On Friday, February 24th, at Grasonville VFW Post 7464, the Queen Anne’s County Watermen’s Association will present a Watermen’s Story Swap. The program will feature a panel of local watermen telling stories from both the past and present, but will also include a number of exhibits relevant to the local seafood industry, such as vintage photographs and artifacts watermen have found while harvesting the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Noted Working the Water photographer and author Jay Fleming will participate in the program, Karen Oertel from Harris Crab House and W.H. Harris Seafood will be celebratingthe 70th Anniversary of the last seafood packing house in Kent Narrows, and I will emcee the event.The event is free and open to the public.
One of the watermen on our panel will be Charles Bryan.
Born on Marshy Creek in Grasonville in 1932, Charles Bryan has been working on the water since he was 11 or 12 years old. He’s oystered and crabbed, eeled and fished nets, worked on oyster propagation for the state of Maryland, and ran fishing parties for over 40 years.
Charles tells good stories.
One is about the sense of adventure working on the water inspires:
“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.”
Cabin Creek in Grasonville, c. 1970 from the Charles Bryan Collection
Charles’ sons, Charlie and Kirby, learned to work the water alongside their dad:
“One time we were oystering,” Charles says, “and Charlie was up on the bow tonging. George Lantham was with us, he worked with me for several years, nice fellow, had a band he played music with. I always liked to work the left side of the boat. George was working on the right side, I was on the left side and Charlie was up on the bow. Kirby was culling. All of a sudden I heard the motor start! George was starting her up! I looked and Charlie had fallen overboard but landed on a chunk of ice about this big.” Charles holds his hands out arm-length. “He was floating down the channel! Barry Coleman was behind me (in his boat), he’d seen Charlie fall overboard. He started right up too and was there almost immediately. All Charlie got wet was his feet. In cold weather I always kept fire up in the cabin, some clothes. Charlie got himself up there and got right and we all finished oystering.”