There was something about the marsh that drew the Cajun people, that pulled on their very soul to a life in tune with nature, where they became a part of nature, part of the Marsh.
Fur trapping in the marshes was an important aspect of the people’s lives and livelihood for over a century. The marshes teemed with muskrat (numbered in the millions) and the returning World War II soldiers returned to the marshes to harvest muskrat and mink.
So important was the muskrat that in 1947 13,000 trappers harvested over 8 million muskrat valued at over 8 million dollars to be the leading producer of muskrat and mink pelts in North America. In the early 1930’s some people in the western part of the state were experimenting raising nutria and some accidentally or on purpose were released into the wild; they had no natural predators and like any invasive species spread quickly; by the 1950’s they numbered into the millions and were becoming of major economic importance in the Louisiana fur industry. By the late 1970 the price of nutria rat pelts surpassed muskrat pelts and in 1976 almost 2 million nutria were harvested with a value of almost 7 million dollars to trappers.
Many people in Terrebonne Parish made fortunes in the fur industry buying fur, tanning fur, exporting fur and owning and leasing marsh land to trappers for a percentage of their catch. In Terrebonne Parish, before the oil boom, prominent families in the fur business ranked in net worth and prestige with the most prominent sugar farm owners. The Mahler family had a central facility on Main Street in Houma where they bought and processed skin to be shipped to their warehouse in New York and then to the tanneries and garment makers of Europe. They had people that went around Louisiana bayous and marshes buying hides from the trappers. Some other prominent families in the fur business were the Voisins from Bayou Du Large and the Harry Bourg family from Du Lac.
I remember in the early 1980’s that the muskrat and nutria rat populations exploded and it seemed that the more we trapped the more animals were present.
The rats devastated large areas of marsh called “eat outs” where all the vegetation was stripped and the marsh became a muddy soup that later turned into open water and caused severe wetland loss.
The situation became worse when fur went out of fashion and the fur prices dropped; the state had to put a bounty on the nutria and now encourages people to kill them to keep them from destroying the wetland from overpopulation.
The skins and meat that at one time provided a way of life for people are now wasted. Excitement, anticipation, preparation, similar to preparing for a summer vacation, would best describe leaving for the winter trapping season. It was an endeavor that was participated by all the members of the family, a journey into a different world, a journey into the Louisiana marshes. Any one that trapped in the marshes will testify that that experience was some of the most memorable times in their lives; it was a test of endurance and skill against the whims of nature.
Trappers would walk for miles through the marsh with heavy loads of traps, animals and trapping poles in all kinds of weather from ice cold winds to heat and mosquitoes, and then have to skin and dry the skins of the animals. Many times I caught over 100 Muskrat in a single day and had to spend half the night skinning and drying the hides. The first week that I trapped I would lose over 10 pounds of body weight, yet I loved it.
Le Ouest (the west)
Most trappers had an old cypress shrimp boat that would be loaded with all the provisions and equipment to trap for three months. The entire family would go trapping with even the children helping with the chores; the schools would grant children leave during the trapping season. Some would live on the boat and some built crude cabins to dry the skins and live in.
The best trapping in the Parish was in the Western part of the parish (le ouest) where the rich fresh waters of the Atchafalaya River mixed with the waters of the Gulf of Mexico supports lush vegetation and huge populations of fur bearing animals. When asking a trapper where he was trapping, his answer would be “Le Ouest”.
I had a camp on Carencro Bayou in Le Ouest that lay between Lake De Cade and the Atchafalaya River, over an hour’s boat ride to the nearest road or civilization. There would be so many people trapping that one could ride for miles and never lose sight of a trapping camp. The moods of weather each giving the marsh a different facade and one adapted to feel the moods of weather, life revolved around weather the animals moved according to the weather.
The marsh teemed with life that would give subtle forecast of weather to come. Before a cold front all the birds and animals would be scurrying around with a strange abnormal urgency; humid south winds push tidal waters in from the gulf and water would flood the marsh. As the wind would blow harder the clouds would darken, however hard the winds would blow from the south that would be how hard they would blow from the north after the wind shift.
Coup de Nord (cold front)
On the vast flat expanses of the marsh there was nothing to block the wind. At the time of the wind shift, lighting would light the darkened sky, the gods of thunder would roar; violent chilling rains would come that could be deadly to those without shelter.
About a day after the front the winds would calm with beautiful clear blue sky and frosty mornings. That was the time we all had been waiting for, that was the time for trapping. All the animals moved on a calm cold night and the skins dried better when hung on racks in the sun and cold north winds.
The marsh was beautiful at night, and when dew accumulated on the marsh it shimmed in the moonlight like a sea of silver.
I remember standing on the wharf at the old camp at Carencro Bayou; the feel of a cool north wind and the sound of geese, their flights silhouetted against the full moon on a star studded night, signaled the beginning of winter, the beginning of the trapping season.
The remoteness, the quiet: it was a feeling of freedom from the stressful civilized world.
Flammes dans la nuit (flames in the night)
The cold north wind would dry the marsh grass and with one match miles of marsh would burn like the wild fires of the western plains and on a clear cold night it would seem like the whole horizon would be ablaze.
Burning the marsh was a recommended management practice by wild life biologist and also aided the trappers in finding the muskrat burrows. A week or two after a burn the tender green grass would sprout and the muskrat preferred feeding on the tender sprouts and were easy to catch.
On a cold winter night trapping fires could be seen covering the whole horizon from miles away. We didn’t bring much food with us: just staples, mainly rice, dried beans, salt, lard, flower and potatoes. All the meat had to be caught or hunted, which was no problem; ducks were plentiful, and rabbits, muskrats and nutria were caught in the traps. All were good cooked in a black iron pot; we always had plenty to eat. Wild fur is no longer fashionable and a way of life is gone. I can just be thankful that I was fortunate to be part of an experience that was so important to the development and perpetuation of Terrebonne Parish.
There was a camaraderie between trappers. They were isolated from the rest of the world and depended on each other for support. At the beginning of Little Caroncro Bayou on a little canal to the left were the camps and skinning sheds of Camile Billot and his son Paul. Camile had 4 or 5 of his children and his wife at his camp and ran a skinning shed for the Mahlers. If the trappers were catching too much to handle they could sell the animal skins to Mr. Camile and he and his family would skin and dry them.
Paul and his wife had a camp and skinning shed next to Camile and Paul was one of the best nutria trappers and could skin a nutria in seconds. He was also a great shot with a 22 cal. rifle and could hit a deer on the run back of the ear for a clean kill. Farther down the bayou was the camp of Junior Theriot and his son Yankie. Both were excellent muskrat trappers. My camp was next located on the south side of Caroncro bayou, about a 1/2 mile from Caroncro Lake. Between my camp and the lake was the camp and skinning sheds of Freedie Cox. Freddie trapped with an air boat and a helper (Edison), and set out a thousand traps; most of us only set out 100 to 300. Next to Freddie was a big camp boat owned by Jack Voss; Jack duck hunted in Carencro Lake.
Across Caroncro Lake was an island that rose about 10 ft above the marsh called Bisquet Island, where Alvin Collins and his wife T Glo had there camp. We all had shrimp boats and Carencro bayou was deep enough that we all brought our boats to the trapping camp where we could carry all of our supplies for the winter.
Carencro Lake was a shallow lake with only 1 to 2 feet of water and Alvin had to dock his boat at my camp during the winter. We all liked to drink wine and T Glo didn’t want Alvin to bring wine to their camp so he would hide the wine in his shrimp boat and tell T Glo he had to check on his boat and would sometimes drink a little too much and T Glo would blame me for getting Alvin drunk.
I Lost Edison
One New Year’s Eve Alvin and T Glo invited myself, Freddie and Edison to eat roasted French ducks that Alvin had killed that evening. T Glo was a great cook and after cooking for myself for a week I was ready to get some good food. Well, Freddie brought 2 fifths of Jack Daniels whiskey and needless to say everyone got pretty drunk.
About 12 clock midnight a fog started to set in and I left to go back to my camp across Carencro Lake before the fog got too thick; Freddie and Edison stayed at Alvin’s camp. I had just gotten to sleep when I heard Freddie’s air boat coming up to the dock at my camp.
– Freddie calling “Hey Doc” (my nickname)
– I answered “What you want, Freddie?”
– Freddie: “I lost Edison”
– Me: “What do you mean you lost Edison?”
– Freddie: “When I left Alvin’s, Edison was sitting in the front of the boat, when I got to my camp I told him to tie the boat and he wasn’t there anymore.”
By that time the fog was really setting in and was so thick that one could hardly see 10 feet. “Let’s go and try to backtrack over the route you just passed” I said. We went around and around in the lake not knowing where we were or where we had been for an hour or so. So finally we stopped the engine on the air boat and listened. In the distance we could hear a faint “Help, Help”.
We started in the direction of the sound and stopped the engine now and then to hear where the voice was coming from. Finally we shined the spotlight and there was Edison standing in a foot of water and two feet of mud looking like a big frog, no worse for the incident, just a little shaken up. Freddie had run through one of Jack Voss’s duck blind in Carencro Lake with the air boat, and that’s when Edison had gotten thrown out the boat.
Across Carencro lake was Big Carencro Bayou that went south around the Lost Lake area. I remember some of the names of the trapping families that trapped in this area were the Martin from Petite Caillou and the Lovell and De Hart from Bayou du Large.
Introduction to Farm stories
1. Residence Dairy
2. Wild horses
3. The war years
4. Carencro bayou
5. The alligators
6. The 1928 Chevrolet truck
7. The 1962 Ford truck
8. Le Traiteur
9. Disciples of Percy Viosca
10. Grandfather's cypress swamp
11. Jim Jack the cot driver
12. Campti: then and now
13. Mr. Pros