Rock Fish & River Rats
Article is copy written 2007 and all rights are reserved by author. Sam Garner
ROCK FISH & RIVER RATS
In April, Roger asks, “Have you seen any Rocks yet?”
This question is repeated by every other “River Rat” Roger knows as they flock to the Roanoke River at Weldon, NC. The place is a 2 by 4 mile sandy strip on the edge of the river surrounded by silted clay. It was called, “Raglins Ferry” in 1700. In 1808 the name changed to “Prides Ferry.” Today no ferry exists and the area was called “Mush Island” according to The North Carolina Gazetteer compiled by William S. Powell of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC. Every April and May an annual event is held here involving the catching and cooking of striped bass, better known as “Rock Fish.”
The fishermen and their interactions are as unique as the rock fish run. Today there is little of the past culture formed by the spawning season in the rocky swift waters of the Roanoke River near Weldon, NC as there used to be.
Northwest of “Mush Island” the river drops some 100 feet. It is called the Great Falls by the former inhabitants. In these sharp and tortuous rapids the rock fish come to spawn each year. They have come here as long as recorded history can prove. The Roanoke River is one of the few fresh water rivers that rock fish spawn along the Atlantic coast of the US.
Volumes could be written on the Roccus saxatilis the basic rock fish of the east coast. There are many variations of this often very large fish which is mostly found in salt water. Some have been recorded in excess of 100 pounds.
However, it is my intention to focus on a unique anthropological subculture (river rats) which evolved from the late 1600’s through 1970. “River Rat” is a local name given to the middle and lower class men who congregate for the rock fish run at Weldon every year. More specifically, the methods they used to catch the rock fish and the ways of cooking the rock fish “Muddle” a kind of fish stew with several variations depending upon who was doing the cooking.
The rock fish or striped bass came up the Roanoke River some 100 miles up river from the Albemarle Sound on the Atlantic Ocean. The Roanoke River is large. It begins in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia and eventually flows into the Albemarle Sound of Eastern North Carolina.
The rock fish make the 100 mile swim up the Roanoke River each year to spawn at the point where the Coastal Plains and Piedmont section of North Carolina meet.
There is a 100 foot drop in sea level at this point and there is great turbulence as the water passes over the rocky falls. This is a safe place for female rock fish. Then the females lay their eggs by the thousands. Then the smaller males of the species come and spray their sperm or as it is commonly called “milk” over the eggs to fertilize them. The turbulent water keeps the fertilized eggs from settling to on the bottom of river and being covered with silt and sludge.
Visualize the river at the point where the falls cease and the water is swift. There you will find many small boats almost in a semicircle waiting to see the male rock fish jump out of the river to dive down to the spawning school of females so they may fertilize the eggs.
When the fishermen see the rock fish rolling out on top of the water all the boats in the semi-circle make a mad dash to the spot and quickly put their large dip nets deep into the water so the fish will swim into the nets. If you are holding the long pole on the net you can feel the fish bump into the netting. Only moments after the bumps the river rats draw up their nets by hand and dump the rock fish into their boats. There are times when the numbers of fish in the net are so heavy that the nets have to be tilted to allow some of the fish out of the net. These events are called fish fights.
Sometimes tempers flair among the boats and the river rats engage in harsh words or paddle slapping to let off steam. I never remember any disagreements on the water turning into actual fights among the men.
I suppose the earliest settlers who came upon the Roanoke River saw an opportunity to get fresh food from the river since it teamed with all kinds of fish. The Tuscarora and Saponi Indians had been fishing these waters many years before the first white man ever saw the river. There are archeological findings of fish hooks made from animal bones. The Native Americans lived, hunted and fished on the “Great Falls” or the “River of Death” as they called it in their oral history. The Native Americans also used nets to catch larger numbers of fish. The early American settlers brought with them new forms of netting and small boats which made it easier to get to the fish and use their seine and pole nets from their boats. The fish also became a source of money and trade in local economies here and abroad. The boats enabled the men to catch more fish so they could clean and salt them down to preserve them for winter.
Fishing activities continue up to this century. This subculture of “river rats”
Has its beginning when men would gather together to catch the rock fish during the spawning season. As it continued as a local custom, people would build shacks along the river banks next to “Mush Island.” They mainly kept their fishing goods in the shack during the spawning season. It also served as a place to sleep, drink and cook what they called “Rock Fish Muddle.” This is a type of fish stew.
The catching of the fish is only one aspect the subculture. Another important social event was the cooking of the fish each day for a group meal. Each group of “River Rats” had their own special recipe for what went into the “Muddle.”
Basically it is composed of rock fish fillets placed into a cast iron pot of hot water with other seasonings like salt, black pepper, chopped potatoes, and chopped onions. Then the group’ secret ingredients were added. Mostly ground dried red peppers and some other unknown ingredients were also added. Occasionally, some catfish meat was also added. The “muddle was cooked down slowly to a flakey mixture but not a totally to a dry consistency.
As the muddle was cooking the men would be drinking beer and booze and chatting. The longer they talked the more booze they consumed. I never knew of any fisticuffs happening but there were some pots of “muddle” that were burned on the bottom from lack of attention.
The muddle would be almost finished cooking then the men would fry a bunch of corn pone to eat with the muddle. There were as many recipes for “muddle” and corn pone as were people eating it. One thing could always be counted on---the “muddle” was spicy hot.
There were other ways of preparing the fish, such as frying the fish as small cut pieces. The cooks would have their own recipes for the type of batter to use on the fish pieces. Things like beer, corn meal, flower; salt, chopped onions and black pepper were applied after the fish pieces were dredged through beaten eggs. Then the pieces would be dragged through the meal mixture thickly coated then fried crispy brown till done. They would also cook corn pone in the same grease as the fish to give the pone a fish flavor.
I remember these gatherings from my boyhood and on into my young adulthood. I can still smell the aroma of the “muddle” corn pone and fried fish and picking out fish bones.
This social event has all but disappeared from “Mush Island” today. Although fisherman still come in their boats and cast with lures for rock fish there is no more netting allowed at “Mush Island” area in an effort to bring back the population of rock fish to the area.
The Author Sam Garner contributed this article exclusively for us at stripers247.com
Sams home is in North Carolina. He is planning an aerial overview of the Roanoake for the spring 2007 season.