Reprinted and edited from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake
Sneads Ferry, North Carolina, located at the mouth of New River Inlet, was a beehive of activity one recent November morning. Every fish house was jammed with trawlers waiting their turn to pack out colossal green tail shrimp, also known as white shrimp. I found 85-year old Tim Millis chatting with fishermen and truck drivers at B.F. Millis, the seafood company his father started around World War II.
“My daddy caught fish and sold fish all his life,” Mr. Millis explained.
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, as a young Tim Millis spent every minute possible around boats and fish boxes. He quit school at a young age because he preferred the water to a classroom.
“I just wanted to be in the river,” he smiled. “My boy was the same way – he’d rather dig a ditch with a spoon than go to school!”
Mr. Millis regrets that he didn’t stay in school. “I feel like if I had an education I’d a done better.” He shook his head and added, “But we got by, all this time.”
“Getting by” is an understatement, considering that B.F. Millis Seafood is a major supplier of North Carolina seafood, especially shrimp.
Tim Millis’ daughter, Nancy Edens, runs the office and keeps on top of fish politics, serving on the Southern Shrimp Alliance as well as state and federal advisory committees. Mr. Millis’ son Timmy helps run the fish house and drives one of their three tractor trailers. His grandson Jeremy helps pack seafood and drives a truck, and grandson Steven is skipper of the trawler Davis Seafood. Even his school-aged great grandsons help shrimp during the summer.
“We’re getting a steel boat built right now in Louisiana,” Tim Millis added, pulling out a photograph of the vessel. The 68-foot trawler will be fished by his son Timmy, and christened Captain Ben. “Named after my daddy, Ben Franklin Millis. He was born in 1903 and died in 1992.”
Obviously retirement is not in the cards for the octogenarian. “I’m not going to set home and do nothing,” Tim Millis said softly. “I love every part of this business.”
Mr. Millis noted that last year’s shrimp season was the best he’s ever seen, and this year’s season was showing no signs of letting up for the winter.
“We might be heading for a year ‘round shrimp fishery,” he mused, given the warming trend. “That would be better than a seasonal fishery.”
In times past, before the days of federal permits, quotas, and closures, Sneads Ferry fishermen quit shrimping in the fall and targeted black sea bass during the winter months.
“Used to, when we were done shrimping we’d all go black fishing,” he recalled, using the local term for black sea bass. Sea bass helped fishermen earn Christmas money and make it through the harsh months until spring.
“We just caught black fish in crab pots, and there weren’t no limits or permits,” he said.
On Christmas Eve in 1959, Tim Millis was hauling in pots of black sea bass about ten miles offshore in his vessel The Pal. His friend E.N. Lockamy was fishing nearby in his vessel Lane L. They worked along a ledge that came to be known, from that day forward, as Christmas Rock.
“We done pretty good I reckon,” he reflected. “People still call it Christmas Rock.”
William Theron “Buddy” Davis, standing on the dock at nearby Davis Seafood Company, smiled at the mention of Christmas Rock.
“I been there many a time. Christmas Rock is a ledge that fish like to feed at, about three quarters of a mile long, and drops straight down. We’d quit shrimping and go black fishing there.”
He said that the appearance of more white shrimp, also known as green tails, has helped Sneads Ferry make up for the loss of access to black sea bass.
“It’s gotten good, white shrimp. We used to have mainly brown shrimp, summer shrimp, and we’d have go to South Carolina in the fall for white shrimp,” he explained. “I know a fella from McClellanville who’s up here right now shrimping because it’s not as good in South Carolina!”
Buddy Davis, like Tim Millis, is the eldest member of a fishing clan. His ancestors came to Sneads Ferry from Davis Shore in Carteret County.
His connection to the area continues with his several Harkers Island-built boats: the 58-foot long Captain Davis was built by Jamie and Houston Lewis. The 60-foot long trawler William Michael was built on Harkers Island by Lloyd Willis in 1968. Hauled out and retired in the yard is the Henry Lewis, a 1955 Brady Lewis-built boat.
“I wanted to fix it but seems like time is running out.”
His largest boat, the 70-foot-long Davis Seafood, was also built on Harkers Island by Jamie and Houston Lewis. It’s run by Tim Millis’ grandson, who is married to Buddy Davis’ daughter. The vessel packs out at B.F. Millis Seafood, an example of the family ties in a tight-knit community.
Buddy Davis and his sons are building a 72-foot-long steel trawler across the road from the fish house just to “have something to do in the wintertime.” He confided, “I can’t be still.” At age 76, Mr. Davis still shrimps on a regular basis and shows no signs of slowing down. Two of his sons run family trawlers, and his youngest son Jody runs the fish house with his wife Vicky.
Much of their seafood is sold retail, and in recent years the company purchased a peeling and deveining machine so that customers can buy ready-to-cook shrimp.
“If you catch too many shrimp and can’t feed them off around here, you send them to the breader in Alabama,” Mr. Davis said. Surplus shrimp is transported south on B.F. Millis’ truck, and then breaded, frozen, and distributed all over.
A steady flow of customers carrying coolers to Davis Seafood was a testament to the retail market’s popularity. “It’s really busy here with people coming to buy shrimp. Jacksonville is right up the road, and the beach is right here,” he said. “It’s nerve wracking through the week. I prefer to be out shrimping.”
When asked if he was proud of how successful his family business was, Buddy Davis shrugged and said, “I don’t pay it much mind.”