There are two Day 23 blog posts check out the Day 23 (boat maintenance) post below
If you were watching the SPOT signals I sent today you would have been wondering what on earth I was doing bouncing all around on the St. Francis river just north of Helena AR. The answer is… fishing!
When I was riding around with Buddy yesterday I learned that his brother “Junior” does a bit of commercial fishing out on the river. It seemed that since I decided to stay an extra day to catch up on re-supply and boat tune up chores I figured it would be fun to see if I could tag along with Junior. Pat and Buddy checked in with Junior and got the thumbs up to go along for today’s morning run lifting nets. At 7:00 AM Buddy came by and picked me up to go meet up with his brother. Buddy warned me that the wind will cut right through you when you’re motoring around on a boat on a cold morning like today. So I was dressed in as many clothes as I could fit under my paddling pants and rain coat. Buddy also told me a couple stories about his brother flipping and sinking boats out on the river so, life jacket in hand, I was ready to go when Junior and his fishing partner Jack picked me up at a local diner.
As we drove a long twisty road toward the boat ramp I learned that instead of going on the Mississippi we were going to be working on the St. Francis river which, because of recent rains, was flowing fast which may make things interesting. The type of fish they expected to catch were catfish, buffalo, fat head carp, and various other rough fish. The catfish and buffalo were the main target the carp nothing more than a nusance. We arrived at the boat ramp and launched the boat only to discover that the motor was so cold that the grease in the lower unit was too stiff to let the motor turn over and start. After a few minutes of soaking in the marginally warmer river water and by spinning the prop by hand the motor finally started and we were on our way.
I asked what I could do to help and was politely told to “stay out of the way”. That was ok with me because it meant I could take a bunch of pictures and experiment with shooting video on my camera. I did have a go at gaffing a few fish later in the day but really Junior and Jack have been doing this together so long, and have such a refined system, that an extra person really wouldn’t be much more help.
Hey look I'm fishing
The way it works is Junior maneuvers the boat (by navigating with his GPS) over a net anchored to the river bottom. Jack would then toss a weighted grappling hook over the side of the boat and drag it on the bottom trying to hook the anchor rope of the net. Once the anchor rope was hooked the throw line was wrapped around an electric winch and the net was hauled up (via the grappling hook and anchor rope). Once the net reached the surface Jack would stop the winch and tie off the rope which would essentially anchor the boat via the net anchor. With the boat held in position Junior could come to the front of the boat and help heave the net into the boat to dump any fish that had been caught. They would then clear any leaves and sticks that had become lodged in the weave of the net then throw it back over the side. The fish were then sorted with catfish and buffalo kept in a holding box and carp thrown back into the river. When all goes well it’s a very smooth operation.
Grapling hook at end of winch arm holding anchor line
The winch used to haul up the nets
The guys did work a bit harder today because the fast flowing river pulled the grappling hook so fast down stream that it couldn’t reach the bottom. A few times two passes had to be made to get to the right position to get the hook to the bottom to find the anchor line of a trap. On a few occasions the grappling hook would miss the rope and find the weave of the net itself. If the net was damaged in such situations Junior would quickly repair the hole with a giant plastic tent stake sized ’needle’ like device. To make things easier next time, they were also picking up the nets that were in the faster flowing middle of the river and moving them to the reasonably slower water near the banks.
A net lifted to the surface pulled to its full length by the flow of the current
The nets themselves are really giant fish traps consisting of a 3-5 foot diameter tube of netting about 12 feet long held open by fiberglass rings spaced every three feet down its length. They look a little like giant vacuum cleaner tubes. One end of the net (the upstream end) tapers to a closed point to which the anchor rope is secured. The other end of the trap is nothing more than an open circle. Inside the outer tube of netting are two tipped cones of webbing pointing toward the top end of the trap. The way it works is the traps are anchored on about 50 feet of strong rope and the flow of the river is used to pull the anchor rope straight and to pull the rings apart thus expanding the net to its full length. The nets remain out throughout the season and are checked every other day or so and are moved as needed. Fish swimming upstream in the muddy dark waters of the river simply swim unknowingly into the trap. Once they squeeze pass the open narrow ends of the cones of webbing they are generally unable to find their way out of the relatively small opening. No bait is used you simply rely on he pea sized brains of the rough fish you’re pursuing to provide a willing victim. The traps are surprisingly effective and the guys caught over 200 pounds of sellable fish today and threw back at least as many unwanted carp. They both told of times in spring when the nets get so full you can hardly get them out of the water. They’ve been known to fill the boat to capacity by pulling only three nets.
The days catch a mix of Buffalo and Catfish
I was quite impressed by how tough these southern boys are. They wore nothing more than thin cotton work gloves on their hands which were quickly soaking wet in the 40 degree water. Physical activity helped keep them warm for sure, but as I gratefully donned the extra jacket they had given me, they went about their work with little concern for the sub freezing air temps blowing over their cold water soaked hands.
After three hours of finding, hauling, emptying, repairing, and relocating traps the work was done and we returned to the boat landing and headed into town to track down a buyer for the fish. It was supposed to be a gentleman that makes house calls selling fish to a list of private customers. He was very sick today and couldn’t make the drive into town so Junior contacted a local fish market that was interested in their catch. With 45 pounds of catfish at $.75 per pound and 145 pounds of Buffalo at $.35 per pound the days take was split three ways. One third to each man and the last third to cover the expenses of the boat, motor, and equipment. I was warned in jest by many people that I was lucky to not have ended up in some sort of trouble with those two and at the fish market they suggested I was lucky they didn’t try to charge me for the pleasure cruise on their boat.
Weighing in at the fish market
The fish market
It was a very interesting outing and I have a whole new respect for any non-farm raised catfish I ever eat again.