Oral History – Howard Hewett – Part 1

The October-November “Pop-eyed” Mullet Run

Submitted by:  Howard Hewett,  Jones Creek, TX – August 20, 2014

Fishing Boat Breakers - CB

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In late October early November, the fall Atlantic mullet run was a major food supply for the Hewett-Lewis family as far back as the establishment of the clan on Boones Neck (Shallotte River) in Brunswick County in the late 1700’s.  After moving to Federal Point, Uncle Crawford Lewis, my grandfather and my Dad maintained the family tradition of fishing.

Striped mullet are active schooling fish frequently seen jumping and clearing the water by more than three times their body length.  Some fish may be 24 inches in length.  Their jumping habits have earned them the nickname “jumping mullet.”  Because of their thick, fleshy eyelids, they are also called “pop-eyed” mullet.  This was the most common name used when referring to them by our family.

Striped “pop-eyed” mullet

Striped “pop-eyed” mullet

Striped “pop-eyed” mullet are native to North Carolina.  In October-November when it’s time to spawn, they move out of the bays and inlets, traveling along the shore on their way to off shore waters.  The spawning process normally occurs at night.  The female mullet can release from two to four million eggs per season.  A mature mullet can average one to three pounds.  The roe mullets in North Carolina may weigh as much as seven pounds.   And, of course, the roe is a fall delicacy.   Roe and grits are to die for!

During the mullet run, a family who could get a gill net around a school of mullet would be able to feed the family salted down mullet through the winter.   This fact made it imperative that when the opportunity arrived, the family needed to avail itself of a school of fish.

The story I want to relate took place before my tenth birthday (I think) just shortly after World War II.   I had often referred to the story as Dad’s “Can a Sunday mullet run be considered an “Ox in the Ditch”?  On the way home from church this November Sunday afternoon, Dad spotted a large school of mullet just outside the surf.  By the time we got home you could actually see this school up the beach from our front porch.  For a family to claim rights to a school fish, it was imperative that a spotter be placed along the shore opposite the fish.  So Dad sent me to claim ownership and to follow the school of mullet down the beach toward the house.

As I left the house, Mother and Dad were discussing the religious aspects of violating another family tradition by following what we practiced. The observance of the Sabbath as stated in Isaiah 58: 13-14.  “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; it you honor it, not going your own way, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.  And I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

As Dad and Mother continued the discussion about this strong Christian principle and maybe grandmother, Addie Jane, was consulted as well, Dad made preparations with Uncle Crawford to get the boat in position on the beach.  Now this did not take long because at this time of year, the boat and net was always ready.  As the story goes, Dad and Crawford decided that in this particular situation, there was a need to provide winter food for the family, so they decided that the New Testament passage in Luke 14:5 would be the guiding principle for that day.   As Jesus said, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath.”  The school of fish that I was following was massive and the water was black with fish.  When the wave would break, all you could see was large roe mullet.   It was one of those magnificent schools of mullet.

Other fishermen only approached me one time, but I was recognized as Curtis’ boy.  The only thing they said was “tell your Dad to holler if he and Crawford needed any help.”  I’ve often thought about how easy it was to project possession of a school of fish by having an 8 to 9 year-old represent ownership in the late 40’s.  There was respect for the rights of possession and there were no questions or challenges.  I wonder in today’s world if people in the same situation would allow someone so young to represent family ownership and show respect for an unwritten entitlement.

When I was within 100 yards, Dad waved to me to come and get in the boat.  The family boat was approximately 16-18 feet lapstreak with a high bow, high gunnels and a deck in the stern where the net was located.  The stern sloped from the gunnels to the rail with a more rounded shape.  It was a modified wine glass shape that was common to surf boats in the mid 1940-1950’s.  There were two seats for two oarsmen.

Seine Netting

Seine Netting

My job was to be sure the net fed out as we went around the school of mullet.  These nets were called gill nets or seine nets.  The net had a cork line on the top and a lead line on the bottom. It was approximately 8-10 feet in height.  Dad and Crawford’s net were approximately 100 yards long.  On this particular day, we had a 25-yard slue running along the beach with a bar that was about 50 yards across with the breakers pounding on the edge of the bar.

To get a boat across the slue, transverse the bar and cross the breaker required a great deal of skill and timing not only to get the boat outside the wave action but to arrive just in time along with the fish.   The action was never for the faint of heart.  When Uncle Crawford said “Let’s take her to sea, Curtis,” there was an adrenaline rush.   I can tell you that Dad and Crawford were bulls when it came to their oaring skills.   When the oars hit the water and they made their first pull your head would pop back and for every pull thereafter.

Fishing Nets on the Beach - Winner

Pulling Fishing Nets on the Beach Near the Winner Store & Bath House (click)

The staff on the beach end of the net was normally manned by another member of the family and beach goers who would work for a mess of fish.    As we crossed the bar, I would continue to maintain the net as it feed out over the stern and would be sure it did not get hung up on anything in the boat.  Once across the bar and seaward to the breaker creating a slight hook shape in the positioning of the net, we would pause to allow the fish to come to us.

Popeyed Mullet on Incoming Tide

Popeyed Mullet on Incoming Tide

On this occasion, Dad and Crawford discussed their concerns about the size of this school of mullet and the danger of damaging the net with all the pressure of thousands of pounds of fish.   The decision was made to cut through the middle of the school allowing some to escape seaward.   So we came back across the breakers with mullet jumping in the boat as well as across the boat.   This process also created an adrenaline rush.  Once ashore, we started pulling the staff back through the slue to the beach.   By this time, we may have had 25-30 volunteers, which enhanced our ability to get the net ashore.  The catch that day was several thousand pounds.  Volunteers got all the fish they wanted.   A large portion of the catch was sold to a fish house outside of Wilmington.

Grandmother was in charge of the family portion and preparing the mullet for salting.  Our saltbox was in one of the bedrooms at grandmother’s house.  It was two feet deep by three feet wide and about 6 feet long.   After that day’s catch, all the family had their saltboxes filled to the top with filleted mullet and roe.

Lesson learned that November day:  Only take what you need and do not waste resources.


Editor’s Note:

Relatives mentioned by the author:
Uncle Crawford Lewis, his Grandfather, and his Dad, Curtis Hewett

Granddaddy, Crawford, and Ed Lewis – ‘Early Fort Fisher’

Howard Hewett – Oral Histories

Mullet mania: Diners who once shunned the lowly ‘bait fish’ are rediscovering its rich flavor and heart-healthy benefits
By Liz Biro – Star-News Correspondent, 2007

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