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.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


This is an excerpt from the chapter on Line in the book to be. Two of these men, Russell Daigle and Neg Sauce are gone now. We celebrated Edward Couvillier’s 80th birthday earlier this month. Far from acting his age, he is ready to start building a new boat this spring.


As with hooks, it is impossible to overemphasize the fundamental importance of line to a fisherman. Strength and durability, often taken for granted in today’s ubiquitous artificial fibers, was not a characteristic of organic fibers like cotton. And the story of line does begin with cotton, at least for the Myette Point community it does. Cotton was the only fiber made into fishing line during the early years of the three generations, and while it provided the necessary connection between fisherman and hook, it performed its role with such serious shortcomings that it actually limited the performance of commercial fishing activity.


Cotton line was all there was. And put to use by fishermen, it was wet most of the time. Being resourceful, the Myette Point fishermen found ways to minimize the limits of cotton brought about by its inability to withstand deterioration when wet.

Cotton line was available in bulk amounts in what were called hanks. These bundles of line were loose coils measuring about 14 inches long by six inches wide by two inches thick. They came in a box of five one-pound hanks. Line was sold by the pound, not by length. There were any number of sizes, usually designated by one of a series of numbers, the smaller ones noting the smaller diameter (and therefore strength) and grading upwards. Number 15 might be used to knit a dipnet while a number 42 could be used for a trotline mainline. The commonly used numbers were 15, 30, 36, 42, 48 and 60. It was always one pound, you just got less per pound in the larger sizes and more in the smaller ones. The cost for a five-pound set of hanks was four or five dollars.

But the main problem with cotton line was that it didn’t resist breaking down when wet. It only had a lifetime of from several weeks in the warm water of summer to a couple months in cold water. The fishermen had to constantly be changing out line, making new stageons or knitting new nets for their dipnets, castnets, etc. It is necessary here to define a couple terms even though they will be dealt with in detail in other places. The terms “main line” and “stageon” define the primary components of a linefishing outfit. The main line is just what it says it is, the line that connects two points and from which the hooks are suspended. It is usually the heaviest line a fisherman deals with. The stageon (at right) is the item that connects the hook with the main line, and usually is a swivel joining two equal loops. One loop ties the stageon to the main line and the other has the hook on it. The stageon is tied directly to the main line. With respect to the problems with keeping line in the water, Edward Couvillier talks about the difficulties they had.

EC: I remember, you get out there and get you a bunch a lines together, get em out, fish em…maybe a month or two months, three months whatever, they’d last better in the wintertime than would in the summertime. First thing you know the fish would go to bitin and go out there and start your line [and it would] be breakin in half.

JD: In your hand?

EC: Yeah. Then you’d have to be changing line.

JD: You try to do the whole thing all at once, or you had…the main line, the stageons, the hooks all brand new at the same time?

EC: Aw yeah. Umhm.

And Russell Daigle adds this:

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.

There wasn’t much you could do to retard the degrading strength of the line, but a number of things were tried and one seems to have had at least have some effectiveness. That was coal tar. Tar was “cooked”, heated, in such a way that the substance would convert from permanently soft to drying into a firm film. Left alone without cooking it would never dry, and overcooked it hardened into a shiny black substance that had no pliability and cracked when bent in any way. So it was necessary to know how to cook it properly. There were no cookbooks with recipes to teach the method. Neg Sauce explained it this way.

JD: And so, to try to preserve that cotton, you used tar.

NS: We used tar…that pitch tar.

JD: Pitch tar, the same thing as on…for nets?

NS: Yeah. Used to cook it. The longer you would cook it, the harder it would get.

JD: What?

NS: Tar. When you buy it, it was soft. You could call it raw tar. [laughs] Yeah, buy it, it was soft. Just like…something like a thick, thick paint. And you put it in a can and cook it. Oh yeah, if you cook it too long, it was…it was too hard, it would get too hard. It would get stiff. If you cook it too long.

JD: Didn’t you have…didn’t you have some danger of burning your line if you left it in there too long?

NS: Oh, you couldn’t, uh, you couldn’t heat it…it couldn’t a been too, too hot, you know, when you soak your line in it. It had to be just hot enough. A lil bit too hot, that line was gone. You’d burn it.

JD: And how would you tell when it was just right?

NS: We used to spit in it. [laughs]

JD: Spit in it?!

NS: Yeah, a drop of water, or something, you know? The hotter it get, you drop a lil drop of water and that thing would sssshhhh. Let it cool off, when it cooled down, when it didn’t hardly do that [hiss], that’s when you put your line in it.

JD: Ohh, so that’s how you checked it, eh? You’d spit in it until it did…

NS: Yeah, that’s what I used to do, my brothers and them too. Spit like that, boy, that thing sssshhhhhhhh. [laughs]

JD: When it was too hot?

NS: Yeah. Leave it cool down till it didn’t hardly do that, you could put your line in it.

JD: And was it pretty…was it kind of like water when you’d put your line in it? Or was it thick, thick?

NS: No, when you put your line, it was pretty thin. It was hot, but after it cooled off, that stuff would get hard.

JD: It would get stiff too, I guess, then…when it would dry, the tar, eh?

NS: Yeah, that’s why you couldn’t cook it too much, cause your line would’a got too stiff. You just cook it where it wouldn’t stick on your hands.

JD: Wouldn’t stick on your hands?

NS: Right. Just cook it enough where it wouldn’t stick.

JD: By stick…what you mean by stick?

NS: Well, it’s like when you put your hand in paint, you know how it stick? Same thing, probly be the same thing. Put your line in…in there, if it wasn’t quited cooked enough, well it was stuck all the time was out there. You…you get that stuff all over you hands.

JD: Ohhh. So it would kind of stay sticky, and wet, like, eh? It wouldn’t dry.

NS: Yeah. Sticky and wet, like. That’s why you had to cook it. You probably could’a fixed with a lil coal oil and put your line in raw, but then you’d had to leave the line out in the sun, maybe for a week, or more, for it to dry.

JD: Before the coal oil would dry, eh? Well, who taught you to do those things, with that tar like that?

NS: Aw, we come up with that. From our old parents, we come up with it.

JD: So, tar had been used for a long time, you think?

NS: Aw yeah. As far as I can remember. That was about the best thing.

And so that's a sample of what they told me in recorded interviews a little more than a decade ago.

The river is at 2.9 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, staying steady for the next week. The Mississippi and Ohio are holding steady too. There is less life in the river right now than I have ever seen.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Of all the long list of tools that in some way connect a fisherman to his quarry, perhaps the hook is the most basic. It is that connection which creates the link between all those needs that the family has and the thing that can make those needs accessible. The purpose to be carried out dictates certain characteristics of the tool. It must be sharp, and strong, and durable, affordable and available. It goes without saying that if these things did not describe the hook, there would be no fishermen and this story would never have had meaning.

Any tool that has had a long period of use will have developed through time, and the hook has done this. What began 100 years ago as a steel wire coated with paint evolved into a stainless steel implement of permanent durability. But the early hooks were not so permanent. Names like Kirby and Pflueger and Yellow Tag were the brands that had availability. Kirby was valued for its long sharp point and seems to have been the hook chosen by most of the Myette Point line fishermen. The Mustad limerick style followed in the latter half of the 20th century. Yellow Tag seems to be remembered as the “black hook” and was also much used. The black paint was followed by cadmium as a more durable coating. Stainless steel in the early 1980s ended the issue of rust. No matter what the general temporary nature of these early hooks was, they could still be dangerous to people who were with them all the time. Sometimes people would leave lines hanging from limbs and when the water would recede the hooks on those lines would be suspended above the water. Edward Couvillier mentioned a small item from his life this way:

and I was going through the woods one day, we was cutting timber. I used to get on the logs…floatin…I’d float em out, I’d ride em with a pole. I had a pole, I’d push em out. And a daggone bushline on a limb, hooked me in the ear. And I was goin out with that log [the big log wouldn’t stop and was taking him with it, with the hook caught in his ear] Overboard I went, hoss! But it pulled…it pulled on through.

However, until the advent of stainless steel, durability was equally short for all of the early hooks. In the summer, with the warm water, a hook would last only two to three weeks to a month in the Atchafalaya. The point would dull gradually and would not admit sharpening except for very limited additional use. Neg Sauce “You could sharpen a lil bit with a file or somethin, but it wasn’t like a new hook”.

As bad as that was, the shaft of the hook just below the eye would also rust through where the line wrapped around it. A good fisherman knew when that was about to happen and changed the hooks, a lazy one would see fish drop off of his line or would simply retrieve the little eye with no hook attached. One of the many things that separated hunger from an easier life was this ability to know what to do before the necessity presented itself. This was a little easier in cold weather because wintertime and cold water could extend the life of hooks from weeks to a couple months.

The size of the hooks has also changed dramatically through time. When many of the first generation (born in early 1900s) fished, they used much larger hooks than had been in use at the end of line fishing in the Basin around 2000. One hundred years before, hooks approximately twice the size of the more recent ones predominated. As a matter of fact you almost never hear of the smaller hooks being used back then. Why is that? The people at Myette Point all say that the fish sought were the bigger fish and bigger hooks were needed to hold them. Because it would be very hard to describe these hook sizes in any clear way, simply know that the hooks back in the early 1900s were about twice the size of the more recent ones. Today’s commonly used size is the 2/0, whereas the older ones were 3/0, 4/0 up to 7/0. When he spoke of the difference between his generation and the later Atchafalaya fishermen, Neg Sauce said:

Huh! If they used a hook like we used to use, they’d starve to death out there. They were too big! …the smallest we would buy was 4/0 hook. Thing was that long [gestures 3 inches]!

His son Joe, born in 1949 and representing the third generation of this Myette Point story says:

Uh, I mostly used 2/0s, myself, because the size of the fish in the Basin. We even tried, like, 1/0 or 1/X hooks which caught better but didn’t hold the fish as well. Yeah, 2/0 hook was the all-around hook. In some cases larger hooks were used, and uh, for bigger fish course larger hooks…as people began to catch more the smaller size fish, you know, two-three pounds fish and under…2/0 hooks was the most common kind they used I believe. But before those times uh, in my Dad’s time, they used larger hooks 3/0, 4/0s, cause they fished for uh, big blue cats, you know.

The common thought is that the markets of today don’t want large fish, and small hooks catch a lot of smaller fish and some large ones, but large hooks always catch fewer small fish. Once in a while, though, small hooks can catch big fish. Once while looking at a photograph of a big fish, Russell Daigle told me:

In the bay, fishin at Belle Isle. That’s Paul holdin him, Jim. He couldn’t get it all the way up [off of the ground]. Paul was the tallest one out there, and he still couldn’t get it all the way up. Weighed 93 ½ pounds, it was 93 or 97 ½ pounds, I don’t remember exactly. I should of wrote it on the picture.

Noting that the fish was caught on a small 2/0 hook, he described how he got the big catfish into the boat.

With my gaff. Feel like it weigh 10 pounds when you see something that big! [adrenalin flowing] Never did pull! Never did pull. What he did, he got hooked and he rolled, and the main line tied around one of them big fins. Rolled around one of them big fins! He never did pull.

If he had pulled and fought as expected, the 2/0 hook would have simply straightened out and the fish would have departed as it probably had done many times before this.

Smaller hooks were also needed. The very small ones were used to catch bluegill and other panfish for use as live bait. These live “perch” would catch very large catfish, usually goujons or big blue cats, both of which are apex predators in the Atchafalaya. Russell Daigle told a story from his boyhood in 1940:

Umhm. Lil bitty hook. When I was a kid, that used to be a daily routine. When I was 8, 10 years old, I guess. Uh, the Old Man, every day, me and him and Momma. Get in the boat and go up the bayou. Find a brush pile somewhere and sit there and catch two or three hundred.

The first two generations of people in this story were permanently on the water in houseboats. That meant that all the materials needed for everyday life had to be brought to them, rather than them going to a source. This was the role of the fishboat, discussed at length elsewhere in this book. In some ways, it must have seemed like having The Mall come to your front door, and hooks were one of the things the fishboat sold to the fishermen. When the Myette Point community crossed the levee and came onto land permanently in the 1940s, the era of the fishboat system came to an end and some other source of goods was necessary. It so happened that the nearest general store was across the cane fields about ten miles away at Medric Martin’s store near Oaklawn and Bellview plantation between Grand Lake and Bayou Teche. Ways were found to get there, and Medric’s store was the new source and would be until the roads were built connecting Myette Point to settled communities, and vehicles were more available, allowing more freedom to explore towns like Franklin. Medric said:

I used to have…I used to keep the twine, whatever fishing lines, and the hooks, and everything else. I kept that. When they came in, I sold them a good bit of that. And when they didn’t have any money to put…I’d furnish em something so they could catch some fish. But when they sold the fish they paid me right away.

So, hooks and linefishing as a way of life came and went and now are things of the past. But this was the relationship of hooks to the Myette Point houseboat community for about 100 years. Now, how about the lines that held the hooks? This was the next link between fish and fisherman and will be the next item in this story.

The river is at 3.1 feet now on the Butte La Rose gauge. That's pretty low. Nothing on the Mississippi or the Ohio will change that for the time being.

Rise and Shine, Jim