A Family for All Seasons There's always a harvest for the Eastern Shore's Calloway clan

January 22, 1995|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,Sun Staff Writer

Athol, Md. -- Moonlight bathes the sleeping Eastern Shore countryside. A truck, Hungry Neck Farm painted on the door, rolls into the Calloway brothers' farmyard, soon followed by a pickup, and then another.

It's five days until Christmas, half an hour until dawn, 12 degrees below freezing. The last soybeans are cut, and the poultry houses are dark -- catchers from Perdue have taken the latest flock to the processing plant. Many farmers might consider lolling a bit now, but the Calloways of western Wicomico County, two brothers, three sons and their families, are invested in this region to an extent seldom seen in modern times. For them, there is nearly always something to harvest.

Their lifestyle reflects a way of living all but gone from the 20th-century Chesapeake. They are both farmers and watermen, their existence tied equally to the Nanticoke River and the lands that border it.

This morning, the small caravan heads south from the crossroads of Athol, then west toward the Nanticoke along a broad peninsula called the Hurley Neck (Hungry Neck to locals since anyone can remember). Finally, it bumps down a long, dirt lane that ends where two outboard-powered skiffs, coated with frost glistening in the dawn, are tied to a dock on Rewastico Creek.

Few words are spoken. Everyone knows the drill. In minutes the skiff, with Billy, 57, his brother Eddie, 51, and Billy's youngest son, Clayton, 32, is skimming the creek's smooth surface, past banks of tall, brown cordgrass. The second skiff, carrying Billy's sons, Tommy, 36, and David, 33, roars past, bound for the main Nanticoke.

They will travel several miles to begin fishing the family's nets near the river's mouth in Tangier Sound. Working back upstream, they will meet the others, fishing their way downriver from near Vienna, where U.S. 50 bridges the Dorchester and Wicomico shores.

From September until May, the Calloways, who annually farm more than a thousand acres of grain and raise close to a million chickens, will also fish as many as 28 commercial fyke and pound nets along 12 to 15 miles of this tidal Chesapeake tributary.

In their "spare" time, they trap for fur and meat in the river's marshes, taking up to 5,000 muskrats, and drift gill nets for rockfish and white perch. They also grow and sell direct to city buyers enough vegetables and melons to keep their storefront -- a camping trailer -- manned by family members in New Jersey all summer.

At one time or another, the men say, they have tried about everything the region has to offer: oystering, eel potting, raising hogs and cattle, making sausage and scrapple, "turkling" (catching snapping turtles), trapping coons and foxes, deer hunting (they will take half a dozen or so a year for meat), making and selling wreaths of the crows foot they pick from their woods.

"To my knowledge, the Calloways are unique around Chesapeake Bay . . . the extent to which they live off the land and water," says Dale Weinrich, a state fisheries biologist. His crews go out with commercial fishermen, baywide, to survey spawning fish stocks. Since 1988 the Calloways have become, for the biologists, a valuable window into the life of the Nanticoke.

Working the water

On this December day, our first stop is near the mouth of Rewastico Creek, where an L-shaped layout of poles and netting intercepts fish and leads them into a fyke net anchored on the bottom.

A fyke is a long, mesh bag, held open by a series of hoops. Fish pass farther and farther into the fyke through an interior net that narrows to a "throat." Once through the throat, they cannot find their way back out.

Billy eases the skiff forward as Clayton leans over the bow and hooks a cork, whose attached line enables him and Eddie to begin hoisting the fyke's 6-foot diameter hoops and heavy mesh. Thick, black mud spatters on their oilskins as they heave.

The catch, a thrashing, squirming mass shaken down into the net's tail end, is small but of high quality: "White perch . . . the water has to get colder before they'll go good into a net, but this is the best we've done," says Billy. The fish are already forming roe, and will run up Nanticoke creeks to spawn come March and April. The market is sky-high right now, $1.20 a pound for big ones.

The fyke yields a variety: a few decomposing cormorants that dove into the net to steal its fish; a hefty, 12- to 15-pound rockfish that is out of season and goes back overboard; assorted species of catfish, perhaps the river's most consistent catch; also several gizzard shad, considered trash fish, but fetching a fair price in certain months as feed for Southern catfish farms.

As Clayton and Eddie sort and box the keepers, Billy drives the skiff downriver to fish a pound. This is a major net -- more than 100 poles, each the size of a small tree, pounded four to six feet into the river's bed. Attached to these, a complicated series of overlapping mesh panels, tensioned by myriad ropes, guides fish into an enclosure, or pound, again through a throat.

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