Monday, April 28, 2008

When the Sun Comes Up Over Louisiana, It's Time to Check the Catfish Nets

Joe likes to go out alone to check his nets, a routine he performs every two to three days. “My son use to come out with me sometimes. He’s away at college now. I told him don’t be a fisherman. Find something else to do with your life.” This is the life Joe knows. At age 43, he sticks to commercial fishing. He is paying at least $4 a gallon to fuel his boat and facing the rising cost of bait. Ed and I would be Joe’s guests on the boat he says has no name when he pulls catfish from his nets set in Delta Farms Lake.

I can understand why Joe comes out alone. On this quiet Wednesday morning, other boats remained tied to the dock bobbing gently in the shallows. The sun lifted up over the new sprouts of the sugarcane field. Big and round on the horizon, the brightness hurt my eyes as the sun changed from red-orange like a fire’s glow to softer yellow sending white rays of light through breaks in the shadowed clouds.

Joe picked us up in his white Dodge Ram at 6:20 AM just as he promised when we were introduced to him the previous evening. Tuesday evening, we had wandered into Crab Junction in Larose, Louisiana after a long drive from Breaux Bridge. Folks at this restaurant counter sucked crawfish and dipped boiled red potatoes in a seasoned mayonnaise mix. Ed engaged Dennis, the restaurant owner, in a conversation about the seafood season and fishing in the bayou region. Dennis pointed a finger at Joe Autin seated at the end of the counter. Speaking to Ed he said, “That man over there is the best fisherman in the area. He can tell you all about fishing.” Then speaking to Joe, he suggested, “Joe, how about taking these people out with you next time you check your nets?” Joe asked, “Do you have rubber boots?” Both Ed and I have rubber boots.

Joe himself wore rubber boots and a full neck-to-ankle yellow rubber apron when we motored away from the dock in his 19-foot fiberglass skip. Joe said that he had about 20 hoop nets already set. He expressed concern that the recent cold spell might hurt his usual catch sometimes as much as 500 pounds of catfish. The cold morning temperature and the rush of air as the boat accelerated across the lake sent a chill through my thick yellow ski jacket. I reached into my jacket pockets for a pair of gloves. It was as Joe said…“cold.”

Ed and I sat in the boat – I at the stern and Ed at the bow. Joe stood confident at the wheel crowded by the blue and silver plastic bins empty and ready to hold the catch of catfish. Five cardboard boxes brimmed full of fresh bait to use in resetting the hoop nets. Joe educated us. The current market price for Pogies, a kind of baitfish catfish like to eat, sells at $16 for each 50-pound box. The boat carried two boxes of Pogies. The three boxes of cheese/soybean blocks, another odorous favorite catfish delicacy, run $23.50 a box. Joe would use all the bait before he finished his rounds this morning.

We couldn’t talk over the roar of the boat motor; but when Joe slowed down to an idle; he pointed out some of the remnants of the days when lake basin was actually farmland. As evidence, tips of wooden supports from an old barn protrude from surface of the water in a nearly rectangular shape. Power lines still span the lake and hang low across the water. An abandoned hunting camp sets on a high point of land. Joe estimates it was back around 1965 when the levy burst and the land sunk to create the lake that’s anywhere from six-feet to ten-feet deep today. An old wooded duck blind stands on solitary stilts. Some wooden bridges and cattle fences lay beneath the water. “You have to know where to go,” Joe commented in reference to the underwater debris. What’s below the water surface can damage a boat navigated by someone who doesn’t know the waters. Joe clearly knew the lake as he idled up to his floats and bamboo cane poles that mark the location of his nets in various places around the lake.

Joe didn’t ask for our help pulling the heavy, long nets out of the water and over the edge into the boat. He was use to doing this himself. First, he’d snag the net by dragging a weighted grappling hook on a rope through the water. With a bit of the hoop net hooked and breaking the surface, Joe took hold; then hand-over-hand he rolled the cylindrical net into the boat. Water splashed. Bits of wet lake grass and mud splattered. Joe gave me an apologetic look, “This is kind of a dirty job.” I assure him I wasn’t a prissy girl. I could take a little water and gunk. With that said Joe hoisted the net and shook the writhing catfish through an opening in the net.

The catfish fell flopping into the blue holding bin. Some seagulls hovered eyeing the catfish and frozen Pogies on board. These scavengers didn’t dare swoop for either fish. While the birds circled above, Joe measured some of the smaller catfish using a wooden device sized just right. The ones Joe rejected could be the seagull’s game once he tossed them back into the water. The birds would have to work for their breakfast.

Joe motored from spot to spot on the lake lugging three or four nets from each location. As he checked the nets, the bins were filling up, but Joe lamented, “The water is still a little cold. In the cold, catfish don’t eat or move. This is a bad time of year to fish.” He predicts that in two-to-three weeks, his total daily catch will be 300 – 500 pounds. He didn’t expect that size catch this morning.

Before rolling each net back into the water, Joe inspects it, cleans off the debris and adds bait. “Crabs will eat a hole in nets,” he explains. Joe built most of the nets himself with fiberglass rings and string. We watched him mend only one of the 20 or more nets he pulled out of the water. The rest were in good shape. Next, he’d shake the lake grass off the netting. Sometimes he’d dunk the nets in the water several times to loosen the mucky stuff. “If the net fills up with mud, the fish won’t go in,” Joe tells us. “Bait staying in the net makes a mess too,” he adds removing some mushy residue of the uneaten cheese/soybean block. “All you can do is clean it and bait it,” he adds. Finally, preparing to set the net, Joe would add the bait. Sometimes he would use the Pogies simply tossing the frozen bait fish inside a mesh like bait bag within the bigger net. Sometimes he’d break off a hunk of the pungent cheese/soybean block and tie it in the center of the bait bag. “The more the bait stinks, the better,” Joe smiled.

Joe has a lease from the land manager to commercially fish this lake. There’s no recreation boating or sport fishing allowed here. Occasionally, lake creatures other than catfish get trapped in the nets. Turtles, redfish, carp, stingrays and crabs can get in the mix. Joe’s cautious about only keeping the catfish because commercial fisherman can be fined for bringing in a sport fish. Joe calls this a “serious offence” carrying fines as high as $500 a fish. Anything but legal-size catfish go back into the lake.

“You can tell I work of the left side of my boat,” Joe comments as he hoists yet another of his nets over the side. This one is nearly empty as are several more in this part of the lake. He blames the cold front again, “Should be better than this.”

It did get better. In one of the last groupings of nets, Joe hoisted a net up then rocked back and forth. I thought he’d fall forward into the lake but he held his footing. Catfish of assorted sizes fell through the opening of the net into the silver bins. One stayed trapped inside.

“Wow!” I shouted. Joe dumped this one in a bin all its own. The catfish was huge compared to all the rest. “Oh my God!” I was excited. “We need a picture of this one! Can you hold it up?” Joe strained to hold this catfish for the photo. He guessed it weighed 40 pounds. Later, when Joe put the catfish on a scale, it registered a whopping 47.8 pounds! Big as it was, its size didn’t beat Joe’s record catch. He said the largest catfish he even netted weighed 63 pounds. This day’s “big one” may not have been the biggest but if sure dwarfed all the other ones hauled from the nets that day.

When Joe took us back to his house, it was still morning, around the time most people were heading to the office. We watched Joe and his Mom skin the all the catfish turning his catch, some 250 pounds of fish into 80-90 edible fillets. His wife Claudia vacuum packed the fish in five-pound packs. Each pack carried the label J&B Seafood, Joe’s retail business.

While it was still early in the day, Joe would clean-up, put the fillet packs on ice and deliver the fresh catfish to retailers around town all before heading to his day job. He’s a Louisiana bridge operator but one of “the best” fishermen in the area just like Dennis said!

April 16, 2008

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