Watermen – dredgers and tongers – are bringing in their day’s catch of oysters as I write. It’s mid-morning on the eve of the 2023 winter solstice.
They motored out Grace Creek just after 6 this morning, diesels thrumming. Law says they can begin oystering at 7. In three or four hours, most of them have their daily limit. Tongers with two men aboard can harvest 24 bushels. That’s 12 bushels per license holder. Dredgers – they can bring in 10 bushels per license.
This marks just about the midpoint of the 2023-24 wild-caught oyster season. Started October 1 for tongers, Nov. 1 for dredgers. Ends March 31.
The beds here in Broad Creek and the Choptank, by most accounts, are in good shape. The oysters are pretty – as pretty as oysters can be. Classic oval and round shells, singles, knobby and ridged and solid on the outside. Sleek mother of pearl on the inside provides a smooth and comfortable surface for meats fattening and yellowing as water temperatures continue to fall.
From what I hear, the market has been fickle, not as strong in this Christmas week as what would typically be expected. Demand is off. Inflation maybe. Not as many people going out to eat. Prices holding them back somewhat.
The bushel price paid to watermen at the docks has been holding steady up and down the Chesapeake at right around $35. The law says watermen can tong and dredge five days a week – weekends off – but many weeks there has been at least one day when there has been no market. The boats stay tied up on those days.
Once the Christman season passes, the price of bushels to the harvesters is expected to drop. $28 is the figure I hear.
PT Hambleton told me there’s only two things a waterman has to worry about. “January and February.”
Wednesday night this week I shucked and fried a couple dozen oysters. Frank gave me the recipe. Drain the oysters and dip them individually in a beaten egg; dredge and coat them in cracker meal; fry them over medium high heat in just enough oil to coat the bottom of a pan. They’ll golden up quickly.
Flip them over to make sure they’re golden brown on both sides and then set them on paper towels to soak up excess oil and cool a little. Then dip them in some cocktail sauce – horseradish and ketchup – pop them in your mouth, and you have yourself a nice Eastern Shore meal. If you have a crab cake left over from the summer and some green beans or limas from the garden, even better.
The oysters were delicious. My old man – some called him G. Robert – put the cracker meal along with salt and pepper in a paper bag and dropped the oysters in and shook them up to get evenly coated. His oysters were always good so I did the same. Worked beautifully and keeps your fingers from getting all sticky with raw egg and meal. Now that they’re banning plastic bags that litter the countryside, there’s more paper bags for coating oysters. A six-pack bag works just about perfect.
Already looking forward to more fried oysters. So easy.
I’m glad the solstice is here. Days start lengthening. The watermen, heading out in more of the sunrise as each day passes, must be appreciative too.
Dennis Forney has been a publisher, journalist and columnist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972. He writes from his home on Grace Creek in Bozman.