"I do marryin's and buryin's—scatter your ashes—I do sunset cruises, special charters, whatever people want," said Wade H. "Wadey" Murphy, Jr., her captain and a fifth-generation waterman. "I loved drudgin' for oysters like . . . life," Wadey said. "But tourism's coming, oysters are going."
He showed me a photograph taken in 1948 near where a new gated resort community now stands. The late Bill Page, a waterman, was in his skiff, grappling oysters from the clear shallows with scissor-like tongs. A stranger onshore, A. Aubrey Bodine, had orchestrated the moment, motioning Page to move a few yards. "Ain't no oysters there," Page had replied. Humor me, Bodine had said, and he snapped a shot that has become a bay classic. Wadey said Page always told people it was a fine picture, but he invariably added: "Where he had me pose, there weren't no oysters."
Baywide, oysters were abundant in 1948, with harvests of several million bushels a year in Maryland. But within the past two decades the catch has plummeted, hit by disease, from around a million bushels to 26,500 last year.
No one's feeling any pain, however, at Harrison's Chesapeake House, down the harbor from Wadey. The sportfishing fleet's back from a charity tournament with a haul of striped bass. At the waterfront bar, the country music's cranking and the beer's flowing. Striped bass—also called rockfish or just plain stripers—are great fighters and good eating, a firm white meat that needs no help from any sauce. Now managed under strict quotas, the stock has come roaring back.
The crowd of tourists at the weigh-in oohed and aahed as a handsome 33-pounder made the scales creak. The overall catch was sparse, but contestants said they were happy just for the chance to snag a big one. Suddenly people began pointing their cameras toward the water. There, perfectly accentuating a Chesapeake scene of cotton-puff clouds floating in a clean blue sky across sparkling waters, were Wadey and Rebecca T. Ruark on their final cruise of the day.
And I wanted to holler to the happy skipjack-watchers and easily satisfied fishermen: But there aren't any oysters out there anymore.