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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

No. 82 Shrimp Trawling, North River, & the Politics of DST

Trawling for shrimp was something done by almost every Islander who had a boat. Even if he had a full-time “day job,” he usually had a small trawl that could be pulled for an hour after sunset to catch enough shrimp to eat or to supplement his income.

There are two channels that lie between the Island and the Banks. The main one, the “Island Channel,”  runs the entire length of Back Sound from Middle Marsh to the Inlet. Another much deeper and shorter one is closer to the Banks and is called the “Gull Island Channel.” It runs from “Botta Rum Bay” in the west to off against Bells Island at the east. From May to September, depending on the wind and tide, everything from skiffs with outboard motors to large trawlers could be seen and heard in either channel from sundown to sunrise on any day but Sunday.

That schedule was interrupted briefly each summer when the North River channel, about five miles north of Rush Point on the Island's east end, was opened for shrimping. It was close to a spawning ground and was usually full of shrimp. Full that is until it was besieged with a fleet of upwards of fifty boats when it was opened for the season. Within just a few hours, it would be swept clean and the shrimpers, mostly from the Island, would return back home to and their normal routines and venues.

To regulate this annual ritual, the state fisheries department allowed that trawls could not be used in North River until 6:00 AM on the date set for its opening. For most of the sixties, that date was July 4, Independence Day, and a day on which even the part-time shrimpers would have a day off to take advantage of the event.

Long before sunup on that morning a parade of red and green running lights could be seen headed down the Island Channel towards Rush Point where they would turn to the “no'thard” and a maze of narrow channels that led to the mouth of North River. Since they were negotiating their way trough a veritable obstacle course of shoals and oyster rocks at night, the line of boats was often a convoy led by a designated captain who was familiar with the route. Once there, they would gather in a make-shift circle and turn off their engines to await sunup and the sound of a whistle blown by the state officials who would supervise and patrol the exercise.

When the whistle sounded, the engines would start up almost in unison and the silent waterway would become a din of combustion, and the air would be filled with the fumes of both gas and diesel motors that were igniting together. The first drag, usually about an hour, would be the most bountiful by far; often bringing in more than an hundred pounds of the gray-brown critters that are on many people's lists of favorite seafood. Each subsequent haul would yield no more than half of the one before it, and by mid morning most of the boats would be headed back in the same direction they had come from.

But there was one obstinate fisherman who refused to harken to the starting whistle in spite of the fact that he was missing out on most of the very harvest he had come to get. And, hard as it may be to fathom, his stubbornness was based solely on his antipathy for “anything having to do with the Democrat party.”  Long before, in the days of Al Smith and FDR, he had come to detest everything that had to do with the Democrats, and he swore never to do anything that would even suggest support for either their candidates or their programs. Among them he included the “daylight savings time” that had been instituted during World War II, supposedly as an energy savings measure. But because it was done at the urging of FDR, to this Island shrimper it was just another “Democrat mistake.”

Since the whistle that sounded the opening of North River for shrimping was set to blow at 6:00 AM “DST,” as far as he was concerned, responding to the signal would show his acceptance of the program that by then had been in practice for more than two decades. Standing on the stern of his boat, his arms folded in front of him as a show off his firm resolution, he watched as every other boat headed out into the channel to drop their trawls and begin the morning's work.

“What's the matter,” my Daddy hollered as we passed within just a few feet of the old man's boat, and close enough to be heard over the screaming engines. “What ya waiting for? Do you need any help?"

“Go on,” he responded, proud to show off his zeal and his determination. “I ain't gonna do nothing on that d*** Democrat time!”

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