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, June 29, 2007

Freshwater Crabs

Crawfish season has just finished and here come the crabs. I have wanted to document a commercial crab fisherman for some time and Carl Carline agreed to let me do it with him. Carl fishes his crab traps in Lake Fausse Pointe, along with a lot of other people. How they keep straight who belongs to which traps I can’t figure out. They just seem to have lines of floats that meander all over the lake, but somehow they know which is which – mostly.

We left at daylight from Carl’s house in Charenton, after loading the bait into his boat. It was mullet today, caught in castnets in Delcambre Canal at the outfall of a shrimp peeling plant. A lot of little pieces of shrimp escape the filters that are supposed to stop all the solid material from entering the canal. State agencies don’t like this, but the mullet do. They swarm around the outfalls for some reason. I believe they like shrimp, especially if the shrimp are already minced and presented like an appetizer. You can go and catch them if you want to, like Carl does. People believe that mullet are vegetarians because we see them feeding often along places where there is a lot of algae and other plant growth. And when you cut them up, sure enough they have a gizzard for mushing plant material like a bird does. But are they? The dining on shrimp would suggest otherwise. And there is more evidence for this in the form of the alligator that found its final resting place at our dock last fall. It died somewhere upstream and floated down and wedged under our floating dock. I took it and pulled it back upstream for about 100 feet and tied it to the bank, in about two feet of water, but close to the bank where I could watch it. Well, you know how things like that go, it made like a big, long balloon (it was 9.5 feet long) for several days and gradually deflated and sunk under the water. During the whole time, about three weeks, that it took for the alligator to turn from a flesh and bone animal to one of bones only, the main thing that consumed its flesh was mullet. Whole schools of them would gather around the body and nibble away at the meat. And they did this until there was nothing left to eat, and then they went away. But it was a lesson…mullet…how about that. But anyway, we had mullet for crab bait.

Carl’s boat is a homemade one that he built himself. It really works well for this kind of work. We launched and got in it and he was moving around the boat arranging things when I noticed that there was more water in the boat than you would expect. His only comment was “I thought I put the plug in”, which now excuses the thousands of us who have done the “put the plug in” thing and felt bad because we thought it was inexperience. If a guy like Carl with about 60 years of experience can do it, so can we. Ha.

Lake Fausse Pointe is a pretty place. It was cut off from the Atchafalaya Basin proper when the big levee was built. It has remained isolated and it retains the old cypress shoreline that the whole Basin once had. Driving out from Grand Avoille Cove landing in the early morning you can feel like looking back in time to when things were slower, if not simpler.
The lake was calm that morning, and the sky had set the stage for a very pretty sunrise. And it did not disappoint. The silhouette of the hard working fisherman pulling on a crab trap line is symbolic of the beauty of the environment and the way in which a fisherman smoothly fits into it. It was a very satisfying thing to witness.

As we started to run the traps (he has only about 40 out right now) I asked Carl about a spot I could see several miles away on the north shore of the lake. The little dark spot is the entrance to a small waterbody called Peach Coulee, or Peche Coulee sometimes. The place has a wide reputation as a place where ghosts hang out. The stories involve Jean Lafitte and his ill gotten buried treasure. A blog to be done soon will go into that in more detail. I will say, however, that one year when I was teaching in the Franklin school system I mentioned to a 10th grade class that there were all these stories about Peach Coulee. Some of the guys wanted to see this for themselves, so we organized a trip to spend the night at the place. About ten of us went, and we camped on the bank where some of the ghosts had been seen. Several fun things happened but the only mysterious one was about midnight (when else) we heard a boat coming down the bayou toward the lake. We were in a little pocket off of the main bayou about 200 feet so we couldn’t see the boat when it passed and went out to the lake. Now, some of the guys were curious and got in one of our boats and went out to the main bayou and then out the lake itself. It was a full moon night and very bright, the moon was out over the lake and everything was visible. When we got to the lake we should have been right behind the other boat. But there was no other boat – and there was no wake from a boat out on the lake. If there had been you could have seen it easily. The lake was silvery flat calm. Hmm. We went back to the camp and discussed this for a long time with no resolution. The story was popular around school the next week.

We were catching crabs. Carl had run the traps the day before and still there were traps with over a dozen nice crabs in them. It makes you wonder. That lake bottom has to be literally crawling with crabs. How can anything else live on or near the bottom? Crabs are either scavengers or predators, depending on whether the prey animal can try to get away from them. Either way, they don’t care if it moves or not, because almost anything is edible. Myself, I would rather spend my life on the banks of Peach Coulee with Jean Lafitte than spend one night on the bottom of Lake Fausse Pointe with the crabs. You can always tell the mean ones though, they turn red and come to the top when you boil them.

It was a good trip. We caught about three crates of medium to large crabs. And Carl found time to tell me the story of how his family was on a houseboat and got caught in this lake by a big north wind in the 1940s. The only power in those days was the little inboards and all they could do was hold the houseboat headed into the wind, but still being pushed steadily backwards towards the trees along the bank. They had no control of the direction they were drifting. As they got close to the bank in the howling wind and waves, the mouth of a little bayou called Cotton Canal came into view and the wind pushed the houseboat right into the canal and out of danger. That canal is the only place on the whole south shore of the lake where the family could reach safety. Had they missed and hit the trees, the story would have a very different ending. It was a good day, today, to fish crabs with Carl Carline and listen to him.

The river is at 6.2 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling slowly to 5.6 feet early next week. The Mississippi and Ohio are both seasonally inactive and it looks like the Atchafalaya will fall slowly into its low-water phase. It’s low enough right now so that they are catching bull sharks up at the Old River control structure, according to Rusty Kimball. Seven or eight sharks, one weighing over 150 lbs, were caught up there in gill nets this week. A reported really big one was seen but not caught. I am mindful that they had to swim up past Butte La Rose to get up there.

Rise and shine, Jim

Friday, June 01, 2007


Ever get that dry, itchy feeling? And you wish the skin lotion you use would work better? Situations could be worse. This lizard actually feels pretty good, I imagine, getting rid of the too-small skin.

Rise and Shine (and scratch), Jim