Larry Simns had been out in his boat only one time in the last month, and that was to show a television crew how thick the ice was on Chesapeake Bay, where he makes his living as a waterman.
Simns is one of the 5,100 Maryland watermen who normally would be picking oysters off the bottom of the bay and its tributaries during the winter phase of a $25 million-a-year industry that makes Maryland one of the nation's leading seafood producers.
But with the ice thick enough to support vehicles in some spots - although one pickup truck slopped through into the frozen waters off Poplar Island last weekend - the watermen have turned to the Maryland legislature for help.
Oysters normally are caught with tongs manipulated by hand from boats. But a proposal that passed the State Senate on Monday, and which could become the session's first law as early as Wednesday night, would permit oysters to be taken by pulling dredges along the bottom if the watermen were standing on the ice.
Such mechanized methods are banned from most oyster-producing waters in the state because, without close supervision, a few watermen could scrape off a season's supply in a few hours.
Some of the watermen couldn't wait for the laws to be changed, and began chopping holes in the ice last week for dredging. Marine police halted the effort by about 50 watermen off Tilghman Island last Thursday, confiscated five dredges and drumped 30 bushels of oysters back into icy Harris Creek.
James B. Coulter, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, sympathizes with the watermen. Today, anticipating passage off passage of the legislation, he instructed marine police to make no further attempts to stop dredging.
Simns, 39, says this winter already is the worst in his memory and apparently will even surpass in harshness the winters of the mid-1930s that he recalls his parents and grandparents cursing.
The oyster boats docked north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge have not moved since the week before Christmas, Simns said, and he believes it will be another three to six weeks, at best, before the ice thaws. As president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, Simns is using the enforced idleness to lobby for still more legislation to aid watermen.
The dredging proposal now before the House of Delegates won't solve all of the watermen's woes. Speaker John Hanson Briscoe said his watermen neighbors in St. Marys Country are landlocked because their boats are frozen at the docks.
Dredging will allow some watermen to make a couple bucks, stay off welfare. It's better than doing nothing Simns said. But Simns isn't sure the shortage of oysters will mean higher prices (a waterman now sells a bushel of oysters for $8 to $11, depending on size and quality).
"If a restaurant takes 'em off the menu, they might not want to put it back if there's only a month left to the season (which ends April 11," Simns said.
As if that isn't bad enough. Simns recalled that in the spring of 1961, following the next worst winter in his memory, the crab season was late, too, because those spawned in the north died and those in the south waited longer to enter the cold water.