August 27, 2014
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Artisans: Dennis McDaniel, net maker

A Southwest Florida native is now one of the few net makers in the region. He is striving to keep the once mandatory craft alive.

Photography by Alex Stafford

It wasn’t that long ago that net making was something all Southwest Floridians could do. The logic was simple: If you wanted to eat, then you needed to know how to make a good fishing net.

    That’s how Dennis McDaniel came into his net-making knowledge. At age 10 or 11, his father started showing him the ropes (literally). For a year, he practiced on old nets, repairing them and perfecting his
knot-tying abilities. By 13, he’d constructed his first net from start to finish. Never did he think that this knowledge was somehow optional.

    Yet today, McDaniel is one of only a few net makers in the region. With a waiting list for nets that’s nearly five years long, McDaniel slowly works away in his garage, double-knotting each of the hundreds—possibly
thousands, he’s never counted—of knots that make up the net by hand.

    Somehow, between his parents’ generation and his, this once-critical skill almost completely slipped away. But McDaniel won’t let it completely go. The fifth-generation Southwest Floridian is teaching his grandson the craft. McDaniel just hopes that net making will capture his grandson’s attention the way it captured his.

Growing up fast
    “At the time, at 10 or 11 you were considered a young man, and you better know how to do certain things. If you were going to eat, you needed a net. First, you learned how to load the needle and then you started learning to repair old nets. It was kind of like an apprenticeship.”

Millennial know-how
    “These are Spanish-style nets. This method of net making came when the Spaniards came. It’s an Old-World style of net; a lady from the Smithsonian once told me that they used nets like this in Israel 7,000 years ago.”

End of the line
    “It’s a true dying art. I do it because I don’t want the art to die. It was sad when my dad passed away because it was like, ‘Oh, another one is gone.’”

Big net, big relatives
    “A good net uses centrifugal force to expand when you throw it. You wade into the water, throw it, and
then have your relatives stand on the edges of the net so the fish can’t escape. That’s why you want to have
fat relatives, so they can hold the net down.”

Slow release
    “One net usually takes me four to five months, depending on how big it is. A net needs to be the right size
for the person using it. I’ll work on it a couple of hours a day and, when you finally hit that seven-foot mark,
it’s like, ‘Oh, thank God!’”

Double tie
    “You do each knot twice. You do the second knot because that’s how your ancestors taught you to do it.”

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