Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish

Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish
A day’s haul of gar for Verrett. Jug lines visible in bottom of boat.

Gone are the days when his ancestors stalked buffalo on the Louisiana prairies.  Gone also are the days they used tomahawks to slay their supper.  But Houma Indian, Rickey Verrett, still stalks his prey and still wields a hatchet on a regular basis.

With a savage whoop and the stunning blow of a hammer, reminiscent of his ancestors attacking their prey, this fisherman brings a sudden halt to the noisy thrashing of his own prey – an alligator garfish—before hoisting it into his well-seasoned Carolina Skiff.

Down in the depths of the Terrebonne Basin in south Louisiana, Verrett continues to rely on the riches produced by this fishery to sustain his livelihood.  Alligator gar is the fish of the day about 180 days of the year for this native who loves to fish.

Prehistoric Fish

Atractosteus spatula is the largest of the gar family, and is mainly pursued by commercial fisherman but is a popular fish taken while bow fishing at night.  While encyclopedic information states that these fish prefer freshwater, Verrett harvests them regularly from the saltwater estuary of Terrebonne Parish.

He has earned a reputation as one of the most productive gar fishermen in the area, according to NSU marine biology professor Dr. Allyse Ferrar.  “Rickey sets out about one fourth the gear of other gar fishermen in the same area but consistently harvests the same amount of fish they harvest.  He understands the movement of the gar and how factors such as wind, temperature, and tides can impact his catch.”

Plastic Bottles

At first glance, the makeshift wharf where Verrett docks his boat looks more like a recycle station than a landing.  Empty plastic two-liter soda bottles spill over the sides of an old ice chest.  Some of the jugs, dented and a faded orange color, have apparently served their purpose.  Others lie in plastic crates, clear and transparent.  However, the bottles that really catch the eye are the ones painted bright fluorescent orange.

With bare feet and hair down to his shoulders, Verrett sits atop a chest-type freezer turned old-fashioned “icebox”.  With a can of spray paint in one hand and an empty 12-ounce soda bottle in the other, he explains that the two-liter bottles function as floats or buoys for his gar fishing lines—called jug lines.

Verrett is a very patient man.  Deeming it too wasteful to spray-paint the jugs, he sprays the paint into the empty soda bottle, and then uses a brush to paint the now-liquid paint onto the two-liter jugs.  (I resist the urge to tell him he can buy fluorescent paint in bottles that he can paint right on, thereby omitting one tedious step.)  While he works, he explains how the fluorescent orange makes the jugs more visible against the background of the marsh grass.

“See this one right here?” he asks, holding up a faded orange jug with puncture marks in it.  “These are teeth marks—alligator teeth.  The alligator comes and tries to bite the jug and puts holes in it.  Then the jug sinks and I lose the fish, too, but I took care of the problem.”

Proudly he displays his latest innovation—a plastic bottle filled with Styrofoam.  “I had the idea that this would work.  The first thing I used was those Styrofoam peanuts, but the gators could still bite the jugs.  Then I tried the spray foam from a can, but that costs too much.  Then I heard about this stuff you buy in big cans and mix together to make Styrofoam.  You have to mix it real fast, but it works real good.  See?”  Verrett squeezes the bottle to show its durability and states with a victorious smile, “Now the gators can’t bite my jugs!”

Here’s how a jug-line rig works:  The soda-bottle “jug” floats on top of the water, with a fishing rig suspended below it.  The rig is made up of an eighteen-inch length of nylon line tied to a shorter length of stainless steel wire twisted onto a No. 9 stainless steel hook–a simple rig, but effective.  A clothespin holds the bait in such a position that prevents a shark from cutting the nylon line with its sharp teeth.

Unlike other commercial fishermen who purchase bait for their lines, Verrett is a frugal purist, still practicing the old ways of catching his own bait.  In the afternoon, he heads out with his cast net in search of striped mullet.  Verrett returns to his dock where he baits the hooks with the fresh mullet, stacks them in an old ice chest, loads up the boat, and heads south.

At today’s destination, Verrett drops the jugs strategically in shallow bays and out-of-the-way bayous.  He looks for places to drop the lines that will allow for the least possible route of escape for the fish.  That is because once the fish takes the bait and is hooked, it can swim and will continue to swim until retrieved.  Making sure of the final count released, which is twenty, Verrett heads home to rest for the early morning trip to find the jugs.

Before sunrise the next morning, Verrett once again heads south, racing the sun to the fishing hole.  As soon as he enters the first bay, he shouts with the excitement of a child, “We got a fish!”  As the boat nears the jug, he slams the throttle into neutral, catapulting his lean, muscular frame toward the front port gunwale where he reaches down quickly and snatches up the bright orange soda bottle in one fell swoop.

Seamlessly, he then grabs the hammer, which waits at the ready in a wooden tool rack on the gunwale, and strikes the unsuspecting garfish firmly on the head, rendering it comatose before he heaves it into a huge ice chest.  “That’s a nice one!” he brags as though this fish is the first gar he’s ever caught.

Of the twenty jug lines Verrett put out the night before, fifteen produce alligator gar of substantial size, two hold red fish, and three are lost.  Sometimes, but not often, Verrett returns with less lines than he put out because the fish manage to swim so far away with the tide that he cannot find them in a short amount of time.

He proudly relates a miraculous story of how he recently found a jugline that had been missing for two weeks, with the gar still hooked, alive, and swimming.  “See?  Dat’s good because as long as he’s still alive, I can clean him and sell him!”

After a couple of hours of fishing, we return to the crude landing, where a rickety table lies in wait for the first gar to be offered up like a sacrifice.  Freshly sharpened, a cane knife, hatchet, and kitchen knife wait like surgeon’s tools on the side of the cleaning table.  A bucket of bayou water used for rinsing hands and tools sits below the table.  The largest fish of the day is about four feet long and weighs about thirty pounds.  Verrett treats the fish with respect, making short work of the cleaning.

After securing the fish to the table with a screwdriver, Verrett chops off the anal and pectoral fins with a cane knife.  He flips the fish, quickly removing the dorsal fin.

With pliers in his right hand and cane knife in his left, he slices through the tail while pulling upward on the armored skin.  Verrett continues the chopping and lifting up the entire length of the backbone toward the head. The three-foot length of skin is tossed on the side to be dealt with later.

With a sharp knife, he then slices the scaly skin away from the flesh, making it easier to pull off the side panels of scaled armor.  These, too, are tossed aside.

In the final steps, the fish is beheaded, gutted; the slabs of white meat in placed in his “icebox” between layers of fresh ice.  Verrett sells his catch twice a week to the highest-paying buyer, who may come from as far west as Opelousas and as far north as Shreveport.  Buyers, in turn, sell the meat mainly to seafood markets.

This fisherman wastes nothing, and that goes for the skin, as well.   Verrett layers the skins in old plastic swimming pool liners where natural agents of decay strip the scales clean for later use by his cousin and other artists who make jewelry and crafts with the garfish scales.

Using a five-gallon bucket and water from the bayou, this unique fisherman thoroughly washes all the tools of his trade, scrubs the cleaning table spotless, and rinses the wooden planks below his hardened, bare feet.

After I thank him for the gar fishing trip, I offer him money for fuel, which he promptly refuses.  As I’m loading my camera into the vehicle, he hollers at me, “Hey if it would be okay, could you get me a picture of one of the fish, maybe?”  As is his nature, he has no interest in what I might be writing about him or how many people might be reading about him.  Rather, he only wants photos of that which matters most to him—his gar fish.  I’ll be glad to do that for you, Rickey.

In a time when our society thrives on consumerism, and everything seems disposable, Verrett steps back in time and reminds us of the old adage, “waste not—want not”.  He reminds us not by word but by action.  He lives a simple life, works hard, is easily amused, and would not have it any other way.  We could all take a life lesson from this resourceful young man of the sea.

Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish
Verret gets jug lines ready for fishing alligator gar
Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish
Capt. Wendy with a nice gar fish
Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish
Rickey Verrett and Dr. Ferrar weigh gar fish for lab research.
Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish
Rickey Verrett pulls in jug line with garfish attached
Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish
Rickey Verrett wields hammer in left hand used to kill the gar fish
Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish
Verrett pulls nice sized gar fish into boat
Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish
Verrett’s big gar on cleaning table
Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish
Verrett checks on gar scales curing in swimming pool liner
Plastic Bottles and Prehistoric Fish
Beautiful jewelry made from gar scales that have been soaked in a bleach and water solution.  (Designed and made by Kim of Wetland Treasures Etsy Shop)

©2013 W.W. Billiot/Wetlands Media, LLC
All photos ©W.W. Billiot/Wetlands Media, LLC and may not be copied, pasted, or otherwise used in any fashion without owner’s permission.

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  1. I most definitely will be watching for Ricky,”Bayou Fabio”‘ and his adventures on Swamp People. One of my favorite shows to follow.

    1. I will need to do a post of opening night as soon as it’s over so everyone can chime in next morning about the show. I’ll be curious to know what others think of this throwback friend, who will become a friend to all!!!

  2. I am so glad you write these stories. I really enjoy them and i am glad you tell us when he might be on swamp people. I guess I am a little slow, but i did not realize he was Native American. that makes it more interesting to me.

    1. Well, Louise, you’re not slow. I’m not sure if I clearly spelled that out in any previous stories about him, and down here, many of the Houma people can be recognized by their last names; namely Billiot, Dardar, Fitch, Verret (or any derivation thereof), Verdin, and a couple other lesser known names. However, my readers would not have gathered that knowledge by osmosis, so thanks for point that out to me. I anticipate writing more and more about him and the Houma Indian heritage as time goes on. Thanks for being such a faithful reader and commenter!

  3. GREAT post! This is why yer blog is so important – spreading knowledge, facts about real folk in ‘da Bayou’ and why IT is so important to life, culture and the history o’ Louisiana. Can’t wait to see Rickey on TV…the audience will be in for a treat.

    1. Well, thanks so much, Capt. Now, if we could just get me paid to write this blog, I could stop doing some of these other things that “pay the bills” and spend more time writing about Life in the Louisiana Wetlands, which is really my passion! (HINT: to other readers, this means that a change might be on the horizon where this blog may post some paying ads, but hopefully those will not detract from the friendly atmosphere we have fostered here over the past five years.)

      1. I wish you well in that area. Nothing could detract from your writing, believe me. But advertisers here would be kinda neat, too!

  4. I already own a pair of earrings made by scales gathered from his fishing, I can say I had his scales before he was famous! 🙂 We can’t wait to watch this season. We have alligator gar here too and nothing is as scary as zipping through the lake on a jet ski and have one jump right in front of you or beside you and all you see is massive fish coming at you. Now when I see one I think, oh I need more earrings! Lol

    1. Hey Warhorse, can you tell us a little more about your history with gar meat? I will be blogging some recipes in the near future, and I’m always interested in what others have done with this meat that most folks just pass up.

  5. I too, didn’t realize “Bayou Fabio” is a Houma Indian. As his agent, we’re you able to be present at any of the tapings of Swamp People? How many episodes will he appear on this season?

    1. Read my reply to Louise, who said the same thing about his ancestry. When I cast him, I was acting as his agent. Now I’m acting as his manager (albeit a harried one); but for two long, hot, tedious weeks last September, I ran the film boat and acted as translator. It was a grand experience, we worked long, hot days, and y’all probably didn’t hear much from me during that time (plus I had camp rentals to tend to and a fishing charter in the middle of all that!). I’m pretty sure blogging fell by the wayside, although I was DYING to post something and let y’all know the excitement that was taking place down here. History in the making!!!!

  6. I cannot wait to see him on TV again (I saw him once before guiding on a show and you confirmed it was him). I’ve also never forgotten that picture you first posted of him, it was after Katrina and he was walking through the wreckage. It was a stunning picture and I hope you still have it. He’s going to do great on TV and I’m very happy for him. I’ll always think of him as Bayou Fabio 🙂

    1. Hey!!! It’s so great to hear from you again! You have a great memory about the photo of BF. That’s a great story, too. I’m pretty sure it was after Gustave and Ike, though, in 2008. I absolutely still have that photo. I was so happy to see him because I thought the storm had gotten him! Glad you’re going to watch and root for our one and only BF!

  7. BTW isn’t that boat of BF’s the same type that BW uses? Wide flat hull, terrible in ruff water and extreme wind, but carries a shallow draft with room for the whole family? Or am I just imagining again?

    1. Yes, Oh Observant One, we have the same brand of boat; however, mine is 24 feet long and she takes the seas pretty well because of the length. And she only draws about a foot of water, too. And yes, she can carry about 18 people stuffed in like sardines, but I only ever take six at a time on tours for safety reasons. Nope, you weren’t imagining again!!!

  8. Gosh, this was an enjoyable read. I need to go dig out my gar scale jewelry! I’ll have to find a way to watch his episode – I rarely think about not having a tv, but then, there’s never anything I worry about missing. Does History Channel live-stream their programming, or do you have to get episodes later via youtube or DVD? (I guess I can figure that out for myself!)

    Like the others, I didn’t realize that our hero is Houma Indian. I don’t really know much about the tribe – I began learning about Louisiana Indians with the Chitimacha. But it seems to me there might be someone else around here with Houma connections who can help fill in the gaps in our knowledge!

    Maybe you need to be the one to start his official fan page!

    1. Linda, throughout the years on this blog, I’ve refer to “us” as “bayou people” because the folks down here, while not all Houma Indians, are of different backgrounds; and not Cajun, even though many of them and their ancestors spoke French (and some of them still speak French in the home). I guess maybe I need to fill in the gaps myself!! The history of the Houmas is very difficult to trace, with mounds of conflicting information due to the language barriers at the time. Things changed meaning in translation from Indian to French (possibly Spanish) and to English.

      About Rickey: The official fan page is already established on FB but will not be made public until his episodes begin to air. There are other things in the works, as well. The hardest part is convincing him that viewers might like him as much as they like Troy or the Guist brothers, and others!! He just can’t fathom being famous for what he does. To him, it’s just catching gar fish and making a living.

  9. It’s interesting you mentioned people as far north as Shreveport buying his gars. There used to be a tiny seafood market at the foot of the bridge near my grandparents’ house, going towards Shreveport. That’s where I bought my first gar steaks. Grandma was shocked! Never heard of people eating that ugly fish! Cooked it for her and she had to admit she liked it “alright”.

    My former mother-in-law made the best gar-balls. She cooked them in a thin broth then served it with rice.

    1. Thanks for sharing that memory. I have a very vague memory of that place on Texas Street in Bossier City. (For those of you reading who might not know, Katy Bug and I are first cousins. She grew up near New Orleans, while I grew up in Bossier. Our grandmothers lived on the same street in old Bossier City, and I always looked forward to her visits from our South La.!) I don’t think I had ever seen an alligator gar up close and personal until I photographed a six-footer Rickey caught about eight years ago.

  10. Oh my goodness! I’ll have to hike over to my son’s house to watch this! How cool is that, BW! And I wanted to tell you, my youngest son drove across LA last week and loved it, wants to go back. My Dad, you know, was born and raised in NO, so maybe that heritage is calling to my young’un.

    1. I’m sure that heritage did more than call to him on his travels through LA. I bet those long tendrils reached out and grabbed him, LOL! Next time he comes to visit, those tendrils will hold him even longer, especially if he comes down for a tour of the marshes and swamp. I hope he looks me up!

  11. I love it, “A good wife saves the reciepts and exchanges the clothes for a bigger size when no one is looking!”

    She is a good wife, LOL.

    1. Hmmm….. I am wondering if that was a Labradoodle with a bad hair cut? I mean it could have been a standard Poodle, probably was in fact, but the labradoodles are starting to show up more often these days.

      Matching little bows on Si’s beard and the dog’s ears would have really put it over the top though. ROFL

      1. Oh my goodness, the bows would have been the perfect touch!! 🙂
        I’ve admired standard poodles for years and found out in my research years ago that the original breed were very good hunting dogs. Yep, Labradoodles are showing up in lots of places. A good friend of mine has a new pup of that type she is training to be a therapy dog, and he appears to be quite smart at just a young age. So, I have to wonder if a Labradoodle takes the best of both breeds and puts them together , or reduces the best of both by half? Hmmmmmm . . . . . . .

    2. Termite and I were watching, and I told him that it was a different jacket (since I’m a good wife, too!), and sure enough, we good wives run in good company, LOL! We laughed so hard when Jeb said “don’t let that ax slip and hit it you in the stomach–gravy might spill out”!!!!

  12. Ok, so how many others were expecting when Liz’s daughter hooked the first catfish out of the “gator’s” mouth, for it to be a big alligator gar? LOL….

    I wasn’t even thinking catfish. BW has put Aligator gar on my mind!

  13. I just want to offer a big THANK YOU to all the blog followers and to welcome a couple of new followers. I appreciate y’all. And to those who are following the comments here, if you would also like to follow the blog posts as they are released, please click the link in the left-hand column and follow the prompts. That way, you’ll be notified by email of new posts and be kept up to date on what we’re talking about!

  14. Am looking forward to watching Rickey’s debut on ‘Swamp People.’

    I’ve watched it, from time to time, but not regularly. I’ll do better from now on!

    Gar scale jewelry sounds intriguing. I’m slowly backing away from buying more dangly earrings but a pendant on a chain sounds nice. Or a bracelet.

    I’ve never seen any for sale around here, though. Got any leads on a good online outlet?

    1. Well, Ms. Gue, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? Look over there in the right-hand side-bar and see that box that says Wetland Treasures? That’s my friend Kim who makes these items from garfish scales she gets down here from him. I wrote an entire post about it if you want to search my blog for it, too. Kinda neato! I’m not sure what she has for sale in her Etsy shop right now, but if you leave me a comment to her, I’ll make sure she gets it and lets you know what she has in stock as far as pendants go!!!

        1. Hi Gue, You can check out my Etsy shop like Wendy mentioned. I have to say that I don’t have everything listed at the moment. I had to make a quick trip back home to stay with my parents for a bit but when I get back next week, I’ll have many new items listed. I didn’t have time to get them online before I left.

  15. Just a heads up for a busy BW, DD is on tonight (That means Swamp Folks is tomorrow night)!

    1. Yes, thanks for the reminder, and I need an assistant. Are you applying for the job? : ) I had a meeting last night and only caught the tail end. And yes, SP is tonight! And yes, BW is very, very busy. Tonight she has to work concessions at her son’s high school baseball game.

    1. LOL…. Poetic justice, artistic license, maybe artistic justice….. LOL
      My fingers just were not in sync with my mind.

      1. I answered you this morning, but WordPress ate my reply, obviously, as it is not here. Yes, they took artistic license, as you and I both well know. I guess in their mind it might be a bayou town. Hey, it’s a college town through which Bayou Lafourche runs, right? : ) How did y’all like ZZ?

  16. Awesome article! I actually watched this guy in a youtube video that was very interesting. I would like to meet this guy someday.

  17. I have come across this article and wonder how you find this gentleman to purchase a bucket of his hat scales? I am interested in his green was with patina!! I have so loved this article on him and his skills at fishing. Born and raised in Louisana, we love our fishing and state and outdoors. Thank you!