Herring Fishing on the Chickahominy River, Virginia

Or “Why he did not get any fish scales on his face!”

I was going through some old photos of my mother’s and came across a sequence she took of my father and his crew fishing for herring on the Chickahominy River along our waterfront of Moyseneck Farm.

In the spring, large schools of herring would swim inland from the ocean into the freshwater rivers and creeks to spawn. Herring are anadromous fish meaning their eggs hatch and young fish initially live in freshwater, but the adults spend most of their lives in saltwater, returning to freshwater only to spawn. Herring live in large schools of thousands to hundreds of thousands in number.

Atlantic Herring grow to about 18 inches long.

Atlantic Herring grow to about 18 inches long.

Herring are an important commercial fish, and ocean trawlers haul tons of herring to be packed, pickled, and salted for markets around the world. Additionally, herring roe, the eggs inside the female herring, is considered a delicacy.

In the spring, large schools of herring travel in from the ocean and up into the freshwater rivers and creeks along the Atlantic coast to spawn. In the 1940s and 1950s, fishermen could make good money catching the herring as they swim upriver. This spawning period lasted little more than two weeks, so fishermen had to be ready to go to work as soon as the herring began to run.

My father, with the help of several local fishermen, fished for herring during this period.

A month or two before the anticipated “run,” my father would spend hours going through the net, repairing it as needed, mending holes using a fishnet needle and replacing damaged or missing floats. Before I was 10, I had learned how to use the needle to mend small holes in the net.

The fishnet mending needle

The fishnet mending needle

Even at the age of four or five, I was on hand to help—when my mother let me.

Even at the age of four or five, I was on hand to help—when my mother let me.

The net, called a haul seine, was several hundred feet long and hung down four to five feet from the surface of the water. The top of the net was supported by round cork floats spaced about every eight inches. Lead weights, about an inch in diameter were attached to the bottom of the net to keep the net hanging down in the water.

The haul seine required inspection and maintenance. Here my father repairs a minor tear in the net before the next haul. My father moved the motorboat and net barge in position to load the haul seine on the barge platform.

The haul seine required inspection and maintenance. Here my father repairs a minor tear in the net before the next haul. My father moved the motorboat and net barge in position to load the haul seine on the barge platform.

Fishing began just as low tide, when the tide started to come in. To deploy the net, it was carefully piled on the net barge with one end of the net anchored on the shoreline (tied to a tree). A motorboat pulled the net barge out across the river, pulling the net off of the platform. Once the net was fully extended, they used the motorboat to pull the end of the net upriver, with the tide.

The net was stretched out on the river. Here one end of the net is anchored by the tree and the net played out as the motorboat pulled the net barge out into the river. Once well out in the river, the boat turned upriver to pull the net parallel to the shore.

The net was stretched out on the river. Here one end of the net is anchored by the tree and the net played out as the motorboat pulled the net barge out into the river. Once well out in the river, the boat turned upriver to pull the net parallel to the shore.

Here, the net has been stretched upriver along the shore. Then the real work begins. Here my father begins to haul the net in by hand.

Here, the net has been stretched upriver along the shore. Then the real work begins. My father begins to haul the net in by hand.

Finally, the catch was collected in an area where the fish could be quickly and easily transferred to wire baskets using long-handled dip nets. The process of transferring the fish resulted in fish scales flying about. On almost every haul, someone would say, “Good thing I had my mouth open. I’d got fish scales all over my face.” Everyone would laugh like they had never heard it before.

The crew gradually works the net along the shore, forcing the catch into a smaller and smaller loop inside the net.

The crew gradually works the net along the shore, forcing the catch into a smaller and smaller loop inside the net.

Surprisingly, the net collected mostly just herring. Apparently, sport fish such as bass and perch moved to deeper water while the herring were running. We did, occasionally catch striped bass that came upriver with the herring—maybe one or two per haul. These were prized fish for eating, but we did not catch enough to sell, so they came home with us for dinner.

We also kept several gravid female herring from the catch to get the roe. A breakfast of herring roe and scrambled eggs was about as good as it gets.

In every catch, very small perch and other small fish were occasionally caught in the web of the net. When I was there, it was my job to remove these little fish and toss them back in the river.

My job was to remove smaller fish—not herring—that were caught in the net and toss them back in the water.

My job was to remove smaller fish—not herring—that were caught in the net and toss them back in the water.

The catch was transferred to the fish house, a two-story cinder block building. Upstairs was what amounted to an office and crew ready-room. There was a wood or coal stove, hotplate, coffee pot, table and chairs, and basic eating utensils, etc., for the crew.

Down stairs was the cold room. There was an inner room with a space of about 18 inches between the wall of the inner room and the outer wall. Ice was poured in this area to keep the catch cold and fresh while waiting for the fish truck to arrive and take delivery.

The fish house as it appeared in the late 1950s.

The fish house as it appeared in the late 1950s.

Once the catch was stored on ice, the crew put the net back on the barge. It could be laid out again if there was enough time left on the tide for another haul, or stored there briefly for the next tide.

If they were not going to be fishing again for the day, the net was wound up on the spool and allowed to dry.

The crew loading the haul seine back on the barge for the next haul.

The crew loading the haul seine back on the barge for the next haul.

By the early 1950s, my father quit the herring fishing business. Apparently it was no longer profitable enough for fish trucks to drive to the farm from Norfolk or Richmond to collect the catch. I have no record of, nor any idea of how many pounds of fish were typically caught and sold, nor what these efforts earned in dollars.

After that, when the herring were running at their peak, we could catch enough for our own use from the banks of the river or wading along the beach using long-handled dip nets.

About Entry

In several earlier posts there have been references to, and even a photo or two of the herring fishing operation my father had at the farm. Recently, I discovered as set of color slides my mother took during one nice fishing day. Herring Fishing on the Chickahominy River, Virginia, Or “Why he did not get any fish scales on his face!” is a photo essay describing crude commercial fishing on the Chickahominy River in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Contents Entry

Herring Fishing on the Chickahominy River, Virginia, Or “Why he did not get any fish scales on his face!” is a photo essay describing crude commercial fishing on the Chickahominy River in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

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5 Responses to Herring Fishing on the Chickahominy River, Virginia

  1. Pingback: Renaissance Musings Table of Contents | Renaissance Musings

  2. Ginger Smither says:

    Oh how wonderful to read this text on herring net fishing. My Daddy and Uncle Sidney (Marshall’s dad) would fish for herring. We always had salted herring. My brother Walter is quite the salt herring breakfast eater. I love herring roe. Quite an expensive protein to eat now. Shad and Shad roe are really my favorite fish to eat, but I would not hesitate to partake of that crispy fried herring. Eat the bones and all!

  3. merlinjr01 says:

    I agree, shad, both fish and roe are really as good as it gets. My dad used to fish for shad when they were running–but they caught 2 or 3 at a time, not net fulls like herring.

  4. Thank you so much for this, which is all new knowledge to me. even the word is new: ‘anadromous’ is one to remember. I would guess it was a hard life, because your account, though wonderfully enlightening, is factual rather than nostalgic.

  5. merlinjr01 says:

    Thank you for your comment Fredrick. Comments like tis keep me motivated. As for a hard life, I just don’t know. I know my parents worked hard to make a living, and I was fortunate enough to be part of that. To me, it was just growing up. Looking back, it was a good life and I smile when I think about it.. That is about as nostalgic as I get.

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