How Do I Chum You Up?: Dewey Hemilright, Long Line Fisherman of Wanchese

Reprinted from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake, Photo by Bax Miller

                   Sitting in the wheelhouse of the 42-foot FV Tarbaby in Wanchese, NC, we found Captain Dewey Hemilright, pelagic longliner, member of one the most highly restricted fisheries in the U.S. if not the world. As his girlfriend’s dog Annie angled for back-scratches, Captain Dewey pointed to a large console of equipment that makes up his mandatory Video Monitoring System, recording his every move when in Bluefin territory. He flipped through a notebook containing swordfish, Atlantic tuna, snapper grouper, large coastal sharks, and Spanish mackerel permits. He listed all of his U.S. Coast Guard safety requirements, and showed us his federal sea turtle de-hooking certification. 

                  “Every 3 years I’ve got to be re-certified or I don’t get my permits renewed,” he explained. “For this sea turtle class, we have to de-hook a cardboard box!” 

                  Above and beyond all the permit requirements, monitoring, and fishing regulations, it takes much more to stay afloat in the fishing industry. To Captain Dewey, it comes down to an emphasis on “we”, not “me,” and active participation in management.  

                  “Your fishery is on the agenda, like it or not. So we better be involved.” Hemilright has been involved in fisheries management since 1997. “I’ve had a few people enable me to go to meetings early on, and I don’t know whether to thank them or kick them in the ass.” He currently serves as one of three voting delegates from North Carolina on the federal Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and is on six Council advisory committees. He’s also a liaison to the South Atlantic Council, as North Carolina is a “swing state” ecologically, and is subject to federal management of northern and southern species. 

                  You might think a longline captain accustomed to rolling seas and leaping swordfish would have little patience for meetings, but Hemilright clearly likes “mixing it up” with people who view things differently, whether a fellow council member, an NGO representative, a fisheries observer, or a student.  

                  “How do I snag your interest, chum you up like a mahi, so you’ll find out more?” he asked. Captain Dewey’s style is to see if he can get people to question their assumptions, rather than try to impose his values on others.

                  He recalled having an observer come aboard for a multi-day trip. The observer picked up a National Fisherman and commented on an article about catch shares in Alaska. The observer remarked how effective catch shares seem to be, and suggested that the east coast might benefit as well. 

                  Dewey responded, “That’s interesting. When you read that, did you see anything about the losers there? How about the communities?” The observer paused, and said, “You know man, I never really thought about that.” 

                  Hemilright finds the Mid-Atlantic Council process to be fair. “I might not like the votes, but you’re able to vet something and ask questions throughout.” He also appreciates the opportunity for stakeholder input. “Before every vote we allow public comment, and we have webinars where you can follow a meeting, and see who is on the webinar.” He jokes that if he’d read as much in school as he reads today, he wouldn’t have ended up a commercial fisherman. 

                  Captain Dewey’s efforts to be proactive in management is not just about the pelagic longline fishery. He sees the need to fight for the whole fishing community and supporting infrastructure. “It’s more than fishing. What about the socioeconomics of the community? The welder, the fish house, the grocer? We need it all.” 

                  His “we” includes small scale fishermen as well as large. 

                  “The guy in the sound that catches a bucket of fish is just as important as that guy scalloping,” he stated. “I see people going by in small skiffs and I wonder what they’re catching. They’re just as important as the big trawl boats.” He added, “They may not be able to do something else, and they need it for their family.”

                  Hemilright’s concept of “we” includes members of an industry who are “all in” to support each other in a myriad of ways. 

                  “People in this industry, you can ask them to help you out, and they’ll do it,” Captain Dewey remarked. “Don’t want money for it – it’s not for monetary trading value. It’s for: you’re in it.” He gave several examples, including a story about Steve Parrish of S&S Trawl Shop in Supply who recently passed away. 

                  “Six months ago I asked Steve Parrish to make me a little shrimp net to put in the children’s museum in Kitty Hawk. I wanted bycatch devices and everything.” Captain Dewey tried to pay him 200 hundred dollars for his trouble. “He wouldn’t let me give him nothing.” NC Sea Grant provided educational posters, and the model is now on display. 

                   Dewey Hemilright’s “we” extends to consumers of seafood.  He hopes his efforts to educate people about commercial fishing adds a little “common sense” to management, which in turn helps the industry stay viable in order to feed people. 

                  “As a commercial fisherman, I’m giving people access to fish who don’t have money to charter a boat or buy a boat – this resource is owned by everybody…not just a few.” 

                  In Captain Dewey’s mind, the United States should support harvesters of seafood, rather than piling on debilitating restrictions. He pointed out that only about 80 active permits for pelagic longlining are left from Maine to Texas, down from 300. Due to closures, restrictions, and the use of circle hooks, crews are meeting only a fraction of their swordfish quota, just 36% last year. 

                  “So as we’re being the “poster child” (for conservation), other countries are salivating at a chance of getting our quota. They don’t have the regulations that we do. They don’t have the cameras that we do. They don’t have mandatory use of circle hooks to reduce interactions with turtles.” Captain Dewey fears other nations will eventually gobble up the unused U.S. quota, and in turn sell the fish to U.S. markets. 

                  In addition to the many meetings Hemilright attends, he has long participated in a K-12 educational outreach program called Provider Pals, where he visits classrooms to share with students the life of a commercial fisherman. A favorite story that he tells is about an unexpected stowaway he discovered far offshore one day. 

                  “I found a cat aboard my boat. A little wild ass cat.  It was a slick calm October day. I called the guys on the radio, said, you won’t believe it, I got a friggin’ cat on board! While I’m talking, I watch this cat hop on the washboard – we’re going 8 knots - and he jumps overboard!” Captain Dewey emphasized that he was no cat lover.  “But I ain’t going to let no cat drown.” One can almost see the students at the edge of their seats as he describes slowing his boat, backing up, and attempting to dip net the cat. 

                  “I tell the kids, about the time I reach him, a shark got him! They all go, NO, AHHH, NO! and I tell them, naw, I’m just messing! I put him aboard the boat and he stayed with me for 3 days.” The cat hissed at Captain Dewey the whole trip. “I gave him a little butterfish and milk.” 

                  How does Dewey Hemilright find time to fish between fisheries management meetings and his educational efforts? “You juggle the best you can,” he reflected. He figures that nobody would be able to fish if fishermen didn’t attend meetings to set the record straight and fight to maintain access to the resource. “It’s the sacrifice I’ve chosen.”

Dewey Hemilright_BaxterMiller-1.jpg

I've Had a Thrill at Fishing: Henry Daniels, Veteran Tarheel Fisherman

Reprinted from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake 

“Just don’t get scared and panic,” said third-generation fisherman Henry Daniels. We found him in the heart of Engelhard, helping his son Bryan rig up for flounder fishing. Although he no longer fishes, closing in on eight decades of life, Captain Henry stays in the thick of things, attending fisheries meetings, cajoling others to get involved, and spreading fisheries news from community to community, fish house to fish house. 

“If you get scared and push her, she’s going to leave you.” He was talking about how to handle a fishing vessel in bad weather, like the time he found himself in 115 mph winds off Virginia, his fathometer registering 26 foot seas. He’s had the window, door, and lights blown off of the Joyce D.  

“Slow her down and let her take her time. Most of the time she’ll bring you back to the dock.” 

Captain Henry decided to try his luck in the George’s Banks fisheries in the early 1980s, packing out in New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard, and Rhode Island. 

“Shrimping was so terrible here then. Told my wife we’re going to lose the house and he boat. That’s how I ended up paying for the boat, going up north to fish.”  

At first the Yankee fishermen were not overjoyed to share their waters with southern boats venturing up from Carolina. “People thought we were poaching on their fish,” grinned the captain. “I told them if I ever caught a fish with their name on it, I’d throw it back.” He eventually forged life-long friendships, and his wife Joyce joined him each season, renting a place on the rocky shores. 

“We just kind of adapted. It was a good life.” 

Henry Daniels has dragged more than fish out of the water.  “I’ve seen a lot of Government waste out there,” he mused. “When their fiscal year ends they’ll dump their supplies overboard, to get their budgets.” His crewmen have caught whole chests full of brand new tools, gallons of fresh paint, and declassified government documents. His son once helped rescue a downed Navy pilot. Other fishermen have netted mines, torpedoes, and ordnances. 

“We catch ship’s anchors – that’s why you see so many in people’s yards.” 

Captain Henry began fishing at age 12 with his father. As a young adult, he served in the military, and then was hired by NC State to help research water quality in Pamlico Sound. “I still fished,” he added. “The state didn’t pay overtime.” He collected benthic and water samples to study the impact of the Texas Gulf Phosphate mine on the estuarine environment.          

“You can’t put millions of gallons of fresh water in saltwater,” he said, “And not expect an impact.” 

Henry Daniels has since taken part in a number of research projects, including a study examining the effects of bottom trawling. “Areas that are trawled are healthier than areas that are not trawled,” he said, maintaining that dragging helps aerate the bottom and prevents sediments from building up. This theory was recently backed up by research cited by an ECU professor in response to a petition to severely limit trawling.

“You close shrimping, Engelhard is gone!” Captain Henry reflected, looking around at the vessels, fish houses, and fishermen tying nets and working on engines. 

Organizations petitioning to limit or ban trawling fail to address the real problem of declining water quality, he emphasized. “There’s not a septic tank east of Interstate 95 that works after a hurricane – all of that winds up in these rivers.” 

Few fishermen have been as engaged as Henry Daniels in the fisheries management process. He has served on advisory committees for the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and two federal councils.  He was involved in the development of the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997. He does not give up, despite what he sees as an increasingly unfriendly environment.

“It’s gotten so bad with more and more regulations, people looking over your shoulder, and tracking devices on boats. People have no respect for fishermen, like we’re dirty to look at.” 

Still, Henry Daniels wouldn’t trade a life of commercial fishing for anything. “I love it. I’ve made good money. I’ve had a thrill at fishing.” 

When asked to name the most bountiful fishing season he’s ever witnessed, his answer was surprising. “Greatest thing I’ve ever seen is this year. That’s the shrimp.” He explained that the brown and green tail shrimp stocks were extraordinarily thick in Pamlico Sound from July 4th clear to Christmas. “Never seen anything like it. I can’t explain


She Jumped Like a Rabbit and Throwed Me Over: Rex O'Neal of Ocracoke

Excerpt of oral history recording, reprinted from Tradewinds Magazine, 2016, B. Garrity-Blake

I built myself a boat, a 16 foot skiff that was nice and narrow, flat bottom that wouldn’t draw much water at all. She’d scat like a cat!  She’d go 40 mile an hour.  Every time it got slick Ronnie O’Neal and I went flounder gigging. Ronnie had the Miss Kathleen. We’d go at night and just dip a light over. We’d stand on the bow of the boat and just pole. We’d see the flounders laying on the bottom and just gig ‘em and swish ‘em in the boat. 

Especially in the fall of the year they start schooling up and dropping out of the inlet. So Ronnie, me and others would partner up and go together in our separate boats. We’d wake up 2 o’clock in the morning because that’s when the water turned clear with the tide running out. 

We would always go off Portsmouth Island - those various shoals that we jumped – Shell Castle, Casey Island. We’d been floundering four or five nights in a row because it was one of those October spells when it gets ca’m, slick ca’m for days.  This was the third night, the first two nights we gigged 1,100 pounds apiece each. But that night we gigged a few, 150, 200 pound. It was just starting to breeze up.  

I said, “I’ve had enough. I’m done for the night.” They said, “We’ll be behind you a half hour, we’re just poling down to the edge of this shoal.” 

I started heading on back, sat right down on my thwart which is the seat of the boat, skipping along about 30 mile an hour.  I come across Blair’s Channel and saw something. It was a crab pot buoy. It had been sanded up. My motor hit it, and was going wide open, WAWAWAWAWA!  The motor was cavitating in the air - the whole motor was tilted up.  The throttle wouldn’t slow it down.  It sheared the cable.

I walked back there with a flashlight, and the weight of my body shifted to the back of the boat causing that motor to flop back down into the water. And when she flopped down she jumped like a rabbit and throwed me right over the stern of the boat. This was 1:30 in the morning, the tide was screaming out the inlet, and I went over. But I held that flashlight just as tight. 

When I popped back up, I saw that boat coming right at me. She was still revved wide open, 35, 40 miles an hour – she was turning a hard right. She was making tight little circles, whooong! See her coming – I dive. Had my boots and oilskins on, they were heavy, and I was swallowing water. Every time I popped back up here it came, whooong! Whoong! Whoong! Had to keep timing her, dodging that boat and prop, all the time  trying to kick my boots off. 

It was pitch dark that night, too. But I held onto that flashlight. Finally got my boots kicked off. I took on so much water from dodging the boat. Finally the 360 degree circle that the boat was making drifted – I swam away from the circle the best I could. This was ten, fifteen minutes in the water at least, and we were both drifting out the inlet at the same time. 

I swallowed so much water by then I was getting weak. But I was trying to get my ducks back in a row, figuring out, now what, big boy? I was right in the middle of nowhere, Blair’s channel, 20 feet deep, sucking out the inlet fast. I set there, I reckon I was in the water 25, 30 minutes before, finally I heard another boat coming. 

The first boat came up, and then I heard another one.  I said, “Man, I hope it comes by here!”  I figured it was Ronnie or Jimmy.  So I took that flashlight and I started shaking and flashing the light.  

They come up and see that boat running in a circle. Then Jimmy and Larry saw me in the water flashing that flashlight. I was getting to the point, I was about to go down. They come up, got a hold of me, and heaved me aboard.  They were so scared, they were shaking. I didn’t have time to be scared!  Then Ronnie came right behind them. I got in that boat with Ronnie because his boat was fast like mine.  My boat was still going around like a wild thing, 35 miles an hour. 

We took the rope from Ronnie’s anchor and got in front of her. We tried to lasso around the wheel so it would wrap around and cut her off. Well it caught the rope but never wrapped around the wheel. So we ended up having to lay there until about 4:30, quarter to five before she ever run out of gas!  In all honesty that flashlight saved my life that night. Without it, Ronnie and them would have never seen me. So that was one of my nine lives – I’m down to about one or two left!


Fish have a Notion to Thunder: Leroy Cox, Menhaden Fisherman

Reprinted from Tradewinds Magazine, Oct-Nov 2016, B. Garrity-Blake

 “I’m blessed for a reason,” said 84 year-old Mr. Leroy Cox of Beaufort, NC. Missing half a thumb, Mr. Cox manages to be the top shrimp-header at Beaufort Inlet Seafood, producing as much as 1,026 pounds of tail weight in one day.  

“He can out-head the younger people here by hundreds of pounds,” noted Aundrea O’Neal, office manager at Beaufort Inlet Seafood. 

Leroy Cox lost his thumb in a fishing accident while serving as a crewman on a menhaden boat in 1951. He’s a lifelong menhaden fishermen, having chased “shad” from coastal North Carolina to Sabine, Texas. 

He recalled the days when Beaufort was thick with the steam of cooking fish, as numerous factories processed the oily, boney menhaden into fish meal and oil. Throughout the hey-day years from the 1940s through the 1960s, Front Street in Beaufort was bustling with grocery stores, hardware stores, and fuel docks serving dozens of menhaden vessels. 

“Everybody was making money,” said Mr. Cox. Factories such as Beaufort Fisheries, Standard Products, and the Fish Meal Company – run by Harvey Smith – ran ‘round the clock during the height of the fall fishing season. When the wind was right, the town reeked of the smell of menhaden.  

“Harvey Smith always said ‘That’s money you smell!’” laughed Mr. Cox.  

During his 45-year career on a menhaden boat, Mr. Cox saw whales, sharks, flying fish, water spouts, and even the Fountain of Youth, just offshore of St. Augustine, Florida. “A great wide place, fresh water bubbling up, just as beautiful and clear as you ever seen!” 

He recounted many life-threatening moments, such as the time he and his crewmen were in the two small purse boats “hardening” a very heavy set of menhaden. The mother vessel came beside them, and they were preparing to bail the fish into the hold when the hundreds of thousands of fish in the net “thundered.” 

“In deep water, fish have a notion to thunder - they dive and make a noise like that, boom! They go down, all together.” The men scrambled out of the purse boats onto the large vessel in the nick of time, as the great school of fish dragged the purse boats underwater. 

His most harrowing story involved riding out Hurricane Audrey in Cameron, Louisiana in 1957. Some townspeople were unable to evacuate in time, so they were brought aboard the menhaden vessel. They anchored in a cut, keeping the engines running and the bow in the wind. They watched as houses, fuel tanks, and the carcasses of cows and horses floated by. After the storm they helped retrieve bodies from the marshes, as the storm killed some 500 people. “We loaded thirty-two dead people and put them in the hold,” he recalled. “It was refrigerated.” They carried the bodies to Lake Charles to be identified by loved ones. 

Leroy Cox’s career spanned from the days of raising nets to the rhythm of song to later years when a hydraulic net-pulling device, known as the power block, made work easier and marked the death of the “chantey.”  

“We sang chanteys together, one singing bass, one tenor, one lead.” He opened a spiral notebook that contained a list of chanteys. I’m Gonna Roll Here. Help Me to Raise Them. Got a Girl in Georgia. Jack of Diamonds. “Jack of diamonds laying down dead on the bottom - Jack of Diamonds means your money’s down there and you got to bring it up!” he explained. 

Mr. Cox was a member of the Menhaden Chanteymen, a group of retired and active fishermen who performed the work songs until 2012. They traveled to New York in 1990 and made Beaufort proud by performing at Carnegie Hall. “It was wonderful, we were treated nice,” he said.  “We were chauffeured around, the Harlem Club, Yankee Stadium, different places.” 

Although in his eighties, Leroy Cox, when not working at the fish house, spends time taking care of the elderly. “If I can get some hog fish – they love fish – I cook it and bring it to old folks in rest homes from Down East to New Bern on Sundays.” He added that his reward was putting a smile on people’s faces, as he hated to see old people laying there with nobody to come see them.

“If I can help them feel better then I feel better,” he reflected. He considered his many experiences aboard a menhaden boat and added, “I’m just glad God spared me to be here.”