PO Box 248
January 18, 2007
(Click on any photo in this article to view a larger image. All fish
house photos on this page courtesy of the OWWA.)
Last winter, after many years of a unique and historic
maritime heritage, Ocracoke was threatened with permanent closure of the
island’s last remaining fish house. Encouragingly, about
two dozen local fishermen joined together to form the Ocracoke Working
The Association’s goal is to rescue the fish house from
private ownership and possible development by purchasing the business and the long-term lease.
This would keep the fish house operating in order to supply fresh seafood
to the traveling public and Ocracoke's restaurants. It would also help
secure the working watermen's traditional way of life.
Tom Burrus & Wade Austin at the
Donations are being solicited to achieve their goals.
$409,000 must be raised by the summer of 2007. A
significant portion of that money is expected to come from grants, but
individual and corporate donations are necessary if the fish house, doing
business as the Ocracoke
Seafood Company, is to continue to serve Ocracoke
. You can click here to learn how to make a donation now.
John Ferarra Working on the New
Fishing has long been a prominent island occupation. Seafood
has been abundant in these waters as long as anyone can remember. In
the seventeenth century John Smith recounts, in his Travels and Works of
Captain John Smith, his observations of maritime plenty in the
. There is no reason to think the
would have been much different.
"It was frustrating to see the abundance of
fish…,” he says, “and to be without adequate means of obtaining them.
In 1608 Russell and Todkill reported an 'abundance of fish lying so
thicke with their heads avoue the water, as for want of nets….we attempted to
catch them with a frying pan; but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish
Significantly, however, census records from the nineteenth
century show that Ocracoke fishermen were often outnumbered by other workers,
especially sailors, primarily because fishing has always been an uncertain
In spite of the abundance of fish, before the advent of
refrigeration and reliable transportation in the mid twentieth century it could
be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to carry seafood to available
markets on the mainland. Even Hatteras, Manteo, and
were a considerable distance. Deliveries to larger cities,
were generally out of the question.
When large catches were made, local fishermen had the
daunting task of packing and shipping them off the island. Although
some fish were smoked, most were salted and packed in wooden kegs with help from
women. The taste of local mullet was superb….and much in
demand across the sound. Eventually a label was designed.
“Ocracoke Mullet” it announced, and was pasted to the side of the
keg. Unfortunately, rival fishermen to the south began
labeling their catches as Ocracoke Mullet. No islander
thought Core Sound mullet was anything but inferior in taste, however the
pretenders soon cornered the market and Ocracoke fishermen suffered.
Nevertheless, local fish continued to be packed up and put
on board the mail boat or the freight boat and delivered to
. A form of barter developed. Islanders
would tag their fish with messages indicating what they wanted in return –
kerosene, shoes, canned goods, flour, or other necessities.
No one was getting rich by fishing, but children were being
fed and families were clothed and sheltered.
I once asked my father if his father had ever engaged in
any form of commercial fishing. “Oh yes,” he said,
“Papa went out with Uncle Wheeler once.” Once, I thought.
That is certainly telling. My immediate ancestors were
primarily seafaring men, not fishermen. As a teenager my
father had spent just a few days fishing in Pamlico Sound with older islanders,
and then sailing with their catch to a buyer on
. Shortly thereafter he moved to
to work on dredges and tugboats. He never fished
Nevertheless, my family enjoyed much of the bounty from the
sea. Neighbors and relatives would bring mullet, drum, and
other fish by the house. My father, uncles, cousins, nephews
and I fished with rod and reel, raked clams, tonged for oysters, gigged for
flounder on the reef, and trapped crabs….but all on a small scale, and
primarily for personal use.
In 1936, less than a decade after my father moved away from
the island, Ocracoke native, R. Stanley Wahab, built the island’s first ice
plant. This was a major development that had enormous impact
on commercial fishing. One local fisherman even refers to the
years before 1936 as B.I. (Before Ice).
The other significant changes for commercial fishing were
the paving of NC Highway 12 in 1956, as well as the establishment of
state-operated ferries at Hatteras Inlet in 1957, and across
in 1960. Finally, Ocracoke fishermen had generally
reliable, if not exactly easy, access to distant markets. Commercial
fishing grew and flourished over the next half century.
But Ocracoke watermen were more than just fishermen.
They raked and sold clams, set wire crab pots and sent wooden boxes full
of tasty blue crabs to distant markets. After World War II,
watermen dragged for shrimp. Larger vessels worked our waters
for both fish and shrimp. Small scale oystermen even today
beds where they bring up the salty mollusks with long-handled tongs and cull
them on site. For a time, even eels were harvested, along
with flounder, destined for transport to Asian markets.
Traditionally, when most of the large schools of fish left
our waters for the winter months, islanders turned to hunting. At
the turn of the twentieth century great flocks of geese, brant, swans, and a
myriad assortment of ducks migrated down the Outer Banks.
The following account was published in a coastal newspaper
in 1887: "Messers Dan Williams and Ben Neal while
patrolling the beach at Ocracoke during a stormy night last week were compelled
to lie down to escape injury from a tremendous flock of geese making their way
down the Banks. In the meantime Mr. Williams, while lying flat on his back,
caught four of the geese alive. This story seems almost incredible, but it is
Blinds dotted the shallow waters of the sound. Sink
boxes were weighted down with iron decoys and camouflaged with reeds and
grasses. Nearby, scores of hand-carved wooden decoys bobbed
on the waves, beckoning unsuspecting birds as hunters waited, shotguns at the
Years ago hunting camps were established “down below”
on the sound side of the banks between Ocracoke village and Hatteras Inlet.
These included the Quawk Hammock Camp, the Green Island Club, and numerous other
smaller, personal hunting camps.
In the early twentieth century market hunting burgeoned as demand
increased. Batteries of weapons were employed to dispatch
dozens of birds at one firing. For shipment, geese and ducks
were packed in small diameter stovepipes. They in turn were
slid into larger stovepipes, and the space between them was packed with ice.
Dwindling numbers of birds and negative public sentiment, however,
eventually led to legislation outlawing market hunting.
By the latter half of the twentieth century paved roads and
reliable ferry service not only allowed watermen increased commerce with
, and beyond, but encouraged tourists to visit Ocracoke as well. Ocracoke
had long been a vacation destination for
hunters and sports fishermen. The island was
especially popular with governors, legislators, and other well-connected tar
heels in the 1920s through the 1940s. But the general public
hardly knew Ocracoke existed. That changed in the mid 1970s.
Tourism had blossomed and was fast becoming the island’s main economy.
By then commercial fishermen were sometimes competing with
sport fishermen. Other islanders, capitalizing on the
increased tourism, expanded visitor-focused enterprises started by their fathers
and grandfathers. Guides placed advertisements to entice
hunters in the fall. Boat captains offered to take anglers to
favorite fishing spots starting in the spring, and into the fall.
Luring tourists is a time-honored endeavor of islanders.
Old post cards and photographs from the late 1800s to the 1930s show
guides and their clients displaying as many as two and three dozen channel bass
hanging from railings and the sides of out buildings. Many
weighed fifty pounds and more.
A vintage advertising brochure put out by Stanley Wahab
senator Joe T. Robinson along with this quotation: “I have
been fishing all my life but have never seen the equal to the salt water angling
this section of the
coast has to offer. Truthfully I can say that I enjoyed very
much indeed my visit to Ocracoke. I hope to come back and am
already planning to come down to your island goose and duck shooting when the
Entrepreneur Wahab invited sportsmen to join his
“Ocracoke Island Hunting & Fishing Club” and even employed doggerel to
bring guests to his establishment:
“Hi Ho for the sun
And the rod and the gun,
The rollicking sea-life
Of good wholesome fun!
Hi Ho for the sea
And the fish aplentee –
The channel bass bite
And they leap with wild glee!
Hi Ho for the yawl
The bat and the ball
The sports and amusements
Beloved of all!
Hi Ho for dawn stealing
O’er vistas appealing
And hitting long trails
With that grand, glorious feeling!
Hi Ho for gay dancing
And spry horses prancing
And bright, happy mermaids
They’re most, most entrancing!
Hi Ho and ahoy
To the duck and decoy –
To unfurling the sail
And to rounding the buoy!
Hi Ho and let’s go!
Where? You surely must know –
Near Old Pamlico!"
Another early advertising pamphlet extols Ocracoke for its
boats, dance hall, movies, swimming, and “beautiful modern cottages and
apartments,” as well as “the Fightinest Fish you ever Tackled.”
One proclaims, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and come to
Wahab Village on the Isle of Ocracoke for a Glorious Vacation!” “Unenjoyment
Problem Solved!” it shouts. Fishing and hunting were
clearly the main draws, but already islanders were beginning to understand that
Ocracoke had even more to offer a wider clientele.
While tourism was expanding, encouragement came to
commercial fishermen in 1975 when Johnny Griffin and Bill Cowper leased a small
section of waterfront property on the Creek (Silver Lake) and opened one of the
first modern fish houses on Ocracoke Island. Before long a growing number of
local young men were fishing full time and selling to the “South Point Seafood
and Cowper eventually sold the fish house to Murray Fulcher. By
the mid-1980s the fish house had become a thriving enterprise. Some
accounts suggest that “millions of tons of crabs and fish” were handled at
South Point in those years. According to the Virginian-Pilot,
in its heyday (the 1970s and 1980s) “as much as 50,000 pounds a day of
shellfish, sea mullets, ocean flounder, trout, spot or croaker would go through
the fish house.”
"Trick oar Treat
Dory" & Erick O'Neal:
Nowadays imported seafood competes with local catches, and
often undersells them. While once more than three dozen
islanders were setting crab pots, today only a handful of crabbers are carrying
on the tradition, and retiring watermen are often not being replaced by younger
The expansion of tourism and escalating land prices have
also had a dramatic effect. Last year the fish house closed
its doors and suspended operations. An island tradition and livelihood for a
number of residents seemed to be coming to an end.
That’s when the Ocracoke Foundation stepped in.
A non-profit organization, the Foundation is the brainchild of Robin
Payne. Robin has worked tirelessly with the watermen and
other supporters to raise the funds ($409,000) necessary for the OWWA to
purchase the fish house, secure the long-term lease, and buy other necessary
Today, the Association has about thirty members, some full
time, others part time watermen. The youngest member is Morty
Gaskill, now twelve, who has had a commercial fishing license since he was nine
years old. He also has a shellfish endorsement and fishes
from one of two boats he owns. Motry, whose father, James
Barrie Gaskill, is also a member of the Association, is the latest in a long
line of islanders who have made their livings from the sea.
Morty Gaskill Fillets a Fish:
The Association has until June 1, 2007 to make the payment
for the structure. Without the Ocracoke Seafood Company, with
its fully equipped facility (winch, conveyer belt, ice machine, coolers, and
trucks), island watermen are forced to transport their catches to
Hatteras Island, or beyond, an inconvenient and costly trip by ferry.
Tom Payne Sorts Fish:
Vicki Harrison, Ernie Dosier, &
Craig Mercer Weighing Fish:
Hardy Plyer Shoveling Ice:
Farris O'Neal Filets a Fish:
In addition to wholesale marketing of island fish, Ocracoke
Seafood Company has opened its doors for retail sales during the tourist
season. Be sure to stop by their store right on the harbor.
You can purchase an assortment of fish (flounder, Spanish mackerel,
trout, sheepshead, and others), as well as shrimp, clams, other local seafood,
While there you might be rewarded by seeing the hustle and
bustle of a working Outer Banks waterfront. Seasoned old
salts (along with younger salts), bedecked in white rubber boots, surrounded by
baskets and boxes of fish, are often busily engaged in unloading an incoming
boat, sorting, weighing, and packing the catch, and transferring it to a waiting
Matt Brown Unloading his Catch
at the Dock:
Bill Evans & Hardy Plyer Sorting & Weighing Fish:
By purchasing your seafood right here on Ocracoke you will
be helping to preserve a long-time island tradition. And by
making a monetary contribution, you will be taking one more step to help ensure
that working watermen continue to be an integral part of Ocracoke
To contribute to the non-profit Ocracoke Working
Watermen’s Association stop in the Ocracoke Seafood Company on Silver
Lake, or mail your tax-deductible donation to Ocracoke Working Watermen’s
Association, c/o The Ocracoke Foundation,
PO Box 1165
You can also visit their web site at www.ocracokewatermen.org.
There you can learn more about the association and make a donation on-line.
John Smith, Travels and Works of Captain John Smith, ed.
By E. Arber and A.G. Bradley, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1910), xxxiv
– xxxv, as cited in Geographical History of the Carolina Banks,
Technical Report No. 8, Part A, by Gary S. Dunbar, Supervised
and Edited by Fred Kniffen, Coastal Studies Institute, Louisiana State
University, Baton Rouge 3, Louisiana, October 15, 1956, footnote number 80,
page 35. ( This is "The first part of the eighth in
a series of reports obtained under Project No. N7 onr 35608, Task Order no.
NR 388 002 of the Office of Naval Research, Copy No. 118," housed in
the library of the
"The Weekly Record"
, Thursday, February 10, 1887: