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, January 18, 2009

Linefishing Bait

Since any story about the linefishing practices of the Myette Point community of fishermen in the Atchafalaya Basin has to involve the bait they used, the bait they used is the next important topic. Having now spoken of the various types of line rigs, it is time to consider the bait. As a matter of fact, for the fishermen, bait is usually a more difficult issue to deal with in the consistency and quantity needed than setting the lines themselves. It is a maxim of good commercial line fishermen that you never run a line unless you bait it too. You don’t just take fish off and leave no prospect of having fish on the line when you come back. So bait was always part of the process of running a line. Even if it had been affordable, for the Myette Point fishermen there was no commercial source for bait. Even if there had been, there was no bait that could have been purchased with the consistency and in the quantity needed. So some means of procuring natural bait was the norm for these fishermen. During the decades that the techniques of linefishing were practiced and refined in Grand Lake, numerous types of baits were tried and the best manner of their use was identified by trial and error (and success). Each of the successful baits was somehow limited by season, primarily those seasonal factors that either defined low water periods or were defined by them, i.e. low water season produced clear water and muddy water came with high, and cold, water. Of all the baits used in Grand Lake, and there were 13 of them in all, only one, the river shrimp, was used successfully in all conditions. One reason for this is that the river shrimp was procurable all year long whereas none of the others was. The other reason is that catfish seem to take this shrimp as food when no other bait will interest them. Each of the other baits, however, had a specific time and reason for their use. Shad, for instance, were easy to get at a time of year when shrimp were harder to get. For the record, the other baits used were American eel (“black eel”), spotted worm eel (“white eel”), freshwater shad, saltwater shad, mullet, crawfish, sunfish (“perch”), baby bowfin (“choupique”), buffalo, skipjack herring (slicks), siren (a salamander) and soap. The soap was P&G brand and was perhaps the oddest bait used.

River shrimp (“shrimp” from here on) have the scientific name Macrobrachium ohione, meaning the big-armed shrimp from Ohio. Apparently they once lived in the rivers of Ohio and surrounding areas but not so much anymore, and for the other part of the name they do have enlarged (macro) pinchers, or “arms” (brachium). Now virtually absent in the upper Ohio watershed, they have, however, maintained their abundance in the lower Mississippi valley, including the Atchafalaya River. They have been available in the Atchafalaya Basin for the Myette Point fishermen to use for as far back as memory goes. How important shrimp were to the lives of the fishermen is summed up by Edward Couvillier.

EC: Well, shrimp, is a year around bait. That’s a year around bait. You can use that anytime. That was a good bait.

JD: Would you say it was your basic bait that you used?

EC: Aw yeah. Well, it’s still a year-around bait, you know?

And Neg Sauce adds his words in agreement.

Different times…different times, use different baits. Like in the winter, shrimp is you best bait. …Always…it always was the best.

The quantity of shrimp needed varied with the fisherman and the extent of his rig. In the early years of the last century, people set and ran fewer hooks than in mid-century. This was partly due to the difficulties with cotton line. But later, after nylon was in common use, the number of hooks for any successful line fisherman rose to at least 1000, with two or three times that for some, and the need for that daily number of shrimp rose with the hooks. I did a quick calculation of how many shrimp a fisherman would have used during 20 years of fishing and the number comes out to over five million.

The river shrimp reaches full growth at about three inches but most of those caught for bait are less than that, being about one and a half to two inches long. There is some evidence that they had a place on the table but that may have been limited by the fact that they are mild flavored and rather small for human consumption. There are several ways to catch them including bushes, boxes, burlap sacks, wire traps and dipping the submerged roots of trees.
The most common way, and least laborious in the short run, was the use of myrtle bushes. Neg Sauce was born in 1924, and he vouches for the fact that shrimp bushes were the way you learned to catch shrimp.

JD: That’s how you learned, when you learned, was with shrimp bushes? So it’s been around a while, huh? Fishin em just like we fish em now?

NS: Aw yeah, far as I remember. [laughs] Just like we do now.

You hear people talk of willow bushes, or “dips”, but the Myette Point fishermen used wax myrtle instead of willow. Wax myrtle is an evergreen shrub/tree that grows at the edge of a forest and/or along a river edge. The terminal branches tend to be very brushy and dense and even under water the dark green leaves adhere to the branches longer than those of willow. These myrtle branches were tied together into a thick brush ball and suspended in the river from poles cut and stuck into the bottom near the shallow bank at an angle of about 45 degrees. Usually in about three feet of water, the bushes were set to hang from poles and just clear the bottom a few inches – enough room to get a net under them without alerting the shrimp in the bush. The poles were traditionally made of willow because that was the most abundant tree that grew in the right shape to use, i.e. long and straight and narrow all the way up. A 15-foot pole would have a base only two or three inches wide. That has changed so that now a fisherman would have to use either sycamore or Chinese tallow for poles because of the taste that beavers have for willow. Beavers don’t seem to like the bark on either of these trees. So maybe there is some good use for the Chinese tallow after all. These bushes were dipped up in long-handled nets with rims 36 inches wide. At times it was necessary to string out 50 or even 100 of these bushes to assure the fisherman of enough bait. Later on, when ¼ inch hardware cloth became available, it was found that traps made from this were also effective. Some of these traps are shown here, as is granddaughter Ava Rose getting a serious look at river shrimp.

The river is at 11.5 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, down from 12.5 feet last week. The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling hard so it looks like this water will fall out of the swamp and the crawfishermen will have to wait for more help from above.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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