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, May 31, 2008

Believing Sunrise

Sometimes you can look at the river sunrise and wonder if those colors could really be true. So far no one has been able to Photoshop the real thing, so we can believe in those colors. They come, the daybreaks do, in so many different moods. One morning it’s raining and cool, and late. It feels kind of close on those mornings, like things need to kept out of sight that day. Like life that day is not to be shared except with the special people. Next morning there is a brilliant golden light that fills the eastern sky with hope for the coming day. It is a day to go out into the world and find the life that comes from others that you meet. Everyone wants to make your life a better thing that day. When you see that bright sun and the layered clouds around it you get a resolve somehow to do well. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to let that happen, but mostly it’s our own sluggish acceptance that prevents it.

The first day I ran tightlines in Raymond’s Cove was one that began with a bright sun and all the pastel shades of pink and orange and blue and green. I had set tightlines in the cove the day before for the first time. It was November 1973 and cold, and the water had come up in an early rise, causing us to abandon the open water of Grand Lake and move into the sheltered swamps away from the strong currents. I had never set tightlines before and I was acting on the advice of my friends from Myette Point. It was a serious issue because I was now depending on fishing for my complete income, and as yet I had no reserves built up. I had to catch to eat.

It felt strange setting lines in a totally new way. I had been used to fishing in deep water with some current, but this was very different. You find a tree that is sturdy enough to hold a line tied to it and stretched tight to the next tree about fifty feet away, and then on through the swamp to the next tree, and on, until you have put out all of the line you want to use. The main line is set about six inches above the water with the foot-long stageons hanging down from it about every eight feet. That day I had baited with cut bait, mullet I think. Now it was morning of the first run on the new line. I was very apprehensive. Did I set in the right place? Was the water too deep? Too shallow? Exciting to look forward to the answers, either way.

The sun was just breaking over the trees as I came into Raymond’s Cove through the narrow cut between the willow trees and rounded into the open water of the cove itself. I could see the near end of the line from a distance and I imagined I could see the line moving. But as I got near I saw no movement. Surely, there would be some fish. I killed the motor and drifted to the first tree. Still no movement. I took the line in one hand and started to move along it. And there it was, fish on the third or fourth hook. And then further down the line dipped and dove into the water, once, twice and was still but dripping with drops. Heart thumping I came up to the first fish. It was a blue cat about three pounds. It looked as big as a…as a something big. The next few hooks were bare but then the line dipped down again and I saw a very big fish about five hooks out. The closer I got the more the fish dived and ran as far as the line would let it go. Finally I got close enough to get my hand under it and lift it into the boat. It was another blue cat and this time it was about ten pounds. Wow. Maybe I did it right. Feeling pretty good I followed the line, I think it was about 300 hooks, baiting and taking fish off. I ended the day with about 100 pounds of catfish – mostly blues but some channel cats too. In those days that was enough to make me about $25 and it was enough to help with the groceries and rent. I did feel pretty good on the way home and I remembered what the sunrise had looked like. It was golden and pastel, full of bright feelings of success. I do believe in sunrises. Even the dark daybreaks are welcome, just in a different way.

The river is down to about 16.1 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling slowly to about 15.5 by midweek next. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling slowly, according to the plan for the high waters and low.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Ninth Line, Changes

Beyond ownership;
A place where a great river lives;
Where most of our crawfish used to come from;
Where commercial fishermen make a living;
A place of memories for a lot of people;
A home for ghost stories;
A place of great living complexity;
A controlled spillway;
A changing entity;

That is the ninth line of the poem “Atchafalaya Is:” I have tried to think of how this idea can be expressed effectively. It is not just that the Basin undergoes periods of change. It does that on many levels and seasons. The water changes when northern conditions tell it to. The trees change when the sun creeps up or down the latitude lines. The birds change for the same reason the trees do. On and on you could list the ways the Basin undergoes yearly changes. And some years vary more than others, with the water rising more some spring seasons and falling more in some summers. You are tempted to say “than usual” when talking about these variations. More than usual, or less than. But this just points out that there is no “usual” when dealing with the Atchafalaya. It is never the same, it is always different from day to day and moment to moment.

But this is not what the ninth line of the poem is meant to say. Rather, it is meant to say that the change I mean is historical, not recent, and the history I mean is the history I have with the Basin. That history goes back to the time a young boy was shown a wild place with no limits and no one to establish any. That place was the Basin 58 years ago.

What was it like then? I don’t know, from an objective point of view. What I saw and remember about the swamp may be more about subjective memories than otherwise. I saw trees that were there but my images of them are bigger than life. I smelled the willows in spring and that smell remains today, to me, one of the strongest signals of the idea of freedom. Searching along the little bayous at night during a light rain you saw mice climbing grass stems to eat the seeds bending at the tops. And that taking place within touching distance. The water we travelled from Charenton to Little Bayou Pigeon was vast and filled with living things that you could harvest at will and eat. The swamp was good at hiding the grosbecs and beccroces but you could usually find enough of them to provide a meal. The barred owl tells us “You cook today, I’ll cook tomorrow” and there was one on every other tree limb. As I say, I have wonderfully clear memories of these and many other things, but how objective are they? Not very, I’m afraid.

Overall, true or not, these memories build a story of what the swamp was like 58 years ago. The story is what I think it was at that time in my life. And I believe the Basin really was like that, in concept if not in detail. The changing entity spoken of in the ninth line is the changing idea of the Basin that I have. Mainly, the swamp has become much less personal. So many more people have become involved with it that it is no longer possible for me to think of it as a place of solitude, or retreat, if you will. Where you could find aloneness easily then you cannot do so now. There are 250-horsepower engines where once a 25 was as big as you ever saw. And those big engines can go anywhere a GPS can direct them, which is anywhere they want to go.

So it is my idea of the Atchafalaya that is changing. There is less water now than there used to be and more silt every time the water rises and falls again. But that isn’t what matters to me. It is the idea, that entity that harbors our own story of the past that is changing for me. My children and grandchildren will find another way to relate to the Atchafalaya, and their memories will be very different than mine. And over time their idea of the Atchafalaya will change too. And on it goes.

The river is at 16.9 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, staying steady at that point for the next several days. The Ohio and Mississippi are both failing to support any more water for us. We can probably look for a slow fall to low water levels sometime in June.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Twenty Feet

Twenty feet. That's how much water it took to cover our dock to this extent. This was the high point, reached last week. There is about four inches of silt on the deck where I'm standing. So far nothing has been damaged, and I do get a kick out of catching various fishes in water covering lawn that I usually have to mow once a week. During the height of the water I caught channel cat, blue cat, goujon, eels, barfish and shortnose gars on a tightline stretched from the walkway to a stake I drove into the ground. Much fun.
The river is at 18.4 right now on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 17.4 by next Monday. The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling so this rise is fated to fade out gradually. More could come, but it would have to be new rain.
Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Just a Hummer

Sometimes things just hit you as being outstanding! This ruby throated hummingbird is such a thing. He joins several dozen of his kin trying hard to drain our feeders at a rate that will guarantee a good market for sugar for a long time. The females are showing rounded bellies that hide one or two eggs ready for laying. People ask about the possessiveness that some of these little birds exhibit. If there are four or five trying to use the feeder at the same time, the aggressive ones just seem to give up. “Oh well” almost fits the situation.

The river at the Butte La Rose gauge reads 19.7 feet right now, falling to 18.5 by the beginning of next week. The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling so there is no prediction for another big rise at this time. I’m still catching nice catfish on the lawn. The river has claimed two of my big shrimp traps. I have no complaints.

Rise and Shine, Jim