Bullraking for RI’s State Shell

Photo credit: Tyler Murgo

Photo credit: Tyler Murgo

Davy is the youngest Andrade to join the business, which was founded in 1987 by his parents, David and Gigi. But after buying his own boat and rebuilding it from the floor up, he is officially his own boss. He does, however, still work at the family store a couple of days a week, selling fresh shellfish and making deliveries to partner restaurants around the state. He speaks highly of the store, the equipment they use to clean and sort the catch—but that comes later.

At 5:30 a.m. we meet at the docks in Bristol. It’s surprisingly chilly—I’m not sure if it’s due to the previous day’s rain, or if that’s just a product of the early hour, but I never remove my second layer. Davy, too, wears layers, but he sheds them once the sun rises and he works up a sweat. But for now, all I see is a mustached man with his black hair pulled into a low bun, wearing a flannel shirt and carrying buckets and a cooler. He greets me with a smile and I follow him to the boat.

“Do you like dogs?” he asks. “I wasn’t sure if I should bring mine … he usually comes with me. But he actually seemed pretty content to stay at home with my girlfriend today.”

Over the course of the next few hours, I hear a lot more about these two — the red Labrador, Chowder, and Davy’s ice-cream making, entrepreneurial girlfriend; he is very smitten with both.

As the boat leaves the harbor and we pick up speed — thankfully standing inside the cabin, where it’s warm — the sun begins to appear over the water. Yellow, gold, orange, and pink flood the horizon, coloring the top layer of the water to reflect the sky. Davy opens the door so I can take a photo. We are moving in the opposite direction of the rising sun.

Using his navigation screen, he stops in what seems like the middle of nowhere and drops anchor in order to set up his equipment.

My only experience collecting quahogs was “clamming” six years ago, when a friend took me into knee-high water and taught me to feel for the shells with my heel. This was considerably different.

Davy attaches several pieces together to construct the rake: a long pole with a T-shaped handle, an extension pole, and a “toothed” or tined basket that digs into the sea floor, catching mollusks inside its cage. Since the current isn’t very strong, and neither is the wind, Davy lifts the anchor. “It’s important to have some drift,” he tells me.

He proceeds to lower this contraption into the water and performs some sort of ritual (I believe it’s known as “technique”) that clearly requires strength, skill, and practice. It’s part digging, jerking, and snapping, and I can’t imagine how he’s doing this without being able to see what’s below him. He does it by feel and sound. “Sometimes I’ll rake for 15 minutes at a time, or more or less, depending. There’s usually a top layer of deckers, and it’s important to work through that before pulling up the haul.”

As soon as the bullrake goes in, he asks, “What kind of music do you listen to?”

I think he’s making small talk until I realize he wants something to play in the background. Assuming that Greek music will not be very motivating to him, I say, “Anything’s good!”

He picks an alternative mix on Spotify, and it’s clear the music helps him focus and get in the mood. After an Ozzy Osbourne song comes on, he says, “This is going to be a good haul,” with a smile.

And indeed, it might have been the best! He pulls the rake up slowly, turning the basket so the shellfish don’t fall out. When it first appears, it looks full top to bottom, but he gives it a good shake to clear the mud, and then brings the rake on board, dumping the contents into a large bucket. “We can sort them after a few more hauls,” he says.

By now the sun is out and he’s removed the flannel, his tattoo sleeves making him look super badass. He shows me the three clams on his forearm that represent him and his sisters, and another three clams that represent the kids he wants to have. “Is it weird I already know I want to have kids?” he asks.

“Not at all,” I say. And then I learn he’s 22 years old.

I try to contain my surprise—I knew he was younger than me, but I did not realize it was by a decade. I can’t believe he’s only 22. He’s already built a boat and started a business, talks about buying a house and having three kids. Maybe I’ll be like Davy when I grow up?

Eventually we move to a new location, and when we arrive there are several other fishermen already there, all with bullrakes. He points out the difference between light poles and heavy poles. His are the latter and says they are harder to maneuver, but they’re durable and will last him longer.

The conditions that day turn out to be so-so, and he calls it early. He dumps his catch onto the back shelf of his boat, next to a rack used to measure clams—if they’re less than an inch wide, they’ll fall through the cracks and we’ll return them to the water. He lets me do the sorting.

The quahogs come in four sizes. “The smallest are littlenecks—this is what everyone loves, and this is what will earn the most money. You can eat littlenecks just like oysters. The next are top necks, because during the sorting, they end up on top. Third are cherrystones, which are the least valuable, and the biggest are chowder. For clam chowder.”

Despite the fact it wasn’t a great day in terms of catch, his spirits are still high. “Any day I get to be on the water is a good day. Besides, one day is terrible; the next is awesome. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll kill it,” he says, and jumps in the water.

I can’t imagine this level of drive, day after day, especially when the winter comes. “Yeah … it’s hard in the winter. I keep two pairs of gloves, one on my hands and the other near a heater, and I rotate.” But this is the level of dedication of our fishermen in Rhode Island, bringing us the bounty of our waters. Best of all — they seem to really love what they do.

And so I now echo the advice I received from Andy Culture during the inaugural year of the Ocean State Oyster Festival in 2015: go out on a boat with a local fisherman. See firsthand the work they’re doing, the hours of bent backs, aching muscles, saltwater and sweat — it’ll change your perspective. There are faces and families and generations behind each fish, quahog, and oyster, and we are lucky enough to live in a state where we get to meet those fishermen and farmers, face-to-face.

Leave a Reply

Prove that you are human *

Previous post:

Next post: