Riverlogue

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.

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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.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Tightlines

When I think of our young people today in the universities, I am often distressed by the extent to which they are unprepared for life in the real world. Maybe some of them have the talents needed to survive, but most are simply not engaged enough to graduate with good problem solving skills. Whatever the cause, it seems to start way before these kids get to college. I truly do wish them well, and I hope they have chances to do some of the things I have done, if not in specifics, at least in form. Sometimes we are lucky enough to get tested in a way that real failure is very possible, and real success very rewarding! The following story could have gone either way. It is one of the longer postings to this blog.

In the early days before the Basin began to fill with sediment, the only shallow water to exploit was to be found on the lake or bayou edges and in the swamp during the annual high water season (February to May). During the high water there was too much current to fish long bentlines in Grand Lake, and for the same reason fishing crossings in the bayous was more difficult too. So, during this part of the water cycle, people would set bushlines and tightlines in the flooded swamp. In a way, a tightline was the easier of the two to set. Instead of tying one bushline and then looking for another place (limb) to set the next one, you would get to string out ten or more hooks at one time before looking for the next place to tie. Additionally, the tightline soon become even more popular because the natural processes that had been at work in the Basin since the flood protection levees were built now began to provide shallow areas that were not within the “old swamp”. As the Basin filled with sand more and more shallow places with clean bottoms rose from the lake bed, mostly between the sandbars that eventually became dry land, and some just out in the open lake in places that would soon emerge from the lake bottom. These shallow places, all with young willows growing along the edges, were the ones that became the places to set tightlines. After a little trial and observation, it became known that just as fish would leave the deeper channels and move to the flooded swamp during high water, they would now move into the shallow areas between the sandbars. Such places became known as “coves” and names like Schwing Cove and Raymond’s Cove are still on the maps today. Raymond’s Cove would eventually play a significant role in the stories told by the Myette Point fishermen.

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.


The river is at 7.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, heading up and up for the next several days. The Ohio and Mississippi are both getting water. Have to retie the dock tomorrow.

Rise and Shine, Jim

5 Comments:

Blogger Bryant said...

Jim,
Was there ever problems with people running your lines? How was it determined that you were not setting lines in some other person's area?

December 27, 2008 7:23 AM  
Blogger jim said...

Hi Bryant:

Well, there were so few people fishing lines in Grand Lake in those days that by asking where to set lines you could be pretty sure not to have problems. If anyone came and set lines anywhere in Grand Lake, the Myette Point people knew about it. As to people stealing fish, that didn't happen very much despite the stories you hear. If a local person was suspected, they were talked to. The only real issues of this kind involved sport fishermen who would see a line and somehow couldn't resist picking it up and looking at it. Sometimes they couldn't resist taking the fish they saw. Thing is, there weren't very many sport fishermen in the Basin then either. Thanks for asking!

December 27, 2008 2:34 PM  
Blogger Corey said...

Mr Jim,
I'm the son of Panhandle. Boya as Grandpa and Gandma Bailey called him. I have been reading your blog and very much enjoy it. I was taught by my Dad how to fish and hunt in the Basin. I still fish tight lines every spring even though as you have stated, it is hard to sell the fish I catch. It was good this past hitch off. Never had to move a line and you know that is rare lol
I remember you when you were visiting Papa Myon and Grandma Agnes. You bring back many fond memories of my Grand Parents.
Thanks
Corey Bailey

May 09, 2010 9:51 AM  
Blogger jim said...

Well, Corey! It is really wonderful to hear that you are reading these things about your family. Wonderful, and kind of scary. I never know when I have missed something important or misstated something. Comments like yours make writing this account of Myette Point feel justified. Thanks! And I hope you find sales for all your fish. Let's talk in person when we have a chance.
Jim

May 09, 2010 11:14 AM  
Blogger Corey said...

I would love to get together. Maybe we can go catch some sac-a-lait. Email me so we can make some plans. basinboy@hotmail.com

May 09, 2010 12:13 PM  

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