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.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Cotton and Nylon

A large and scary cold front passed through here last night. This morning the sunrise looked like this. The temperature dropped almost 40 degrees in 12 hours. The wind blew over the water and it blew hard enough to test the ropes that tie the dock to the bank. They held. I really wasn’t too worried. Nylon is a miracle fiber. Besides being very strong, it does not rot.

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


Blogger Bud Forester said...

Hi Jim

you got me stirred up, now. I need to go set some lines.

March 05, 2008 12:41 PM  
Blogger jim said...

Bud, be sure it's nylon. Thanks for the comment and good luck! Jim

March 06, 2008 8:46 PM  
Blogger Bryant said...

We used to soak our nets in something called Coppo (I think). Did this stuff take the place of tar? Great post Jim. On another note, I just read an article by Glenn Thomas in our local Cameron Pilot about your and Ray Bauer's river shrimp study. Anytime you make the Cameron Pilot, you're on your way to fame.

March 07, 2008 7:58 PM  
Blogger jim said...

Don't know about Coppo. Sounds like a copper compound. I bet it was green. We used to use something like that to dip wood in as a preservative before the pressure treated wood became available. Glad to hear the shrimp study made the big time in Cameron Parish. Who knows what might be next! Thanks Bryant, Jim

March 08, 2008 5:15 PM  
Blogger bigtexin1 said...

Jim, I ran across your blog and love reading about life in South Louisiana. I am facinated with that area and have read a lot about the sad gradual disappearance of the Louisiana coastal area. I live in central Texas and my wife and I plan a trip to the Lafayette area in May for the crawfish festival and plan to bring along our pontoon boat. I want to do some exploring of the lakes and bayous of the area, just relax, cruise around, maybe do a little fishing. I want to see the best of the nature and culture of the area from my boat. Any advice on where to go, launch the boat, etc. that would be close by to Layfayette? Is the Atchfalaya a good river to see the scenery in a pontoon boat, or am I better off exploring some of the smaller bayous in the area? I'm new to the blog world so I hope this is an approprite place to ask.

March 12, 2008 7:50 PM  
Blogger jim said...

Hi. Get in touch with me by email and I will share what information I have that might be useful. Email is Jim337@centurytel.net
Best, Jim

March 13, 2008 10:04 AM  
Blogger The Poet's Pen said...

Well, it seems that we have made it round the mountain at last, Wow!

I'm speechless for the moment, just pleased to see you looking well.

You can see me looking well also at www.allpoetry.com/butterflywriter

Hope to hear from you. P.

March 13, 2008 12:44 PM  

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