HARRINGTON — Samantha Wallace didn’t know how to sew. But that didn’t stop the mother of five from learning how to operate an industrial sewing machine and to stitch together the many pieces that make up the conical, fine-mesh nets used to catch elvers. The translucent young eels, which fetched more than $1,800 per pound last year, journey in from the sea and swim up coastal rivers and streams after the ice thaws in March.
Since before COVID-19 hit in 2020, through trial and error, Wallace has honed her skills making the cone-shaped nets strong enough to take the maximum strain, which occurs on a waterway’s outgoing tide. Her 30-foot-long nets must withstand the force of the tidal ebb, freshwater downstream flow as well as floating debris. Her husband, Lucas, taught her how to cut the fine netting into panels and sew them together into a pattern – picture a patchwork quilt – that he has used successfully as an elver fisherman for years. She sews the seams with high-performance, UV-protective polyester thread. She then folds the seams over and triple-stitches them – sometimes even more – to make them endure.
Ahead of Maine’s 2022 elver fishery season, which kicks off March 22 and runs through June 7, Wallace and her husband recently started their own business, LS Elver Fyke Nets. The Wallaces have stockpiled eight standard 8-by-30-foot fyke nets ready to be fished and an equivalent number that just require rigging. The fyke nets come with a handy wheeled container for storing and more easily moving the gear from vehicles to favored fishing spots.
“I have had a lot of practice,” a smiling Samantha Wallace said last week. She was reflecting on the over two years it has taken her to make fyke nets to meet the needs and exacting standards of her spouse and other elver fishermen who rely on quality gear for their livelihood. “I never touched a sewing machine before.”
A stay-at-home-mom, Wallace’s five children range in age from 6 to 18 years old. She saw her youngest off to school last fall, giving her more time to devote to her sewing and develop the family’s budding enterprise that includes a new website. At one point during the pandemic, she had to switch gears and home-school her kids for a period of time. Nowadays, though, it’s the family’s chocolate Labrador Nellie who keeps her company while she is busily sewing at one of two industrial machines in her basement workshop.
Maine’s elver fishery has evolved from the late 1980s and the chaotic overnight scenes of flashlight-toting people trampling streambeds, using all kinds of nets and traps, to catch the migrating eels. The juvenile fish are prized in Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, where fish farms grow them to adult size and sell them for sushi, as well as by high-end restaurants worldwide. Maine harvesters are permitted to use a certain size of long-handled dip net and fyke net to harvest the fish. The word “fyke” comes from the old Dutch word fuik, meaning fish trap. Fyke nets resemble a V-shaped funnel with two wings. Limited in length to 30 feet or less, they are set, facing downstream, along the shallow shores of rivers and streams. The wings guide the elvers, measuring 2 to 3 inches long, into the net. The fish swim through the tail bag until they reach the cod end where there is no escape. Each fyke net must contain a rigid opening – called an excluder panel – to allow smelts, minnows and other bycatch to escape.
Over the years, elver fishermen largely have built their own fyke nets. Fishing in strong tidal currents has taught harvesters how to make their gear last. Experience also has led them to tweak and tailor the style or pattern of net to the particular places where they fish.
“I fish really hard currents,” says Lucas Wallace, who learned the hard way how to construct a durable net. “That’s the only way they hold up. I’ve made a lot of mistakes.”
Once Samantha finishes sewing a fyke net, Lucas does the rigging. He mounts and spaces apart 3/4-inch PEX pipes or rings to hold the cod-end up and open. Excluder panels are inserted. Each net’s whole perimeter is outlined with float rope that is hand-stitched in. All the nets come with a zinc-coated, 25-pound chain to weight them down. Each of the Wallaces’ fyke nets take about a week to make and rig.
At LS Elver Fyke Nets, the Wallaces provide detailed information about each part and piece of their fyke nets and assemblage.
For more information, go to www.lselverfykenets.com. To order, call or text 271- 7179 or 460-2228.