Sometimes the water would be nothing but hot jelly, and you had to get overboard in it. This would separate the men from the boys here.
A lot of men lasted only a week, sometimes just a day, at haul netting.

Pamlico County has deep roots in subsistence farming and fishing. Many a tall tale has come from long days spent working the waters. Some of those stories still permeate our vernacular. Though the methods have evolved, traditions and rights of passage are revered. And of course, some things, like the sentinments above, will never change.

Pamlico County fisherman carrying on local traditions.
Pamlico County fisherman carrying on local traditions.
Pamlico County fisherman carrying on local traditions.

The following historic story is part of larger collection titled Cap’n Dell’s Stories. Many thanks to Oriental Mayor Sally Belangia for making a copy of the book available. Please enjoy this recount of an evolving industry and his reminiscence of what it meant to live the life of a commercial fisherman. Also be sure to check out our popular post about what Minnesott Beach was like “back in the day.”

This book was dedicated, “To the people of Goose Creek Island and our way of life.” Many versions of stories in this book were first seen in The Pamlico News.

Historic photograph of long haul netting around Pamlico County.
Haul netting in 1945. From left to right: Ralph Whitfield, Mayhue Norman, Bert Roberson, Virgil Carawan, Lee Mayo.

I used to hear my daddy say that things had changed so much in his lifetime, he was born too soon. I realize now what he was talking about. Being raised up in a family that the way of life was commercial fishing, I see how much this industry has changed. The way to catch fish in the twenties and thirties and earlier, was pound netting. It was hard work the entire year. They would shad fish in the winter at Pamlico Point. This required a lot of work getting poles out of the woods, taking the bark off, and getting them to the river and nets where they put them in the bottom using a maul. The entrance of Pamlico River was the best and closest place; it was called Pamlico Point. Being at Pamlico it was a lot easier to go up Oyster Creek Point at Lowland to get the stakes they used. One year, they asked a man to get some stakes off his land. He told them if they took the land along with the stakes, they could do it, so he wrote them out a deed for it.

In the spring of the year, the shad nets were taken up. They would work about three weeks in the woods getting new stakes and taking them to Pamlico Point to be put out with the summer nets. This was the best way at that time to catch fish. It was just the fish that came along the shores they could catch.

Then the idea of putting one of these automobile engines in a boat came along, making big changes. The boats had more power. They could be bigger, too, so the way of catching fish changed. You could go out away from shore with these powerboats and pull the nets with them, not wait for the fish to come to you. Sometimes, these engines were not dependable. They would only last a few years, because they were cooled with salt water and the rust would eat them up. But they were better than the old way.

This was “long haul netting” as it was called, and it came with its own set of problems. First of all, it took two boats, two net skiffs, and seven men to make it work three men on each powerboat and one to run the run-boat. (This was the boat that carried the fish in to the fish house.)

There were eight nets: each powerboat had a net skiff in tow with four nets each, consisting of two, two hundred yard wing nets (they were in the biggest mesh) one junior net (a smaller mesh), and one back net – the smallest net, which was about one and a half inch mesh and about 150 yards long. Plus, one carried what was called a bunt net. These nets had a pole on each end of them called a staff, and the staffs were tied together to make them one continuous net.

Weather had to be closely watched. The wind went to falling out about midnight, so by two a.m., everybody was ready to go. The decision had to be made then whether to go into the Sound or stay in one of the bays, basing this on what they thought the weather was going to do. If the weather turned bad and you were in the Sound, you had to try and get the nets up, or leave them with buoys on them and come back after the weather improved to get them.

Historic photograph of an old net skiff.
Historic photograph of two men net fishing.

When they finally chose where they were going to lay out, they started out no later than three a.m., using just the sounding pole to steer by (wrote about this in another story) when they got to where they wanted to be, the two boats each going in opposite directions would come by one another. The men in the skiffs would hand the staff to the other. They would tie the back net staffs together and the boats would continue with the laying out, going in opposite directions. When they got them just about all out, the captain would hand them the end of the hawser that was hooked on the powerboat, and they would tie it to the last staff just before it went over the stern. When it was all done, the hawser came tight, and they sped up the engine to go pulling, heading for the shallow water. This could take from one hour to four hours or more, depending where you were and how far it was to footing bottom.

During this time, you had breakfast: hot coffee or water, fresh eggs (fried if it was calm, or scrambled if the boat was rolling bad), hand sliced, molded bacon, and made from scratch hot biscuits.

Footing bottom was about, or just above, waist deep water. Just before they got the ends they were pulling on to shallow water, the men would get into the skiffs and leave the powerboat and go to paddling on in. They would stop about half way between the two pull boats on th edge of shallow water and stick a stake in the bottom. It was called the footing stake; this would be where the powerboats would take the ends of the nets to, and tie them when they got ashore.

The next thing was cutting-out. The pull boat would take the skiff in tow and head offshore to a buoy on the end of the wing net. Here, they would separate the nets and tie the skiff to the junior net. Then the captain would come back by, throwing the end of the hawser to them and they would tie it to the junior net. As the pull boat pulled this net toward shore, the men in the skiff would be taking the wing nets up as the went. When this was complete, they would start back to do the same thing with the junior net, except the skiff with the bunt net would start at the footing stake and put the bunt net over as they headed out. (This was a short net and small mesh.) When they got to the back net buoy, they would pick it up, tie to the back net, and do the same process as they had done with the wing nets. Except this time, when they got to the end on the side the bunt net was put out on, they would tie the end of the back net to it, and the other side would continue to start (pulling by) by the stake, as far as he could go. Most of the time, the first back net and part of the next one if he didn’t get cut off by the shore line or the water to shallow to float in, by this time, one pull boat had anchored and everybody was going over board. When the boat had to stop, we had to pull the nets by hand.

This was no picnic. It was dangerous; usually the captain would go to the footing stake and stand in the entrance of where the nets were coming together. The idea was to keep the bottom line tight on the bottom. Whatever is in the pond you are exposed to. My daddy got stung in the leg by a stingray one year. He felt it, and when he pulled his leg up the stingray was still hooked to it. Tearing it was worse, until it broke off from the stingray. The crew had to pull it out of his leg with a pair of pliers. Then they had to bring him in to the doctor. Some years, the sea nettles were bad. It was pure torture – you had to cover a big area of bottom with these nets, and bring them together at this point. Sometimes the water would be nothing but hot jelly, and you had to get overboard in it. This would separate the men from the boys here – a lot of men lasted only a week, sometimes just a day, at haul netting. Mr. Waltersadler (ninety-two years old) told me that one year he was helping to foot a net and he made a vow to himself, “when I get ashore, if another sea nettle stings me, he is going to come out of the water to do it.”

The years I worked at it, we had clothes that were made out of canvas that would keep most parts of them from stinging our bodies, but the water would be hot – they were stinging everything they touched. We would still be burning, and when it was over, our wrist and hands were blistered.

My brother, Thomas, said when he was haul netting in the thirties they had pants only to the waist. The last year he worked haul netting was 1937. They worked on shares, and he had worked seven weeks and had not seen a dime, so he went to working on freight boats. Before trawling or pollution, you had years that a living couldn’t be made from haul netting. For whatever reason, there were no fish to catch in the Sound by any method at that time.

You keep pulling one side of the nets around until the end of the bunt net goes by. At that point, the skiff is brought in and you start to take it up in the skiff. The bunt net is small mesh and very baggy; you keep pulling the bottom line until it gets all the way across and under the fish, making the pond smaller. At that time, the run boat is moved until it is alongside, the footing stake is pulled up and put inside the railing, and then the net is pulled in the skiff until you can’t pull it any more. The man on the run boat is ready with a basket hooked on block and fall – it’s at this point you know how you have done and the bailing of fish starts into the run boat until they are all bailed out. I have helped load boats this way and I also have helped when it only made one bale or less.

After this is complete, the bunt net is put back overboard to wash it and the men get in the skiffs and go to taking up the back nets. Usually there is some fish stuck into them, depending on how good the catch was. It’s usually where a man makes up his mind what kind of fish he is going to eat for his dinner. You eat fish or nothing; this is the only choice you have.

Some days, if you got done early enough and didn’t have nothing on the haul, you would move on and make another haul before sundown, usually up in one of the bays. If it was too late, and your nets were in good shape, every body headed into the harbor.

After they stopped these engines, they usually didn’t want to start them anymore because they had to get in the cabin with them to sleep – one over the top of it, the other two on each side. There were times when a thunder squall would come up during the night and you would have to move to another harbor. After you were anchored, you went back in the bunk. Can you imagine how that was: it would be raining, all the windows closed up tight, and you trying to sleep around a hot pile of iron?

The last long haul netting that was done here was in 1986 by Michael Lewis of Lowland. There is some haul netting going on Carteret County today and a few who are just using half of the rig and one boat in this area, I’m told. A lot of evenings, there would be two or three crews tied up together. There would be some big fishing hauls made, to hear them talk. Some of the world’s worst problems would be solved during the evening among the men, and politics was serious with some of them. Hundred-dollar bets were not uncommon on some of the issues. (I never saw any money.) Sometimes, hats were taken off and somebody would invite another on the stern to straighten the issue out. (Never saw any licks passed.)

This came about, passed through, and was gone from this area in my lifetime.

With permission from the publisher, this article was first reproduced in digital format for the 37th Annual Croaker Festival Website by Will Conkwright.