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