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 23, 2009

Live Bait

Back in the early days of the Myette Point experience, from about 1910 to 1950, fishing for big fish was the primary occupation for commercial line fishermen. The big fish would provide the greatest return “per unit effort”, as they say. You could set lines that were designed for big fish and make a living with relatively few hooks. In the days of cotton line, which this early period was, these smaller rigs of line were all that was possible. Smaller fish would accomplish the same thing in larger numbers, but that took a lot of line and a lot of bait, and a lot more effort of frequently changing lines and hooks because of the cotton.

The primary way to fish for these big fish in the early days was to use bushlines. These individual sets, one line hanging from one branch, could be targeted to the locations where big fish were known to be – i.e. near stumps or other debris. Joe Sauce remembers what you used.

“…the live bait for goujons…I remember they’d talk about going put out goujon lines, you know, in particular places along the trees, and baitin with live perch in the fall of the year… But uh, it wasn’t nothing for them to catch two or three 50 to 80 pound catfish, you know, in a day.”

Once a set like this was made, the choice of bait was almost always something that was alive and so could attract a predator with movement. And predators they were, these big catfish. The flathead, or goujon, is generally the top predator in slow waters. Perhaps the garfishes qualify also but even with the terrible teeth they have, I don’t believe they are as feared by other fish as is the goujon. This big catfish hunts only live things. It is so known by other fish that people who run hoopnets will tell you that once you trap a goujon in a net, few other fish will enter that net. Even small flatheads/goujons in a net will keep other fish away. Perhaps it is the smell that tips off other fish to their presence. Big blue catfish are also drawn to live prey, and can be caught with the same lines as are set for goujons. Neg Sauce was one of the early Myette Point fishermen and he recalls how live bait was an important thing.

“Aw, live perch is good…used to be good. We used to bait with them for…for goujons and stuff. Bait them bushlines with them perch. Bait bushlines right back of that stump. Catch a lot of goujons there.”

Toward the end of the practice of the linefishing tradition, the emphasis shifted away from bushlines toward the more prolifically producing bentlines and crosslines. For these rigs, shrimp and cut bait were often used as bait. But this section will deal with the earlier use of live organisms. Lena Mae Couvillier tells of a time when she set a crossline in a wide channel near Myette Point and baited it with live bait. As was often true, the women of this community were good fishermen, and this was noticed widely. She says:

“So one day I went and I fished me some perch. And I went and hooked on my line, and next day, boy, I went back…I caught four big fish. I mean…Oscar Lange was buyin fish then ...he bragged from here to Morgan City about them fish I had caught! Them big fish! He was telling “She’s a better fisherman than the mens over there!” [laughs] But he bragged about the fish I had caught, to everybody! “

Often the most frequently used item in fishing will be the most easily procured during most of the time/season it is needed. This item in the live bait category would be some species of small panfish , known to Myette Point, and, to much of the south, as “perch”. The most common one used was the bluegill, or bream, and the warmouth (goggle eye), both abundant in the warm waters near brush piles, downed trees or other debris. The harvesting of these small fish by hook and line was often an effort by the whole family. People would go out in the afternoons and sit quietly in a boat and fish for the small perch using very small hooks and pieces of shrimp squeezed out of the shell. Ida Daigle remembers times when her son Russell was a small child and fished for these small perch with her. He was a determined young fisherman who became one of the most successful line fishermen in Grand Lake. Ida had to take over fishing for the family when her husband, Jesse, had a stroke and couldn’t fish anymore. She says:

“Umhm. And Russell was a lil bitty thing, and he used to have his lil line and every now and then he’d catch one. I’d bring him with me, he’d follow me all over. He was…he was something else when he was little. One day he…we had run out of bait and he didn’t want to go home. He was I guess…about like that…[about two feet tall]. “Momma they still bitin!”, “Yeah”, but I say “We ain’t got no bait”. He put a piece of water lily on his hook, and throwed overboard, and catch a perch. So, that’s the way I got started Jim. And I raised my kids. Jesse workted, now, don’t get me wrong. He workted, as long as he could. But he was only 36 years old when he had the first stroke.”

The boats in those days all had “wellboxes”, bulkheaded sections in the midsection of the boat that could be filled with water to keep fish alive. The perch were put in this until they could be transferred to a holding box in the water near the houseboat residence. Russell Daigle had early memories of how they did this as a family.

RD: When I was a kid, that used to be a daily routine. When I was eight, [or] ten years old [1942], I guess. Uh, the Old Man, every day, me and him and Momma. Get in the boat and go up the bayou. Find a brush pile somewhere and sit there and catch two or three hundred. …fish goujons with.

JD: What did you use for bait to catch the lil…?

RD: Shrimp. Lil bitty piece of shrimp. You peel the shrimp and squeeze a lil piece out and put it on a hook. Oh yeah. Regular as a clock.

And in a different family, elsewhere on Grand Lake, Lena Mae Couvillier tells how they did it when she was child.

LC: We had a shrimp box [back at the houseboat], and then daddy put a box to put perch in…put perch in, keep perch live. We used to…every day…we’d load up, run up the bayou…we’d go to first Diamond Slough…we’d run up there in the boat. Sometime we’d tow a pirogue…well, I didn’t want to fish with the rest of em in the boat, so I tow me a pirogue. Fish out of a pirogue, by myself. Momma and them would fish out of the boat… ‘Till we’d get enough perch, keep em live, come home, put em in the box. Next day, Daddy’d go bait his lines with that.

JD: Well, did yall fish…what did yall fish those lil perch with?

LC: Oh, a lil perch line with a perch hook. Any pole, you can find, and cut you…them days you could cut lil poles anywheres. Tie you a line to it, and fish perch. Every day, we used to run up the bayou and get our load of perch.

JD: So, yall’s job was to catch the perch and he would go and put em on the line?

LC: Bait with em. [They went] After dinner. We’d all take off after dinner and catch our perch. That was me and Momma, Daddy, Milton…four of us.

JD: So…so Myon [her father, the head of the family] would help, he would go and catch perch too?

LC: Yeah. He’d come with us. He wouldn’t let us go by ourself, so. Momma couldn’t go [alone] with just me and Milton, we was little. I guess I was about seven, eight years old. [and her little brother Milton would have been about five years old]

For good reason there was concern. People often found themselves unexpectedly in the water, even small children no matter how careful. Dot Couvillier, part of the above family, says:

“I can remember goin … I remember fallin overboard.”

Since the main idea was to keep the bait alive and present it that way to the catfish, the bait was connected to the hook in the way least likely to do serious damage. Most of the time this was to attach the hook through the skin just ahead of the dorsal fin of the perch. It was left, then, to swim freely as far as the stageon would allow. The practice of hunting a land-dwelling predator by tying a goat to a stake as bait is similar.

The other things that were used as live bait were mullet, shad, small choupique (bowfin) and shrimp. The latter were used in two ways. In one way, four or five of the bigger shrimp were hooked through the tip of the tail, the whole wriggling group of them acting to entice a large fish, or in the other way, a piece of cut bait would be allowed to stay on a hook until it spoiled (soured) and began to attract shrimp. The big catfish would take the shrimp on the soured bait and get hooked.

The days of using live bait did not last much past the 1960s. Live bait was a practice designed to catch large fish, but the market for large fish began to decline due to the increase in availability of farm-raised catfish. These could be marketed in uniform sizes and were always available in any volume needed by restaurants. The big, wild fish were not uniform nor were they always available on demand. As the sales for big fish decreased, Basin fishermen began to rely more and more on rigs that would produce large numbers of smaller fish – rigs made of crosslines and bentlines. These smaller fish were still marketable until the last few years. Recently, however, even the smaller fish were not wanted by the few remaining docks that bought and sold wild fish. There are still a few people who would catch the wild fish if there was a sale for them, but the last dock that purchased wild fish in the Franklin/Jeanerette/Charenton area closed its doors last year.

The river is at 11.1 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge right now, falling drastically to 8.3 by the middle of next week. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling. Whatever water was in the swamp due to this last rise is about to disappear. Too bad.

Rise and Shine, Jim


Blogger Mike Monett said...


I am an Ohioan who just camped at Myette Point this month.

I wrote about it on my journal:
http://mikemonett.livejournal.com .

I mentioned your journal on mine, because I think it's great, and I'm glad you are writing a book about Myette Point.

I liked the Atchafalaya Basin so much I am interested in being able to camp along the west levee, between Henderson and Courtableau. That area is almost all owned by the Corps of Engineers, but the man who grazes cattle there on the privately-owned stretch allows tent campers for an annual fee the right to be there next to the borrow pit canal (back in the trees west of the two gravel roads).

If you don't want me to mention your journal on mine, let me know, and I'll edit the entry.

-Mike Monett
Dayton, Ohio

January 26, 2009 4:23 PM  
Blogger Bryant said...

You said that there was no longer a place where fishermen could sell there catches of cat fish. What about the fishermen that use hoopnets and catch goo and buffalo? Has this market dried up too?

January 30, 2009 11:10 AM  
Blogger jim said...

Mike, no problem. Hope you find a good place to camp. Thanks, Jim

January 30, 2009 1:35 PM  
Blogger jim said...

Bryant/Briant, It is the local fishdocks that have closed - those that used to service the Franklin/Jeanerette/Baldwin/Charenton area. There are still docks available in Simmesport and Morgan City (I think)but they are too far away for most small-volume fishermen to drive to. Some of the net fishermen who still catch volumes of fish do drive to these docks. Jim

January 30, 2009 1:39 PM  

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