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.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Crawfish as Bait

Crawfish is the other (other than shrimp) seasonal bait that produces well. In the late winter the water in the Basin usually begins to rise, a signal that the annual high-water phase of the cycle is pushing its way into the swamp. When the water reaches the tunnels of the female crawfish that burrowed down when the water receded in the previous year, these mothers-to-be come up from underground and release the infant crawfish that ride under their tails. These small ones will be the crop of crawfish for that year. They are also what the linefishermen look for to help increase their catch of catfish, both in size and number. Before there were levees, the people searched for this bait in any shallow area of the swamp. The routine method was to drag a small-mesh net along the bottom where there was vegetation or lilies (water hyacinths). Once the levees were built and most of the people had moved out of the swamp and onto adjacent land, the shallow water at the levee edge became the preferred place to search. Sometimes the catch was good, netting eight or ten small, one-inch or a little bigger crawfish. Much of the time it was more like two or three per dip, and it could take a long time and many drags of the net to get the thousand or more you needed every day. It is truly amazing that you could dip almost the same stretch of levee day after day and catch the bait you needed. The supply seemed sometimes to be inexhaustible. But it could run out quickly too.

When you started fishing with crawfish you could usually depend on the average size of the fish you were catching on shrimp to increase. Sometimes you caught more also, but they were always somewhat bigger and that was a welcome thing after what was probably a meager winter of tightline fishing.

Russell Daigle shares his thoughts about the significance of crawfish versus the use of shrimp in the spring.
“Crawfish is a different bait from shrimp. …crawfish catch bigger fish. Oh yeah, all the time. Everywhere you go. If you catchin a pound fish on shrimp, you put crawfish on you gone catch two and three pound fish. It’s different. For some reason or another, I don’t know what causes it, but it makes a difference.

And as to the size to use, he adds this:

RD: I like small crawfish, something like that. [inch and a half]. Yeah. They get too big, you have to start bustin the head on em and that’s hard on the hands. Well, when they get big, the fish don’t like em anyway.

JD: And I never saw you break the tail much on em…just fish with the tail?

RD: No. Don’t work. You put that on a line, it gone stay right there.

In the days when people didn’t always have access to just the right equipment, the decision was usually made to make do with what you had. Rubber boots, taken for granted today, were a scarce item in the Basin, and if you had some the chances were that they leaked. Neg Sauce didn’t hesitate to put up with cold water if he needed to dip small crawfish. And they didn’t seem to suffer much from sickness, such as pneumonia, related to this either.

“Yeah, by time we had boots. I seen me have leaky boots too. Tete used to say to Ida she couldn’t see how I could stand [it], I walk in that ice…with shoes on. Go in the water…I have water up to my knees like that. And, uh, in water…I dip lil crawfish. In ice water. Ice water, like you mix today…cold. [laughs] We was just tough, Jim! We was just tough and the good Lord up above was with us. The only thing, God had to be with us.”

You might run into more than crawfish when you waded around in the shallow waters where the they would hide. Sometimes it paid to be careful. Edward and Lena Mae related an incident that might have been a problem.

LC: I remember the last time he went back of Bayou Sale back there to dip. He like to got snakebit in the face.

EC: By myself back there. He was on a limb, and I bent down there to go underneath that limb…and I was lookin at that sucker about like that [gestures]. If I’d a went another six inches I’d a hit him with my face. Lil black one, lil black congos? Cottonmouth?

Other things do use the warm, shallow waters to hide in. Water beetles, salamanders, small snakes, leeches and other animals would often come up in the nets when you would drag across the vegetation. One of the things that was caught sometimes was the madtom catfish. These fish grow to no more than a couple inches and look like miniature bullhead catfish – brown or black. But they pack a venom that is dangerously debilitating. Picking through a net of squirming crawfish and other things, it is easy to puncture a finger on a spine of one of these small catfishes. The result is immediately very painful, usually progressing to immobilization of the arm that is affected. The numbness may last several hours. It is not something to disregard, and care is taken that it doesn’t happen twice.

So crawfish are good bait for the line fisherman as long as there are small ones to be caught. As the water recedes in the late spring or early summer, the season for them comes to an end when all the small ones have become big ones and are therefore no longer useful as bait. At this time shrimp become the main bait and remain so until the summer low water calls for the use of cut bait, or shrimp baited at night.

The river is at 7.2 feet right now on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 6.5 feet by the end of the week. A real up and down period we’re going through. The Ohio and Mississippi are both rising strongly way up north so we should keep going with the rising water overall.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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