Portrait of a Fisherman

For veteran Masonboro waterman William Hurst, times have changed. But there are still gifts from the sea

By John Wolfe   

High tide in Masonboro Sound. The sky is that cloudless and uniquely Carolinian summertime shade of late afternoon periwinkle, and the sun has set to a squinting, sneaking-under-my-hat-brim height, but has not yet dropped behind the trees on the mainland. A southerly wind blows across the wide water at the mouth of Hewlett’s Creek.

An old waterman stands amid ships in his wooden well skiff and looks out across the sound toward Masonboro Island, the northern end of which his family used to own. His name is William Hurst and he is 82 years old, grew up here and has fished here his entire life. He is a short, spry man, with a close-cropped white mustache and bright blue eyes that sparkle with wonder at the world, still, in spite of all the world they have already seen.

I sit in the sternsheets of his boat, beside the engine well, as he picks up the 10-foot paddle he built out of ash (the best wood for that purpose, light and strong). He never leaves his landing without it. When he learned to handle boats there were no outboard engines. You had to know how to maneuver a boat with oars, or a sprit-rigged loose-footed sail, and the 10-foot paddle to pole along the sound’s shallow bottom.

“If I’ve done this once, I’ve done it a thousand times,” he tells me. Raising his paddle like a man with an ax over a stump, he lets it fall with a splash into the clear water on the edge of the marsh. The green tips of the spartina grass peek above the high water, which is almost lavender in the dying light. Again and again he brings the paddle down, motoring along the edge of the marsh, between the marsh and the spot net we have just set. “Here,” he says, handing me an old wooden stake he uses to prop up the outboard. “Tap on the bottom of the boat. Not too hard, though — we don’t want to tear the bottom out.”

The skiff we float in, he built himself. When he was younger he worked in the boatbuilding shop of Capt. Emerson Willard, building New England-style sailing dories. Once they built a two-masted schooner that later crossed the Atlantic. He also helped restore the 40-foot gaff-rigged ketch Colin Archer, a sailing lifeboat which now resides in a maritime museum in Oslo, Norway.

I beat a tattoo on the thick cedar keel. The idea is that by making noise, we will frighten the fish out from their hiding places in the grass and into the translucent curtain of his gill net, hanging just off the grass line. A few more splashes and taps, and we are nearly to the head of the net. “That’s enough,” he says.

We motor back down to the end of the net, marked with a yellow buoy with “W. HURST” carved into it. “Now,” he tells me, “you get on that side and bring in the floats, and I’ll be on this side and bring in the weight line. If we catch anything, it’ll be farther up toward the head of the net.” He presses the switch that cuts off the outboard motor; peace returns to the wind-rippled sound. “It’s always better to retrieve the net into the wind,” he says.

Side by side in the stern of his boat we work, pulling his dripping net back in, hand over hand, foot by foot. He has laid an old sheet over the transom to prevent the net from getting caught on a stray splinter. The saltwater is as warm as a bath. Even though I am 55 years younger than Hurst, I struggle to keep up with his pace. He works quickly, but carefully. He made this net himself, tied every knot and hung every weight, a craft learned at a young age from shrimpers in Morehead City and Southport. Net making isn’t a skill that most young people are interested in anymore, he tells me, a hint of sadness evident in his voice. As we pull this net in now, every so often, he pauses to clear away a cluster of oyster shells, or a clump of the green moss, fine as a mermaid’s hair, left over from months of cold water in the warmth of late spring.

We keep hauling in the net. Nothing yet. The fishing these days, Hurst says, is the worst it has ever been in his entire life. Why? I ask him. I am fishing, myself, after the silver-scaled memories that hang in the net of his long and placed life: He knows how it was before.

After World War II, he explains, people got a taste for shrimp. Prior to that, the thinking was that the shrimp were there to feed the fish, not be eaten themselves. The fishermen then had to try to learn to catch shrimp. They did this with a trawl net, a highly effective tool which kills everything that has the misfortune to swim into it. “To get a pound of good shrimp,” he says, “you’ve killed about five pounds of small fish. You cannot keep killing small fish and wonder why there are no big fish.”

There are also more people fishing today than ever before. It used to be that only coastal people had boats. Then came the automobile, trailers, fiberglass, outboard motors. It became easier to get on the water, to tear around in jet skis and ride wakeboards behind sleek boats blaring loud music. Fish like calm water.

Last week, he tells me, he set out his nets and caught just four small spot. “Doesn’t put gas in the boat,” he says, shaking his head. He recently renewed his commercial fishing license — a sum of about $400. “I will do good to make that back.”

When he was a boy here growing up, fishing and farming were the main types of employment. The area near Whiskey Creek, presently a yacht club and public boat ramp, was entirely a fishing community. Hauls of 50,000 to 100,000 pounds were “nothing unusual,” he said. He can remember catching 13,000 pounds of mullet in one haul of the net, of catching flounders on Thanksgiving that were too big to fit in the biggest frying pan his grandmother had, of working a 40-foot shrimp boat named the Patty Joan off Carolina Beach.

Through his craft, which is capable of transcending traditional borders that might otherwise separate groups of people by uniting them in common struggle with the natural world, Hurst has fished with many people from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, religious persuasions. He is glad to have had the privilege of knowing and fishing with two African-American brothers, Joe and Charles Franks. Their family had a crab-picking business for many years on the Greenville Sound side of Hewlett’s Creek, and after their landing was sold and they were told to take their boat and leave, Hurst let them fish and oyster from his own landing. “They were from the old school,” he remembers. Another black man named Joseph Robinson, known colloquially as Little Brother, was Hurst’s fishing partner for many years. “God, I loved that man,” he told me, his voice rich with memories of shared experiences.

And then there were three silver bullets, frozen in the net — the fish knew they were caught. His rough old hands grabbed them, worked them free. Three fat croakers, the thrumming call from which they take their name sounding out from the bottom of the boat. These fish will come home with me when we make it back to his family’s landing. A gift, given in an old white bucket, destined for the grill, these fish will be enjoyed (with a little salt, a little lemon, a little butter, and a cold bottle of beer) in the fellowship of good friends. In doing so, we will only be the latest in a long line of people Hurst has nourished in his Masonboro community through his never-ending work.

Izaak Walton famously said that fishing “can be said to be so like the mathematics, that it can never be fully learnt.” But I would submit to Mr. Walton that William Hurst, after a long and rich life on the water, has come very close, indeed.

John Wolfe studied creative nonfiction at UNCW. When he’s not in the water, he can be found online at thewriterjohnwolfe.com.

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