Alphonse “Al” Cassagne
Coastal Bait Shop
205 Highway 1
Grand Isle, LA 70358
During the summer months and all, when shrimp is more in-season and the tourists are here, well we got fresh bait every day, seven days a week. – Al Cassagne
Alphonse “Al” Cassagne grew up on the West Bank, in the suburbs of New Orleans, spending summers at his family’s Grand Isle fishing camp. He shrimped with his father (who worked in the school system the rest of the year), ran crab traps, and owned his own boat by the time he was a teenager. The water called Al, and he moved to Grand Isle permanently directly after graduating from high school. He worked as a commercial fisherman for most of his adult career, selling his catch to the docks while fuel prices skyrocketed and seafood prices stagnated or, worse, declined. In 2004, Al discovered a more profitable profession in catching and selling bait; today, his Coastal Bait Shop is one of the first businesses you come upon when entering Grand Isle. It’s there that he sells live and frozen bait—shrimp, croakers, pogies, minnows, squid, mullet, crabs—as well as handmade crab traps, bait tackle, and some prepared seafood for the unlucky, hungry fisherman. Al has witnessed, and endured, dips in business due to recent hurricanes and 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but he remains optimistic about the future of the bait trade. As long as there are fish in the Gulf, he believes, Louisianans will put out a line.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Alphonse “Al” Cassagne, owner of Coastal Bait Shop—Grand Isle, LA
Date: October 11, 2011
Location: Coastal Bait Shop—Grand Isle, LA
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is Tuesday, October 11, 2011. I’m in Grand Isle, Louisiana at Coastal Bait Shop. I’m with the owner, and if you don’t mind, could I get you to introduce yourself and tell me your full name and what you do for a living, please?
Al Cassagne: My name is Al Cassagne. I’m the owner of Coastal Bait, and I’m also a commercial fisherman in Grand Isle, Louisiana.
What is your full first name?
Thank you. Did you grow up in this area?
I grew up primarily in Westwego, between Westwego and Grand Isle. I went to school on the West Bank, and I spent most of my summers here fishing, and when I got out of school I moved here permanently.
Why did you move here permanently? It was calling you?
Yeah. I liked the fishing industry, and when I finished school that’s what I wanted to do. And I’ve fished commercially until—ah, right before Katrina, and then I decided to get into the bait business primarily because the fishing business price-wise wasn’t there. And the recreational business—you know, with the bait—was better.
Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. What did your parents do, and was there anybody in your family who was a professional fisherman?
A past history of people that fished. My daddy was in the school system, but they only worked nine months out of the year, so he shrimped during the summer. And I guess that’s where I probably picked it up, and I just continued on with it. But prior to that, on my mother’s side they had a history of fishing in the family.
How young were you, do you think, when you first went out on a shrimp boat?
Ah, I don’t know. I guess probably five--six years old, something like that.
Would you go out for days at a time?
No, we just shrimped in and out, you know. Went out in the morning and came back in like that. [My daddy] had a small boat.
What was it about that that you liked?
I guess just being on the water, and it was kind of like as I got older—I don’t guess exactly like a job, because you had that little bit of freedom. Although you had to get up and go to work—you know when you work for yourself you still got a goal to meet—but I enjoy getting up and watch the sun come up and watch the sun go down instead of being in an office.
I’m guessing that you didn't have your own boat right away when you were real young, or how did that work?
I started out probably around 13--14 years old with a small boat of my own, fishing. And from there I just kept getting a little bigger and a little bigger, and then I downsized in the last few years. [Laughs] As I got into the bait business I kind of downsized with the boat.
What size was your first boat?
Probably 16-foot. Well, when I was that age, most boys my age around here had their own boat, small boat that they would shrimp with and crab with, you know. It’s just something that we started out young doing. They didn't have all the rules and regulations that they got now, I guess, so it made it easier for somebody that age to have a boat and go shrimping or crabbing on it. Whereas now it’s probably a little bit harder.
At that age, would you sell what you caught?
Yeah. Back then I was selling crabs. I guess I was probably 13 years-old, 14, somewhere in that neighborhood. And we would sell them right there by my daddy’s camp where I stayed. Similar to what I do over here at my bait shop, sell to the public, and I remember back then they were 75-cents a dozen, $5 a bushel, when I first started selling crabs as a kid.
Where was your daddy’s camp?
Down Herbert Lane on Chénière, about two miles past my bait shop going toward the island on the right-hand side. We lived on the bay. And that’s where I live now; I live next door to them, right on Caminada Bay.
So it still exists, the original camp?
It still exists. They built it. And I’ll be 53, and they were building it—I was three months old when they started building it, so it saw Hurricane Betsy and plenty other ones, and it’s still there.
How have the prices changed—or not—since you first started shrimping?
Since I first started shrimping…right now we’re getting less money for our product than we did years ago. Our biggest impact in this industry is—besides the price—is the fuel. The fuel and the price that it costs to keep equipment up these days. But the fuel is the biggest issue. It’s hard to work like we were accustomed to working for a small amount and just keep working; you can't do that anymore. If you’re catching just a small amount and you keep on, by the end of the week a few pounds might add up, but the fuel is—just you put it all back in expense. You know right now that’s I think the biggest issue to this industry, is the cost of fuel, or the operating cost.
That’s kind of ironic when everywhere you look there’s fuel being harvested.
Yeah, I mean everywhere in this area, and we’re probably—right now if you look at the price of fuel, we probably pay more for fuel around here than just about anywhere else. And it all comes right here out of our backyard, out of our front yard or whatever. But I see that being a thorn in our side in this industry because the demand for is becoming more and more, so I can't ever foresee it getting that cheap. I’m talking about 15--20 years ago: 50-cents-a-gallon fuel, 100-gallons a night = $50 worth of expense. One hundred gallons right now a night = $300-some dollars worth of expense, almost $400 worth of expense. And you know the shrimp, I don’t know what’s the deal with that. You know the imports or whatever, but we just don’t get the money for our product that we did 15 or 20 years ago. It’s just not there. And that’s primarily why I went into this bait business.
You said that you had to have a permit to fish off-season on the inside. What do you mean by “on the inside?”
It’s a special bait dealer’s permit. You apply with the State, and you got to put a $1,000 bond up. You got to be bonded and you buy this bait dealer’s permit and you get your bond money back after the season reopens. You got to call it in in the morning and let them know where you’re going, and when you come in you got to call in and let them know that you returned, and you got to keep a record of what you catch, what you harvest under the permit.
And by “on the inside,” you mean inshore?
Inshore waters, right.
The bait deal was a choice that we get so much a piece for the bait and that price doesn’t change, whereas the shrimp price and the crab price [Laughs] at the dock changes from day to day. Plenty of shrimp—not worth any money; no shrimp—worth a little bit more. Plenty of crabs—not worth any money; “We want them, but we don’t want to pay for them.” The live bait, you get so much for it whether the wind blows and whether they catch fish with it or they don’t. When I go catch so much live bait to put in that tank, and if I don’t lose it and I sell it, I know what I’m going to make on it. And like I say, I still enjoy shrimping, but I primarily only shrimp for the dock when it’s feasible. You know, when it’s slow I just fool with my place with the bait.
Can you tell me some specifics about the bait? What do you fish for? What do you sell?
We sell live shrimp, we sell minnows, and we sell live croakers in the live bait part. And then they buy regular bait shrimp and they buy—like this time of the year they buy a good bit of crabs to fish with because they’re fishing redfish right now. They buy some squid and pogies, dead bait, but the biggest thing is—in the summer months—that live shrimp and the live croakers.
What do you fish with live shrimp and live croakers?
Trout and redfish. Most of them fish speckled trout with it. And like I say, in the summer months—May, June, July, August, those four months primarily—that’s the big seller around here, is that live shrimp and live croakers. Now they’re leaning more towards live minnows because they’re fishing more redfish in the marsh and not in the bays. They’re more inside in the marsh areas, and they fish more with the live minnows and regular bait shrimp.
Can you explain that to me? Is that because it’s minnows that are in the marshes and not the croakers and the shrimp?
Ah, basically, and they don’t lose as many. So redfish is not like when you’re fishing trout. When the trout is biting they’re kind of biting, kind of one after another, so you put a live shrimp on and you know you catch one, and you put one on and you miss one; you put one on, you catch one. In the marsh, fishing redfish is a little bit slower pace, so the minnow stays on longer. The minnows last long; they hold up better than the live shrimp. And for redfish that’s a better bait, the minnow, so that’s primarily—and I’m still selling a few live shrimp, but that’s the better seller right now, is minnows and regular market shrimp, regular bait—dead bait—because it’s cheaper.
I’m looking at a list on the wall, so pogies—
This is all frozen baits here.
I just want to know what each thing is used for fishing.
They mostly use these pogies in all the fish offshore, for snapper, or to chum with. They fish these mangrove snappers, and they’ll use stuff like that to throw in the water and chum, entice the fish to come up or to start feeding in a frenzy. That way when they throw whatever they got on their line out, they hit it quicker. Most of the time, the mullet they’ll use around this time of year and all when the big redfish start coming in, the bull-reds. Squid, mostly offshore bait again, fishing snapper and stuff like that. The shrimp, if they don’t have fresh they’ll buy the frozen and that’s primarily inshore in the marsh along the side of the road. Crabs, that’s primarily the same thing as the mullets, for the big redfish, for the bull-reds, that they use.
So they use just whole crab?
Ah, they’ll break the shell off and break it and quarter it, cut it like in pieces and make four baits out of a crab usually.
I can't imagine just not eating it. [Laughs]
Yeah, because sometimes it’s some mighty, mighty big crabs that they buy to use for bait.
It’s interesting to me that squid is on there, just because I don’t think of squid as being one of the natural resources that you see in restaurants here. I mean, I’ve eaten squid, but I didn't know that it came from here.
Well I know a lot of people that eat it. I have some people that buy it for to eat, and I’ll save it for them fresh if I can get it. I’ve got a few people that buys. We just haven't been catching any this year. We caught a few in the springtime that I froze for bait, and unless I’m catching them fresh like that I wouldn’t sell them to somebody for human consumption. But at certain times when I am catching them, I got a few people that ask me to save them fresh like that for them and they come get them.
Why aren't you getting them this year?
I don’t know. They’re just not here. In fact, right before you came I had a couple that stopped here and they asked about them, if I had any squid, so—.
Have you had other years when there weren't squid?
I saw that already, you know. That’s something that’s not real popular in this area; it comes and goes. But I mean usually you catch a few, and we’re not catching—since the early spring when we started shrimping, in the middle of April, we hadn't caught any all summer long in this area—or I hadn't. And usually you catch a handful. Every now and then I’ll notice a couple of real, real small ones, real tiny ones, but they just haven't been having any.
Is there any other bait that isn't available in the same quantities this year?
Ah no, not—we went through a bad time with the crabs in the spring. We went probably two months in this area and some areas along the bayou and quite a few places down South Louisiana. For about two months it was really, really slow. And then it picked up a little bit, and then during the summer we had a little round of crabs in, and which we usually get in the month of July—end of July and August—and they caught plenty of crabs on the beach and stuff. And that little storm came at the end of August, beginning of September, Labor Day weekend, and those crabs just completely disappeared with that storm, like day and night. And it’s just here recently in the last week or so that they’re starting to bite a little bit, and they’re starting to show back up some, but it’s been slow again—real slow, exceptionally slow—for this time of the year with the crabbing. I don’t know if it’s got anything to do at all with what happened last year or not, but I always said that it would be not this year but next year, and even more so the following year, if reproductively something was affected.
By the oil spill?
Right. It would take two and probably three years to really see it, because first of all, it wasn’t fished that year. Hardly anyone fished. When this happened, everything that was on that beach spawned. The trout come to that beach and spawned, the crabs get to that beach and spawn at the time of the year that all this mess went on. And I’m a firm believer that anything that was big enough that could escape it escaped it. It was like putting somebody in a swimming pool and start filling it with water, and an older person is going to climb out but an infant can't. So if the juvenile stuff couldn’t get away, then those numbers would be hurt. And once the pressure is on them being fished again by the commercial and the recreational people for a year or so, it’s going to knock those reproductive numbers down even more. And by the second or third year after the oil spill mess, I think that’s when you’re going to really see if it had any effect. And I think if the numbers isn't really bad by then, well, I don’t think it had that much effect on it, but that’s left to be seen. That’s my opinion, just fooling with this all my life you know.
If it has affected reproduction, what do you think could have affected it—the oil itself or the dispersant?
That would be hard to say. I’m not qualified really, I guess, to answer that. But I would have to look at it like this: A dispersant was something to sink the oil, dissipate the oil, get rid of it by some means. Roundup is a weed killer. You spray it to get rid of the grass by some means. Any chemical or every chemical has a label on it that says it’s harmful in some kind of way by some means. So I guess too much of it could hurt. I guess too much oil could do the same thing. Now like I say, I’m not really qualified to answer it, but all I can say is you know all pesticides, all chemicals that you use to get rid of something, has an effect on something, some kind of way. And I think we’ll have to wait and see what takes place next year. And I would have to say that if we see this cycle happen again next year, then I would have to venture to say that it had something to do with the spill and it wasn’t just a bad year. Because I saw that all my life in this industry, where you get bad years. You get a bad cycle of weather conditions or whatever; it hurts the reproductive cycle or whatever—a cold winter or a hard freeze, too much rain. I saw years where the shrimp didn't grow; too much rain that made the shrimp—the brown shrimp for our spring season—leave early. The spillway opening. You know, Mother Nature plays a part, and like I say, I saw cycles for some reason that things were off. But the following year it came back and the cycle didn't keep repeating itself. So if this becomes a repetitive deal for the next year or so, then I’m a firm believer that it had something to do with either dispersant or the oil and it’s not just a cycle that’s a bad cycle that we’re going through.
Do you feel like, with the oil spill kind of cutting down on some sales, and then the economy, do you feel like this is going to continue to be a viable business for you for making a living?
I would think so because you still are going to see a lot of tourists. The worse the economy gets really, the better it is for us down here because I’m talking about people coming from Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Thibodaux, Donaldsonville, New Orleans area, Slidell, surrounding areas. This is close and it had good fishing, some of the best in the summer months; crabbing on the beaches and shrimping for recreation. So we always are going to get that influx of people, I think, in those certain few months, in the summer months. Economy-wise it could hurt; it could hurt on the amount they’ll spend. They might still come but not spend. They might not have that $100 bill to spend. They might only have $50 now to spread around instead of $100. And that’s where we would see the difference. But I think we’ll survive in it. I worry about the younger generation in this fishing industry, being able to survive in it, starting out. I guess you would say I got my foot in the door. You know I seen some of the good times in the fishery and the bad times, but I saw the fuel prices when they were cheap and the shrimp prices and the crab prices when they were at their peak, when there was money to be made, and I just don’t know about the generation that’s coming up in it right now, this next generation, how they’re going to fair out and survive it.
What about hurricanes? Do you worry about those?
Not really. It’s a part of living on the coast. I’ve seen a lot of them and been through quite a few. Just got to pick up the pieces after and start over or move on, one of the two.
How many boats do you have?
I got four boats that I use to fish with.
Did they all survive Katrina?
Uh-hm, yeah. I got a piece of property on Bayou Lafourche that I bring my boats to. I got two of them that I bring up there by water and tie up inside the floodgate system or area, and the other two I put on the trailer and I usually bring them off the island if it’s going to be bad like for Katrina or Gustav or something like that.
Did you stay on the island?
No, no, we didn't stay. No, I’m not staying for something like that. I mean, what can you do? It’s bad enough we got to come back without electricity and water and whatever to clean up, but why stay here? To experience it? You know that would be the only thing that I could think of, because when it’s blowing—and I mean we had water up to the windows in here for Katrina and Gustav—I mean it would be far-fetched to say that I’m going to leave my house and come here to check my shop or do something here with five or six feet of water on the road. I mean I hear people say, “Well, I’m going to stay to take care of my stuff.” How are you going to get around to take care of something? What you going to do? You know the water is over the top of your vehicle; the boat breaks loose. You going to go swim behind it? I mean the best thing to do is just get your stuff all that you can get off of the island, and whatever you can't, tie it down and raise it up and get out of harm’s way. Property and whatever is replaceable; lives isn't.
So today you’re not fishing—
I fished this morning.
What time did you get up?
Around 4:30, and I came to the shop. I usually get here in the morning around quarter to 5, 5 o'clock, and I’ll open up until 6:30 or so. And then I left and I went on my bait boat and caught some live bait and came back and I opened back up. And at this time of the year I’m kind of in and out. I leave the sign with the number on the front, and if I’m not here and somebody comes they’ll call and I’ll come back and serve them. I’m kind of back and forth at this time of the year.
I wanted to ask you quickly about the crab traps that you make.
It’s just a small trap. I call it a beach trap. It’s a half-size trap. It’s half of the size of a full trap, commercial trap, and I had a lot of people ask or wanting to buy traps off my dock. And I can't sell them because as long as they still work for me they’re worth as much as a new trap to me. And so when I get rid of them they’re not worth selling because as long as they’re catching crabs, at the price of equipment today, they’re worth as much as that new trap. So I got the idea, I said, “Well, when the crabs start biting on the beach and it slows down for me to sell them, everybody comes here and they want to buy equipment to crab with.” So I started building the small trap, and that way you could fit a few of them—if you was in a car you could fit them in the trunk of a car, the kids could handle them easy. A lot of people buy them for the kids, for younger kids because they’re a small trap. And then I made a full-size trap, and it doesn’t have any partitions in it. It’s just a two-funnel, basic old-time two-funnel trap, and I sell a few of them. In particular at that time of the year when the crabs is biting on the beach and stuff and they come here, they don’t want to buy crabs with me but they come here not prepared. And they go out there on the beach fishing and they see everybody catching ice chests of crabs. And so they come, and nobody else on the island sells traps. And they’ll come here and say, “Ah, we need something to crab with.” Well I got the little set-nets that I sell. And [they say], “We saw people with crab traps. Do you sell crab traps?” “I have crab traps.” And that’s the way I sell most of the traps, in the middle part of the summer when the crabs are biting on the beach.
What are they made out of?
It’s a square-mesh, plastic-coated wire. The same wire as the commercial traps are made; it’s just a plain simple easy-to-make trap, not as time-consuming to make them. And in my spare time in the afternoon I put a few together, and I keep a few of them around here, five or six of each style. I’ve got them outside hanging up.
What do you enjoy the most about your profession?
I guess just the challenge of going and catching product, you know. Some days it’s there and some days it’s not. It’s just the challenge of catching it. I guess that’s the momentum in the morning to get you going. Where am I going to go, and if it’s not there, where I’m going to go next? And when you do find it, it’s that high that you catch. And it’s been slow; it’s been really slow with the live bait, with the shrimp-catching, the product. We had a lot of brown shrimp in the spring season early, and since the 4th of July, I think when that freshwater from the river finally made its way to us, that brown shrimp left and it left all at once. Which, it was coming to an end, and we didn't have much small white shrimp up until—we still don’t in this area. So live shrimp was a challenge from July up until now. I saw a lot of mornings go out there and catch none, couple hundred and just go back the next morning and go back the next morning and then finally catch 700, 800, or 1,000, and then maybe the next morning nothing again. It’s been a really, really off-season for us with the product.
You said the river finally got here. You mean the flooding of the—?
The freshwater, right, the freshwater from them opening the spillways. I think it finally worked its way around and got in our area maybe, and brown shrimp doesn't like freshwater.
It strikes me that you don’t seem stressed out about this poor year, and I think it takes a very patient disposition.
Take it like it comes, take it like it comes. It’s just like I said, you know, go catch 700--800 live shrimp and a few hundred croakers this morning and go back tomorrow morning and catch 300 shrimp, and this has been the trend here lately. You get a little disturbed weather, a little front, little rough weather, and you’ll catch a handful of shrimp. And then it gets like it’s getting today, calms down and gets nice, the water clears up, they bury, they disappear. There just are not enough of them to go catch even a few hundred of them. And you got to wait a few days until it stirs up. We had that windy condition over the weekend. And I caught a few this morning and kind of settled down, but the water was still kind of muddy. And maybe I might get out tomorrow, and then that’ll be it until this little front comes through. And the same thing with the crabs. You know you go today and you catch 1,000 pounds of crab and you wonder tomorrow if they’re going to bite again like that. And you go tomorrow and you fall off to 600 pounds. And you say, “Oh, maybe I’ll wait another day or two to move my traps and see if the weather—”, and then another day or two is nothing and then there’s the challenge. Pick some traps up and move them or try to find some crabs again. You know so it’s just that challenge.
That sounds so stressful to me.
It’s got to be built in you if you’re going to survive in this business to have that ambition to keep going even when it’s bad.
It does seem like this business in particular has a lot of variables.
Yeah, and it’s a lot of hours. A lot of people don’t realize the amount of hours we put in. And I see myself going on the boat at night shrimping and save bait and come home and sleep for two hours and get back up and go on the boat in the morning and catch bait and go crabbing. And you know, sleep a couple hours in the afternoon, be around here, back and forth, and back on the boat at night shrimping to sell to the dock when it pays, and save so much bait, and ice the rest up and get up the next morning and go run crab traps or go catch some more bait or go catch—you know if we save shrimp at night, go catch croakers in the morning or whatever and then come back and go catch crabs.
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