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.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Joe is a fisherman, and an ordained minister. Joe is the one who found me on Grand Lake 35 years ago trying to learn to fish commercially with a very wrong type of boat and too little line and way too much ignorance. Joe was about 25 years old at the time and I was about 33, but he was clearly the one with the right stuff. He agreed to teach me what I was able to learn about fishing catfish with trotlines. For the first six months I paid attention to everything he did and eventually I was able to make a living at it, although I never even came close to the skill level that came naturally to the men and women who had been born to this profession. Still, the fishing community was tolerant of my bumbling and that’s what encouraged me, I think.

Line-fisherman Joe decided that he wanted a shrimp boat. These big boats cost a lot of money. Line fishermen don’t often get to save the money that it takes to buy a shrimp boat, and in those days banks didn’t see commercial line fishermen as top credit risks, so a requested loan of that size was hard to come by. So Joe kept at work catching and selling catfish until he could afford to buy some steel. He bought enough to lay the keel for a shrimp boat in the 50 foot range. The size is vague in my memory but it was something like that. He continued to fish, pay his bills, buy food for his family, and buy a sheet of steel whenever he could. Gradually a very substantial hull came into being in Joe’s back yard. Once in a while someone would help him do something, but mostly he did it himself – the design, the cutting, the fitting and the welding. The design was in his head, there were no plans for this boat except his vision of what a shrimp boat should be. When the hull was finished enough to float, I watched Joe and some friends load the shrimp boat onto a very big flatbed truck (like the house movers use), drive it to a place on Bayou Teche where there was a low bank, and back the truck bed into the water to launch the boat just like you would launch a 14-foot bateau. Since Joe had never built a big steel boat like this before, there was some anxiety about how it would float, or indeed, if. Well, it did. And it was a beautiful thing to see, to see that big steel back yard creation come smoothly off of the truck and slowly come to rest like an animal born to the water. You could feel the pride and the satisfaction in the men and women who watched this event. In the truest sense, it was awesome.

Joe went on to finish the boat. He put an engine in it, and all the rest of what it takes to make a boat complete according to the laws of nature and the Coast Guard. He rigged it with butterfly nets and proceeded to teach himself to become a successful shrimper. And he did become successful. And he has traded up several times to gain bigger and better boats, and his sons have learned the trade as well, though they don’t practice it now, I believe.

After he built his boat, and learned to catch shrimp, he decided that he had a calling to become a religious leader. At this time I don’t believe he had much experience traveling outside of St. Mary Parish, except by water. But off he went and got himself admitted to a seminary in New Orleans. For the next several years he would fish or shrimp until he could afford to take off for a semester at the seminary. Eventually he fulfilled all the requirements to become ordained and he is now the pastor at a missionary church in St. Mary Parish, as well as a crawfisherman, a line fisherman and a shrimper. Last year I watched him preside over the funeral for one of our close friends in the fishing community. I couldn’t help but be amazed to see him doing this. Here was this young man who started by fishing with hooks for a living and now here he is officiating at one of the most important religious rites that we practice today. He is one of the people I think about when I wonder if I have the energy to persevere at some new thing that I want to do. I think of Joe and I have the courage to move ahead.

Napoleon, fit and happy, in the morning light is good to see.

The river is at 5.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 6.5 by Saturday. The Mississippi is falling in its mid-section, but both it and the Ohio are rising moderately in their upper reaches. We will get some more water in a little more than a week.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Good Fishing and the Internet

It was very foggy this morning on the river.

Rusty and Lulu came by again this morning. It was a pleasure to talk to them. They stopped while running the big nets that Rusty sets out to catch buffalo. Thirty years ago I was one of them, using a mile of line and a thousand hooks to catch my fish instead of the big nets. We are very different ages, but there is a kinship that exists between commercial fisherman, one that rests upon sharing the same kind of cold mornings, and rainstorms on the river, and lightning coming to places you can’t predict and the other things (both pleasant and not so pleasant) that make working on the river memorable. I was doing what they do now when they were learning how to read in grade school. . Even with this difference in ages, there is a shared communication that is partly language and partly just knowing that each of you has felt cold and heat and disappointment and that feeling of deep satisfaction that comes with a net full of fish, or a trotline with ten fish on in a row. All of us have that thing in the back of our minds that sees the fish you have in your boat, makes the calculations, and knows when you have done a good day’s work, and that is a very good feeling. Each day as the fish are brought to the dock and sold, there is that day’s reward in your hand, not a promise of it to be paid at the end of the month, but in your hand. Each day renews its potential to reward, and often delivers it if you put in the time and skill to earn it. But, it is a young man’s job. I do envy them, but not all the time.

Both of these men have read these postings and both approve of what has been written about them. What a marker for times changing that is! I have written words and taken digital pictures and placed them in a place that has no boundaries on the Earth. And these men have the ability sell their fish, drive their boats home, and then sit in their easy chairs and retrieve my words and pictures and evaluate what I have said. That is an astounding thing.

When I was fishing, the only computers were in very sophisticated places and were themselves very big machines. Telephones were the only established method of long-range communication and not all fishermen had them. The word FAX was new and the machines that delivered a facsimile of a printed page seemed almost to be magical. Everyone who had one put the FAX number on business cards to show how up to date they were and how technologically advanced. It almost seems out of touch to put that on a card now. And now, all three of us have, or have access to, machinery and communication networks that were hardly conceivable thirty years ago, even by brains farseeing enough to imagine such things. I can write and my commercial fishermen friends can read what I have written without ever seeing a piece of paper. Rusty told me this morning that he goes to the Internet to find information about the fish he catches, to get maps of places he wants to fish and to get predictions of the river stages. And for him, now, these things are just routine. What a world!

The pictures are of various things. Napoleon encountered something that might be his Waterloo out there in the wilds. He is pretty beat up this morning with scratches and a couple cat-bite puncture wounds. He is pretty sore and in the fog looks kind of miserable. We shall see if he needs outside assistance (outside meaning in town).

Earlier this week Rusty and Lulu caught good down here. Without raising all their nets they filled the boat and had to go back in. They came back today to finish raising. To get an idea of what a load of fish is like, the place in the boat that holds fish is the area under the net. Those two wellboxes (waterboxes Rusty calls them) together hold 3,300 pounds of fish. That’s a lot of fish, and right now he can sell all he can catch because there isn’t a glut of fish on the market. Good days like that for a fisherman don’t come often. Usually when you can catch fish like that all the other fishermen can too and the price drops or the amount you can bring in gets limited by the dock – a glut in other words.

Three of the fish he is catching were not around in Louisiana waters when I was fishing. These would be the three carp laid out on the side of the boat: the bighead carp (the most massive), the silver carp (in the middle) and the grass carp (closest to the bottom). The bighead carp gets up to 90 pounds in Louisiana, I’m told, and is mostly a filter feeder. The open mouth shows the close arrangement of the gills that act to strain out very small organisms from the water column. Rusty says he has seen these big fish swimming slowly with their head upcurrent and their mouth wide open, filtering the water like the pictures of whale sharks show them doing.

The silver carp is a really pretty fish. It is classically fish-shaped and has all those very small scales. However, it is the one you see pictures of jumping out of the water seemingly in response to the sound of outboard motors. With its size, it can knock you out of a boat and has been said to have caused some deaths related to the jumping. And we used to be concerned about getting hit by little mullet every once in a while. Ha.

The other fish, the long one with the big scales is the ill-famed grass carp. The one that was said to be the answer to the noxious plant problem in lakes like Caney Lake in north central Louisiana, where Hydrilla was choking the lake. The imported carp were supposedly sterilized and 12,000 of them were released into the lake. Within a short time, they had indeed eaten all the Hydrilla, and all of the other vegetation in the lake, leaving it bare and without the bass fishery it had been known for. There were stories of the hungry carp being seen at night with their heads and upper bodies pushed up on the lawns of lakeside property, grazing on the grass. To top it off, it turns out the sterilized carp were not truly sterilized after all, because they are now being found, like this one, in open rivers in Louisiana. Rusty says this is actually a good thing for him because the carp bring a good price at the dock, being prized by folks to the west of us as a good food fish. Look at this one; it’s like a fish sausage with a small head and tail. Very good ratio of meat to throw-away on this fish!

Right now the powers that be are trying to decide what to do about the Hydrilla infestation in Henderson Lake, right next door to us. Over a million dollars (I believe that’s a conservative figure) has been spent on controlling the plant, but apparently the grass carp-lesson is well learned. No one is suggesting that remedy that I know of. Ironically, the regulators working in Caney Lake are now trying to regrow Hydrilla to bring back some cover to support the fishery they lost eliminating the Hydrilla in the first place. Go figure.

The grass carp lying across the boat rests upon some green sacks. This is cow feed that Rusty is using for bait in the nets. I will try that for the shrimp traps too.

Lastly, the two buffalo pictured here represent the two money-makers for buffalo fishermen. They are the bigmouth and smallmouth buffalo. They are what Rusty caught 3,300 pounds of to fill his boat earlier this week. The bigmouth is above and has the terminal mouth (at the very end of the face) and the smallmouth has its mouth sort of suspended underneath its face. It’s interesting to ask around the area for someone who eats buffalo – not easy to find someone who eats them. And yet someone does, the market for them says so. I have eaten them several times, and they make a really good courtboullion, but the intermuscular bones always seem to discourage a big following for them. Too bad, they taste fine.


The NOAA river stage pages are not working right now. Will try to edit them in later.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Old and New

Today we heard that we have a brand new granddaughter enwombed in Texas. She is about four months growing now and is set to emerge in March or so. And, tonight a good friend is sleeping in a hospital in Lafayette, preparing for a very serious operation in the morning.

In the constant expression of beginnings and endings, the fresh new beginning in Texas is a joyous marker for that place on the circle where new things live. At the other end is that place where older things release themselves to perhaps begin again somewhere unknown to us. Either way, at whichever end, the circle of life goes on with each of us a part of it.

On a log floating beneath the dock on the river I see this dragonfly. It is just beginning its part of the great circle of life, that part where it changes from its watery world to one of incredible acrobatic feats in the sky. The symbolism just seems to jump out at you. Here is a new thing, something that is the same but is not the same. It is water and then it is air.

In March there will be a new thing in Texas that will be a part of us, but will be a something wholly on its own in the world of new things, like the dragonfly taking to the air for the first time. Tomorrow morning at the hospital in Lafayette there will the opportunity for our friend to move on without us, or not, perhaps staying with us a little longer. One new and one nearing a state of ending, there must be a way to welcome both of these things equally. But it is hard.

We are lucky to have this river, and the time to use it. It is a good place to think about the dragonfly, and Texas, and the potential for the end/beginnings of life.

The Atchafalaya is at 4.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 4.1 by Monday. But, the Ohio and Mississippi are both rising at the rate of about 1.5 feet/day all the way up and that means we will get some water here in about ten days.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Boatriding Birds

If you left our house in a boat tomorrow and traveled south and then north for a total of about 5000 miles you would end up somewhere near San Diego. We just finished doing that in reverse – from San Diego, through the Panama Canal and ending in Florida (near enough for our purposes here). We spent the last day of the trip on Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas - picture at left. That is one long trip by water, but an exciting one courtesy of Holland America Cruise Lines. I’m just putting this in to mark our return to the wonderful Atchafalaya River. I was very pleased to find that the river didn’t do that out-of-season seven foot rise that was predicted for it last week. It did come up about four feet, but that didn’t do any harm to the dock aside from floating several trees up against it. I’ll work those free tomorrow. It’s good to be back.

One interesting Louisiana-related thing that happened is that a peregrine falcon sort of adopted the ship about 100 miles north of Colombia as we headed back north (click on the picture to enlarge it). This could very well have been a falcon that left Louisiana a week or so ago, headed for South America. Instead of reaching South America, it stayed with the ship (no doubt eating the other birds that constantly used the ship for a rest stop) all the way back to Florida. In other words it flew about 2000 miles south over water only to hitch a ride with the ship back north for 2000 miles. It ended about where it started before heading south in the first place. This was also true of some of the small warblers that stayed with the ship for a day or two. They flew almost to South America, only to ride the ship back north for however long they stayed on it. Odd.

Said river is at 3.9 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, and will stay about the same for the next five days. The Mississippi is falling all the way up but the Ohio is rising, probably due to that unseasonable snow they had a couple of days ago.

Rise and Shine, Jim