Welcome back to Rachel Nederveld's new installment series on living on the disappearing Cajun swamp. Imagine leaving city life behind for an existence on a floating boat in the middle of nowhere. The place where living conditions—translation: no toilet or grocery stores—are simpler, the hazards are high: finding deadly cottonmouth snakes in your bed, and no access to technology or neighbors, and you're right alongside her in the Atchafalaya Basin, if only in your mind. Enjoy.
My dog Pilgrim had gotten antsy. I was doing some tricks with her when I noticed a fisherman nearby with hoop nets. A couple weeks before I had come across a net floating on top of the lake thanks to a trapped beaver, bloated and smelly, so I knew someone was actively fishing them nearby. Feeling fortunate to have found my man, I rushed to the canoe forgetting my boots, work gloves, and even to lock the door in my excitement to paddle over and see if I could join in. Turned out it was Jimmy Bourque, who I have heard about for his abilities to both fish and make nets by hand. He let me tag along on a catfish quest without hesitation.
Jimmy is painstakingly courteous—old school Southern-style. The reality of women working on the water is very rare in this area, a stereotype I exacerbate in my go-to warm layers that make me look like a sorority mom. Jimmy kept insisting that I watch out not to get mud on my clothes and was upset when I grabbed something muddy because I would have to wash my hands now as he continually checked to make sure I had a dry place to sit. While he drove, I readied a net for him to bait and cast. At first he was shocked, asking me if I was in a hurry. Despite my attempts to explain that I just wanted to help, he asked me that question five more times before dropping me off.
As he was baiting his lines for catfish, Jimmy told me tales of giant hauls and rogue catches. Years ago, he caught an 11' 7", 376-pound garfish (like alligators and brown pelicans, they're one of the creatures that make the basin feel like we're still living in prehistoric times) in one of his seven foot nets. When our mutual friend Greg Guirard—the gracious owner of the boat and canoe I am using)—heard Jimmy caught such a big gar, he called to tell Jimmy it was bigger than any on record. Growing up with stories from the "ol' timers" about catching 500-pound garfish, though, Jimmy had thought nothing of it. He didn't even take a picture. "You know, dem' ol timers, dey tell a story and den it jus' gets bigger n bigger, and I believed em," he told me.
Jimmy's love for the area and his work is apparent when he talks. Each time he emptied a net he said how beautiful the fish were. At one point he said he was sweaty. I responded, "Well you've been working so hard." He didn't hear me, and he followed himself up by saying, "When ya gettin' busy ya sweat." I thought of what he was doing as "work," and he just thought of it as just being busy. Of course.
Catfish is one of the most popular catches out here and a staple meal smothered over rice, but there has been a huge decrease in the number of Basin fisherman over the last couple generations. Jimmy said there is only one market left in the area where he can sell his catch. While many people would think of the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina as obvious culprits, the area I am living in is several hours west of the heart of both of those problems.
Jimmy and I talked about how hoop net fishing used to be a regular way of fishing around here, but there has been a huge decrease in the number of Basin fisherman over the last couple generations. In fact, he said there is only one market left in the area where he can sell his catch. Sand and sediment build up from the redirection of the Mississippi River and dredging by oil companies have contributed to this decline. Days before I met Jimmy Bourque, NPR ran a story highlighting another of the problems. The piece was about a catfish farmer in Mississippi who is having trouble competing against the cheaper Vietnamese market, which US farmers say are raised with antibiotics in polluted water. There are currently negotiations happening with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to address this by creating an inspection process, but it is expected to be conceded to larger trade issues.
That evening after Jimmy dropped me off, I called our mutual friends down the levee, Roy Blanchard and Greg Guirard to tell them about what a great time I had with Jimmy. They're all part of older generations who grew up in a more prosperous time out here, harvesting the fruits of the land in now long-lost traditions. Greg, who has authored numerous books on the area and documented the basin region through photographs for about 50 years now, strangely had no memory of Jimmy's giant gar. But both of them mentioned that Jimmy had a serious heart condition and isn't supposed to be fishing. Roy said, "But you know, dat's how fishermen are. Dey never gonna stop."
One day, they'll have to. And after that, the way of life these old times shared with me will become a thing of the past.