In 1972, the year before the Mississippi almost succeeded in emigrating westward, I was just experiencing my first full cycle of learning to fish with lines in the Atchafalaya Basin with a commercial goal in mind. And I had just begun to successfully set out and run bentlines when the water began to rise in November and make my bentlines unusable. The debris (“trash”) that accumulated on the lines due to the rising water and increased current was responsible for this. So I went back to my mentors, the experts at Myette Point, and asked how to fish in this new situation. They told me that the best option at this time was to fish tightlines. OK, where? In Raymond’s Cove, they told me. So I went to Raymond’s Cove and, after scouting it (for what I wasn’t sure) I did what they told me to do. That was to cut some poles about ten feet long and push them into the mud about 50 to 70 feet apart along the edge of where the open water met the small willows growing along the sandbar. Raymond’s Cove was a pretty big place, having extensive areas of shallow open water bordered by submerged sandbars with their small willows emerging from the water. The water was only about four feet deep in this location, and milky/cloudy with silt.
Talk about taking something on faith. By now I was wholly committed to deriving my income from fishing, and I had never set lines like this. But I did what they told me as best I could and as well as I thought was necessary. There were so many questions to answer when I got down to actually trying to place the lines and hooks in the water. Poles – how big? How deep to try to sink them? Did it matter? Where? Knots – what kind? And so on. Looking back I’m tempted to think this was a rite of passage. They may have been thinking that either I could follow directions and do this right, or I was probably just a friendly person who was too dumb to do simple things like set tightlines. When you take the fork in the road that leads to learning survival skills like this, college degrees don’t count for much. It really wasn’t a surprise to realize this, but sobering anyway.
So I pushed down the first pole and tied the main line to it about six inches above the water, and paddled along the edge of the willows about 20 feet and the ball of line that was unrolling in the boat jumped overboard. Luckily it floated long enough for me to grab it. In doing so I noted how very cold the water was (November). Continuing along the willows I set the next pole and, knowing this was a TIGHTline, I pulled, and pulled, and pulled the first pole out of the bottom and it came floating toward me. Put the poles well down into the mud, I told myself, and did on all the rest of them. I then put a total of ten poles down and tied the main line to each with a knot that allows you to secure the line in one long piece without cutting it. By now I knew how to do this to avoid cutting the main line at each pole and then having to retie pieces together when you pick it up to reset it somewhere else. Myette Point people don’t like main line with knots in it so retying short pieces together was not what you do. At first I thought this was silly and why worry about something as small as whether there were knots in the main line but later it was clear that when that line was used in bentlines each knot served as a place for trash to collect and stiffen the line. And, most knots are weaker than the line itself. Small things matter.
I then tied stageons onto the main line. The hooks hung down about six inches below the surface. For bait I either used cut bait (mullet or shad) or river shrimp. This was cold water, not muddy, so probably cut bait. When I finished I had worked most of the day and had put out only about 100 hooks, out of the 1000 thought to be necessary. And I remember looking back down the 700 feet of line and thinking “This is either a good idea done reasonably well, or due to my ineptness a completely useless way to fish”. Either was a real possibility at that point.
Next day came very cold and windy. I put my boat in the water and started the motor to make the ten minute run to Raymond’s Cove. Open-boat running in November can be a cold thing to do. When I reached the line I had set, I didn’t see any evidence of fish on the line – no tugging, no pulling underwater, no dripping line. But when I got to the first pole there were fish. Relief came. What really surprised me was the size of the fish. They were five pounds, ten and lots in between. Most were those blue cats about three or four pounds that look so sleek, like sharks almost, and whitish in the cloudy water. As each fish flopped into the wellbox in my boat, a measure of confidence built up in my previously unsure state. I don’t remember how much fish there was that first day, but probably not as much as I remember. The thrill of succeeding at something new like this was so overwhelming that carelessness was a distinct and predictable next phase in my education. Cold water makes stiff hands that are clumsy in handling sharp hooks, and I paid a price to learn that. But even so I couldn’t wait to put in more line and catch that much more fish. I did put in more line, but the inherent variability of catching more fish caught up with me and soon I realized that it isn’t that easy. When I expressed this to my friends at Myette Point, they asked me how many of the lines I had moved. Moved? Yes, rather than waiting for the fish to show up, you have to move lines when they don’t produce. Moving line takes time away from fishing line. Oh well. When I brought my fish in that first day to sell to Myon Bailey, several of my friends were sitting in his kitchen being paid for their fish. When asked how I did, I mentioned the fish I had caught. Apparently it was enough for the men to say just enough positive things to make me feel like the rite of passage had been passed. I wasn’t too dumb to learn how to do this after all. Being accepted in this way by these men was one of the most important things that has ever happened to me – on a par with seeing my son being born and killing the first duck with a shotgun, both first order primal experiences, I think.
So I fished tightlines in Raymond’s Cove all that winter until the water began to recede, which it did earlier than usual that spring, as I recall. By the time I stopped and began to resume setting bentlines in Grand Lake, I had a modest understanding of how, and where, tightlines were set and run during high water in the winter.
Rise and Shine, Jim