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St. John USVI Culture: Fishing Backtime

Ethien Chinnery

The following account was told to me by one of Jost Dyke's most respected culture men, Mr. Ethien Chinnery and father of Curtney "Ghost" Chinnery, one of the authors of Tales of St. John and the Caribbean:

Fish sold for five cents a pound. That's when you get five cents a pound. Sometimes you get nothing.

The boats from Jost Van Dyke would go south of St. John to fish. We used to meet these boats going to St. Thomas from Tortola. You throw up maybe five or six long string of fish in the boat and send them to such and such a woman in St. Thomas.

When you go to St. Thomas to get this money from the lady for the fishes, sometimes you don't get anything at all, because they tell you the fish was spoiled, and they had to throw them away. Sometimes, when they do give you something, they cuss you out. "Oh, you send these rotten fish to me! I only giving you two dollars." After a while, well, we get over that. Sometimes you just pull your pots, and you go to St. Thomas yourself and sell your own fish. You would get a little more, but you stay too long over there.

fishing st. john
Godwin with Fish

Mostly I fished with fish trap. Sometimes a little hand line but mostly fish trap. I come up and meet my father going in the bush and cutting a kind of wood you call amarat. We would bring the sticks home and work them. You put a piece of canvas over your knee to keep from cutting up your cloths, and then you take your knife and split the sticks in half and then in half again. It would get to be about an eighth of an inch thick, and that is what you would use to make the wooden traps. You work a certain amount, and you sit down and plait it off and you got your trap.

We also used to get this cable wire. They used to bring it from down island. We would cut them up into whatever length we wanted according to what size pot we were going to plait. We used to call that "wire pot". Sometimes we would make the two heads from wood and take the wire and make the sides and the funnel. That pot would catch more fish than all the other pots.

We used whist vine to make rope. You go in the bush, and you cut some whist and you tie the whist until it is 35 fathoms long, and then you go south of St. John and set your trap. You needed 35 fathoms to set traps south of St. John. If you go with less than that, and you throw your trap off the boat, you may not see that one again.

We used a sailing boat, a sloop made in Tortola. With wind we would leave about three in the morning and start fishing at daybreak.

Sometimes, when you needed to go and pull your traps, there was no wind. So what do you do? If you're going to pull traps tomorrow morning, you're going to leave here this afternoon, and what you're going to do is - you're going to pull (row)! Take your two oars and pull. We would go out with three or four people. We would take turns steering and pulling. We would leave here and go around West End and across to St. John. Then we would go around East End; cross over to Ram's Head and then go south to the drop-off.

For floats we used two lengths of wood, one long one and one short one. Sometimes we would use a telephone pole cut up, if we could find one that floats. After a while they would get heavy and we would have to recycle them. Then you would use a new one and put the old one in the sun to dry.

We would pull the traps about every second day depending on how the fish were running. We would get groupers, old wife, grumatic, rock hind, butterfish, grunt and more.

Well, now you want to go out fishing, you can come by Joyce and get ice. As fast as you catch a fish you throw it in your icebox, keep a fish fresh a long time. You could be out fishing for two days. When you come in, the fish is still good. In those days we didn't have ice and you couldn't stay out so long. You would start in the earliest morning and you must be back in before at least 5:00 in the afternoon, otherwise the fish would be no good.

Ethien Chinnery
Mr. Ethien (Cool) Chinnery at the
celebration of his 92nd birthday.

Sometimes we used a type of boat we called tank boat. It used to have a tank inside them. If the fish were still alive you could throw them in the tank and they would stay for a long time. You would see these boats in St. Thomas with all types of fish. You would have a net, which you could put down inside your tank and scoop up the live fish. Someone would come and look in the tank and say, I want that fish. You would just get your net and just take it out for them."