Appalachia Fishing

Keeping Fish For Later Use

Keeping fish for later use

Since we started The Week Of The Fish, a few of you have mentioned catching fish and keeping them alive for later use. Jim Casada described the way Al Dorsey kept catfish before selling them:

“He would take them home with him and he had a special wire cage in Toot Hollow Branch, right next to his home, where he placed them. He would feed the fish two or three weeks, much like folks used to feed ‘possums to clean them out. Al then sold the catfish.”

And Bill Burnett left a comment about his family keeping fish in a waterbox in their cellar:

“Since the Little Tennessee River ran through our farm I was raised catching and releasing to grease many fish. The most abundant of these were Catfish. We kept trotlines in all summer and had a waterbox in our cellar where we almost always had fresh fish during warm weather.”

I asked Bill to describe the waterbox in more detail:

“My Dad and I dug out and poured a concrete cellar behind our house, we discovered a spring coming out of the bank as we were digging so when we started pouring the cellar we boxed in the spring and routed it through the upper wall of the cellar and into a concrete box we formed and poured in the floor down the right side of the cellar. This concrete box was about twenty inches wide by eighteen inches deep and twelve feet long, it had a sixteen inch high by two inch pipe plumbed into bottom of the lower end which carried the water out and emptied into a branch. This kept fresh water flowing through the box like the raceways you see at trout hatcheries. This arrangement provided enough oxygen to keep several catfish alive for extended periods but was insufficiently oxygenated to keep trout since the drop from the spring was only about a foot above the full level of the box. This cellar is still there even though our home burned in the early seventies and Duke Power, whom we rented from, sold the property and it is now part of the Needmore Tract managed by NC Wildlife. If you cross the Swinging Bridge across the Little Tennessee River at Needmore this cellar is about one hundred and fifty yards from the east end of the bridge on the right above the Lower Needmore Road which connects with NC 28 (Franklin Highway).”

Pap tells me when he was a boy it was common practice for folks to catch fish and keep them alive in a nearby body of water or even in the rain barrel until they were needed for food.

I would have been forever mesmerized if a fish was swimming around in a barrel of water when I was a kid. Granny Gazzie had an old wringer washer machine behind her house that would fill with water every time it came a hard rain. I loved to sneak back there and play in that rain water-I can’t imagine how excited I would have been if I’d seen a fish swimming around in it!

I wonder if catching fish and keeping them alive for future eating is still common-do you know?


p.s. One short fishing tale I have to share came by way of Johnie Arant:

The One That Got Away!

When I was a 12 year old boy I was fishing in a ditch that ran between our field and the farm next to ours. Something got a hold of my hook, I don’t know what it was. Before I could pull it out it bit my line and broke it. That was when I lived on a farm near Paragould, Arkansas. I am now retired and live in a little town called Biggers, Arkansas.

Yours truly,

Johnie T. Arant


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  • Reply
    dolores barton
    August 3, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Such interesting stories to have been shared with your readers. I did not know that people kept fish until they were needed for food. Gosh! Being a city gal has sure shown me how much of life’s necessities I have missed. Thanks to all!

  • Reply
    August 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Got a good laugh from Stephen’s trout and lamp story. Enjoyed learning of the various ways folks would keep fish to use later, too.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    August 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Stephen Ammon’s story reminds me of the age old question; “Do all fishermen lie or do all liars fish?” One of my favorite tales: One day I was fishing just east of Bryson City just below the Governor Island Bridge where the bank has been shored up with old cars. I hooked into a monster catfish, I fought him fer nigh bout thirty minutes when the line went slack. Thinking my line broken I tried to reel it in but it just went tight but I couldn’t move it. I finally climbed down to try to untangle my line, imagine my shock when I discovered that fish had swum into one of them cars and rolled up the window.

  • Reply
    Peggy Lambert
    August 3, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    My grandmother and grandfather on my
    Father’s side had a house that had a porch on
    three sides of this house.
    On the backside of the house at the far end
    there was a spring house that had water coming
    out of the bank above the house and was fixed
    to run through the cement spring box and then
    running out side. This kept the milk and butter
    cold and anything else that would not keep till
    the next meal. We sure did not play here either.
    There was a celler under the house for canned
    good and taters and we didn’t play there either.
    Wasn’t there very often and so as remembering
    what she taught me was nothing. We only lived
    a cross the field and a cross the creek. I can see
    what is left of their house and barn from our house.
    Peggy L.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    August 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Tipper–I think lots of folks have, over the years, “stocked” small farm ponds with bream, bass, and catfish they caught in rivers or lakes.
    Trout, the favorite mountain fish for many, post real problems. They require cold water, lots of oxygen, and more. Unless you are at a quite high elevation, have a special set-up in the form of a holding tank, or have a good, flowing spring, keeping trout alive is problematic. However, Dr. Harold Bacon, a well-known Swain county physician who anyone with roots in that area will remember, did have a large cement holding tank where he kept a number of trout.
    I know because I did a lot of squirrel hunting near his house as a boy, and anytime I was in the area I had to check out the trout. I’ll also confess that on a couple of occasions I slipped a hook and line into my pocket, grabbed a couple of grasshoppers as I headed to the woods in early fall, and drowned a ‘hopper in front of those trout. They were easily caught but I always turned them loose.
    Finally, to add a bit on the “release to grease” matter, it is an outgrowth of the fashionable catch-and-release approach practiced by many moder fly fishermen. In fact, when I give public talks I always mention how much I like “release to grease” to my audiences. The shock effect is delightful, because invariably there are audible gasps from some purists. I then explain that in southern Appalachain streams you are actually doing the trout a favor by keeping a mess, since most are overpopulated.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    August 3, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    My daddy use to take us boys up
    the Winding Stairs Road to Queen’s
    Creek Lake. It’s less than a mile
    long, but full of trout and brim.
    We took a couple of 5 gallon buckets, filled ’em with water and
    over a few trips, put over 300 in
    our pond. Feeding time was so much
    fun watching them boogers go after
    that oatmeal, looked just like
    peronas on TV. But they never did
    grow any, you could just about
    read a newspaper thru ’em…Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 3, 2012 at 11:43 am

    We dammed up the branch and put catfish in it up on Wiggins Creek. We had a couple of big ones and a half a dozen good eaten size in there. We kept them in that clean fresh water for about two weeks. Then one night it came gully washer and overtopped the dam and washed it out and washed all them fish down the branch. We looked for a long ways down through there but never found nary a one of them. After that we tried keeping our catch in a wash tub but something pulled off the screen we had over it and took ’em. So I guess my story is one of failure to catch fish and keep them long enough to eat them.

  • Reply
    Ron Perry
    August 3, 2012 at 11:22 am

    When I was a kid, my father and others would go fishing in the muddy Catawba River that ran through North Carolina. As it ran by my home town of Belmont in Gaston County, it was the dividing line between Gaston and Mecklenburg County. About dusk the men would string what they called “trot lines” from one bank of the river to the other with baited hooks at intervals along the line. Then they would build a fire on the river bank and wait around for several hours. They would then pull the lines in and there were catfish hooked ever so often. Because the Catawba River was so muddy, they would put the catfish into #10 wash tubs overnight, alive and swimming around. In the morning the grey colored fish would be a beautiful bluish color. They would then take the catfish, nail it’s head to a tree with an ice pick, cut the skin just below the head and pull it off with a pair of plyers. Many people don’t realize that catfish don’t have scales like most fish but smooth skin. Chop the heads off, gut them, roll them in a mix of flour, corn meal, salt and pepper and deep fry them with fins and tail attached. The fins and tail gets crunchy and is good eating. For side dishes, we had hush puppies, slaw, onions sliced and put in a bowl of vineger and plenty of napkins and big salt and pepper shakers. You could eat the meat off of each side of the fish and at the end of the meal, there would be a large pile of bones in the center of the table. There used to be many “fish camps” near the river which were rustic resturants which were always packed with people who loved the catfish but would rather have others do the catching, preparing and cooking. Sweet tea or coffee and you ready to go.

  • Reply
    Richard Moore
    August 3, 2012 at 11:20 am

    I love the kerosene lantern story! What a hoot!

  • Reply
    Sallie Covolo
    August 3, 2012 at 10:59 am

    Tipper I will have to check with my husband “The Fisherman” if they had “fish wells”. He is out right now fishing for salmon, although it is not their spawning season fishermen here are allowed to fish for them now for some reason. I liked the stories about the wells that were dug for keeping fish alive.
    My daughter always felt sorry for fish that were caught and when she was very young, she released a whole mess of them that were on a stringer. Her dad said, “Why on earth did you do that?” She said, “I did not want them to die”. He said,”They are going to die anyway, they can’t get off the stringer, and now we can’t eat them!” Needless to say, the guys did not take her fishing any more..

  • Reply
    Bob Aufdemberge
    August 3, 2012 at 9:56 am

    When I was a kid we had a stock tank, for watering livestock, made of concrete that was about four feet high. When we caight more catfish than we needed right away, my dad would put the extra ones in that tank for later use. I remember one day when I was 6 or 7 years old getting out one of our fishing rigs made of a willow pole, cotton line with a machine nut for a sinker and a hook. I caught some June bugs for bait and then proceeded to re-catch some of those fish in the tank. I put them all back (an early instance of catch and release) and never told anybody about it until now, 65 years later.

  • Reply
    August 3, 2012 at 9:08 am

    My ex-husband and I stocked the farm pond with fish we bought at the annual fish sale in town and a few we brought back from the lake. He bought several catfish at the sale and instead of taking them to the pond, I saw him going toward the barn where the old cistern is located. I was so mad, I didn’t even ask why he put them in there.

  • Reply
    August 3, 2012 at 8:32 am

    I can remember going with my daddy when I was a little girl to a local fisherman on a nearby lake to buy fish. He had a big huge tank that he kept catfish that he had caught off his trot lines in. He would get the fish out and skin and dress them for you. Now that is what you call fresh fish!

  • Reply
    grandpa ken
    August 3, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Around here everybody had a shallow hand dug well kept a catfish or two in it to keep the water clean of bug and such. I remember daddy and grandaddy taking a flashlight to check on them every so often in their wells. The fish did not grow and would live for many years

  • Reply
    August 3, 2012 at 8:11 am

    Miss Cindy – it means frying up the fish to eat right after you catch it!
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 3, 2012 at 7:07 am

    Tipper, what does ‘releasing to grease’ mean?
    I’ve seen cement boxes like the one described above. Seen them around old house places. I’ve wondered what they were so now I know. Thanks for the new information.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    August 3, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Since you didn’t mention smoking fish, I will. I’ve been working at an aluminum plant in Alabama this week. Yesterday, one of the fellows I’m working with brought in some fish his uncle had smoked.
    He said it was gar. It was a little chewy, but right tasty.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 3, 2012 at 5:43 am

    Bill’s description of his and UZ’s waterbox reminded me of my grandma Cora’s springhouse. It was a little house that was sunk into the ground about two feet. It was concrete up to ground level and above that was built with wood. It had latticework all the way around it to let the breezes blow through. It had a spring at the upper end and had a concrete channel where the water flowed through. I don’t remember ever seeing fish in it. It was a natural refrigerator. She kept everything in it that we now put in the ‘frigerator. It was nice and cool in there but Grammaw wouldn’t let us play in it. I remember peeping through the lattice to see if Grammaw had a watermelon in there.

  • Reply
    Stephen Ammons
    August 3, 2012 at 4:41 am

    I was talking to a man at work about trout fishing a few days ago and he told me that he caught a rainbow trout that measured close to three foot long near tweesey railroad on 321. Of course it got away when he was trying to get the hook out.
    I couldn’t resist the temptation to tell him when I was fishing the Little Tennessee river that I had found a spot where a old car had run off in the river years ago. My hook must have floated inside the car and hooked something. When I reeled it in, it was an old kerosene lantern and to my surprise it was still burning.
    He gave me a strange look and replied really!! I then told him if he would shorten that trout just a little I would blow that lantern out. Now that’s a fish story.

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