Tuesday, July 14, 2009

LAKE ARTHUR


During summers on The Mountain here in TN, I long for water -- the world of rivers, lakes, and bayous that course through my life when I’m in Louisiana. Louisiana is a land of big water. The Mississippi River, “Father of Waters,” becomes a half mile wide as it flows through the state, and early settlers made homes along its banks, as well as on rivers, bayous and streams that provided them with food, transportation and livelihood.

My father’s paternal Grandfather Samuel came down from Iowa and settled on the banks of Lake Arthur, Louisiana, actually buying the entire town through a land company he and my Great Uncle owned. The Mermentau River widens at Lake Arthur, flows into Grand Lake, and then through marshes to the Gulf of Mexico. The many lakes and bayous in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes provide a great habitat for ducks and geese. It's a hunters’ paradise, but as a child, the sport that Lake Arthur offered me and my siblings was fishing.

While pining for water the other day, I came across a photo (above) of me and my brother Paul after we had spent a day on the water and caught a small string of catfish. We had been pole fishing and were standing on the wharf leading from my grandfather’s house to Lake Arthur. Two scruffier kids you haven’t seen, but we appear to be happy fishermen. My brother grins broadly, and I seem to be fascinated with the large can of worms I’m holding. The catch looks like blue catfish, but I can remember catching a few yellow ones in the lake, along with gaspergou, choupique, even a gar that my grandmother cut up and rolled into garfish balls and fried (boulettes de poisson arme’). In later years, I whined enough to be noticed and was taken out in a Joe boat one night when the men in the family ran trotlines, string lines with live bait attached to the hook (minnows, smaller fish) to lure huge catfish.

My grandmother’s kitchen always smelled of seafood – fish, shrimp, crabs – and I remember this short fat woman, weighing perhaps 250 pounds, seated on a wooden stool at a single sink, cleaning seafood most of the morning. During the 40’s and 50’s, Grandmother offered lodging to boarders in the German style house my Great Grandfather built, and when we visited, the long oak table in the dining room sometimes held three kinds of seafood (including garfish balls), a pork roast, fresh pole beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, biscuits, cornbread, German potato salad, slaw, iced tea and beer (no dessert). At least six boarders who worked on oil rigs nearby joined us at a dinner topped off with French roast coffee made by my grandfather in a white enamel French coffee pot and poured into small white cups, then diluted with heavy cream and sugar for the children.

My grandmother, a Vincent, insisted that she was not of Acadian descent, but her ancestors were among those exiled from Port Royale, Nova Scotia during the Grand Derangement, and she was clearly Cajun French. My grandfather Marquart’s German ancestors came to the U.S. from Alsace-Lorraine, and he was every inch the German patriarch, sitting down at the table with all plates in front of him so that he could fill them with the portions he thought were hearty enough, then passing them around to adults first. If a child reached across the table for the butter instead of asking that it be passed, he rapped the offender sharply on the knuckles with a table knife. Both grandparents believed in setting a good table and eating heartily, but my grandmother descended from a long line of stout people and was severely overweight, while my short, slim grandfather was always hitching up his khakis. Sometimes, my grandmother would coax me to sleep with her, and I was afraid she’d roll over in her sleep, particularly after a heavy meal, and suffocate me.

Anyway, my early fishing interludes in Lake Arthur led to more advanced fishing with a fly rod on the Bogue Chitto River near Franklinton, Louisiana and, later, to white perch fishing while week-ending on a Louisiana lake near Toledo Bend where we had acquired a camp during the 70’s. While living in Iran in the mid 70’s, I wasn’t allowed to fish, and I was appalled when I saw fishermen catching catfish, similar to the beautiful blue catfish we caught in Lake Arthur, in the River Karun near Ahwaz and throwing them back into the water because Iranians don’t eat fish with skin.

My fishing ceased during the late 80’s because I never seemed to have leisure time to get out on the water, but in recent years I’ve enjoyed a few days of pier fishing on Silver Lake in central Florida. Now, while I sojourn here on The Mountain at Sewanee for the summer, I long to see lakes and fresh water rivers, even murky bayous – long stretches of peaceful water with fish occasionally breaking the surface and daring me to take up an old and satisfying hobby.
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