The air was sharp and the ice was making up when Wayne Brady and Rich Manley arrived at Kent Narrows on Maryland's Eastern Shore before dawn.
The parked the truck and started loading nets, rock salt, frozen Cokes, oysters, a pint of bourbon and other odds and ends onto Brady's 39-footer, Promise.
"We'll wait her out till after dawn," said Brady. "If she's going to make ice, she'll make it now."
Manley fired up the kitchen stove that sits awkwardly in Promise's spare, unfinished pilot house. Instantly, the windows were steamy and the shelter was almost too hot for comfort.
Outside, the oyster tongers streamed by in the first glow of orange light. Chesapeake Bay deadrises, one and all; some old, some new, but all with the characteristic low profile, the hard chine, the tiny pilothouse, the long, graceful sweep of low, wooden rail to protect vast square yards of work space.
Brady recognizes a lot of these boats. At 34, he's worked with the their fathers. And some of their fathers worked with his father, or his grandfather.
Brady is a third-generation waterman out of Rock Hall. He knows the Chester River like most people know their favorite easy chair. This time of year, he's tied up at Kent Narrows because it's the last nearby place that will freeze. "The current runs swift through here and it keeps it open," he said.
The oyster tongers and netters are in a race against time and the river and they don't expect to win. They will work seven days a week as long as there's something to catch, because they know once winter sets its hook a long barren stretch lies ahead.
Brady and Manley had been tonging with the rest of the crew out of Kent Narrows, but for the last two weeks they've switched to anchor netting and drift-netting for rockfish.
They found some sizable schools of rock in the mouth of the Chester, fish ranging from two to four pounds. Rockfish bring $1 a pound these days, and netting is a lot easier then tonging.
"Lord, it gets cold," said Manley, shivering. "That ice sets up on the tongs. You have to grip 'em so tight just to haul them up. I wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning with my hands tingling. The feeling's just coming back to them."
Tonging is one of the Bay's oldest and most beautiful art forms. Wooden shafts 20 to 28 feet long are hooked like long scissor handles to a pair of curved rakes. The tonger plunges them down to the oyster beds, then works them to fill the rake and hauls up the whole apparatus, now weighing 50 pounds or more, and dumps it on a culling board.
It's pretty to watch, not pretty to do.
Shortly after dawn. Brady checks the ice around the dock and finds that it's only slush. It's safe today to take Promise, the boat he built by hand from pine and cedar boards, out to work.
Brandy hasn't sheathed the bottom in steel because he's planning to stop for a few months this winter and erect a shop to build more boats in. So he sits at the dock when the other workboats head out.
The other skippers know that, and when they see Brady casting off they break a path for him. "I'm not too proud to follow 'em," says Brady.
He makes his first set in the channel off Eastern Neck Island, stringing 1,200 feet of 3 1/2-inch-mesh gill net from buoy to buoy. Brady pilots while Manley spills hunks of net, sandbag anchors and cork floats from a big wooden box on the stern. The net sinks slowly to the bottom.It will drift with the tide and snag fish.
But things don't go smoothly. A great sheet of ice floats in and covers the net markers. "We'll have a time taking up," Brady complains.
They do. The net come up caked with ice, the two men straining for each yard. An hour's work brings a dozen medium-size perch and one pansize rock.
It looks bad, and Promise makes her smooth, quiet way back through the ice-crusted Narrows and South into the Eastern Bay, Brady hasn't fished there in seven years.
But the ice is less severe there and he remembers a spot where there once were plenty of white perch. Four nets are set, better than an hour's work.
The men settle back and the nets do the work. Brady chucks oysters and offers belts of bourbon from the pint.
"You know," he says, "they used to say you couldn't mix oysters and whiskey, that it'd turn the oyster to stone in your belly. But I checked it out. I put some oysters in a pint of whiskey overnight, and in the morning I ate the oyster and drank the whiskey."
There are other tales in the warm pilothouse as the winter sun glints off clear water.
Then it's back to work.More hauling, more perch. By day's end 1 1/2 bushel baskets are full of the small silver fish. Maybe 100 pounds at 35 cents a pound. It pays for the gas and supplies but no more.
"That's the way it goes," says Brady, "either the outhouse or a castle. Some days you might make $1,000, but you're too scared to spend it because you never know when it'll happen again."