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Pound Nets & Poets
By Ann Sale

     You’ve heard of “Cowboy Poets” I’m sure-seen them, tight jeans, tall hats, declaiming on T.V. I’ll stake our Chesapeake Bay pound net fishermen up against them any day of the week. They may not be rhymers but our guys talk and live poetry-and they’re stronger and better looking too! 

     “Any day I don’t get up before the sun comes up is Not a good day”. Now doesn’t that come straight from the mind of a pragmatic poet? That’s David Callis, waterman, summing up his philosophy of life!

     Pound net fishermen draw back to the old days and old ways of the bay. David, however, may not have had a choice. It’s in his blood. He’s the fifth generation in his family to run pound nets in the Chesapeake Bay. With three great grandfathers earning their living this way, his grandfather a Ship’s Pilot, his father a retired Coast Guard officer, its safe to say, David felt drawn to the sea. He’d have liked a coast guard career himself but after 15 years of living ‘all over’ due to his Dad’s job, the whole family just wanted to stay home.

     “My Mumma and Daddy told me I could do anything I wanted except leave home,” smiles David. 

     At eighteen he became a Launch Captain for the Virginia Pilot’s Association, a career he still pursues working shifts and fitting his passion for pound netting into his open hours. As a result he maintains only a nodding acquaintance with sleep.

     John Raymond Bassett is his buddy and cohort. They’re independently dependent on one another with each man owning his own nets. John Raymond has those blue eyes the light seems to shine straight through and a smile to arrest you in your tracks. He also has a degree in finance and a situation both men consider vital to their friendship. “David loves to talk and I can’t hear him,” laughs John Raymond. He’s hearing impaired and frequently counts it a blessing! Both are generous men who will take time to joke with you and deliver fish to old folks who love ‘fresh’ but can’t get out. 

     Respectful homage is also extended to the Rowe brothers who were the only pound net fishermen in the area for a long time. David bought his first boat and net from Wilson Rowe, learned from him, liked him a lot. Shelton Rowe and his work boat the Maid King, had to give it up this year. Vessel and man, exactly the same age at 70 plus years still look good, but are feeling a little weary. We miss them and treasure David and John 

     Raymond all the more, afraid they may be an endangered species. 
There’s something fascinating in the look of a slim line of poles extending out into the water, mysterious and indecipherable as a lace makers loom. Back in the 1940s as many as 2,000 of these fish traps were staked in Virginia waters. Now the count is about 120. 

     Men to work them are in short supply too. Iron will dedication and muscles to match are essential to running and harvesting from pound nets. John Raymond and David have both and that ‘poetic quality’ to boot but they are only two; but let me tell you what’s involved here.

     In early February poles have to be cut, sharpened, piled and ferried through icy waters to the fishing grounds. Pounded into the bay bottom and spaced in a line that runs across the tide, they stand barren, awaiting the nets. These huge rope snares will have been spread out over a very large field, carefully inspected then mended-hours and days of chilly, tedious work. By the middle of March the net is attached to the poles, licenses are renewed and the season begins. The nets stay in place until November except when they come up for repairs, a regular and trying event now that some sport fishermen like to run their boats in close casting into the fish as they enter the trap. More often then not they snag and tear the net. At present there’s no way to prohibit this selfish disregard for the waterman’s livelihood. The truth is, jokers and thieves abound on the open sea. Cormorants, osprey, herons and other avian fish fanciers crouch on the poles supporting the pound head, lazily helping themselves to fresh snacks and ‘take aways’. There’s small complaint over these thieves however, “we work the water together” our watermen say with a shrug.

     It was around 1858 when pound nets were introduced on the bay. They caught on and quickly became a favorite way of catching large quantities of fish. An ingenious idea, with an origin as hard to track as who ate the first oyster, the trick involves a straight wall of netting running out from shallow water, a heart shaped net called ‘the bays’ and the pound head, an enclosure of small-meshed net with a net floor. The theory is that when confronted by an obstacle, fish will swim toward deeper water-and they do-following their leader along the line of netting right into ‘the bays’, a maze sufficiently confusing to fish they are encouraged to travel on into the pound head trap. There they wait until the daily catch is taken, usually at low tide.

     When our brawny poets approach the net, they guide their boat inside the pound head, after first loosening the lines holding the net in place. Blocking the funnel to keep the fish from escaping, they slowly raise the floor of the pound net-an activity I guarantee would put the denizens of Gold’s Gym to sorry shame. The fish are then lifted to the surface and scooped into the boat with large dip nets. All types of fish are caught, even crabs and eels pinch and squirm amid the throng. Recently we saw a 78-pound drum flopping among a batch of impressively large rockfish, flounders, croakers, spot, tautog and the usual contingent of menhaden. With fish piled to the top of the gunnels-on good days when the winds blow right-she ties up at the wharf where white booted young men wait to shovel and sort. All the good stuff goes directly to the seafood market behind the wharf where each individual is cleaned, iced and presented for purchase. Some go to city restaurants. Shipped out in refrigerated trucks they too are served and enjoyed the on the very day they’re caught. The menhaden, too bony and oily to eat, are sold cheap for bait to crab pot fishers.

     “You never know what you’ll find in the pound,” whispers David. Sure there’s the lure of the unknown, but its sunrises on the water, independence, the fresh smell of morning that keep him and John Raymond coming back; that and their love of the old ways. We who live on the bay celebrate those who keep our traditions alive and give grateful homage to the ones who still and always will “love to go down to the sea in ships…”

© 2001 Ann Sale All rights reserved.


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