Robb White



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Gill Net

Robb White

I know two people who didn't have to wait for the Florida net ban amendment to take effect to stop gill netting.

One is an old buddy and ex-employee of mine who told me what happened. When he worked for me, his most notable adventure was when he decided to cut the top out of a fifty five gallon drum that used to have lacquer thinner in it......with a cutting torch.. Everything went fine until he pushed the little lever and blew that oxygen down in the drum. Later, in the hospital, he said that it didn't stay in there very long. Later still, he said that it was a minor calamity next to his last trip as a commercial fisherman.

The other fella is Mrs. Sinclair's son. He sort of plays at working. He used to have a crop duster, then he had a bulldozer, then a boat dealership, then a snapper boat, and finally a fancy bird-dog net boat, a big house in a small Gulf Coast fishing village and my old employee for a flunky. Some people say that Mrs. Sinclair partially subsidizes his businesses. I only know that when he had the bulldozer, he didn't like to get on it before about eleven o'clock in the morning.

After the lacquer thinner drum blew up, my old buddy was never quite the same. He never was the most agile thinker in the first place but he didn't have that crazy look to him like he does now. He is still the most loyal and willing helper in the world. He will eagerly do anything for you but they say you have to tell him exactly what you want these days. He doesn't show much initiative anymore. He was the perfect partner for Mrs. Sinclair's son at the time of this gill net incident.

My buddy (Buddy) and Mrs. Sinclair's son (Sonny) lived at this little fishing town down at the coast. They called themselves commercial fishermen but they were the only commercial fishermen in town with a two hundred thousand dollar house and a two hundred and fifty horsepower outboard motor on the net skiff however Sonny bought a lot of beer and they were hail-fellows-well-met down there for a while. That job with Sonny was working out so well, that I thought I would probably never see old Buddy again but I did. After about a year or so of that commercial fishing, Buddy showed back up at the sawmill to see if we needed a little help on the logging crew. He said he needed him a safe job.

He told me that Sonny had decided to go out fishing one night in the fall when the mullet were with roe and the Japanese were with money. It was pretty choppy on the four mile trip out there to the offshore bar where the mullet were supposed to be spawning.. choppy and dark. Sonny was proud of that two hundred and fifty horsepower and that brand new, all marine plywood, bird-dog, tunnel boat, so he and Buddy pounded out onto the flats and struck a thousand feet of brand new monofilament gillnet. It was so dark that they didn't notice a little water in the bottom of the boat until after they finished racing around running out the net. When they slowed, the bow settled and the boat sank right out from under them leaving them in the water with nothing but a white plastic bucket, a sheen of gas and a line of little floats stretching a thousand feet into the dark.

I guess I better leave those boys in that fix and explain a little or y’all won’t be able to understand what is happening. The invention of the “bird dog" net boat along with the development of the cheap nylon monofilament gill net is the thing most responsible for the net ban amendment to the Florida Constitution. Such a rig is so cheap and efficient that any fool can catch too many fish. Doctors, lawyers, politicians and people like Sonny even got into it with super-long nets and overpowered boats, just for the hell of. The highly evolved bird dog skiff has the engine mounted way up in the front in a well with a tunnel leading aft. That way, the tilt of the engine can be adjusted and it will run with just the least bit of the foot in the water so that the net can be run inshore of a school of fish (usually mullet) in very shallow water. With the motor in the front, the propeller can run at actual water level instead of in the depression created by the passage of the boat. Also, with the engine up front, out of the way, there is room on the stern for a big net platform so the net can be run out around the school at planing speed. The basic boat of the normal commercial gill-netter was just a cheap, flat-bottomed, plywood skiff with about forty h.p. worth of engine steered by the handle. Hot-shot rigs were bigger with huge engines steered from a silly bow pulpit and a ridiculous steering wheel. Though such an arrangement makes for a crank steering boat at slow speed and much inefficiency at high speed, there has never been anything more efficient at catching fish. Such rigs radically changed the ecology of inshore Florida waters before the net ban and, even now, years after gillnets have been outlawed, some species seem to have been displaced from their usual place in the food chain. Now that gill nets have been removed from their particular sort of destruction, shrimp boats are the most ecologically destructive thing in the Gulf. I hear that the by catch (the ratio of "trash fish" to saleable stuff) is above twenty seven to one and that does not include invertebrates. Desperate shrimpers who will haul all night for a little box of what used to be called "bait" aren't the only bad thing left either. Arrogant, big-deal, high-tech sports fishermen with their "box full" attitude are doing the same thing to offshore species that gill nets did to inshore fish. I think the only solution to the problem of over fishing is to tax hell out of horsepower. A man can't do much damage in a low powered boat and if someone wants to top it the knob, let him finance the construction of a school with his boat registration taxes.

Now back at the ranch with the desperados, what had happened was that the engine well up in the bow that holds the motor and keeps the water out was built for about forty horsepower. On the trip out there, it had succumbed to the pounding and the weight and thrust of that two hundred fifty horsepower and had come un-nailed and hopped completely off its big hole in the bottom of the boat. When they stopped, the bow came down and kept on going down.. Sonny and Buddy didn't know all that at the time, all they knew was that they were in a hell of a fix.

They swam around in the sheen of gasoline and oil, hanging on to the white plastic bucket, looking at the little floats disappearing into the dark and having an earnest discussion for a long time, before they noticed the, specially painted, camouflage, transom of the boat barely above the surface a short distance away.

It turns out that the boat was hanging, bow down, by the air pocket under the net platform nailed across the transom. The net was tangled up in the engine controls and steering wheel on the fancy stainless steel bow pulpit that Sonny had had custom made in Jacksonville. When the pull of the net slacked off after the boat stopped, the air under the net platform had pulled the stern up, but the platform was not airtight, and the bubbles told the tale.

Just as Buddy and Sonny got to the barely floating transom of the boat with their white bucket, swimming through the sheen of sank. Only desperate work with the bucket managed to bail enough air into the cavity to bring it back up. Sonny and Buddy spent the night working hard to keep it in sight. They gnawed and tore the hem off of Sonny's Party Naked tee shirt and tried to caulk the worst air leaks by poking the shreds into the crack with the car key (their only tool). Air, is harder to caulk in than water is to caulk out though and they spent most of their time dipping air under the net platform with the bucket... all night long.

As they were doing this, and talking about it, the outgoing tide working on the thousand feet of net pulled the boat miles and miles out into the shallow Gulf. Sonny and Buddy didn't have any wives back at the house to be worrying about them so nobody called the Marine Patrol or the Coast Guard. They were on their own out there in the middle of the Gulf in the middle of the night but they weren't completely alone. A thousand feet of gill net doesn't stay empty very long. All night, it caught Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, hardtails and big pogies.

The air dipping had become routine by three in the morning. Buddy and Sonny were tired, waterlogged and disgusted. Even though their faces were burned by the continuously renewed sheen of gas from the vent of the custom made aluminum fuel tank and they knew that they had no loved ones back on the hill to call the authorities, they were hopeful. At least, the water was warm. They were talking about how many fishing boats were fixing to come out first thing in the morning and looking at Sonny's genuine Rolex Oyster to see how long they had to wait when something forcefully pulled the transom of the boat way down under the water. That was the end of the optimism.

Finally the transom of the boat barely re-appeared some distance away and the air dipping became really frantic. Conversation was at a minimum. In spite of the warmth of the water, their teeth began to chatter. About every now and then, the same thing would happen.. The boat would give a little twitch like the cork on the fishing line of a cane pole and then be snatched violently from them and submerged beyond the reach of their feet. Sometimes a big belch of gaseous air would climb, from the depths, up their naked legs as the boat was pulled sideways. Buddy and Sonny would go through the horrors and spin around like freaked out water ballerinas for a few minutes desperately looking to see if the boat was going to come up again. When it came, they would beat the water into a froth trying to get to it before it sank. Then they would bail air like... well, like their lives depended on it... not just to keep enough air in it to keep it afloat like before, but all the air they possibly could so that it might have enough to emerge the next time. When they had some spare time, they frantically dove trying to find the place where the net was attached to the boat eighteen feet beneath the surface, or the "Rambo" knife stuck between the frames in the rail way up (now down) in the front of the boat. Buddy said that Sonny told him to swim out to the first float and pull up the net and try to gnaw them loose while he stayed with the boat and dipped air... told me, "You know, I ain't never refused to do what the boss told me to do before but I said, ' I tell you what Sonny, you better be the one to go out there and let me stay here with the boat... My teeth are chattering too bad to gnaw'." He said that the resulting hard feelings didn't make a bit of difference. "Couldn't a got no worse than it already was nohow." was what he said.

Finally morning came... a beautiful early Fall morning... blue sky, wind out of the north, light chop on the sea. They couldn't see land but they could see the sharks that had been cutting the fish out of the net, and there were plenty of them. After the sun came up, a little school of hardtails (blue runners, the preferred bait for big fish) took to hiding around the boat. Buddy and Sonny were exhausted but not so bad that they couldn't scramble frantically around to the other side from the sharks that would, every now and then, come to look at the hardtails. Buddy told me he sure didn't like it when those hardtails would get scared and come running to take refuge all among his legs. They frantically scanned the horizon looking for the fishing boats that were sure to come. Around noon they had to scan the whole horizon because they didn't know which direction to look anymore. The sun cooked the gas burnt skin on their faces and made them even more miserable, if there is such a thing as misery in the face of terror. By three o'clock they were in such bad shape that they didn't notice the helicopter until the down-blast hit them.

Somehow, the Coast Guard had had some place to go in a helicopter that just accidentally took them right over this calamity. In minutes the cable was let out with the little seat on it and Sonny established his rights as boss and his ass in it. Buddy, though, for once, showed a little initiative and established himself on top of Sonny and up they went.

Epilogue: The Marine Patrol went out and found the net from the Loran numbers. They called the Sea Tow people who pulled up the boat by the net and surmised the details of the problem (There were over a hundred shark holes in the net). Sonny wound up with a pretty good sized bill from them and also from the hospital where he was treated for exposure and gasoline burns in the eyes. Buddy got on the bus and came home to his Momma. Neither of them ever went gill netting again.


Robb White, boatbuilder and writer, Thomasville, Georgia

Designers and Builders of Custom Small Boats Since 1961
P.O. Box 561, Thomasville, GA 31799
Copyright 2004 - 2006 byRobb White.  All rights reserved.