The people of the Myette Pt. community (now Oxford), near Franklin, have made a living line-fishing for catfish in the Atchafalaya Basin for at least four generations – extending back to the mid 1800s, and beyond. The manuscript I have partially written about commercial fishing describes the techniques used by that community of line-fishermen in the Basin. The amount of information available on just the seemingly simple process of line-fishing is truly amazing, and just the outline of topics presented in the table of contents is two pages long.
One of the major topics in the manuscript is the one describing the bait used to catch catfish. As I mentioned in a posting before, you can’t make a living line-fishing if you buy bait. You simply need too much of it, so you have to learn how to catch the bait you need – both the type and the quantity. The type varies with a lot of things, mostly dealing with the conditions present in the river. The water can be high or low, falling or rising or standing, cloudy or clear, Red River or Mississippi or Ouachita influenced, cold or warm and other factors that would make this sentence much to long. Each of these things causes a decision to be made concerning bait. Some of the types to be learned are river shrimp (by far the most often used bait), small crawfish, cut shad (big ones), cut mullet, string shad (small ones), the big eels that are familiar to most of us, and the topic of this posting – white eels.
Each one of these baits has its own biology to learn before you can become good at catching quantities of it. Because of this, the people that come from Myette Pt. know more biology than most college graduates, at least when it comes to the animals and plants that they interact with. And that leads us to the white eel. I first heard of this animal the second year I fished with the fishermen from Myette Pt. Someone asked me if I was going to catch some white eels. I had no idea what they were talking about but it turned out to be a fun thing to do.
The scientific name of this animal is Myrophis punctatus, and the recognized common name is speckled worm eel. It belongs to the same family as our more familiar American eel. It occurs in warm waters of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. The life history involves a migration reminiscent of the American eel, but not so extensive. Unlike the American eel, it doesn't travel thousands of miles, but apparently the worm eel does move from fresh water to coastal brackish waters to salt water to lay eggs. But there is an interesting observation here. The fishermen at Myette Pt. know that this animal grows to adulthood in freshwater lakes in Louisiana, namely lakes Verret, Grassy, Palourde, Fausse Pointe, Dauterive and probably others unknown to me. It seems that science is unaware of this. The books don’t talk at all about this animal living in fresh water for much of its life cycle, but it does. Just ask the fishermen.
In a practical sense, the white eel is the best catfish bait that can be used in the Atchafalaya Basin in the fall months. They are between eight and 12 inches long when they leave the lakes, and about as big around as a fat pencil. To get them, you wait until the first cool front comes down from the north, not cold necessarily, cool is good enough. The first night that the north wind blows, you need to put your boat in the water and go to a place where the big lakes narrow down to some outlet headed toward the Gulf. Such a place is the outlet from Lake Fausse Pointe on the south end. If you anchor in the mouth of that bayou and stand with a light in the front of your boat you will see hundreds of these little eels coming toward you, swimming on the surface. With a small-mesh net on a long handle you can catch as many as you want. How many you want may be determined by how cold the cold front is. Once you have them, they have to be treated like other fish, that is, kept wet with oxygen to breathe. In the old days, everyone had an old pirogue or bateau on the ground in their yard and the eels were put in there with water and a covering of water hyacinths. They would stay alive for weeks under those conditions, sometimes longer.
To use the eels for bait, they are cut into small pieces – ½ inch will do. A piece is put on each hook. Lines that produced only a few fish the day before will produce a lot of fish after baiting with white eel. As a matter of fact, sometimes so many fish are caught within the first few days that the lines have to be moved to areas with new fish populations to fish for. The eel bait will have cleaned out the fish in the previous location. Hard to believe, but I have seen it happen.
Only those eels that can be kept alive until used are effective bait. If you freeze them in an effort of keep them available longer, they don’t work. Speculation about this includes the thought that freezing removes the slime and somehow the slime is what makes the bait so effective. And because of the slime, some people mix the pieces of eel with cornmeal to make them easier to hold onto.
So, last week I had the chance to visit Larry Couvillier in Charenton and he had a bunch of the white eels in a big aquarium. Larry was taught to catch white eels by his father, Edward Couvillier. An aquarium was set up with air bubbling through the water and that seemed to keep the eels alive and happy. Apparently the normal thing for them to do is to dig into the soft mud bottoms and stick just their heads out of the mud. They were trying to do that in the aquarium and some did it even though the gravel was a little harder to dig into. I was able to take some unusual pictures of the eels in the water, and burrowed down in the gravel, as opposed to out of the water being held in someone’s hand.
Anyway, the white eel, or spotted worm eel, Myrophis punctatus, is out there to be had by anyone adventurous enough to go out to the right place on a cold night in the north wind. It can be a fun thing to do.
The river is at 5.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 5.2 in next couple days. Both the Ohio and Mississippi are falling all the way up. That might change after this week. A lot of rain predicted up there.
Rise and Shine, Jim