Marvin pulled on the bottom of the net along with seven other men. The net fell back in the ocean and drifted under the boat. The engine had been cut off to prevent netting from being wrapped around the propeller.
The open boat rocked gently in the ocean swells. Seagulls circled the boat, squalling continuously, waiting for the fishermen to throw trash fish over the side.
Captain Joe Elliott, co-owner of the Elliott Brothers Fish Company, pulled along with the men. “All right boys, I see the pocket. Let’s get these fish in the boat.”
Marvin adjusted his gum-boots up to his hips and resumed pulling. He could feel fish hitting the net trying to escape. In thirty seconds he could see fish swimming frantically in circles. The men were near the end of the pocket and the weight of the fish was making it hard to pull. The mass of fish reached the surface.
Captain Joe and another man manned huge crab nets, each holding a bushel, and began scooping up fish and dropping them in the bottom of the boat. As they scooped, the men kept pulling on the pocket. Thirty minutes later the men were able to pull the rest of the pocket aboard and dump all the fish in the bottom of the boat.
Captain Joe grinned widely. “A nice haul, men. Captain Tom will be happy.” He looked at the men knee-deep in fish. “Let’s get this net overboard and set right. We want a full pocket tomorrow.”
Some days the ocean would be too rough to launch a boat through the huge waves. Other days were too windy. The crew wouldn’t be able to keep the boat steady enough to pull in the pocket.
A wasted day. Most of the men would go to a tavern and get drunk.
Marvin began tossing unwanted trash fish overboard. The seagulls had been joined by other species of gulls, skuas, mother carey’s chickens and other species of birds. First over the side was a dead sea turtle. It had entered the pocket and couldn’t find the way out. It drowned a few minutes later.
He tossed squids, octopus, sharks, sting rays, hog chokes, crabs and whelks. The bottom of the net laid on the ocean floor. Whelks, crabs, an occasional lobster, flounders and other bottom dweller would crawl or swim in.
The size of the mesh , one and a half inch square or larger allowed small fish and eels to easily escape. The men carried fids and patched any holes on the spot. The net itself was made from cotton, no nylon then, and rotted easily. They tarred the nets by dipping them in huge pots filled with hot tar.
Years before, men had washed down pilings, usually hickory tree trunks, in the shape of a V. Nets were attached to these poles to make a funnel. These nets stayed there. A few holes didn’t matter. At the apex of the V, they attached the pocket. It was a heavier mesh able to hold a ton or more of fish. The pocket was about a hundred feet long and twenty feet in diameter with a small entrance. Once the fish was in the pocket, it was very hard to find the way out.
This particular fishing trip with Marvin was in the late 1930’s. The boat left the dock at 2nd street went through the inlet and went to the nets about five miles out.
In the 1920’s, before the Ocean City Inlet was cut through, it was a lot different. The Elliott Brothers Fishing Company was on the beach where the inlet would come through in 1933. The fishing boats, all clinker built or lapstrake, were high and dry on the beach resting on rollers. Rollers being round logs.
It was time to launch the boat.
A long rope went to a pulley on a deadman out past the breakers. The other pulley was attached to the stern of the boat. Two Belgian draught horses on the beach were hooked to the rope. The horses pulled and the boat began rolling down the beach toward the surf. The men helped by pushing and keeping the boat upright. When they reached knee-deep water, the men climbed in. Every time a wave came in and lifted the boat, the horses pulled. The out going surf would push the boat to the breakers. The engine would take over the rest of the trip to the nets. In the 1910’s the men had to row out to the nets.
Coming in was more dangerous. The boat was loaded with fish and the condition of the surf could have changed for the worse. This time the pulley was attached to a deadman buried on the beach. and to the bow of the boat. The men pulled their gum boots up and climbed overboard when the surf was out. They pushed and steadied the boat. Other men were constantly putting rollers in front of the boat.
The fish were hurriedly packed for the market. In fish boxes went a shovel of crushed ice, a layer of fish still flopping, more ice and more fish. Hardheads went into one box, mackerel in another. Mixed edible fish went into another box. All with different prices. In quick time the fish were on their way to Philadelphia and New York. The fish markets would do the cleaning.
A deadman is an immovable object buried in the sand or in the ocean bottom. Usually it was a big oak log buried at a right angle to the rope. The deadman buried in the ocean floor had to be held down with concrete blocks or old engines to keep the log from floating. Then ocean currents would wash sand into the trench and cover everything.
We ate plenty of seafood at that time. Marvin would come home with his lunchbox full of left over fish. Usually croaker, mackerel and sometimes a delicacy like drum.
Later, draggers appeared. They swept the ocean floor around the pound nets and quickly made pound fishing unprofitable. The brothers removed the pilings by using dynamite.
An era had ended.