estuaries along the Gulf, and so do the shrimp probably. Do both of these things happen because environmental conditions at this time of year have a similar effect on the fish and the crustaceans? Probably so, but we will have to see what answers research brings. Pretty exciting stuff, if you’re a biologist, and maybe even if you’re not. The shrimp are less than one inch long as they swim upriver, as the ruler shows. Notice that they are all swimming from right to left, upriver, and against the slow current (click on the picture to see the red eyes). It’s one thing to see a few shrimp in the water or in a trap, it’s quite another to watch billions (not an exaggeration) of them swim by night after night until sometime later in the annual low-water cycle. Consider how much food this provides for everything in the river. Awesome.

I was fishing for the cats this afternoon, using some of the same shrimp (but grown up) for bait. I caught seven or eight bream, one catfish, one mullet and two turtles. It is always a surprise to me to catch mullet on a baited hook. The assumption was always made previously that they consumed algae and such and would not take bait. Wrong. This was also confirmed during the last two weeks as the deceased alligator melted away into the river. It was in shallow water and it was easy to see the schools of mullet tearing away at the tenderized gator meat. They looked like the proverbial piranha in the rivers to our south. If they had sharp teeth, you might imagine someone in a Louisiana river someday yelling for the kids to get out of the river because the mullets were coming. And jumping like they do, they could even snatch a mouthful out of a passing boater. I can just see Academy advertising the newest thing in water safety when boating: mullet armor.

I also mentioned catching a couple of turtles today. One was a stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus) and the other was a large red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta). I wasn’t too sure of the latter when I saw it because the shell was so full of green algae that I couldn’t see the pattern on the back, and the area on the head that is usually red showed only a line of faded dark orange. In order to try to be sure of the identification, I brought it up to the house and tried to clean the shell with a fiber brush. No luck, it just combed the algae so that it lay down nice and pretty. Next I tried one of those green scrub pads that works well to scrub pots and will take the cutting edge off of a sharp knife if you’re not careful. It didn’t remove the algae either, just mashed it down. By now I’m developing more respect for the tenacity of the turtle’s green coat. But, the turtle and me, we’re in my shop and I’m surrounded by man tools. I mean stuff you have to sweat to use. Surely something I have will remove the algae, surely. So next in line on this escalation was a very stiff wire brush and I’m pleased to say that it worked. Good thing, I was going to go for the orbital sander if it didn’t. And then on to…what? Maybe a bench grinder wheel with a wire brush attached? But, now the turtle was naked, and I could see that the reason I didn’t recognize it at first was because it was a very old member of the species. The shell had those black squares outlining the scutes on the back, a trait only acquired after many years, and the faded orange on the head confirmed it. In honor of its age, it went back into the river instead of becoming a resident in my osteological collection. So did the stinkpot, I have the skeleton of one of them already.

The river is at 2.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 2.4 by Sunday. The upper Mississippi is kind of up a little and down a little, but the Ohio is showing some very healthy rises of 3.0 feet at Paducah, which makes it interesting to watch.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, July 10, 2006

Home on the Range

And it really is where the deer and the [buffalo] play. And seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day. But a few more clouds now and then would be OK too.

This time of year and this time of day (at sunrise) you can see the herds of buffalo coming up the river. There must be a huge number of them judging by the swirls you see on the surface. They surface like porpoises do, the nose comes up first, then the high fin on the back, then the tail – all of this in a quick motion. It is so quick that you really have to be looking at the spot at the same time the fish comes up, if not, you miss it. The swirls in the top picture are made by the fish.

This afternoon I was fishing for the cats with a rod and reel and one of these buffaloes took a hook baited with river shrimp. That’s a picture of it. One this size pulls pretty hard and the drag on the reel gets a workout before the fish comes in.

Nopoleon is thinking about making friends with the big fish. Well, maybe with part of it anyhow.

The river is at 3.4 on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 2.7 by Friday. The Ohio and Mississippi are going nowhere very fast.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Tar and Traps

Sunrise this morning and a corona. A new technique was suggested by a friend who took a picture using his digital camera and his binoculars, and it looked good. So, I thought, why not try it on the sunrise. This is what it looked like. I don’t know why the sun has a yellow corona in the image, but it is interesting.

The alligator is still melting. It’s just about all underwater so there really isn’t much odor any more. Today there was a little blue heron on the bank next to the gator. It was picking things off of the surface of the water. Closer inspection revealed that it was capturing fly larvae as they swam from the carcass to the shore. No larvae would swim away toward the river, just toward the shore. I imagine the larvae need a dry place to pupate and somehow they knew where the bank was. How do they know that? This picture was also taken using the camera held up to the binoculars.

I retarred the four shrimp traps I made last summer and put them back into the water today. They lasted the whole year but began to rust lately so they had to be treated to another coat of tar. It took seven gallons of gasoline to thin the tar adequately before it could be applied to the traps. Used to be that wasn’t much, but at almost $3.00/gallon, it adds up. A friend was watching me dip the traps in the tar vat and commented that it sure looked like a real ugly, messy job. It is messy, you get tar all over your clothes and hands, but it’s one of the things you have to do to get shrimp to bait the trotline with. I mentioned to him that people come here and look at fish coming up on the trotline and they don’t realize what it takes to have that line baited and fishing – all kinds of small jobs that people don’t think of. The line has to be put in the river, and stageons have to be made and put on the line, and weights have to be gotten from somewhere, and there has to be a boat of some kind, and propulsion of some kind. You have to tie floats to the line to keep it off of the bottom in low water so the crabs don’t eat all your bait. And then you have to get that bait; either shrimp or cutbait. So you either need traps or a castnet, and you have to know how to use both. That’s just a few of the things it takes to maintain a trotline if you’re serious about it. I think all of those things are fun to do, but they sometimes look messy or perhaps unpleasant. By the way, I was needing to clean some turkey bones and I put them in one of the traps to let the shrimp do it. They will, too.

I used the same technique on the sunset this afternoon. Also interesting, and I never noticed that a bird flew into the scene until after I had the pictures on the computer. I think of it as sort of a gift from the sunset.

The river is at 3.0 on the Butte La Rose gauge and will rise a little to 3.3 by Monday. After this little rise the Mississippi is falling up above, but the Ohio has a small rise in its upper reaches.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Skimmer Magic

Sunset on this Fourth of July.

It’s been a few days, a week actually. Somehow visiting with grandchildren does take time, and time well spent I believe. But blogs and such take time too and contemporaneous is not possible in this case (this may be the first time I have used that word in its true sense, hmm). How could you not spend time with the little girl in the picture below. She is Elena.

By the way, the gator is still with us against the bank at the river. It is now 12 days since it met with its reentry into the natural cycle of things, and it is melting away into the current, slowly. I’m told the sight of it is gross. Why don’t I feel that way? Oh well.

I would like to paint another little word picture of something that happened to me many, many years ago. The recent pretty sunsets reminded me of it, I guess. The time is again during the period I was fishing for a living with my friends at Myette Point. It was in the summer, when we fished all night on the river. Being in the summer, the water was low and more clear than not, and warm. When these conditions exist, you have to bait with cut bait of some kind to catch enough fish to make a living. To catch the bait, you have to spend time with a castnet, sometimes a lot of time, every day. The routine we had was something like this. We slept from about eight in the morning to about three in the afternoon. We would get up and get ready to go out to fish that night. This meant getting gasoline for the motor, and usually cleaning a bunch of small catfish we had caught the night before and kept in an ice chest all day. These small fish were illegal in the rough condition, but collarbone cleaned they were legal to sell. Go figure. Selling these little fish usually paid for our gas and some other supplies. But, back to the story. Around five o’clock we would leave the house and pull our boats to the landing, unload and take off into Grand Lake. The first job was to see if any salt water shad (pogies) were swimming on the surface of the lake/river. When it is calm, which it usually was at this time of day at this time of year, you could see the ripples they make from a good distance. You had to creep up on them and kind of let your boat drift in their direction until you got close enough to throw the castnet. If you weren’t quiet, the whole school would just dive and reappear out of reach. If you were lucky, and it was a big school, one cast would get you three or four hundred small shad. More often than not, you would get less than 50 and you would have to keep doing this, or something else, until you got at least 2000 baits. Usually you would throw the castnet for at least two hours. Ever tried that? My net was seven feet long, giving it a 14 foot spread, if it opened all the way. It didn't do that very often, I can remember remarking with satisfaction on the times that it did. It was made out of nylon, monofilament nets hadn’t come out yet. A net like mine weighed about 15 pounds dry, and wet it weighed 150, I swear. Anyway, after this tiring, and hot, couple of hours it was getting to be about eight o’clock – about 30 minutes to sunset and an hour before you could start baiting lines. It was my practice then to go to where my first lines started on the edge of the river, tie up my boat to a tree at the edge of the current and change the sweat soaked shirt I had for a fresh one. Then I would put on anti mosquito chemicals, sit down, take out my supper, relax and watch the sun settle into the beginning another hopeful night. It was then that the event happened this particular evening. I was looking upriver into the sunset and I noticed a bird I didn’t see very often in an inland waterbody. Things happened very fast then. It was very, very quiet, and completely calm. The bird was coming toward me flying low to the water and coming downriver right at my boat, which it never did seem to notice. I was mesmerized watching this. The bird was a black skimmer and it was fishing in the remarkable way they do. It had its lower beak down in the water and was flying along, very fast, its beak leaving this V cutting through the water. It passed within three feet of my boat and was gone, downriver and away. But I heard it. I did, I heard it. I heard its beak going through the water. It hissed. It hissed and did the Doppler effect thing as it passed me. For the briefest moment, the sound was there, got louder, and faded away to silence, all in one second or maybe two. It took me a moment to start breathing again, but when I did I was speechless. Why does something like that make you feel special, selected, sort of? Not special in the above-other-people sense, but special in that of all the other places I could have been, and all the other things I could have been doing, I was in this place at this time being a witness to this wonderful thing. Special, in that sense. Where is the value in this? The value is in the fact that it happened to me, tied to a tree, on a river, at sunset a long time ago. And I remember it. What I don’t remember is whether I caught any fish that night. I may not have even cared, but I’ll bet I did well, either way.

The yellow tussock moth caterpiller.

The river is at 2.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising a little to 3.2 by Saturday. The Mississippi and Ohio are both rising a little, just to keep things interesting.

Rise and Shine, Jim