March 6, 2006
Filed under Travel
“If you’re a stranger in here, you’ll get lost,” said Harry Castille, the fishing guide I was trusting to get me out of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin alive — and in one piece. My concern for remaining whole resulted from the tales I’d heard about giant gators patrolling these waters. “You’ll get turned around,” Harry continued, “because everything looks the same.” But the sameness in the Basin, I quickly learned, is completely different than the sameness elsewhere. This maze of cypress-studded bayous, coves and sloughs was nothing like the lakes or reservoirs I’d fished in other states and countries. Neither mountains nor buildings provided landmarks in the liquid labyrinth, and no signs, except for an
occasional yellow blaze on a tree, made one bayou bend stand out from the last or the next.
“It took me about three months to really know my way around in this basin,” said Harry, who fishes almost every day, “because when I first started I got turned around two or three times.” I would be spinning like a top, I thought, if I’d pursued the canoe trip through the swamp I’d envisioned when I’d first learned about my Cajun Country trip. Luckily, I had Harry and his 17-foot, handmade aluminum fishing boat (outfitted with a 60 Merc that gobbled up the vast distances), or my week in southern Louisiana would not have ended on such a high note.
I had practically taken a master class on Cajun music, since it seemed almost impossible to step onto a back porch or enter a dining establishment without a fiddle and an accordion magically materializing, joined on occasion by a triangle, a guitar or a traditional rub-board — a rhythm instrument. I’d tapped my toes while learning from a National Park ranger that “fiddlesticks” is not just an expression of disbelief; I’d attended jam sessions in campgrounds and listened as Cajun music became Creole and Creole melded into Zydeco, musicians adding instruments and emphasizing rhythms. I’d seen big-name acts in concert venues and listened to a father and son play the accordion and the fiddle together as though they’d invented the instruments.
The music, however, may not even have been the best part of my stay. The food — incomparable jambalaya cooked up in a giant cast-iron pot at Cajun Campground near Eunice; spiced grits and an omelet filled with the Cajun delicacy boudin (a spicy pork and rice sausage) combined to create one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever eaten, in Cafe des Amis in Breaux Bridge; and a crawfish boil that every visitor to Cajun Country should experience — made me darned glad I wasn’t on a diet. The pecan pie, key-lime pie and bread pudding, however, made me avoid the scale for a week when I got home. I had learned about the Acadians and their culture, how the British had deported these French-speaking people from Nova Scotia 250 years ago, and how the people who would eventually become known as Cajuns had settled in southern Louisiana.
The new arrivals blended aspects of the various cultures they encountered in the prairies and swamps, creating a unique way of life, borne of isolation, hardship and ingenuity — and punched up by plenty of spices. Judging by his size, Harry enjoyed more than the occasional culinary indulgence. He is a large man, and when I had expressed amazement at how many pounds of crawfish people eat at a sitting — the average woman eats four pounds, the average man, five — Harry told me he could eat 10 pounds. I had no reason not to believe him. And I figured he was telling the truth when he said he didn’t expect the fishing to be good that afternoon, since the water was too high. The sac-au-lait (French for sack-of-milk, the Cajun name for crappie, derived from the fishes’ white bellies) hadn’t been biting lately, and I could tell this bothered the retired oil man-turned-fishing guide.
He wanted my first Basin fishing trip to be productive. Harry is a Cajun, after all, and Cajuns will tell you that they derive their generosity of spirit, their emphasis on family and their abundant hospitality from the Native Americans they intermingled with and lived among. Sure, Harry wouldn’t mind if his business benefited from an endorsement in Trailer Life, but I knew he also simply wanted his guest to have a good time. And, as any angler knows, catching fish is far more fun than being skunked. Harry needn’t have worried, since his special rigging for crappie — “I use a No. 3 gold in-line spinner with a little weight on it, and a worm shiner on the hook” — allowed me to cast toward the pristine bank upon our arrival in Bay Andy. Almost instantly — Wham! — I landed a two-pounder, a fine fish that tasted great that evening, pan-fried in beer batter and doused in Cajun spices.
In the two hours we cast toward the downed trees and reeds along the bank, Harry and I landed 15 fish on that perfect spring afternoon. Yet, Harry was not finished revealing the bayou’s bounty. We set our rods down, then he tested the limits of that 60 Merc as we slashed from one stretch of cypress-lined water to the next. We passed only a few boats — some anglers fishing for bass, others for perch — and Harry pulled alongside an out-of-use oil platform and pointed out the tiny signs that mark the emerging canoe trail.
He let me experience the optical illusion that results from idling between the pylons of Interstate 10, the two-by-two progression seeming to fuse together in the distance. As we zipped back toward McGee’s Landing, where Harry lives on a houseboat, a gator — probably 12 feet long — made a huge splash off our starboard bow. My eyes got wide and I jolted upright in my seat. Harry just smiled.