These Nets Ain't Gonna Hang Themselves: Down East's James Gordon Salter

Reprinted and edited from Tradewinds Magazine, 2018, B. Garrity-Blake

You can find James Gordon Salter on most days standing before a gillnet in his father-in-law’s shady yard across from the Straits United Methodist Church. One end of the net line is attached to a trailer winch nailed to a pecan tree. 

 “I’m too old to grab and pull by hand,” said the 66-year-old on an overcast November afternoon. “Used to use a hammer handle, but a fisherman brought me that winch.” Scattered in the yard were piles of gill nets, boxes of corks, leads, and lines. Leaves, sticks, and twigs - remnants of hurricane Florence - were everywhere. Hurricane season put James Gordon more than two thousand yards behind in his work. 

“I’ve been telling some of the fellas I’m making camouflage nets now, adding oak leaves and pecan limbs in so the fish can’t see them,” he joked. “See that little route where I walk and stomp down the grass? I came out here one day and there were white caps in it!”  

James Gordon has hung net at the Straits site for only one year, but there was indeed a rut in the ground where he walks back and forth along the net line.  

“Curtis Guthrie from Harkers Island said I have run a marathon, six inches at a time,” he said, bending over to straighten the net while putting his hand over his breast pocket so his spare needles didn't fall out.  

A rope hung parallel to the cork line held a short length of PVC pipe that James Gordon slides along to help him space his ties. The pipe is marked in multi-colored stripes in intervals that denote mesh sizes for flounder, spot, mullet, trout, and mackerel nets. 

“This is my scale,” he explained. “It’s what I hang the net by – this color is for six inch stretched marsh, that one is five and three eighths - the marsh size of the net determines what kind of fish you catch.” The word “mesh” is often pronounced “marsh” or “mash” along coastal North Carolina.  

James Gordon put the finishing touches on his second net of the day. 

“I’m putting a head line in it. That goes from the cork line to the lead line so you can pick up your cork line and not tear your net up.” 

He explained that he makes the top line – or cork line – as tight as possible so it doesn’t stretch when pulled. 

“You leave your bottom rope or lead line thirty inches longer than your cork line, so when you pull up your lead line, your cork line don’t twist up.” 

James Gordon surveyed his completed net and decided to start a third one. He picked up a bundle of pre-woven monofilament netting in pink. The netting, which was manufactured in Vietnam, also came in blue, green, and white. 

“Some people say the pink catches better than the green, some say the blue catches better or the white. Just different preferences,” he explained.  

 Net makers too have different preferences, right down to the types of knots they tie. 

“I tie with a back hitch,” James Gordon noted. “I put two half hitches and then one behind it to lock it in so it don’t slide so bad. Some people tie with three half hitches, or a rolling hitch.” 

Fewer and fewer people practice the art of hanging net. James Gordon called his work “play” because his customers are mostly family and friends. 

“When a truck stops here or blows the horn, my heart stops,” he said. “I’m afraid someone’s coming after me to do something!”

The net mender’s work has changed with the times. He’s branched out to assist some of the fishermen trying their hand in oyster aquaculture. 

“I helped a fella in Gloucester make oyster sacks. He showed me how.” 

James Gordon said he’s had many jobs, including at UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, the state Division of Marine Fisheries, and almost 30 years at Cherry Point.  

“My daddy told me if I ever worked on a dredge boat or as a commercial fisherman he was going to kill me.” 

These days he sticks mainly to his net mending and hanging.  

“If it’s got a tear I repair it,” he said. He even dreams about hanging net. “Night before last I hung net all night long. Woke up yesterday and my hands were swollen!” 

His father, Lennie Salter, was a commercial fisherman. He taught James Gordon how to work with nets. 

“When I was seven or eight years old, Daddy put me on an old wooden fish box in our yard, and put me on one side of the line,” James Gordon recalled. “He was left-handed and I was right-handed. He told me to copy everything he did.” 

Before the modern era of ready-to-hang, pre-woven monofilament mesh, fishing families wove their own nets out of cotton. A stand of net might be strung through the center of a house, attached on either end to a nail in the window sash. 

During the winter, James Gordon’s father wove nets by the wood stove using a hand-carved cedar fid to help him gauge the mesh size. 

“Daddy used that fid to measure half a marsh.” 

When the fishing season began, net mending took place as part of the work day. 

“We went to the Cape to set nets, and on the way back we’d have to dip those nets in lime to keep them from rotting. Somebody would be on the back of the boat mending nets and patching holes, what time the other one drove the boat home. Most of the time when we got home the nets were pretty much mended.”

The shoreline along Harkers Island was once draped in white cotton nets that fishermen hung on wooden frames called net spreads. 

“Net spreads were posts in the ground with a rack across the top about three-foot high. We’d put the cotton nets across that and let the sun dry them so they wouldn’t rot.” 

Although nylon multifilament nets made an appearance when James Gordon was a boy, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that he saw his first monofilament net. 

“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” he exclaimed. “Monofilament would catch as good in the daytime as it did in the nighttime because the fish can’t see the net – it disappears in the water!” 

Although James Gordon has built himself a trawl net or two, he mainly worked on gill nets. The gill net, he maintained, is a selective gear that gets a bad rap. He bemoaned the fact that fishermen also get a bad rap in the public eye, while most seafood consumed in the United States is imported. 

“If it’s raised in a pond it’s not seafood,” he declared. “It’s pond food!” 

James Gordon’s favorite seafood is fried hard crabs with brown gravy. 

“Mama use to take a glass Pepsi bottle and roll it across the crabs to smash their backs a little,” he explained. “Lightly fry them. Take an onion and some flour to make a gravy. Then put the crabs back on the gravy and let them stew.” 

As fall turns into winter, James Gordon Salter will surely be standing between pecan trees, hanging net in preparation for the upcoming fishing season. 

"Somebody asked me how I can be out here all the time doing this. Well, these nets ain't gonna hang themselves!"