By Jamie Tunnell

(This article was originally published in the December, 2006 issue of the Ocracoke Observer.)

Generations of watermen have haul-seined off Ocracoke for mullet in the fall season. When a combination of a cold front and a northeast wind come through, the mullet migrate south right off the beach. Local fishermen start dory fishing about mid-October in hopes of catching the mullet blow that will travel through these local waters.

A Fall Catch:

(Photo by Jamie Tunnell)

This is hard work, not to be mistaken for an easy haul and big cash. There are long hours, high costs and expenses, and a hit or miss season. They also have to deal with the rules and regulations of Marine Fisheries

Dory fishing is still an active method in eastern North Carolina, but commercial fishermen in nearby Bogue Banks and Ocracoke are seeing the end of a tradition if it is not passed on. Simple haul seine nets, that are pulled in by hand, were used by Native Americans centuries ago and the process has evolved to use trucks and tractors for the pull in and dory boats to take the net out.

According to the NC Fisheries, “the harvest proportion of annual landings has dwindled since 1972 and fluctuated greatly since 1992. Landings by beach seines occur almost entirely in October and November. Extremely poor landings in 1996 and 1999 were probably the result of fall hurricanes and strong weather conditions, which have a particularly profound effect on stop net harvest because of its limited fishing season. Landings from the other, smaller, seine fishery are harvested in ocean waters (< 3 mi.), primarily in Carteret, Dare, and Hyde counties. Typically, monofilament gill nets (200-300 yards) are used to intercept ocean schooling striped mullets and are hauled onto the beach as functional seines. Ninety-two percent of the striped mullet landings in this fishery occur in October and November during the fall spawning migration. Outside of October and November, much of this seine fishery targets other species.”

The dory boat is a flat-bottomed boat with a high bow and high sides, usually less than 20 feet long. Originally, dories were carried on large boats out into the water and then launched. In most coastal communities, dories are launched from the beach.

An Ocracoke Dory:

(Photo by Jamie Tunnell)

With this type of fishing, hundreds of yards of netting are sent out into the ocean with a dory and then either pulled back in or set. There are two methods of dory fishing. The set-net method uses a dory to get the net out into the ocean, but may stay set up three or four days. To pull in the nets, about a dozen men are needed to haul in the catch, sometimes over 50,000 pounds in one day.

Locally, it is more common for fishermen to use a different method where the nets are pulled back in by a truck whose condition is of less concern, due to the saltwater that has already contributed to a little rust on. A dory is released into the ocean off of a trailer and one or two fishermen jump in as it meets the waves to lower the motor. While one end of their net is attached to the shore, they head straight out towards the outer bar, sometimes using up to 800 yards of net. They circle back towards the north perpendicular to the shore and then head back. They can immediately begin pulling their net in with the truck, an entire process that is only about 30 minutes. Then, they can spend hours picking out the mullet. Mullet is the main target catch, but this method of fishing can also be done for rockfish and trout. One positive of dory fishing is the low by catch  – what you are going after is at least 90% of what you haul in.

Instead of using the heavy haul-seine nets, most of the commercial fishing community has switched to gill nets, a lighter monofilament net with less upkeep.

It’s a few hours of fast and furious, but the pay can be worth it. One of the biggest catches this fall that was hauled into the Ocracoke Fish House was 25,000 pounds. They are after the mullet roe, but the male mullet can bring in a good price if sold on the bait market.

Wade Austin, son Colby, and Erick O’Neal were part of the biggest catch of the season this fall:

(Photo by Jamie Tunnell)

After unloading the nets, they rush off to the fish house to separate the male and female mullet:

(Photo by Jamie Tunnell)

While commercial fishermen fight regulations and the decline of the fishery, the recent attention to saving the local fishermen and establishing working waterfronts has helped boost their cause. The market for roe mullet has declined in recent years, and due to other factors such as the inability of fishermen to make a living off the water, and rising expenses, this fishery has been reduced significantly. People that wander up on the haul seine process on the Ocracoke beach in the fall walk up on a rare experience; a treasure that not everyone gets to witness.

(Many thanks to Jamie Tunnell, and Linda Rippe, owner of the Ocracoke Observer, for allowing us to reprint this article.)


Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Village Craftsmen!

Last month I reported that one of the most common questions summer visitors ask us is, “What do you folks do here all winter?” I related that we often sit around after a family dinner or potluck, and retell some of the amusing comments and questions that we’ve heard over the years.

Quite a bit more goes on here, as well.  But mostly it involves local people just getting together to enjoy each other’s company.  As you might imagine, this time of year there’s not much commercial “entertainment” put on for the tourist trade.

However, it may be that someone has come into a couple of bushels of fresh oysters.  If we’re all lucky, they will invite friends over to sit around the dining room table (covered with newspapers, of course) to share jokes and stories while we shuck the slightly steamed delicacies, dip them in butter, and wash them down with cold beer.

On one warm November weekend Charles Temple organized a beach party to celebrate the “end of the season.”  Several dozen Ocracokers (young, old, and children) gathered to laugh, play frisbee, throw a baseball, and eat hot dogs & hamburgers.  As they say, “a good time was had by all.”

November Beach Party
Beach Party

Just before sunset we were all treated to the sight of a sun dog in the southwestern sky.

Autumn Sun Dog
Sun Dog

We built a fire not too far from the surf, and, after the sun went down and the air cooled, we sat in a circle roasting marshmallows and visiting long into the night.

Riley and the Beach Fire
Now and then I am fortunate enough to host a potluck for our local musicians.  Sitting around the living room after dinner I relax while listening  to familiar tunes played on guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin.

Ocrafolk Opry Performers at an Informal Jam Session:
Music Jam

Fiddler Dave and Miss Kitty Liven up my Living Room:
Music Jam

There is not much that is more rewarding than listening to friends strike up a tune for the pure pleasure of making music.

Many of us will be performing on Friday, November 29, for a local concert to benefit this upcoming year’s “Ocrafolk Festival of Story and Song.”  Look for more information about this delightful festival that is held each year during the first weekend in June.

Of course, the benefit concert is the day after Thanksgiving, and many of us will have just gathered at Gary and Kitty’s house for our annual Turkey Day get together.  Dozens of people fill the Mitchells’ home each year with casseroles, oysters, salads, homemade bread, cakes and pies — and the traditional turkey, stuffing, and gravy, of course.  After dinner,  we are usually treated to photography exhibits, music, or even storytelling.  What a feast!

Recently I learned of an interesting after-dinner parlor game for a large group of friends.  With a few slips of paper and a yen for fun you too can play Werewolf.  Just last week nineteen islanders got together for a potluck dinner and several hours of this newly discovered game.  It was loud and exciting, and once in a while the “villagers” were  actually successful in routing the lycanthrophic intruders from their midst.  One of the winter joys of living on Ocracoke is the sense of community and the ease of getting a large group of folks together for an evening of good fun.

Last month I promised a report on the first ever Howard Family Reunion.  Following is the article that appeared in our local newspaper, the “Ocracoke Observer:”

Howard Family Reunion

“Amateur genealogists are well known for seeking out the most noble and honorable members of their clans, although not a few actually revel in exposing the outrageous and colorful black sheep of the family.  The Howard family is little different from other families, boasting a wide assortment of the goodly and a few of the ignoble.

William Howard (1700-1795), the progenitor of at least three major branches of this prominent Ocracoke family, can count among his descendents successful musicians, writers, health-care professionals, judges, and four-star generals.  Nevertheless, William Howard himself, though possibly a rather well-to-do planter by 1759 when he purchased Ocracoke Island for 105 Pounds Sterling, may have been the very same William Howard who served as quartermaster to the infamous pirate Blackbeard in 1718.  Or perhaps he was the grandson of the villainous buccaneer.  We may never know.

In October, 2002, when the first Howard family reunion was held on the island, no fewer than 125 people descended on Ocracoke, from as far distant as New York, Arizona, and California.  Julie Howard of Ocracoke prepared an extensive, wall-mounted family tree that documented the hundreds of descendants of William.  Family members spent much time in front of the display identifying their branch of the tree, and penciling in the names of those not already included.

Family Members Trace Their Roots

Various members of the Howard clan placed books, photographs, and other memorabilia on view, while others shared information on their genealogical line.  Earl O’Neal from the island presented an exhaustive account of his research on the Howards of Ocracoke. Members of the family will be looking forward to the publication of his book sometime in the next year or two.

Martin and Jule Garrish, both descendants of William Howard, and accomplished island musicians, provided entertainment on Saturday evening.  Between sets, Philip Howard shared several stories about Ocracoke natives that illustrated their often not-so-straight-laced, and impish character.  Nearly everyone laughed heartily and seemed delighted to know that the family included a number of folks who were a little earthy, and who didn’t take themselves too seriously.

A highlight of the evening was a traditional Ocracoke square dance, complete with calls to “swing your partner,” “wring your dishrag,” “dance the star,” and “fall in line for the march.”

Howard Family Joins in a Traditional Ocracoke Squaredance

This reunion would not have happened without the dedication and enthusiasm of Teresa Howard Harrell and her extended family from Tarboro, NC.  Teresa spent more than two years planning the event. She invested much energy and not a little bit of cash getting the word out, planning the food and decorations, and making sure everything ran as smoothly as possible.

Descendants of Homer & Aliph Howard Share a Meal

During the weekend many family connections were identified or renewed.  Though little DNA may actually be shared by far-flung members from these various Howard branches, a meaningful bond was established among a wide assortment of people joined together by their relationship to their common ancestor, William Howard of Ocracoke.  We can only conjecture that William would be delighted to know that his descendants have been so prolific, and that they are justly proud of their heritage.”

We hope this gives you a sense of life on Ocracoke in the wintertime.  It’s quiet and there’s not much going on “out there,” but there’s plenty to keep us busy with family and good friends.

Again, we wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving, and we will be back in touch next month.

Philip and the whole gang at Village Craftsmen (Dallie, Jude, Amy, Mary, and Leon)