Chapter Eight

A Living Resource Exhausted: Fishing on the Wicomico

Simon Brown


My favorite fishing spot in Salisbury is a bridge on Riverside Road which crosses over a damn that pours into the Chesapeake tidal waters of the Wicomico River.  This area known as Tony Tank, which was once occupied by the Wicomico Indians, is one place that has made an outsider from the metropolitan city of Rockville, Maryland fall in love with the Eastern Shore.  I go there because any inexperienced fisherman like me who has a rod and reel can have the excitement and experience of catching a bass and then releasing it back into its shady home.  I am not sure if they like to dwell under the wooden structures of the bridge or if it is the turbulence of the water that pours over the damn that they favor, but they are always there and they are always hungry. 

            I also go because of the beauty of this part of the Wicomico River.  During the warmer months the broad green leaves of the Tuckahoe protrude through the shallow water almost covering the whole width of the river.  The colorful red and yellow Eastern Painted Turtles float around with their heads peaking out of the water.  I have spent many warm days there, enjoying the scene while fishing under the bridge when the tide is low enough.  One time during low tide, I made my way across the slippery, muddy bank to the large rocks under the bridge and was surprised to encounter a large school of white perch.

            The Wicomico River is the spawning grounds for many types of fish like the white perch.  Every year, anadromous fishes make their way from the ocean and bay, up the rivers and streams of the Wicomico River to fresher water where they will spawn.  Here they will lay their eggs.  When the new fish hatch, they will mature in the estuaries of the river and then make their way out to open water to mature until they are ready to make the same journey as generations before them.  This life cycle of the many species of fishes which use the river as spawning grounds once provided the people inhabiting the area a way of life deeply rooted in the waters of the Wicomico.



The First Fishermen of the Wicomico


The Wicomico Indians were of the first human inhabitants, to whom the river’s resources provided a connection to the water that would in turn affect the Wicomico River.  The Indian village Tundotank, the area now known as Tony Tank, was known by John Smith as early as 1608. [1]   Here the Tuckahoe, which still grows in Tony Tank today, provided a rich source of starch in its roots almost year round.  The fresh waters of Tony Tank were spawning grounds for sturgeon, shad, perch, alewife, and striped bass that were easily caught in the weirs used by these Indians. [2]   Further downstream, at the mouth of the Wicomico, where the water was saltier, blue crab and oysters were abundant for the use of the native peoples and later for an oyster industry which eventually died out due to pollution and over harvesting, even after the vigilant enforcement of oyster harvesting laws in the early 20th century by Captain Leatherbury of the oyster navy.

            When the Europeans arrived on the Eastern Shore, fish was of little importance to the newcomers compared to the abundance of muskrat, beaver, and other fur bearing animals that the eco-system of the Wicomico River supported.  For a time, one fur trader, John Nutall, prevented the invasion of European settlement on the Wicomico River by creating a lucrative fur trading business with the Wicomico Indians. [3]   However, after 1659 the “English did not acknowledge native claims to the land” and by 1660 the fur trading business which protected the land occupied by the Wicomico Indians had declined. [4]   Land patents for areas occupied by Indians could be easily secured by colonists through the Lord Proprietor of Maryland for an annual fee. [5]   By 1690, 48,700 aces of river drainage along the Wicomico River, in Somerset County alone, had been patented. [6] The native peoples of the Wicomico River were soon pushed out by rapid English settlement and either joined other tribes to the North, were assimilated into English society, or died from disease brought from Europe. 

Fishing was practiced by early settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries in Chesapeake waters but was mostly employed with line and hook and had little impact on fish populations. [7]   The farming practices of the early settlers along the Wicomico probably had the most impact on the fish populations.  Silt from farming erosion covered the eggs of flounder, herring, shad, and white perch, greatly reducing the regeneration of fish populations.  Also, for the first time, soil chemicals were introduced into the tributaries of the river, which affected the reproductive success of fishes. [8]   The decline in fish populations in the Wicomico River had begun even before the fishing industry had started to develop in the second half of the 19th century. [9]


Wicomico River Fishing Industry    

The harvesting of fish from the Wicomico River was inevitable, as seasonally they charged up the river in noticeable schools to spawn.  In 1835, John Oliver invented the first haul seine made from the flax grown by local farmers.  The flax was wound into twine netting and corks made of gum root or cypress wood were attached as floats. [10]   A haul seine could be up to 1,800 feet long.  A skiff would leave from shore and encircle an area of the water, bringing the skiff back to shore.  Once an area was encircled, the seine net would be retrieved by winch and loaded back onto the skiff with whatever catch was encircled by the net. [11]  

  Prior to the late 19th century, the practice of fish harvesting was mostly supplemental to farming.  Typically, fishing would take place during the spring spawning runs.  Also, during the spring and then summer farming would be done, and then through the fall and winter oyster dredging would take place. [12]  

When steamboat lines were opened along the Wicomico River, the seafood markets in northern metropolitan areas, such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, were opened up to Wicomico fishermen. [13]   The extraction of food from the river by the late 19th century was such a part of the lives of the inhabitants of Wicomico that it even found its way into the political life of Wicomico County at the annual Quantico turtle dinners’ and oyster roasts’.  In an 1890 article appearing in The New York Times entitled “Turtle Dinners and Politics: How the Campaign Opens on the Eastern Shore of Maryland” the author describes how “Nothing of an active nature is done until the turtle dinner takes place. This is a great feast of turtle cooked in various ways, and served with numerous trimmings.  From all parts of the county the politicians congregate.  By sundown the ticket is practically agreed upon, and each office seeker knows just about where he stands.”  Also, according to the author, “on the Eastern Shore the annual oyster roast served is a feature of all big campaigns.” [14]

           Reports of the goings on in the fishing industry covered the pages of Wicomico newspapers at the turn of the century.  Whenever the very first shad or herring of the season was caught it was reported in the Wicomico News -- who caught it and for how much it was sold for, even if it was only a pair of shad. [15]   People had great pride in the fishing industry which provided so much food and steady, though strenuous, work.  In a 1903 article appearing in the Wicomico News, the author shows the local pride for the fishing industry of the Wicomico River when he states:

The time for the catching of shad is drawing near and soon this delicious member of the finny tribe will be made for sale at our fish stalls.  Some have made their appearance in the Northern Markets, but they came from Florida, and are not to be compared to our products.  Seines are being made and boats put in order to catch the finny tribe when they invade these waters. [16]



The Decline of a Fishing Industry


Because of the original abundance of fish in the Wicomico River and a lack of any fishing records kept in the first half of the 19th century, the decline of fish populations was not noticeable until the fishing industry was well under way in the second half of the 19th century. [17]   By the end of the century, Wicomico fishermen felt the impact of the growing scarcity of fish in the river.

At the turn of the century, the local and U.S. Fishing Commissions’ were enlisted in order to renew fish populations to keep the Wicomico River fishing industry alive.  Four local fish hatcheries, produced white perch, shad, and herring fry, or juvenile fish, to be placed in the Wicomico River in hopes that they would mature and return one day to be caught or spawn and replenish the declining fish populations.  In 1901, at the Salisbury hatching station “from April 23rd to May 18th, two hundred seventy- five shad were stripped, from which were obtained 8,250,000 shad fry.” [18]   The Wicomico River must have had severe shad shortages then compared to other rivers, as the distribution of these shad fry show: Manokin 300,000, Wicomico 5,800,000, Pocomoke 1,200,000, and St. Martins 750,000.  In addition to the 5,800,000 shad fry from the Salisbury hatching station another one million shad fry were obtained for the Wicomico River from the U.S. Fishing Commission.   In another report of the Fishing Commission appearing in the 1902 Wicomico News 1,300,000 shad fry, 1,750,000 white perch fry, and 1,225,000 yellow perch fry were distributed about different points of the Wicomico River, showing that it was not only shad populations which had been reduced. [19] Unfortunately, the work of the Fishing Commission to support the Wicomico River fishing industry was in vain.

The growing scarcity of fish in the Wicomico River was due to many factors.  Erosion from development and farming, fertilizer runoff, and sewage all contributed to killing fish eggs before they could hatch.  There were also natural causes for some of the decline in fish populations.  It was believed by some Wicomico fishermen that eels were responsible for the declining fish populations.  There was even a bill offered for the appropriation for the destruction of eels which many Wicomico fishermen claimed would do “more to increase fish supply than the work of the fish commission.” [20]  

The fishing practices at the time also contributed to the scarcity of fish in the Wicomico River.  In combination with pollution and siltation diminishing the amount of fish eggs which would survive and hatch, fish harvesting removed spawning adult fishes.  This was a devastating combination to the regeneration of fish populations in the river.  Fishermen who fished the lower parts of the river would catch the runs of fish by blocking the mouth of the river before the fish could get close to the headwaters of the river to spawn, preventing the renewal of fish populations.  In 1899, Somerset County, located on the lower parts of the river, reported “the largest catch ever reported in one week by sail gear,” while fish were reported scarce in Wicomico news. [21]    

In 1900, Wicomico River fishermen presented petitions signed by one hundred fifty fishermen for legislative action to protect the fishing interests of all fishermen who depended on fish which came to spawn in the Wicomico River.  News about the petition made the front page of The Wicomico News. The legislation petitioned for included a law which would require fishermen in the lower parts of the river to place their seines along the sides of the channel, as was the supposed practice of Wicomico fishermen further up the river, to allow some fish to reach the headwaters of the river to spawn. [22]   However, the petition must have had little effect as two years after the petition and plea of the Wicomico fishermen to stop the obstruction of the channel at the mouth of the river the Deputy Commissioner of the Wicomico Fishing Commission commented on the scarcity of fish in the Wicomico “It is really wonderful that any fish get to the headwaters of our rivers to spawn when it is remembered that in the bay approaching the mouths of the rivers, and for miles up the streams, the pound nets are so thick that it is almost impossible to get between them… Pound nets have almost totally destroyed the population of herring…” [23]  

Fish harvesting methods that were unique to Wicomico River fishermen also started to disappear.  The practice of haul seining that was first invented and used in 1835, was predicted to come to an end by a local fishery owner in 1902 because of scarcity of fish. [24]   Only twenty two years later, the Sharptown News would report the end of float seines also: “Industries of a few years ago, that of knitting float seines and cutting cord wood are no more in this section.” [25]   When talking to John Barnette, one of the last Wicomico River commercial fishermen, he commented that “If you see a guy haul seining some time, stop and take pictures.”

Looking through the 1920’s and 30’s editions of the Wicomico News on microfilm at the public library, it was rare to find any mention of the fishing industry.  During World War I (1914-1918) and II (1939-1945) the predominately male labor force of the fishing harvesting industry was called to duty.  Also, during WWII the fish hatcheries which struggled to replenish fish populations in the Wicomico River disappeared. [26]   What I finally did find in the newspapers, was a 1934 article in the Wicomico News, about the importation of fish from Japan by the William B. Tilghman Co. Inc., indicative of the suffering local fishing industry. [27]   In 1963, the William B. Tilghman Co. Inc., a major fertilizer producer for the Eastern Shore’s agriculture industry, decided to retire its fish insignia which was adopted by the company in the 1880’s when the local fishing industry provided herring and shad for the nitrogen ingredient in their fertilizer. [28]   Today, chemical manufacturers supply the nitrogen for the Eastern Shores fertilizers even though an advertisements for Tilghman “fish” Fertilizer appearing in the Wicomico News once boasted that “Organic nitrogen material which come from living substance, such as animal tankage, blood, fish, give better results than inorganic or mineral sources.” [29]   The loss of the fish insignia is symbolic of the lost fishing industry on the Wicomico River.    




Above, is a graphical depiction of the pounds of fish caught per decade by commercial fishermen on the Wicomico from 1930 – 1990. [30]   There is a dramatic decrease in the amounts of shad caught in the last sixty year.  This may be indicative of the declining shad population in the river, and the decline of commercial fishing activity on the Wicomico in the last sixty years.  However, if it is noted that the amount of white perch caught stays semi constant in this time period and is always relatively low, the decrease in the amount of shad caught over time could be due to a decline in shad populations alone. Also, the amount of herring caught declines rapidly from 1930-1970, but then increases from 1971-2000 to almost the same amount as in 1930.  This means that shad populations were dramatically reduced, regardless of a decline in the fishing industry.  Because the amount of shad caught never increased after its decline as did the amount of herring caught, shad populations in the river may have been reduced by fishing and other factors, such as an increasing input of pollution from a growing human population around the river, to such a low level, that recovery could not happen as it did with the herring.  It may also be noted that in 1929, a total of 611,345 pounds of fish were caught in the Wicomico River, compared to only 44,940 total pounds of fish caught in 2000.


Interview with the Last Commercial Wicomico River Fisherman

            John Barnette is one of the last full time commercial fishermen working on the Wicomico and a wonderfully knowledgeable source about the history of the Eastern Shore fishing industry.  Like many watermen, working on the water was passed down to Mr. Barnette through generations of family.


“I guess you could say since we ‘came over here on the boat’ there’s been somebody on one side of the family or the other, that’s been involved with seafood, primarily on my mother’s side.  The only one I know for sure about on my Father’s side is my grandfather.  I never did know him.  He died long before I was born.  He was mainly in timber and he had store in Princess Anne, a general’s store, I guess you could say more of a merchant type thing.  On my Mother’s side as far back as I’ve been told we had that fishermen/farmer cycle.” 


In his youth, John dredged oysters with his Grandfather in the summer and winter months.  These times spent working on the water with his Grandfather where a precious time which John recalls as “the best years of my life.”


“At the time I didn’t appreciate it.  There are times that you look back on moments that you remember well.  Darndest thing, the boat that he had at the time, actually wasn’t as modern as you have today.  The winder for the wench, to dredge the oysters out of the water, wasn’t hydraulic.  It ran off of a Briggs Straten Motor.  It was a rear end out of a car, it used the differential.  You lock the brake on one side, so the other side turns, that’s how the wench was brought up.  With that motor running on all day you couldn’t carry on much conversation.  But, you learn, when you get a certain look you do this (hand gesture).  When it was a little bit deeper you went like this (holds up three fingers) and that meant three fathoms.  That’s three reaches, so I would pull out the line and cut out three fathoms.  It was those kind of things, you know, didn’t really mean much at the moment.  Thirty years later, it means a lot.”


            Mr. Barnette’s Grandfather built three boats, each named after a Grandchild.  In turn, John has named his boat the “William Moffitt” after his Grandfather.


            “But yeah, I got started back then, that was in high school.  I was making twenty dollars a day, four days a week.  I was king of the world.  Most of these guys were working for a dollar, dollar and a quarter an hour, six days a week.  We only worked Monday through Thursday.  Of course, at that time my grandfather was in his mid-seventies.  It’s really physically demanding and he didn’t have to do it but he wanted to do it, and that Friday off was great.  I was sitting around here on the store porch, and the rest of them boys were going by riding around on the back of a truck load of tomatoes.  I’ve had them thrown at me a few times for that.”


            The more care free days of fishing in his youth soon passed after John graduated from high school.  Commercial fishing is extremely strenuous.  In addition, market prices for seafood, and the abundance of fish, oysters, and crabs are very unpredictable.  Also, seafood is often imported many times from Eastern Pacific nations like Japan and other places from around the world.  Never the less, Mr. Barnette eventually found his way back to the water.


“Right out when I graduated from high school, my brother had gotten into the seafood business. He had originally gone to work for Dresser-Wayne and went to business school.  But I guess having some former connections into fishing, it kind of drew him back.  He bought a boat the summer I graduated.  I dredged with him on some oyster bars down here. 

Through that fall, it would have been 76’, the county was really spent. Things were really tough.  There was a recession in OPEC, the oil embargo was brought on, interest rates were high, and industry wasn’t hiring entry level people.  Somebody with a high school level diploma and no experience, you don’t get much of a job at that level.  I went on with him for a while through that summer.  I applied to Delmarva Power and Light, and Dresser-Wayne.  I had some contact with representatives from UMES (University of Maryland Eastern Shore).  I won’t say reluctantly, but it was kind of like “I can’t find anything else, so I’m going to enroll.”  I did two days.  I don’t recall the numbers correctly but I know there were only five white people in the freshman class, out of about 800.  There in orientation I was a little uncomfortable.  I was getting odd looks.  I was enrolled in the agricultural department with my focus being agricultural engineering.  I knew through the program that I would only be going there two years for basic engineering and then go to College Park.  I had two years full scholarship, because I was white.  All I had to buy was my books.  But I just couldn’t take it.  So I came home and got my boots back out, and here I sit. 

It was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made, and I regret that to this day.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy what I do, I love what I do.  But I know now if I had that education, I’d be somewhere else.  Not that I wouldn’t be enjoying what I was doing here.  You don’t have anyway of knowing.  You can’t predict the future.  I have some regrets.  That and not taking military service.  In the 70’s, in that time frame, we were just on the back of the Vietnam War.  Military was not a popular place.  A month before I turned 18 they stopped, at what that time, they called the lottery.  I was a month away from getting my lottery number.  The war stopped and the lottery went back to just volunteer army.  I regret not having gone through some military service.  It would have better prepared me for life.  Educational wise I could have gone on from the military to any school through the GI program, GI Bill.  But it’s all history now.  I came home.  Mom and Dad, they weren’t happy, but they understood.  Mom was less supportive than Dad, because Mom really wanted me to do something other than work on the water.  Having grown up with it, she knows the hardships, but they supported me.”


Harvesting fish, crabs, and oysters from the waters of the Wicomico and Chesapeake Bay is unique compared to other fisheries.  The harvest of different things is done seasonally.  In addition, there are many different methods to harvesting different types of fish.  What is common to all methods of commercial fishing in the Chesapeake and its tributaries is that they are all extremely hard physical tasks.  

“Prior to the nylon you had some what they called seine, what today is called a gill net.  But usually, in one season it was gone.  The biggest problem with them was actually when you were down with them, they would rot.  Some, you would see hung out to dry in racks, just laid over to air dry, then they were put away in a dry area.  They would still deteriorate.  The pound net was the same way.

As harvest gear goes, a pound net harvests a broader spectrum of fish, from what we call medhadden, little bunkers, alewives, herring, shad, rock, flounder, trout, and croakers.  Whatever swimming fish that does not go through the mesh usually follows its way down the leader and then into the pocket, the head, or crib.  There is a lot of terminology for it, the area where the fish gets trapped in.  Then you go, and actually lift the net up, the nets raised up to where you can dip the fish out of the net live, except for what you do not want to retain.  You can release them and they swim off happy for another day. 

A pound net is a lot of work.  A lot of poles, and I’m talking poles twenty, twenty five feet long.  I’ve heard it said on Hooper’s Island one day, that “the name on a poundnet is the same as on a tombstone.”  I could afficiate that statement, because it’s a lot of work.  It’s not as bad when you’re setting it, it’s when you’re pulling it up. The poles going in are dry, they’re light, but its after they’ve been in the water 2 or 3 months, stuck down in the mud three or four feet and then soaked with water, that part we do by power.  Even back then the had a hand windless, a chain with a slip hook and you shake that chain till it got right down to the bottom, the base.  That windless was right over the stern of the boat, and when you keep taking that slack up the stern of the boat came down, so you had one person go to the bow and start jumping up and down and the boat would actually pull it.  You can’t pull it from the top or it would break off.  Then once you get one up, then there is about 50 more waiting out there for you.  Once you get it to the top of the water, there comes the work for the men to get it over the side of the boat.  Once on the boat, you have to carry them to shore, and then stack them up straight to dry again.  It’s a lot of work but it’s actually regained some popularity.  There are some specific fisheries that are specially trying for bait, for the alewives and herring.  That’s primarily the source for crab bait here. 

With the evolution of that twine you went into nylon gill net, which was fairly exclusive at that time for the spring fishery.  Crabs and gill nets do not mix, especially nylon.  They get tangled up, and it’s just a bad time.  Gill netting was a thing of cool weather, before crabs came out and started moving much.  Rockfish and shad would catch in the same mesh size.  The thing about a gill net is that it gets a bad wrap in a lot of ways.  From a fisheries management point of view, the gill net is a preferred device because it’s so selective in the size of fish that it harvests.  You would be surprised at the difference in the size of fish caught, especially something like perch or even rock for that matter.  A gill net is measured in squares, the same mesh is measured in two ways:  its either square, or stretched up.  Most of it’s done by stretch mesh.  A rockfish net is probably about a 5 inch mesh.  A drop down to 4 ¾ in. can mean as much in difference as 2-3 inches in length of fish.  That 5 inch mesh, the bigger fish that would hit that will bounce off of it and swim away from it because he can’t stick his head in that hole, its size specific.  The 5 in. net, we usually figured that for 2-4 lb. fish, which at most times, back when things were more liberal, that was a popular market size fish.  2-4 lbs. and the ones that were like from a 12-14 in. range would be from maybe ¾-1lb.  Locally, that smaller fish was in high demand, the 2-4 lb was what the markets in New York wanted because it was a portion size that hotels and restaurants could sell for a meal.

Even with a gill net, there are different methods of applying it.  There is a drift gill net which moves on with the tide, and an anchor gill net which is free standing but is weight anchored on both ends and does not float.  Then, what we used to primarily fish in the tributary areas is what we call stake gill nets, which are shorter in length, usually not over 30 yards.  They were set across the tide in increments and separate units, but you may put 6 or 8 units together.  They were more what you could call the ‘intercept fisheries’ when fish were migrating in the spring.  Other than those migratory times those nets produce very little because if they fish doesn’t move, you’re not going to catch it.”    


At the turn of the century, fish conservation was done by the Fishing Commission in the interest of supporting the commercial fishing industry.  The Wicomico fishermen themselves even called for changes in fishing practices to create a more sustainable industry.  However, today instead of running local fish hatcheries to try to replenish fish populations as the Fishing Commission did or trying to create sustainable industries, moratoriums and commercial fishing limits have been introduced.  As the commercial fishing industry declined and recreational fishing and crabbing became very popular for the Chesapeake and its tributaries, fisheries management has swayed towards the interests of recreational use, which has dramatically affected fishermen like Mr. Barnette, and the species ecology of the Wicomico and Chesapeake.


“Here in later years, management has taken some extreme measures.  Some of it is for the better, some of its not.  What really probably brought about the biggest changes in it was rockfish management. There was some concern, well founded concern, that there was a decline.  It was not unparalleled, it wasn’t unheard of.  There has always been some cyclical events.  But as is the case with a lot of other things, politics started taking more influence in management than… lets put it this way, political science took over from fishery science. 

There’s a commission, Atlantic States Fisheries Commission.  Congress appointed this committee back in 1942 to oversee management of fisheries on the Atlantic Coastal states, from Maine to Florida.  The commission at that time, when Gov. Hughes was in office, had recommended a 40% reduction in commercial harvesting, rockfishes.  A lot of it came from recreational interests.  They looked at eliminating the spring intercept fishery.  In it self, it would have probably done more than what was needed.  The spawning capacity was being so intercepted, taken away, that you just wanted to get recruitment.  But Gov, Hughes wanted to take more extreme steps. Marlyand had another 5 year moratorium on the harvest of rockfish.  The guidelines that the commission puts out mark a minimum standard.  They (Atlantic States Fisheries Commission) were elated Maryland was going to do this because Maryland is the primary spawning area for striped bass for the whole Atlantic coast.  There are some in the Hudson River, Delaware Bay area but primarily in the Chesapeake.  This brought about what some managers will confidentially admit was too successful, because this created an over abundance. They’re cautious about how they use the word, they don’t say over abundance, but it has, which has put so much pressure on the lower species that it’s depressing things.”                     


How did that rockfish ban affect you personally?  Where you fishing rockfish at that time?


“From 77-1980, I stake gill netted with my brother in the spring, but production had gotten down to where there wasn’t enough there to reel them in.  I was still single I didn’t have mortgage and children to feed, he did.  In that time frame I had also bought a boat, one of my first boats.  Even at that time the moratorium was kind of in its infancy.  What the moratorium did was dis-place fishermen and put them in other fisheries.  Instead of just being mainly a winter and spring fishery, it put people back to tonging oysters, that were normally rockfishing.  Anytime in the seafood industry that you eliminate someone from doing something over here its like pushing that bubble under a piece of plastic, it just comes up somewhere else.  When the moratorium was lifted, it was done under such constraints that the fishery as we know it, really before, would never exist again.  And that’s not all bad.  Eliminating the spawning fishery was needed from the beginning.  Of course we’ve always done it, Papa always did it, Grandpapa always did it.  But they won’t let you fish in there now.  When the moratorium was lifted quotas were established for each state.  The initial quota, I can’t remember the exact amounts, was pretty small relative to what we ran.  Even recreational fishing during those moratorium years, I caught as many fish on hook and line as I did anytime, even today.  Sometimes I think it was better because you didn’t have as many people around.  But quotas have been increased, this year Maryland will be allocated either 1.2 or 1.7 million pounds commercial harvest.”



 The New Wicomico Fishermen

            This fishing map was created in 1959 by the Somerset County Commission as a promotion to attract people to move to Somerset County.  Fishing on the Wicomico River has gone back to the old hook and line method once used by the first European settlers.  However, it is a different kind of settler that has moved onto the banks of the Wicomico River now. 

Tony Tank, once the home of the Wicomico Indians, is now lined with water front properties.  The new fishermen of the Wicomico River, like me, sets out with rod and reel mostly for sport.  If you look at any marina on the Wicomico River you will notice that recreational and sports fishing boats far out-number the few, if any commercial fishing boats in the marina.  A commercial fishing industry on the Wicomico River has come and gone along with the abundant runs of shad that once charged up the Wicomico in the spring. 

When fish populations were demolished not only by fishing, but by all human activities which affect the ecology of the Wicomico River an important connection between the people of Wicomico and the river on which they depended on to support a fishing industry was lost.  The fishermen of Wicomico and the Fishing Commision struggled at the turn of the century to create a sustainable industry.  However, the fishing industry was lost and with it any hopes of creating a sustainable use of the river in the true sense of conservation. 

Despite the fact that during heavy rains signs are posted warning not to eat fish caught in the river because of sewer overflows, and despite the fact that swimming is prohibited in the Wicomico River because of high levels of E. coli bacteria, the people living around the Wicomico today still maintain a connection with the river, not through industry, but through recreation.  Maybe this connection, an appreciation of the Wicomico River’s aesthetic qualities and the wildlife that it supports, will bring about changes in both the perceptions of the community and government of the too often overlooked Wicomico River, and catalyze action to start protecting, and repairing the damage that has been done to the river by all the human activities that have affected it. 















[1] Roundtree and Davidson. Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland.    p. 95.

[2] Roundtree and Davidson.  Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland.   p. 14.

[3] Roundtree and Davidson. Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland. p. 92.

[4] Roundtree and Davidson. Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland. p 100.

[5] Roundtree and Davidson. Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland. p 100.

[6] Roundtree and Davidson. Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland. p 100.

[7] Miller, Henry M. Transforming a  “Splendid and Delightsome Land”: Colonists and Ecological Change in the Chesapeake 1670-1820.  p.184.

[8] Miller, Henry M. Transforming a “Splendid and Delightsome Land”: Colonists and Ecological Change in the Chesapeake 1670-1820.  p.184.

[9] Miller, Henry M. Transforming a “Splendid and Delightsome Land”: Colonists and Ecological Change in the Chesapeake 1670-1820.  p.184.

[10] The Wicomico News. “Haul Seining on the Wicomico.” April 17, 1902.  Jefferson Boyer Transcriptions

[11] Personal communication with John Barnett, commercial fisherman of the Wicomico River.

[12] Personal communication with John Barnett, commercial fisherman of the Wicomico River.

[13] Personal Communication with John Barnett, commercial fishermen of the Wicomico River.

[14] The New York Times.  “Turtle Dinners and Politics: How the Campaign Opens on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.” 1890.

[15] The Wicomico News.  Jefferson Boyer Transcriptions.  

[16] The Wicomico News. “Preparing For the Shad Season.” March 5, 1900.  Jefferson Boyer Transcriptions.

[17] Miller, Henry M. Transforming a  “Splendid and Delightsome Land”: Colonists and Ecological Change in the Chesapeake 1670-1820.  p.184.

[18] The Wicomico News.  January 16, 1902. report of the Fish Commission for 1900-01.

[19] The Wicomico News. “Work of the Fish Commission.” June 12, 1902. Jefferson Boyer Transcriptions.

[20] The Wicomico News. “County News.” March 15, 1900. Jefferson Boyer Transcriptions.

[21] Somerset News. August 3, 1899. Jefferson Boyer Transcriptions.

[22] The Wicomico News. “The Wicomico River Fishermen.” February 22, 1900. Jefferson Boyer Transcriptions.

[23] The Wicomico News. “Hatching of White Perch.” April 9, 1903. Jefferson Boyer Transcriptions.

[24] The Wicomico News. “Haul Seining on the Wicomico.” April 17, 1902.  Jefferson Boyer Transcriptions.

[25] Salisbury Advertiser and Wicomico Countian. Sharptown News. January 26, 1924.

[26] Personal communication with David Scott of the Whitehaven Historical Society.

[27] The Wicomico News. “Cargoes from Japan, Antarctic, Unloaded Here.” March 29, 1934.

[28] “Fish Insignia Out of Date for Century-Old Company.” Talbot Somerset.  March 10, 1963.

[29] Wicomico News.  Thursday, March 22, 1934.

[30] Data provided by Connie Lewis of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

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