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, November 28, 2006


Alcibiades sits in the golden light of sunrise and looks at the river. When a big fish surfaces nearby, he always looks that way, as if to acknowledge the brief visit.

Just a quick thing to record some news. This morning my friend Rusty, the man who fishes the big nets for buffalo, caught a tarpon in the Atchafalaya River. He was raising nets about seven miles (on a level with Catahoula) below Butte La Rose and he caught this strange looking fish. He didn’t recognize it right away, having never caught one in his nets before. But it had the big scales, and Rusty is always looking for interesting things, and so he saved it and brought it in. He called the Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries and they sent a biologist to meet him at the landing in Simmesport, and they confirmed that it was indeed a seven pound (estimate) tarpon.

The Old People will tell you that there used to be tarpon in Grand Lake every year when the water got real low. They would see them rolling on the surface, sometimes in big schools. Not having much value as food or as anything else to a subsistence fisherman, they didn’t try to catch them. I guess it would have been like catching a giant shad – then what do you do with it?

Another fish item. Yesterday Rusty caught a ten pound hybrid striper/barfish near our house. He put it in my livebox down at the dock. I took pictures and let it go, pictures to edit into this posting later. This is the biggest hybrid striper I have seen. He tells me that during the winter these big hybrids are all over the Atchafalaya River near Butte La Rose. He catches hundreds sometimes. It sure would seem that someone would go after these big gamefish with rods and reels and lures, but they don’t. I wonder why a two pound bass is more worth pursuing than these big stripers. No explaining it.

The river is 6.9 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, and holding there for a few days. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling, and the Ohio is falling particularly hard.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The River Lives

"A place where a great river lives”. That is the second line in the poem Atchafalaya Is.

The fact that it lives, that is my point. It is easy to think of the river as a living being. Some textbooks say that in order to be considered alive at least two things have to be evident: the ability to move from place to place in response to stimuli and the ability to reproduce. Purists will have other factors, but given these two criteria, the Atchafalaya is a living being.

Does it move in response to stimuli? It sure does. The rains falling down on the countryside up north stimulate the river. The water builds up and pushes the water before it, and the river moves south to join the Gulf. It does move more forcefully sometimes than others. In the spring it moves fast with much power, and it creeps up the bank to claim trees that have lain down, waiting for the rising water to carry them away. It moves over the banks and refreshes the swamp with new water full of oxygen – and because of this many other kinds of living things find a welcome place to lay eggs and nurse new generations. Sometimes an extreme has to happen, and it does. Raging waters are said to happen then. But “raging” only if they impact us, otherwise the water is moving in its normal way, just more so. Even these extremes can produce benefits such as new, rich silt spreading everywhere the water goes. We have limited these extremes of course, with our levees and dams and other water control structures.

In the summer the river moves more slowly, and sometimes it moves backward. But move it does. This slow current welcomes animals from the salt water, and they move up the river – crabs, river shrimp, sharks, flounders, etc., all find some reason to come up the river when the current slows in the summer.

Does the river reproduce itself? Maybe that depends on what we consider the river to be. Surely it is not just the water itself. No, a river is composed of the water and all that is influenced by the water. All the organisms in the river are part of it, as is the sediment the water carries and deposits along its course. The otters are part of the river; the great blue herons that make a living along the shallows are part of it. The beaver that ate the bark off of this willow limb is part of it. The trees that shed their pollen on its surface and use the water to spread their seeds are part of it. All of these things, the fishes, and thousands of others, use the water in some way to ensure that the next generation takes its place in the parade. And because of this I say the river does reproduce itself. Even if one would restrict the definition to the water itself, even then the river contributes to its own future by evaporating water to make clouds and the clouds replenish the river with rain.

And I think that because the river changes with time it is a living thing. It shifts the path it takes from high ground to lower levels, always trying to be efficient in seeking a place to rest. One year it flows past New Orleans, and the next year it may present itself at Morgan City’s front door. That path seems to be a quicker, more efficient way to reach the resting place.

It does not matter if the river empties into a lake before reaching the Gulf, or if it makes new land and divides itself into smaller streams as it pushes through that land. It does not matter if the river is shallow or deep. It is still the Atchafalaya River and it does its part to nourish the life in and around it. It is part of all that life, and all that life is a part if it. This is all one being, this great river, and it lives.

The living river is at 6.5 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge right now, moving with a rise to 7.3 in a couple days. This rise was enough to float my dock off of the bank where the terrific north winds of last week pushed it – a relief. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling up above. We will have no big water yet.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, November 20, 2006

Season Changes

And it is that time, now. It seems that spring, summer and fall just kind of sneak up on you. The days get a little milder, and the winds come in March sometimes, and you look up and it’s spring. Spring comes with little fanfare most of the time. And summer, well, the days are 90 degrees before you know it and we sweat and it doesn’t do any good because the humidity also crept in without announcing itself. For three months or more we add Cajuns to mad dogs and Englishmen. Fall comes in with days that present no shock to the senses. Fall days might not be quite 90 degrees but still seem blessedly cooler. And the hummingbirds tank up on sugar water, waiting for the green light in the form of the first 50-something night – the signal to take off for southern lands. Small changes announce each of these three seasons most of the time.

But winter! The cooler weather that we call winter can come with the sound of a north wind that shrieks over the river and roars through the trees. It causes whitecaps going down current, and that takes a lot of wind. Things that usually don’t move much, do move before that wind! Duck hunters know this and pray for it. Our dock strains at the cable that holds it and gets blown up onto the bank. It will take a considerable rise to get the dock to float free again, but the rise will come. It is coming now, and has just about passed Memphis on its way to Butte La Rose.

A sign of the changes happening now is the arrival of our neighbors from the north. They come with muted colors, at least compared to their spring breeding finery. The goldfinches are here at the feeders today, drab compared to the bright yellow they are capable of. Yellow-rumped warblers flash their butter butts, the only clear mark on them in the winter. In the spring they are splendid with the black streaks and such. Geese are here now, and cormorants by the hundreds on Henderson Lake. Thousands of robins flew by today, going southeast in a very leisurely fashion. Odd, if these were humans migrating to warmer lands for the winter we would call them snowbirds. So, in that sense, I guess these feathered guys are snowbirds too.

Last week I mentioned that I was going out to run the trotline after having replaced and baited 50 of the 100 hooks on it. Well, the storm and the subsequent winds kept me off of the river the day I wanted to check the line. That is the first time that wind has kept me off of the river in the seven years we have lived here. It was blowing so hard that even if I had managed to run the line all the way across, when I would have paddled back the wind would have pushed me a long way downriver before reaching the bank where the dock is. But, when I did manage to run the line, the next day, it had 23 fish on the 50 hooks! Again, almost 50%. It was a sight to see. Some of the fish are pictured here taking a walk on the dock. I hate to coop them up all the time.

His majesty is doing well. He and Alcibiades get real frisky in this cool weather. We weighed Alcibiades today, he tips the scales (not really, no tipping on a spring scale) at an even 20 pounds. He seems content with that.

The river is at 5.2 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, but will rise to 6.4 feet by Saturday. The Ohio and Mississippi are still rising all the way up, but not as fast as they had been.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Good Line

Another good morning and another good cup of coffee.

The first thing that comes to mind with a title like the one above probably isn’t what it means in this case. No, in this case it means the trotline out in the river behind our house. It has been a remarkable season for that line, or maybe I should say “seasons”. Those who have followed this blog from its early postings will remember that the line crosses the river, is 600 feet long and has 100 hooks spaced six feet apart. I put the line in the water in the early summer (as I usually do each year) of 2005, as the water receded below the 8 foot mark on the Butte La Rose gauge. Normally the line would fish well for the summer and fall, until the water rose again past the same mark and the current became too strong to hold the line – at which point I would remove the line. Then the water would usually continue to rise to its high point for the year sometime around April, and fall slowly thereafter. Well, last year was different. The very low water in 2005 continued beyond the time it usually rises, and it never did rise very much. It actually never forced me to remove the line, I just quit fishing it for a couple weeks and then it receded again. I believe the high for last spring was about 11 feet instead of the usual 18 feet or more.

However, due to my reorientation following retirement, I didn’t fish the line very much in the spring or summer of this year. It just sort of stayed where it was for the last six months or so. Then a couple days ago I got the envie to see some fish on the hooks and realized I couldn’t fish the line until I changed all the stageons. The swivels I use are good for one fishing season, and these had been on the line for almost two full seasons. When the swivels are that old the hooks come flying off as you snap the line to clean it. So, yesterday I made up 25 stageons and used them to replace the first 25 on the trotline. I baited them with river shrimp and hoped I would catch a fish big enough for us to fillet and bake.

Today I made up 25 more stageons and went down to the river to replace the next 25 hooks. As I ran the first 25 that I had baited yesterday I started catching fish, ending with 12 fish for the first 25 hooks. That’s almost 50%, and good catching any time, especially after almost six months of not running the line. Hence the title of this posting. And to top it off, one of the fish was big enough to provide the fillets I was hoping for, and it’s pictured here. The other fish were not little ones either. Looking forward to running the 50 hooks tomorrow and adding another 25.

Yesterday it rained on the river, as it did all over the area. Some of the time it rained as the sun was shining. The mood of the rain falling through the trees in our yard with the sun in the background is mellowing.

The river is at 7.3 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 6.3 by Saturday. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling steadily all the way up.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, November 13, 2006

Beyond Ownership

[The pictures here are intended to show some of the moods of the Basin. The sunrises, sunsets, foggy mornings, bright clouds and rainstorms are all part of it. To me the wavy reflection on the water is like the constantly changing face of the swamp.]

Some time ago, actually it was February 21 of this year, I posted a poem that I wrote in 2002 entitled “Atchafalaya Is”. I wrote the poem to remind myself of why I think the Atchafalaya is important, both as a physical entity and as a concept. I said I wanted to try to post a short piece based on each line of the poem, explaining why that particular thought had meaning for me. I begin this now, with the first line - "Atchafalaya is: beyond ownership".

When I first met the thing that is the Atchafalaya Basin I was about 10 years old. This would have been 58 years ago, and some of the major changes that now define the Basin had not yet fully taken place. There were still deep water bayous, and much of Grand Lake was still a lake. By then you couldn’t see across the lake because of the sandbars and willow trees, but you could still travel by boat from one side to the other without much trouble. Even in low water it wasn’t much trouble.

It’s hard to say why some things affect us in the way they do, and why they affect some people and not others. The man who introduced me to the swamp was named Julian Gajan, but everyone called him Rut. He was a beer delivery man in New Iberia, and his route included my father’s restaurant. Because he chose to include me in his frequent trips into the Basin, I began a relationship with the swamp that I barely understand myself. For me the first trips into the Basin were like meeting someone for the first time and knowing without knowing that this person comes from the same place you do. You expect them to be warmed by the same things that warm you, and cooled by the same things too. This was how I felt about the Basin from the first time I saw it, or this is at least how I remember feeling. It was a long time ago, but a few things don’t fade much, and this is one that has never faded.

Whatever caused the effect that the swamp had on me, no person can own. And that’s what I meant by the first line of the poem. Oh sure, people can claim title to the trees and to the land. That’s not at all what I mean. There was a bond between the trees and the water and me, and that bond was caused by what Plato would have called the form of the Atchafalaya. The form is not something you can touch, but it is something you can feel. We would go out from Charenton in Rut’s little bateau and I couldn’t get enough of what he could tell me about the water and the fish and the birds and the snakes and everything else that the swamp had to offer. You could feel being in the swamp. You could smell it. You could eat its fish and that felt good. You could be cold in a rainstorm and even that felt good. You could fail to catch fish sometimes, and even that felt good. You could just be there, and that felt good.

So, it is the potential for the Atchafalaya Basin to affect people that is beyond ownership. It is available to anyone open to its message, as I was open to it as a boy a long time ago. Others I have met have been affected this way too. Still others are feeling it for the first time as I write this. And for those who might feel it in the future I say that the concept, the true power, of the Atchafalaya Basin has always been beyond ownership, and it will never be for sale.

On a more local note, I am changing stageons on my trotline right now. After a low water season the swivels corrode out and come apart. There are quite a few shrimp in the traps so I’ll try to put a few more catfish and gous in the freezer before the high water starts.

As sunsets go, this one was fine.

The river is at 7.7 on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 6.4 by Friday. The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling for the time being, but it is raining up there.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Cryptic Bug

Sometimes moonup can be as striking as sunup. This was a few nights ago, the night after full moon.

Presenting itself as a subject in the ongoing practice of documenting Life at Butte La Rose, this bug appeared on the tree that our main bird feeder is tied to. I followed this little guy around the tree with the camera lens coming closer and closer to it. It appeared to become alarmed by the camera and it began to crawl slowly around until it found the scant cover provided by these lichen strands. It crawled under the lichen and effectively disappeared - an extremely good example of blending coloration.

Napoleon and Alcibiades sometimes strike poses that make the camera jump out of my pocket and point at them.

The river is at 7.3 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, and will stay steady for about a week. After that it will fall somewhat due to the Mississippi and Ohio falling in their upper reaches.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sherlock Catfood

We are always careful to provide food and shelter for our cats when we leave for more than a day or so. We do this by using one of those gravity-fed, food-on-demand feeders. You just put in the amount you want to provide and the cats eat it as they please. I have always thought that the cats look forward to our leaving since only then do they get to eat as much as they want any time they want, otherwise they are limited in quantity and timing.

Our last trip was the first one in many years that exceeded one week, it was in fact two weeks. I usually put in about six pounds of dry food for one week’s absence, and that’s way more than they can eat. This time I put in that amount with a request to someone who was watching the house for us to put in an equal amount if the six pounds was consumed before we returned. OK.

When we got back, the hopper for the feeder should not have been empty, but it was. And the cats were very glad to see us – although not in danger of suffering from a lack of body-fat reserves. Actually, I really don’t think they were glad to see us, but they have made the connection between me and food and they were glad to see the connection return. They looked kind of like meerkats, spinning around and around with their tails straight up in the air.

To explain why we could leave food outside and feel reasonably sure only our cats could get it, refer to the pictures. Part of our back porch is screened off. On the lower left there is a swinging screen door made especially for cats (small dogs too, I guess). Alcibiades is seen using it in the above picture. The door keeps wandering opportunistic uncivilized organisms (WOUOs) outside, and provides a sanctuary from mosquitoes for the cats. And when mosquitoes are bad the cats spend a lot of nights behind the screen walls. For quite a while I have wondered what would happen if some WOUO discovered the secret of the little screen door. Would I be able to tell? What would it be? If it got into the screen porch would it also be able to get out?

Well, several days ago I noticed that the cat’s dishes were not just their usual more-or-less empty in the morning, they were spotlessly clean. This happened for several mornings in a row. The cats do eat almost all of the food I give them, but they are not fastidious about cleaning up every crumb. But not a crumb was anywhere in evidence for several mornings. Suspicion slowly crept in that a WOUO had indeed discovered the secret of the swinging door. And then the clincher, a bag of food that was mistakenly left out on the screen porch overnight was ripped open in the morning and much of the food consumed. But what was it? A wild cat? A possum? A raccoon? An otter from the river? What?

And then, as if to announce its presence, it left a calling card plainly and obviously for all to see. No, not the remains of a previous meal, as the quicker of us might have expected. No, it placed its foot into an old, unused watering bowl and left the muddy print on the bottom of the bowl. And there it was - the WOUO was a raccoon, my old nemesis.

Now, as a private citizen I am legally allowed to shoot a raccoon any time I want to, but I don’t think I’m allowed to do anything to simply transport or otherwise inconvenience said wild furbearing game animal. One may shoot, but may not otherwise harm WOUOs in our fair State. So, for the purposes of this story, and to avoid self-incrimination, I did not trap that raccoon on my back porch. It did not do everything it could to get at me when I approached the device I did not trap it in. It was not the fattest, catfood-fed raccoon I have ever seen. And it does not now live in a very nice forest many miles from Butte La Rose. I could include many other “nots” but that about sums it up.

Now, I wonder if this WOUO was a solitary forager, or whether it was a member of a pack?

The river is at 6.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising a little to 7.0 by Friday. The Mississippi and Ohio are steady but falling in the upper reaches. No significant water is in store for us for the time being.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Freedom to See

I’m 68 years old today, and I’m a very lucky man. I can get up before sunup and walk a short distance down to the river and watch the mist rise off of the water. I can think about the mist in any way I choose. I can see it purely as a physical phenomenon and, with the help of others who have also wondered and concluded things, come up with an explanation for why it rises this morning. And I can assure myself that there is a reason why it didn’t do that yesterday, and science may help me predict whether it will do that tomorrow. I am free to think about it this way.

But I can also think of it in terms that include how soft it seems, what mood it creates in a watcher. I can wonder if there are things in the mist that I cannot see, things that it hides. I am lucky because I have the time to do this.

There are toads in the yard, here at Butte La Rose. Sometimes they jump out in front of the lawnmower and I have to stop quickly. I am free to wonder what goes through a toad’s mind the moment before it feels the end of its being – or whether there is any awareness at all. But they do almost always get away from the lawnmower, those that I see in time. This toad will answer a call to find water and sing out for the next generation in the coming warmer months. I am free to wonder how it does that, but it’s OK if I don’t know.

Yesterday there were hundreds of white pelicans on Lake Fausse Pointe. And just maybe that’s because there were more fish than I have ever seen rolling on the surface of the lake. I am free to wonder about the fish and the pelicans, the science and the other way too. The birds are beautiful, they are so white. And I can admire the contrast between the white feathers and the water and have no concern as to why that is.

Have I ever seen pumpkins growing on trees? Yes I have, if I let myself imagine them in a friend’s yard growing on a persimmon tree. The reality of the persimmons is good, but the thought of pumpkins hanging there in the blue sky is very fine too.

And then there is Elena. My birthday present was to go with her to the zoo for the first time. I watch her go to the zoo and she looks at the giraffe but then she gathers acorns with equal interest. At 18 months she is more wise than most of us. We try to show her exotic things that zoos collect to show us the things we do not share our habitat with. And she chooses to collect acorns. How many of us know our personal environment well enough to say that raccoons and possums and blue racers and acorns are not as exotic as giraffes? They are more common, but do we know possums any better than we know giraffes? No, Elena has the right idea. Learn what is around us for the everyday value there is in knowing enough to be comfortable away from air conditioning. We will make the best decisions if we feel good about our environment, and we will feel good if we know enough about acorns. I hope we don’t try too hard to convince her that giraffes are more worthy of her interest than acorns. Left alone, she knows the way. I am lucky that I can watch Elena wonder about iguanas too.

The freedom to truly see what is right before us. Most of us don’t seem to have the time to notice, but it doesn't have to be that way. We can gather acorns too.

The river is 6.5 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge today, rising a little more to 6.9 by Wednesday. The Mississippi has a little more water to send us in its middle reaches, but both the Ohio and Mississippi are falling in their upper watersheds.

Rise and Shine, Jim