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Opening day: Island baymen continue an Island tradition

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO As fresh as it gets. Peconic Bay scallops, some of the few the few that showed up on opening day.
As fresh as it gets. Peconic Bay scallops right off the boat, some of the few the few that showed up on opening day.

Monday, was opening day to take bay scallops in New York State waters, an annual and important ritual for the handful of Shelter Island baymen. Long after the once-ubiquitous Peconic Bay scallop stopped showing up, Shelter Island’s fishermen have saved the date.

Baymen board boats before dawn, proceed to a carefully considered spot and throw a dredge, a metal frame with a net attached, overboard as the sun rises, hopeful they will haul it up full of bivalves. The limit for a commercial scalloper is 10 bushels, and on opening day last year it was easily reached. On Monday, however most baymen came back with two or three bushels to show for five or more hours of fighting wind, rough water and heavy dredges.

Sunday night before the big day, a line of boats docked at the end of Congdon Road were loaded with dredges, neatly stowed and ready for deployment. By 6 the next morning, a few were already gone, while the operators of the others were exchanging top- secret information in the time-honored method impervious to Russian hackers.

“Go around to the northwest.”

“There’s nothing in Orient.”

“Hit those moorings, that’s the place.”

“Going to the Manor House, in the hole?”

“Right off the side of the breakwater.”

Bob Reiter, proprietor of Bob’s Seafood Market, wasn’t going out for scallops, but his son Earl was, and seated at the wheel of his pickup, Bob offered fatherly fishing advice to steer Earl to the mollusks. Earl’s dog, Duke, hopped aboard his boat, thrilled to be invited to go fishing.

Tom Field, a fisherman his entire life, grew up on the Island and still carries four scallop dredges owned by his grandfather. As he turned his boat toward a sliver of sunrise and a stiff wind, he confessed that he doesn’t even like to eat scallops. “Every once in a while I put one in my mouth but … well, it’s a texture thing.”

Don Walther was alarmingly cheerful considering the sun had not yet risen and it was in the low 40s. He said he got his first license to scallop at age 14, so young his parents had to sign for him. Many decades of scalloping followed and now going out for a dinner of scallops on opening day is a kind of communion with the past. “Especially the first day, you have to eat them the first day,” he said. “Cooked any way, it doesn’t really matter, but I don’t eat them raw.”

Some baymen brought food and hot drinks to sustain them on the water, but John Tehan went minimalist. “I’ve got a scallop knife and a cup of coffee,” he announced. “Last year was fabulous. You got your limit every day.”

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Commercial Fisherman John Tehan unloads his opening day haul.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Commercial Fisherman John Tehan unloads his opening day haul.

John had left his other fishing boat Tubby, in North Carolina in the middle of a southward cruise to come back for opening day.

By noon, with fewer than three bushels, he was questioning the wisdom of his decision.

As the baymen returned, the spilling of state secrets about where to fish was abundant, but scallops were scarce.

“Anything northwest?”

“May have to go all the way to Robin’s Island.”

“Captain Ed, he went the other way.”

Don Walther had two bushels, “About enough for dinner, and to give to friends,” he said. “Now I know where the scallops are not.”

Keith Clark came in talking of pulling up dredges with as few as eight or nine scallops. He did get a bushel of whelks and hairy conchs, but said his wife, Louise, won’t let him cook them in the house. The three and half bushels that John Tehan had just unloaded caught his eye. “I won’t wear myself out opening scallops today,” Mr. Clark said.

“You never do,” John quipped. “Louise opens them.”

John Tehan’s son, Michael, was on hand to inspect his dad’s take, and ponder the opening of local — as opposed to state — waters next Monday. In spite of his meager catch, Mr. Tehan exulted, “Only 15 or 20 people can still do this. It’s a dying lifestyle, but I’m grateful I’m one of them.”

The mature scallops were scarce, but there was hope for the future in the healthy and abundant juvenile, or bug, scallops. All was not lost Mr. Clark said, adding, “The bugs were beautiful.”

“Hopefully there are better days,” Craig Wood said, throwing three “light bushels” over the bulkhead. Mud-spattered but undaunted. He said he had gone northwest. “I saw some people further down who looked like they were settling in,” he said.

“Maybe there are more down there, I don’t know. Lots of healthy bugs.”