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


Blogger db said...

Hi Jim,
I've missed your updates. Hope 2008 has been good so far. Anyway, I've started a new blog about things in Baton Rouge and Louisiana. If you don't mind, I've linked your blog on there. It doesn't have much content yet, and I'm out of my depth, but I'm learning as I go.
(By the way, you may not remember me, but we met at the Louisiana Folklore Society meeting last year; I was the guy who tried to work your powerpoint.) Take it easy.

January 21, 2008 7:51 PM  
Blogger Marilyn said...

Hi Jim,

I just got a thank you note from friends tmhat love the basin and remembered I hadn't read you recently. Hope you are OK and I'm missing hearing from you in 2008.


January 26, 2008 11:30 AM  
Blogger jim said...

Marilyn, thanks for your kind words. I don't know what to say except that time is temporarily diverted from the blog to other similar but not so public things. I'm trying very hard to start the process of publishing the book on the houseboat people of the Atchafalaya Basin. So far I have been able to transcribe over 1300 pages of taped interviews and I hope that will be enough to tell the story. I will post something to Riverlogue in the next couple of days, I hope. I think it will be on keeping nutria as pets, which I have had the pleasure of doing.

Many thanks, Jim

January 26, 2008 10:44 PM  

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