Woodworker carves tongs that reach the oysters Hand-wielded devices give rude awakenings down in mollusk beds

September 18, 1995|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

BOZMAN -- They've been catching oysters this way for nearly three centuries, and if James Harvey's woodworking shop is any indicator, this year won't be any different. When oyster season opens Oct. 2, plenty of area watermen will be using Mr. Harvey's yellow-pine oyster tongs to pull up what riches still reside on river bottoms along the Chesapeake.

Mr. Harvey, a woodworker in this tiny Talbot County town, has been busy for the past few weeks making the long, smoothed shafts that are linked together and then fitted with opposing rakes, called "heads."

"I've got about 80 pair in the process," Mr. Harvey said earlier this week. "It'll be two weeks before I'm done. Last year I sold 30 pair. . . . Oysters are coming back a little bit."

Mr. Harvey's customers are watermen from Rock Hall in Kent County down to Deal Island in Somerset, those who work the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. And most years, the men who wield the big, scissorlike shafts by hand catch more oysters than their counterparts who dredge, dive or use mechanized tongs, known locally as "patent tongs."

"The hand-tongers have always caught the majority of the oysters. There are more of them and they catch more oysters," said Chris Judy, a shellfish manager in the state's Department of Natural Resources. Hand tongers caught 61 percent of the 164,000 bushels of oysters that made up the 1994-1995 harvest. The season before, it was 59 percent of 79,000 bushels, according to DNR figures.

Paula Johnson, in her book "Working The Water," says that "shaft" or "hand" tongs are the most popular way to catch oysters in the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River. Early settlers and Indians gathered some oysters by hand, then used single-head rakes to get to oysters farther offshore. Ms. Johnson says hand tongs were used in the early 1700s in Maryland and Virginia.

The workmanship and the wood are important in crafting them.

"They've got to be smooth to the hand," Mr. Harvey says, running his hand along a pair in his workshop. "Each pair has to come from the same board -- that is the secret. They'll work together better that way.

"This pine, it should last a good while -- if they take care of of it," he says. Shaft tongs cost about $150 a pair, he says, and the most important thing is to keep them out of the sun when not in use.

Mr. Harvey, who is 50, says the biggest part of his business is custom flooring. But when an elderly local tongmaker died some years ago, Mr. Harvey decided to make them for local people who asked.

"Now they come all the way from Rock Hall," he says.

Shaft tonging is unquestionably an art, and it's also hard work, say the watermen who practice it today.

"I started at least 20, 25 years ago," said Gerald Creighton, a 43-year-old Kent County waterman who works the Chester River. "My father did it; I started with him on the boat."

Last year, Mr. Creighton tried another oystering method: He hired a diver to collect oysters from the bottom. But he's likely to return to hand tonging this year. Although diving is more profit and less work, it carried a heavy toll for him.

"It was pretty hard on the nerves," he said. "I was afraid because of that man being on the bottom all the time -- if I make a mistake, it could cost him his life."

The waterman using a diver has to be sure he doesn't pull him away from his air equipment or hit his hose with the boat.

Tongers work an early day. The state allows them to start at sunup, and they must stop by 3 p.m. During the season, which ends March 31, they can tong for oysters Monday through Friday and bring in no more than 15 bushels a man, 30 bushels per boat.

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