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, January 30, 2009

Cut Bait

The use of cut bait, meaning taking a large fish and making from it small pieces suitable for putting it on a hook, was very much a seasonal thing – the season being the low-water times when the water was warm and relatively clear. It really was a coincidence of the life cycle of catfish and the attractiveness of shrimp as food that made the use of cut bait necessary. Huge numbers of young catfish are produced during the spring in the Basin and these young fish are voracious consumers of shrimp, prompted perhaps by the warm water and rapid growth. As the water-season brings low water in the summer, these swarms of now three and four-inch baby catfish will clean shrimp off of fishermen’s lines almost as fast as they are put on, especially in daylight hours. For this reason what is called “hard bait” is used by the fishermen instead of shrimp, and cut bait is what makes up that category.

When the water got low in the summer, and warm and clear, there were really two options for fishermen like the Myette Point folks. Either they could switch to a hard bait that would not be stripped off by small fish so easily, or begin fishing only at night to avoid the swarms of small catfish. For some reason, shrimp would not be removed by small fish as quickly after dark and so people would fish their lines from dark to light during low water. The other option was to use cut bait instead of shrimp, or maybe a combination of the two. Fishing at night would also avoid the dangerously hot summer sun. Skin cancer was always an occupational hazard for line fishermen.

EJ Daigle did a lot of linefishing and he is familiar with what happened during the beginning of the low-water season. As an alternative to shrimp, sometimes people would use whole small shad, putting one to a hook. When asked about using these small shad as cut bait he says sometimes it is even necessary to find a harder bait than small shad when the baby catfish are really aggressive. He talks about small shad and what happened when even these were removed, or stolen, by small catfish.

That is a clear- water bait. Use it when your Basin is falling, and the water is beginning to clear. When your shrimp won’t hold [on the hooks] anymore, when your smaller fish, small eel cats and small blue cats will just tear the shrimp off the hook in two or three minutes…. As your water clears up, your smaller fish will quit jumpin on the shrimp and [also] go to peeling the shads off fast as you put em on. So you gotta go lookin for a harder bait even.

This harder bait would have been larger shad cut in pieces or mullet, or something like that.

Eight species of animal were used as cut bait, seven fish and one amphibian. The amphibian was a salamander called the Lesser Siren, Siren intermedia, known to fishermen as “ansoir”. The spelling here is guessed at from the pronunciation. This salamander was common enough along the estuary marshes on the southern margins of the Atchafalaya Basin to be caught and used for bait, though this is not generally known. It was mainly found in the soft mud of shallow marsh ponds and was caught by pulling a net through the top few inches of soft mud. It was a popular bait when available. Lena Mae and Edward Couvillier fished with it sometimes near the coast.

EC: We used to go get them ansoirs [sp?] when we fished in the bay, out there.

LC: Ansoirs [are] good too. Made like a eel. But it looks like it got a rough skin on it.

EC: Got like lil legs on the side of it.

LC: That used to be a good bait.

EC: We used to go back of Belle Isle, they had a lil lake back there…They live in the mud. And you go back there and dip in that soft mud, and that’s where you catch em. Just like a cut bait.

The other baits (all fish) were, in order of most popular to least, fresh water shad, mullet, buffalo, saltwater shad, slicks, black eel and perch. A few of these names were in common use by Myette Point fishermen but are not so common elsewhere such as black eel (American eel), saltwater shad (pogey or menhaden) and slicks (skipjack herring). Two species are usually included under freshwater shad – gizzard shad and threadfin shad, with the former the most common.

Freshwater shad seem to be one of the most abundant bait fish in the Basin. Of the eight species used, shad were the only cut bait whose availability could be relied upon. It is not consumed by humans as food, although similar species are held in high regard as table fare in other parts of the United States. It is caught either in castnets or dipnets and can be used whole, if small enough, and if so is threaded onto a hook passing through the eyes and then back again near the tail, a baiting technique called string shad. This makes a curved bait that wobbles in the current. Or, if the fish is too large for this, it is sectioned into “steaks” ½ inch wide and put on the hook that way. This is a very effective bait because shad seems to be one of the most foraged foods by fish in the Basin, second only perhaps to shrimp. To catch them, Myette Point people know that wherever you find a current flowing around a point, there you will find shad swimming upcurrent, and if you stand where you can sweep a net along the current you will usually catch them – especially the smaller ones. If needed, larger shad were usually caught using castnets in dead water areas like oilfield location canals. When talking about the uses of castnets, Edward Couvillier says: We always used em to catch shad.

Mullet were more of an opportunistic bait than shad. They were very good as cut bait but were only caught infrequently in sufficient quantity to be the sole bait used, whereas shad could often be found in large numbers. As with all of these, the skin is a necessary part of the bait – always being the factor that keeps the bait from being easily taken from the hook by small fish. Using a castnet along the sandbars was the usual way to catch mullet, often after seeing the schools “piping” on the surface. Neg Sauce liked to use mullet when he could get and it was the right season.

“ Oh yeah. Oh yeah, way better than eel. I caught a lot of fish on mullet. When that water was dropping, that’s what we’d do…that’s what I’d do, cut mullet. Caught some fish on that too!”

Buffalo are also a good bait, but here again availability was not assumed. Actually, aside from shad, all the other things used as cut bait were either used in combination with each other or very occasionally used alone – and this is how buffalo was used also. To bait with this fish most people would scale it, fillet the meat from the sides, leaving the skin on the fillets, and cut the fillets into one inch cubes or less. From something like a four-pound buffalo it was possible to get about 100 good baits. With a normal rig of 1000 hooks it still meant you had to have ten four-pound buffalo to bait just once, and that usually meant you had to be at least a part-time hoopnet fisherman, or knew someone who was. For this reason buffalo was not that popular.

In the latter years that they fished, Myette Point people had access to salt water shad. During the early generations, many of the fishermen lived on the east side of Grand Lake and for some reason these salt water migrants were not common on the east side. But once they moved to the west side, around the 1940s, it became possible to harvest menhaden/pogeys during low water periods. These normally salt-water fish come up rivers into fresh water during periods of very low water. Russell Daigle has used these shad for many years and he says they are usually available every year.

“When the water’s all the way down, they work their way up. They were pretty thick out there this year.”

When the surface of the river is calm, they can be seen rippling the surface in huge schools, and, if approached carefully and quietly, one throw of a six-foot castnet can catch many hundreds of three-inch fish. The net comes up from the depths of the water literally white with the silver shad caught in it. This is a wonderful sight to see if you need bait and have had trouble getting it that day. Most of these fish are small enough to be baited using the string method described above. Often the tails are cut off to keep fish from stealing the bait from the hook without getting hooked.

Black eel was often available but seldom used. It does not seem to ever have become popular, but was never quite abandoned either. More often this bait was used along the coast in estuarine waters than in the Basin proper. But some people did use it in the way described elsewhere, i.e. as an attractant to shrimp which in turn attracted fish, and sometimes for cut bait for its own sake. Having been caught most often as bycatch on commercial hook and line rigs, it was sometimes kept for periods in live boxes either to sell to other fishermen as bait or to use later. EJ Daigle used eels this way. Spot bait means putting a certain kind of bait every ten hooks or so.

“Black eel, which is…we use mostly, uh, when we lookin for big fish. And we used to have big-fish sales [they were saleable], years ago. We used to fish local fish, you’d put out a crossin and bait it with black eel…or, like at the end of the week…you fish Monday through Friday, Saturday, whatever…you want to take a day or two off, you would, uh, spot bait some black eel…”

And Neg Sauce adds this about eels:

NS: It never was too much up the lake here – eels. But I remember we used to save em and people that used to fish out in the bay, you know, would buy em.

JD: Live?

NS: Yeah, used to put em in a cage. Norman [Daigle] used to come get some. Norman used to fish out there in the bay, after they had moved [to Calumet]. And uh, sometimes we’d save em, put em in a cage and keep em. [in case] Somebody need em.

JD: But you never had much luck with em [as bait]?

NS: Never was much…in this lake. Now and then maybe you’d catch a few fish on em, but it wasn’t the best bait all the time.

Slicks were highly prized but never available in sufficient numbers to become an important bait. This herring was sometimes caught when the real object was to catch shad and it was used whenever that happened. There seems to have been a real positive relationship between how bloody a cut bait was and how effective it was, and this one was bloodier than most. For this reason this fish is very popular as commercial crawfish bait when it is available. The Myette Point fishermen sometimes referred to this fish as a “lil tarpon” and it does resemble a tarpon superficially. There is clear memory of tarpon at Myette Point because in the early 1900s, tarpon were not uncommon in the Basin and young ones are still caught by hoopnet fishermen today.

The least-frequently used cut bait was the small panfish collectively called perch. This bait is placed last because it is unusual in that it was always available but not utilized as cut bait by many people. Maybe this is because it wasn’t easy to get in large numbers, like with others listed above, and maybe because in some people’s opinions it didn’t work very well. Oddly, there are interviews that mention good results with cut perch from the 1920s, but only occasional mention of them in later decades. Most of the time they were used as live, not cut, bait.

Lastly, the fact that gaspergou (freshwater drum) was very common and was not used as cut bait needs to be mentioned. This fish is the opposite of the slick mentioned above in that it is almost bloodless when filleted. Edward Couvillier confirms that that gaspergou isn’t any good.
“I tried gaspergou, but gaspergou is not a good cut bait atall! They got some kind of oil in there that the fish don’t like.”

So to summarize, cut bait was an important bait to use when shrimp would not work because it was removed from the hooks too quickly by small catfish. This was often the case in the summertime when the water was low, clear, and warm. Cut bait, or “hard” bait, could be relied on to stay on a hook long enough to be there when a sizeable fish came along and was hungry. Otherwise, if baited with shrimp, the hook would be empty when that opportunity presented itself.

The river has had the bottom drop out. It is at 6.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge today, heading down to 5.6 feet day after tomorrow. It has dropped so fast from 11.5 feet that my dock is high and dry on the bank for the first time in ten years. I am ALMOST sure we can count on some more high water this spring to float it off – almost sure. The Ohio and Mississippi are bumping up a little bit now but nothing big to push the water back up to where it was a couple weeks ago. Oh well.

Rise and Shine, Jim


Blogger Bryant said...

Reading all your recent postings, I never realized how much you need to know in order to make a living fishing. When you talk about how much help you received when you first started fishing, your friends were/are very generous people.

January 31, 2009 7:08 AM  
Blogger jim said...

Briant, I have known for a long time how complex linefishing is but it is very gratifying to hear someone else say it. And yes, the people at Myette Point were/are very generous with thier time and willingness to share what they know. Thanks, Jim

January 31, 2009 8:18 AM  
Blogger Larry & Tina said...


April 17, 2010 7:33 PM  
Blogger Larry & Tina said...

Hello Jim...2nd try. Do you remember teaching a young hippy how to fish for catfish and other assorted wonders of the swamp? How about a wedding in North Carolina? Does any of this ring a bell?
Have missed your company and wit...please contact Tina and I. Your wayward friend...Lar

April 17, 2010 7:50 PM  

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