NC Herring Industry

January 23, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The rivers of eastern North Carolina once teemed with herring as they made their spring spawning runs, providing staples of meat and roe to many people.  I say "once" because the presence of millions of fish in those rivers is no more.  Nevertheless, one can still find stakes protruding from those dark waters, stakes that supported herring nets in decades past.  And many of the small towns along those rivers were homes to "fish houses" were local patrons could buy some fresh catch.

I once heard Jim "Catfish" Hunter's father, a sharecropper, say that he finished one crop year with enough money to purchase a barrel of herring and a barrel of flour before working as a logger for the winter.  Herring were eaten fresh or salted, and Mr. Hunter was referring to the latter.  My father like salt herring, also known as pickled herring, and we would go to Johnny Broughton's store in Hertford where Mr. Broughton would lift the lid from a wooden barrel (as everyone held their noses) and pull out the requisite number of smelly teleosts.  They were then soaked in fresh water before frying, whereupon they were eaten bones and all.  The house smelled of herring for a few days afterward.

Herring roe was really a delicacy and folks in our area drove to Cannon's Ferry on the Chowan River to fetch the good stuff.  Cooks would scramble it with eggs or fry it whole.  It was during the latter efforts that I learned cursing from my mother as she might fail to dodge a hot oil spatter from the frying spawn.

But as with much of eastern North Carolina's early-to-mid-twentieth century economy, the herring are gone, due in no small part to big off-shore fishing ships.

The scene below in on the Roanoke River near Jamesville.  The run-down building is a restaurant that is open only during the herring season.  Note that I did not say "herring runs".  When open, the large wood shutters are raised and the building is usually packed with patrons.  The main course is fried herring, again, eaten bones and all.  For dessert, they did serve lemon pies on certain nights (when I was there) and other pies on other nights.  But as the runs petered out, the restaurant owners tried hanging on by purchasing iced boxes of herring from locations further south.  Some of those boxes can be seen in the shed at the water's edge.  The place is a last of its kind, but according to UNC-TV, it's still in business, a relic of a once-thriving industry, because the food is good and well-known   

 


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