Last Man Standing: A series documenting the lives of people practicing trades fading with time.
Slicing across the tranquil Tennessee River, Leon Bivens looked across the dark blue expanse ahead — at the lights of the factories reflecting off the water and the steel and concrete bridges connecting the River City to destinations north. Except for the hum of the boat’s motor and the occasional clanking of a passing train, silence blanketed the river.
The dark of night gave way to the pink of dawn as spray licked the sides of the aluminum boat the Limestone County man navigated along the bends and curves of the north Alabama waterway.
The 73-year-old’s calloused hands shrouded in yellow rubber gloves reached into the water and pulled on a line. A smattering of catfish and buffalo danced along the 100 hooks.
“I love the river. The river is my life. I enjoy going to the river, putting down my lines, pulling them and catching fish, too. I really need to catch them, but I enjoy catching them anyhow. Ain’t I lucky,” Bivens said.
For the past 59 years, Bivens has watched the changing world of the fishing industry from his boat’s wooden perch. He saw the rise in popularity of game fishing tournaments, the closing of mom-and-pop fish markets and the fall of independent commercial fishermen.
With each passing year, fewer of Bivens’ fellow fishermen in north Alabama join him on the river. Many evenings and mornings, his lone boat travels miles across the water in solitude.
“The commercial fishermen, they’re dying out here. As far as I know, I'm the onliest commercial fisherman in Limestone County that still fishes for a living. When I’m gone, commercial fishing has ended in our family,” he said.
According to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 358 people purchased commercial freshwater fishing licenses last year statewide. The oldest was 83. One day, Bivens expects he will set the mark for the state’s oldest fisherman.
"My daddy was a commercial fisherman and lived to be 92. I’m following in his footsteps. Daddy kept fishing until his 80s. I figure I still have about 10 more good years to fish. If I have 25, even better. I'd be about 100 years old, woo wee, imagine that," Bivens said with a chuckle.
For Bivens, the river represents more than a livelihood. The water flowing along the Wheeler Dam, the Elk River and the Tennessee connects the third-generation commercial fisherman to his past — to his father and his father’s father.
He struggles to remember a life not on the water.
By the age of 11, Bivens spent his summers fishing with his father, helping to earn money to keep the family’s lights on and bills paid. By 14, the age he started dating Judy, the 11-year-old girl that would become his wife, he quit school to fish full time. Two years later, in the summer of 1961, 17-year-old Leon and 13-year-old Judy married.
They, like their parents and grandparents, built a life on the river.
“We was so poor, but we kept working hard, accumulating a little till we got to where we could make a living. Then we had three kids, we raised them, got them through school. I kept fishing,” Bivens said. “Being a commercial fisherman, that is the life I chose. I didn’t get no education because I was always going to fish. I didn’t know no different.”
Few people in Bivens’ family did. Back in the 1950s, in the most rural parts of north Alabama, people made a living either by picking cotton or catching fish.
When Judy Bivens married Leon, she knew the difficulties they would face. As the stepdaughter of a commercial fisherman, she saw that struggle daily.
“You lived day by day. My stepdaddy might get a bag of flour one day, some lard the next day and a little cup of sugar the next. We ate gravy biscuits a lot, sometimes three times a day, but that’s OK, we never went hungry. I never wanted nothing because I didn’t know there was anything to want for,” Judy Bivens said.
Like her husband, Judy Bivens helped with the family business. Every day after school, she untangled and re-racked lines on the jumper boxes — shallow wooden boxes with 25 notches on a side for each of the 100 hooks.
“Fishing is just what we did. My stepdaddy fished, his daddy fished, our uncles fished. That’s what everybody did back then. We just never thought about doing nothing else,” she said.
Now 70 years old, Judy Bivens runs the family’s fish market on Ripley Road in Limestone County. With a brace wrapped around her wrist to stave off the tendinitis doctors diagnosed her with a year ago, Judy Bivens racks lines, runs the boat’s motor on windy days, breaks off the heads of the fish and guts them.
“I get to sling guts around every day. I know it seems like a nasty job and it is dirty, but somebody’s got to do it. When people take their fish home, you can bet that they sure are clean as a whistle. I don’t mind, really. Busy hands make a happy heart,” she said.
A porcelain fish wind chime, a photograph of Leon Bivens holding a 95-pound fish and a sign embossed with the words, “Retired: I was tired yesterday and I’m tired again today,” greet customers to the fish market the Bivenses built in 1997.
That was the year stores stopped purchasing the shells Leon Bivens collected while mussel diving in Iowa, Illinois, Georgia and Alabama. He hunted mussels from 1978 to 1996 for the same reason he worked at the cotton gin in the fall and searched for spawning fish in Oklahoma.
“I’ve been everywhere and done everything trying to make a living for my family. And I’ve always made a living. Our lights have never been turned off,” Leon Bivens said.
The pearl earrings adorning Judy Bivens’ ears are a reminder of her husband’s days crawling along the river’s pitch black bottom, a mask covering his face and pressure hose clutched in his hand.
“When he started diving, we started doing better with money, but I didn’t like it. It might sound silly, but I felt like I wasn’t needed anymore because I wasn’t helping him all the time. I felt lost,” Judy Bivens said. “The Bible says a woman is supposed to help her husband. That is all I wanted, to be by Leon’s side, helping.”
And she was.
Along with racking the 25 jumper boxes and gutting the fish, Judy Bivens, armed with a hammer, helped with construction of the fish market.
“Me and Judy built this place. We worked hard on it. It ain’t perfect, but it stops the wind,” Leon Bivens said.
They built the market not out of choice, but out of necessity.
“When most of the fish markets went out of business, the people that fished, they didn’t have anywhere to sell their fish so they quit fishing. Well, fishing is my trade, it’s all I know how to do. If I wanted to keep fishing, we had to build us a market,” Leon Bivens said.
Necessity also was the reason Judy Bivens, who stopped attending school in the seventh grade in order to work on the river, became a political activist and lobbyist in 2012, when game wardens started enforcing a decades-old law prohibiting gill nets.
Unlike the jumper boxes, which each take 25 to 30 minutes to prepare, the gill nets, used by commercial fishermen to block a section of waterway, are less time-consuming and bring in more money.
To petition for the reinstatement of nets, Judy Bivens called her representatives and senators in Montgomery and Washington.
Opponents to nets claim the equipment traps and kills game fish, such as bass and crappie.
“They think we want the bass and crappie. We don’t. The catfish is all we want. I won’t lie, sometimes bass get in the nets, but we throw them back in the river. We can’t keep them, it’s against the law,” Judy Bivens said. “The bass fishermen, they bring in a lot of money and that’s great, but this is our way of life. We ain’t bothering anybody. We’re just trying to live.”
Earlier this year, the courts reinstated the use of gill nets by commercial fishermen on the Tennessee River, said Chris Greene, with the state’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. From 2013 to 2016, the Bivenses' income dropped by one-third while their labor increased due to the inability to use nets.
“If they take them away from us again, it will put a hurt on us, but we will survive. We will have to fish more lines and work more hours, but that’s OK. I’m just thankful we can still work,” Judy Bivens said.
A typical 90-hour work week for the Bivens starts Sunday afternoon after attending service at First Independent Methodist, a small white church they helped build 36 years ago. By 4 p.m., Leon Bivens is scouting spots along the river to place his 16 trot lines. He will spend 3 1/2 to 4 hours on the water, return home by 9 p.m. and leave at 6 the next morning to pull the lines.
On slow mornings, mornings when few fish dangle from the lines, Leon Bivens will call his wife in search of support, an encouraging word and, perhaps, a little spiritual intervention.
“He’ll call me in the morning if it’s not doing good because he knows I’ll pray for him,” Judy Bivens said. “He’ll say, ‘I’m not doing so good today.’ I’ll say, ‘Well maybe you’ll catch better.’ He knows what I’m going to do.”
After pulling the lines, Leon and Judy skin and clean the fish. To prepare for his evening run, Judy Bivens will untangle the lines and rack the boxes.
His strategy for placing the lines is simple: “Where I think I’ll do the best is where I go and I never fish the same place two nights in a row.”
When not fishing for catfish and buffalo, the Bivens head to Wheeler Dam to catch bait to put on the lines. Some days they spend eight hours at the dam and walk away with no fish.
“Everybody thinks fishing is fun. It is fun, but when you go commercial, you can’t drag around. You can’t miss a day or two. You got to fish every day to make a living,” Leon Bivens said. “I don’t take off no days. I don’t take off Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day. I take off Thanksgiving and Christmas, that’s it.”
Unlike his father, Leon Bivens shielded his children from a life on the river.
“My daddy had three boys and a girl and all of us boys fished, but my boys don’t. They don’t know how to fish. I never took them with me when they were little, so they didn’t learn the trade. I didn’t want them on the river, because I knew it was hard, hard work. I always wanted the best for my kids. I wanted them to get an education,” Leon Bivens said.
“We told them they were going to finish school even if they were 40 years old and still living in our house. We wanted them to have the education we didn’t have,” Judy Bivens added.
With no retirement, surviving only on what the river allows each week, Leon Bivens plans on fishing until he is physically unable.
“It’s my life. I do it cold weather, hot weather, rainy weather, wind, snow, sleet, I’m out there all the time. That’s where I made my living. I’ve been fishing a long time and I’ll fish a lot more, many more years until I kick the bucket,” Leon Bivens said.