Cotton and Nylon
You might have to have been a fisherman in the Atchafalaya Basin to have feelings about what it meant to discover nylon fishing line. Fishermen throughout time have used a fiber of some sort to make most of their gear, usually line and hooks, or line knotted to make nets. The durability of that line had a lot to do with how effective you could be, and how efficient. Consider this. A man (or woman) could provide for his family based on how much fish he could bring home with the least possible effort. Why? Because there was much else to do besides just fish. There was boatbuilding, or maintenance on existing ones. There was bait getting, which could take a large part of every day. And there was always the other chores that take less time but always seem to add up by the time you finally get to them. So, one of the biggest limiting factors in a fisherman’s life was how much time he had to spend on his gear. The less time the better.
But, before around 1950, the only fiber available was cotton. This cotton line came in large five-pound, loose coils called hanks. It was white, like bleached cotton is, and it rotted very quickly when wet. But that’s all there was, and all fishermen had to use it for both trotlines and nets. They were continuously changing gear because of it. The trotline stageons would break just as you lifted the big fish toward the boat. Or a net would split because the webbing you chose not to change just yet would pick the best catch to show you why you should have.
Before he passed away, my friend Russell Daigle answered a question I put to him about how long cotton line lasted in summer in the Basin.
RD: “…when we started fishing it was cotton line, there wasn’t no such thing as nylon. And about every three weeks, in the summertime, you had to put out new line.
JD: Whether you tarred it or not?
RD: Whether you tarred it or not, it lasted about three weeks and then it would go to breakin.”
How do you come by a strong feeling for the appreciation of a fiber? You try to make a living using it, that’s how. I fished with the community Russell belonged to for most of a decade. That was in the 1970s, 20 years or so after nylon replaced cotton as the fiber for fishing and related activities. I watched myself struggle to maintain a string of 1000 hooks placed along almost a mile and a half of line, and I could not imagine having to change that line every three weeks. Oh yes, it was easy to be impressed with the strength and durability of nylon. I will say this though, the men (and women) I knew then could have done it, and did in the early days before I knew them. That community had to be the most tenacious, hard working, effective single group of people I have ever known.
Yes, some things we don’t think much about. But each time I have to handle nylon line I always consider what it was like before the DuPont people invented it in the 1930s. I did barely make a living using it, but using cotton would have been out of the question.
I heard a grosbec fly over the house tonight, the first one I have heard in this new cycle of migration. Collecting them for food would have been one of the things the fishermen had to do, though probably a chore they did not mind too much.
The river is at 14.7 feet right now on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling about a foot in the next seven days. But both the Mississippi and the Ohio are starting to huff and puff. We may be in for a good rise in about ten days. Look out crawfishermen, warmer water is coming soon.
Rise and Shine, Jim