One cannot but marvel at the ingenuity of man in his or her search for better more efficient ways to provide food for themselves and their families. One of the greatest examples of this ingenuity is the pound net. No one is quite sure exactly who first figured out this ingenious way to catch a lot of fish. It had to have been someone who could think like a fish. It is known that Native Americans were pound netting before the Europeans arrived. Obviously, it was someone who knew how fish react to their environment and knowing that designed an incredibly efficient way to catch them.
An 1880 report on Spanish mackerel fishery in the US stated that 1,609,000 pounds of Spanish mackerel were caught with pound nets in the Chesapeake Bay. It is known the pound net was introduced into the Chesapeake Bay in 1858 by Captain Henry Fitzgerald. Long before that in 1849, it is known the pound nets were being used in the waters off Old Saybrook, Connecticut, but they had limited success. In about 1870 George Snediker of Gravesend Bay, New York and Charles Doughty of Fairhaven, New Jersey tried their luck at pound netting on the James River in Virginia. They fished mainly for shad and menhaden. It worked but had limited success and after a while, they returned north. In 1875 Snediker returned south to Mathews, Virginia and built a large pound net in Mobjack Bay. Local fishermen feared his success and fought him destroying the nets and cutting down poles. Eventually, he sold his nets and left. The poles he left provided a clear pattern for local fisherman to create their own pound net systems. His experiment impressed the locals and within one year twelve-pound nets were being fished in Mobjack Bay. It should be noted the term pound net is related to a dog pound as a place to contain animals or in this case fish.
Here is how a pound net catches lots and lots of fish. It all starts with the setting up and installing poles which will support the nets. The header or leader is a straight line of netting to the shore that directs the fish into the bay at the mouth of the net. The pound net consists of several parts: a lead line, the tunnel, the heart and the pound head. Fish that are swimming nearby will encounter the lead line. The lead line serves to herd the fish to swim toward the tunnel, a passage into the pound. As the fish swims through the tunnel towards the pound the tunnel gets progressively narrower. Fish that don’t enter the tunnel will swim into the heart. The heart takes advantage of the natural schooling tendency of the fish to lead them in a circle and back around to the entrance of the tunnel. From the bays, they are directed into the tunnel that leads them into the head. Nets are stretched from the high-water mark to the river or estuary bottom then fastened to the poles. Netting is also stretched to other poles arranged in a shape that forms the head or pound. Once the fish enter this area they cannot escape. The wonderful part of the pound net is that it does not snare or damage the fish caught in its trap. The fish swim freely. The fish wind up in the “head” and they are scooped up with dip nets into waiting boats. Sometimes they pull up the head net to one side making scooping them out easier.
In his book Harvesting the Chesapeake, Larry S. Chowning quotes Wilson Rowe a lifelong pound net fisherman from Gwynn’s Island Virginia, “I had a net over at Deep Rock and when we went over to her there were thirty-five thousand pounds of black drum in her. By golly, she was loaded down Captain. We couldn’t get her up to fish her, so I went to Cape Charles hired on five extra men to help. We couldn’t get them with a dip net. They weighed between seventy-five and ninety pounds each, so we would pull the net as tight as we could, reach over and catch’em by the gills with our hands and pull’em in the boat. They were bringing about five cents a pound (in 1960) and I was selling them there at Cape Charles, but they weren’t buying every day, so we’d carry about five thousand pounds in and I would call each night to see when they were buying. It took us a while to empty the net from that one catch. We just tied off the funnel, so no more fish could get in or out and we went back every day they were buying until she was empty.”
The great thing about pound netting is as Wilson described it, a fisherman need only take what he thought he could sell and leave the rest alive and swimming in the pound. The pound net system provided a storage capability not found with other forms of fishing. And the catch could be enormous. Wilson said “I caught eleven tons of rockfish in one day. There were 230 boxes on the dock and they weighed one hundred pounds apiece. They were some of the prettiest rock you’ve ever seen in your life.”
Pound net fisherman often used small boats to put them in position to pull up the pocket of the head net. They sculled them out to the head where they used dip nets to transfer the catch from the nets to the boat. Some used winch lifted nets to get the catch into their bigger boats.
Nets were vulnerable to storms. A big storm could destroy the nets and poles costing $10,000 or take down the poles which could be a major loss. Several varieties of fish, some very large, may wind up in a pound net as well as turtles.
Pound nets were at one time found in just every part of the east coast. Regulations, overfishing and damage done by other forms of fishing have seriously reduced the number of pound nets in use. Unlike other forms of netting, the bycatch or unwanted fish could be released unharmed. Small fish swim through the net. Perhaps the only downside is the threat to navigation when small boats wander into areas where pound nets and their poles are placed.
One lifelong pound net fisherman said: “Pound netting is beautiful fishing. It gets in your blood. It is hard work and exciting. If you pull up a net with 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of fish, it is a pretty sight.”