By Rena Graves Patton, Guest columnist.
Everybody hereabout knows: Fulton Love is a treasure. Not just because he is the force behind Love’s Seafood and Steaks, winner of the 2019 Taste of the Hill event hosted by Coastal Electric Cooperative and the Richmond Hill/Bryan County Chamber of Commerce — though the crab cakes and grilled scallops were divine.
Fulton is a treasure of local lore and an environmentalist of the most pragmatic kind. The river feeds his family and his business and his neighbors as it hustles by the house he and his wife Donna built, next door to the restaurant at King’s Ferry on Highway 17. Technically located in Chatham County, just across the river, Fulton and Donna Love have deep ties to Bryan County and its civic life.
If you are a locavore, eating Love’s catfish is what you do. The golden- fried Southern delight on your plate was probably swimming this morning in the Ogeechee running beside you as you dine.
The Loves history is intertwined with the powerful currents and tides of the great Ogeechee River. When Obadiah Fulton Love, Sr., purchased 13 acres in 1949, the path into the family’s future was laid. However, each generation has a choice to make: to stay or to go. The pull of the river and of blood seems to have worked its magic.
On an unseasonably balmy mid-December morning, I am with three generations of Loves: Fulton, his son John, and his son David. The two older men are wearing the iconic white striker boots of the Georgia coast. David sports dark brown ones. They all have clutches of keys hanging from a back belt loop, out of the way but handy.
They jingle as they walk.
Nanook, the yellow Lab, trots beside John and takes his place at the bow. We cast off and head east. I learn that it is illegal to trap catfish on the river west of Highway 17. “I was 11 when I built my first trap,” Fulton recalls. “Made out of grapevine and hardware cloth.” He chuckles. Today they are using nets Fulton and his family have sewed over narrow PCB pipes, some up to a maximum, by law, of 19 feet.
“This is the fourth generation to fish this river,” he is including his father as he nods toward John and David with a smile.
At 81, tall, with sky blue eyes, Love has lived the history of the changes on the river.
“Used to be 50 commercial boats fishing out of here. On the high water they would come up the canal there by the old Cane Break Road to hang their nets. We would have what we called races (cypress log frames) that lined the road where they would hang them. Let them dry, rub out the mud by hand and then hose them down. They would come in here beside the road so they didn’t have to drag the nets so far.”
He goes on. “We used to make nets for everything, trawls for the shrimpers, everything. As far away as Alaska. That’s how we started out, as a net shop.” Today the Loves fish 14 traps, six more in the making.
“We replace the traps about every two weeks this time of year, more in the warmer months when the crabs tear’um up.” July and August, when the crabs come upriver, are off months for trapping. October, John tells me, is the best month, with ideal water temperatures.
Making nets is another skill Fulton is passing down. David is learning.
“Yeah, I’m getting the hang of it. Just have to remember where you left off,” he laughs. John has already mastered that skill.
As we move to a new spot, Fulton warns me that we probably won’t find much there,that he had wanted to set the trap on the other side of the river, but John picked this spot.
As the trap emerges from the river, Fulton hoots, “Ha! That’s the best catch yet. John made a good choice.” You can hear the pride in his voice. “I was part of his teacher, so I guess I can have some of the credit,” he laughs.
They add the fish to the contents of the eel traps they had pulled first that morning. The eels are destined for Asian and European markets.
Eels lead a mysterious life, spawned in the Sargasso Sea, off the coast of Bermuda. This sea, actually a giant whirlpool, has no land boundaries. It is officially called the North Atlantic Gyre, marked by the fluctuating ocean currents that surround it.
It is home to giant mats of Sargassum seaweed that act as nurseries for a variety of marine life, the endangered American eel among them.
The young eels, called elvers, migrate to the rivers of the East Coast. At this stage they are called glass eels, reflective of their transparency. They are much prized, but only two states have legal and very limited seasons for them. Georgia is not one.
Nanook is riveted to the eels, hoping for one to be to be tossed his way.
As we skim down river, passing eagle and osprey nests impossibly perched atop dead, silvered trees along the waterway, Fulton points to the bank.
“See that little creek over there?”
Watery fingers of the river disappear into the reeds and march grasses that spread wide along the banks.
“Each one of them has a name,” he says. “ That one’s Harry Gill Creek.
And the one across the river there is Red Bluff.
Railroad Bridge Creek. Ship Moriah. Bailey’s Eddy, Lower Chimney.
Over there at Pine Bluff Creek there used to be lots of big whiskey stills.
We would run across a few when we were boys camping over there.
“I may be the only person left who knows the names of these creeks.
They are not on any maps. Somebody needs to come out here and put markers on them.”
Clearly he cares about the people who lived up these waterways and the geography of places that mark them.
When I ask, John volunteers that he knows most of them. But not all. When we return home, I ask Fulton about the lure of a fishing life.
He pauses. “I think it’s the freedom. And the surroundings. An eagle flying by, an alligator coming off a hill. Or something you’ve never seen before.” His voice goes dreamy.
“But to make a go of it, you got to be dedicated.
If it’s pouring rain, you can’t tell yourself you’ll go tomorrow. You can always find an excuse.
You got to go at it like it’s a job,” he says.
“Anything concern you?” I ask.
“I worry about the quality of the water.
That’s my main concern.”We have already talked about the King America pollution tragedy of 2011. One of the largest fish kills in the state’s history.
That resulted in a six-year moratorium on catfish fishing until the river healed.
“I had a lot rather see a sewer system, with treated water being put back in to the river where somebody’s watching, than a bunch of individual septic tanks leeching into the water. It all ends up in the water.
“But I’m just happy that at my age I ‘m still able to do it. I have no regrets,” Fulton said.
“Another day, another adventure.”
With a satisfied smile, he adds, “ Both these kids love it. Kinda like I’m a teacher. They come up with good ideas.” He looks over at his son and grandson, re-fueling to go back out on the river.
The restaurant opens at 5 p.m.. Nanook is ready to fish. They have eight more traps to pull this morning.
Patton is a local writer and the granddaughter of a newspaperman.