Oystering Rocks!

oystering-rocksIt’s almost balmy the morning we set out in search of “half shells”–oysters, that is. The engine of our 24-foot boat purrs as we move out into northwest Florida’s Apalachicola Bay. The water runs wide beyond the bow, streaking a few bluish shallows tufted with tiny whitecaps and lit by Florida Panhandle sunshine. When our captain, Fred Register, finally curs the engine at Sylvia’s Bar (oyster bar, of course), we hear the soft cadence of clacking “tongs.” The bar bobs with boats and a few dozen other oystermen and -women who’ve come to “tong” the bottom in earnest. They send official oystering greetings our way. Register tells them he’s got first-timers onboard. He says it with a measure of exhilaration, as if he can barely wait to watch us pull oysters from the water.

The 30-year-old captain comes by his oyster addiction honestly: He’s a third-generation Eastpointer (a few oyster bars over from Apalachicola) who cut his baby teeth on half shells and dug his first pair of tongs into a bay bed when he was 15. He has neither stepped on an airplane nor traveled farther inland than 426 miles. What’s the point, he asks, when everything that makes him happy is right here?

My friend Ellen and I have never been oystering, and we eye our own sets of tongs with skepticism. The main tool of the oystering trade, they are used to scoop up oysters from the bay bottom. The tongs look like giant, interlocking potato rakes with long, unwieldy poles, which can telescope from 12 to 16 feet. We also have a 10-inch metal bar called a culling iron (for knocking the oysters apart), several jute “croaker sacks,” and a five-gallon plastic bucket with the bottom cur out. You put a croaker sack in the bucket to make it a “bagging can,” Register explains. When the bucket is full of oysters, you pull the bottomless bucket over the top of the sack, tie the sack, and throw it in the cooler, then start the bagging process all over again.

The first time I try the tongs I come up empty-handed. The wooden poles are cumbersome and I can’t get a grip on the muddy bottom with the iron teeth. Register encourages me to let the water take the pole weight. “It’s not a test of strength,” he says, “but of endurance.” When Ellen takes a stab at it, she pulls up three scissorbill oysters, which Register says are good for shucking and cooking. The next time she lands some fat and juicy fantails, Register’s favorite for half-shell “eatin’.” The oysters glisten pearly silver in the sunlight and embody everything titillating about the sea.

I can’t wait a second longer. I grab a shucking knife, put on a glove, and open an oyster. I don’t even bother fetching a saltine cracker, the standard convoy for raw oysters. I simply put the shell to my lips and suck. The muscle is luscious: firm and soft and sweet and salty all at the same time. I grab another, then another, until Register says it’s only our first bar and maybe we should hold off for an official shore feast.

He is in no hurry. Time, he explains, compresses to an oysterman’s clock. He can work as little or as much as he wants, making up to $60,000 in a good year. “There are people who oyster and live in little campers in the woods, and others who own big homes on the water,” he notes. And while low tide is best for oystering, you can pull shells from the bay anytime. Sunrise and just thereafter are heavenly, he muses, though afternoon’s alright, too. “People out here are still free,” says Register.

So I try to be patient. But once we get to Goose Cove Bar and the boat fills with more sparking shells, it’s all over. Ellen and I are eating as fast as we can shuck, which isn’t fast enough.

Register suggests the oyster-eating atmosphere might be better back at the dock, where we can spread out a picnic blanket in the shade and open a bottle of wine. That’s where most of his clients like to dig into the day’s catch after a few hours of oystering. Register mixes commercial oystering with trips like ours customized through adventure outfitter Jeanni’s Journeys. Of course, oysters don’t have to be the point of the trip, he says. “If you want to get wet, call me. I’ve got birdwatchers. I’ve got fishers. I’ve got people who just want to come out here and sleep.”

By the time we get to the dock, Ellen and I figure we’ve eaten more than 100 oysters between us. Still, that’s no reason not to open a bottle of wine. We pair it with pure, unadulterated oysters, and every bite is perfection on a half shell.

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