Today I’m looking at several historical photographs of fishermen, fishing boats and fishing gear on the Roanoke River. The photographs date mostly to the period from 1870 to 1910, though I’m also including one of my special favorites that was taken in the late 1930s.
That was an exciting period in the history of the river’s fisheries. If you had launched a boat in Weldon, at the falls of the river, and drifted down those swift, muddy waters all the way to the river’s mouth on the Albemarle Sound, you would have seen many fishermen and many different kinds of fishing gear, including weirs, bow nets, stake nets, drift nets, wheels, seines and slides.
At least that would have been the case if you traveled down the river on a late winter or early spring day, when great schools of shad, herring and rockfish (striped bass)– and many sturgeon, too– had left the sea and were headed upriver to their spawning grounds.
NOAA’s Historic Fisheries Collection
By the turn of the 20th century, however, the Roanoke’s fishermen had already grown worried about declines in their catches. A steep drop-off in the harvest of shad was especially troubling to them. At least on the lower sections of the river, many families counted on the great shad runs to help them stave off hunger and want through the winter and spring.
The shad fishery had also been one of the state’s largest and most profitable commercial fisheries in the decades after the Civil War.
As a consequence, federal and state fishery experts took a special interest in the health of the state’s shad fishery. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they repeatedly visited the Roanoke, which was great for a historian like me because they wrote lots of reports and took lots of photographs of what they saw.
While on the Roanoke, they also commented on and took photographs of some of the river’s other important fisheries, especially that for rockfish (striped bass).
Most of the photographs here were taken by those fishery biologists.
I found the images in NOAA’s Historic Fisheries Collection, a digital compendium of fishery-related photographs taken by photographers from the U. S. Fish Commission, the Smithsonian Institution and other federal agencies. The National Archives holds the original photographs.
I hope you enjoy this tour of fishing on the Roanoke more than a century ago.
Slat Mud Weirs on the Roanoke
In our first photograph, we see a slat mud weir on the Roanoke River, near Plymouth, N.C., circa 1905. This was late winter or early spring, far and away the most exciting and profitable time to be fishing on the Roanoke.
At that time of year, vast schools of shad, herring and rockfish (striped bass) left the sea, passed through Outer Banks inlets, swam across Albemarle Sound and moved up the Roanoke to their spawning grounds.
While not as abundant or as commercially valuable as those other fish species, another anadromous fish, sturgeon, also migrated up the river to spawn that same time of year. The Roanoke was especially well known for them.
In addition to catching fish bound for their spawning grounds, the weirs also trapped yellow perch, catfish, gar and other fish—the perch, in particular, were a special favorite on local dinner tables, then as now.
Constructed out of cedar slats driven into a mud bottom, a weir included a wing, or sometimes two, that reached into the river channel and steered fish into a pound.
A narrow exit and the force of the current confined the fish until the weir’s tenders arrived, bow net in hand, to empty the pound. On that lower part of the Roanoke, most fishermen worked out of home-built cypress dugouts.
Some weirs had two wings and two pounds. One wing targeted fish moving downriver with the current, and one wing was situated to catch fish moving upriver.
Location was everything. Fishermen looked for a site that jutted into the river as far as possible or one that extended into a channel between two islands or sand bars.
Algonquin Brush Weirs
In an earlier age, fishermen constructed brush weirs, and there may still have been some of those weirs on the quieter creeks that flowed into the Roanoke at the time that these photographs were taken. They built those brush weirs out of posts spaced at wider intervals and joined them with walls made out of fine marsh grasses woven together like a basket.
The origins of those weirs—at least in North Carolina—is not clear. At least one 19th-century authority on the history of U.S. fisheries looked northward and suggested that the weirs on the Roanoke and elsewhere in the southern states had been inspired by brush weirs in New England and Canada.
He observed that herring fishermen in Nova Scotia had used brush weirs since the 1700s. According to him, Maine fishermen introduced the weirs to the U.S. about 1820, after observing the weirs used by their northern neighbors.
He may have been right. Many kinds of fishing boats, gear and techniques that became standard in North Carolina waters did originate in New England. However, in the case of fishing weirs, I tend to look closer to home.
The earliest known depiction of fishing in North Carolina waters is a 16th-century composite drawing by John White, one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s English colonists on Roanoke Island. That drawing depicts several different Algonquin Indian fishing techniques, including a brush weir.
Those English colonists also encountered Algonquin fishing weirs during an expedition along the Roanoke River in 1586-87, without which they might well have starved.
On the Dan River—one of the Roanoke’s two main tributaries— my friend and colleague Lindley Butler has documented prehistoric stone fishing weirs dating back hundreds or even thousands of years further into the past. From a high bluff or railroad bridge, you can still see them.
Dugouts, Drift Nets and Bow Nets
In our next photograph, we see a pair of cypress dugout canoes moored behind a cluster of fishermen’s homes in Plymouth, N.C., ca. 1890-1910.
This photograph was taken during shad season—late winter or early spring—and the fishermen are drying their drift nets on poles. They had probably been out on the river earlier in the day.
A pair of long-handled bow nets rests on the riverbank to the right of the two dugouts.
On the Roanoke those bow nets had many uses: dipping the fishermen’s catches out of their weirs, catching herring from shore and scooping up rockfish in the shallows way up at the river’s falls in Weldon, among others.
Hand-fashioned out of ash, a man or woman’s bow net was often an object of considerable pride. A good bow net was used for decades, and not infrequently passed from father to son, mother to daughter.
On a single spring day in 1896, a fishery biologist observed 435 people fishing with bow nets on the river below Palmyra.
That same day, he also counted a string of 15 stake nets near the river’s juncture with the Cashie River, as well as 18 pairs of fishermen wielding 80-yard-long drift nets a couple miles each side of Plymouth.
Roanoke River fishermen also used some rather unusual fishing gear. One of them was a device called a “fish wheel.” To my knowledge, the only fishermen anywhere in the Eastern U.S. that used them worked on either the Roanoke or, in South Carolina, the Pee Dee River.
A fishing wheel was basically an automated dip-net, driven by the power of the Roanoke’s current. Their viability was only conceivable in an enterprise like the river’s shad and rockfish fishery, where the number of fish swimming upriver to spawn was phenomenally large.
Fishermen built the wheels by placing two flat-bottomed, square-ended boats side-by-side, 6 to 8 feet apart, in the river. They fastened the boats against the current with a long sapling extending from the riverbank.
They next placed an axle into bearings on each boat and fastened a wooden paddlewheel to the end of one axle, and sometimes both axles. Then they fashioned a curved scoop of twine or latticed wood strips to the middle of the axle, between the two boats.
The river current turned the paddlewheel, which turned the scoop in circles, dipping fish out of the river and depositing them into one of the boats. In 1896 there were approximately 75 fish wheels used on the Roanoke, most of them owned by local farmers.
The Origins of Fish Wheels
The origins of the fish wheel are obscure. Since the earliest fish wheels on the Roanoke were documented prior to the Civil War, some scholars believe that they were first invented on the North Carolina coast.
By the turn of the 20th century, however, fishermen in the states of Oregon, Washington and Alaska were better known for their fish wheels. Some were more elaborate than those on the Roanoke, though generally they showed roughly the same level of ingenuity.
At least one fishery historian has traced the origin of fish wheels in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska to the Roanoke. More, I think, point to Asian migrants that had come to work in the gold fields or to Scottish, Russian or Scandinavian immigrants– but nobody really seems to know for sure.
Fishermen still use fish wheels to catch migrating salmon in Alaska and the Yukon. I’m not an expert on fisheries in that part of the world, but they seem to be identified especially with indigenous (First Nations) communities in those places.
The Seine Fisheries
While fishing wheels probably drew more curious spectators to the banks of the Roanoke, seine fishermen still brought in the bulk of the river’s shad catch around the turn of the 20th century.
In 1896, 30 boats and 169 men worked eight seines on the Roanoke: four between Plymouth and the Cashie River, two just above Plymouth and two at Jamesville, 17 miles above the river’s mouth.
In this photograph, taken on the Roanoke River 2 miles above the town of Plymouth, ca. 1900, we can see one of those seine fisheries.
This is a much smaller version of the kind of steam seine operation that I wrote about last year in my 13-part series on the history of the shad and herring fisheries on the much larger waters of the Albemarle Sound. That series focused on the Capehart fishery in Bertie County and the Wood family’s fishery in Chowan County.
In this photograph, the fishermen have already rowed the fishery’s two bateaux into the center of the river and spread the seine between them, parallel to the riverbank. They then attached the two ends of the seine to long lines (called warps) that ran to the steam engine on shore.
Now they are taking up the slack in the seine as it nears the shore, while the one fellow apparently keeps an eye on one of the warps. It is the taut line in the foreground.
Other Roanoke seine fisheries still used capstans, a device often used to haul lines or cables on ships, to bring the seines into shore.
This is one of those fisheries. This scene is also near Plymouth, on the Roanoke, in the 1930s, and is likely the same seine fishery that appears in the previous photograph.
By this point in time, fishery catches– and hence the size of the seine– had declined to the point that a group of strong men could turn the capstan, instead of steam engines or (in an earlier era) horses and mules.
As had been the case since the 1700s, nearly all seine fishermen on the Roanoke were African American.
The Fish Slides at Weldon
Another unusual fishing technique on the Roanoke River was called a “fish slide.” First documented just below the river’s falls in Weldon, in Halifax County, in the 1870s, they were built out of heavy timbers and positioned in the river’s fastest currents mainly to catch rockfish (striped bass).
Fishermen built the slides on an incline off the river bottom, leading into a box trap on the downriver side of the falls. The slides caught the fish as they struggled to ascend the river to reach their spawning grounds.
Once on one of the slides, the fish slid into the box, out of which the currents made it next to impossible to extricate themselves.
In 1873, H. C. Yarrow, a Smithsonian naturalist, talked with fishermen along that upper part of the Roanoke.
“Later in the season, the rock-fish resort to this locality in enormous numbers,” Yarrow wrote. “I am informed that with two men constantly employed upon the slide to remove them, it is almost impossible to make room for the succeeding ones.”
The Roanoke River Today
The last century has not been kind to the Roanoke River’s commercial fisheries. While already in decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those fisheries have largely disappeared due to a combination of factors.
Those factors include the damming of the river and its tributaries (especially the building of Kerr Dam in 1952); increased pollution from industries such as the big paper mill in Plymouth; and a large increase in agricultural and urban run-off from points upriver.
Recreational anglers still flock to the falls of the Roanoke for the rockfish season, however, and some of the river’s other recreational fisheries have also seen an uptick in recent years. Groups such as Roanoke River Partners, Concerned Citizens of Tillery and The Nature Conservancy are working hard to restore the river’s health and deepen our appreciation of the river’s gifts. They give me hope that one day the Roanoke’s fisheries will rise again.