Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife

Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana

Working in the Delta

Making Music in the Delta

Telling Stories in the Delta

Delta Archival Materials

Delta Folks

Whitey Shockley

Lake Providence, LA

Whitey Shockley spent his life fishing in the Mississippi River.

Whitey Shockley: Mississippi River Fisherman

By Susan Roach


Clement Holiman "Whitey" Shockley had a long, successful career as a commercial fisherman on forty miles of the Mississippi River and its oxbow lakes near Lake Providence. His fishing business included building his own boats and nets, fishing for catfish, gar, buffalo, and other fish, marketing his catch locally in his own fish store in Lake Providence and as far away as Kansas City and New York. During his fishing days, he witnessed the heyday and decline of the Delta region's commercial fishing business.

In his fishing experience, Shockley caught many incredible fish and had narrow escapes from dangerous accidents and storms, which he related dramatically when given the opportunity. In 1997 when the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife, on the national mall in Washington, featured the Delta region, Whitey Shockley was one of the tradition bearers who represented the northeast Louisiana region. At this time, he was still taking his boat out to fish the river. On the festival's Camp Narrative stage, he enthralled audiences with his occupational folklife and tales of Delta life and work, some of which are provided here. His narratives represent traditional occupational Southern fishing stories, replete with colorful detail, quoted conversation, regional non-standard dialect, fishing jargon, and redundancy. He also tells an occasional tall tale.

With his snow white hair and weathered Irish skin, Shockley was proud of his fifty-year career as a fisherman. He says, "Fishing had been wonderful to me." It has allowed him to educate his children and his grandchildren. As he explained to the festival audience, fishing the river demands respect and presents both rewards and difficulties:

I made a decent living in it, and it's something I like to do. And that's a beautiful part of life if you've got a job and you can make a comfortable living out of it, and you don't have to have somebody breathing down your back. You don't have to wear a watch. . . . I work for myself. . . and time don't mean too much to me, except bright and early in the morning before the sun comes up. I want to be out, and I want to be running tackle when the sun comes up. But I've got years and years fishing and . . . if the sun comes out and it's not storming or raining, I'll be out there running my nets. . . . I like to see that sun come up, and it don't come up too often, that I don't get to look at it when it breaks over the tops of the trees. That's a beautiful sight, seeing it coming and going down. But I don't watch it too much in the river water when it's going down. I fished out on the Mississippi river. It's wide, and it's deep, and it's treacherous. And it's got its good things and it's got its bad things. You got to respect it more than you do your wife. It will take your life in a New York second. And a lot of rules you go by, if you're fooling with deep swift water. (4 July 1997)

Shockley's poetic language captures the essence of sunrise on the Delta landscape, which typically has only a thin tree line on the horizon. Yet Shockley is all business when it comes to the river; he does not want to be on the river after sun set because of its dangers. Commercial fishing is a complex and potentially dangerous profession that requires substantial equipment and esoteric knowledge of how to build, operate, and repair that equipment and when, where, and how to use it. In addition to obtaining the equipment and required commercial fishing licenses, the fisherman has to know the fishing regulations in his jurisdiction and the legal species of fish, their habitat, and how to process the fish after they are caught. And most important for his safety, the fisherman has to be intimately familiar with the waters that are home to the fish and the techniques for maneuvering in those waters night and day and in calm and storm.

From Farming to Fishing

Whitey Shockley's family was not a fishing family, but they turned to it in bad economic times. While Shockley was born April 13, 1923, in Yell County, Arkansas, he did not remain there long, for when he was six, his father moved the family to Louisiana. Shockley tells the story of their family's move with their dog from the Ozark foothills to the Louisiana Delta, which they had heard "had good cotton" at the beginning of the Depression in 1929:

Well, when we were coming to Louisiana, we had an old T-model truck we swapped out for a cow named Bonnie . . . to come to Louisiana, because we were starving to death up there on the side of that hill. So we loaded up the three bedsteads and three feather mattresses. My old man had killed enough ducks, and my mother picked the down off the ducks and made feather mattresses with them. . . . We started over the mountains, and there were six of us—me and my three brothers, my mother and my daddy, and two friends—they decided they wanted to go along with us. So we was all on the back of this old T-model. . . . And we had Woodrow, our dog, . . . a little rat terrier [also called fice]. . . . But, anyhow, Woodrow was part of the family. So we got down to Gould, Arkansas, and this fellow had cotton down there and we went right to work on that cotton. And there was the two boys with us and my family, and they just wiped that man's cotton out there in a couple of weeks. . . . So we got ready to leave Gould to go further on South, Well, Woodrow got in the dog train. . . . That's when male dogs follow the female. So Woodrow he was not there on roll call when we got ready to leave. So my daddy told the fellow picking cotton there, "When I get to where I'm going down to Louisiana, I'm going to write you a letter, and if Woodrow comes back, you hold him for me, and, and I'll catch the bus and come back up and get him." So way along in January there, there was a snow in Louisiana. The snow was that deep [gesturing about a foot]. I've never seen one since then that deep. We was living up on the side of the levee in a Sears and Roebuck tent with a wooden floor; my daddy built a wooden floor for all six of us. But these two guys [who] come to Gould with us, when they got enough money to get back home, they went back to Yell County. And, so Daddy, he got on this old Missouri-Pacific bus. . . and he went to get Woodrow. And he brought Woodrow back. And Woodrow, he is so glad to see all the family. (4 July 1997)

Shockley's story, echoing Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, covers the first few months after their arrival in Louisiana. When they first arrived in Louisiana in the early fall of 1929, they had stopped at a general store in Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, and learned about a plantation that might need cotton pickers. In the months between their initial arrival and the return of their dog Woodrow, the Shockleys, indeed, had found work picking cotton on a large plantation north of Lake Providence in East Carroll Parish. Shockley reports the good money they earned: "And they was paying a dollar a hundred [pounds]. My mother and my daddy and my three older brothers—they were making 25-30 dollars a day; they was picking a lot of cotton. That was good money at that particular time. We made enough money we bought a Sears and Roebuck tent, a 16 x 16 tent" (27 Aug. 1989). Until they had their tent, they had lived out of their truck and on the porch of one of the hired hands on the plantation. After the successful picking season, the planter offered them a sharecropping contract for the next year and bought them three teams of mules and a walking cultivator. Unfortunately, the Depression was coming on strong, and the declining price of cotton did not bode well for the family as Shockley tells it, "We worked extremely hard that year; we were going to make a good go of it, and made a real good crop, but we come out, we were in debt so deep till cotton went down to nothing, and my daddy, he decided to move off the farm; if he had worked that hard, and he couldn't make anything, he said, "Well I'm leaving" (27 August 1997). The planter was so upset that he threatened to call the sheriff; nevertheless, the Shockleys left and moved to a tenant house a few houses from their sharecropping farm place.

Leaving sharecropping in 1931 would lead them to different work making money off the water instead of the land. They moved about a half a mile up the lake into "a little two-room shack" where no one was living and "put some screens on the windows" (27 Aug. 1997). Shockley describes their new place: "We were right on, the bank of a beautiful lake. Well, that's the only thing I can really praise my daddy for is coming on that lake there the first time we went to Lake Providence" (4 July 1997). The lake offered the Shockley boys their first opportunity to make money by catching fish—small minnows to sell for bait to a group of doctors, lawyers, and dentists, who fished in the area. Shockley's story relates the ingenuity of the young boys as they began their bait business:

We had bunch of people over there in the neighboring parish there. They wanted to buy minnows, and there was nobody raising them. One particular old fellow was named Cotton; he lived down in a little town there. And he said, "Will you boys catch me some minnows?" And he was the well-to-do man, and we said, "Yes, we will try to." So we fooled around there, and we went down and, and bought us a, a small minnow seine. This [lake] is cold water, real cold water. So we went out there and had . . . little nooks in there between the cypress trees. We wanted to go out there to get out the water about that deep and come in with that minnow seine, and we'd be shivering, but we had an old 5-gallon kerosene can. . . . But we cut the top out of it and washed it good with some old lye soap. And we took a nail and punched holes from the inside out on the bottom and on the side there. And that was our reservoir to keep our minnows. And that starts the whole thing [fishing business] to rolling. We were down there two years and we caught [those minnows], and if there was ice on the water, we waded out there and caught them minnows. It's a wonder all of us didn't die of pneumonia or something another. (4 July 1997)

The boys sold minnows for a penny a piece for a couple of years and gave their money to their mother, who saved enough to buy them a new Chevrolet for 250-300 dollars, with 70 dollars or more leftover. As their business grew, their seines became worn, so they turned to making "gigantic dip nets" made out of quarter-inch wire mesh to catch minnows in the Mississippi River. This required a "certain amount of current" to bring in the minnows. Their efforts resulted in a harvest of a hundred minnows on a successful dip. They would bring the minnows back home to put them in a trough that they had built. According to Shockley, they could sell all them because at this time the numbers of fishermen were escalating and it was a long time before minnows were raised commercially in ponds. (6 July 1997).

As he matured, Shockley began to fish for larger fish. He recalls "the first time I baited a little old trot line with about seven hooks in front my house there in 1932" and began to catch larger fish to sell. By 1935 the Shockleys moved into Lake Providence and went into the fishing business. Asked how this decision was made, Shockley sees it as an evolution:

We just growed into it. We fished in the lake all the time we lived out there; we fished trot lines in the lake there, and we swapped a few fish to the people who lived on the plantation where they had commissaries. We'd tell this one; you get meal this week; you get extra coffee this week, and you get extra sugar, and we'd trade them fish. It was not really too much money to be exchanged. (27 Aug. 1989)

In the 1930s in this area of the Delta, about the only work for hire was government work on the Mississippi River cut offs, so people had to find other means to subsist:

But the time we were there from '35 on in to '40, there was a lot of government work, you know; they were making all the cut offs in the river out here with dredge boats, and the two older brothers were working on the dredge boats, and we were fishing a little bit between the times they were off the boat. In the summertime, we had a little old seine, and I'd go with them to seine and I'd take the small fish that they didn't want to take to the market and I'd peddle them in town. . . . I was about 13 or 14 years old when I started selling fish and have been at it ever since on and off. (27 Aug. 1989)

The family kept up their minnow business until World War II when Shockley went into the service, and the brothers went different directions, according to Shockley: "And my oldest brother went to Hawaii and my youngest brother went out to California, started building air planes like we are riding in right now. And, and our middle-sized brother, he, he went up in Georgia, up there in the carpentering in the Georgia. That left me there my mother, she was there by herself" (6 July 1997). Shockley did join the service . . . . When he returned he married Mary Margaret "Margie" Walker, in 1947, and they stayed in Lake Providence.

Commercial Fishing

Beginning with the minnow business and some trot lining, Shockley's commercial fishing career continued in his adult years and developed from "trot lining to snag lining, from snag lining to gill nets and hoop nets and everything" (4 July 1997). From the late 1930s to the early 1940s, Shockley fished the Mississippi River cut offs, which produced large lakes just off the river. He used snag lines primarily until they were made illegal in the mid-1940s, according to Shockley, because "so many people abused it; they let fish just tangle up in it and die. You got to run that snag line every day, and it's extremely a lot of work; now at one time we had 35 of those snag lines. It was three of us, and we was running 35 of those snag lines" (27 Aug. 1989). Shockley explains how a snag line works:

Usually they got 500 hooks a line; 300 feet of main line and you'd have 500 hooks on it. They'd have a drop about like this, and they'd have a heavy hook, and the fish by his axis being his middle there, his head swings one way, and his tail swing another, and when he hits that line with that hook, and that hook flips over and catches in the fish's body. You don't even have to bait it. It's why they call it a snag line. (27 Aug. 1989)

Shockley recalls how one summer right after the Mississippi River cut off at Sarah Island was made, creating a big ox bow lake that was extremely deep. There he used a snag line to fish for spoon bill [catfish, also called paddle bill], along with big yellow catfish and buffalo, and "carried two truckloads a day to a friend that was up in Lake Village, Arkansas. We go on in the morning and take a load of fish and time we got back that afternoon by dark, we would have another load of fish going on up there" (29 June 1997). Later Louisiana placed the spoon bill, which produces caviar that is sent to Russia, on the endangered species list; however, both Mississippi and Arkansas permit a fishing season for spoon bill—a fact that Shockley finds unreasonable since they are all catching them in the same river; nevertheless, he abides by his state laws.

Another older type of hook fishing Shockley used was the jump line for fishing with a number of baited hooks. Shockley recalls his earlier use of the jump line: "When I was jump lining, I was jump lining for small fish. And dead water in the lakes there, I put two hundred hooks in a bread pan baited with . . . little sardine shad. And I go out and throw them out each hook by hand like this; I was fishing up to 1600 [hooks]." Floats and weights are attached to the lines with baited hooks, which are attached to a board. An important trick of jump line fishing, according to Shockley, is timing in setting out the jump line:

The idea of the jump line is to put [on]. . . bait-stealer fish, little small fish like that [gestures a few inches]. And if you just go out there at any time of the day and throw the jump lines out with that bait on there, the little fish is going to go in there, and they're going to eat all the bait before the salable fish comes along. So it's the time period that you can put jump line out in there, and that the big advantage to it right there. . . . In extremely hot weather like this, I always jump [set] my lines about four-thirty in the morning. And I was back there six or seven o'clock, had half of them picked up. (29 June 1997)

Shockley explains how the jump lines are set out and how the fish are retrieved:

And you go out in the current there in the Mississippi River, and you drop your little weight, which might weigh a half a pound or two pounds. And you just run to your boat right straight out of the current. Well, that way, the line falls straight down and stays right there. But this jump line goes out and hits the bottom of the river there. And then the guy comes back next morning and picks up the little buoy and the little stick or something another he's got hid from . . . the people that [are] predators . . . that try to pick up everybody else's stuff. And he will take that line up there in a tub. And his partner back there is running the boat and keeping him up with his line; he's coming upstream with the boat, you know. And this guy is taking the line up. When it [the line] comes up [with] a catfish, he just throws it over in the boat. If he's a small one [catfish], he pulls him over in the boat and jerks him off. If he's a big fish, he puts the dip net on him when he comes over there. (29 June 1997)

To get the larger catfish safely in the boat, Shockley used his own homemade gaff hook, which kept the catfish with its dangerous fins further away from the fisherman; the staff of the hook could also be used to hit a large fish on the head to stun it so it would be easier to handle. With the fish in the dip net, the fisherman could use the gaff hook to remove the fish hook from the catfish's mouth and to toss the fish over his shoulder into the back of the boat:

And you just pick that catfish up and hook him with a gaff hook, and you pull that hook down in that fish's mouth. And you do a number like that [gestures a twist and jerk of the wrist and toss over the shoulder]. And that fish comes off and goes back here [in the boat]. I can put them in the tub in the back of the boat [because] I've done so much of it. But that gaff hook is the thing that really helps you out on that catching that fish. . . . I always make that gaff hook out of a piece of oak about that long [3 feet], and I can put him to sleep with that piece of oak when he comes by there. And it's just a lot of little tricks there, you know, through the years, you learn those things. (29 June 1997)

Getting the fish into the boat without mishap is actually harder than it might seem, for catfish have sharp dorsal and pectoral fins, also called "spines" or "horns," that have a toxic fluid inside. Shockley explains that the fish will not use its fin unless it is forced; however, if it does stick the fisherman, "it feels like someone gave you about ten or twelve tetanus shots at one time. I mean your whole body sets on fire." Shockley tells about being stuck and the best treatment for it:

I've been stuck so many times that it's pitiful to even talk about it. It's very painful, very, very painful. . . . The best thing to do if you get really finned with a catfish, you reach down there, and you get a good hold on him, and you say a nasty word, and you pull that fin out of there, and then if you're bleeding good, well, you don't have to worry about it. You just keep milking the blood, and make the blood come out, . . . and if you don't faint, in about two hours, you're ready to get up and get back to your activities. . . . It's poisonous; it won't kill you, but it will make you want to die. I stuck one in my finger out in the river one time. It was the first net I run, and I always use white cotton gloves, and I put this pair of white cotton gloves, and I reached down there and throwed my grab out and picked my net up off the sandbar. I started to reach and get this one fish. Well, he had a different idea: he just flounced, and I tried to jerk my hand away, and that rascal went right through my finger and was sticking out that far on the other side, and I just almost fainted. So I reached down; I looked my situation over; I was holding him good with this thumb here though to keep him from breaking that horn off in me (or fin or spine or whatever you want to call it). So I said that dirty word, and I reached up there and pulled that catfish fin back out of my finger, and part of my new glove come back on that fin because it's got burrs on it. It's about 10:30 in the morning; that sun was boiling down on me, and I had run a bunch of nets up the river, and had my fish already staked out and everything. But I said, 'Oh, Lord, I'm not going to be able to finish running my tackle.' But after while, I sat there, and I milked that, and that blood was coming out, coming out, and coming out. So I finally got everything back under working order there, and I went across the river and caught about 700 pounds of catfish that day. It was in this part of July and it was extremely hot out there, and I believe that was the sickest I ever got being hit with one of those catfish horns. (5 July 1997)

Using snag lines, jump lines, and trot lines, Shockley continued to be primarily a "hook fisherman" and added trammel nets and gill nets. He explains the structure of the trammel type of net:

A trammel has got a cork line on the top lead line on the bottom. It's got a real fine mesh made out of something like a sewing thread, but it is small nylon or monofilament, and you have two outside walls built in a diamond shape, and the fish will come along and hit that small webbing and turn around and go back to these two outside walls [which are] parallel with the catching wall which is on the inside. (29 June 1997)

Shockley shares his trick for locating the fish bed and setting his trammel net on top of the fish nest:

You got to find your fish in the bed; they'll bubble for you. And you got be real careful. If the fish run away from the bed, you don't go down and set your net out at that particular time. You wait a while, and then you herd them back in like a bunch of cows. All you got to do is circle them real slow with your motor and they'll go back to their bed. And then you got another little net. Everybody goes and sticks their head in the mud. And that's what creates a bubble there. And then you go and drop a little net right on the top where the bubbles are. You just run it around like a top. And that net would fill full, and when they break the bed, they will run out and fill those outside nets. But if you had, if you had straight gill webbing there, you wouldn't catch one fish out of 20 that you catch a trammel net because it's built a little bit heavier than a gill net. And it's an extremely good way to catch fish. (29 June 1997)

Sometimes the catch in such a net can be overly successful and demand an incredible amount of work, as Shockley's story about fishing with trammel nets:

This guy, he was a commercial fishermen and had a son down in Natchez run a fish market. And he said, "Whitey, I am not just catching any fish." He's a preacher over in the adjoining parish [West Carroll Parish] over there, and his name was Henry Altman.

And I said, "Well, Henry, bring your old four-inch nets over here, and come on; I got a little lake rented up here. And we just go out there, and you set your nets out here and you can help me with mine." I was just getting sick along that time; I was having a heart condition. And so Henry, he comes over. We set his nets out and run them a couple of days there and run my nets. Well, we weren't doing too good, and I said, "Haven't you got a couple of trammel nets?"

He said, "Yeah, I got a couple of new trammel nets."

So I said, "Well, bring them over here." I said, "I got a couple of trammel nets too." I said, "We'll find one of these fish beds and catch some of these fish." And that's a particular time I was telling you I caught between 18-22 thousand pounds of fish because we never did know how many fish we caught there, because some of them got away and everything. But he [Henry] stayed in there and fished with me and helped me process the fish a little bit. The boy [Jerry] that was working with me one day—it was about a week it took us to get all those fish out of the trammel nets and bring in there to process them—so Jerry says to Henry, "Henry?" He was going to tell him to do something. He said, "Don't Henry me." He said, "I'm going to cross the Mason [Ridge] over back to Oak Grove; I can't stand this. You done worked too me hard." So you can't imagine how much work there is to commercial fishing, unless you do it every day of the week. And you got a bunch of orders to fill and everything. It's from can to can't, then all night long. (29 June 1997)

While Shockley loves commercial fishing, he does admit that it is an incredibly difficult job: "It's a hard life; I wouldn't recommend it to anybody. You got to love it; you got to be dedicated" (27 Aug. 1989). One must have the discipline and stamina to continue it every day. The part-time or less dedicated fisherman cannot deal with the bountiful or more complicated catches. Shockley, on the other hand, does not give up. He continues and gets the job done. Although Shockley has enjoyed own his career, he has not passed along his trade to his children because it is such a hard life:

I raised all my kids not to be commercial fishermen; I was trying to make a better life for them. One person out of 99 that goes in the fish business to try to catch fish for a living bailed out because they don't know what they are doing; they don't have enough money to back up, and most everybody thinks they can make a living fishing are fools to start with. (4 July 1997)

Whitey Shockley with hoop net. Photo: Susan Roach.

Some mishaps during his career tempered both the types of fishing Shockley did and at one point suspended his career entirely. Back in the late 1940s he had learned how to hoop net when a family moved in from Illinois, he learned to fish with and make hoop nets from them. He and one of the sons, Lawrence, fished the Mississippi with 25 hoop nets that they would wire to their handmade tamp sticks with soft wire from the rolls of wire used in the revetment to stabilize the river bank. They put a swivel between the end of the net and the wire so the nets would not get twisted "because if that hoop net started twisting like that, it would twist that wire and break it and you'd lose your net" (6 July 1007). The nets from this period were hand-knitted from all cotton; so the fishermen would bring the nets home to be dried to get the mold off and tarred about every ten days to keep them from rotting. Shockley explains that when they brought the nets out, they replaced it with another hoop net. Shockley worked with the family for some time, but then decided to go off on his own; however, he made a major mistake in putting them out which put a damper on his hoop net fishing:

And then one day I decided I was going to go into the hoop net business. So I made me about nine hoop nets. This was after the nylon [thread] come in. I made about nine hoop nets. And I went about seven or eight miles below Lake Providence and set them out on the Mississippi side. And I wasn't as smart as right now about setting a hoop net out. I was using a log up on the bank. And then I'd go down to the next log and it looked exactly like it, and so forth and so on. You got these logs just lying all over there. But you got some of them lying up there, some like there. But I picked up all the logs [turned] the same way, and put my handkerchief at that log. By this time I was graduated to a hook anchor. And we got to use that tamp pole. And lo and behold I went down one day and some fellow had looked out there and saw what my pattern was, and he stole all nine of my hoop nets. And, it had taken me I guess, a month to build those nine hoop nets, and I was extra proud of them. But that killed my taste for hoop nets for long, long time. So, I sort of got off of it. (6 July 1997)

After that, he continued fishing on the river with trammel netting, gill netting, and trot lining, but a barge accident upriver poisoned the river fish, causing him to "just completely quit the river and come out on the road to make a living" in order to support his three adolescent children (6 July 1997). Working on building microwave towers, he travelled from Washington, D. C. down to Florida, up to the end of New Jersey, and east to Minnesota and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Undoubtedly, commercial fishing had given him the needed strength and stamina for this hard job. Later he worked in Washington, D.C., as an inspector for AT&T towers, where he made "extremely good money." However, family issues arose in Lake Providence, so he returned to be with his family. This led him back to his river profession and to an innovation in his hoop net making that would save him time: "Then I thought, well, I am just going to go back in the fish business. So I started back to building hoop nets. And I got some webbing one day, and this webbing was all stretched out there a little, and I thought, why can't I just tie this webbing together instead of doing all this knitting like I have been doing. And so I got extremely good at that. I'm still an excellent hoop net builder" (6 July 1997). Looking back over the time he was away, he sees that the fish had rejuvenated in the poisoned river. In fact, he believes one should have faith that nature will be rejuvenated, as was also the case with high water that caused problems with the catfish farming business up in Mississippi:

I was gone ten years. And when I come back, we had quite a few fish there. But in the '73 flood—it wasn't a flood, but it's just high water, extremely high water. And people over Mississippi had catfish ponds, and they, they weren't prepared for the water to back up to the Yazoo [River] and come out all the way back to up to Greenville, Mississippi. And they lost millions of pounds of catfish. Well, it took about three, four months for those fish to filter back in the Mississippi River. And I can fish five or six, seven little hoop nets, and I couldn't process the fish; I was catching that many fish. But the tributaries that come down to Mississippi like the Yazoo and the Arkansas and the Black down the river there—they replenished the fish; the good Lord will replenish you, if you ever lose your fish or if you kill all your deer out, there'll be more deer come in the place of them. And the Almighty is just going to resupply you. So don't worry about it. It will be there one day or another. (6 July 1997)

Although he had a good career in commercial fishing, Shockley had had considerable loss in his fish business. He lost his fish market to fire twice. The first time in 1985, in addition to losing boats and motors, he lost his 30-40 sets of hoop nets that he had handmade with precious oak hoops. He suspected that the second time was arson, but he had divided his fishing gear between his business and his home to have enough equipment at home to make a living.

Rules of the River

Shockley respects the river and abides by principles of safety, which had kept him alive in his dangerous occupation. He outlines some of the dangers of the river:

And [there are] a lot of rules you go by, if you're fooling with deep swift water. You stay in the deep water, you never get in the shallow water, because the steam boat comes along, it will wash you up on the bank and swamp you and you'll lose all the materials and your boat, all your fishing equipment, and everything. And possibly you will lose your life, because when you go to the bank, it's trees that's caved off in there. And you don't want to get moving down current, with a stationary stop [such as a log] sticking up in there because if you happen to hit that, your boat goes out from under you instantaneously. (4 July 1997)

Recalling one dangerous episode, Shockley relates the following long, harrowing story in which his partner did not abide by the rule of paying attention to the river because of a love of reading:

I had a guy that worked with me for years there, and he took me down [river] thirty miles from home. I was catching another fellow to go fishing, and his name was Floyd Lewis; he's dead and gone now. But Floyd was a good and faithful fisherman. But he liked to read. And so he [Floyd] took me down and dropped me thirty miles from home, and I told him to go up to Sarah Island and take those nets up, and bring them home because the river had started rising. And I had noticed when I set the nets up, that there was a log that fell that was going up to . . . and down. It comes up like some kind of a monster; then it'd go back down. . . . It was upstream. And this old Floyd, he got the newspaper. I know what he did: he went up and took the nets up, and he was floating down the river reading his newspaper. And that log come up to him exactly when he got broadside with it, and the log stuck right up through the boat, and the boat went out from under him. He had a five-gallon gas can, and he grabbed a hold of that. This is before it was compulsory to have a life jacket in the boat with you. And Floyd, he was about a mile and a half up from the river from a big eddy where he goes in to go to the boat landing. And this eddy is possibly two hundred yards around. What I mean by an eddy is the water is circling in like that in a circle [gestures in a circle], and it circles and circles. Well, Floyd got in this circle with his gas can and there was another log there, something similar the one that was coming up and going down, but it was there stationary. And another log had come along and got lodged on here like this [gestures crossways]. And so Floyd, he had enough energy to get up on that. Now mind you, this water is about 29 or 30 degrees, and the day he fell in was the 12th of January. And so I waited. He was supposed to pick me up at first dark in Tallulah which was 30 miles from Lake Providence. And, no Floyd. So I called my mother at the fish market, and I said, "Mama, have you seen Floyd?"

She said, "Not since early this morning."

I said "Well, something has happened to him because he's supposed to pick me up." So this fellow I was fishing with was John Decker. . . . I said, "John, can I borrow your truck? I got to go home. Looks like I got a problem."

He said, "Go ahead on and, go home, Whitey, and go up there with the truck." I went up there.

My brother—he'd gone to sleep; he was [working] with in a different place. He'd gone to sleep [by the] time I got up there. I said, "Red, come on and get up and go help me." I said, "Floyd's out there on that river somewhere." And we only had one little trot line boat left there" About 32 inches in the bottom and about 14-15 feet long. And I had a little five-horse motor on the back end of it. So we went up and time we drove 15 miles up to where to boat landing was. It was getting way on up into the night. And so we put the boat in, got started, went down five miles where he [Floyd] went out in the chute to go into the river. This is dead water. So I told my brother—we were both setting in the back of the boat—I said, "Now, [when we] get out to the main river in this little bitty boat," I said, "Ole Whitey is not going to go down that river . . . and look for somebody." I said, "He is either dead or up in this dead water here, one [or the other]." So down there, we killed our motor right up at the top of the bank there.

And we heard a noise going, "Whooo, whooo, whooo."

He said "That's sounds like Floyd." So we, we took the nerve to go into this eddy and to go down there to pick up Floyd. But let me get back to this eddy. What happened to Floyd: he got in this eddy; there was no way to get out. He couldn't float out of it, and it had big, big clay bank there. . . . I mean the land just caved straight down. Floyd had no way in the world to get out of there. He couldn't float out there. He couldn't swim out there. And he couldn't get up on the river wall there, because it was straight up and slick. So we went down and picked Floyd up, went down the eddy and come back up. We had power enough to go in to it and come back out.

We come up on the south end of the log that he was standing on, and he said, "I been here all day along trying to flag a steam boat down, but I just couldn't get nobody to hear me." He said, "Have you got any water to drink in that boat?" And I thought that was the most spectacular thing to ever happened to me—a man had been there on water all day along and he was so thirsty he was about to die. You know, I'd been there dipping me up some water like a dog and lapping it up in my mouth. I wouldn't have had to ask for water when the man first come there. We took old Floyd on back home that night. And you know, the rascal didn't even get a cold, and he didn't get pneumonia, or nothing like that. (4 July 1997)

What Shockley does not tell in the story to the Washington audience is how dangerous it was to go into the eddy in the dark in the small boat and how heroic they were to go in to save his friend on the cold dark night. The Mississippi River eddies are among its most dangerous features, and most boats avoid them if at all possible.

Another rule of the river is to avoid being on it at night and during storms. The only way to navigate after dark or in low visibility is to use the river lights posted along the bank. Shockley knew the lights in his area of the river and used them successfully in such circumstances; however, sometimes storms blow in quickly in the Delta, causing other difficulties for both the fisherman and his family back at home. Shockley's wife, Margie, relates how frightening it is to have a husband out on the river during a violent storm:

Audio Player
Margie and Whitey Shockley share about a storm on the Mississippi River. Recorded by Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 1997.

One time he had gotten set out, and I mean, this storm came up, and you talk about scary; now it's scary staying at home; our lights went out; the wind was blowing so hard that it was just terrible, this has happened more than once. He's out on the water, and I'm home; Matt and I are here. You don't know where to go if you was to go look for him. (27 August 1989)

Shockley fills in the details of his actual experience that day, which also involved his friend Dewey:

I was out one evening late and setting out nets on a place across the river, and a friend was with me. I told him, "I got these other three nets; why don't you go on home, and I'll go in the ditch and set these 3 nets out and I'll be right on. I set the one net out, and I looked up and here he come down the ditch. I said, "I thought I told you to go on home. I said, "I'll be on in a minute."

He said, "It looks like it's going to storm."

I said, "Well, we are in the worst place in the world for a storm because of these rickety [weeping] willows on both sides of us. Why don't you head on out, and I'll be right on." But anyhow, I couldn't talk the guy out of leaving. And when we went out of the ditch there, the wind was blowing so hard; it'd already broke down two or three trees right behind us there. And we went out of the ditch, and there was no place to go. In other words, you can't stay there. It was so late in the evening that when the storm come in; it just turned pitch black; it was just as black as it could be. And so we had a light here on the left hand side, and I thought he would let me lead the way because I had a little more experience on the river than he had. He left on out, and he had a little bit faster boat than I did; I just saw him peel on off. I looked back at my lights; I could still see behind me. I'm having to use this light behind me to course myself across the river. I said, "Well, I ain't going to peel off behind him because he will come back around and see me and he'll come on in behind me then. Well, he swung so far left that he just disappeared. I went on across the river, I missed my spot about 40 yards, you know, that I wanted to cross the river. I wanted to get in under the river bank, where the storm would blow over the top of it. And all this time, it's raining so hard that I'm having to dip water out of my boat to stay afloat. And so I get there, and I cut my motor off, and I listened for him, and I couldn't hear his motor running nowhere. So I got out and went around this rock dike; I'd come in below the rock dike, and I followed this rock dike out, and I come back in, followed it back in to the bank. I went on up to the next rock dike, and went back out and I came back in. I was having to stay close to the boat over there to be and able to see because it was already black dark now. So no Dewey. So I went on up the river a couple of miles and kept listening for him, kept listening for him, and he still didn't show. So I turned around and went back to where he was supposed to cross the river, you know; I thought maybe he might be down there. So this time, I'm getting low on gasoline when I'm down there. I've just barely got enough gasoline to get back to the bank, back to the landing cause; I've got five or six miles to go up the river. So I got up there. When I left that time, I went right on; I didn't stop and listen for him anymore, and I got to the landing there, and there was a guy that had come in—they had got caught in the storm up the river, and they come in, and they had three-fourths a tank of gasoline, and they had one of these big heavy duty battery lights. Now he didn't have a light, and I didn't have a light either one on the boat because we was supposed to have been out of there before dark, so I told him, "Let me borrow your gas can and your light, and I'll meet you back up here in the morning or wherever you want me to meet you,"

And he said, "Well, we'll be back up here in the morning." So I was just ready to pull away from the landing, well, I hear this motor running faintly way down the river there. And Dewey, he'd come around behind me. And he had got in a sandbar pocket over across the river over there, and he had went up in there two miles, and he had to turn around and go back down and come back up. But when he went back over to the other side of the river, he didn't ever try to cross the river no more; he got hung up in that pocket over there. But that's about as excited as I ever got in a storm out there. Now I've been in some storms in the day time that you wouldn't believe now. You remember that guy that got lost in the plane over here from Kilbourne, you know, and they looked for him so long back yonder five or six years ago? Well, I was on the river the day his plane went down out there, and honest to God, it was raining so hard it was filling my boat up every four or five minutes, and I was having to steady dip water out of my boat to stay afloat. (27 August 1989)

Again, Shockley is ready to go to the aid of his friend in spite of the storm and the darkness. An amiable and sociable man, Shockley always remains loyal to his friends. However, he has learned that most of his problems on the river have occurred when fishing with others. He says, "Fishing by yourself is not bad because if you know what you're doing, you don't have to watch out for the other fellow in the boat with you because he's the one who is going to mess up. You take care of yourself when you are by yourself" (4 July 1997). In this way, he might be termed a rugged individualist who insists on following the rules.

Big Catches

Shockley liked to brag that he did not usually "let the big ones get away like most people do." If he did lose a fish he didn't like to talk about it. Instead if he did have one escape, he preferred to "sit down in the shade there and I'll think up some way to prevent that from happening again." During his long career, Shockley caught many large fish; however, he only counts the ones which he believes had the advantage over him. Such was the case with a large gar fish almost tall and heavy as Shockley and more dangerous with its bill, sharp teeth and fins:

But the biggest fish that I have ever caught was a 143-pound gar. I was fishing down below the Ben Loman light there; that's below Vicksburg, Mississippi. And I had a big sandbar out there. I put my trot line out there to catch a . . . big yellow [catfish]. And I went down there one day, and five out of six of my big lines were gone; I said, "Yeah, a big bunch of gar moved in, so when I took my fish to Eudora [Ark], to the wholesale man up there, he had some big, big tackle up there—some big hooks, some big cotton. This is away back yonder, years ago, when you used cotton instead of nylon [line]. So I bought me a big line specially, and I picked out all the big gold fish we had. I put them on that line out of across the bar there. I had about fifty hooks on there, I guess. I run in to the first day, no gar, the second day, no gar, the third day, no gar. Well, I had a little old pistol, a hog leg, whatever you call it, whatever part of the country you're coming from. But I had this pistol that I kept in the boat all the time. But I started out on the line the fourth day, and I could feel that line doing this [gestures jerking]. And I said, "Oh, heck! Here I am out of here, got the big boy on there, and I ain't got nothing to hit him with anywhere. So I looked over there in the boat, and one of my little anchors was there in the boat, a little rock to build revetment out of; there was one laying up there in front of the boat where I was at. And I had a little safety line there, and I put the little safety line on when I got up about as close as I could get without making him run. So I tied my safety line on; I got my rock ready, and I had a burlap bag that we put gill nets in and tie it on for corners. Well, I have one of those in the boat. And that was in my favor. So I kept milking this this gar up and I expected him to run any time, but I had this safety line in case he did run. Well, I could just throw my hooks away, and it's dangerous because he can jerk one of those hooks in [his hand] there. So I took my pocket knife out there every time I come to hook and clip it. Every time I come to hook and clip it, it fell in the boat. And the sun was coming from my right side, and the gar was over on the left side. And he saw the shadow of that boat. I guess he figured that was security. But I milked him right on up, and I let him set there about I guess 15 or 20 seconds. I reached over and got my rock, and I hit him a right hand haymaker over the side of the boat right where his scales joins up to his head there. And he just stiffened out and started squirming like that. Well, I reached over and got my tow sack, and I reached out and got him by the teeth and pulled him over in the boat before he come to, and when he come in that little wooden, a little old wooden boat—you know, we use some small boats because . . . it's better to trot line out of a small boat than a large one; we were using a long narrow boat. And I pulled that gar in there and bounced him on the bottom of the boat, and he come to about that time, and I thought he was going to whip my boat up and thought he was going to break the gunwales out of it. But I picked that rock there and hit him again, and sort of quietened him down. I tore the end of my little finger almost off where I hit him, and that bone there, caught a hold of my little finger there. And that's the biggest fish that I ever really caught, where he had the advantage of me. I have caught lots bigger fish, but I had the advantage of them. (4 July 1997)

Many fishermen on the Mississippi have taken advantage of the hidden treasures of ancient wood that the Mississippi reveals from time to time. Instead of catching fish, they try to catch the big logs that surface when the river has changed course. Before the major cut off work done by the Army Corps of Engineers, the river used to meander; when the river changed course in times of flooding, many acres of land and timber were submerged for decades. After time, the clay in the root wad becomes dislodged and the limbs fall off; then a gas forms in the log making it buoyant so it can float to the top of the water. Shockley, like others on the river, took advantage of these logs if he had the opportunity: "It's any body's log that wants it; it's a beautiful lumber when you cut one of those things and season it right and plane it off. They make a lot of church pews, and a lot of people make gun cabinets and everything out of it" (4 July 1997). Fishermen such as Shockley would gather enough logs to raft downstream to Vicksburg, where they could be taken up the Yazoo River to the company that purchased the logs. Shockley relates his injury resulting from the "most exciting thing that ever happened to me on my logging deal":

I found this big log, and the water was shallow, and there was an island out here and the main land of the Mississippi [over] there. And this log was walking; that root wad walked down through there, and it would bounce up and down. I told my partner, "You go and lasso that thing when it comes up, and I'll go over to the bank with a rope." We usually kept a rope close to 100 yards long in the boat, you know, and a good size rope about like this [gestures about two inches]. I said, "You go out there and throw the thing [rope] over it, and I'll run ahead of you, and I'll go down there and put [the other end of] this rope; I had it coiled in the back of the boat where I could just run up to a tree over there. You would have to find a little eddy to protect your boat there because when you tie the rope around that tree, well, this log is going to come down. It's about like lassoing a semi-truck is what it is. So I went ahead, and he lassoed [the tree], and it was going like that [bobbing gesture]. The rope was coming up. And I ran in to a big willow tree, and I wrapped five times around that willow tree, and I said, "I know that is going to hold that log." I had that little rope left to give it some slack when it come in to tie it again, the log when it come down there. But this thing, it was so gigantic, it just kept milking my rope away from me, and I said, "I'm stout enough to hold that thing." And I put my foot at the bottom of that tree, and when it did, all the bark come off of that tree and snapped that rope out of my hand, and it just felt like somebody had taken a knife and cut all the rope out; it was about 25 or 30 degrees that day. And I think that's about the worst experience I ever had out there in that kind of work. (4 July 1997)

While Shockley enjoys sharing his personal experience narratives, he occasionally tells tall tales disguised initially as his own experiences. In the following story he told on the Smithsonian narrative stage, he presents it as a story about going frog hunting; the audience did not know until the last sentence that it was fiction:

Audio Player
Whitey Shockley shares a frog hunting story. Recorded by Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 1997.

I want to tell you about the last time I went frog hunting. It's a terrible—you got to get out in the marshes at night. There's all kind of things out in there. I had this pirogue here, and my buddy was up in the front of the boat, and he had a light there that he was catching the frogs up there, and I was back paddling the boat, and I heard something bump on the side of the boat, and I looked down there and it was a big cottonmouth [snake]; he had a giant frog there, so I just reached and grabbed him right behind head like I got this thing right here, and I reached over with my other hand and took the frog out of his mouth, but that time, I was drinking beer, so this old snake, he had just wound around my arm and everything; I said, "I got to do something to get this rascal off me, so I reached down and get my can of beer, and he's trying to stick a fang in me, and I just poured that beer down him, you know, and the minute he relaxed, I just throwed him back in the water. So we went on frog hunting down the bayou, and I heard something bumping on the boat again, and that doggone snake had brought me another frog. (4 July 1997)

Since his tall tale is told in first person, it is difficult to know if he is telling a story from his experience or a tall tale. His delivery of the tale is rather slow and low key, but filled with detail and dramatic pauses, which marks the story as his rather than a tall tale. Regardless of whether it is truth or fiction, he loves to get a laugh and had a hard time trying not to laugh when the audience laughed in response to his tale. Although Shockley did not discuss the tale after telling it, versions of it as a Cajun Boudreaux story appear on the Internet and in Thomas Green's Greenwood Library of American Folktales (119-120). In Green's version, "Boudreaux and the Cottonmouth," told to Green in 1985 by Lisa Smalley, a Cajun from Louisiana, Boudreaux runs out of bait while fishing, sees the snake with the frog, and decides to steal it for bait. While Shockley takes the frog forcefully because it is a large one to add to his catch, Boudreaux, in trickster fashion, pours whiskey into the corner of the snake's mouth so it will relax and release the frog. Shockley, on the other hand, pours his beer, a lesser form of alcohol, into the snake's open mouth so it will relax its coil and not bite him in anger for stealing its frog. This north Louisiana version of the story shows Shockley, again, at a disadvantage against his catch and having to use his strength and guile against the snake. Shockley's version pits man against nature represented by the snake, which is what Shockley faces in daily life.

Cooking the Catch

To help market a small portion of his catch, Shockley and his family also ran a fish market in Lake Providence. Shockley, always the entrepreneur, began catering because of his fish cooking skills. While cooking might be considered to be women's work in the South, cooking fish and game is often considered a man's territory. According to Shockley, he excels in preparing all types of fish, ranging from catfish to buffalo to "goo." While some people think of the gasper goo [freshwater drum] as a fish worthless for eating, Shockley had his traditional way of preparing goo so that it resembles crab meat:

You take that gasper goo, and you fillet it out like a bass fisherman would fillet a bass out. And you, you take the, the top part which would be the tenderloin of the fish. And you save a little bit on there from the anal duct to the tail. You put ten or twenty or fifty pounds of those filets in a pot of boiling water. And you put your crab boil over in there or whatever seasoning that you like on fish. And you put them in there and you boil it. And you let it cool off enough to put it out on the table. I got a stainless steel table that's got a drain on it. I get everything out there; if it happens to have a piece of fat or something little like that you left on there. . . , I just take a spoon or fork or some other and rake that fat off, and then you take your meat and put in in a plastic bag and put it in some ice and cool it off . And when you want some crab salad, you just get one those bags there—that boiled fish there. It's firm; you couldn't hardly tell it from crab meat if somebody didn't tell you it was gasper goo. It's really delicious. And you can put in mashed potato with some onions and bell peppers and stuff like that and shallow fry it in fat, and it makes extremely good patty. (29 June 1997)

Shockley catered for large groups through his fish market. He had a special "fish cooker' that was 12 inches wide in the bottom and about 36 inches long, set up on a large butane stove. He remembers one time where he fried fish for 450 people in less than two hours. Shockley believes that he can make any fish taste good with his method of battering and frying and shares his recipe secret for frying a huge batch of fish:

The way I cook fish is I cut my fish up the way I want them. If I'm going to cook them whole, I'll wash them out and purge them good, but if I'm going to cut fillets or something like that, I will put him in a dishpan and put him over in the sink—I've got a sink that runs over there . . . because I got a drain there. And I'll put that fish in there and I'll wash him, and wash him and wash him. When I think I got him washed good, I'll let him set there about 10 minutes, and then I'll wash him again. Then I look at my water; if it's crystal clear, that fish is ready to be mealed then, and I'll put him in a sack with a concoction I make up, and I shake him up and I'll get him in there, and when he gets a little sticky there, well then I'll let him stay in there, but usually I do this anywhere from 6-24 hours prior to the time I'm going to cook it. The reason why I do that is because peanut oil costs around 28 dollars for 5 gallons, and if you meal your fish and put them right in your hot grease, you're going to see cornmeal run away from it; it just looks like a covey of quails gets up and leaves there. Well that cornmeal ain't going to stick to no part of that fish. It's going to go down in the bottom of your pot. And then you're going to cook two or three cookings of fish. Well that cornmeal is down there; it's crystalized from heat, and it's going to put an odor on your fish. But the way I cook my fish there, and got that batter on them and leave that salt set on there long enough to draw the moisture out of the fish on to the breading, it will save you tons and tons and tons of cooking oil; I use peanut oil. But if you'll wash those fish good and then meal them way out ahead of time—of course, everybody goes to the fish market and they're ready to eat fish right then when they get home, and they don't look ahead. . . . You need to bread it and put it in a refrigerated place and let it set a while. (4 July 1997)

In addition to cooking various fish, Shockley also hunted and cooked other game including duck, deer, squirrel, and frog. He even had his mother's recipe for making duck dressing. He loved frogs, not frog legs, and had a traditional way to prepare the delicacy:

I hear people say, "Fog legs, I love frog legs, I love frog legs." Well, I think it's a pure waste of meat because the way we clean a frog, we cut his head off right behind his eyes, cut all four feet off, reach right up on his back with a pair of skinning pliers, and you're reaching around his [garbled] and you pull that out, and you reach down there in his groin there and pinch him there with these pliers, and you pull the hide up first and get the eggs out and the insides of the frog out there, and you reach right up there and he's got 2 or 3 little white nerves going down his backbone there; well, you clip that also and the reason why you want to clip that is because if you put a frog in water, and keep him laying around there four or five hours before you cook him, and you put the flour on him and seasoning and everything and put him in the skillet, he starts kicking around; that's no story. If you don't kill that nerve in his back end, he'll have reflexes when you put him in that hot grease. (4 July 1997)

Whatever the game, Shockley knew the traditional means of dressing and preparing it. An avid north Louisiana outdoorsman, he took delight in the hunt, as well as the food and stories that went with it.


When Shockley participated in the Smithsonian festival in 1997, he was 74 years old and still doing commercial fishing although the popularity of catfish farming in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas had diminished the commercial fishing business. Looking back over his career, he was happy with what he had accomplished:

But I have never closed my mind [to fishing] from the first time I baited a little old trot line with about seven hooks in front my house there in 1932. And, from then on I have progressed on in my building equipment and being in the fish business, I own a fish market, and I do some, do some business with other fishermen, you know, that sells fish. And I'm real pleased with being a commercial fisherman. And it's been an occupation and I had all my life that I enjoyed. And that's wealth when you can do something, that you enjoy doing and make a living out of it. (29 June 1997)

Whitey Shockley continued fishing until his heart condition prohibited it. He died in Lake Providence on September 4, 2001.

Works Cited

Green, Tom, ed. The Greenwood Library of American Folktale. Vol.2. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006. Print.

Shockley, C. H. "Whitey." Personal Interview. 27 Aug. 1989.

—-. Narrative Stage Presentations. Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. 29 June 1997, 4 July 1997, and 6 July 1997.

With a Ph. D. in folklore from the University of Texas at Austin, Susan Roach served as Regional Folklorist from 1998-2009, and now serves as Director of the School of Literature and Language at Louisiana Tech University. This article was written for the Delta Folklife Project and the 2012 Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife.