Anthony is a third generation "river man" - his grandfather and his uncles made their living out of the rivers feeding into the Atlantic Ocean. His earliest memories of the water are well before age five, working on shrimp boats and picking oysters, clams and conch. He is attuned these rivers - the seasons, the tides, the creatures, the currents, the hazards and the bounty the way a hardware store owner intimately knows their inventory and business. He has a marvelous dry sense of humor, but when he is on the river he is all business.
I spent the day "picking oysters with Anthony, and the day started and ended at the Sea Eagle Seafood Market on Boundary St. in Beaufort.
Anthony's boat is currently in the shop with engine trouble, so he is "leasing" a boat from the market's owner. "Leasing" means that the first bag of oysters Anthony picks belongs to the market. The fellow that was supposed to be getting the boat organized had fallen and hit his head, so there were some issues getting Anthony to the market and getting the boat to the water. Low tide is at 11:30 am, and we have to be out on the beds and already picking when low tide arrives.
Someone else ended up preparing the boat and I went to pick up Anthony. On our way to the boat landing, we found several oyster baskets that had blown out of the boat on the highway on the way to the landing. "This nonsense doesn't happen on my boat" says Anthony, as he dodges cars to retrieve baskets.
Oyster men are independent contractors, and two others are going with us today - Vincent and David. They each have to put up their first bag of oysters in exchange for the use of the boat as well. We put in on the Broad River a few miles south of Beaufort.
All the oyster pickers want to go on a boat with Anthony - he is the best around at knowing how and where to find good beds. And knowing how to find the good beds is the difference between working hard to make almost nothing for a day and being able to make some decent money.
Vincent, Anthony and David
There are two ways to go about oystering. The first is to go after "clusters" - high density oyster beds where the work consists of pulling up clumps of oysters and knocking off the shell remnants of previous generations. These oysters pay the picker about $ 12 per bag full - roughly a bushel. This is how Vince wants to work, so Anthony scouts him out a good bed. "Scouting him out a good bed" entails about a half hour of driving through the seemingly endless maze of tidal creeks woven alongside the river. Way more beds are "junk" than are good oystering. A good bed is found and we drop Anthony off way out in the middle of the marsh with a basket, his hammer for breaking up the shell clusters, a supply of empty bags and a promise that we will return to get him before the tide comes back in. This area will all be back under six or seven feet of water in about four hours, so time is of the essence.
The other approach to oystering is to pick "singles." Singles are oysters that have not grown in clumps, so they do not have the fragments of all the other shells clinging to them. They are also free to grow in whatever shape they choose, so they have more appeal to the eye. Singles bring about five times the money that clusters do, not because they have more meat but because they are more appealing to the eye.
But picking singles isn't for everyone. The areas that they grow are hard to find and are usually the deepest. So the window of time when the tide is fully out is the only time to pick them, which is only about two hours.
David wants to hang with Anthony to pick singles, and since it isn't Anthony's boat he feels obliged to let him. This means that when Anthony finds his good bed someone else is going to get half the oysters, but Anthony doesn't complain. His boat will be done Friday and he won't have to deal with the issues in a few days.
Stories emerge about previous days on the river - like the time David forgot to anchor the boat and it went drifting off in the tide. There seem to be a lot of David stories.
Within another hour a bank is scouted out that will be good for picking singles when dead low tide arrives.
As you can guess given the price difference, picking singles is a lot more difficult. You have about an hour while the tide is fully out to get to the low beds. Then, once the tide is fully out, there is the issue with spotting them in the beds. It takes a practiced eye. The two photos below are of the same spot, and in the picture are two good single oysters. Look how hard they are to spot.
But a strong wind picks up and is holding impeding the water from getting out of the river. So the low tide today is a couple of feet above what the lowest tides can be. In an hour David and Anthony pick all they can, but it is not one of their better days.
After finding another spot to pick clusters of oysters, Anthony picks 4 bags and David picks 5. The tide is coming back in quickly, it is time to go back and pick up Vince.
Vince has picked 15 bags, and is working on 16. It was a good bed indeed. David and Anthony each pick another bag here, and it is time to go.
It is hot work with the sun beating directly down and reflecting off of the water as well. There are all manner of little bugs that want to eat a bit of your flesh. You are constantly fighting to avoid sinking in the pluff mud. The oysters are sharp and unyielding - you are constantly beating them apart with a hammer. And then there is the weight - each bag you fill might as well be a bag full of rocks. They are heavy.
"Show me ten oyster-men, and I will show you at least five impending court dates and at most two valid driver's licenses" says Anthony. He talks about how prevalent drug and alcohol use is among the folks that do this for a living. "Does the lifestyle lead to the addiction or does addiction lead one to the lifestyle" I asked. "It cuts both ways" said Anthony. "Its a tough life, and if you are going to make it you are always getting something. There are seasons for clam, mussel, oyster, shrimp, crab and conch, and they each have the places they grow. You have to know what the conditions are and how to harvest them, and even then things change and you often work hard and don't make any money."
The boat ride back to the landing is interesting. We are loaded with a few thousand pounds of oysters, and the boat has been steadily taking on water from a small leak in the hull. It takes all the skill Anthony has to get the boat moving so we can make it back.
The van from the market comes to pick up the boat and the bags. For the oyster-men it was a sub-par day. Vince made about $190, Anthony about $150 and David about $140. Vince is going to go back to the market and work preparing fish. Anthony and David are going to pick up a few crab traps, then Anthony is going to shower and go to a meeting with some friends while David is going to get hammered. David has been talking all day about how and with what he is going to party tonight - he puts a lot of thought into his "partying."
Well, I learned a bit about oystering today. It is hard, sweaty, grueling work. Pluff mud has a way of getting onto and into everything close to it. Sand fleas are merciless. Oyster shells are real sharp and real heavy. And I gained a good bit of appreciation for what it takes to bring those oysters to the market and ultimately to our table.
Have a great Thursday everyone.