Along the Mississippi River, an ancient way of eating—and living—is nearly history.
The earliest written records of the Mississippi Delta come from Hernando de Soto’s army, who crossed the river south of Memphis in 1541. The Delta was a vast wetland, too deep in places to cross by horseback, populated by bears, panthers, even bison. And, as one member of the expedition wrote, “[t]here was no end of fish.”
The villages the army passed depended on fish, which to de Soto’s men signaled indigence; farming, not foraging, marked a civilization’s worth. Three centuries later, after the Delta’s famous plantations had replaced its swamps, fish remained a low-class food. Archeological records show that in the Southern plantation house, protein came mostly from cattle and pigs. Fish was like possum and squirrel—food for the slave cabins. Today, the names we give river-caught fish indicate their standing. Rough fish, they’re called, or gross fish—even trash fish.
In the time a man could smoke a cigarette, I’ll have 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of fish in the boat.
But there was appetite enough for such beasts, especially wild catfish, buffalo, and gar, that deep into the nineteenth-century fleets of flatboats stayed on the river for months at a time. Even within the past decade, fishermen lived on houseboats parked in the Delta’s small-town ports, peddling their catch. Last year, though, when I tried to track down a river fisherman, everyone told me the same thing: they’re gone now.
Gregory Dycus, then, is a rare catch. His father was a fisherman, as was his father’s father, and so on, five generations back. His uncles, his five brothers: all fishermen too. Dycus, who is 57 now, began gutting fish when he was 10 years old. “And I’m the last one that’s still fishing of my father’s boys,” he says. “The very last one.”
Greg Dycus tosses a fish into the boat.
A WILD LANDSCAPE
Last December I joined Dycus as he motored across Lake Lee, south of Greenville, Mississippi, to retrieve trammel nets he’d set the previous night. The day’s work—hauling up a few hundred yards of net, untangling fish caught in its mesh, and then resetting the net elsewhere on the lake—was tedious and cold. But winter has its merits. The bustle of the world, audible in the quiet hum of the traffic, hid behind the levees. No one else was on the lake.
Dycus does almost all his fishing in the backwaters within the Mississippi River levees. “It’s like another planet,” he says.For most of us, such wild landscapes are a place to visit for a quick paddle or an overnight camp. In contrast, Dycus has spent almost every day on the water for more than four decades.
This day, he was accompanied by his son, 27, and nephew, 18. Both, he says, are in their apprentice years. After his decades on the water, Dycus needs no depth finder to understand the surface on the river bottom. He can set nets loose in the current—a rare technique—with confidence that he will avoid underwater snags. “In the time a man could smoke a cigarette, I’ll have 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of fish in the boat,” he says.
Dycus has been humbled by the river, too. A miscalculation one winter day left him stranded on the wrong side of a dyke. The river was falling quickly; the dyke, underwater in the morning, blocked his path by day’s end. Dycus slept on the frigid riverbank.
On our trip, too, the river was defiant. The nets held few fish. There are many methods of fishing, and this one—run-out fishing, the pro-cess of leaving a line of netting in one place—is inconsistent. You can know the river, but you can’t force the fish to comply.
Dycus had a solution. He created a set, a circle of netting that encloses the boat. Then, with knives and fish hooks, the trio of fisher-men bang on the gunwales. Alarmed, the fish try to flee and crash into the set. It’s an old method, though only recently legal. By the end of the day, the Dycus men had collected 3,600 pounds.
RIVER TO TABLE
It’s hard to pinpoint how many fishermen remain on the river. The state of Mississippi sold 768 freshwater commercial licenses last year, half as many as twenty-five years ago. According to a state official, almost all of these licenses go to casual fishermen, the sort of people who take in one big haul before a family reunion.
The story is the same up and down the Mississippi. Fishing is an expensive business—the nets alone cost thousands of dollars, a boat more than $20,000—and the going rate for buffalo for the last quarter century remains at twenty-five cents a pound.
Put it next to a trendy, imported filet like Chilean Seabass, a name invented to appeal to consumers, and trash fish will “whoop its ass.”
Even the size of the catch, measured in Mississippi by opt-in surveys, is unclear. Most fishermen “peddle” their fish, negotiating the price with buyers, sometimes as soon as they return to shore. Fish markets, once the only way for a consumer to buy seafood, are almost gone in the Delta. Dycus owns one of the last in the region, a small shop next door to his house.
“If it wasn’t for the black community, fish markets wouldn’t have a chance,” Dycus says. He estimates that 85 percent of his customers are black. All but unknown by most white diners, buffalo fish is a comfort food in many black communities, often served as a platter of individual, deep-fried ribs.
Nick Wallace, the executive chef at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, remembers his grandmother feeding him bits of buffalo meat pinched into balls of white bread. “Where I’m raised from, we took the fryers out there next to the pond,” Wallace told me. “Back then you had to learn to fish because you wanted to eat.” Now we live in an era of ease where fish, filleted and frozen, fill shelf after shelf at the grocery store.
Wallace hosts a monthly ’Sipp-sourced dinner, featuring products made within Mississippi, and is considering featuring river fish. Put it next to a trendy, imported filet like Chilean Seabass, a name invented to appeal to consumers, and trash fish will “whoop its ass,” Wallace says. But for those unfamiliar with the river, such fish have a bad reputation.
Our sense of the dirty Mississippi likely began in the 1960s. A series of massive fish kills caused by agricultural pollution made the news. Subsequent legislation created a river that scientists say is quite clean. But laws could not salvage its reputation. Most Americans now prefer their fish to be farm-raised and consistent, which often means imported from Asia. Even as farm-to-table restaurants surge in cities across the South, there is no emerging ethic of river-to-table eating.
Out on the lake, Dycus held up two buffalo. The first was thick and meaty, the second alarmingly slim. This, Dycus says, was the effect of the latest threat to the river, and to his way of life: invasive Asian carp. Carp eat too much algae. Carp occupy too much river space. Carp simply out-compete the buffalo, leaving many to starve. And carp was Dycus’s targeted catch the day I joined him. He planned to sell the fish to a Chinese-owned company that runs a processing plant nearby. Though Dycus wasn’t in it for the money (carp, even less appealing to American consumers than buffalo, sells for a third of the price), he wanted to get the fish out of the lake. To me, that was a sign of his mettle.
Wind, he says, is his nemesis. Gusts over twenty miles an hour make it nearly impossible to haul in the nets. But little else will stop this man. Not sleet, not snow, not single-digit temperatures. Not even, it seems, a looming ecological carp-borne apocalypse.
Before we got on the river, Dycus told me the story of the one extended time he did not fish. Ten years ago, a genetic disorder destroyed his vision. By the time he found a doctor who could help, he was living out of the back of his fish market. He’d lost his truck, so he paid a friend to haul him to the lake. He’d lost his motor, so he used a paddle. Fish by fish, over a period of two years, Dycus clawed his way back.
He remembered a few old-timers who would hang around at the boat ramp, drinking beers and watching him paddle. It must have seemed odd that Dycus would paddle all day, in summer heat, just to haul in such humble fish. But it never seemed odd to Dycus. He remembers a comment from one of the men. “He said, ‘If I had to do that I’d just quit and go get me a job.’ I said, ‘I love what I do, and this is a job.’ That’s what I told him. This is my job. This is what I do.”
Reporting for this story was supported in part by the Lower Mississippi River Foundation and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, through the National Park Service.
Mentioned in this post: