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Flatheads and Spooneys

Flatheads and Spooneys: Fishing for a Living in the Ohio River Valley

Jens Lund
Copyright Date: 1995
Edition: 1
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Flatheads and Spooneys
    Book Description:

    Since the early 1800s, people have made a living fishing and harvesting mussels in the lower Ohio Valley. These river folk are conscious of an occupational and social identity separate from those who earn their living from the land. Sustained by a shared love of the river, deriving joy from the beauty of their chosen environment, and feeling great pride in their ability to subsist on its wild resources and to master the skills required to make a living from it, many still identify with the nomadic houseboat-dwelling subculture that flourished on the river from the early nineteenth century to the 1950s.

    Today's community of fisherfolk is small and economically marginal, but their activities sustain a complex set of traditional skills and a body of verbal folklore associated with river life. InFlatheads and Spoonies, Jens Lund describes the activities, boats, gear, verbal lore, and sense of identity of the fisher folk of the lower Ohio River Valley and provides historical and ethnobiological background for their way of life. Lund connects the importance of river fish in the diet of inhabitants of the valley to local fishing activities and explores the relationship between river people and those whose culture is primarily land-based, painting a colorful portrait of river fishing and river life.

    This book offers a look -- historical and ethnographic -- at a little-known aspect of traditional life in the American Midwest, still surviving today despite immense changes in environment, resources, and economic base.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5067-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Business, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)

    The Ohio River Valley Series, conceived and published by the University Press of Kentucky, is an ongoing series of books that examine and illuminate the Ohio River and its tributaries, the lands drained by these streams, and the people who made this fertile and desirable area their place of residence, of refuge, of commerce and industry, of cultural development, and, ultimately, of engagement with American democracy. In doing this, it builds upon an earlier project, “Always a River: The Ohio River and the American Experience,” which was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the humanities councils of...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Roy Lee Walls’s twenty-foot fiberglass boat leaves the Corps of Engineers dock at Mound City, Illinois, at about 6:30 a.m. The former Coast Guard rescue boat carries nets, cheese net bait, anchors, and a homemade grappling hook. Walls heads across the river from Illinois to Kentucky. The Ohio River is more than a mile wide here, less than ten miles from its confluence with the Mississippi. Near Henderson’s Landing, in sight of the Conrail bridge, Walls looks for broken willow stems. One of them lines up with a protruding treetop farther inland, and he begins to cast his hook. After...

  6. ONE A History of Fishing and the River Folk
    (pp. 9-22)

    The lower Ohio Valley was once the home of major urban concentrations of Native Americans, collectively known as the Mound Builders. The remains of their settlements are the great mounds, such as those at Angel Mounds near Evansville, Indiana. The last of these civilizations had already collapsed by the time the first white explorers arrived in the 1690s.

    The Mound Builders were avid fishers, a fact revealed by remains found in their middens. They also harvested freshwater mollusks on a large scale, using them both for food and for their beautiful mother-of-pearl, an important trade item. Later arriving Indians seem...

  7. TWO The River’s Resources
    (pp. 23-32)

    Fisherfolk classifications of fish do not always agree with those of biologists and sportsfishers. Official common names recognized by the American Fisheries Society are often very different from local common names. (For corresponding local, official common, and scientific names of Ohio Valley commercial species, see Appendix 1 of this book.) The broadest categorization, shared by scientists, sportsfishers, enforcement personnel, and fisherfolk, distinguishes game fish from coarse or rough fish. Local fishermen and marketers differentiate between catfish (including spoonbill) and scale fish.

    Ten more or less important commercial species of fish and one commercial turtle species live in the lower Ohio...

  8. THREE Watercraft
    (pp. 33-46)

    Most commercial fishermen fish the river from boats. In the earliest years, dugout and plank canoes (or pirogues) were the leading fisherman’s crafts. But since the post-Civil War growth of the industry, skiffs, johnboats, houseboats, and floating markets have been the most important boats in the Ohio River fishing industry.

    Before the widespread use of the outboard motor, most small boats on the river were skiffs. A 1978 study of midwestern river fishing boats by Malcolm L. Comeaux reveals three types of skiffs: full-fisher, half-fisher, and yawl. These designations describe the boats’ rakes and tapers. On the full-fisher, the sides...

  9. FOUR Hoop Net Fishing
    (pp. 47-67)

    An Ohio Valley fisherman must master a wide variety of skills. Most fishing information is either transmitted traditionally or learned through trial and error. Although the tools and techniques are traditional, the fisherman must be flexible enough to innovate if he or she is to succeed. These days, much of the skill and knowledge a fisherman needs concerns the hoop net or barrel net, which is the central artifact of the river fisherman. In the last few decades, the hoop net has regained its prominence as the most important fishing tool of the midwestern commercial river fisherman.

    In much of...

  10. FIVE Fishing with Hooks and Lines
    (pp. 68-80)

    Fishing with hooks and lines is an ancient and universal practice. It involves some of the most modern techniques used in commercial fishing, as well as practically all sportsfishing. In its simplest form, it consists of a baited hook attached to a piece of line held in the hand. Stanley Murphy of Metropolis, Illinois, occasionally fishes buffalo in the Ohio with doughball-baited handlines during spawn runs. Hooked baited lines are also attached to overhanging tree limbs or roots, in which case they are called droplines, bushlines, or limblines.

    Use and abandonment by casual part-time commercial fishermen causes serious problems for...

  11. SIX Rigid Traps and Walls of Netting
    (pp. 81-103)

    Lower Ohio Valley fishermen use other devices besides hoop nets and hooks and lines to catch fish. These devices fall into two general categories: rigid traps and walls of netting. All are based on a combination of tradition and innovation in both fabrication and use. These fishing methods, like hoop net and hook-and-line fishing, are learned and communicated informally.

    Throated fish traps made of wooden splints are ancient devices. On inland American rivers, especially in the South, fishermen wove rigid basket traps of split oak, and slave fishermen made and used them, sometimes to feed a whole plantation. Many travelers’...

  12. SEVEN Musselling and Pearling
    (pp. 104-121)

    Many lower Ohio Valley fishermen mussel seasonally. A musseller must have an intimate knowledge of the river’s mussel beds, knowledge that is often part of a family tradition. Unlike fishing, musselling can produce a substantial return in a short time, when shells are plentiful and prices are high. Mussellers live in or near areas where the resource is available for legal harvest, including portions of the Wabash and East Fork White Rivers, a limited portion of the lowermost Ohio near Metropolis and Joppa, and parts of Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.

    Those accustomed to steady income from fish alone, usually...

  13. EIGHT Marketing, Cooking, and Eating Fish
    (pp. 122-141)

    Early in this century, most commercially caught Ohio Valley fish were shipped by wholesale buyers to urban markets, usually by rail. Harold “Pat” Patton of Cave-in-Rock who operated wholesale and retail markets at both Cave-in-Rock and Old Shawneetown, trucked fish to a railhead in Eldorado, Illinois. From there, iced boxcars took them to Pana, Illinois, where the loads were divided and shipped by main rail lines to Chicago, New York, and other cities. He remembers that much of his fish came from the Cumberland and Green Rivers in Kentucky, where markets employed their own fishermen.

    Today, most river fish are...

  14. NINE River Folklore
    (pp. 142-151)

    Early travelers’ accounts noted the river people’s propensity for storytelling, singing, and musical performance. Some literary accounts portrayed raconteurs and musicians among the river people, as well as situations in which performance occurred. Some of today’s fisherfolk are still deeply interested in the oral culture of their forebears and cultivate legends, tall tales, jokes, and songs that they consider traditional. These same individuals are often great first-person storytellers, recounting tales about the river, the fish, and their work as fishermen. Much of their oral culture establishes and maintains river folk identity, both as a source of pride and as a...

  15. TEN Learning, Custom, and Identity
    (pp. 152-169)

    Commercial river fishermen endure insecurity, low return, and physical adversity for the satisfaction of being independent and feeling close to the river and its environment. In other words, fishermen get something intangible and desirable from their labors, as do sportspeople, artists, and hobbyists.

    Participation in the culture of the river folk gives joy to fishermen and keeps them on the river. They have preserved portions of the culture of the nomadic houseboaters who were their parents and grandparents, but they have also inherited some of the negative images that beset the houseboaters.

    Individuals enter and exit the profession of commercial...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 170-172)

    A young person learning to fish is enculturated with the fisherfolk identity as he or she learns how to hang a net, prepare a jumperline, fish blind, or locate a spawn run. This is “river knowledge” not shared by others who may happen to be on the river but not of it. It is also during the apprenticeship that one learns the subtle rules of territoriality, gear-placement, and fair marketing, again not shared by outsiders who happen to be on the river. This knowledge, together with the distinctive verbal culture, is part of a complex of traditional activities that establish...

  17. APPENDIX 1: Commercial Fish and Aquatic Life Species in the Lower Ohio Valley
    (pp. 173-173)
  18. APPENDIX 2: Mother-of-Pearl Mussel Species in the Lower Ohio Valley
    (pp. 174-174)
  19. Glossary
    (pp. 175-181)
  20. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 182-193)
  21. Index
    (pp. 194-209)