Summer Reading 2019: NJ’s Vanishing Haul Seine Fishers

The Lewis family has run its haul seine American shad fishery for five generations. Now, they’re the last on the Delaware River

Another Haul
Regular readers of NJ Spotlight know that August is our time for kicking back and taking advantage of the lull in the news cycle. To tide you over during our summer hiatus, we’re posting excerpts from books by New Jersey authors or with Garden State hooks. We’ll be back tanned and ready on September 3.

The Lewis family has maintained a fishery on its eponymous island in Lambertville since 1888, but they’re the last ones on the Delaware River to pursue traditional haul seine American shad fishing.


Welcome to the Island: The Lewis Fishery in Context

When you’re on Lewis Island, you have that feeling of being on top of something, something you need to hang onto with your feet. Maybe it’s because the bridge bounces a little, and maybe it’s because you are on an island with visible, moving water on three sides at the southern point. Maybe it’s because you can still see signs of the last floods — maple branches, leggy grass, and plastic grocery bags hanging at the same level eight feet up in scrubby trees, dusty dry but still pointing the way downstream. It’s a place where you become very conscious of your ankles, because the riverbank says, “Mind your step.” Rocks will roll, and while they tumble toward water, you may too — or worse: you may catch on an exposed root or a tuft of green, brown, tenacious grass — the kind that whistles with new green but shows last winter just below the verdure, the kind that can flip you arse over teakettle. All along the outside path, you watch your step and remember the last time you slipped on spring mud, only your screeching ankles holding you in line.

On the inside path, however, green crowds in to greet you, or perhaps to hide you. You can hear the steam whistle of the train on the other side of the river in Pennsylvania, but you are in a different state. You are where the canopy pushes down and demands that you look for the white violets among the purple ones. You look for the spring beauties early on, their pale pink stripes the color of babies’ tongues, but faint like painted china. You look for the Dutchmen’s breeches, wondering whether Dirk just left them, him run off into a Washington Irving story. You look for May apples, first tentative like half-closed umbrellas, then claiming the floor by mid-May. You are just a visitor, although you feel you’ve always been there, the tree roots reaching up to grab your soul.

People often do not notice Lewis Island as they cross the Delaware River between New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Lambertville, New Jersey, by car, but if they amble across the footbridge from Lambertville’s mainland to the island, they are in “a whole ’nother world,” a world whose stability belies the underlying tenuousness of water and earth. Rope ties together the bridge decking as a way of saving the lumber the next time the bridge washes out — and it certainly will later if not sooner. The boards give a little. Summer dust shifts with each step as water hangs in the air. Pushing through the raggedy gate and avoiding the assemblage of poison ivy and Virginia creeper that flank it, the visitor is at the Lewis Fishery, the only traditional haul seine fishery left on the nontidal Delaware River.

Before they start imagining scenes from saltwater fisheries, readers should have at least the barest outline of traditional haul seine fishing, done at this fishery with a rowboat and 50 to 250 or more yards of net. While one end of the net is walked down the island bank, the other end is unloaded from the back of the boat as it is rowed out into the river then turned downstream and back to shore, landing downstream of the other end to make a C shape
when viewed from above… Both ends are pulled to shore by hand, capturing the fish. No rods and reels. No pulling the net into the boat. No “setting” the net or letting it drift for any considerable length of time, just one continuous motion, which constitutes a “haul.” Using this traditional haul seine (net-pulling) method, the Lewis Fishery operates nearly every day throughout the spring.

Bill Sr. started fishing at this spot in 1888, and members of his family have been doing it every year since, without exception. Perhaps more impressive than longevity, though, is the nature of the persistence through five generations and four captains: William Lewis Sr.; his sons, Fred and Bill Jr.; and then his great-grandson, Steve Meserve. The Lewis Fishery crew even fished about thirty hauls in about as many days in 1953 and 1956, years when the shad population had sunk so low they did not net a single shad all season. Blip. Nothing. That’s quite a fat goose egg for a busy six-man crew to pursue for so many weeks, but they did. This same dedication to the shad prompted William Lewis Sr.’s legendary badgering of state, regional, and federal authorities, which then led to the cleanup of the river and the return of the shad. The shad population’s health still concerns fishers and biologists, although the river’s cleanliness no longer poses the problem. It’s an ongoing story of fish that rests upon a body of stories about tradition, the environment, and the community. The Lewis Fishery is a place that creates stories, and stories in turn, create the place. Visitors feel almost immediately that this place is special, but the “why” is elusive; it’s taken me two decades to figure out why, how, and to what end the unassuming cultural magic works here, and that is the subject of this book.

Lewis Island is a mile-long island, about seventy feet wide at its widest point. Its geographic and social context adds the depth of heritage, and its history as a family home and business adds another layer. Originally hunting and fishing grounds of the Leni Lenape Chief Copponnokous (Petrie [1949] 1970, 16), the island then became part of the Holcombe Grant from the British king (Gallagher 1903, 6). According to a sign erected by Art Lupine, then employed by the agency now called the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, Richard Holcombe started operating a shad fishery there in 1771. Still officially named Holcombe Island, this place is more often called Lewis Island after the family that has owned the island’s southern half since 1918. Divided from Lambertville’s mainland by Island Creek, and from New Hope, Pennsylvania, by about a thousand feet of Delaware River, Lewis Island is private property. The completely undeveloped northern end has an absentee owner. The southern end of the island, today owned by sisters Muriel Lewis Meserve and Sue Lewis Garczynski, has a landscape that suits its family, community, and haul seine fishery purposes.

Ever since an early twenty-first-century flood swept away a shed, leaving behind the heavy hardware stored in it, Lewis Island has had only two buildings. Most prominent is the three-bedroom home with two stories lifted above a ground-level basement, ready to house floodwaters if necessary. Fred Lewis, one of the home’s last two steady occupants, recalls:

“In 1933, after I got out of high school … it was in the Depression and my brother and I had fished that season … (we got finished with the fishing around the tenth of June) and Dad says, “Well, you boys don’t have a job; you may as well build a house.” So, we started building the house on the island then. And by October we could move in …Then … I lived there until we got married. (March 1, 1996)

Indeed, Fred rowed his new bride across the creek on their wedding night, because the bridge was once again washed out by floodwaters, a recurring nuisance for the rest of their sixty-eight years of marriage. Down the island from their home lies the fishery’s building, often called a “shack” by outsiders, but the family and fishing crew refer to it as “the crew’s cabin.” Here, the fishery crew gathers upstairs for warmth and boot-changing and the women sell fish “under the cabin,” in a space outsiders think of as the bottom floor of a two-floor building.

The island holds a few other human-built structures, including the one nearly every visitor touches: the footbridge across to the island. Theodore Lewis, brother of the first Lewis owner of the island, paved the tip of the island so the crew could pull the net over stones and cement to keep the fish clean of river mud. A partially stone-paved path, also built by “Uncle Dory,” has supported the fishing crew’s daily march up the riverbank for near on a century. A handful of park benches set back from the paths give visitors a view of the river and the activity on it. Between the path and the water’s edge, there are two sets of cement stairs called “the steps by the house” and “[the steps to] Jake’s dock,” places that the captain refers to when telling crew members where to “catch” the boat and drag in the net’s “sea end” during a haul. Jake and Jake’s dock clearly call up an image for the captain when he makes the command, but many crew members know only the crumbling steps, evidence of a story and a trusted relationship. The last sign of civilization is the “center path,” which leads from the footbridge at the island’s point to an opening in the privet hedge that surrounds the house, then through the wildflowers and trees, up to a garden. In the early 1980s, a neighbor and native of Switzerland, Kathy Berg, asked Fred and Nell Lewis if she could clear a little spot halfway up their island property to establish a garden in the tradition of her Swiss home. The garden intermixes flowers, fruits, and vegetables — large poppies next to tomatoes and gooseberry bushes in raised beds with paths in between. The area’s many intrusive and ravenous deer must stay outside the high fence, but two-footed visitors can duck under the arbor, turn the latch, and enter this idyllic spot with a small Swiss flag announcing a tradition of political neutrality if not inner peace. Near the garden, two branches of the path lead to a break in the trees on the riverbank. The rest of the island is ceded to native trees, plants, and other wild things, including some invasive plants and the region’s ever-present deer and groundhogs. Someday, the whole island may become completely wild, for Fred Lewis entered into an agreement with a regional conservation organization in an effort to ensure that the island would never fall into the hands of developers.

Author photograph courtesy of Keziah Groth-Tuft

Excerpt from Another Haul: Narrative Stewardship and Cultural Sustainability at the Lewis Family Fishery by Charlie Groth. Copyright © 2019 by University Press of Mississippi. Reproduced with permission of University Press of Mississippi. All Rights Reserved.

Purchase this book from the University Press of Mississippi.

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