by Julie Gyselinck
The incoming tide instilled a steady rocking motion to the floating dock as the sun beat down on the blistered wood. The rhythmic action of throwing the cast net brought a rewarding wash of salt water down his body at the end of each cycle. Bobbing the net open to release his catch onto the deck with each thud of the lead weights, our fisherman was swift to pick up the shrimp that flipped around and tossed them into his bucket. Winding the main line attached to his wrist in orderly fashion, he carefully gathered his net, folding it just so into one hand. Clamping a piece of the wet end in his mouth, his opposite hand deftly works its way down to the perfect spot on the slack hanging below. Gaining his footing on the rocking platform, he slowly twists at the waist, watching as the bottom of the net began to swing around his legs. The net and main line held firmly in both hands, he twists again and a third time finally releasing the net in his hands and from his teeth simultaneously. His arms stretched out, fingers splayed, he pauses as he watches the net spin out, opening into a perfect circle. He finally relaxes his pose, as if moving before the net hits the water’s dark surface would break a spell, and the cast would fail. As the net sinks, pulled to the bottom by the carefully spaced lead weights sewn into the base of the net, he begins to slowly and methodically draw in his line. His worn and calloused hands feeling for a vibration indicating a successful haul as he pulls. Again this age old process begins as he empties his net, moving swiftly to secure his catch and receiving his wet and rewarding embrace from the net as he gathers it up again.
Cast netting is not just a lowcountry art form. Its history spans time, almost as old as the act of fishing itself. The cast net has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to 1000B.C where there are hieroglyphic depictions of fishermen using their nets in various form. Fishing to the ancient Egyptians was not just for survival and food but also as a pastime in a group or alone. The Egyptians used many of the same fishing techniques that we still do today, although it is believed that only the wealthier professional fishermen of Egypt would have been able to afford the costly cast nets. Created from linen, and originally with clay and then later lead sinkers, these nets were well cared for and passed down from generation to generation.
The Bible makes mention of fishing regularly and cast netting was a prevalent skill for the men living around the Sea of Galilee.
"And passing along beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, Simon's brother, casting a net in the sea, for they were fishers." (Mark 1:16)
The nets of this region and time period would have been made of flax, and we see a similar trend in who was able to use and profit from the cast net. The nets were extremely laborious and expensive to make. It would have been almost impossible for one fisherman to afford his own net. The fishermen of this region would form a cooperative of sorts and together earned the days catch. The work would have continued beyond the day’s fishing, as each evening the nets had to be washed, mended, dried and folded.
Today, as we continue with shore fishing and from the bow of a boat, our cast nets are used in the same manner as they were centuries before and are virtually unchanged in their design besides modern materials. Fishermen and shrimpers today will choose the net based on what they are perusing. The size of the opening in the net weave, as well as the size of the net radius and lead weights, all play into the decision of the fishermen. The chosen fishing spot contributes to the success for cast netting as well. A calm shallow waterfront interferes much less with the net than a deep fast flowing river would. The size of cast nets can vary from six to twelve feet. Beginners are recommended to start with an eight footer as it requires the same effort and skill to throw as a six foot net, but will open and cover a larger area. Six foot nets are mostly used when casting in a small body of water such as a canal or stream or around trees. There is a significant increase in weight when you move up to ten or twelve foot cast nets and requires a much higher skill level and more strength to throw properly.
Most nets today are machine made, but handmade nets can still be found. Cast nets are made from a variety of materials. Most nets today are constructed of a monofilament which is clear in color compared to white nylon which many fishermen believed was visible to the fish. The nets of days past, created in linen, cotton and even the more recent nylon, would absorb water, creating a heavier burden on the user and were far more labor intensive to maintain. The weights on most nets are lead "balls” or "football” shaped and woven into the nets bottom. These weights help the net open and sink rapidly to the bottom trapping its quarry beneath. When shopping for a cast net, a properly weighted net should have 1.5lbs per foot. Therefore, a quality 8 foot net should weigh at least 12lbs.
Edisto is an island rich in opportunity to cast net. The beach, rivers, streams, and marsh all offer an abundance of places and different species to cast for. Most fishermen cast for live bait for a variety of tantalizing treats to lure in "the big one”. Some of the most common bait fish, which are found in Edisto waters, are the small menhaden for spot tail bass fishing and blue runners for bottom fishing. Mullet and crab are immensely popular as they attract almost all types of fish. Shrimp season is an exciting time on Edisto to go cast netting and driving over the bridges, visitors see an endless amount of shrimpers in rubber boots casting for shrimp from the banks. Coolers full of shrimp, resting in the back of pickup trucks, are used to haul the days catch home. Shrimping is also eagerly done by those fortunate enough to have a boat. Bait balls and long poles driven into the soft river bottom to mark their spot, are useful gear for those shrimping in the rivers during the 60 day bait shrimp season. Bait balls are placed in front of the bait poles and the scent attracts scores of shrimp. Casting out from the boat, according to the tide and with a bit of effort, the daily limit of 48 quarts (heads on) of shrimp should be reached.
All ages can be seen netting all over the world. No one should feel limited; it just takes a little time to get the hang of it. Getting hands on instruction is best but if finding a knowledgeable person fails, unlimited instructional videos are available online to help get the basics down. Even as an amateur at cast netting, a net can bring hours of entertainment on the beach. Everyone involved will enjoy trying to get the feel of it and looking at the creatures of the sea that are brought forth from the surf. The cast net has provided food and enjoyment for centuries.
As the setting sun casts its final pink and yellow rays over our fisherman, he drags the last catch of the day onto the dock. The surface now saturated and glistening with the warm river water brought up from each cast, cools in the waning daylight. Then the final drop of the nets weight onto the dock rings out clear and distinct, followed by the soft, crinkle tempo of shrimp being released from their river water nursery. He lays down the net and swiftly disengages his wrist from the pull rope. Sweeping the small crustacean prizes deftly out from under his feet, they disappear into their final hiding place. He picks up his net swishing it through the water to clear out any debris, and effortlessly wraps it back up. Hands full of net and a bucket, he walks back up the dock as the sun closes the door on another Edisto day. The warm wind blows softly, drying off the evidence of the day’s activity as the river flows out towards the sea. A cycle of ages that never changes, only moving forward with a new character taking place to reap the harvest of this fertile landscape.