Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

April 26th, 2003

BRACE YOURSELF, IT'S TIME FOR:
"WHAT FISHING MEANS TO ME"
By Roger Emile Stouff

It seems that there is a requirement of being an outdoors writer: You can't be one until you pen one of those, "What fishing means to me," articles.

Practically all of what I write about fishing - from the serious and contemplative to the misadventures and fiascoes - essentially answers this question. However, I do not want to be considered derelict in my duties.

I sat down and thought about how I'd like to express myself on the subject. Of course, it's nearly impossible not to desire to imitate Robert Traver's wonderful "Testament of a Fisherman." Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery. But if I'm going to earn my wings, I have to be original.

Perhaps I never really considered the question, "What fishing means to me," since fishing has always been an integral part of my life, save for a decade or so which was perhaps the darkest part of my existence thus far. I have fished since I can remember such things, and considering a life of not fishing leaves me despondent and melancholy.

It would be tempting to use McManus' wonderful line, "I fish, therefore I am," and though it might be true, plagiarism does not get us into heaven.

When my father passed away, my spiritual brother, who dad adopted in the Indian way upon meeting at a gathering of indigenous nations somewhere, gave us a story to add to our memories of the old man. He said that dad reminded him of his natural father, and he imagined that there was a meeting taking place in heaven that day.

"Thanks for taking care of that boy all these years," the one would say.

"No problem," replies the other. "How's the fishing?"

Perhaps a truer testament to a fisherman even than Traver. I think, often, about Nick Stouff, because I am fishing the same waters we fished together all our lives.

When I cast into those waters, there is an optical illusion that makes the line seem to jut off at an unnatural angle from its intersection with the surface. Below the surface of those waters, waters my people have touched for eight thousand years, lies legacy.

I can imagine, then, that where my line suddenly lances off oddly, unnaturally, it is passing a gate, a door, into a world gone by. Beneath the bright sun and cool breeze, my line is connecting me with eight millennia of ancestors and stories.

There is a row of old cypress pilings running across the cove which was once the central religious center of our entire nation. Dad warned me about them every time we passed that way. "Got to watch out for those pilings," he always said. "You can't see 'em, but they'll take the bottom out of the boat."

Last year, when the water was extremely low, the row of pilings was visible for the first time in my memory. I coasted up next to one of the pilings and touched it, touched a century of history. A hundred years of ghosts. Could I feel the tearing of a logging saw through the trunk of thousand-year-old timber? Probably not, but I'd like to think so.

The sweat from humid brows, the blood from battered fingers has long been washed from the grain of the pilings by the murky water of the cove, by seasons of forgetfulness and tides of disbelief. The next day when I returned, the water had risen and they were invisible again, submerged to where the things which lie beneath persist, whether we are aware of them or not.

Back of Grand Avoille Cove, there is a canal called Sawmill Bayou. At its mouth, there are one thousand cypress and tupelo logs sunken. When the logging industry collapsed on Black Tuesday, they left that entire harvest there and the logging industry in Louisiana largely expired. Gradually those logs sank, and when the water is low, I can see them in neat rows, huge trunks of priceless "sinker" cypress. When the water is high, I know that they hold bluegill and bass, and when I cast to them, I know that the snags are many.

Farther north, on Lake Fausse Pointe, I know that before the Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee was built as a result of the great flood of 1927, there were two islands dividing Fausse Point from Grande Lake: Big Pass and Little Pass. Jean Lafitte, the infamous pirate, would flee up the river, circle around Big Pass with the authorities close behind, then escape into Peach Coulee, a natural canal on the north shore of the lake. When my father fished here, before the levee was complete, Lake Fausse Pointe would turn brackish some times of the year, and they'd catch dog sharks and lemon sharks. A tarpon once jumped over the bow of his pirogue when he startled it coming around the southern point of Little Pass.

I know that the east bank of Peach Coulee is an Indian mound, and for mysterious reasons, the Indians of historical times feared that place. The Acadians, whether hearing the Indians stories or experiencing some of their own, also avoided it. I know that, in my lifetime, anyone who built a camp on Peach Coulee lost it to fire. I know that the bass sometimes gang up far deep in Peach Coulee along the grass lines, and no spirits trouble me, as long as I offer tobacco to the mound.

It was in another small canal off the lake that I pursued bluegill in my father's wooden bateau a few seasons ago, and heard it: A whistling, accompanied by a sound rather like if you were beating on a hollow log with a tree limb. There was a crashing in the wood ashore, and though I could see nothing, it drew nearer, that dreadful whistling and pounding and snapping of trees and branches. I eased the old bateau out of the canal carefully, quietly. I know what I heard that day. My father's people called it "Neka-sama," and it was to be feared. It passed from west to east each year, whistling and thumping as it went, and would reach out from fire to snatch children into the flames. I do not speak its name on the lake, for to do so might be to invoke it.

I know that a Chitimacha family was tending to their daily chores on the lake shore when a white deer came out of the woods. Though it was forbidden, they killed and ate the animal. Then, one by one, they seemed to go into a trance and walked into the lake. The lake then spit them back out as balls of fire, which can still be seen over the treeline at night today. I have seen these lights many times, circling, lost, abandoned and never, ever at peace.

If I cross the levee to the north side of the basin and put my boat over at the launch, I know that the shell under my feet is the remains of a massive village, flattened early this century to allow fishermen like me easy access to Grande Lake. I know that it was at this village that the Spanish arrived for the first time, making their way up the Atchafalaya River in their galleons to this spot, where the chief of my people forbid them to come ashore. They tried to do so anyway, and were soundly beaten back. Allying themselves with a neighboring hostile tribe, the Spanish returned and began the first of many wars which would lead to the near extinction of my people over the centuries to follow.

Once on the water, as I make my way to Taylor's Point to make the turn toward Buffalo Cove where the sac-au-lait are usually running in the spring, I know that my mother's sister and her husband drowned on this lake a few years before I was born. They found their boat, undisturbed, adrift, so quiet and peaceful it seemed awaiting their return. My father and uncle found their bodies floating not much later.

So it is, I suppose, that this is what fishing means to me. It is sport, yes, it is relaxation and it is rewarding. I search for its prizes and trophies. But in the end, if I did not fish, I would still be here, touching native waters. There are things that should not be forgotten, although they largely are, and I am among the few who remember.

Why do I fish? After all I've just said, I still don't know, really. Why do I breathe? Why does my heart beat? Why do I float through black water canals, under cypress canopies, brave water moccasins and cottonmouths, searching for things no longer believed in?

Because sometimes it doesn't really matter if you believe in something or not, so long as something believes in you. ~ Roger


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