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, February 06, 2009

Bait – White Eel

This animal is one of the two baits (the other is crawfish) that could be considered superior to shrimp as linefishing bait for the annual brief period of its use. Both because the eel comes at a time when fish are harder to catch, and because it is so effective, catching white eel has always been one of the prized annual activities of Basin line fishermen. It almost borders on a festive occasion. People from areas many miles away on the east side of the Basin, some from as far away as Pierre Part, still trailer their boats and come 70 or 80 miles each year to catch them in Lake Fausse Point.

White eel, scientifically named Myrophis punctatus, is eel-like in body type as its name implies, about as thick as a pencil attaining a length of about 15 inches. Like the American eel, this animal leaves its freshwater habitat and heads for the open ocean presumably to breed. What is so odd is that the Myette Point fishermen (and other fishermen in south Louisiana) seem to know more about this animal than the scientists do. They have known for a long time, for instance, that the eel lives in shallow lakes well inland from any marine influence. They know that it will leave these shallow inland lakes when the first strong cold front sweeps across the coastal areas, and it leaves in great abundance during those first nights when the north winds blow. They know to position their boats at the outlet from those lakes and net the small eels as they swim on the surface toward the coastal river outlets. Fishermen know this in advance of scientific proof.

At one time this fish was revered by the Myette Point fishermen as the best bait that could be used in the fall, if it could be found. Neg Sauce looked forward to the season when white eels could be caught and used.

“White eel’s a good bait, by times. When it first…first come out, when it start getting cool? Norwester start? That’s when we used to bait with eels. It always was a good bait, at that…at that time. Always…sometimes it’s the best bait too!“

When asked if he can recall how long the eel has been a popular bait, EJ Daigle (born 1942) remembers far back in his life that people crossed large expanses of water in search of this fish.

"That is a very, very old art. Ever since I can remember, people…I can hear Daddy talking about…they’d leave, uh, across the lake when the lake was wide open, to come places like Lake Fausse Pointe or go down [to] Lake Verret, behind the levee, before they had the levees, in order to dip white eels. "

And EJ’s older brother, Russell (born 1934), even though he was too young to do the work of dipping the eels, he recalls a trip he made with the men to travel by boat from the central Grand Lake area to Lake Palourde, near Morgan City, to catch eels. A lugger is a large boat styled like the shrimp boats in Louisiana.

JD: Dippin white eels. How far back does that go?

RD: When I was a boy, about ten years old, I went with Albert Bailey. He used to have a lugger boat. Old Man Albert, the old man. Myon. We left there and went all the way to Lake Palourde to catch white eels, when I was about ten years old. So that’s…that’s, uh, 51 years ago. He had a big lugger, with a motor in it. We used to leave…used to go dip eels. Eight or ten of em [men] together, and go.

In the fall when the water is low and clear, the catfishing with shrimp as bait can be a slow use of time. It is that part of the year when summer bentline fishing is about over and winter fishing with tightlines hasn’t begun. Shrimp are not easy to get in the fall and small fish still rob most of them if baited in the daytime, but here come the cold fronts sweeping down with the big north winds blowing cold air.

Normally one would think that people who spend their whole lives outdoors doing things regardless of weather would not look forward to cold days and nights, but not so the Myette Point people. They know that when the big northers blow, causing the water to rush from the lakes into the bays and eventually into the Gulf, that is the time to make up for the slow days of fall fishing. What makes the difference is the sudden availability of this bait that catfish don’t seem to be able to resist.

The white eel can be, or could be, found in shallow coastal lakes that have an outlet to the Gulf. These lakes were Lake Fausse Point, Lake Palourde, Lake Des Allemands and perhaps Lake Maurepas and White Lake. There may be others not mentioned by Myette Point fishermen. People who lived on Grand Lake don’t seem to have ever found a source of the eels inside the Atchafalaya Basin as defined by the levees. At a time when it took several hours to reach the Morgan City area by boat, they traveled long distances to Bayou Ramos and Bayou Boeuf to get eels leaving Lake Palourde. The weather for these trips would have been what one might expect during the passage of a cold front with strong, blustery winds and rain. Yet these were the only conditions that produced the migration of the eels from the lakes and so these were the conditions that were welcomed by the fishermen. If you missed the first and second night after the first frontal passage, you probably missed the eels for that year, and some of the most productive fishing.

You could net several thousand of them on a good night, though 500 to 1500 seems to have been more the usual catch. They were maintained alive until used as cut bait if at all possible. The typical way to do this was to take an old boat (pirogues usually) and put several inches of water into it along with the eels, topped off with a layer of water lilies. The eels would stay alive in the boats as long as the water didn’t get warm and become oxygen depleted. Normally living burrowed into the mud, they would burrow into the thick roots of the plants and survive. When you wanted some you would just lift some of the plants and take the bait you needed.

It was necessary to use them in fresh condition because the secret to why they were effective seems to have been the slime that covers their bodies when alive. When the eels die the slime deteriorates quickly. If frozen, the slime loses its effectiveness. Even trying to freeze the animals while still very fresh didn’t work. When they were defrosted, the slime would ball up and fall off and the bait would be greatly reduced in effectiveness, still better than shrimp but greatly reduced.

To use the eels as bait they are cut into small sections, usually ¼ to ½ inch long. Because of the slime, these sections are rolled in corn meal to facilitate handling. The skin is so tough that the hook is placed through the very edge of it, if placed through the center of the skin the hook is almost impossible to remove from old bait without pliers. This makes this kind of baiting slower than most of the other methods but it was always worth it.

A person could be having hard times, catching barely enough fish to make a living, and all that could change the first time the eels were used. There are many stories of people catching only a few fish on a rig of line, say ten or so, and after baiting the first time with white eel the catch would increase to 100 or 150 fish. It is hard to believe, but personal experience bears this out. It is an awesome thing to see. The bait is so effective that under certain conditions it actually seems to deplete the fish population in the area where it is used. People give accounts of having to move their lines after baiting two or three times with white eel, or having to wait a week before rebaiting the lines.

The eels are still in the lakes, and can still be caught on cold, harsh, blustery evenings during or after the passage of the first big cold front of the season. It is just fun to see them doing what they do.

The river is at 5.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, jumping to almost 9 feet by next Tuesday. That is one quick rise! It should top out there for a few days, but the Ohio and Mississippi are both falling hard again, so we have roller coaster for the crawfishermen to try to figure out. Good luck.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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