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 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


Blogger Bud Forester said...

Thanks Jim, I continue to be amazed at the saltwater critters. Are the redfish biting around your dock? Happy Birthday Rusty! Say, that was a great duck hunting saga. I've been having problems, too, with Blogger...think they must be doing maintenance.

September 16, 2006 8:59 PM  

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