Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series from CJ columnist Nelson Paul on his unique perspective of what it was like in the early 1970s when, as a teenager, he joined a cooperative shrimping operation in North Carolina internal waters. Part one can be found here.
The routine was familiar. Get the trawl out, make sure it was set right, and do a 45-minute tow. Captain O would take the helm most of the time, and I would curl up next to the motor box to nap beside its warmth. Dad would wake me when it was time to “pull back” the trawl. Pulling back the trawl was like opening a Christmas present, and we did well, but sometimes the gifts we received were things you didn’t necessarily want gifted.
The gear was a 40′ trawl, 3′ x 5′ trawl doors, tickler chain, with two 1/2 yellow poly tow lines tied to a pulling post located behind the thwart at the motor box. When pulling back the trawl, we were handicapped in that the boat didn’t have any proper rigging. There was no framework for lifting besides a short, bent, metal conduit snaking overhead to support a bare incandescent bulb. Looking back on it now, I would call our arrangement a “ding batter” rig. A makeshift arrangement like someone would use with a runabout for recreational shrimping, just twice the size.
Pulling back involved stopping the boat, physically pulling the lines in, up to the doors, hanging the doors on either side, and then putting the boat back into gear, to wash the catch down the net. We would stop again, grab the top and bottom trawl lines on each side, and start physically shaking everything down to the end of the net.
The wide bend in Adams Creek is famous for stinging jellyfish. A trawl moving through the water effectively chops up the stinging nettles of a single jellyfish into a million pieces. Each fiery piece manages to wrap itself around a separate individual net mesh thread. Multiply this by millions of jellyfish and thousands of meshes, and the task of shaking down the net becomes a burning hellish encounter with this slimy natural napalm. Imagine getting this wicked jelly on your hands, face, and eyes, while the sun is burning down at over a million degrees, brightly reflecting off the glassy water surface, with not a breath of air to be found anywhere.
Enduring this tormenting purgatory was just part of the task at hand, and after working everything down to the end, we would heave the tail-bag up onto the rear deck that also served as the culling tray. Untying the tail bag would allow the catch to slide over the deck in a hissing, bubbling sheet of slimy goodies. It was a slippery squirming mass of small spot, croaker, pinfish, and fully puffed up toadfish, mixed with blue crabs, that would quickly rush to the box corners and assume a defensive position with their claws raised. Odd things, like marsh balls, worm-eaten pieces of wood, rusted beer cans (it was that long ago!), and other items that were simply unidentifiable, found their way into our possession, albeit very temporarily. Mixed in with all this were the treasured brown shrimp.
Our standard operating procedure was to tow the trawl directly down the channel of the Intercoastal Waterway (IWW). Now the IWW accommodates all sorts of recreational and commercial traffic, most notable of which was the International Paper Company barge that dropped logs like breadcrumbs, some of which would immediately sink to the bottom.
Because of this, as you can probably guess, it wasn’t entirely unusual to catch a sunken log on a tow. The sign the net was hung up would be the trawl doors coming together. But there was a time we got a lot more than we bargained for during the day.
The first indication was when Captain O raised this possibility with his high-pitched voice emanating from the vicinity of his stubby cigar, “Do you think we’re moving?” In the dim light of the early dawn, it took a few minutes to line up two trees on the bank and discern that we were standing still, even though the ever-present ‘swish, swish, swish” sound of the prop wash indicated the motor was turning at a normal speed.
We throttled down and put the motor out of gear to see what might be wrong. As we pulled back, we first encountered an enormous mass of bare tree roots and then saw the distinctive squarish bark of a huge trunk, which told the story. We had scooped up an entire tree; roots, trunk, and limbs. It took a few minutes to absorb the magnitude of the situation. The tree was so massive it held the doors apart on a 40-foot trawl.
It was a nearly intact, extremely large Pinus taeda, with its appendages sticking out every which way, the net wrapped entirely around it, top first. It was the classic “Oh, crap!” moment without any apparent, or at least immediate, remedy, a situation we call a “Down East Scrape,” even though technically, we weren’t really Down East.
We quickly understood that this appendage wasn’t going to pass through the narrow trawl taper and the enormous weight involved made it clear we weren’t going to raise it up with anything we had on hand. After a few minutes of study, dad untied the tow lines from the pulling post and began to coil them up. He found a string and float we had on hand and used this to tie up the rope coil. He then dropped the coil and float over the side.
Free from the trawl, we maneuvered around to the terminal float tied to the end of the tail bag. We began to pull the net in, narrow end first. And after a great deal of time and effort, we managed to unwind the seemingly endless tangle of limbs with the net out the trawl throat, from around the trawl doors, and around the “tickler” chain.
When we finished, there was a brief celebratory moment, but in my mind, I imagined looking up and seeing the International Paper Company barge going by. Back then, the bespectacled captain casually waves from the platform outside the tug wheelhouse in the searing mid-morning summer heat. He is nursing a can of Pepsi like Fuller in the pizza scene from the first “Home Alone” movie. Though not responsible for the “whole tree in the net” episode, he quietly nods and assures us more “presents” are on the way.
Nelson Paul is a real estate agent, former NC Coastal regulator, inventor, husband, father of four, and a grandfather of seven.