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Melvin Twiddy oral history interview, July 24, 2001

Date: Jul. 24 2001 | Identifier: OH0204
Interview with shad boat captain and fisherman Melvin Twiddy of Manns Harbor, N.C. In the interview, Twiddy discusses aspects of shad fishing with interviewer Mary Boccaccio. Jim Ponessi assists with the interview. more...
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EAST CAROLINA MANUSCRIPT COLLECTION
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW #204
Melvin Twiddy
Manns Harbor, NC
July 14, 2001
Interview #1
Interviewed by Mary Boccaccio with assistance from {Jim Ponessi}.

Melvin Twiddy:

The shad boats were all built out of juniper wood. There wasn't any glue or fiberglass. They didn't have it. That boat was built when the first Model A Fords came out, 1928. 1927 was the last time they made the Model T's. 1928 they made a big advance from the Model T's to the Model A Ford. That boat was right back there then. They were all built out of juniper, no plastics and no glue involved. Now they're all plastic and fiberglass and glue.

Mary Boccaccio:

Did you use nails or pegs or. . . ?

Melvin Twiddy:

No, copper nails were used. There weren't anchor pads back then. A lot of times they burrowed them on the inside, kind of a cut type nail, square like. They'd drive it through the wood and drop a washer. They called it 'burrow' in those days. They'd drop a burrow on top of it and have somebody to hold on the outside of the fastener (the nail) and hold a piece of shaft up against it good and tight. The person on the inside flipped it right off above the burrow and started tapping it and it tightened it right up. They had a washer like a washer on the inside and the nail head on the outside.



I was thirteen about the first time I ever went out in one of them. Of course, when I was thirteen that was 1934 probably. On Saturdays I'd help the fishermen set their nets and take them up and things like that.

I never did build one of those boats, but the man who raised me, that was his profession. He was a fisherman and boat builder and I helped him some. He could build one of those boats by himself, probably in thirty days. A very skillful man, a craftsman--he was really a master craftsman.

Mary Boccaccio:

What was it like to go fishing in a shad boat? I understand you had poles.

Melvin Twiddy:

We had what we called stakes to hold our nets in position. Is that what you are referring to?

Mary Boccaccio:

No, to move the boat.

Melvin Twiddy:

In the beginning, the boat ahead of that boat was a dead-rise shad boat. The boat ahead of that boat is a round-bottom shad boat and the two intermingled. The dead-rise shad boat came in about 1900. The round-bottom shad boat had started with an Indian canoe. They put two logs together and that made a kind of round bottom boat. Then finally, they got to where they were building them out of boards and they'd go to the woods and cut the timber and stumps. They'd dig down under them and the stumps reached way out and they would make round timbers out of them. This type boat, like I say, was used for the same thing as the round-bottom boat. The round bottom shad boat and the dead-rise shad boat, you might say they were half brother and sister. One has just as much right as the other to be called a shad boat. I've seen a whole lot more shad in the dead-rise. Of course I came along in the dead-rise time.

Mary Boccaccio:

Can you tell me about staking the nets?



Melvin Twiddy:

Most people that fished in the Sound started at the shore and went about one-third of the way across the Sound and rows got real close together. People in the community way back, started to use pound nets (that's what I'm referring to) that came in, probably about 1870 or somewhere about that time. Before that time it was seines, all seines. They pulled the nets in with oxen on a windlass. They could walk around and around and pull the net in. It took a lot of people to operate it. That's the type of fishing they did before the pound net. But when they started doing pound nets, people who owned this property along the shoreline started putting pound nets out. Each homestead owner owned their own pound nets and they got to where they actually thought they owned the Sound--the water and the rights to it. I expect they even stood up in court and. . . .

People did come in when it got really profitable and they started getting tighter and tighter until one row to another row might not have been over 300 yards--or even less than that. Of course their property might not have been even 300 yards wide either.

In the beginning with sailboats it was hard to get shad to northern markets. There weren't any rails to the market in Elizabeth City, NC, which was the trade center for northeastern North Carolina. Once they got rail tracks in the 1800's, then they could ship fish north to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. But if they had to take them on the sailboat, which the fishermen were doing at first, they'd get up the Sound and halfway between here and Elizabeth City, it [the Sound] got calm. They had ice on the fish but they might have stayed that way a day or two and eventually the ice melted off and no doubt they lost a lot of fish.

Mary Boccaccio:

How many fish could you get in those pound nets?

Melvin Twiddy:

Well from none to tons. I've heard the older people talk about getting them so thick in the net it looked like you could throw down a board and walk on it. But that was



ahead of my time. In the '70's we caught over 4000 shad in one day. The price for sale on Saturday was $.31/pound at the docks. That was a reasonable price in the '70's--that dock price. But we shipped a lot of our fish, packed them up in boxes and shipped them north. We'd come in with two boat loads Monday. We happened to take an extra boat with us and loaded both of them right down. When we hit the docks, no doubt the news went over the telephone that there was a big run of shad on. It didn't have any price at the dock. They didn't know what they'd pulled.

Jim Ponessi:

{What do they get for them now?}

Melvin Twiddy:

They're not a very popular fish now. You can't hardly sell the roe now. But that was the most popular fish there was a few years ago. The older people, if they went out and cleared $300 in a season, they could live a whole year on it and have a big family. They owned their home, had a garden and little fields, and live a whole year on $300. That money wouldn't last you three days now.

Jim Ponessi:

{Look at the price of fish in the markets now. You pay $14.00/lb.}

Melvin Twiddy:

Yes, but you can't give the shad away, though. It looks like it would come back thick, but pollution in the water done more damage.

Jim Ponessi:

{Is it an oily fish? I've never eaten shad.}

Melvin Twiddy:

It's North Atlantic Ocean white shad. It's a very delicious fish. They're bony, but they run about four pounds a piece to roe shad and if you know how to eat them--the bones doesn't bother anybody that knows how. But if you go in and stir it all up, you're going to get a lot of bones. We caught one out here in a. . . . You know shad goes up and down the coast and ninety some percent comes back to where it was hatched. They come back to the same place. Florida's got one--the Florida shad--but they all go back in the ocean. Of course, very few of the Florida shad survives spawning the first time. Very



few--a low percentage--of Florida shad ever spawns twice. As you get further north, the percentage gets larger. I don't know what percent of North Carolina shad spawns a second time, but you get on up to Connecticut. . . . The little shad, once they go to sea, go up the coast at least one time a year, go down to Florida and circle back--the Bay of Fundy area and circle back down. That's one year. Then the next year, they'll do it again. And then, the third and fourth year, I think it's the third year, they come back in. They've gotten fewer and fewer in about three years. I've caught quite a few tagged ones, but this particular one I caught right here was tagged in the Bay of Fundy--Minas Basin, which is the eastern branch. The Bay of Fundy has two branches. Anyway, the one that weighed four to five pounds was tagged in the Bay of Fundy. The Canadians do the tagging at St. Andrews at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy on the western side in New Brunswick (or Brunswick) Canada. We went up there that summer and stopped in there where it was operating from and the team was right then tagging shad. There were other people in the adjoining office who took me there and showed me a big map where every tag they got back came from. Most of the tags come back from the States. Of course, this is the lower part of [Canada] and this is no distance from Maine. They'd stick a tack in where each tag came from. There was a lot of tacks all the way from Florida to the Bay of Fundy. We were up there in June which is their shad season. It's later than ours. As it gets further north, the temperature of the water. . . . As we were going along the road to the Bay of Fundy, we looked over at the Bay of Fundy and a man was standing there alongside the road with a shad. He had him up by the gills, like that, about a four- or five-pound shad.

Mary Boccaccio:

I remember shad roe. Is shad more productive to take the roe?

Melvin Twiddy:

And just to sell the roe? That's what's been happening for quite a few years now. Right at the first part of the season, there's still a slight market for the meat, right at the



beginning of the season. The season begins about the first of February or the last of January. That's the shad season and there's still a demand for the meat if there's not too much of it. If there's too much of it, it just sinks the market right quick. But the roe has hung on now for quite a few years. You can get more for the roe than the fish.

Jim Ponessi:

{What do they do with the roe?}

Melvin Twiddy:

You've never eaten fish roe?

Jim Ponessi:

{No.}

Melvin Twiddy:

Never have? It's a delicacy, shad roe.

Mary Boccaccio:

Like caviar.

Melvin Twiddy:

I'll show you a picture in awhile of a sturgeon we caught that had 110 lbs of roe in it.

Jim Ponessi:

{I know that caviar comes from a sturgeon and there's black roe and red roe, but. . . .}

Melvin Twiddy:

Do you eat fish at all? Do you eat flounder?

Jim Ponessi:

{I love flounder.}

Melvin Twiddy:

That's what we catch in the fall of the year--flounder.

Jim Ponessi:

{There's a lot of flounder out here in the Sound, no?}

Melvin Twiddy:

Well you go out fishing and you don't catch them on a hook.

Jim Ponessi:

{You catch them with a spear, right?}

Melvin Twiddy:

Not on this side of the Sound. On the other side of the Sound, they do go out like that. I never have but I know people who have. I've caught tons in pound nets. We took

4500 pounds out of one net in one day. I had about ten nets. But 4500 pounds in one day out of one net--Margaret, my wife, and myself--that's heavy when you pull it. We made two trips that day.



Jim Ponessi:

{Did your children get interested in your business?}

Melvin Twiddy:

No, I steered my son clear of pound netting. It's such hard work and I didn't take him out much with me either. Once in a while I'd take him with me. I didn't encourage him at all. He's an accountant in Manteo now. He has his office in downtown Manteo. He's been in business a long time. He's sixty years old.

Jim Ponessi:

{You look sixty yourself. You look pretty good for eighty. I'll tell you, you don't look eighty years old.}

Melvin Twiddy:

I need to shave. I knocked two teeth out with a chicken bone and I have both of them with temporary things in there until he makes a cap.

Mary Boccaccio:

The shad season, how long does it go?

Melvin Twiddy:

The shad season? Now gill nets and pound nets are two different things. You catch quite a few shad in January with gill nets, but the water is still so cold and the shad won't trace the leads to get in the crib in the pound nets until the water temperature gets up. And they won't come in that many until the water temperature gets up to a certain temperature.

We used to set our pound nets, but we don't do it any more for shad. Nobody does for shad because there's no sale. It costs a lot of money now to operate and if you can't make good money out of it. . . . I'll show you some pictures so you'll have better understanding.

Mary Boccaccio:

Do you have more photographs? What Marguerite has been doing is loaning me photographs to take back to the University to make copies. I've been bringing them back, returning them. If that is possible, that would be great. I'll even bring you an extra set.

Melvin Twiddy:

I can let you have some. I have some special pictures I'd hate to lose.



We were talking about the seasons--the pound season. We'd actually set our nets the first or middle of February. It would run out about the tenth of May. We'd start getting ready after Christmas--treating our nets and sticking stakes. . . . You're not bothered with salt water worms if the fresh water will come in the area every so often. We tarred our . . . and the mixture would burn the heck out of you.

We caught 4000 shad one day and we shipped 125 boxes at 31 cents. . . . We shipped them and then we'd hear from some of them. The ones we shipped that we hadn't heard from, we'd call them up collect and they wouldn't accept the call! We had to call at our own expense. It took what they sold to pay the freight. They were beautiful shad. . . .

Mary Boccaccio:

How much did you get for the roe?

Melvin Twiddy:

I never did sell them that way. I always sold the whole works. I have a little fish market just south of here. They fish with gill nets in the spring of the year and they've been selling the roe, but he told us sometime back that he can hardly sell the roe now. The people have gone away that likes it.

Mary Boccaccio:

At the end of the season, what did you do to prepare for the next year?

Melvin Twiddy:

You take up your pound nets and it could take two weeks or sometimes a month to get them mended back--to replace the lines that were worn. Then we . . . them. Now they're made out of different stuff. They were made out of cotton years ago and you had to treat them. You had to store them where they wouldn't get moisture on them. You kept them in the house until the fall. You sometimes use the same nets in the fall. In some cases you just use the same nets in the spring where you just left them in the house until next year. Since they've got this synthetic nylon, it works entirely different--it's much stronger. All you have to worry about is the sunshine on them. The sun will break



it down, but you can keep nylon overboard under the water and it's near 'bout impossible to rot it.

Mary Boccaccio:

So, how long were you an active fisherman?

Melvin Twiddy:

The first time I actually took a job fishing, I was helping as I was a teenage boy. . . . The first time I ever worked with anybody was one quarter and I worked from the first of July until Christmas and I made $60. I was married and had a baby and didn't go in debt. I had some traps--steel traps--and I went out and caught some furs. I caught $120 worth of fur while I was catching $60 worth of fish.

Mary Boccaccio:

What kind of animals did you catch?

Melvin Twiddy:

Muskrat mostly. Some mink and some otter and plenty of raccoon. I caught 1500 muskrats one year.

Jim Ponessi:

{There was a big market for muskrats years ago.}

Melvin Twiddy:

The year I caught 1500 they weren't selling that great.

[End of Interview]

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