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.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Early Scouting

Once in a while you get a chance to do something really special, and it’s all due to someone else’s generosity. That happened last Monday to me, courtesy of my friend EJ Daigle (not initials, that is his first name). EJ and I have been friends for about 37 years and I have never stopped learning from him in the time we spend together. This occasion was a scouting trip into the deep old Basin, the purpose being to scout the earliest signs of swamp crawfish. EJ is one of the most productive fishers of wild crawfish and that respect doesn’t come without effort. These men who consistently come out of the swamp with 50 to 60 sacks do a lot to earn them, including finding the early places where the crawfish show up. That’s what he was doing this 5th of January, 2009.

I told him that I wanted to come along to take pictures and do some interviewing on tape if I could. No problem. The morning wakeup was around 4:30 in order to make it from Butte La Rose to the Myette Point boat landing by 7:00. On the way down the levee the weather was warm and fog is predictable on warm January mornings. It was so. And then it began to rain, not a lot, just a drizzle, but ominous. We were to be out most of the day and I had an untried rainsuit. It was a well known brand, but not a commercial suit. It is named after an amphibian. I got to the landing before daylight and EJ was already there with the boat in the water and the motor running. He had his rainsuit on, the kind you see them wear on The Most Dangerous Catch. I put mine on and felt a little sissified. It kept raining.

We put out just at daylight and right away you get from the land to the main channel of the Atchafalaya River, and the temperature changes about 15 degrees, downward. And if you wear glasses the world becomes a blank, gray haze. You clean your glasses with a wrapper from one of your peanut butter sandwiches and they fog up again right away. Again, the same. Some things you can’t fight and win, humidity on warm eyeglasses in cool weather seems to be one of them. The rest of the trip in the channel is without glasses and is agreeable. It is still raining, but not hard, just steady. EJ wonders if my rainsuit will work OK. I say of course, it cost $80, it has to be good.

We are going to the east side of the Basin and into the Old Swamp. There is a great deal of Old Swamp there on the east side. Bayous with names like Pigeon, Sorrel, Long and Chene live there. The old cypress/tupelo swamp on the west side is just a fringe along the levee by comparison. Still pretty, but much less extensive. They say you can’t cross the Basin from west to east where we are now, but a small channel with fast running water opens up before us at the far end of an oilfield canal, and it does become possible to cross to the other side using this little twisting almost whitewater canal. Maybe this little waterway through the sandbars and willow thickets has had help in becoming useable. Maybe the Corps of Engineers didn’t help it. Who knows? But it carries us to Thibodeaux Chute and then on to the Crevasse and low and behold into Schwing’s Chute and then out into what is left of Grand Lake on the original eastern shoreline. There is more left of Grand Lake on this side than I thought, some places a half mile or more of width. But there they are, the cypress tree sentinels, extending themselves out into the lake from the Old Swamp side for hundreds of feet and living out there in the open water as few other trees can. In this dreary, gray, warmish situation the trees look oddly dark and permanent, like black statues on lawns, standing individually with space between them so that each is alone.

It is still raining. My camera is screaming from inside the waterproof 5-gallon bucket that keeps it dry. Surely that picture of black sentinel cypress trees would be here right now, if I had risked a wet camera. I didn’t.

We go into the swamp along a set of bayous that places us about halfway up West Fork of Little Bayou Long. This is wild swamp, but not so wild as before the big outboard engines could and would bring anyone to see this place, no matter how spiritually undeserving. You know it’s not, but it feels violated, especially on a morning like this in the mist and rain and clouds resting just above the treetops. A closeness lives here in this weather. EJ does now what he and others like him do, he turns away from the bayou channel and dives gently into the swamp, boat, motor, us and everything. Right away the gently is forgotten as he hits the first underwater stump or log. The Mercury roars and we are propelled past the problem and out into an open area, engine and boat still intact.

It is still raining, harder. And it is midmorning. We have stopped several places in the deep swamp for EJ to get out of the boat in a shallow place (ha, max depth is about one foot right now in this whole swamp – the Mercury roars frequently). He uses a little dipnet to sample vegetation to see if the old mother crawfish have come out of their holes and released their broods of baby crawfish. He finds some evidence that they have done this. He shows me inch-long baby crawfish snapping their little tails in his palm. He is pleased. The trip is worthwhile already.

I feel some coolness beneath the rainsuit in the region of my chest. It is not what you wish to notice out here in the rain. I take a mental survey of my anatomy under the clothing I wear. I am sitting in a puddle of water on top of an ice chest. The puddle keeps being refilled by the constant rain, no help for that. Standing up instead of sitting in this boat is not an option, each time the Mercury roars is launch time for anyone not firmly holding onto something solid. But the sitting part of my being is dry! Well, the fancy fabric works. My back – hm, warm – dry. My shoulders, the same. Legs, same –dry. Then what is the problem? By now the coolness has spread down to below the beltline in the front. Oh, now I get it. It is the closure on the jacket. It is a zipper covered over by a snapped down flap. Normally that is not problem. But the zipper is leaking in the constant rain, which varies in intensity from hard to just a sprinkle. But all suits close in the front with a zipper or snaps, don’t’ they? Yes. But that is not the problem, the problem is with the pants. The pants on a REAL rainsuit come all the way to the top of the chest with a bib. It is expected that the jacket will leak, but if the leak comes through all it can do is wet the outside of the bib and run down the front, still on the outside of the person inside. My fancy rainsuit has no bib. It ends in front with a stylish pullstring closure right along the wasteline. No bib. And I am wet all down the front.

From having spent many days out in the elements fishing for a living, some of them much wetter than I am now, I have no problem with being wet. Being cold is another thing. We have about half a day to go on this trip. Sometimes you can anticipate things worse than they are or will be. Best not. So I take a further simple assessment, asking, am I wet? Yes, all down the front. But, am I cold? No. What am I doing all this assessement for then? I realize what I am - is uncomfortable. I am out here in the middle of the greatest natural environment I have access to with one of the most knowledgeable men I know, and I am uncomfortable. Can I live with that? You bet!

Off we go, it is still raining. EJ crosses several miles of Old Swamp between West Fork and Middle Fork by going right through it. No landmarks, and not even any sun to show direction. There are places in there where TV survivor personalities might not come out. But what country! In one spot you could see ten of those ancient “wolf trees” that the loggers chose not to cut because of some defect. These trees seem to be like things that hold treasures of history for us and future generations. They will all be gone someday, but not yet. One of them is behind EJ in one of these pictures. It has a double trunk beginning about 20 feet up and that is what may have saved it for us to see.

So, he hit Middle Fork and then found his way through bayous and such to the channel of Big Pigeon, down that to Grand Lake again and then up a few miles. We stopped to see a jugline that was bobbing up and down vigorously in the rain. On the hook was a 20-pound goujon. No camera. We let it go and turned west into the land (sandbar) that sits out from the old shoreline. Entering the built-land, the sanbar land is like entering another planet. The cypress and typelo and wolf trees are all gone, replaced mostly by scrubby and storm-riven willow, sycamore and gum. The water here runs through shallow depressions between the sandbars, rather than in bayous. But still, there is much water. We met two fishermen from Pierre Part who were catching choupique (bowfin) in the rain. One of them fished lines strung out with hooks on them between bamboo poles for support. The other was gillnetting. Both had some of the big choupique that they sell for the eggs (roe, caviar). The eggs are worth $10 a pound this year, $14 last year. They gave me two males, useless to them of course, for my skeleton collection.

And on home to the west side, in the rain. We stopped near Shatter’s Bayou and Oaklawn Canal to pick up some traps that EJ wanted to rework for this year. This swamp is pure tupelo in some places, and the rain marked the water level for last year in black contrast to the otherwise gray trunks. Interesting to see this reminder of the rising potential of the water.

As we approached the landing at Myette Point, it stopped raining. No recordings of EJ, very few pictures for the day, and a soggy, fancy rainsuit. But was it a great day? Very much yes. I hope to go with EJ later this year while he runs traps, maybe not in the rain this time.

The river is at 12.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 11.9 by this time next week. Both the Ohio and Mississippi are falling pretty hard. Things could drop in that swamp if there is not more rain or snow in Ohio.

Rise and Shine, Jim


Blogger Bryant said...

Are you allowed to say the brand name for the rainsuit EJ was wearing?

January 30, 2009 11:03 AM  

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