“Oh God, if I can catch this fish!” Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway
(Drum photo courtesy of Bonnie Gray)
In October of 1995, Manson Meekins of Avon, North Carolina, talked to me about his experiences as a boy, drum fishing in the deep slews that are found adjacent to Avon’s shoreline. Meekins talked at length and with great enthusiasm. He was a child in the 1920’s, born and raised in Avon. He lived here until he joined the Coast Guard in 1935 and returned after his retirement. He recently celebrated his 100th birthday with family and friends and is still active.
At the time of Meekins’ boyhood, they had no fishing rods. The boys would go to Fields Meekins’ store where they would purchase about 50 yards of white line and the right size fishhook. Then, to make a sinker, they’d get a piece of 7-8” long copper wire and twist an eye in each end. A safety matchbox was pushed down into the sand and hot lead poured into it, with the copper wire in the middle. This hardened to make their sinker. They didn’t have swivels, so they just tied it onto the end of their line. Meekins described the way this line was cast, “We wound the line on our left hand in small 8-10” coils, real neat, then 6-8” from the end of the line we had a piece of stick where you put your hand. You’d twirl the line around your head and throw it. If you got 50 yards out you were a real good thrower.”
They used finger mullet as bait. The boys would go along the shore of the sound to find them swimming in little schools. They’d run around the school and pen them into shallow water. Then they’d use what they called a “swarpin” wire to hit the bait fish with. The wire was a heavy gauge about 8’ long with a bend in the end for a handle. The wire would cut several of the fish into pieces enough to use for bait. The boys usually caught their bait in an area of the village called Scabbertown. This area had a series of creeks that ran from about where the telephone poles are now to the sound. The sea tide ran over the island about 3-4 times a year in those days and as it gushed over the top of the bank it would run down towards the sound and cut gullies that would become creeks. If they were lucky, the boys would have a little mullet net to pen them up in shallow water. Meekins was fortunate to have access to one because his good friend, Roy Gray, had a grandmother who would make one out of balls of twine. If the boys couldn’t get fresh little mullet, they would sometimes use large mullet that the villagers salted down for winter. Salt mullet was good bait but not as good as fresh. However, Meekins had an experience many years later that made him wonder. Meekins said, “Me and my partner had some real nice cut mullet and were fishing on the south side of Oregon Inlet. Two tourists came over and asked us if we’d caught anything, we said no. So one of the fellows pulled out a piece of salt mullet; it was so old it was ‘rusty’. The fat in mullet turns red after a while and it has quite a strong fishy smell, although it’s not spoiled. He cut a big slab of this rusty mullet off and threw out and in a few minutes he landed a drum (using rod and reel). I didn’t get a bite nor did any of the others. But the guy with the rusty mullet caught another drum. So if you ever get a piece of rusty mullet for bait, use it!”
The best place to fish was from the north end of what is now Hatteras Colony to where Ramp 34 is. There were always good slews cut in close to the beach into which they would cast their hand-held line. When a large drum hit that line, it would be impossible to pull the fish in by hand. Meekins described how the fish was landed, “You’d turn away from the ocean and put the line over your shoulder. Then you would run and pull it up on the beach. Your fishing partner would yell to you when your drum was out of the water.” The fish was usually buried to hide it from other fishermen coming up to use your spot. But an expert fisherman could look at the tell-tale line left in the sand by dragging the rope up the bank and know you were trying to keep a secret.
Another good place for slews was abreast of Askins Creek north to where the Avon fishing pier is now. Horse and cart was the mode of transportation on the island at that time, and the boys had usually walked to their fishing spot. So when a 25-40 lb. drum was caught, there was the problem of getting it home. The young fisherman would put the line over his shoulder with the fish hooked by its mouth and drag it all the way home, a long walk through soft sand.
Sometimes, a villager named Ernest Quidley would take them fishing in his horse and cart. A good friend of Meekins, Lupton Gray, had quite an experience with Quidley on one such trip. Meekins said, “Ernest told Lup he’d pick him up about daylight to go across from Little Kinnakeet Station fishing. So off they went and found a real nice slew. Ernest and Lop left the horse and cart standing on the beach and proceeded to fish the slew. They fished for about a half hour. Lup got a strike and landed a real nice drum, he described as weighing about 25 lbs. They were really elated because this meant food for both of them. They secured the drum and went to fishing again. A few minutes later Lup caught another drum. Ernest hadn’t gotten a bite. So Ernest, with some exclamations of disgust, wondered why he couldn’t get a bite using the same bait, standing side by side. Lup pulled the drum up on the beach, again about 25 lbs. They fished some more and about an hour later, as it was getting hot, Lup hooked another drum. He went over the beach and pulled him up. Ernest didn’t say anything, didn’t tell him when his drum was out of the water. He just went over, got in his horse and cart, raised the reins, lapped that big old horse across the rump and down Ernest went toward Avon. He left Lup there with those three drum. Lup didn’t know what to do. But Little Kinnakeet Station was manned at that time and his father was stationed there. So he left the three drum buried on the beach, and walked over to the station to describe to his father his predicament. It so happened that somebody from the station was going home that day around noon on liberty. So that’s the way Lup caught a ride home with his three drum.
The drum were taken home and scaled in this manner. It was nailed through its tail to a board. Then a garden hoe was used to scrape the scales off. Although most people now just keep the side meat off of drum, the people of that day considered the best part of the drum was the meat in the chest, stomach and backbone as well as the head. They’d split the drum’s head with an ax. The first meal off of the drum would be a stew made using the head and breast. The most common way of preserving drum and other fish was by salting it, although many people canned drum for the winter.
Catching a drum was an accomplishment to the villagers. In the evenings they would congregate at a local grocery store, usually either Fair Scarborough’s or Gibb Gray’s store, to relate their fishing experiences of the day, how many drum they caught, where they caught it and how many were lost.
The first fishing rod Meekins had was one purchased from Montgomery Ward in 1937. It was a split bamboo he described as a masterpiece, one that he still possesses. Also still in his possession is the first fiberglass rod he ever had, purchased in 1940. The first time Meekins saw a cast net used was when he was stationed in Honolulu after World War II. He was fascinated by the way the natives cast the 6-10 foot long net from their boats and was taught how to make one by a native. When he returned to the mainland and was able to come home he demonstrated his cast net for an old-timer. The man was amazed at it and said he had to have one but they were not available at that time.
Over the years much has changed on the Outer Banks. Gone are the days when barefoot boys fought to land big drum fish with their home-rigged lines. But catching a drum is still an accomplishment and stewed drum with corn meal dumplings is considered to be the best in eating by most old-timers. No matter the method, every fisherman’s thought remains, “Oh, God, if I can catch this fish.”