Alabama Folkways Articles

September, 1997

Building Slat Box Fish Traps is a Family Tradition

by Anne Kimzey

Among the array of commercial fishing products one can buy from the Memphis Net and Twine Company catalog are "square catfish traps" for approximately $35.00 each. Members of the Haggard family of Waterloo (Lauderdale County) have always made their own fish traps by hand out of white oak.

Wayne Haggard learned this vanishing craft from his father, who fished commercially on the Tennessee River for more than thirty years. "We were born and raised on the side of the river. And when I got home from school it was my job to re-rack the bait lines or repair the nets, or whatever it took for us to make a living," he said. Now Haggard has taught his son Shannon how to make the traps. The two men recently participated in the State Arts Council's Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, which administers teaching grants encouraging masters of traditional arts to preserve their knowledge by passing their skills on to a new generation.

Sitting under a shed in his back yard, Wayne Haggard explained the seasonal activity of building the traps. "We get out here on a rainy day when we can't do nothing else and we'll build boxes anywhere from one week to three weeks, or four. Whatever it takes. Depends on how many boxes we're going to use (that) year to fish."

They start with knotless, number one grade white oak from the sawmill. They build the framework first, which is four square frames that include the funnels. Each box has two cone-shaped funnels a "false funnel" that directs the fish into the box and the actual "holding funnel." The second funnel has thin slats, the ends of which come close together at the "throat," so the fish can't get back out the way they came in.

The next step is to cut the lumber into thin slats five feet long using a table saw. "We'll just stand here and we'll rip boards for hours," said Haggard. Once all the materials are ready, they nail the slats to the framework, clipping the sharp ends of the nails off first so that they won't split the thin boards. On one side of the box they fashion a removable door, which is held in place by wooden "barn-door hinges" until the fisherman empties his catch.

The boxes have a bait section and a holding section. The boards are close together on the bait section, so that the bait filters out only through the funnels to lure the fish in. Legally, "the holding part has to have slats 1 1/4 inches apart for the small fish to get out," said Haggard. "A fish that small is no good anyhow."

The boxes are baited with five pounds of scrap cheese, the older and smellier the better. Boxes have a "tail line" rope on one end that is attached to an anchor weight, usually an eight-inch concrete block. The whole box is sunk in the river with the funnel end facing downstream. "You position the throat of the box down the river, where the current will carry the bait down and the fish swim up," said Haggard. They follow the bait into the box. "It's just a big minnow trap that's all it is."

New boxes have to be weighted with rocks until they become waterlogged enough to stay on the bottom. When it's time to check the boxes (every few days), they go to the location of each box, drag to find the rope and then haul the box into the boat to empty the catch and rebait the trap. When Haggard was active in commercial fishing, he would have four "runs" of about 15 to 20 boxes each. A run, he explained, is a string of boxes down one side of the river that a fisherman will go out and check at one time.

Boxes are fished in shallow water, about six to 15 feet and catch mainly small catfish around 3/4 to one pound. "On occasion we have caught a three pound fish, but that's when they're really running good," he said.

They catch mostly "willow cat, channel cat, and a few blue cat. If you get a flathead yellow cat in this box, he'll be the only fish you'll have. They're afraid of him. He's an enemy to other catfish. He eats live bait," said Haggard.

Fishing with boxes is only one method available to commercial fisherman, said Haggard. He has also fished with trot lines, hoop nets and gill nets. He often combines the shallow water boxes with hoop nets, which he uses in deeper water. The business is also seasonal. "Certain kinds of fish run at certain times of year. Whatever's running is what you go catch," he explained. "These boxes are fished in the wintertime when you've got more current. The muddier the water the more fish you're going to catch. And on a good year, when we get lots of rain, we eat better around here."