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.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Eel Night

I guess there is a special night that comes along to each of us from time to time. Sometimes you can see it coming. Sometimes you know there is this thing that you will do and it will be a memory not soon left behind. But sometimes the significance descends on you in unexpected volume, far exceeding anticipation.

Last Thursday night was such a time. Earlier this month I had been visiting with my friends from Myette Pt. and I asked Larry Couvillier if he intended to go after white eels this year. I know that doing this is more of a nostalgic thing than a practical one, since few people on this side of the Basin still fish catfish with trotlines. White eels (Myrophis punctatus, the spotted worm eel) were once used to produce a bonanza of catfish from trotlines every year. They would be hunted with eagerness and energy, some fishermen travelling long distances to get them. It was worth it, there is no other bait that produces catfish like this one. But since there are no more fishermen, there is less interest in the little eels. Or so I thought.

The conditions needed to catch the eels are very specific and very short lived. Each year the fishermen wait for the first serious cold front to roar through. The front comes with howling winds and usually some rain. After the front passes, the next day is blustery and cold with gusting north winds all day. That strong north wind starts the waters in coastal lakes flowing towards the Gulf, and by nightfall the day after the front passes, the tide is running out hard and strong, and it does this for as long as the north winds blow – sometimes for two full days. It is this outgoing tide that the fishermen are waiting for. Because when this happens, the eels rise from the mud in the bottom of the lakes and begin the swim to the coast to continue a life cycle that is still not well understood. They swim on the surface when they do this, and they do it at night.

Last Wednesday night the first big cold front passed through. The north wind that pushed the front blew hard all day Thursday. At 4:00 pm Larry called me and said he was going for the eels this evening and I could come along. By the time I got to his house near Charenton it was 5:30 and almost sundown. We hurried to get the boat ready and drove to the landing at the east end of Lake Fausse Pointe. When we got to the landing it was nearly dark, and right away I knew something was not as I expected it to be. There were three other boats launching in the near darkness. What were they doing? We were supposed to be here alone, kind of like in tribute to days gone by. I turned to Larry and then he tells me that there are other boats out there doing the same thing we are. What? Really? Well, maybe the little eel is not as lost to history as I thought it was. We launched the boat and pulled coats on and made the short run from the landing to the lower end of the lake. There was a small flotilla of boats out there in the mouth of that bayou, all arranged with anchors down, bobbing in the waves coming at them head on. We took a position near the middle of the bayou, let down the anchor and turned the headlights on. We had only one net, so Larry took it and walked to the front deck and stood there, sweeping the water at his feet, side-front-otherside, with the light. I sat back with the camera in the rear of the boat, and the marvelous nature of the scene began to expand from our boat to include all that was around us.

Each one making its own impression, those things that made this night special began to appear, distinct but still blending into the oneness of the night. The moon was clear and sharp, with sweeps of stars around it. It was cold, maybe 45 degrees, and the north wind never let you forget that it was cold. The constant slap slap slap of the waves under the bow of the boat never stopped. The tide/current ripped past the boat with a force unnatural to these lakes. It carried a constant stream of leaves, limbs and other debris that the frontal energy had loosened from the forest. To our right a great horned owl made those familiar sounds of inquiry - the “whooo” that so many young campers find scary and mysterious. This night it was fitting. As I looked out to the side and front, I could see the lights of twelve boats spread out over about 100 yards, doing the same thing we were. Each one had one or two men, headlights sweeping the brown water, occasionally reaching down with a long-handled net and dipping up the eels as they swept by on the current. And yes, the eels came. They swim slowly down the bayou, more carried by the tide than hurrying. Larry catches one and turns and lets it fall out of the net into the tub between us. Soon he catches another, and into the tub it goes. Then he catches one, sees another and catches it, and another, and he has three in the net before he sees another far out and reaches for it, lowers the net a little to much and loses all of them. No matter. There are many eels leaving this lake tonight, and we will have about 300 before we leave. The tub is a squirming, writhing, foaming mass of premium catfish bait. That too, is a part of this night of impressions.

So we quit after three hours - and idle back to the landing, just loafing in the boat, looking at the evening, me shivering, a raccoon swimming from cypress knee to cypress knee along the bank, clearly visible in the headlights. There are no gators, it is too cold, or frogs either. Back at the landing we loaded the boat. Talking to some of the other men out here tonight, I learned that many of them are from Belle River and Pierre Part. They come all the way from the other side of the Basin to be at this spot on this night to harvest this little fish! It is good to know this. For a while longer, it seems, this tradition will be kept alive by at least the twelve fishermen who came to Lake Fausse Pointe this evening. It feels good to be a part of it.

The river is at 2.6 feet on the Butte la Rose gauge, and will stay about there for the next week. The Ohio and Mississippi won’t change much in that time either.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Charenton Frogs

Charenton Beach is an ancient human habitation on the western side of the
Atchafalaya Basin. It was once a huge shell midden, probably placed there by the Chitimacha Indians, a tribe that still has a presence in the area. Because the shell mounds provide a good foundation for launching boats and other recreation, the land has long been owned and operated as a boat launch. As a boy of 18 or 19, I frequently used the beach to launch my boats into the Basin. Because we often came in after dark, it was easy to notice that there were a lot of frogs in a low, swampy area just behind the beach. I decided to come back one night and catch some of them.

So, in early June one year, I got together a sack and some old tennis shoes and a headlight and drove to Charenton – the beach – and parked the car on the beach and walked back to the swamp behind the shell mounds. There was a mix of trees, second growth cypress and tupelo and some others, and these were flooded in about three feet of water. Because this was just a flooded forest, not a permanent swamp, there was a lot of debris floating in the water and some areas where it was clear, and open. I stepped into the water and it was warm, telling me that the frogs would be active and hard to approach by wading. The water came up to my waist, and there were frogs all over, mostly sitting on debris or just holding onto it with their front feet. From all around me there was the jugarum chorus, some medium pitched and some very low pitched. They did spook easily, but I found that if I shuffled my feet on the bottom instead of trying to step forward, I didn’t make too many waves and could sneak up close enough to catch some of the frogs, and I quickly caught quite a few and put them in the sack tied to my waist.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment at a time like that. Here I was, quietly wading through the water on a warm night with owls calling and big bullfrogs all around me. Before I realized it, I had gone quite a distance into the swamp, just going along using my headlight and catching frogs. A note about the headlight, in those days we believed that you had to have a very dim light to not frighten the frogs. So we purposely used low power batteries, or put mud on the headlight to reduce the brightness of the light. I had used mud this night, and used weak batteries too. And it was a surprise when the first snake swam by close enough to see. It was only a few feet away and when I shone the light on it, it stopped and looked at me. Now, there are snakes and there are snakes. I was interested in identifying animals from early on and this was a water moccasin. You can easily tell about that, because a moccasin can sit on top of the water like a long brown balloon. Water snakes (non venomous) can’t do that. They ride much deeper in the water, showing their backs only and their heads. So here was the moccasin, not a big one, about 18 inches long, sitting there looking at me.

It becomes so very clear at that moment which one of you belongs out here in this swamp at night. The snake looked so confident and I felt like the clumsy intruder that I was, compared to him. After a moment of stillness, the snake moved off in a real leisurely way. Maybe I needed to take a look around, I thought. So I rinsed the mud off of the headlight, and looked around me. Everywhere I looked in a complete circle, there were snakes on the water, riding high as if to announce their identity. And not only moccasins, there were copperheads too. I thought “that’s not supposed to happen”. Copperheads are thought to be dry-land snakes and they shouldn’t be out here riding on the water with the moccasins, but here they were. I seem to remember seeing a dozen snakes within 20 feet of me, but that number and that distance may not be accurate any more. I remember that it seemed that all of the snakes were looking at me. They probably were, at the light, anyway.

Obviously it was time to go back, but I realized then how far I had come out into the flooded woods, and I wasn’t even so sure how to start back. I learned that you can sweat standing waist deep in cool water. There is something about the thought of being snake bitten at waist level that is worse than the same thing on a foot or hand. It’s ridiculous but true, for me anyway. I turned and hopefully started back in the right direction. Everywhere it seemed there were snakes and I would move away from one only to have to change directions again because of another. You want to just start running, or whatever that would be waist deep in water, but then again you worry that that might irritate them, so slow and steady. The one thing on my mind as I pushed back through the trees was what if the snakes wanted my frogs, and I looked back, and saw a moccasin riding on the top the sack of frogs tied to my waist? Was it worth it to untie the sack and let it go? Almost, but not quite.

After about six months of pushing through that water I heard the sound of a truck loading a boat on the beach, and I headed for that and found the beach a few minutes later. As I waded out of the water I remember the relief and the weakness in the knees. I still had my sack of frogs, and a renewed understanding of why it’s best to use a boat to catch frogs. I always did it that way from then on. Now, when I pass that spot 50 years later, I still look at that piece of swamp behind that beach and remember those snakes.

The river is at 4.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, and it will stay near there for the next week or so. The Ohio and Mississippi are falling slightly all the way up.

Rise and Shine, Jim