Beaufort & Shackleford Banks in 1907 - H.M. Smith

Camp of Mullet Fisherman on Shackelford Banks - 1907

Hugh McCormick Smith (1865-1941) was an American ichthyologist and administrator in the Bureau of Fisheries. At the time he compiled his 1907 book, he was Deputy U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries.

Excerpts below from Smith's book, The Fishes of North Carolina, Raleigh, 1907. Excerpts mention fishes and fisheries in Beaufort and on Shackleford Banks. All images, except Smith's portrait, are part of the original book:


...Dr. Robert E. Coker [1876-1967 ] contributes the following account, which applies particularly to the Beaufort region:

The common mullet, or “jumping mullet,” is the most important food-fish of the Beaufort waters. The mass of the fish consumers of North Carolina and neighboring States demand a cheap fish, and for them the mullet, being of good quality and very abundant, is the chief food fish. The mullet fishery is the largest industry in the State derived from salt-water fishes. The importance of the mullet to the fishermen is increased by the fact that it is taken during the summer when most other fish are scarce. On the whole, the loss of no other fish could so embarrass the fisherman as a failure of mullets, and it seems a very unwise policy to use the small-mesh seines, taking the very small, almost finger-sized mullets, which are next to valueless on the market.

Mullets are taken chiefly with "drag nets", or "hauling nets", worked from sail skiffs, singly or in groups of two to four or more in cooperation. The fish are commonly landed on an exposed shoal or beach, or are "pounded". The method known as "footing" is not economical in the case of mullets, as a considerable number escape by jumping over the cork line, and this plan is followed only when other methods are impracticable. A "drag net", or "hauling net", is a seine 150 to 200 or more yards in length and 40 to 80 or more meshes in depth, with mesh of 1-inch to 1 1/2-inch bar. In mullet fishing in early summer a long shallow net with small mesh is desired, later in the season the deeper nets with larger mesh are used. The size of mesh and length and depth of seine to be used are determined according to the size of fish to be taken, and according to whether they are expected to be found scattered over the shoals or in schools and in deeper water.

In "pounding" mullets on the shoals, if the catch is light, it is customary to break the necks as they are meshed to prevent their escape, but if a heavy catch is made it is not economical to do this. The Portsmouth (North Carolina) mullets have quite a reputation in some of the State markets as a result of the method of taking them and preparing them for market, and this method has grown out of the peculiar conditions prevailing about Portsmouth (on Pamlico Sound), near which place there are a great many shoals where the water is a foot or more in depth. The fishermen, working in groups of 2 to 10 skiffs, surround the mullets ("pound" them) on such a shoal with their seines used in combination, then frighten the fish into the nets, and in order that as few as possible may escape, go about breaking the necks as fast as the mullets are meshed. The fish are left in the nets or in the enclosed area until all have been killed. Then they are collected and taken into the boats. The appearance of their fish has become a matter of pride to Portsmouth fishermen, and great care is taken in preparing them for market; the backbone is removed, the intestinal cavity thoroughly washed and the dark lining of the cavity rubbed off with bagging. When carried to market Portsmouth mullets offer, therefore, a clean and attractive appearance, and are said to be of better flavor; they are eagerly sought in the markets of Washington, N. C, New Bern, and Greenville. While mullets are not fished with purse seines, occasionally when a large school of mullets is seen while looking for menhaden, a good haul is made in such a seine.

At the stationary fisheries, such as the Mullet Pond fishery on Shackleford Banks, a seine similar to the drag net is used. When the lookout reports a school of fish within their grounds, the boat bearing the seine is put off, the staff on one end of the net is left near the beach, and the boat is rowed around the school with the net paying off over the stern (operation called "shooting the net") - The fish are then hauled on the beach. They may be cleaned and salted at the fishery before being sold. While there used to be a number of these fisheries on the banks and islands north of Beaufort, the Mullet Pond fishery is the only one that does now so well as ten or fifteen years ago. This is due, not, perhaps, to diminution in the number of the fish, but to the scattering of them by the more extensive fishing of recent years. A smaller number is now taken from any given area. South of Beaufort there is still a considerable number of these fisheries.

The limit of the length of hauling nets imposed by law (225 yards) is evaded by working in groups. A large area is in fact more readily surrounded by several short seines than by a single long one. Four seines may be used to enclose a diamond-shaped pound, as follows:

Two skiff's take positions together on one side of the area to be enclosed, and the other two at the ends respectively. From each boat one man gets overboard, keeping one end of the seine belonging to his boat. The two skiffs that were together are then rowed apart and toward the initial positions of the other two skiffs, each traversing thus one side of the diamond and "shooting the net" as it goes. Meantime the two skiffs at the ends have been rowed to meet each other at an angle. When these latter skiffs have met (at the fourth angle of the diamond) and the former skiffs have reached the initial positions of the latter, the diamond is complete and each seine occupies one side of it. The fish within the enclosed area may now be frightened into the nets, or, if there is a good current, the staffs, two at each angle, are advanced toward the center and the seines drift with the tide to form gradually flattening loops swinging away from the eight staffs grouped together. Where possible, mullets are landed instead of pounded, and the seines would then be used to form two sides of a larger half-diamond or the circumference of a semi-circle, with the shore as diagonal or diameter. Mullets are shipped chiefly to the markets of North Carolina, Virginia, and the eastern shore of Maryland. Norfolk is a distributing point for neighboring regions of these three states.

While large quantities of mullets are shipped fresh, doubtless more are salted. The leading salt mullet shipper estimates that 20,000 barrels are shipped annually from Beaufort and Morehead City. The process of preparing the salt mullets is simple. The fish are split along the back, cleaned, salted, and placed in a large barrel for 24 hours or more. They are then taken out, allowed to drain, and repacked in a fish barrel; brine is poured over them and a quart of Turks Island salt placed on top. When closed the barrel is ready for shipment. Mullet roe, obtained in the fall (October) is much valued locally, and is shipped to some extent. Charleston, S.C., offers a good market. Some years ago an attempt was made at Beaufort to can the very small mullets. The fish did not sell, probably partly because it was an innovation, partly because of the method of canning. While it may be that with proper method a good canned product could be made, it does not seem expedient to can the young of such an important fish, unless a very good selling product is made.

Along with the jumping mullet occurs the "silverside mullet", but it is not relatively abundant. The local "fork-tail mullet", or "maiden mullet", is probably not a distinct species but a name applied to the medium-sized mullets taken later in the season. The little mullets appearing in October in large schools are supposed to come from Virginia and are sometimes called the "Virginia fleet"…

The mullet is valued next to shrimp as bait in hook-and-line fishing, and its indirect value as a food and bait in nature for other fish must be counted; it is preyed upon by trout, blue-fish, and mackerel, and therefore attracts these less abundant and higher-priced fish.

…Mr. Charles P. Dey, a Beaufort menhaden manufacturer of intelligence and large experience, asserts positively that this species deposits its eggs in November in the ocean a few miles distant from the inlet. Mr. Bell, of Beaufort, also a fish-scrap manufacturer of intelligence and wide experience, maintains that a portion of the spawning is done in Newport and other inside rivers, as some of the large fish are annually taken in those waters in November and December. On November 7, 1903, Mr. Worth secured a menhaden in full roe, and on November 18 he found two males from which the milt was running freely. On December 2 schools of menhaden from 1.5 inches long upward commenced running southward along the coast and were observable from Shackleford Bank; the run increased for 4 days and continued for a week, most of the schools remaining outside but some entering the harbor. Mr. Joseph Lewis, proprietor of the Mullet Pond fishery on Shackleford Bank, states that schools of young menhaden winter in that vicinity and that when the drum comes in February and March the menhaden are present in great quantities and constitute the principal food of the drum…
Half-Beaks inhabit both coasts of North and South America, and is common on our Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It appears to visit the North Carolina coast in spring and remains throughout the summer. In Beaufort Harbor it is abundant about shoals and sandy islands. Yarrow, who gives it the name of red-billed gar, has the following note regarding it in that region:

Abundant during the latter part of August and entire month of September. This species appears to feed along the beach in shallow water, and may be readily taken at night with a torch and scoop net. It is also found in the channel and along the edges of shoals where blue- fish congregate, this fish devouring enormous numbers.

On April 23, 1904, the writer caught about 50 specimens, 7 to 10 inches long, in two seine-hauls on Bird Shoal, Beaufort Harbor, in company with gars, silversides, anchovies, mullets, pin-fish, spots, etc. In August, 1899, many examples 3 to 4 inches long were cast up on Shackleford Beach near Beaufort Inlet. The fish reaches a length of a foot or a little more, and is quite palatable, but is only sparingly eaten in the United States.

…The bonito is one of the best known species of the mackerel family in our waters, being abundant in summer on the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts southward… At Beaufort this fish is known to most of the fishermen as "bonito", but it is not caught in noteworthy numbers. Yarrow noted that it was "tolerably abundant near Shackleford banks”…

…The range heretofore ascribed to the razor-fish has been from the West Indies to Pensacola and Charleston. It is now recorded for the first time from the North Carolina coast. Three specimens 4.25 inches long were collected by the steamer Fish-Hawk off Beaufort in August, 1902, and another specimen is reported to have been taken at the Mullet Pond on Shackleford Bank during the same summer. An example 7 inches long now in the State Museum was obtained in the Wilmington market in the summer of 1884. The species reaches a length of 15 inches…

…The blue-fish is taken in largest quantities in Dare and Carteret counties… Blue-fish are taken by "drifting" for them in the inlet, by "set nets" on the outside, and, in less degree, by "footing them up" with drag nets and in purse seines. The "drifting" is employed chiefly in fishing for blue-fish and, less often, gray trout. The hauling net is put over and boat and net drift with the tide until the fish strike and are meshed. The shoals in Beaufort Inlet offer a favorable place for this plan of fishing. A variation of this is the "drop-net" method; the net is dropped overboard when fish are detected and the fish are then frightened into it. Seines of different mesh may be in readiness to be used according to the size of the fish expected. Two nets may be used in "setting," one running out perpendicularly to the beach, the other making a loop or sort of pound at the other end. The fish swimming parallel to the beach strike the "leader", where some are meshed, while others turn out, going into the "pound", where most of them are meshed. "Footing them up" is the method commonly used inside with all fish except mullet, where it is not practicable to land them. The school or scattered fish are first surrounded with the seine (drag net), one man overboard holding the staff at one end of the seine while the other rows the skiff, "shooting the net" around the region to be dragged; when the circle is complete one staff is stuck into the ground, and the other placed in the skiff; the seine is then gradually pulled in and, if the haul seems to be light, arranged on the stern; but if there is a good catch, the seine is put in over the side of the boat and is afterwards cleared and placed on the stern ready for a new haul. In pulling in the seine one man handles the cork line, the other, standing opposite, the lead line, pulling it under the ball of his foot, which he uses to hold the line to the bottom and, if it comes hard, to paw, or "foot", the line to him.

A purse seine may be 700 or 800 meshes deep and 100 or more fathoms long, with mesh of .75 to 1 inch bar. A purse line passes through rings at the bottom. Such a seine is usually worked by two "purse boats", each with a crew of 6 to 10 men, the whole pertaining to a two-mast schooner or schooner-rigged sharpie. The purse boats are heavy double-ended row boats 25 feet long or longer, and 7 or more feet in width…

…Besides the fishes, the only water animals of noteworthy importance are oysters and quahogs, or round clams. The value of the oysters exceeds that of any fish except the shad, and within a comparatively few years oysters may become the leading fishery product as a result of cultivation and conservative methods. Oystering is conducted in 12 counties, but is of greatest extent in Beaufort, Carteret, Dare, Hyde and Onslow counties. The output in 1902 was 1,022,813 bushels, which sold for $268,363. Quahogs are taken for market in 7 counties, the largest quantities being obtained in Brunswick and Carteret. In 1902 the total yield was nearly 147,000 bushels, which brought $86,662. The increase in the output of this species in the past 15 years has been marked. The only other mollusks now taken for sale are scallops; small quantities are gathered in Carteret County, the product in 1902 being valued at $980.

Among crustaceans the common blue crab is the only species of importance. It is taken chiefly in Carteret County, and almost the entire catch is sold in the soft-shell stage. The value of this fishery in 1902 was $14,653, a sum that could be largely increased if the fishery were more actively prosecuted…

…The red drum is one of the largest and most valuable fishes of the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts…average weight is about 10 pounds…In North Carolina, where this fish is called “drum,” “red drum,” and “spotted bass,” it is abundant and is a food fish of moderate importance, being caught with nets and lines in the spring, fall and winter. The fishery is most extensive in Carteret County…at Beaufort four grades are recognized by fisherman and dealers: “Puppy drums,” yearling drums,” “two-foot drums,” and “old drums.” The most valued is the yearling, but the two-foot is of nearly the same value; these are shipped to northern markets. 

Read entire scanned original book online.