Life on 'the byar' was sweet

Journal Correspondent

The following article is from a new self-published book, "Bayou Manchac in the 1920s," by W.C. Abbott of Jonesboro, Louisiana. Mr. Abbott's earlier first book, "Tales About People and Places in Louisiana," has been the source for a number of short pieces reprinted here. Already selling briskly in Ascension Parish, Mr. Abbott's birthplace, the new paperback is available from the author at $10 plus $3.00 for shipping, at 122 Dale Drive, Jonesboro, LA 71251, or by telephone at 318-259-2589.

Bayou Manchac is the proper name for it. But we called it "the byar." We all saw it written about in newspapers and even in stories in books and it was Bayou Manchac. City folks who used to fish said "By-you," but we never did get into the bayou mode.

When a stream is just 14 miles long and about 50 yards wide, you'd think you couldn't say much when you told about it. Not so with Bayou Manchac. I wish I could put into words all I know about that lovely stream.

It flowed west to east into the Amite River and the clear amber water just invited you to shuck off your clothes and plunge in.

Often, deep summer during the dog days of August, when the mockingbirds didn't sing, you would see the bayou still and quiet. The water didn't flow out nor did the tide come in. The only sound would be the occasional peep of a rain frog asking for rain. Even Bill didn't talk very much. We just watched our floater hoping it would bobble indicating a fish was nibbling the bait. Then you would see a lone oak leaf float down to rest on the water and a slight breeze high in the cottonwood tree would make a rustling sound. That's when Bill would look up at the trees and say, "You know what, it kinda feels like fall." I'd know he was thinking about the coming hunting season.

Not far from our farm an area along the bayou was lined with willow trees. There were two things I remember about those trees. In May or early June, mayflies clung to the branches that hung over the water and blue gill bream gathered underneath to gobble up the ones that fell into the water. We could catch those bream with a small artificial fly on our fly rod. The other thing I remember is that produced little fluffy white balls and the wind blew them free and they floated down to the water and the breeze took them skimming across the water to shore where they lodged in the mud.

The people across the bayou were mostly farmers. They grew crops such as cotton, corn, and potatoes. When it rained, muddy water from the fields drained into the bayou and turned the water muddy. That's when we had good luck catching channel catfish.

If spring rains were extensive and occurred around Baton Rouge and over the Amite River watershed, the old buffalo fishermen called it a buffalo rain. I remember quite often if we went to bed at night in February or March listening to rumbling thunder and pattering of rain on our tin roof, we would put out our nets when the rain stopped. That's when you could see the old buffalo fishermen loading their boats with nets and setting them in strategic places. The buffalo fish became active when the current was strong.

If the water rose enough to fill Spanish Lake swamp all the way to the bluff, people by the dozens went there to catch crawfish.

When we were growing up and exploring Bayou Manchac bayou it was a good idea to leave them alone. We saw garfish, lots of big ones seven and eight feet long, buffalo fish, all kinds of catfish, paddlefish, gaspergou, bass, sac-a-lait, and bream of all kinds. We saw song birds, quail and doves, but no wild turkeys. Where were rabbits and squirrels, but deer were scarce to the point of being completely gone. Once in awhile you'd hear of someone seeing a deer about Alligator Bayou where the bayou started years ago.

Our main interests in the bayou at that time were swimming and pole fishing for what we could catch. We walked along the shore with a cane pole, a line, a hook, and a can of worms. Bill and I found a place just behind the old boat house in front of our home where we could catch dozens of red sun perch. I don't know why they were there in that particular area, but they were always there and we caught lots of them.

Another good place to fish near our home was a tangle of logs and stumps and roots from an ancient tree that had fallen into the bayou. Blue gill bream and goggle eye perch gathered there to hide from garfish and bass. I didn't fish there much because it was easy to get your hook hung on a log. If you have only one or two hooks, you learn to fish in more open places.

I did learn a good "cuss" word there one day as I sat by Walter Daigle, one of Mama's cousins. I watched him as he got lots of bites. After awhile he caught a very small perch. He unhooked it and threw the little fish to the middle of the stream and said, "I hope a gar gets you, you little bait stealing son of a bitch." That was the first time I'd heard a curse word or phrase that seemed that good. I kept repeating it to myself so I'd know it if I ever decided to use it. The very next day, I wished I'd never heard it. One of our Rhode Island Red roosters got in Dad's flower garden and scratched up several flowers. Dad and I got after him and chased him out. When he went through the open gate, I said, "Stay out of here, you son of a bitch." Dad grabbed me by the arm and asked where I learned such talk. I still remember the spanking he gave me.

In trying to remember Bayou Manchac in those days, I have trouble bringing to mind the big fish we caught or they time they bit so good we caught them until we tired. I remember places, like certain stumps in the water, or where a willow tree fell in and made a good place to catch sac-au-lait.

In the fall of the year sweet gum trees dropped their crimson leaves and the hickory trees shed their gold, and those that fell in the bayou floated around. Now when I see leaves falling into water, I remember Bayou Manchac.

W.C. Abbott was born in Ascension Parish in 1914. He taught agriculture for four years, worked for the Farm Security Administration for four years, served as Assistant County Agent in Ouachita Parish for two years, and as County Agent in Jackson Parish for 30 years before retiring in 1974.