THE BAY IS as calm as a dish, as watermen say, and the Bijou, the Puddin', the Southern Belle and the Leanna, workboats all, are clustered in a rough circle. There is no sound but the steady rhythm of the watermen's rigs: The hydraulic tongs creaking. The plop as they plunge beneath the surface. The groan as they raise the mud-caked oysters. The thud as the oysters drop on the culling board. The splash as the waterman quickly knocks empty shells and other debris overboard. Blake "Mickey" Holland of the Southern Belle has been up since 5 a.m., but the bin in thr front of the boat large enough to hold his limit of 50 bushels of oysters is next to empty. By the time he leaves the oyster beds at 3 in the afternoon, Holland predicts, he might, if he's lucky, have 15 or 20 bushels, which he'll sell to a wholesaler in Shadyside for $7 a bushel, the price today though maybe not tomorrow. Holland has worked in a lumber yard, and every summer he repairs other people's boats. But every fall for the last 35 years, as soon as oyster season opens, Holland, like his father before him, has been on the Bay.
"It's a living," he shrugs, almost automatically knocking a dozen or so more oysters from his culling board into the bin.
Aboard the Leanna, Melvin "Shorty" Brown and his son Melvin Jr. are working a double rig. Each works one set of hydraulic tongs and, together, they're entitled to twice as many oysters as a single rig - "If the good Lord be with me, but not today," says Brown.
"We've been here since 7:30, and we'll quit around 3. We only eat when we turn the boat around. Eat oysters? Definitely not, they're not fit to eat. It may hurt my market, but I don't like the taste." Brown has been oystering for 35 years, his son for 10.
"No, I don't enjoy it," says Shorty. It hurts all over. Even my toenails hurt at night - it's hard work. My father was a waterman, too - one of the best. Hand tonging, that was the only style he knew."
Hand tongers are almost are rare as working skipjacks on the Bay these days, but we find a waterman working some beds in the South River with a pair of 26-foot tongs. Standing on the stern of his boat without a name, Leo Offer plunges his tongs - which look like two large rakes held together like a scissors - down into the oyster beds. Closing the rakes on some oysters, Offer lifts the tongs, slowly, hand over hand, into the boat, dumping a clump of oysters, mud, empty shells on the culling board.
"You can feel the oysters," says Offer. "Anyway, after 30 years I know where they are. But I'll be lucky if I get a bushel today."
Hand, or shaft, tonging, is backbreaking work, and those who practice it are confined to oyster beds in shallow water. But you can buy a pair of hand tongs for under $100, while hydraulic rigs cost upwards of $2,000.
Offer also has the expense of maintaining his boat, which he calls a bateau and which was built 40 years ago. "I ain't too much more than that," he claims, though his face is lined and his hair is grizzled. In a good year, says Offer, he can make $10,000. "It's a good life. I'm my own boss."
Last week many Eastern Shore oystermen went on strike, but the workboats of the Western Shore kept on tonging. Most of Maryland's 2 1/2 million bushels of oysters a year are harvested by tonging - either hydraulic or hand. A small percentage are harvested by dredging, and only sailboats are allowed to dredge.
The working sailboats, the famed Bay skipjacks and the lesser-known bugeyes, have to wait until November 1 to begin dredging, though the tonging season opened September 15 this year. The 28 sailing oyster craft that are left on te Bay ply back and forth over the oyster beds, dragging a rake-like dredge. Two days a week, the sailboats are allowed to use push boats - motorboats that help the sails along.
"If power boats were allowed to dredge all the time we'd eliminate all the oysters in the Bay in five or six years," says Kerry Muse, a seafood marketing man for the state.
To keep up the supply, the state seeds the beds every spring after the season ends. A barge under contract to the state, and financed through a tax of 10 cents for every bushel of oysters each waterman sells, dumps obout 3,000 empty shells in the oyster beds. Baby oysters, called spats, attach themselves to the shells. Under an arrangement with Virginia, young one-inch oysters are also taken from Virginia rivers and dumped overboard in Maryland waters.
Most of the Virginia oysters eventually go home again: Virginia packers buy 60 percent of all Maryland oysters, probably because there's a bigger labor supply in Virginia for shucking and canning the oysters.
Friday at 11 a.m. is the end-of-the-week payday at the McNasby Oyster Co. in Eastport, near Annapolis. The shucking room, with its conveyor belts that bring the oysters to workers lined up on either side of a long table, is abandoned. The shuckers, who have already put in a full day, beginning at 4 a.m., are lining up at the pay window where John Turner, owner of the plant, hands each a brown envelope stuffed with cash. George Mills is counting his pay before joining his car pool for Baltimore.
"We get 36 cents a pound for the oysters we shuck," he says. "I make about $6.80 an hour - I'm fast."
As the shuckers - all of them 40-plus - leave, Turner sends a cleanup crew into the shucking room and talks about the shortage of workers for such jobs. "When they're gone, I don't know what's going to happen."
You can move oysters around with conveyor belts and other modern machinery, but the most efficient way to open them is still with human hands wielding small knives, he says. The state of Maryland is working on a $50,000 shucking machine, but there are still a lot of kinks to be ironed out.
The trouble is that no two oysters are exactly alike. But a University of Delaware scientist has recently found a way to grow uniform oysters in a laboratory, which you'll love if you like Pringle's. The Pringleization would also eliminate the need for middlemen, such as the watermen.
The Miss Myrtle and the White Whale, whose skippers haven't heard about Pringle-ization, are at a dock in a cove in Shadyside. A machine on the dock is scooping oysters out of the boats' bin, a bushel at a time, and putting them on a conveyor belt to a truck owned by J.D. and K.D. Gross, which will take them to a processing plant in Virginia. Mrs. Gross is sitting on a lawn chair counting the bushels and calling the count to a bookkeeper in a trailer office.
"He got eight bushels," she says as the Miss Myrtle pulls out. "That's $56 - not a bad day's work."