Volume 21 - April 12, 2004
Eric Dement, trapper and fisherman in front of his new camp on the lower Atchafalaya River. His family has had this spot for generations, the original camp was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew.

Living Off the Land

Eric Dement checking his hoop net for catfish.

The seasons of Eric Dement’s year are as different as the grasses that grow in the marsh. Eric has spent most of his life hunting, trapping, fishing, and making a living off the land. Eric is a young man, but his knowledge of the Atchafalaya Basin is the direct result of the four generations of his family who he has learned from. Either in person or through stories, the skills and knowledge that Eric possesses are a rare gift passed from generation to generation. Eric remembers trapping with his grandpa from the age of 6!


We met Eric on the third day of his new job at the Atchafalaya Bay Wildlife Management Area. He takes care of the Wildlife and Fisheries camp about 20 miles down river from Morgan City. We were anchored nearby. Eric took this state job after about 12 years as a commercial fisherman and trapper. With a growing family, the insurance and security as well as the outdoor work enticed him. Eric stated that it was hard to raise a family being a commercial fisherman and trapper these days. Eric will spend off time in Berwick, near Morgan City, with his family, or at his “camp” on the spot where generations of his family resided in the lower Atchafalaya Basin.


Eric’s grandmother, Josephine Boudreaux LaCoste, is 94 and fit as a fiddle. She remembers her young, married life as a trapper’s wife. “Mrs. Jo” taught school for 31 years and the first years found her teaching students 6 years old through 6th grade! They came to school by skiffs that they poled themselves. In winter school was closed so that the entire family could trap together. Children attended school in the summer months to make up for the lost time. 


Eric’s grandfather told him the story of the first time he ever spotted nutria. It was in 1956. Before the nutria, muskrats were numerous in Louisiana and were the main creatures people trapped for fur. His grandparents rowed their boats into Berwick to sell their catch and get the supplies needed for life on Deer Island. Without motors they timed their trips with the tide to help them row.


Eric still has a couple of relatives that live in the lower Atchafalaya full time, but compared to the population in his grandparent’s day Deer Island is quite different. A graveyard with many graves stands near Eric’s family place on what used to be a high hill. Now the land strip has subsided and eroded, some of the graves were lost, no doubt to the river. On a late afternoon visit to the graves of Eric’s great-grandparents, the stories flowed from Eric like the river that runs here creating the marshlands that provided the livelihoods for so many. The last grave was dug here in 1936 and Eric’s family works hard to keep the vegetation from swallowing up the markers.


Eric explained his years living off the land as a seasonal story. The earth’s abundance never stopped, and Eric learned that each time of the year offered opportunity. Winter months were trapping season. Trapping nutria, muskrat, mink, raccoon, and otter for the fur is a busy job. The last two years, Eric has happily received four dollars per tail for each nutria that he has killed. This animal is a true menace to our wetlands and the bounty put on them is helping to control their populations. While trapping, he hunted deer and duck for meat to feed his family. Eric is one of a few that skins and prepares his own pelts to sell. This is really hard work when last year he estimates that he killed close to 2,000 nutria! But do not worry, there are still too many of these mammals in the marsh!


Spring found Eric seriously crawfishing and catfishing. Each day crawfish nets are emptied and baited. One day each week the hoop nets for catfish are emptied and baited.

Each day these goods are brought to a dock and sold to a company that sells them to you and me. This is a seven-day a week job if a profit is to be made!


Summer was the time to catch catfish, crabs, and crawfish.


Fall was for mullet fishing to harvest their eggs, or roe, to sell. Alligator season occurs in the fall and Eric gets a certain number of tags, which gives him permission to kill that number of the reptile for the skin and meat. Another fall harvest for Eric is grasshoppers! The huge “lubber” grasshopper is plentiful in the marsh and scientific laboratories pay money for these creatures if caught alive! We got to see the just hatched babies, millions of these grasshoppers hatching out of burrows in the ground. When grown they are black with red stripes and get to be about 5 inches long: no creature will eat them because they are bitter and stink.  Insects have really short life spans and the giant lubber is no exception.


Living off the land in the marshes of south Louisiana is a life of extremely hard work and a real appreciation for the bounty that nature provides. Nothing is wasted or taken for granted. We were lucky to get to know Eric, a young man with a respect and knowledge of the ways of life that seem to be vanishing from south Louisiana.


A fluffy Swamp Rabbit.

I think that it is a real coincidence that the week before Easter we are parked near an island refuge just teeming with bunnies! The Atchafalaya Delta Wildlife Management Area is hopping with marsh rabbits, but boy are they shy!  This is a quiet habitat for rabbits, deer, alligators, snakes and more.  We have spotted lots of these shy critters.


Each time I start down a path I see a darting rabbit running to hide from me! Interviews are getting hard to come by!  Yesterday I finally stopped a rabbit by hopping into the brush with it.  He quickly informed me that he was a swamp rabbit, Sylvilagus aquaticus. Marsh rabbits will take to the water and swim, and they are abundant in our coastal marshes. The tall stands of thick, giant Roseau Cane surrounding the island is where the family of rabbits that I met lives. The family likes to eat water plants and grasses, sedges, and cane. The rabbits feed mostly at night, but I have also seen the hungry bunnies eating early in the morning.


My rabbit friends have long ears, large hind legs and feet, short front legs, and a short fluffy tail that is white beneath. The marsh rabbit is bigger and darker in color than a cottontail. Did you know that rabbits are one of the most common mammals in the state of Louisiana?


I remember the stories of the Easter Bunny, and Peter Cottontail, and the race between the tortoise and the hare. People love rabbits in stories, but also enjoy them on the table as supper! Rabbits are hunted and eaten by man, owls, snakes and many other predators. Yet their numbers remain high because of their ability to have so many young. One female can have six litters of bunnies each year! Each litter can have 4 to 6 babies and the young grow rapidly and at the end of 3 to 4 weeks they are out on their own.


Marsh rabbits are very interesting creatures. They hop, swim, and hide so well. I hope that your Easter holiday finds you hopping, swimming, and hiding those colorful eggs too! Happy Easter to you all, and remember that the creatures of the world all need their particular “habitat” to thrive!


Hippity- Hoppity- Happiness To You!


Annie the M.U.T.T. of the Marsh

- Many people have made their livings by harvesting the riches of the wetlands!
- Children in south Louisiana used to go to school in the summers so that they could trap with their families in the winter months.
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1. Think of something that you do in winter, spring, summer, and fall. Write a journal entry about the changes that you feel at these times of the year. Is it the sports, the weather, or the outdoor activities that define the seasons for you?

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la·gniappe    (ln-yp, lnyp)
2. An extra or unexpected gift or benefit

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L.J. Alleman Middle School asks:
What would happen if all the barrier islands were to break?
CC answers:  If the barrier islands disappeared, the waves from the Gulf of Mexico would hit the marsh and erode it quickly.  Hurricanes would come harder and faster to our coastal towns.
L.J. Alleman Middle School asks:
In your opinion, what is the most unusual animal you have seen?
CC answers:  This week we saw Lubber grasshoppers hatching and beginning to eat the grass.  I have seen adults int he late summer, but never babies.  We saw over 500,000 of the babies last week.
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