Over the years many a man has made his living from the waters west ofWicomico County by tonging up from depths from 10 to 20 feet the elusive bivalve known as the oyster. Through over fishing and the devastating effects of the diseases MSX and Dermo, there are but a few who even bother to go tonging anymore.
When tonging was a way to make a decent living, the oyster boats would be three deep at the dock of H. B. Kennerly Co. in Nanticoke waiting to unload their day’s catch. The state-imposed limit was 25 bushels and the better tongers would often have two of three bushels carried over to be counted on the next day’s tally.
The Nanticoke River is divided up by the state in parcels and leased to various individuals. A lease-holder will stake out their acreage and they were the only one allowed to tong them. Poaching onto another man’s grounds was common practice and the locals could become quite contentious about it. The state does maintain some oyster ground and anyone can tong on it.
Oysters have to adhere to something hard to grow to their legal size of three inches. Since the bottom of the Nanticoke is mostly sand, the Kennerly Company used to save all the shells from our shucking operation and “plant” them every spring. The way they did this was to load them on a flat barge and go to where they were to be put over. They then turned a large hose on them and they went flying everywhere. It was a sight to see.
Oystering is like farming. It gets in a man’s soul and the pursuit of the tasty bivalve drives him to do things that an ordinary man would shirk. Some of the more ardent tongers would take their Privateer boat and skim it over the ice to get in the river when their regular 40-43 foot boat was frozen in the harbor. They might only get four or five bushels, but they figured it was more than they would have had if they had not gone out.
An oysterman is very resourceful. The small keg pictured above is a waterman’s thermos. Since the brackish water of the Nanticoke is not fit to drink, he had to carry fresh water with him. This one is about 100 years old. The last of the tongers carried an ice chest filled with their favorite beverage along with their lunch.
As recently as the 1980’s, a Mr. Pruitt, who was in his 80’s, was out tonging one day when his motor quit. Mr. Pruitt proceeded to pull the piece of carpet he had on the deck for better footing, cut two slits in it with his ever ready pocket knife and run the shafts of his tongs through these holes. He then sailed himself safely back to Nanticoke harbor. He was not only a true waterman for going after oysters but he proved himself a capable sailor.
One day, it was particularly nasty weather-wise. Occasionally a tourist would grace our premises with the thought of “making our day” by spending a few bucks. Now, we were a $25 million dollar business and looked on the cash customer as more of an annoyance than a god-send. One of the tongers came in the office to cash in on his days’ catch. He looked plenty the worse for wear. I remarked to him that it must have been pretty bad out there. The lady said that he was a waterman and was used to it. He told her in no uncertain terms, “Lady, you never get used to being cold and wet.” And that was that!