Teach a Man to Fish – Part III: July 2022


An Original Short Story by John Conway

So far in our story, we have met Clement Wiley, a resident of colonial Cushetunk, a settlement of Connecticut Yankees along the Delaware River in 1767. He lost a raft of timber he was taking down the river to Philadelphia and was feeling despondent. He then meets two Native Americans, who identify themselves as Canope and Ben Shanks, and assure Wiley they can help him recover from the great loss. Following dinner at the Wiley family’s home, the three men agree to meet the next morning to put their plan into action. That’s where we pick up the story…
After dinner, and some mostly light-hearted conversation, Canope and Ben Shanks left the Wiley home, saying they would be sleeping nearby. Wiley agreed he would meet the two Native Americans early the next day to construct a gill net.

Wiley was up before daybreak, and dressed quickly without waking the rest of the family. He quietly brewed some coffee and broke off a hefty piece of the bread Lottie had baked the day before and smeared it with apple butter. It wasn’t a particularly hearty breakfast, he knew, but it would have to do. He was too anxious to meet his new friends to take time to prepare anything else. Within minutes, with a chunk of the bread stuffed into his mouth and the rest in his haversack, he was on his way to the big willow tree by the river where they had left the materials they had gathered for constructing the net.

The two Natives showed up a few minutes later, Ben Shanks carrying a substantial catch of fish. He held them up to show Wiley as they approached.
“We brought breakfast!” Canope shouted. And when they had come a bit closer, he added: “You and your wife provided dinner last night, and now we return the favor. Ben Shanks had a productive morning.”

Canope proceeded to build a small fire, and Ben Shanks prepared the fish. Wiley produced the bread, and the three men ate well. Ben Shanks then extinguished the fire and they got to work.

Canope proved to be a good leader, directing the two other men in every step of the process. The construction of the gill net went slowly at first, but once Wiley got the hang of it, the pace picked up considerably. By midday, the net was mostly completed, and Canope indicated it was time to shift their attention to another task.

“While the sun is high, and the wind is silent, we should enter the river,” he instructed. It is time to build the most important part.
Canope proceeded to take one of the long poles he had fashioned out of the tree limbs that had been accumulated and used his hatchet to fashion the semblance of a point on one end. He waded out into the river, and when it was just about chest high, he used one of the large rocks he had meticulously selected the day before to drive the pointed end of the pole into the riverbed. This process was repeated a number of times, with the three men working in unison to select, trim and sharpen the poles, then driving them into place. Before the sun had set that evening, the net had been finished and attached to the poles and stone anchors to the bottom of the net, which spanned about half the width of the river.
Canope proclaimed the project complete.

“We must now wait only for the shadbush to bloom,” he said to Wiley, motioning to the many bushes in the vicinity. “And then you shall see just how many shad pass right in front of us each year!”

When Wiley set out for the river the next morning, the sky was clear and the sun was bright. He couldn’t help but notice that the bushes Canope had pointed out to him were beginning to bloom., so he approached the net they had constructed the day before with great expectations, only to find it mostly empty, save for a few small fish that he knew from Canope’s detailed description were not shad.

Canope and Ben Shanks showed up a few minutes later and with Canope again providing the leadership and direction, each of them fashioned a crude spear from a tree branch. Canope explained that the shad had already been spotted downriver in the vicinity of Mahackamack, and could be approaching this part of the river as early as that evening.

“Watch for the big birds in the early evening,” Canope said motioning toward the sky. “Their appearance is a sure sign the shad are here.”
Sure enough, shortly before dusk, Wiley could see just down river the swooping of birds from the sky, diving into the river below, then each one rising again, most often with a silvery prize in its beak. It was an amazing site, and Wiley could feel the excitement building within him. A short while later, the net was visibly shaking, and Canope led the way into the river, each of the three men wielding a spear and carrying a large haversack over their shoulder.

Wiley couldn’t believe his eyes! The shad were so thick in the net they formed a solid surface, and made easy targets for the spears. It took a little while, but he felt himself becoming more proficient with the spear with each thrust, and his haversack began to bulge with violently writhing fish, each one weighing at least four or five pounds.

Periodically, the men would make a trip to the shore to empty their sacks, only to return to the net and fill them again and again.
By the time they were exhausted an hour later, each man had caught between 50 and 60 shad. The process was repeated, almost identically the next morning, and then again in the evening. In between, Canope and Ben Shanks showed Wiley how to clean the fish and how to select the best ones for smoking or salting. They demonstrated an easy way to remove most of what seemed like an endless number of bones, and how to set some of them aside for fashioning into needles and other tools. Canope explained how the less appealing fish would be pressed for oil, which could be useful in the larder. And all the leftover parts could be utilized as dressing in the garden.

By the time the two Native Americans bade him farewell about a week later, Clement Wiley had barrels of shad, enough to eat and many more to sell to his neighbors. And the ideas for other uses kept coming to him faster than he could implement them. Even Lottie was excited when she saw what the three men had done. She even managed a smile when she saw the crude wooden sign Wiley had fashioned. It read:
“Clement Wiley and Partners: Shad, Roe, Oil, and So On For Sale.”