Chesapeake Bay Watermen face any number of challenges, but the rewards can be magnificent.
Troy Wilkins: We were all down the lower bay oystering. Buyers around Kent Island were paying $20 (a bushel) and the guys down there weren’t getting but $18. Those guys decided they were going to go on strike and get $20 too. They asked us politely, “can you guys stay home until we see if we can get $20 for our oysters too?” So – we want to get along with them and take a couple days off to help them get their twenty. We all came home to work. A couple days later we heard those guys down the bay were now getting $16.
Joey Horney: We were working catching oysters, catching our limit every day. I was working 30s and 28s (oyster tongs). My brother was feeling bad from the night before. We had like 20-25 bushels and only had to catch four or five or six more. This guy came downriver and (my brother, Keith) waved him over. The guy comes over and Keith asked him where he was going, climbed on the other boat and said, “I’m done. I ain’t working no more.” It was bitter cold. I said, if you leave here, you’re not going to get paid for these oysters. He said, “I don’t care, I’m going home.” I fired him that day and hired him back two days later.
Sonny Schulz: Wes Thompson came home from learning how to lay brick in Baltimore and said he needed a job. I had my brother culling for me and I told Wes, well I guess you can go with me. Wes had been in the Army in World War Two and had gone from England to France. (Wes had so many stories) we fought that war from England to France every day.
Born on Marshy Creek in Grasonville in 1932, Charles Bryan has been working the water since he was eleven or twelve. He’s oystered and crabbed, eeled and fished nets, helped keep the bay fisheries industry healthy by working on oyster propagation for the state of Maryland, and ran fishing parties for over 40 years. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll mention that Charles is my late mom’s first cousin and believes there’s “Nothing tastier in the world than a softcrab.”
Charles: First time I went oystering up the Potomac was in 1963, right after I bought (my) big boat. I’d never worked that far before. I had a nice compass and a depth finder that would show you the bottom and that was about all, they weren’t that good back then. Oyster season was going to start down there on a Tuesday and we were going to go down on a Sunday, but it started blowing a gale out of the southwest so we didn’t leave until about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Uncle Coursey (Bryan) was in another boat with Billy Jones, pulling a smaller boat behind. We got down around the Patuxent River and it got dark on us. We were running from light to light. Went up the river far as Piney Point then it jumped out and blowed again, but from the northwest. We got to shore, tied up. Next morning we went on up the river. It’s a long way from the mouth of the Potomac to the Potomac River Bridge. When we got up there, the sun was just about going down. I could see the bridge, but far as knowing where the oyster bar was I didn’t have any idea. All of a sudden, in about ten foot of water, the depth finder jumped right up. We were running a northwest course. I said “Billy, grab that oyster pole and see what it feels like.” He stuck that pole in the water, and said, “There’s oysters here.” We anchored down, ate a little something, went to sleep and got up the next morning, fiddling around, eating a little something, cleaning up a little, when all these damned boats came from everywhere! Right toward us! We were right on top of Cedar Point – one of the best spots around there! We didn’t even pull the anchor up, caught 57 bushels, not knowing yay from nay.
But it was already winding down when I started oystering in the 1950s, but in the ‘20s and ‘30s, there were so many oysters in the Chester River it was unbelievable. An old man from Crisfield, when I was fishing down there, told me the oysters in the Chester River were the best oysters in the United States. Shells were very thick and no oysters anywhere kept longer in the shell or shucked in cans.
Bill Benton has been a friend of mine since we were little kids. Bill comes from a long line of watermen. He first started going oystering on his own when he was about 14, in his dad’s boat on weekends. His dad, Charles Bryan, and Kenny Chance were among his mentors. Bill has been devoted to working on the water for four decades. Bill spoke about the hardest part of being a waterman in today’s world.
Bill: Too much politics. We’re under a thumb all the time. The physical part isn’t that big a deal, it’s the same as it’s always been, but we’re well behind the 8-ball. We don’t have benefits or a retirement. We fight every day to keep our jobs. It can be a real struggle.
But I love it and it’s what I know how to do.
I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Troy Wilkins: The one good thing is every day when we go to work, we have the best possible view out our windows.
I don’t know what I’d do without it.