Indiana man keeps alive tradition of handmade fishing nets
PETERSBURG, Ind. -- Fishing is a way of life along the lower reaches of the White River.
The river meanders a southwesterly course across Southern Indiana, until it joins the Wabash River, which in turn flows into the Ohio River.
After the West Fork and East Fork of the river merge near Petersburg, Indiana, the main stem of the White River flows another 50 miles between Pike, Gibson and Knox counties to join the Wabash near Mount Carmel, Illinois.
Combined, all three sections of the White River, account for nearly half of the annual inland commercial fish harvest, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
The White River has provided a source of food and livelihood for generations of Southwestern Indiana residents such as Petersburg, Indiana, resident Larry Haycraft. However, encroaching invasive species, pollution, changing lifestyles and bureaucracy - byproducts of modern living - are changing the river and its role in the community.
Haycraft is keeping the craft of traditional net making alive even as inland commercial fishing is in decline in Southern Indiana.
"I'm a fourth-generation master net maker," Haycraft said. "There are very few of us left."
Like sport fishing, people who use nets to catch fish in Indiana's rivers are licensed. Craig Jansen, Big Rivers Fisheries Biologist at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, uses this information to help track river use.
"The culture of commercial fishing is slowly dwindling," Jansen said.
Inland commercial fishing licenses have decreased in recent years, from 280 in 2017 to 194 so far this year, according to the IDNR.
"We do see a general decreasing trend in commercial licenses," Jansen said.
The reported total inland commercial fish harvest for 2016 was 102,593 pounds, a decrease of more than 23,000 pounds from 2015, and 22 percent drop from the long-term average of 132,152 pounds, according to the IDNR.
Inland commercial fishing in Indiana is limited to 565 miles of the Wabash (upriver of the Indiana/Illinois border section), Patoka and the East Fork, West Fork and main stem of the White River.
Jansen said he still sees plenty of nets in the water, at least those that are marked with locator buoys, when he is out on the White River, especially its lower portions.
"Based on the number of bank poles and hoop nets we see set in the river, there are still a lot of people using it," he said.
The nature of that fishing, however, is changing. Most commercial fishermen now are fishing to fill their freezers with fish for the winter or for recreation, Jansen said.
Haycraft has a unique perspective on these changes.
"My family and a lot of other rivermen made our living off the rivers," he said.
The hoop nets Haycraft makes are a necessity for anybody wanting to catch more than an occasional fish on a line.
"When you are fish with a fishing pole, you catch fish when the fish are hungry. When you fish with a net you catch fish when you are hungry," Haycraft said. "Because it doesn't matter, they don't have to bite the bait, but as long as they are swimming you catch fish with a net."
While plenty of people might still be catching fish, very few are still doing so to sell commercially, including himself, Haycraft said.
"Most of the river men that's left, we don't do a whole of commercial selling. I'll put up so much fish for each one of my kids and so much for me and my wife, for our fish fries or whatever we are going to do. That is usually the way it works anymore."
Haycraft attributes most of this decline to the hassle and cost of complying with state health regulations.
"Up until about five years ago you could go down the river and you would see 'Fish for Sale Today' (signs) or they would run an ad in the papers," he said.
When health regulations began requiring additional investments in equipment and time, the added costs proved too much for many fishermen for whom the river provided an important but generally part-time source of income.
"You had to have a freezer with an alarm system, and you couldn't sell a fish unless it has been frozen for six days," Haycraft said.
And then there were the confusing septic system requirements.
"So from that point forward, I quit selling fish, and we do it for ourselves, and that's how we still do it," Haycraft said.
He has always maintained a full-time job, and even now in partial retirement at age 57, he keeps a part-time job.
Considered a traditional craft, net making is a skill that has passed down generation to generation for centuries.
It is, Haycraft is fond of saying, the oldest known craft.
It also is a dying skill. It's not that people are no longer fishing or using nets.
"People are just no longer fishing for a living," he said.
When Haycraft isn't busy making nets for customers in Southern Indiana and other states, he has a backlog of nets to repair from local fishermen.
However, imported netting and mass production dominate the market now in the same way commercially frozen fish from groceries have replaced fresh catch.
"Net-making was our family heritage. You tie them one knot at a time," Haycraft said. "I tie about 400 knots an hour. I am fourth-generation. My children are the fifth."
As a boy, Haycraft said, his father did not give him a choice about learning the craft.
"You weren't allowed to watch cartoons on Saturday morning unless you were tying knots," he said. "Net-making was our family heritage."
It takes a deft hand and a lot of patience.
"When you are tying this many knots and you are doing it repeated, there is a rhythm you have to find. It is just like anything you do, whether it is typing or whether it is playing an instrument or whatever it may be, even reading a story. It has to have a rhythm," Haycraft said.
"You lose yourself into it."
He makes his nets to order, varying the lengths and altering the designs to fit specific bodies of water or uses. There is even a net for catching turtles.
A net for the White River, might be longer and have more than one throat, or funnel, to trap fish, while a net for the nearby Patoka River is shorter with an oval hoop built to withstand sitting on a rockier bed.
Haycraft spins the hoops himself out of fiberglass resin on equipment in one of his garage workshops.
"When I first learned it we had wooden hoops. Trouble is it only lasts so long. Same with cotton string. Now we use nylon string and fiberglass hoops," he said.
The finished nets are hand-dipped in a darkening solution to make them more closely resemble a log on the river bottom to fish.
There is as much of an art to using the nets as there is to making them.
"The river's a highway. It's just like I-69. It's a freeway, except for one problem: Fish are only going one direction, upstream," Haycraft said. "You just have to figure which lane of traffic to set your net into."
"There is a channel. Take a boat out from the bank until you feel the water temperature change and that is where you set the net."
This pathway or channel run along the river bottom is where the fish travel, Haycraft said.
"That is the main part where you want to be to catch a boatload of fish," he said. "A scale fish need more oxygen so he's out where the current is always the swiftest. There is more oxygen being produced out there. He's got to have it."
Catfish, which are what Haycraft likes to fish, move slower.
"He has his own personality. He's not out there in the swift water. He likes air conditioning, so he is closer to the bank where the shade is at. He will be in deeper holes where there is cooler water. He wants his food to come to him so he lays himself along log jams, and that is where he looks for his food."
Haycraft explained how the nets work:
"Each net needs to have a throat that will set to show a funnel to fish into. When the fish goes through the back throat it can't get out. The only way we take them out is to collapse the net, and we can dump them out in the boat. So it sets on the bottom and looks like a log. As long as water goes through it, a fish thinks he can too."
The tail end of the nets are secured with an anchor. The front end is secured to trees and roots on the bank with draglines to prevent it from drifting. Nets are sometimes marked with floats homemade from plastic jugs, but often they are left unmarked.
Placing your net in someone else's fishing spot might result in losing it if warnings to relocate aren't heeded. Consider yourself warned if you find someone else has tossed a brick into your net.
"When you are fishing on a river, there are certain rules you need to know. I'm fourth-generation so it's been passed down to us," Haycraft said. "Rivermen have their own rules, and they take care of their own usually. First one there gets it (fishing spots)."
Every river has different rules when it comes to fishing, Haycraft said. But like the net-making skills he has handed down to his children, knowledge of those rules is fading into history.
"There are very few of us left," Haycraft said.
Source: Evansville Courier & Press
Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com