Capt. Stoney Whitelock, 72, is a fifth-generation waterman. He lives in Dames Quarter and works the Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay.
During the summer months, he crabs. During the fall and winter, he oysters.
Whitelock is adept at restoring and sailing skipjacks, the Maryland State Boat, but this year, for crab and oyster season, he’s been using a classic deadrise boat, “Hannah Baby,” named for his eldest grandchild.
The day I went out with him, there were dozens of boats from all over the bay region — harvesting from the same oyster rock. You see, right now, the oyster rocks in the Tangier Sound offer some of the best natural catch in the entire Chesapeake Bay.
Oysters must be at least 3 inches in length to be harvested.
Off the shores of Deal Island, 4- to 4.5-inch oysters are being harvested — and some are even bigger than that. Licensed tongers, like Whitelock, can harvest 12 bushels per day.
Whitelock’s days start early. On Friday, Oct. 23, he was readying the boat before dawn and left Scott’s Cove Marina at 6:30 a.m. It was still dark and so foggy the water and the sky were indistinguishable.
While motoring the 42-foot-long boat to “Mud Rock,” Whitelock ate a ham and egg sandwich, sipped black coffee from his Thermos, and smoked a couple Marlboro cigarettes. Once in position, work began immediately.
The drone of the diesel engine was interrupted by the jarring clank of the steel patent tongs, which weigh 200 pounds or more, as they were raised and lowered alongside the boat with a hydraulic system. Each time they wrenched open, the tongs sent dozens of oysters crashing onto a metal table.
Whitelock quickly culled shells and tossed oysters into bushel baskets. The tongs, designed specifically for harvesting oysters, minimizes bycatch, yielding only three unintended crabs and one fish, that day, which were quickly returned to the brackish water.
After nearly three hours, the dense fog lifted, and dozens of other boats came into view. Local boats from Deal Island, Wenona, Princess Anne and Crisfield were joined by boats from Cambridge, Rock Hall, Bozman, Tilghman Island, Hooper’s Island, Annapolis and more.
Most of the boats I saw that day were operated by a crew of two to three people. Whitelock, however, goes it alone.
By noon, he had harvested his limit — 12 bushels. A bucket, tied to the end of a rope, was tossed overboard and pulled up several times as Whitelock quickly washed down the table and the deck. He ate a second egg and turkey sandwich on the return trip.
Within 30 minutes, his catch was being offloaded and tallied at Island Seafood, located in the Deal Island Harbor. By 1 p.m., Whitelock expertly eased “Hannah Baby” back into her boat slip at Scott’s Cove Marina.
This week, oyster dredging season begins, but Whitelock plans to continue to tong through the winter months.
Carrie Samis is a Chesapeake Bay Storyteller, certified by the Maryland Office of Tourism and the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Network.