In this world there are at least a zillion ways to make a dollar but few are as hard or as satisfying, in a simple way, as hand-tonging for oysters on the tributaries of Chesapeake Bay.
Richard Manley and his younger brother Jimmy are hand-tongers from Rock Hall, Md., one of the bastions of the waterman's shrinking world on the Eastern Shore.
At least that's one of their jobs. Until a few weeks ago they were patent-tonging with a noisy hydraulic rig on the Upper Bay, but the oysters ran out and ice was setting in.
With winter hardening, the Manleys parked their patent-tonging rig and brought Jimmy's 42-foot workboat Wendy south to Kent Narrows. They plan to work the river bottoms in the Eastern Bay with hand tongs for as long as the area remains ice-free, which won't be long.
Then they'll go home and build eel pots until spring thaw, when they start setting fishing nets for perch and striped bass.
Hand-tonging, according to Dr. George Krantz of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies, is "a rather unintelligent way of catching oysters." Nonetheless, it is by far the most popular strategy among Maryland watermen, with perhaps 2,500 of about 3,000 oystermen in the state electing to work hand tongs.
A good part of the attraction of this archiac technique is its simplicity and quiet beauty. Watermen, stout as oak and hard as leather, are not afraid to say so.
"Purty out here, ain't it?" asked 26-year-old Richard Manley. He was balanced on Wendy's scarred washboards, working a pair of wooden shafts to manipulate steel tongs on the bottom 17 feet below. It was a sunny day with a chilly 10-knot norther blowing down the Eastern Bay. The boat was anchored stern-to the chop and other tonging boats were silhouetted in the distance against a sparkling sea.
It was doubly satisfying for the Manleys because they nearly didn't get out. They'd left Wendy locked in ice at the dock for three days. When the freeze eased they were ready to work but Wendy wasn't. The big Oldsmobile V8 just groaned and wheezed when they cranked it over.
They tried everything, until finally, on the verge of giving up, Richard said he had one more idea. He carried the distributor cap, with all the sparkplug wires attached, into the steamy cabin and dangled the whole mess over the stove like a Greek god giving Medusa a permanent. It worked. VROOOOOOM, said the V8, to everyone's surprise.
If tonging is hard work, which it is, it has its rewards. One is the boat ride to the oyster bar, during which tongers delight in observing every other boat on the water, guessing her age and place of origin and measuring her stoutness of heart.
"Cambridge boat over there," said Jimmy Manley, pointing to a sleek white workboat. "See how she flares in the bow. Ain't she pretty?"
"There's a Virginia boat," said Richard. "Laugh all you want at that high bow on her. You won't be laughing in a good blow."
The Manleys don't like to fool with inferior oysters, so when they anchored it was a good way apart from the pockets where other oystering boats gathered. Hand-tonged oysters generally bring the lowest prices at market because they come from river areas where the quality is lowest.
Oyster houses want fat, rounded oysters for quickest shucking and highest yield. Hand-tonging areas produce mostly "snaps" -- long, finger-shaped oysters used principally for soups and stews.
The Manleys look for oyster bars away from the crowd, where they can get fatter oysters. They don't catch as many but what they get brings a higher price per bushel.
This was not destined to be one of their great days on the water. After 45 minutes of boat riding, Jimmy lined up a pair of marks on shore and eased the throttle back. The brothers donned oilskins and rubber gloves, climbed onto the washboards and began working the bottom with the tongs.
But they never found the thick beds of oysters they hoped for. Twice during the day they hit nice piles of oysters and the culling board, a plyboard tray the width of the boat, filled up with muddy shells.
Briefly the tongs were plummeting at the end of their 20-foot-long Georgia pine shafts and coming right back up full of oysters. But the beds were small and quickly fished out. After five hours they had 18 bushels of oysters piled on the floorboards.
"This is one of these days where if you had anything else to do you'd stay home," said Jimmy. "With these conditions, it's just barely worth it. Wind like this makes it hard to keep the boat steady and you can't keep the tongs on the bottom."
The Manleys anticipated $8 a bushel for their catch at market, which meant the day's pay was about $70 apiece, less fuel and other costs. "Just a day's pay," said Jimmy. "Not like that day we had 44 bushels."
"Oystering is like anything else," said barrel-chested brother Richard. "When you're catching them it's great, but when you're not, it's a long day."