The solitary shellfishermen

Scallop drag wp

At Cape Cod’s elbow, where the land and sea blur in tidal flats, for just a few thousand dollars, a man could buy an open 20-foot boat and make a living shellfishing. His was a solitary work day, and the gear was usually human-powered. The one sure thing was bay scallop season. A husband and wife team, with a small skiff and a rudimentary steel and chain dredge, could bank $10,000 in a month. The wife didn’t even have to work: Her presence ensured a second license, doubling the limit. Here, Stuart Moore hauls a scallop drag onto his 17-foot skiff in Oyster River. Moore went on to serve as Chatham’s shellfish warden for 30 years.

Opening day of scallop season

Chatham scallop season
On November 1, opening day of bay scallop season, Chatham’s inshore shallows were jammed with dozens of small craft of every description hauling drags in crisscross patterns, dodging each other’s lines and the moorings that dotted the sheltered inlets.

Landing scallops

Chatham Davis

After dunking the bag to wash the scallops clean, Chris Davis carries it to his truck at Stage Harbor. The limit was five bags per day per license holder. The bay scallops were so thick on opening day November 1, that fathers would take their sons with them for the dawn start and catch the limit in time to get the boys to school.


Chatham row to rake

David Eldridge heads up Mitchell River in Chatham to scratch for quahogs in a boat “older than you and me put together” in March 1979. In the fertile estuaries of the Stage Harbor system, a man could simply row to the shellfish flats. Hard work, but low overhead.

Culling scallops

Chatham scallop culling

In the calm of a November morning, Stuart Moore culls his scallops. The contents of the scallop drag are dumped onto the culling board, mounted athwart on his skiff, where the scallops are sorted from the eelgrass that shelters them, the crabs and the shell wrack.


bill raking wp

William Montague works his bullrake in Crow’s Pond, an inlet of Pleasant Bay in North Chatham. The rake was well-named, as the work was back-breaking and tedious. And in a sudden thunderstorm, you quickly stowed the 20-foot aluminum rake.

The culling board

Chatham quahog culling

William Montague dumps the basket of his bullrake stuffed with oysters, conches, scallops, razor clams and hardshell clams onto the culling board while working Crow’s Pond in North Chatham. A clammer’s bullrake is a rake and basket heavy enough to bite into the bottom mounted on the end of a 20-foot aluminum pole, worked from a boat.

Landing the catch

phillips bucket wp

For decades, shanties stood at the bend in Oyster River in West Chatham. In the early 1980s, the Chatham Shellfish Company operated there, buying quohogs, steamer clams, conches and mussels directly from the fishermen. The wooden plank from float to doorway traverses the white chalky calcium that has built up from the shells of countless oysters and clams. Here, company co-owner Paul Phillips carries two pails of cherrystones into the shanty for bullraker Everett Robie as town assistant shellfish warden John Brooks waits to inspect the sizes.

Weighing the sale

shanty scale wp

Fisherman Paul Young and Chatham Shellfish Co. owner Paul Phillips keep their eyes glued to the mechanical scale as Young sells his day’s take. The shanty, built in 1937, had no electricity. The 40 pounds of littlenecks on the scale were worth about $44.

Landing blue mussels

Chatham mussels

In 1982, there was a sudden explosion of blue mussels inside Monomoy Island to the south of Chatham. Using hydraulic pumps to stir them from the sand, fishermen overloaded their boats during the months of easy pickings. Here three boats unload about 60 bushels of mussels at Chatham Shellfish Co. in a driving rain.