By the mid 1940s shrimp had become such a popular item that trawling for them was one of the primary ways for Island watermen to make a living. Usually they were plentiful in the Island Channel of Back Sound, but sometimes they thinned out so much that men like my daddy had to go looking for them. Now and then things would get so slow working in the sound that Daddy was obliged to take the “Ralph,” his thirty-five foot trawler, and head to the no’thard.
|Shrimp Trawler headed to the No'thard on a Fall afternoon|
Once, while roaming around off Portsmouth Island with my brothers Ralph and Tommy on board, Daddy decided to put out his trawl near the mouth of Ocracoke Inlet. He wanted to see if there might be some shrimp there in the deep channel between the sound and the ocean. Just a few minutes after beginning his drag he noticed that the lines to his net had begun to pull tight and run together. Assuming that his trawl or the boards had been snagged on something, maybe even an abandoned anchor, the turned off his engines and began to pull back to his rig and try to get it back on board the boat.
Much to his surprise and delight, as the trawl got closer he could see that it was filled to the brim with nothing but big green-tailed shrimp --- the kind that were easy to cull and that earned the biggest possible price at the dock. The net was so full in fact that he had to let down buckets into the mouth of the trawl to pull up some of his catch before he could even manage to get the rig back onto his stern.
While thus involved he hardly noticed as another boat from home, this one, the “Gannett” belonging to Milton O’Neal and his brother Luther, pulled up beside him. Few boats at that time had gears that allowed them to idle, much less go in reverse. So, short of stopping the motor and anchoring or floating free in the tide, the only alternative was to slow down as much as was possible, and to circle the spot you were checking out. This was how Milton O’Neal maneuvered his thirty foot trawler that morning, in a slow and tight circle around the Ralph, as he tried to learn what Daddy was doing. Specifically he wanted to know if there was enough of a "sign" to justify his letting out his own trawl for at least one drag.
Milton was, like my father, a "progger" who followed the schedule of the seasons to determine how and where to make money in the water. And, even more than most, he was not at all concerned with making any more than was necessary to support his family and his habits, and not always in that same order.
"Charlie, what ya got?" he hollered over the drone of his engine as got close enough to the stern that he could look at the evidence even as Daddy responded to his question.
"I'll tell ye Milton," Daddy responded, "I wouldn't be surprised that there ain't twenty bushels or more in there. It's about as much as I've ever tried to handle."
Milton was impressed with what he saw and heard, but not in the way that Daddy had assumed. Waving his arms, as if to dismiss the chance that he might try to join in the bounty, he turned and headed back to his wheelhouse to get on his way.
"I don't want none of that," he hollered as he straightened the rudder and headed to the south-west. He then added in a voice loud enough that everyone could hear him, "you can ruin a trawl with that many shrimp!"
The last Daddy saw of Milton that day was the Gannett's stern as it headed on to Cedar Island, where hopefully, there wouldn't be so many shrimp!