Crispy salt-and-pepper catfish and fried fillets, served with hush puppies, slaw and corn bread, are popular fare at fish camps and church fundraisers.
Where does all that catfish come from? In years past, much of it came from Carl Drye, known around Lake Norman as "the catfish man."
Drye, 74, is one of the last of a dying breed, a Lake Norman commercial fisherman. Carl has lived in Mooresville all his life, long before there was a lake. Brawley School Road, where Drye lives, was a dirt road that ended at the Catawba River.
"I hunted, fished and trapped right down the road," said Drye with a crooked smile. In his day, Drye put out over 40 fish traps and checked the traps every day.
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"It was hard work, hard on the back, but I really enjoyed it," said Drye. "I had a huge walk-in freezer that held 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of salt-and-pepper catfish fillets. Some weeks we would get 1,000 pounds. Restaurants and fish camps from here to Hickory bought catfish from me. The restaurants bragged about delicious Lake Norman catfish."
His traps were mostly homemade and varied in size and shape. He hauled the traps in his johnboat, placed them under docks and in other secret spots, 10 to 30 feet deep. A small bobber was often used with fishing line to keep the heavy ropes hidden.
To avoid poaching, Drye had to be resourceful. By using landmarks, he knew where the traps were and used a small grappling hook to snag and retrieve them. Every day the traps were checked, catfish dumped into coolers to be skinned or filleted.
Menhaden and herring from the coast were used for bait, but after years of research Drye found that the catfish had a sophisticated palate and liked Wisconsin cheese. Drye trucked in 50 gallon drums of scrap cheese.
"The worse it smelled the better the fish liked it," recalled Drye.
"Sometimes, a big ol' snappin' turtle would get in, eat all the fish and tear the trap up," said Drye. "It's fun to pull up a trap with a mad turtle stuck inside. On good days the traps were full; the cats hardly had room to turn around."
Channel cats and blue cats went to the fish camps. Big flathead catfish usually ended up in "Pay to Fish" ponds.
Drye kept a good supply of live fish at home so customers could stop by and pick out fresh ones for supper. Most customers let Drye do the skinning and cleaning.
A sideline for the resourceful Drye is the bait business. He keeps locals supplied with worms, night crawlers, "minners" and shiners from his house on Brawley School Road near Morrison Plantation Parkway. Bring your bucket, help yourself and put your money in a locked metal "honesty box." Before honesty ran out a few years ago, you use to just put your money under a special brick.
Drye is almost retired now and "don't want to work so hard." The dirt road is gone, restaurants buy farm-raised catfish and another colorful chapter of Lake Norman's history is coming to an end.