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.”