The Third Line
A place where a great river lives;
“Where most of our crawfish used to come from;”
Comments on the first two lines of the poem Atchafalaya Is have appeared earlier in Riverlogue – now for the third line in the poem. And it has meaning because the Basin is where the whole idea of edible crawfish began, at least in Louisiana. Oh sure, people all over, especially kids, have caught crawfish of varied species in ditches and wondered if they were good to eat. Some even tried to cook and eat them, with mixed and sometimes humorous results.
Considering the phrase “most of our crawfish” really has to do with two aspects of their popularity: domestic use and commercial sales. Talking to the old people from the Basin, you are told that in the very early days no one thought much about catching enough crawfish to sell, there wasn’t much of a market or an easy way to get them to it if there was one. They caught what they wanted to eat, in stews for the most part, but not large amounts and not to boil.
Why didn’t they catch them for sale? Wire for traps might have been scarce, but early galvanizing was better than we have today, so what there was should have held up well. The boats? Well, it pretty much would have been pirogues, pre-motorized skiffs having the necessary pointed bows would not have had a means of getting through the woods - what with the long oars they had. So pirogues it would have been, and while there were plenty of them you can only do so much paddling a pirogue in a day’s time. Despite this, we do find that there was a limited commercial harvest in the Basin as early as 1880. In that year a harvest of 23,400 pounds was recorded. Twenty eight years later the harvest was up to 88,000 pounds, all from the Atchafalaya Basin. As we know, the commercial harvest has continued to increase, with some ups and downs, to the present time.
Until the middle of the last century, most of the crawfish sold commercially were wild crawfish, i.e. they came from natural areas like the Basin. But by the mid-1950s the practice of reflooding rice fields to produce a crop of crawfish was becoming widespread and today a very large portion of the crawfish available comes from these farming practices. The ability to produce them for a commercial market in the fall months, as opposed to the wild product only available in the spring, has widened the popularity of crawfish in general and farm-raised ones in particular. And due to the somewhat increased control of the growing conditions, farms tend to produce a more reliable supply. A review of the history of crawfish farming may be seen in an LSU AgCenter bulletin, entitled “A Brief History of Crawfish Farming in Louisiana”.
The introduction of packaged, frozen crawfish meat from sources outside the U.S. has also reduced the significance of the domestic wild-caught crawfish market. As more and more of this is imported, Basin crawfish maintain a smaller and smaller proportion of the total commercial volume. Adding this to the volume produced by farming is the reason for the third line in the poem.
I have a warm feeling for the activities associated with catching wild crawfish. It is an attractive way for someone with limited means to acquire a pretty large amount of cash very quickly. This is provided, of course, that they have at least the minimum skills necessary to build traps (buying them is too expensive), operate a boat in the most unbelievable circumstances, avoid wasps while staying inside a boat, estimate the distance between two trees compared to the known width of the boat, be able to get through the swamp following mysteriously disappearing little flags that are placed to mark the trail, and on and on. Yes, it is easy if you know how. Added to this is perhaps the most elusive skill, knowing the unwritten code of conduct of crawfishermen who have done this all their lives. This complex code involves knowing how far away to stay from an established run of traps belonging to someone else, and what it means if one of your traps is found hanging in a tree instead of being in the water where you put it. One time is a warning (more or less a polite one), the second time is a confrontation, the result of which may depend more on the temper of the other man than your apology for ignorance.
There is a special thing about being in a boat in a flooded swamp in the springtime. It can be a unique experience. Part of this is due to the sheer otherness of being able to glide, floating among trees that your mind says you should be walking among. It’s like someone opened a magic door and is letting you do a thing you normally could not do. And then there is the color of the new leaves, and the smell of flooded forests and the chill in the pre-dawn air. The birdsong in a springtime flooded forest is beyond description, or at least beyond my ability to describe it. It is so loud and so continuous that after a little you cease to notice it, it becomes a background for the whole experience of the swamp – a memory that is kept but not remembered for itself. Some of the most special things are like that, I think.
One story before I stop this. It involves a practice I used to do when running a line of traps in the Basin. Many of my friends would start their run at daylight and push hard all day until the last trap was run and the last sack of crawfish was stacked in the boat for the ride home. But not me, I always had to take something for lunch and stop wherever I was at mid-day and just sit still quietly floating among the trees in the shade for a little while. The most amazing things happened during the times I did that, from barred owls fighting in a tree directly above my boat and falling down into the water right next to me and then squawking and flapping up onto my boat to dry off before finally noticing that I was there and looking at me with that “WHAT???” look; to mink and beaver seeming to completely ignore the fact that a boat and a man were ten feet from them as they went about their business.
But one of the most memorable things had to do with crawfish and snakes. When the oxygen in the deeper water is low, as happens often, crawfish will come up off of the bottom and place themselves near the surface where there is more oxygen. They will just sit there clinging to trees, bushes or whatever is available with the underside of their pink gill membranes at the surface where they will stay wet, almost breaking the surface. If you are in a sort of open area, where the trees are spread out a little and there is some open water in lanes that you can see, in the right light conditions these thousands of crawfish with their gills at the surface appear like a pink haze covering the surface. If you get down low to the water and look, you can see that. So, I sit in my boat in a flooded forest quietly eating a sandwich and after a while the crawfish begin coming up to the surface. Soon so many of them were up that every tree, twig, water lily (hyacinth) and whatever had crawfish attached sideways to it. Everywhere you looked there were crawfish. So far this was notable, but not that unusual if you are receptive, but what happened next was unusual. There are many water snakes in the Basin, and some of them eat a lot of crawfish – showing us an expected predator/prey relationship. This water snake comes toward me across the water, swimming lazily and seemingly without a particular destination, just kind of changing locations, sort of. It is about two feet long, and on it comes. There is a tree about three feet from my boat, and this tree is about ten inches in diameter at the water line and there are about eight crawfish ringing it like a living necklace. Aha, I think, the snake is hungry. Now, this is the time of year, in May, when the crawfish have matured to their maximum size and turned more red than green, and they have the big claws that are worth eating. On the snake comes, and it passes a few inches from the tree in question, but ignoring the crawfish. As it slowly passes the tree, a red claw comes out and attaches to the snake’s tail. And I think, well, this is different. The snake comes to a slow stop and just sits there on the surface with that claw attached to its tail. And then another claw comes out from the other side and below and attaches to the tail. And the snake begins to resist what is happening. It starts to do the snake-wriggling thing, becoming more and more vigorous as more and more claws come out of nowhere and attach. By now the tail end of the snake has disappeared below the water and just the head and a couple inches of neck are visible. And then it is gone, thrashing out of sight. What an awesome thing! The predator has become prey. Knowing how fast these hungry crawfish can consume a piece of fish used to bait a trap, I think the snake was converted to crawfish flesh in fifteen minutes or less. And I got to see it just because I was able to sit quietly in the right place at the right time. So many wonderful experiences in natural settings are like that, and it is one reason I get concerned about my grandkids. If they don’t get away from the electronic games and get outside, they can’t have these types of quality experiences. Then again, maybe their time is meant to be spent doing their things, not mine, and in their own way are just as meaningful. This particular experience, when enhanced by a few other similar ones, has earned the title “Killer Crawfish of the Atchafalaya Basin” in a TV documentary done some years ago by Turner Broadcasting.
The river is at 9.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 10.3 by Tuesday, and taking a stand there for a few days. The Ohio and Mississippi are both rising slowly all the way up. No big changes, but it should be enough to hold the water we have now. Good for the swamp fishermen.
Rise and Shine, Jim