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.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Cool Water

Yes, it is cool. It has been in the high 50s for the last several mornings, and sunrise with a cup of coffee on a morning like that is hard to resist. Mostly, I don’t try. Temptation is so nice when you decide voluntarily to give in to it. You don’t have to overcome the guilt of having been overcome by whatever it was, you just say “Yes” and go from there. I guess what appears to me to be something to be feel guilty about is the fact that I have the time to be out at sunrise, while most of my friends have to go to work. They are out earning money to pay bills, but the sunrises are free. It is the time to watch them that is so valuable.

Some people have wondered where Napoleon has gone. Well, nowhere, he is still doing interesting cat-things. This morning he and Alcibiades got into one of their frequent play-fight events. Just look at the face on Alcibiades! If you didn’t know they were playing…

The bananas are growing nicely. Maybe there will be time for them to ripen enough to eat. We fry them in a little butter in a skillet. The pieces turn a nice brown and are wonderful.

This will be the last posting for a couple of weeks, so check in later.

The river is at 2.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising quickly to 9.5 feet by Tuesday! It’s hard to believe but that’s what the forcasts say. The Mississippi is rising up to Memphis, but falling further up. Both the Ohio and Mississippi are falling above Memphis. So, after this sudden jump, things will fall again and level out. Anyone planning to do something on the Atchafalaya River this weekend needs to know that this is happening.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, September 25, 2006

Folk Wisdom

Sunrise yesterday.

Some time ago I was speaking with Edward and Lena Mae Couvillier about crabbing in the Basin. This was at the annual Bayou Chene reunion in Morgan City. The conversation was mostly about the different types of traps that had been used in fresh water. They described the standard “box” trap that is used in the bays, and also the modified crawfish trap that Edward used most of his life to catch crabs in the Grand Lake area. The modification was in the different type of plastic coated wire they used (1x2 inch) and the application of a nylon mesh throat instead of wire. Edward claims that the webbing keeps the crabs from finding their way out of the trap once they are inside. Apparently they don’t crawl around on the webbing as well as they do on wire. I guess this is just one of the things you discover if you do this kind of thing enough and pay attention. It probably helps you pay attention if you are trying to make a living at it. And these folks are good at that. Edward and Lena Mae no longer fish commercially; they have used most of the energy that it takes to maintain that kind of life. But they remember, and that is what I mean by folk wisdom.

We have been catching crabs in the Atchafalaya River just behind our house. Rusty Kimball, the buffalo-net fisherman, says this is the first time in 10 or 12 years that crabs have come up the river this far in enough numbers to make it worthwhile to fish for them. Net fishermen generally are aware of the crab population because the crabs will cut holes in the nylon mesh to escape the nets. So they don’t want them in their nets. We have eaten boiled crabs from the river three times in the last week or so, and just as we always say, there is no comparison with saltwater crabs even though they are the same thing. The fresh water seems to do something to the meat of the crabs that makes it sweeter, more crab-tasting somehow. And of course they are cleaner; at least they appear to be cleaner. And very importantly, they are bigger than the average salt water crab. Without question, the biggest blue crabs have always come out of fresh water. These are the ones the restaurants can charge $30/dozen for and get away with it.

But back to the folk wisdom. Our daughter Claire treats us to dinner more often than we reciprocate, and she likes crabs, so I thought I would catch some crabs last night and boil them for her to eat tonight. We have been catching six to ten every day in a single trap. Well, just to be extra sure we would have enough, I put an extra trap in the water last night and baited both of them with fresh fish heads –very good bait. This morning I went down to the water and raised the traps – not one crab, not one. ??? During those recent conversations with Edward and Lena Mae, they told me that the end of the crab season in fresh water is signaled by the first cold front that comes across the Basin. Could this front that passed through last night qualify as a cold front? It was about 59 degrees here this morning, and I’m sure the hummingbirds took notice and headed for the Gulf, but how would the crabs notice that rather small change in temperature – under ten feet of water? But that’s what the experienced folk told me would happen, so maybe a cool, rather than really cold, front is all it takes. I will keep the traps in the water for a few more days just to see if the season is really over. Interesting.

The blue flower is chicory, of some kind. It’s probably just the common chicory but the flowers seem to be more full than the usual pictures show it to be. The flavoring is used in coffee sometimes, especially in the New Orleans area. And the leaves are sometimes used in salads, and it is the ground root that is used in coffee – sometimes even as a substitute for coffee. A close relative the same genus is endive, a more common salad leaf in some areas. It was a surprise to find chicory in our yard. Sometimes serendipity sneaks up and says hi. And sometimes it's a welcome thing, as in the ants in the picture of the chicory flower. I didn't see them until I had the pictures on the computer.

A lot of people are noticing the seemingly larger than usual number of crab spiders this year. The books say these really aren’t crab spiders, but Crablike Spiny Orb Weavers. Almost everyone I know who sees these spiders for the first time says the same thing: crab spiders. So, for our purposes crab spiders they are.

The old man looks out over our back yard, and the river. He might be seen as representing some presence that goes by any number of names. For me, he is just The Old Man. In very old times, he would probably have had deer antlers on his head – showing his affiliation with all things natural.

The river is at 2.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 3.0 by Friday. BUT, the Ohio is showing some water of real significance, daily rises of 5.0 to 6.0 feet per day. This may not last very long up there, but it will give us our first fall rise, the extent of which is not predictable right now.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, September 22, 2006

Rusty Nets

Rusty and (nickname LuLu) came by the dock this morning as I was working on some paperwork and yelled “Get your camera and jump on the boat!” and I did, too. We spent a couple hours raising some of his nets on the Atchafalaya River. It was a good morning. The pictures show some of the process of setting the nets and raising them.

We caught smallmouth buffalo, which is what he is really after, and goujons (flathead cats) and blue cats – one nice big one. He told me that he doesn’t like to catch goujons because once one is in a net, nothing else will go into that net. They are such feared predators that other fish avoid even the vicinity of the goujons. I knew they had that reputation among fishermen, but I didn’t know other fish knew it too.

The blue cat weighs about 30 pounds. It would make a nice prize on a trotline!

The sheriff’s boat for St. Martin Parish came by on routine patrol. They said hello and moved on to other business – a Mr. Guidry and a Ms. Sickey (sorry for the misspelling).

Rusty gave me some more surprising information about stuff that is showing up in the river these days. Now he says he is catching sting rays right here by our dock, and he caught another sheepshead here today also, and a flounder! He also caught a redfish, about eight pounds, here a while ago. So now, what’s left? Maybe we can throw out some speck rigs and see what goes after them?

Like I say, a good morning.

The river is at 3.0 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 4.5 by Wednesday. A veritable tidal wave of water! The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling up high.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, September 18, 2006

Pics in Rusty Sheepshead

All the pics are now in the Rusty Sheepshead posting .
Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Crabs in Freshwater

We ate more crabs from the river tonight, and that made me think of some more crab story things. First, talking to Edward and Lena Mae Couvillier this weekend produced some interesting folk wisdom about crabs. These people have been catching and peeling and selling freshwater crabs for many decades, and they have the type of knowledge that doesn’t come measured in semesters. It might be measured in lifetimes. But, anyway, since the crabs have come up the river so far this year, it makes you kind of focus on them in general. We all realize that the water has to be getting toward its low levels in the Basin before the crabs start showing up in Grand Lake, and they gradually move up the Basin – this year going at least to Simmesport (eye witnesses). It had never occurred to me to ask a crab fisherman about the other end of the season – when does it quit? And is there any environmental correlation that sort of signals the end? Well, Edward tells me that there is. The end of the crab season in freshwater happens when the first cold front sweeps across the Basin. And he adds that after the cold front passes, within a couple of days you will catch only females, and then no crabs at all. It has always been the case that the huge majority of the crabs caught in fresh water are males. Until this weekend I didn’t really think female crabs came into fresh water and I wondered about that. Well, today, as if to emphasize the fact, I caught the first female I have seen in the Basin. Instant correlation does feel good.

I have a couple favorite crab stories that I would like to offer. Both of them have a strong visual image requirement and I will try my best to provide the image. The first story has to do with a friend who did one of those wild trips alone down the Mississippi River in a thirty foot sailboat, starting in the Illinois River, I believe, and finally ending weeks later with the boat docked in a marina on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. During this whole trip most of his cooking was done on deck on a hibachi grill, and because he was living on the boat, he continued to use it a lot. So pretty soon he made friends with the local people and someone took him out to one of the New Orleans restaurants and introduced him to barbecued crabs, which he fumbled around with and mutilated until he got enough meat to know that he really liked the taste. Some weeks later a fisherman came by the docked sailboat and offered to sell my friend some live crabs. He bought a dozen and set out to fix himself a good meal of barbecued crabs. The next morning the fisherman passed by again and asked him how he liked the crabs. My friend said he must have missed something somewhere, but he thought he would have been OK if he just could just have gotten the crabs to stay on the hibachi long enough to get cooked. Every time he put them on the hot grill, they scrambled off of it. Can’t you see it? It sure can be important to have that one essential piece of information.

The other story was told to me by a friend who swears it is true, and involves Lucian Verret (not his real name). Lucian was a good hand around a fish dock. He was young and strong and didn’t mind the ambiance of the fresh seafood all around. Of course he didn’t wear his best cloths to work because of the fish, etc., and a lot of the pants he wore had holes worn in them in the usual places of the harshest abrasion. This dock handled a lot of crabs in the crates that used to be used a lot for crabs. These crates were about 18 inches high and 30 inches by 20 inches around. The crates were made of slats nailed on a frame. The crabs had to be able to get fresh air so there were spaces between the slats about ¾ inch wide – not enough to let the crabs escape but enough for air circulation. Usually the crates were filled pretty full with crabs when they were first loaded because they tended to pack down when they settled – resulting in a few inches of space between the crabs and the top of the crate. One of Lucian’s jobs was to move the loaded crates from the packing area to the loading dock, and after moving a lot of them he became tired and got some coffee and looked for a place to sit down. He decided to sit on the nearest thing to a bench he could find and that was one of the crates loaded with crabs. Now, remember the holes in Lucian’s pants. Apparently when he sat down a lower part of his anatomy came to rest between one of the ¾ inch spaces between the slats. What part this was, I’m not sure. Have you ever poked a stick at a big blue crab that was really mad? Remember how the claws come together in that loud clacking sound as they snap at the stick. And if they catch the stick you can sometimes lift a half-dozen crabs they hold onto each other with such force? Well, one of the big crabs in the crate reached up and latched onto the part of Lucian poking through one of the holes in his pants and down between the slats. It latched on with just the two sharp points of the one claw that got him. Lucian screamed and lurched up from the crate but came right back down. He couldn’t get loose. Every time he would move the crab would pinch down harder. Seeing what happened, everyone in the dock was laughing, oh my, were they laughing! He was sitting on the crate so no one could get the top off to get at the crab. Every time someone tried to poke something at the crab from the side, it would squeeze down again and Lucian would scream louder, and the laughter would hit a new high. This went on for what was just a few minutes, but I’ll bet some lifetimes are shorter than Lucian’s coffee break that day. Finally, someone knocked some of the slats off of the side of the crate and let the crabs out so that they could get to the one that had Lucian. But the closer they got to the crab, jiggling it and so on, the more often it would pinch. The people trying to help him couldn’t see to do much because of the tears in their eyes from laughing so hard so long. But the crab did let go and crawl out with the rest of them. Finally loose, Lucian ran out the door and went home for the day. I don’t know what kind of damage he suffered. No one else got much done the rest of the day either. Can you imagine?

The river is at 2.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, going down some this week and then back up to about the same. The Mississippi and Ohio are rising a little. No big changes in store for now.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Bayou Chene Reunion

Each year I have the privilege to receive an invitation to attend the Bayou Chene reunion. Even though I’m not part of the family tree that is the cause of the reunion, I am tolerated because in a small way I am working to chronicle the lives of some of those people. The people I mean are the Carlines and Couvilliers and Kellys and Sanders’s, and by various degrees of kinship, many other surnames.

The story of the Bayou Chene community is a well-known one to those with connections to the Atchafalaya Basin, and doesn’t need a detailed description here. Suffice it to say that there were many reasons why people ended up in a place that was only reachable by boat. There were farmers in the early days, when the logjam on the Atchafalaya River kept the annual water cycle to a minimum – there was a good bit of dry land in the Basin then. When more water began to come into the Basin, commercial fishermen added their energies to Bayou Chene. There were people associated with the timber industry, and some that were there just to take advantage of the money to be made in any community. There were saloons, and grocery stores (kind of). There was a school, and a cemetery. The saloon doubled as the funeral home when disputes within its walls became fatalities. You could drink at the bar at night and see someone you drank with laid out on that same bar the next day, so they say. There was never a formal government in that community, the St. Martin Parish sheriff took care of what official law was needed. And the sheriff was a long boat ride away most of the time. With this in mind, you often hear that Bayou Chene was a place of refuge for any number of people hiding from something, or someone, on the outside of the swamp. I have seen no documentation for this, but it is an easy thing to believe, true or not. And when the sheriff showed up, you can imagine a certain loyalty within the group of people who lived in that community, even with the bad blood between some that must have existed – human nature being what it is. It might have been the “I can kick my dog any time I want to, but don’t you dare kick my dog” thing. At any rate, the people who lived along the bayous at Bayou Chene had to be a tough people with the willingness to flourish in a frontier situation. And not only did they flourish, but the bond that was created between the families still exists all these years after the final dissolution of the community. It shows itself to be alive and well each year at the reunion I went to today. This gathering celebrates a way of life more than a common ancestry, and it celebrates something not many of us have today – a sense of community.

I was struck by several things today. What impressed me the most was seeing the age groups all mixed together; some very mature people nearing 90 were sharing conversations with two and three (and maybe four) generations that were less in years. Maybe the following was the most notable, though. From this group of very diverse people living on Bayou Chene, these very close-to-the-land-and water people, a degree of sophistication has risen in succeeding generations that might not have been predictable. Here are a few examples of what I mean.

The man in the white shirt next to Edward (on the right) is Bob Vuillemont. He is the son of a one-time resident of Bayou Chene, Dew Robert Vuillemont ,who eventually became one of the fish boat operators in the Basin. This man (and son Bob) ran the boat from Morgan City far up the Atchafalaya Basin twice a week to buy fish from commercial fishermen and sell them groceries and other goods they might require, like shotgun shells and bolts of cloth. That was in the middle 1940’s. Now here is his son Bob in Morgan City today talking to me about the oil business at a world class level (not that I can understand it at that level). This man went to SLI in Lafayette (remember?) and got a degree in petroleum engineering. From that base he traveled over much of the world as a consultant to the oil industry. Quite a change from life on the bayou bank in Bayou Chene. And to add further interest, his son adopted a European lifestyle, and lives in Paris with his French wife. So, Bayou Chene to Paris, a long road, and a short one in some ways.

Another. While I was waiting in line to get my serving of jambalaya and white beans, I overheard the man behind me discussing his profession with the man behind him. The first man was telling the second one a lot of detailed information about his part in getting astronauts ready to fly in space, and his part in the activities aboard the shuttle. I’m listening and thinking “this started in Bayou Chene”? And it did.

Then, sitting at the table eating the jambalaya, I overheard (it sounds like I spent the whole day eavesdropping) another man being described as a top flight mechanic who works on the big commercial jets we will be flying on next week.

I’ll bet you could repeat this kind of observation 50 or more times if you knew this group of people really well. My point is, if you take a geographically isolated group of people of this genetic makeup and forcibly disperse them, they will probably find a way to flourish in the new environment. These people did.

I went to the event with Edward and Lena Mae Couvillier, my old friends from Myette Point. We met the Carl Carlines at the pavilion in Lake End Park. On the way there we stopped at the Anlsum brothers’ cypress wood location and they were slicing logs to make boards. Slicing is the right word. The big horizontal bandsaw would cut a board off of the squared-off log just as smoothly as it can be done. I asked them what was to be done with the boards they were selling from this log and they said the wood was being purchased for a fence. Really. Truly, to each his own.

The river is at 2.1 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 1.1 by Wednesday. That is LOW, but it won’t stay there. The Ohio and Mississippi are both rising pretty much all the way up and we’ll get a little of that water.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, September 15, 2006

Rusty Sheepshead

Remember to click on the small pics to enlarge them.

I was down at the river for this sunup this morning with my cup of coffee and the dual feline escort. Things have been pretty quiet down there the last few mornings. The water is low, most of the big wading birds have gone somewhere else and only a few migrants from the north have been near the riverbank lately. The buffalo are still rising all over the river at first light – circles of activity from one bank to the other.

And behind the buffalo comes the fisherman to harvest them. Last year Rusty Kimball fished his big nets pretty much all the fall months. Rusty is from Simmesport and comes all the way down here to fish. I mixed in here a number of pictures describing his visit, at least the way I saw it, this morning. When he first arrived, the mist was still over the water – a product of the cool morning and warm water I guess. I took a lot of these pictures using my binoculars in front of the camera, hence the dreamy, kind of soft images. This will not set well with some of my “focus is all” friends, but given that I have a cheap camera and a good pair of binoculars – well, make bouquets of the flowers you can reach is a good way to look at it.

Three pictures show Rusty raising his nets. In one you see the size of the hoops, six feet I believe. In one you can see the fish objecting to being removed from the medium they are used to. In the middle of this scene a big fancy boat came roaring down the river. It had an effect on the mood that the sunrise, the mist and Rusty raising nets had created. But it was a momentary contrast, not a lasting one.

Most of the fish being caught in the big nets right now are buffalo, and a few gaspergou. After we talked for a while, Rusty asked if I had been catching any crabs. I said no, not after I had tried that one trap overnight and it had caught nothing. He was very convinced that I could catch them if I tried again, and he threw a couple of fish out of his boat onto the dock. One was a gaspergou, and one was a sheepshead. A sheepshead?? That’s not a freshwater fish, and it’s not supposed to be up here in the Atchafalaya River. He had just caught it and it was alive and he was going to throw it back but I convinced him to donate it to the ULL reference bone collection being used to identify animal remains from Native American sites. He said that sheepshead are being caught all the way up to Simmesport in the Atchafalaya, and flounder and sharks too. I had heard that flounder and sharks come up the river, but I had never heard anyone say that sheepshead do. Now we know something we didn’t know yesterday.

I took the other fish, the gaspergou, and baited a crab trap with it and set it a little differently than I had the time before.

We talked some more, and I set up a time to go out in the river with Rusty and take pictures of him doing his thing. A thing, by the way, that he has been doing since he was 14 years old. He told me he would go to school and fish after school, and that’s what he means when he says he does it because he likes it. Today is his birthday. Happy birthday Rusty, and may you have many more years on the river. A little more talk, then he took off to run some more nets.

I raised the crab trap at noon today, and it already had three big crabs in it. By 5:00 this afternoon it had five. By tomorrow morning it may have enough for a meal for Carolyn and me and Elena. We’ll boil them up and treat the17-month old to her first taste of the finest seafood item in nearby waters, in my opinion. Now if we don’t catch enough for all of us, I’ll just have to eat them all myself. After all, I did all the work! Yeah, right.

Seeing that sheepshead come out of the river made me think of something. For months now the river has presented a familiar and pretty unchanging face to the anyone watching it. It has been low, and the gars patrol the surface and the buffalos roll in the early morning. Every day it seems to go on like this – up a little, down a little, almost no current. The wind blows mostly from the east. The cockleburs grow bigger and slowly bigger each day, and I have to pull them out to clear a path to the dock. You get used to seeing these things and get lulled into low expectations for change. You expect it to stay the same, with no surprises, and then up pops this sheepshead to startle you out of your reverie and remind you that this river doesn’t show you all that it has to show. A great deal is going on below the surface that is unexpected, or at least invisible to us air breathers. Sharks of considerable size swim up past our dock all summer and fall, and we don’t know it unless they snack on the tail half of catfish on our trotline. Flounder hug the bottom and come past us. Alligators large and small swim by mostly at night going who knows where. It is a good lesson to be reminded of – not all you see is all there is. The surface is a divider between what we know and what we don’t know to suspect. Keep an open mind, it says.

The picture below shows why this fish is called a sheepshead. What teeth!

The remarkable river is at 2.2 right now on the Butte La Rose gauge, going up and down a little in the next several days, all the while hiding its sheepshead, and flounders and sharks from us unsuspecting folk. The Mississippi and Ohio are showing a little rising water up high to the north, not enough to do anything down here except keep the level above 1.8 feet, which we need in order to survey the two sunken boats on Flat Lake. Sigh.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ducks Unlimited

[Six pictures of sunrises over the Atchafalaya River are included]

Previously on Riverlogue, the postings told the story of hunting ducks along Warren Ditch, below Gueydan. Various legal and not-so-legal activities were described. And seeing wood ducks flying over the river this morning brings up more duck stories.

This story is one I partly witnessed, and heard parts of, around 1949 in the same area. As mentioned, it was common in this area, below Gueydan, to hear of market hunting (and selling), and to see it from time to time. The whole country below Gueydan, Kaplan, etc., was loaded with ducks and geese every year. Cajuns had traditions that included harvesting large amounts of game by whatever means was practical. When the federal government began to set limits on how much one person could harvest, these traditions became illegal to the extent that they exceeded the limits, and of course selling the birds had pretty much been illegal for a long time. But, traditions being what they are, and Cajuns being who they are, the practices didn’t die out immediately; they just were done in more-or-less more circumspect ways. A common way to harvest large numbers of waterfowl on large bodies of water was to mount a large-gauge shotgun (almost a cannon) on the front of a boat and drift onto the huge bodies of ducks and geese sitting on the water. I hear that the harvest from one such shot was enough to make you wonder that the market for the game was that big, but it seems it was.

If you didn’t have a big body of water that attracted ducks, you had to improvise, and Cajuns are good at that. A lot of dryer prairie country attracted ducks and geese too. A related situation is that the area around, and coastal from, Gueydan has long had a cattle orientation. The cattle that seem to do very well close to the marshes, and the associated mosquitoes, are brahmas, or at least a mixed breed incorporating brahma blood. To get this blood distributed within his herd, most cattlemen down there used brahma bulls. Now, this isn’t a cow story, so back to the ducks. So, you could see these big bodies of ducks and geese out in the rice fields and marshes, and a man could creep up on them sometimes, and sometimes by crawling on his belly in the cold water and mud behind a rice levee, get close enough for a shot or two. If you were lucky you would get some birds, even a few dozen if you were really willing to suffer and the birds didn’t see you and all take off before you could get close enough to shoot. But my Cajun cousins could look out at the thousands of birds in the big flocks and wonder about a better way. They noticed that the ducks and geese would land in the fields/marshes that contained cattle. The cattle would just walk around in the field of feeding/resting ducks and geese and the waterfowl would pay no attention. I don’t know how long it took for these prairie Cajuns to realize that this knowledge could be used to advantage. Observers of nature that they are, I’ll bet it didn’t take very long to figure it out. Soon some of them began to hide behind bunches of cattle and try to sneak around the cows and get close to the birds that way. That was better and kept you out of the cold water, but still not that good. Besides, discharging shotguns in the middle of a bunch of skittish cattle could be dangerous. Someone finally decided to use one cow and stay behind it while it walked toward the birds. Problem was, the cows didn’t always walk where you wanted them too, probably resulting in many an abused cow by a frustrated hunter. But the solution was found when an enterprising person selected a more-than-usually docile brahma bull (interesting to think about the process of weeding out those that weren’t docile) and actually trained it to obey commands from a human walking along beside it and giving directions by tapping it with a stick on one side of its neck or the other. Once this bull was trained, you could place two men to walk beside it, one behind the front legs and one beside the back legs. You would direct the bull to within easy range of the birds being hunted, and by some signal unknown to me, make this huge animal stop. The men would drop down behind a rice levee and point the guns over the levee. The bull was trained to walk on a few paces and then stop again, and wait. One whistle from one of the men would make all of the birds lift their heads to see what the strange noise was and the men would discharge the shells they had in the direction of the birds. The shotguns would each have the full compliment of shells that they were made to hold (five), not the three shells apiece that is legal now. The 10-gauge or 12-gauge shells would make a serious impression in the flock of waterfowl, especially with a total of ten shots. The un-hit birds would rise in a tremendous roar that would be truly deafening, but it probably wasn’t even noticed by the men for the adrenalin pumping like water under pressure. The men would pull out string that they had brought and began to collect and tie up the ducks or geese. The bull, which somehow was trained not to run away from the gunshots, was brought back and the birds were slung over its back for easy transport back to the waiting vehicles somewhere. It was not unusual for the bull to have to carry 100 ducks.

Next, these birds were brought back to the towns along highway 14 (places between Abbeville and Lake Arthur) and distributed to various people who were part of the industry (for such it was). These people would clean the birds and store them for sale to buyers who knew that this illegal harvest was available, if you knew where to ask. And where to ask was such places as the little gas stations along the highway, or the little cafes that sold coffee and homemade biscuits to the local clientele. I think it must have resembled buying alcohol during the prohibition years – if you knew who to ask, you could get it.

Now into this picture enters the forces of law and order. Not the local forces, of course, their cousins were the ones doing the harvesting. And their kids were getting clothes to wear to school, financed in various creative ways by the commercial harvest of waterfowl. Their wives and mothers were probably cleaning the ducks. So no, not the local law. Consequently, again just like prohibition, it was the federal jurisdiction that took issue with this practice with the intent to curtail it. They tried the frontal approach at first. They tried asking. After seeing that just showing up in these little towns and asking for information about the illegal harvest of ducks didn’t get them anywhere, someone conceived the idea of going undercover. How do you do that in the small towns along highway 14? How indeed, when every person you meet has a family lineage that they can name going back to the Resurrection? And if you can’t make some connection to someone that fits into that genealogical process, you are an outsider and not to be trusted? The plan eventually agreed upon was to disguise federal agents as Tom’s Peanuts salesmen. I don’t know how many people remember the Tom’s Peanuts containers that were on every bar and countertop in every gas station and saloon in the country in those days. The successors to those containers are still around now, and you can still buy Tom’s Peanuts from them I believe. These men actually got jobs doing the Tom’s Peanuts routes along highway 14. They actually used the Tom’s trucks. The beauty of the plan was that the salesmen didn’t have to fit in because they were expected to be outsiders. But even as outsiders they could come by at least twice a week while just doing their jobs and drink coffee with you, and talk about the things you would talk about, including news about ducks. And you got to know them pretty well, at least you thought so.

This went on for at least two years, as the story goes (I only personally saw the end of it), and the salesmen got to where they knew the people who did the hunting, and the cleaning, and the storing, and the selling of the commercial harvest. They actually bought a lot of waterfowl. Then on one Sunday morning, the wrath of the federal enforcement agencies descended on Highway 14. All those friendly Tom’s Peanuts salesmen showed up wearing different uniforms, with badges, and with guns. They showed up during church hours to catch everyone at home. And they did catch pretty much everyone, as the story goes. But during the morning someone got word out somehow that this was all happening, and the assumption was made that those bulls that had become so well trained and cooperative were going to be used as evidence in the federal trials that were sure to take place. I’m not sure how many of these bulls were themselves harvested before their time that morning, to eliminate the evidence, so to speak, but it was more than just a few.

And that’s how big-time commercial waterfowl hunting came to an end in the country around Louisiana Highway 14. At least, that’s how the story is told by those who watched it happen, and told it to me. I wonder how long it took before people down there began buying Tom’s Peanuts products again. A while, I’ll bet.

The river is at 2.8 on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 2.3 by Monday. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling all the way up.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, September 11, 2006

Duck Memories

Cat at sunset on the river.

I guess this oncoming fall season makes some of us think more about hunting and past experiences than it does about the river so close at hand – at least for a little while.
In the last blog posting I mentioned that there was still some story material to be explored in another form of hunting: ducks. From the time I can first remember I was intrigued by the ducks my father would bring back from that mysterious place one went to from time to time – the camp, a place I wasn’t really sure existed in reality until I finally was allowed to go there. Somehow visits to the camp would always sound like that wonderful place where men went and did men things and their clothing came back smelling like that oddly attractive odor of waterfowl feathers mixed with marsh mud and gasoline. I would ask a thousand questions of my father when he returned. He would put his ducks on the ground and I would go through them one by one and ask what they were. In those days the limit was 25 of anything with a flat beak and webbed feet that you could bring down with a 10-gauge shotgun or smaller, so there usually was a good bunch of birds for me to ask questions about. Just from being a good hunter, my father knew a lot about the practical side of ducks – what they ate, how they swam, which ones would decoy, what a “quack” call would work on, how they would approach a set of decoys, how they would orient to the wind, how to tell a mallard from a pintail flying 1000 feet up, and much more. In the end, I always exhausted his patience with my questions. I believe I would have gone on for hours just listening.

The camp my father went to was leased by several men from New Iberia with names like Harris, Dauterive, and Derouen. I think most of the group is in this picture from 1950. It was located on a feature called Warren Ditch, below Gueydan, the duck capital of the world. My father’s contribution to the camp was his ability to cook good food. This was not a big camp, it would sleep about ten people, so there usually wasn’t enough room for me but I pestered him until he found a time that worked out. I also think that the men weren’t too happy with a young boy observing men behavior at the camp – poker, and cussing and drinking and raucous conversation and all that. I was nine years old when I finally was allowed to go. Because of my age, I guess, my father was allowed to take me out on an afternoon hunt, a practice usually banned by order of the club rules. But out we went for my first duck hunt.

It was one of the rice field blinds. The whole lease was for two square miles, about half rice field and half natural marsh. It was a clear day, I think, with a southwest wind blowing. The gun I had was a double-barreled 410, not the gauge of choice for duck hunting, but that’s what I had and had again the next year. The picture was taken the following year. Note the rubber bands used to hold the boots on. In those days they didn't make boots to fit 10-year olds. The blind was sunk into a rice levee, and brushed up to look like a bush. My father was almost maniacal about brushing a blind. He was convinced that a duck could detect a human if it could see one square inch of unbrushed clothing a quarter mile away. That’s an exaggeration but memories are what they are. I could hardly see over the bushes to look out for something to shoot at, and that’s true. We stood there for a while, me standing on the seat (a 5-gallon can), scanning the afternoon sky. I didn’t know it, but my father was demonstrating my first lessons in how to hunt ducks from a blind. At some point, my father hissed “There’s a pair of big ducks”. I say hissed because he also thought ducks had an abnormally acute sense of hearing, to add to their visual talents. And sure enough, there out over the field about a quarter mile away were two ducks kind of looking around, casually like. He hissed “Get down and try to look through the grass”. I did, and I did. He called a couple times with the “Hey look over here” four-quack call, and in a moment said, hissing even lower, “They’re coming!” By some miracle I caught sight through the brush of the pair of birds coming toward us. He called a couple more times, ending with the single call of a greenhead mallard. He hissed at an even less audible level “Get up when I say take em”. I may have said OK or something like that but probably not because I know I hadn’t taken a breath since the ducks had swung in our direction. Then he started to hiss “Wait…..wait….wait…”, pause, then much louder “Take em!” I stood with the little gun and managed to find the birds after losing sight of them as I stood up. What should have happened is that I forgot to take the safety off, but it didn’t. God is good. The two mallards, a pair, were flying very slowly over the decoys in perfect range about ten feet over the water from my left to my right, not intending to land, just cruising over and looking around. I put the flat platform of the double-barrel in front of the greenhead (he was in the lead) and led him about a foot and pulled the trigger and threw all of the little 410 shell’s #6 shot in his direction. He folded in a very complete and final fashion. I would say he crumpled, but that doesn’t describe the feeling I had as I saw the bird die and fall to the water. I was a little awed, I believe. I do clearly remember screaming in a much less dignified way “I got him!”, and my father saying loudly “Good shot! You sure got him!” Then , remembering I had another shot available, I looked for the other duck but she was long gone. I asked my father why he hadn’t shot at the other duck, and he said he didn’t notice that there were two ducks. I believe that he was so focused on what would happen with my first encounter with shooting that 410 at a real duck, he didn’t notice the other duck even though it was maybe three feet behind the first one. He would never admit this, he wasn’t one to express emotions, but I know that’s what happened.

After the moment had kind of completed itself, I jumped to the side of the blind and started to get out and go and get the duck. But my father said no, he would go and get it. He was concerned that I would fall down in the water, and get wet and get sick, or something. And I would have fallen, too. The ponds in those rice fields were often made by running a tractor round and round to beat the rice down. If it was wet when they did that, they made a mess of ruts and hills that you couldn’t see because they were underwater. Yep, I would have set off determined to go and get my duck and would have ended up on my face in 18 inches of cold water. But what a moment! What a thing to be able to remember after 58 years of living beyond that afternoon! That was the only duck we killed that day.

In the following years there were other notable events at that duck camp. I will relate only one more for this posting. The next year I managed to get to the camp several times. I was ten years old now, and a seasoned killer of ducks, and the men didn’t seem to mind that I was there. There was this one evening, a Friday it was, and there must have been about eight or nine men in addition to my father and me. My father cooked up the usual, almost ritual, duck gumbo for supper. Early in the evening, a federal game warden showed up to talk hunting. He was known to the men, and was considered a good friend. He ate gumbo and stayed past the time I went to bed. He told them that he and some other game agents had a place staked out near Lake Arthur that they would visit the next morning. In the morning all the hunters divided up into who was going to hunt which blinds, and everyone left before daylight, as usual. My father and I would hunt the nearest blind, the same one I had killed my first duck in the year before. To get there we had to put a little three-horse Johnson outboard on this little ten-foot bateau and motor down this small canal for about a half mile, then park the boat and walk the rice field levees to the blind. We had a dog by this time. He was a mixed breed Chesapeake, and he loved to retrieve ducks. He wasn’t taught anything, he just starting do it on his own. Actually, what happened was my father didn’t think he was worth much so he brought him out to the camp to just kind of be a camp dog (I don’t know how the dog managed to go from weekend to weekend with no people at the camp). After a few weeks, someone called my father and told him he had a pretty good retriever. When asked what they meant, they told him that they had been hunting at night during the full moon, and they took the dog just for fun, and he turned out to be able to find the downed ducks in the dark and was a real asset. Surprise! Suddenly the dog had status and rode in the car back and forth every weekend. It shouldn't be a surprise that people hunted after dark, if they could get away with it. The thrill of waiting to get a silhouette of a duck crossing the moon is really something, so they tell me.

But back to the story. We loaded the dog into the boat and ourselves and took off to the blind. We had a slow morning and it was very cold, so we quit early and loaded up and started back to the camp. We had maybe eight ducks between us, not even a limit. We walked the rice levee and got in the boat and started back up the canal toward the camp. Just before we got to the camp there were two poule d’eaus swimming ahead of the boat along the left edge of the canal. The dog, Taffy was his name by now, was at the front of the boat straining toward the poule d’eaus. My father, running the motor, said “Go ahead and shoot them just so the dog can have something to retrieve”. So I loaded the 410 and shot one of the birds on the water. At that moment a man stood up out of the high grass on the right edge of the canal not 30 feet away and waved us in. If the birds had been swimming on that side of the canal I’m sure I would have shot the man, and that would really have been a bad move. Sure enough, it was the federal warden that was supposed to be in Lake Arthur chasing other people that morning. When we got to the bank he said “Del, I didn’t think you would do that”. I honestly don’t think my father knew that something illegal had been done. “Do what?” “Your son shot that coot from a moving motorized boat. That’s against the law.” Of all the things that you knew to be wary about, and worried about, if a game warden was around – too many ducks, no plug in the gun, shooting after dark, baiting the ducks – shooting a poule d’eau from a boat going less than one mile an hour was not one of them. Nevertheless, he took our guns, and our ducks and escorted us to the camp, which was only about 200 feet away. He made us go into the camp and sit on a bunk and not move around or go outside. We were the first ones to come back that morning, and there was an agreed-upon signal between all the hunters at that camp, that if there was trouble someone should hang a white handkerchief on a nail in a certain place outside so that the other returning hunters would know to be legal when they came in, or not come it at all. Well, either the agent knew about the signal, or knew generally about the signal idea, because he made sure we didn’t communicate with anyone. And, as each other pair of hunters came in, each one was arrested for something (too many ducks, usually) and made to sit inside the camp. So, everyone was arrested that morning, including me, at ten years of age. The agent confiscated all the guns, issued citations to everyone except me. He gave it my father instead. What eventually happened is that months later the judge allowed one hunter to assume the liability for everyone. He appeared in federal court in Opelousas and was fined and his license taken away for the next year (I think). Our guns were returned and I never heard any more discussion about the event. I did worry about the agent lying to us and laying the trap like he did. My father just said “Yep”, and continued to polish the bar in his restaurant. I think he was very embarrassed by the whole thing. As for me, do you think that experience makes a lasting impression? Really?

Much more happened in the following years in connection with hunting ducks on the Warren Ditch. The big lease folded, and the camp was abandoned. My father knew the landowner, a Mr. Trahan, and wanted to see if we could get a lease or permission otherwise to hunt one blind in the rice field closest to where the camp had been. The old man (as my father called him) didn’t want to lease anything or create a legal commitment of any kind, but he agreed to let my father and me hunt that blind from year to year free of a monetary exchange. He was wealthy and didn’t need them, but we brought him turkeys for Thanksgiving and bottles of bourbon from time to time. He had a market hunter (remember this was around 1947) who would go out and kill ducks for the old man to give his doctors in New Orleans. At the time, it was common knowledge that this kind of market hunting went on. This will be the subject of the next posting, I think.

The river is at 2.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling slightly to 2.4 by Saturday. That’s not enough to be at 1.8 where the sunken boats on Flat Lake will be exposed on Sunday. We wait. The Mississippi and Ohio are falling all the way up so maybe next week.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, September 01, 2006

Sex at Sunset

Sunrise with cat.

Tonight it’s all about sex. There have been many mayflies out this evening. They are out there flying over the river. The thousands of males all hovering and dancing, for all the world looking like they are anticipating something. And they are of course doing exactly that, in their own way. They dance in the air, and on a cue dictated by instinct a female comes out from the bushes along the bank to avail herself of the myriad attentions available to her on this soft summer evening. Rather than seductively gliding through the cloud of males, she zips into the midst of them and somehow one of the males is singled out as an acceptable mate, and he grasps her and off they fly in tandem on the only night of sexual abandon they will ever know. Tonight the mayfly duets are coupling and flying and landing all over the place. They land on the dock, and they land on the boat and in final tribute to an ephemeral cycle, they land on the water. The female liberates (the right word) her contribution to the continuation of her species. She literally bursts and the eggs spray out into the water. If they survive the minnows and other hungry river life, the eggs will sink to the bottom of the river, and if they land on a bottom suitable for mayfly life, they will hatch there and begin the year-long experience that culminates in what I see tonight. Having done their part, the adult mayflies are now dead or dying, some weakly flutter on the surface before becoming still, most hit the water and never move. At this point other animals incorporate the mayflies into their own existence by consuming this abundance of available nutrition. Turtles swim back and forth gathering the dead mayflies by the hundreds. Garfish do the same thing, swimming along on top of the water and gently snapping up each mayfly that comes within range. Some other fishes that I can’t identify fill the river from bank to bank with dimples and larger circles that remain after a meal is taken. For everything you can imagine there is a bounty out here on the river this evening. It is good to see this, and not at all sad. Rather, there is a feeling of completeness that comes from knowing that a natural cycle is working the way it should, and all’s well with the river tonight.

The river is at 1.3 feet on the Butte la Rose gauge, and there is about a six inch daily tide. The Ohio and Mississippi are both rising somewhat.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Dog Feelings,and Doves

Moonrise tonight.

I sometimes wonder why hunting is something that people keep doing even though it really isn’t necessary for survival anymore, then I remember that there is more to it than providing food for the table. I grew up hunting with my father around New Iberia. When I was small, about nine years old, he would take me quail hunting a good bit. We would go out early in the mornings before the hunting season, and listen in certain places for the calls made by bobwhite quail. We would locate places to hunt that way, the larger coveys were not hard to find. He always had hunting dogs, setters and pointers. I would like to say they were beautiful dogs but I don’t think they were. They were a good breed line, but dogs that are kept only for hunting spend a lot of time alone and careful grooming isn’t usually a concern. These dogs got fed regularly and de-fleaed too, but they were not allowed to be pets in the modern sense. I remember that we used to dip the dogs in an insecticide solution that would turn the water milk-white, and it smelled strongly of creosote. The dogs didn’t like it, and you really didn’t want to get any of it in your eyes, but it sure kept the fleas away. I would imagine whatever that stuff was is banned by the government now. But the dogs were for hunting, and they did seem to enjoy it. It was always hoped that good dogs would go out into the field and find quail for you to shoot at – to shoot at being the operative phrase here. That’s what you fed them and kept them all year for. A really good dog would range away from you only a short distance, and not take off like a shot for the parish line, totally ignoring the fact that the purpose was to find birds in your vicinity. We never had good dogs like that. We had very enthusiastic dogs, and very athletic dogs, and highly strung dogs, but not good close-hunting dogs. Many times I remember my father getting so mad that he yelled that he would shoot the *%$#@ dogs instead of the quail. But because the situation was what it was, the dogs never got close enough to be in danger. Once in a while the dogs (usually two) would find some quail pretty quickly, before we lost sight of them. When that happened, it really was a pretty thing to see. One dog would stop and become rigid, like it was frozen solid, but trembling slightly. One front paw would be held up and back, the nose would aim at what was probably the object of the hunt and, if it was the pointer, the tail would kind of curl back and up. The other dog, if they were still in visual communication with each other, would come over and “honor the point” by taking a similar stance even if it didn’t see anything to point at. If this was a setter, its tail would be straight back and the long hair would flow down toward the ground like a small waterfall. No kidding, that is a very memorable thing to see. It stimulates something primal if you are close to it, the anticipation that something hunted has been found and is about to be killed. You walk up to the dogs to get close enough to shoot whatever they have located. You stand there a moment and look at your partner and raise your chin slightly, silently asking “Are you ready?” He nods and you turn back to the dogs and say “Go!” and they leap forward into the bushes to flush whatever is there. Sometimes a single bird would rise into the air with a whir of wings and you might get a shot at it [it sounded like a cicada blasting away right by your ear]. But sometimes there would not be a single bird, but a covey of twenty or so. And you would have walked into the middle of them without knowing it, thinking the birds would be in front of the dogs. Suddenly they would rise with a tremendous clatter all around you, under your feet, behind you, on both sides, as well as in front of the dogs. Some people could still shoot and hit birds when that happened, but I never could. By the time I could act at all, the quail would be sailing over the next fence line. My father could still hit them, and that’s probably what prolonged the dog’s willingness to charge through the briars for the rest of the morning. Those were good times, and in those days there were quail to hunt all over around here. There were brushy fence rows, and thick edges around ditches and small patches of woods. This kind of cover is mostly gone now, a victim of clean farming practices, and the ease of herbicide use. Remember that there were no foxes around here then, or coyotes either, or fire ants. All of these have combined with the clean farming practices to eliminate almost all of the quail in this part of Louisiana. A pity, really, that watching the dogs do their thing is no longer possible here.

Doves were another favorite fall harvest. We would go out about a week before the season opened and scout for fields the doves were using for feeding. You would see flocks of ten, or twenty, or a hundred birds moving lazily over a field looking for the best place to tank up on grain. That would get your blood flowing, just thinking that in a week you could be in that field, with those lazy doves. In those days you didn’t even have to ask permission to hunt in the fields around New Iberia; the landowners expected to have some guests around the beginning of dove season, and they didn’t mind. All kids were taught the rules of hunting, including how to act on someone else’s land: don’t litter or damage anything, and absolutely be sure to close any gate you open. Once you found some good fields, the week would pass and you would dream of opening day and wonder if this year you would be able to average one dove for every three shots. That was considered a respectable average then, I don’t know about now. I did manage to be able to do that, and a little better sometimes, but not anymore.

Dove season on opening day is only a half day in Louisiana, starting at noon. Now, this is the worst time of the day to dove hunt, because the birds feed early and late and rest in trees in the middle of the day. But that didn’t stop anyone from going out and sitting in the sun at midday. After all, this was dove season! People were also taught courtesy and manners in the field. You learned how far apart a hunter needed to be from his closest fellow hunter, and you didn’t trespass on his area. Mostly this amounted to a spacing that prevented shooting at the same birds. And you would see a bird and whistle at the people closest to where the bird would fly, alerting them to the bird if they hadn’t seen it. And they would do the same thing for you. There was that kind of courtesy, and it was common. We enjoyed the camaraderie of people we didn’t know, and when we killed enough birds to make a few meals we enjoyed eating the doves too. I put a picture here of some I cooked last week – smothered in a big black iron pot.

I recall my father telling me time and time again about having respect for the game you killed and brought home. Funny, he never said anything about that in so many words, but he expressed the lesson by doing things like insisting on meticulously cleaning every bird as though it was made of gold. None of this tearing the breast out of a dove, no, he would pull every pinfeather out to the ends of the wings. He would not shoot over a field that was so overgrown that a downed dove would be lost. He wouldn’t shoot a bird that would fall over a canal that couldn’t be crossed to retrieve it. He hated to cripple a bird, and so he never shot at one that was out of range, even when other hunters were blasting away at impossibilities. As I say, these lessons were demonstrated, not dictated. Today I see a dove in our back yard and seem to automatically make the decision about whether it is in range for a clean kill or not – I mean I just seem to do this. We never had a dog that would retrieve doves, and I don’t know why. Hmph.

Enough. Duck hunting and the associated adventures with wasps, and snakes, and being arrested when I was ten years old will come later. You really can drink five big swallows of white gasoline (by accident) and live to tell about it. Those were the days!

The river is at 1.9 on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising temporarily to 3.0 feet by Saturday. The Ohio and Mississippi are rising up to Cairo, but falling above that, so the extra water won’t stay with us for long.

Rise and Shine, Jim