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, May 22, 2009

A Night in the Life

There is one big piece of the linefishing story that has not been brought out in the material previously presented. It is the practice of fishing the lines at night. It is a different experience and there is a different color to it. A night in the life of a linefisherman could go like this. First, it needn’t be a man. Many times the boats were “manned” by women. Sometimes the women would be with their husbands but in a separate boat, sometimes the woman would be out in the lake alone among the other boats out that night. Either way, they did the work like the men did. The boats in use were almost always 14-foot cypress bateaux with 20 or 25-horsepower motors. Most of the time the people fished five nights a week, Monday through Friday.

Beginning the cycle. Time to get up – about 3:00 pm. Eat Breakfast. Go outside and do whatever maintenance was necessary as a result of last night’s fishing. Make sure the battery to be used for the headlight is charged and extra bulbs are on the boat. Remember how to change a bulb at night when the light you need to do it is in your hand with a burned out bulb. Practice.

Hook the boat up to the truck at 4:30 pm. Drive five minutes to the Myette Point levee landing, get some ice in a small ice chest, and launch the boat. Start the motor and head out into the swamps around Grand Lake.

The night of work begins about 5:00 pm, although there is still three hours of light left in the day in midsummer. The three hours is devoted to getting enough bait to fish for the following seven or eight hours of darkness. Most of the bait obtained in the late afternoon is caught with a castnet. Certain places are known to have concentrations of shad, both large and small ones. Other places could be searched for mullet. Both of these cut baits are considered to be “hard” baits and can be relied on to stay on a hook longer than shrimp will. Getting 2000 or more shad, or pieces of larger shad and/or mullet, usually takes the full three hours prior to darkness. Shrimp bushes, if the fisherman has some set out, are not productive until after dark. If the cut bait runs out, the shrimp bushes can be run for additional bait.

Throwing a castnet for three hours is a lot of work in the late afternoon heat. Most of the commonly used nets are five feet long, giving them a ten foot spread when opened on the water in a good cast. Not all casts were perfect. Some nets used were seven footers. It took a good man to throw that net with good opening consistency. The big breakthrough in castnet ease of use came with the invention of monofilament, earlier ones all being nylon or, even earlier, cotton. This light, clear line made castnets easier to throw, primarily because they were so much lighter for their length when wet. Wet monofilament isn’t much heavier than dry, but the other filaments are a lot heavier wet.

So now it’s getting close to sundown, about 8:00 pm. Time to sit down, take off the bib overall rainsuit pants that were worn to repel some of the water from the castnet, change the dripping shirt, and eat the evening meal - usually sandwiches and/or leftovers of some meal based on rice and gravy and meat. Watching the sunset and eating good food is not a bad way to end/begin a day. Today the boat is tied to a tree overhanging the river on the right bank. The sun is setting directly over the river way, way up ahead. There is something the size of a seagull flying toward you directly ahead, coming down the river on your side, right at the water’s surface. It is a black skimmer, with its oversized lower beak cutting the water in a furrow as it flies along. Being partially hidden behind branches, it doesn’t see you and flies within three feet of the boat, zipping past. The most memorable thing is the sound that the bill cutting the water makes as it goes past. It goes sssssSSSSSsssss, and gone. What a wonder that was! But the sound of mosquitoes soon follows the bird and on goes the repellant.

Time to get to work. It is dark now, and you turn on your headlight. It is connected by long wires to a 12-volt battery in the back of the boat. Unlike earlier fishermen who did this before batteries were invented, you just switch the light on. Sixty years ago you would have been using a carbide light and the light from a small acetylene flame would have been your companion all night. But the light tonight is brighter than that, and right away there is a fluttering around your head, increasing as an annoying group of insects is attracted to the light. These are mayflies and you will have to contend with them most of the night. It is not bad unless the one-inch long, yellow insects get behind your glasses and flutter there making seeing difficult. Even though they cannot hurt you, this behavior has been known to drive some people to vacate Grand Lake at night for good.

There are three crosslines set to run this evening. Each has about 350 hooks on it. It is midsummer and the water is dead low, allowing all three to be set in the deep water of the channel – from 40 to 80 feet deep. At no other time of year could this be done. Most of the larger fish are in the channel right now, and fewest of the smallest ones. All of this is going on in the open part of Grand Lake between Goat Island in the north to Cypress Island in the south. Other people have lines in the channel and because of this your lines have to be separated so that no one feels crowded. From the top line to the bottom one (downstream) is about five miles. It is best to run the lower line first, working upcurrent to the upper one. When first reached, the lower line has a few fish left on it from last night. Some bait does survive to fish during the early daylight – pieces of mullet particularly. These fish are removed and fresh bait applied to the whole line, and so on up the river to the end of the upper line. To be able to see floating “drift”, running in the main channel of the Atchafalaya River is always done without a light. Most of the boats on the river are powered by 25 horsepower engines and these are run about half speed in the river at night so that it is possible to “see” and avoid something floating before you hit it, usually. It takes about three hours to run and bait the 1000 or so hooks, provided there are no hang-ups to take your time. Ice the fish.

It is now about midnight, and time for lunch. One of the reasons the lines were run upstream is that now the boat can be allowed to drift free down the channel while lunch is eaten and the scenery enjoyed. Lying on your back at midnight in a small boat in the middle of the Atchafalaya Basin, drifting down the river makes a lot of lifetime memories, and there is scenery. The stars are all they can be in Louisiana on a clear night, not Arizona, but nice. And you look up long enough and for the first time perceive that there is 3-dimensionality to the sky – a clear depth that you never noticed before. And all the sounds are all being made for you, it seems. The owls from the far off forests and the bullfrogs too seem to be facing you as they speak.

Because the river is a shared experience, after all, other fishermen are finished with their first run and see you and run over to you to pass some time. They tie their boats to yours, making a raft of five or six boats just floating along at midnight. Out comes the coffee and the cigarettes and the sharing of the night’s experiences. Seeming tall tales are borne out by visible evidence of fish caught. Laughter spreads out on the river. It is a very good time to be alive with friends. There is talk about how the docks, the middlemen in this business, are taking advantage of the fishermen. How all the money is made by those who do the least work – but they own the facilities to process and ship and that makes them commanders in the fishing story. Talk starts about calling the fishermen together from all over the Basin and getting them to unite and build their own dock, eliminating the middleman altogether. Can it be done? Sure, some say. Never, others say, fishermen are too independent to unite. It takes many nights to plan this, but it is a beginning.

It is about 1:00 am now, and time to start the second run – actually the first one of the night on a full baiting. A little more coffee and goodbyes and start the run down to the end of the lines downriver. It’s not so far now, having drifted part of it. Notice that there is a rumble to the west, more or less in front of you, and a dim lightning glow in the clouds down low in the sky. It is best to anticipate the direction of the thunderstorm’s drift if you can because getting caught out here is not a good thing. It will be an hour or so before the situation could be a problem, and it might not ever be but best to be watchful. On the second run, you catch a good number of fish as you progress up the channel toward the upper line. Nice fish, as they often are in the channel, mostly blue cats. But when you get to the upper line and start running it from the left side you can tell there is a problem. The line is much tighter than it should be, indicating that it is not coming up from the bottom as it should. It is hung. Either the line slipped under a stump on the bottom or a large fish has wrapped it around something. Either way, it isn’t coming up, and fixing it would mean the end of fishing tonight, so you drop the line and go to the other – the right – side and pick up the line there. It is tight here too, but you can run about 100 hooks before it gets too tight (too dangerous) to run. Maybe there is 100 pounds of fish in the wellbox of the boat now, not bad. Ice them and head back downriver for the first line. The thunderstorm has been forgotten but did not come this way.

4:00 am. Start the last run for tonight. Bait is getting short so you will have to get some more before finishing this last run. OK. No help for it, go for the shrimp bushes. This last run extends into daylight. Baiting the hooks and running the line has become so routine that it is a surprise when you realize you don’t have to have a headlight to see the hooks as you come to them. Switch the light off and continue the run. By 5:30 the birds are beginning to fly over the lake, mostly night herons going to roost somewhere to the east in the big swamp. They make that low whistling sound that so often signaled “get the shotgun” in past years. Around 7:00 am the last hook that can be baited is done and you see people coming up the channel and others coming down from upstream, all headed for the mouth of the little canal at Myette Point called Myon’s Canal. Most of them are those you had coffee with during the night. You ice the fish and prepare to make the twenty minute run to the landing too.

After loading the boat onto the trailer, around 7:30 am you reach the place, by truck, where Myon Bailey lives. He will buy your fish after weighing them. You have about 200 pounds for the night’s work. Not too bad. Most are catfish, but there is an extra 30 pounds or so of gaspergou. Myon won’t buy those. You will have to sell them in the quarters of Oaklawn Plantation if you want to take the time. You go into Myon’s house (a houseboat on land) and sit in his kitchen with several other fishermen who fished all night too, some of them drifted the channel with you. All drink coffee and tell stories about the night and Basin life. A tape recorder on that table would record wonderful things. Myon puts $50 in your hand, that’s 25 cents/pound for your catfish – the going rate in 1975.

Home about 8:30 am and eat supper. Sleep by 9:00 am, and then up again at 3:00 pm for another night of running lines.

The river is at 18.0 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 18.6 feet in a few days. There is not a lot of rise up above on the Mississippi and Ohio so not much more rise than that is expected at this time. Should be plenty of water for the crawfishermen to use. It is lapping over our deck surface. Something of an inconvenience, that’s all.

Rise and Shine, Jim


Blogger Linda Lange Armstrong said...

I can still remember my bed during those nights of fishing with Mama & Daddy. Mama would bring a pillow and blanket and put me between two bulkheads in the boat. I'd sleep while they fished. Some of my favorite memories are of Daddy and me spending the afternoons catching perch, which they used to bait the lines. Very good memories...thanks for bringing them back Jim!

May 13, 2010 7:47 PM  
Blogger jim said...

I am glad, Linda, that you have those memories. Many of us would envy you. Thanks for the comment! Jim

May 13, 2010 10:34 PM  

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