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.

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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.

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


Blogger Randy said...

Yes, I can see it. I know very well how crabs respond to heat. Many times I've had the crabs on top in the crab boil pot (not under water) knock of the lid and climb out. I also know very well the amazing power of their claws. Even quarter sized crabs can draw blood. I takes a lot of force with even an oyster knife to pry open the jaws of an adult crab claw. I've even had the claw point break off because of the force exerted by the crab. No doubt Lucian never treated crabs the same after that experience. I know I sure wouldn't have.

September 27, 2006 3:56 PM  
Blogger jim said...

Good, if you can see it then I succeeded. Thanks for the comment Randy. Jim

September 27, 2006 10:13 PM  
Blogger Bud Forester said...

Oh, Jim, I can just picture it!

September 28, 2006 9:41 PM  
Blogger jim said...

I still wonder how much damage was done. I'll bet there were some after effects too. Thanks Bud. Jim

September 28, 2006 10:05 PM  

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