The other day I got an email from a person who wanted to know if I could help prepare something for a TV show. It was for a popular cable channel. The show was to dramatize how people survived in the swamps of Louisiana when they got into trouble. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything that would qualify as dramatic but not lethal. I told her that people in Louisiana just got out of the water if they fell in. They didn’t linger for days like being lost in a desert, or adrift in an open ocean. If people had problems in the swamp, they found ways to solve the problems. I’m afraid people think of Louisiana as a snake infested, alligator overrun, quicksand laden place where people routinely die of swamp fever, or something like that.
I told her it wasn’t like that, and I began to think about the people I know who got into trouble in the swamp. None of them tell tales of suffering beyond being cold in winter for a while if they were wet, or maybe having to feed mosquitoes for a night. And then it seems the other option is the other end of the spectrum, they do not survive. Five of my friends have met that extreme end in separate boat accidents. At first I couldn’t think of anything in between that would satisfy the needs of sensationalized television.
But then, my wife mentioned several things I hadn’t thought of. Things I didn’t think fit into the category of “survival” events, but were inconveniencies for sure. One I thought to mention here. There was a time when most boats used for crawfishing were made of wood. They were skiffs, pointed boats made mostly of plywood or cypress. Such was my first crawfish skiff in 1974, out of plywood. People were getting pretty handy with welding aluminum, but even so, aluminum skiffs were pretty costly back then. The main enemy of a wooden skiff, and the main virtue to an aluminum one, is the knees that surround cypress trees. If you come up on a knee in a wooden boat it can come up through the floor and say “Hi” very easily, unbelievably easily. With aluminum, mostly it won’t do that.
If you can see the knees, you avoid them of course. If you can’t see them because they are just under the water, they can surprise you. And if the cypress trees are surrounded with solid mats of water lilies (hyacinth), you have no idea what’s around you in the way of cypress knees.
One day I was running a set of traps in the Bayou Long swamps. The lilies were thick in some parts of that swamp. You could get into them in places where they were two feet high on the sides of the boat for acres around you. Even if you didn’t put traps in those places, you still had to go through them to get from one trap to the next. I had caught about ten sacks of crawfish which would have added about 400 pounds to the weight in the boat. I got into an area of lilies mixed in among cypress trees, somewhat like the picture here but much thicker. There might be five knees around that tree, or 50. I slowed the boat to barely a crawl and tried to feel what the bottom of the boat was feeling. And quick, as soon as I felt it, put the motor in reverse and back away before riding up on the point of a knee. Most of the time you could be quick enough.
This time I barely felt the boat touch, but before I could stop and back away, the bow rose about four inches out of the water, hung there for a very short/long time, and then I heard a sound for only that one time in my life: it went “thuck” – kind of softly and quickly. It came through the bottom just ahead of the crawfish stacked in the middle of the boat. It was not pretty, that five inches of brown tree spike poking up into the place it should not be. There was some leaking because the bottom plywood splintered a little, but not much.
What do you do? You know you have to get out of the boat and lift it up and off, there is no other way to get the boat off of the knee. But you can’t lift the boat unless you can touch the bottom. The water was about five feet deep. Whew, I could touch bottom. But you can’t lift the boat with the crawfish in it. Look around. There, about 50 feet away, is a big cypress log floating in the lilies. The snakes and turtles resting on the log had been spooked by my motor. The ten sacks of crawfish had to be lifted out of the boat into the water, retrieved when I got in, carried to the log and stacked on it. After that it was possible to work my way under the boat and get my back under it and lift it off of the knee. Fine, now there is a four-inch hole in the boat letting a lot of water in. As long as the boat was stuck on the knee at least it couldn’t sink. Now it could sink. I started the motor and pushed through the lilies toward the big floating log that the sacks of crawfish were resting on. I got the nose of the boat up onto the log and pushed it up with the motor high enough to get the hole in the bottom out of the water. So, now it wouldn’t sink. But…
The hole had to be patched at least well enough to get me home. We always carried something to cut bait with, usually a small ax. I took my ax and was able to knock off a plank from the front deck. Using the nails that came off with the plank, I was able to nail it down over the hole and then put a couple sacks of crawfish over it to hold it down. Crisis over. I pushed the boat back into the water and reloaded the sacks of crawfish. I think I ended up with something like 15 sacks that day. Like I say, we didn’t “survive” days like that, we just coped with them. Over coffee in Myon’s house later that day, I mentioned the event and the other fishermen smiled and sipped their coffee, and went on to talk about what the water in the Mississippi River was doing.
The river is at 15.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 16.8 feet by mid-week next week. Getting to be some serious water, that. And the Mississippi and Ohio are both rising about half a foot a day all the way up. I see that the COE is starting to talk about some possible relief for New Orleans in April. Yep, serious water. Crawfishermen won’t mind.
Rise and Shine, Jim