No signs mark Pickalene Hole, Lone Bar and 609, but we’re skimming the water at 22 miles an hour over them. These cleverly named spots are oyster beds 4 to 5 feet below us on the foor of the Apalachicola Bay, a body of water in Northwest Florida at the western end of the state’s Big Bend.
I’m out with oyster fisherman Tommy Ward, owner of 13 Mile Seafood in Apalachicola, to visit the beds he leases from the state. He’s piloting his 22-foot boat, with a homemade canvas roof, toward Schoellis’ Lease. It’s where fisherman Kendall Schoellis tongs the bay, harvesting the iconic seafood the way it’s been done for more than a century (download Apalachicola wallpaper here).
As we skim along, Ward tells me that 90 percent of Florida’s oysters come from this bay, considered one of the most pristine in the United States. It’s fed by the Apalachicola River and currents from the Gulf of Mexico. What makes the bay so special is its unique blend of salt water and fresh water that helps grow the big, sweet-and-salty Apalachicola oysters, for which connoisseurs happily drive across the state to indulge their taste buds.
The oyster’s latest claim to fame was its appearance on the Martha Stewart Show. “He [guest chef Chris Hastings of Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club] used 13 Mile oysters in a recipe with Martha Stewart on TV,” Ward says, almost shyly, with a soft Southern accent. That national exposure put 13 Mile Seafood on the map, but Ward isn’t boastful; he’s just straight country, like his appearance. A green mesh baseball cap, with the logo of his buddy’s bird and dog kennel in DeFuniak Springs, covers his cropped red hair, and a T-shirt, jeans and muddy sneakers are his work uniform.
In the distance I see a number of oyster boats, despite the threat of rain. We pass by two oystermen who are standing on the wide gunwales of their boat, working their tongs — rapidly squeezing 8-foot-long poles hinged to long pitchforklike clamps. They are shuffling the tongs along the bottom to “feel” for the oysters; then they bounce them together to scoop them up and dump the pile onto the culling board. They’ll keep it up until they have a 3-foot-tall pile to cull.
This way of oystering — tonging the bay — is unique to the sandy beds. Tongs don’t work on rocky bottoms or in thick mud. Instead, mechanical harvesters are used to dredge up the oysters from these surfaces, in places such as Texas and Louisiana. “It’s hard work. Most of ’em [tongers] don’t have any rotator cuffs left,” Ward says. His shoulder’s shot too.
The wind is rising, ruffling the bay as we pull up near Schoellis, a sun-baked man with a scraggly gray beard. He’s bent over a wide piece of wood stretched across the boat’s beam, culling, using a foot-long piece of iron to knock apart clumps of shells. He’ll throw back everything but 3-inch or bigger oysters.
The giant mound of shells attracts a fock of gulls overhead; a daring one flies in low and hovers to take a shucked oyster from his hand. “Feedin’ your friend, huh?” Ward asks. His face opens to a grin as he tells of the gull that follows Schoellis wherever he fishes.
“I been doing this for 30 years,” Schoellis says. “I come out in rain, wind, cold. Just not lightnin’.” I ask him if the fshing is good today. “Used to get 30 or 50 bags a day. Today, I’ll get 10 or 12,” he replies. The 60-pound bags, a bushel in volume, will yield a hard-earned $20 a bag. “It’s better than it used to be; 29 years ago I made $4.50 a bag,” he adds with a laugh. The harvest is down for a number of reasons, but oystermen persevere. “It’s in their blood,” Ward says.
He and the other commercial fishermen spread spat — small seedling oysters — along the public and private leases to replenish what they harvest. It takes 18 to 30 months to grow an oyster to the legal 3 inches. The practice is their way of keeping the industry alive. “I want this to be here for my young’uns,” Ward says. “It’s my life.” (FT+L insider’s tip: Ride along with Capt. Doug Joyner on an oystering tour to learn how to tong and cull oysters. See “Make the Trip,” itinerary.)