Monday, March 7, 2011

Fishing in Cajun Country

Fishing on the Mississippi River
I'm American by birth, but Cajun by the grace of God. To be born and reared in the heart of South Louisiana’s Cajun Country is indeed a gift. There is absolutely no better time to live in Louisiana than in the spring. Louisiana turns bright green come February when most of the rest of the country is dismal grey or covered in snow. Along with the warm days of late February and the guaranteed 85-degree temperatures of March, it’s time to go fishin’.

John Folse with sibilings in the late 1950's
(back row, fourth from left
next to his father Mr. Royley Folse)
You see, each spring the snows melt in the northern part of the United States and the Mississippi River fills and flows south, bringing along with it miles of driftwood and tons of freshwater fish. It was during the “June Rise” (that’s what we called the northern snow melt) that Cajun Boys growing up on the River Road gained a mastery of fishing the waters of the mighty Mississippi, which lapped at our front steps. The Mississippi River overflowed its banks into the batture creating bar pits and ponds held back from our home by the 20-foot high levee system that had been revamped after the flood of 1927.

Catfsiherman Butch Smith
These bar pits, filled with spoonbill cats, channel cats, garfish, gaspergou and sweet Mississippi River shrimp, were not only our playground, but were also the origin of our entrepreneurial spirit. It was our father and grandfathers who lived along the River Road who taught us the art of hanging a drop line inconspicuously from a willow branch and how to string and bait a catfish line that spanned the length or width of the bar pit. But, one thing was for sure. Every morning at 6:30 and every afternoon after school at 4, each hook had a fish. Not only did we have supper, but a few dollars in our pocket from the sale of our bounty. Yes, we were fishermen.


The fish that lived in the bayous and swamps were another story. They were not necessarily our first choice for eating. In the late spring and summer, algae cover the surface of the water and fish living there eat the algae, giving its flesh an earthy or “off” flavor.

Although we spent many hours fishing for choupique, carp or buffalo fish, and alligator gar they were mainly used as bait. Sometimes, we sold them for 25 to 50 cents, depending on size, to the plantation workers in the area. Many times, though, the garfish meat was smoked at our family camp and put into a stew or soup to replace smoked pork sausage; after all, we Cajuns love smoke flavor in our food. From time to time when other fish were scarce, we would grind the coarse, tough meat of the choupique to make boulettes, which were flavored with the trinity, lots of garlic and cooked in spicy, red or brown gravy. The buffalo fish brought in anywhere from 50 to 75 cents and was a first choice fish for the African-American workers on the plantation. Yes, indeed, the swamp created young entrepreneurs out of the Folse boys, and when considering the live frogs that were sold to biology labs, we were global fishermen. 
Crawfisherman Gerard Perry
I almost hate to admit though that we weren’t big fish eaters. Living in rural St. James Parish our swamp-floor pantry yielded big game, small game, game birds and crustaceans that were more often consumed than fish on our dining table. Two seafoods were critical for our diet and were most often found in our cast iron pots: crawfish (photo 9) and channel catfish. Although crawfish did not become popular fare for the Louisiana table until the late 1950s, our humble, Cajun cabin certainly considered it a delicacy. In fact, we ate Crawfish Bisque for Easter Sunday; Daddy’s River Road Crawfish Stew for Mother’s Day; and late in the summer, boiled crawfish with corn and potatoes were a common occurrence. Yes, crawfish was fare for our holiday table. And, with nearly 1,000 acres of swampland at our backdoor, crawfish were plentiful and easy to catch with a few set nets and a chicken neck for bait. As crawfish became popular and peeled crawfish tails found their way into grocery stores, crawfishing became another of our money-making ventures.
Jay Folse with 103 lb catfish

The large, channel cat caught on drop lines in the Mississippi was Daddy’s first choice for a courtbouillon. His recipe for this fish stew is legendary in our family. To make a courtbouillon any other way would be sacrilegious. Daddy used the whole fish, head and skin on. He said the head and skin were important because they added that wonderful, gelatinous texture to the stew. Daddy removed the gills and whiskers from the catfish and then, with a Brillo® pad in hand, scrubbed the whole fish under running water from the cistern. The slime that protected the fish’s skin had to be removed, and there was nothing better than Brillo® for this task. Daddy also claimed that the skin kept the tender meat from falling apart during the two- to three-hour cooking process. Yes, it was crawfish and catfish in our house.
Cabanocey Plantation
As I look back on my youth so many years later, I realize what a great gift God gave to the Folse family by placing us on that small piece of land in St. James Parish, strategically located between the river and the swamp on Cabanocey Plantation. At the same time, He gave us a bonus. He made us Cajun. Today, our lifestyle is known worldwide for its cuisine and culture. With three great growing seasons, a semi-tropical climate, the freshwater of the Mississippi River, the lush swamp floor abundant with game and wild seasonings, the brackish waters where the salty Gulf meets the freshwater rivers, and lakes with names such as Pontchartrain, Maurepas, Bruin, Caddo and Toledo teeming with seafood and shellfish, how could anyone think of us as anything but Blessed. And, coming from our Catholic French background, we also realize our obligation to share our good fortune with the world

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