By MORGAN A. JONES
The waters of the state are as diverse as the skiffs and boats that use them.
Often, boats are specific to their intended catch, with adaptations to produce a higher-quality product. These adjustments include unique gear, as well as distinctive structural features on the vessel.
Here are some boats that were highlighted at the 2012 Outer Banks Seafood Festival in Nags Head. See the tiding on page 3 for more about the event.
The shad boat was developed on Roanoke Island by George Washington Creef and is specific to the northern Outer Banks. The boat, which was adopted as the official State Historical Boat in 1987, was originally used to harvest shad with a gill net, a vertically hung net that traps fish as they swim into it.
“The North Carolina shad boat played an important part in the daily lives of people living on the coast during mid 1800s and early 1900s,” says Barry Wickre, manager of the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum. “The boat is known for its easy handling and sea kindliness, and was used in everyday life from fishing and delivering the mail to hauling supplies and people.”
The shad boat is designed for the upper Albemarle and northern Pamlico sounds, where the water is shallow and the weather changes rapidly.
Initially, these boats had round-bottomed hulls that made them expensive and complicated to build, explains Michael B. Alford, author of Traditional Work Boats of North Carolina. In the early 1900s, shad boat hulls were shaped into a “V” bottom to lower expense and support an engine, he continues.
The boat also had a single mast rigged with a spritsail, a four-cornered fore-and-aft sail named for a specialized spar. The spar, also called a sprit, supports the peak of the sail and extends it out from the mast.
In its heyday, the shad boat was the “pickup truck” of eastern North Carolina waters, and was used to fish pound nets, a common method used to catch shad and herring. The small boat would pull up to a square net enclosure known as a pound, and fishermen would bring the catch on board by hand or by using a dip net.
The Roanoke Island Maritime Museum houses the Ella View. Built in 1889, it is one of the last known shad boats in existence built by Creef. The museum staff use the Spirit of the Roanoke Island, a Creef-style replica boat, to conduct summer sailing tours and educational sails in Shallow Bag Bay.
Flat-bottom work skiffs, such as the mullet skiff, were less expensive and easier to build.
Because mullet are harvested in shallow sounds and estuaries, these skiffs typically have an outboard engine that is mounted in a well and can be moved forward, sometimes to the bow.
In his book, Alford writes that “The well keeps the engine and propeller away from trawl and towing lines, reducing the chance of costly entanglements that could damage gear and result in time lost from fishing.” In addition, mullet boats require a flat unobstructed area in the stern to work the nets.
Although mullet skiffs were common until the late 1980s, few are left in North Carolina because of decreased demand for the fish, as well as better fishing methods.
“Most commercial exploitation for mullet targets roe-carrying females for the Asian market. A depressed Asian economy in the late 1990s may have led to a decline in roe demand, a decline in overall harvest of roe mullet and the associated decline in mullet skiff fishing,” says Sara Mirabilio, North Carolina Sea Grant fisheries specialist.
Mullet are harvested with a runaround gill net or strike net, she adds. The monofilament net hangs vertically and is not anchored.
Floats are attached to the top of the net and the bottom is weighted so that a current will not bunch the net.
Once a school of fish is sighted, one end of the gill net is deployed with a buoy and a small weight. The weight creates drag, which pulls the rest of the net out as the boat encircles the school. The net is immediately hauled back by hand over the flat stern to unload the catch.
Another boat that uses an engine well is a flounder boat. Alford reports, “Powerful outboard motors mounted in wells built inside the skiff make these boats very swift and enable them to haul large trawl nets.”
The engine well allows fishermen to run nets and lines directly off the stern, or back of the boat, a situation that is ideal for flounder fishing. Small, open fiberglass skiffs were modified with the outboard motor in a well, or by moving forward part of the transom, or the stern, where the outboard motor bracket rests.
By the end of the 1990s, more than half of all North Carolina inshore flounder catches were caught with large mesh, monofilament gill nets. One of the state’s main flounder fisheries was the shallow-water fishery along the sound side of the Outer Banks.
“During the flounder fishing peak, from September through December, as the flounder migrate out of the sounds and estuaries into the ocean to spawn, flounder fishermen only can fish large-mesh gill nets in shallow coastal waters inside the Pamlico Sound Gill Net Restricted Areas,” Mirabilio explains. The restrictions are to limit interactions with sea turtles.
Fishermen use gill nets with weighted bottom lines in deeper water, and keep the height of the net to about 4 feet off the bottom by tying down the float line. This technique creates a loose, baggy net that is very effective at catching bottom-dwelling flounder.
Traditionally used only along the Outer Banks, a beach dory is a small boat that is launched from the ocean shoreline into the surf. It is 16 to 18 feet long, and has a high bow that cuts and plunges into the surf. A motor mounted inside a well in the center of the boat allows fishing in very shallow water.
“Beach dories do not need powerful motors, just one strong enough to carry the net around in a circle,” Mirabilio says.
Once in the surf, the dory crew deploys a beach haul seine to surround a school of fish swimming near shore. Native Americans used these hand-pulled seines centuries ago. This encircling type of net is made of mesh webbing with two wings and a bag.
Floats keep the top line at the surface, while the bottom line is weighted.
Years ago, horses pulled the net to the shore, but now trucks do the hard work of hauling.
After launching the dory through the breakers, a shore-based crew secures a line to one end of the net, while the dory crew feeds out the seine. The net is pulled straight offshore, and guided depending on the direction of the migrating fish. The dory crew traps the school and wraps the net in a U-shape back toward the beach. The fish, located in the net bag or bunt, are dragged ashore and sorted.
Fish harvested with this technique often include weakfish, spotted sea trout, bluefish, striped mullet, striped bass and Atlantic croaker.
The fishing fleet along the Outer Banks also includes some larger boats, such as shrimp trawlers.
Fishermen along the Outer Banks were among the last to join the shrimping industry, entering in the early 1950s. Area residents considered shrimp a trash species that fouled nets, and called them “pests,” according to former Sea Grant researcher John Maiolo, author of Hard Times and a Nickel a Bucket: Struggle and Survival in North Carolina’s Shrimp Industry.
“The historical vessels pulled one net from the stern because that is all the technology they had,” Mirabilio says. However, the development of otter boards — used to keep the nets open under water — and engines changed that.
Today, small trawlers generally pull two trawl nets, called a double-rig. Large vessels can be outfitted with four nets, called a quad-rig. In both cases, nets drop back from outrigger booms off the side of the vessel.
Shrimp trawlers work day and night. By using ice or freezers on their boats, they are able to keep the catch fresh.
North Carolina fishermen comply with federal sea turtle conservation requirements, including using turtle excluder devices and bycatch reduction devices to allow unwanted fish to escape.
Another vessel called a skimmer trawl or rig, which is popular along the central coast, uses aluminum triangular frames to push nets through the water, explains Brian Efland, former Sea Grant marine conservation and enterprise development specialist.
Skimmer rig technology was pioneered by Gulf Coast fishermen and transferred to North Carolina by Sea Grant specialists Bob Hines and Jim Bahen during the late 1980s.
A set-net boat has a hydraulically powered net reel to haul and release a gill net. The set net is the primary gill net method used in North Carolina. It is a stationary, monofilament mesh net of varying sizes that is most often fished without anchoring to the bottom. The set-net category can be separated into float and sink gill nets.
The top line of a float gill net floats on the water surface, while the top line of a sink gill net is submerged below the water surface. The sink gill net fishery began in Hatteras in the 1920s. “The sink gill net sector of the coastal gill net fishery comprises 99.6 percent of trips and fish catch nearshore, and all offshore set nets,” Mirabilio says.
The nets are either retrieved after a short soak or left for several days. Weather conditions, regulations and the intended catch determine the length of time the net remains in the water. A crew picks up the net using hydraulically powered net reels.
Typical target species include bluefish, weakfish, Atlantic croaker, kingfish, Spanish mackerel, dogfish, shark and monkfish.
Blue crab was the state’s highest grossing commercial fishery in 2011. Between 1994 and 2009, North Carolina ranked second among blue crab-producing states in the country, accounting for 22 percent of the total harvest, according to N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries 2011 reports.
Crab-pot boats have specific adaptations for hauling crab pots, such as stacking racks on the stern of the boat. Crab-pot buoy lines are retrieved by hand, then wrapped around a puller disk to be hauled up by an electric or hydraulic pot puller and stacked. The boats also have a powerful transom-mounted engine to cover large distances in deeper water.
Crab pots, crab trawls and peeler pots are the major pieces of equipment used in crab fisheries.
A crab pot is a square trap, often constructed of galvanized chicken wire. It has a bottom chamber, or “downstairs,” with two to four funnels, called throats. The bait well, in the center of the pot, is made of fine-mesh galvanized wire so that crabs cannot reach the bait. The top chamber is the holding area, known as the “parlor” or “upstairs.” These pots use crabs’ escape instincts to trap them. It remains in the parlor until it is shaken out through an opening.
A peeler pot is specially designed to catch mate-seeking female peeler, or soft-shell, crabs.
Similar to a standard crab pot, a peeler pot contains a special holding cell, in lieu of a bait well, where a live male crab is placed.
North Carolina’s waters are used daily by skilled fishermen. The variety of working skiffs and commercial fisheries that line the coast are specific to the region in which they fish. Along the state’s Outer Banks, each area requires specific adaptations to the gear and the vessel used.
This article was published in the Winter 2013 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.