I can hear the frogs. The rain must’ve stopped. We walk outside and into the thick summer air made even denser by the morning storm.
Fred Dockery, a seasoned waterman with well-earned crow’s feet and salt-and-pepper whiskers, leads me to his backyard where I help attach a johnboat to the hitch of his 1983 Mercedes. The sedan runs off of vegetable oil, and there are three others just like it parked in varying conditions around the property.
Catherine, Fred’s old crabbing boat (and also the name of his wife), rests a few yards away, waiting like an aged racehorse in her stable.
For twenty years Fred ran circles around Kiawah, crabbing nearly every drain, bend, and offshore hole available. At his peak Fred set and pulled upwards of three hundred traps in a single day.
A re-emerging back injury (brought on largely by the occupational hazards associated with life as a commercial waterman) forced his retirement a few years ago. Today, Fred works as one of two captains on the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ fisheries research vessel.
Raised between France, Maine, and North Carolina, Fred studied philosophy in college before landing as a crewman on a fishing boat out of Ivoryton, Connecticut. The Restless, a forty-foot dragger, trolled for tote-loads of flounder, sand dab, tautog, and an assortment of bait fish from the waters of Long Island Sound.
This early experience set a seemingly inescapable path, tying Fred forever to fishing and the sea. From Long Island Sound Fred went offshore. Marriage brought him back inland for scallops in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. And children brought him back to the South for clams in Charleston. Clams lead to oysters, and, eventually, oysters lead to crabs.
Fred offers to serve as my guide—a Charon of sorts, escorting me into the depths of the Lowcountry’s crabbing culture.
We drive to the Sol Legare boat landing, a billow of spent vegetable oil trailing behind, and launch into the Stono River. Fred had baited and dropped his two traps (the recreational limit) thirty-six hours prior into Alligator Creek. If the menhaden have done their job (the preferred choice of bait), we’ll harvest enough for Fred and Catherine to enjoy a prodigious supper.
We bear downriver towards the Atlantic, propelled by a two-stroke engine and a will to outrun the rain, eventually turning west into the mouth of our target creek. The rich greens of spartina grass contrast against the impending thunderclouds ahead. Our horizon begins to shrink. The narrowing creek and dropping tide box us in. There’s a blanketing comfort in it all. As we make way, Fred does his best to expound twenty years of memories into the larger context of the regional crabbing industry.
Early voyagers quickly observed the great bounty of the Carolina coast. Captain William Hilton wrote during his 1664 voyage of “Oysters in abundance, with great store of Muscles; A sort of fair Crabs.”
Archeological analysis of regional shell middens reveal diets rich in oysters, clams, and blue crab claws. European settlers learned from the Native populations how to cast for crabs using a woven rope and game for bait.
Charleston was the center of commerce in the Colonial days, where crab served as a staple in kitchens from slave dwellings to plantation homes. As early as 1770 a fish market was established at the foot of Queen Street, requiring “all fish and shellfish landed within four miles be sold through the market.” However, despite this ordinance, much of Charleston’s seafood at the time was still sold through street peddlers who purchased their goods directly from the watermen—a supply chain indicative of the fishing industry’s historic dominance by the African American community.
R. Edward Earll’s 1887 Fisheries of South Carolina and Georgia accounts that 94 percent of South Carolina’s fishermen were African American, four percent Spanish, and two percent Caucasian. This trend had remained relatively constant since before the Civil War.
Until about World War II, the barrier to entry to work as a commercial crabber was relatively low. Boats propelled by wind and oar, and crabs were caught almost exclusively using trotlines—cotton lines sometimes as long as one thousand feet, baited with beef or horse meat every eighteen inches or so.
However, by the late 1930s and into the middle of the century, with the increased popularity of the combustion engine and the invention of the crab trap, the crabbing industry soon became, comparatively, industrialized. Blue crab landings (i.e. harvests) in South Carolina went from just over one thousand metric tons in 1950 to four times that less than fifteen years later.
By 1962 crab traps had become the most popular gear used to catch crabbers, outpacing the traditional trotline, and soon thereafter the industry’s demographics changed dramatically.
South Carolina’s crabbing industry rode several cycles over the next few decades, supported during the peaks by several picking houses and canneries that operated throughout the coast. But, as trends go, evolving markets, changing regulations, environmental variability, competition from overseas, and a dwindling workforce, the last crab house in the area closed its doors around 2000-, and landings have since dropped to numbers closer to those in the 1950s.
We come upon Fred’s traps, marked by the yellow buoys required of recreational crabbers. In Fred’s commercial days, he’d use purple floats—an homage to his affinity for the Minnesota Vikings.
Our first pull yields six crabs. Our second yields seven. In total, after culling out the undersized catch (those less than five inches from point to point) and any sponge-crab (females with visible eggs adhered to their undersides), we admire our modest harvest: five males (known as “Jimmies”) and two females (“Sooks”). Catherine will be pleased.
Fred explains his reason for choosing this way of life. If money were the only motive, he’d have stopped long before he did. There’s the independence and a satisfaction of entrepreneurial ambition that comes along with the job. You are beholden to no one but yourself. But there’s also the solitude, the humbling reliance on conditions well out of your control, and the spiritual reward of working in balance with the natural world. It seems this is the real payoff.
There’s one secret, Fred shares, in succeeding in this industry: “Work hard.” He’s seen fishermen come and go, seafood businesses boom then bust. But there’s been a constant denominator amongst those who’ve made a life out of it, Fred insists. “Low key, low tech, and hard work.”
We make for the landing. Fred’s stories continue. Names that read from the likes of a film noir screenplay pour from his lips—Ponytail George, Iron Mike, Sniper, Starvin’ Marvin, Skinny Pete, Big Willie, Fat Head. These are the names of the hustlers, the legends, and the infamous characters of South Carolina’s crabbing industry. A lot of whom, Fred acknowledges, came from the “old days.” The days of minimal economic opportunities. The days of Jim Crow and segregated schools. The days of frugality and forced ingenuity. Fred’s earlier notions of self-reliance and hard work begin to take on a more serious, less romantic, tone.
I tie off our bow back at the landing, and the current sweeps our stern perpendicular to the ramp. Fred backs in his Mercedes as a pickup truck prepares to splash its tow.
Fred points, “There’s Rock!”
A commercial crabber emerges from the bow of his childhood boat, now up-fitted with higher freeboards, a reinforced transom, and a lot more horsepower than I suspect he had as a boy.
Rock Campbell (whose real name is Lamar) has been around crabbing his entire life. His parents ran the Winyah Bay Seafood Company near Georgetown, selling crabs to buy-trucks that’d come from as far away as Maine for a taste of our local waters. Rock’s earliest memories are of harvesting shellfish from the Lowcountry’s expansive tidelands.
Rock works primarily as an oysterman. He always has. Supplementing clusters with clams he scratches from the mud. But once shellfish season closes, Rock becomes a full-time crabber.
Rock’s followed this rhythm now for a few years, getting into the crabbing business just as Fred was stepping out.
Fred and Rock exchange a mixture of pleasantries and intel. Rock laments about some recent challenges he’s been facing, while Fred offers counsel and solace, giving him some strategic advice on a few choice crab holes.
Rock tells me just the other day he watched three of his buoys float past the landing and found another two more while out on the water (a sure sign they’d been cut). He says he talked with another guy on the river who’d lost twenty traps that same week.
A scan of headlines from Fred’s manila folder of newspaper clippings he’s collected over the years reveals a theme: “Crabbing competition can still be cutthroat” and “Men charged with crab pot sabotage.”
Ben Moïse, retired game warden for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, recounts in his memoir Ramblings of a Lowcountry Game Warden one particular incident where he staged a stakeout to catch some commercial crabbers cutting and sinking a competitor’s traps.
Rock insists it’s not all crabber-on-crabber competition. Culprits of theft are often uninformed recreational boaters who see a crab trap as a free meal, not realizing this is how guys like Rock make a living. “If you take from my trap, you’re taking food off my family’s table. It’s tough enough to contend with the weather and adverse natural conditions to then have to deal with someone messing with your personal property.”
Rock’s reasons for crabbing are nearly identical to Fred’s—the draw to freedom and independence and connection to the natural world. “It’s something I love to do. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Rock’s wife sits patiently in the passenger seat of the pickup truck as the two crabbers finish their conversation. Fred explained to me earlier in the day that behind every successful waterman, there’s a great woman. This seems validated by Rock and his wife.
Rock tells me his wife is his right hand out on the water. “She likes the sun and nature just as much as I do. And besides, being able to spend such quality time together is really healthy for our relationship.”
You talk to crabbers and generally they’re of one of two camps: either things are getting worse or things haven’t changed at all. When you consider what a crabber is up against—forces from development, competition from inferior imports, pollution, loss of public water access, an increase in private docks, increased capital expenses, too many crabbers, not enough crabs, the list goes on, not to mention being often cold, wet, sore, and bloody, and the days demanding long, physical, and laborious hours—it’s a wonder there are any watermen left at all.
But in talking with many in the industry (and as a commercial oysterman myself), my theory is this: acknowledgement of these very real challenges is a way to hedge against completely revealing to the outside world the overwhelming satisfaction that comes from this type of work—a secret well-worth protecting. After all, once the summer months have passed, we all quite enjoy being the only ones on the water. — C.B.