Tools of the Chesapeake fishers

Monday Book Reviews

July 15, 1991|By John Goodspeed

HARVESTING THE CHESAPEAKE: Tools & Traditions. By Larry S. Chowning. Tidewater. 284 pages. Illustrated. $28.95. THIS IS surely the definitive book about the tools and equipment that have been used to haul shellfish and other fauna out of the Chesapeake Bay since Europeans took it away from the Indians.

Larry Chowning, a Virginian, the author, is a descendant of generations of bay watermen and has interviewed many watermen and written extensively about their work from the halls of Chestertown to the shores of Newport News. And he has put it all down here for posterity -- profusely illustrated.

You want detailed information about haul seining, stake gill nets, pound netting, peeler pounds, bobs, gigs, hand tongs or oyster dredging? This is your book of the month.

Want to know how to build a log canoe? How to make a history oyster mop? A white oak sculling paddle?

Crab nets? Crab pots? How to catch snapping turtles? "Harvesting the Chesapeake" is a must for your library.

Chowning hasn't overlooked a detail that springs immediately to dTC mind (although he never tell us why a crab pot, which looks like a cage, is called a pot). In fact, he supplies some information you may have been unaware of.

For example, have you ever wondered who invented the crab pot? Chowning tells you. It wasn't a native Marylander or Virginian. It was Benjamine F. (Uncle Frank) Lewis (1858-1950), a native of Mulberry Grove, Ill., who moved as a child to the vicinity of Harryhogan, Va.

Have you ever wondered what it costs to operate a crab boat? The answer is about $300 a week, according to what Bobby (Tucker) Lee, of Kent Island, told Chowning.

So what, then, is a good crab catch worth? About $160 a day, Lee told Chowning. And so on. The book is a veritable harvest of bay data.

Chowning is a good writer and a fairly nosy reporter. How nosy? Get a load of the following story he says was told to him by Wade Murphy, the Tilghman Island skipjack captain, about his ++ grandfather, James Murphy:

"He must of been a real son-of-a-booger because of the way he won my grandmother's hand in marriage. Supposedly, he and a man named Faulkner were after her hand at the same time and Faulkner won.

"It wasn't long after the marriage that Faulkner and James Murphy went out in a boat together and Faulkner fell overboard and drowned. The legend has it that he was pushed over by my grandfather, and a little while later he married Faulkner's widow. Them were days, weren't they?"

This is the third new book Wade Murphy has starred in recently. He must be more cooperative with writers than any waterman in history, and his stories in "Harvesting the Chesapeake" -- there's at least one more that's even better -- are high points in the book.

And it's a good one. I object only to the title. The gerund "harvesting" sets my teeth on edge when referring to animals. It's not as bad as the noun "yield" applied to atomic bomb casualties, but it is similar. I'd have preferred at title like "Fishing the Chesapeake."

2& John Goodspeed writes from Easton.

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