Issue: September 2011
Net Game

Pound-net fishing isn't for the faint of heart (or weak of arm), but Reedville's Peale Rogers and his mates still rise before dawn to keep this generations-old tradition going. 

by Jane Meneely

It sounds like applause, all those tails slapping against the wooden sole of the open boat, but we're the audience and the fish are the show. We watch as another net full of fish comes over the rail, stops, opens at the bottom and drops its writhing silver mass of fish into the hold of the Glenna Fay. More tails hit the wood, a wet sloshy sound now, not the steady clap that came before. Now the fish slap against each other as much as the wooden boat. 

I'm on the deck of the Elva C., a small "retired" fishing boat owned and operated by the Reedville Fishermen's Museum here on the eastern fringe of Virginia's Northern Neck. I have been invited on this dawn ride out of Cockrell Creek to watch local watermen harvest their pound nets off Fleeton Point at the mouth of the Great Wicomico River. My Elva C. colleagues on this adventure are also retired: At the helm is Spud Parker, and working the decks are Ray Rogers and Mate Swift (whose family donated the boat to the museum). The pound nets we're working today belong to Ray Rogers's son Walter--though everyone calls him "Peale," a nickname he picked up in grade school. The Glenna Fay belongs to Peale too; it's the same boat Ray used when he worked pound nets many years ago. And it's Ray who stands ready to supply me with answers to my many questions.

"The boat's in better shape now," he says, nodding at the Glenna Fay. "Peale's done well with it." By "it," Ray means fishing in general, the profession--which, truth be told, has sort of petered out in these parts. This is more than a little ironic, because the pound-netters catch mostly menhaden, and of course menhaden is the name of the game in Reedville, the Virginia home of Omega Protein Corporation and its vast fish processing plant and giant fishing fleet. The menhaden operation here used to be more commercially diverse, but the town nevertheless still owes its life to the bony, oily little fish that comes in by the hundreds of millions of pounds and leaves in the form of fish oil, fish meal, fertilizer, protein concentrate and omega-3 fatty acids, among other tasty products. Indeed, even though Omega's menhaden harvest in Virginia is now capped--because of concerns that the species is being overfished--Reedville still boasts the nation's second largest annual fish landing, most of it menhaden, at well over 300 million pounds. First place belongs to the town of Unalaska, Alaska, on the Aleutian Islands. Empire-Venice, Louisiana, runs a close third.
But that's big-time menhaden fishing--huge boats, spotter planes circling overhead, vast nets pulling in tens of thousands of fish in a single haul. What Peale Rogers does is miniscule by comparison. He is on the level of a family farmer, scratching a living from a few productive acres while agribusiness harvests the rest of the landscape and beyond. His menhaden don't end up as fish oil and fertilizer; they're sold as bait to other fishermen. This story is about how Peale Rogers makes a living.

On the way out we had passed vestiges of old processing factories along the water's edge, one tall lonely smokestack in particular that locals call the "tall stack." A committee is actively raising money to preserve it so future generations can find their way home to Reedville after a hard day on the water [see "The Power of Tower," Channel 9, August 2010].

Finally we're on the open Bay, slick and slatey today. Visibility is hazy, but with such a wide sweep of water, there's little to see beyond the flat blue-gray sheet that stretches toward daybreak. It's only a tick past 6 a.m., but it's already hot and muggy and we've donned hats and sunglasses to ward off the sun's glare. One of the reasons the watermen come out so early to harvest their nets is to avoid the high heat of the day--as hard on the fish as it is on the men. "But mostly they want to be the first one back to market," Ray tells me. The buyer, he says, can only unload one boat at a time, and the process can take up to an hour. If you have three or four boats ahead of you on a hot July day, your fish can spoil before you even get them off the boat. Also, in among the menhaden today, as usual, will be plenty of tasty finfish that might be someone's dinner tonight--and the sooner those fish can be shipped off to Baltimore, Norfolk, New York, the sooner it will appear on someone's menu. 

Peale Rogers has three pound nets, all on ground leased annually from the Commonwealth of Virginia. He has a degree in economics from Randolph-Macon College, but before he'd even graduated he began to see that he wasn't cut out for desk work. Just 24 hours after getting his diploma, he was fishing in Louisiana. He took over his father's boat in 1989. This morning he has Baybay Hudnell working the nets with him in the long low pound skiff he has towed behind the Glenna Fay. Onboard the Glenna Fay, Ned Reese (an uncle of Peale's wife, a retired "computer geek" who helps out for the fun of it) is working the hydraulics, raising and lowering the "bucket" net that empties the pound.  

A pound net is a combination of engineering and juju. First a long straight net, called the hedge, runs perpendicular to the tide, stretching from shallower to deeper water. (To a boater, it looks like a half-submerged fence.) As fish swim up or down stream, they hit that net and instinctively turn toward deeper water, working along the net till it ends, well inside the heart-shaped "false" pound. 

Picture a garden spade. The handle is the hedge net, the spade is the area enclosed by the false pound. As the fish swim along the net, they become more and more anxious to find a way past, so when they finally reach the net's end, they dart quickly around it and head back to the shallows again. But they don't go far before they are caught in the rounded top of the spade (the top of the heart). "This is where the fish get confused," Ray says. Disoriented, they slow down and begin to circle the false pound, looking for a way out. Some find their way back to open water through the small opening between the hedge net and the false net--essentially on the other side from where they came in. The rest eventually discover a good-size hole at the pointy end of the heart. They slip through this and into the "pound."  

The pound is a giant holding tank where all manner of fish collect--essentially whatever's swimming up or down the Bay that day: menhaden, of course, but also croaker, spot, rockfish, sugar toads, flounder, cownose rays--and they all mill around in that big enclosed space until they find another opening on the downstream side of the net. This one leads to the adjacent "pocket" net, and this is what Peale harvests nearly every day except Sunday from March to November. Why every day? I wonder. Wouldn't it be more efficient to empty it less frequently, allow the catch to build up? No, Ray explains; fish left in the net for more than a day or so will eventually find their way out.  

As daylight grows stronger on the water, a few cormorants glide into position on the net posts. This is their cafeteria, and when it's light enough for them to see the fish, they start diving in. Maybe that's another reason why the watermen come out early, but it's a hopeless gesture, really. The cormorants have all day. 

Peale has strung a layer of blue netting, a "goose net," across the top of the pocket, where the fish are concentrated and the cormorants can do the most damage. But the birds can still help themselves to the fish circling the pound, and the really clever ones will dive into the pound and swim into the pocket to get their meal. I can imagine two new cartoon characters: Corky Cormorant and the bedeviled Felmer Dudd.

Harvesting the pocket takes teamwork. First Peale removes the goose net and drops one corner of the pocket net low enough for him and Baybay to push into it aboard the skiff. Moving their boat into position against the deepwater side of the pocket, which is about as long as the skiff, they each manage to grab a handful of net and snug it up tight against the skiff's bottom. Working more or less in unison they begin to pull it up, an arm's length at a time, dropping the empty yardage into the skiff. 

The net is beribboned with fish, either small ones caught by the gills in the webbing, or long silver ribbon fish--trash fish, says Ray. The ribbon fish are more than a foot long but only a few inches around--just bones, Ray tells me. And they're caught, dozens of them, in the web of the net. Peale and Baybay pluck them out and fling them out into the water. Same goes for detritus caught in the netting: the carcasses of other small fish, mostly, that have been chewed on by captive crabs or just cut to shreds by the rough filament of the net. Occasionally Peale uses his dip net to scoop a swirl of dead fish into the Bay. 

As they pull in the net, their biceps gleam with sweat. If Peale spots a rip in the net, he whips out a net needle (it looks like a small weaver's shuttle) from his pocket and mends it on the spot while Baybay scoops another swirl of garbage into the open water.

Gradually the skiff draws nearer to the Glenna Fay, and the pocket net, greatly reduced in size now, starts boiling with fish. Peale gives Ned the signal to bail. Ned swings the boom over the fish and lowers the "bucket," an open-ended net that opens and closes courtesy of a drawstring. The weighted bottom edge of the net drops easily through the teeming fish. Ned pulls the drawstring and the net closes. Now he raises the net out of the water and Peale uses a long pole to swing it over the Glenna Fay where Ned releases the catch into the empty hold. Back goes the net, over the pocket full of fish, down goes the net, up it comes again, dripping and splashing, swinging over the hold, down go the fish.

In among the menhaden I see the occasional flashy stripes of a rockfish or the mirrored silver of a bluefish. Cownose rays tumble from the bucket net and flop menacingly atop the pile, until another bucketful covers their flailing wings and spiked tail. The oddest creature to appear is a sugar toad. It doesn't look the least bit appetizing to me, but is in fact a prized morsel that fetches a good price at the market. Known more formally as a northern blowfish, it swells into a creamy yellow balloon when threatened, making it appear far bigger than it really is. "People like to fry them up. It's a real delicacy," Ray says as Ned picks one up and tosses it into a waiting plastic tub. Another Bay blowfish is the spiny toad, and Peale has netted some of them too. Their balloons are riddled with nasty spines that make them unfriendly and inedible. 

What I take for baby flounder turn out to be hogchokes. "In the old days," Ray says, explaining the odd name, "people would feed the trash fish to the hogs. But this one, if it went down a hog's throat, it would choke it. Its skin is real rough, like sandpaper, and it would just stick in there." They go back into the Bay.

Once the pocket is emptied of fish, Peale and Baybay grab the empty net and dump it out of the skiff back into the water. They replace the goose net and scoot the skiff back into the river, fastening its painter and scrambling on board the Glenna Fay. Up to their knees in fish, they wade through the hold sorting the food fish from the menhaden as they motor to the next pound net and start the process again. The rays go overboard. The rockfish gets a blue state-issued tag and its weight is recorded--all part of the system for limiting the commercial catch of rockfish in the Bay. Peale chucks something large and unfishlike onto the deck of the Elva C. "Take a look at that," he says. It is, it turns out, the biggest shrimp I've ever seen in my life--almost a foot long and very nearly as thick as my wrist. "Must be visiting from the Gulf," Ray laughs. I wasn't aware that there were any shrimp in the Bay, certainly not this far up anyway. "I think there's shrimp here," Ray says, "but you have to drag for them, and you're not allowed to do that in Virginia." He agrees that most of the shrimp stay offshore in saltier water, and he's never seen one this big either. 

Having made her rounds, the Glenna Fay now heads back to Reedville, once again passing the tall stack that overlooks the harbor. Peale brings his boat alongside a gray building just downstream of the Crazy Crab restaurant. The sign on the outside wall reads: pride of virginia. This is where the independent commercial fleet unloads its catch. A giant vacuum hose reaches into the Glenna Fay's open hold and sucks the fish onto a conveyor belt inside the building. If there are any food fish left in Peale's catch, he can pull them off the conveyor belt before they land in a box that measures them out in 50-pound increments. 

The fish that hit the box will be chopped, frozen and shipped off as bait for crab pots, or as chum for the recreational fishing industry. Peale has to sort and box the food fish separately, ice it down, and take it to Reedville's old steamboat wharf where a wholesaler picks it up and ships it off to seafood markets along the East Coast.

Meanwhile, the Elva C. motors back to the dock at the Reedville Fishermen's Museum. On mornings like this Captain Spud runs her through her paces--just to make sure everything's still ticking. I was lucky to be along for the ride that day, and grateful now to be out of the heat and headed for breakfast.

Ray gave up working on the water, he tells me, to work a regular job at the Omega plant. Peale had a similar opportunity but turned it down, not wanting to give up the freedom of being his own boss, of having the chance to introduce his kids to the water and spend quality time with his family, especially in the summer months when school is out. 

Ironically, Peale tells me much later, the hard part of pound netting comes in the winter time, when he has to mend his nets and prepare new stakes for the pound nets. "That's when I'm working nine-to-five," he says. He has thousands of dollars tied up in the nets themselves, and he has to make them last. He also has to turn a critical eye to the weather come early spring and hope the spring storms have passed by the time he sets everything up for the summer run. "One bad storm and I can be wiped out," he says, referring to a storm's capacity to rip out stakes and tear up the nets. It could take him the rest of the season just to break even. That's when he thinks about quitting.

"But then I'll look out the window and see one of my buddies running up the creek, a bunch of kids on board getting ready to go tubing or something fun, and I think I wouldn't want to give that up. I just don't think I could lock myself in an office somewhere and watch the action through a window." So he keeps on fishing. Setting nets. Harvesting nets. Some days are better  than others. Some years are better than others. "But I'm choosing," says Peale. "I'm calling the shots." 

It's his show all right. And in some magical way, even the fish seem to understand that as they slap their tails against the flat of the boat each morning, as if to cheer him on for one more day.