Newcomer keeps century-old quahogging tradition alive
By Doreen Leggett
Not too long ago the Orleans harbormaster, a bit worried, asked a longtime fisherman to keep watch on a young guy who had started bullraking in Cape Cod Bay with no more experience than watching a few videos on YouTube.
“In two days I made about $28,” said Chris Viprino, the young guy in question, on a recent overcast day at Rock Harbor. “I spent a winter doing it. Too stubborn to do anything else.”
Viprino, now captain of the fishing vessel Miss Em, readily admitted that you have to be a bit crazy to go bullraking, but he enjoyed “being in the Zen garden.”
He moved on from bullraking after about a year and has spent the last three years dragging for quahogs.
“I bought this boat and started dragging the bay, again without any experience whatsoever. Luckily it has turned out all alright, although we definitely have had our share of adversity,” he said with a wry grin. “My learning curves are steep.”
Those who know him say it has turned out better than alright.
“He is a highliner right now,” said Max Nolan, who manages a fleet of boats but still goes quahogging on his own.
“Chris is one of the hardest working guys I know,” Nolan said. “He really made a name for himself.”
Viprino, 31, credits Nolan with helping him get his start at Rock Harbor. In the beginning he didn’t want to bother anyone or step on anyone’s toes. Looking back he would have asked for advice earlier.
“I didn’t follow the traditional route,” Viprino said. “I didn’t come from a fishing family, but I can’t imagine my life any other way. It is definitely something that is in my blood.”
His dad was in construction and real estate. Viprino and his younger brother (now a pilot on the West Coast) grew up in Brewster. Viprino, a Nauset High School grad, went fishing when he was growing up but it was no big deal. Friends were crewing on charter boats out of Rock Harbor and making pretty good money so he decided to try it out. Viprino ended up working for Steve Ellis on the Watanye.
“It wasn’t even that I liked fishing that much,” he said. “I got kind of good at it, which made it more fun. I liked being on a boat.”
He did that for five or six years, primarily bass and blue fish, and then started Helen B charters, named after his 100-year-old grandmom who, still alive, is ok with the fact he ended up selling it.
“I burned out pretty hard on charter fishing,” he said. “The day it stopped being fun I walked away.”
Between all of this he went to college for automotive and marine diesel, and got married to Emily, a teacher (which explains his boat’s name Miss Em).
After he sold the business, he ended up on the back of Captain Jared Bennett’s boat, White Cap, in 2016. They were gillnetting for monkfish that winter and the trips were long – a few days – and the weather was tough.
“It was awful,” he said with a wry chuckle, though he gives Jared a lot of credit: “He has a real old school mentality, takes care of the people who work for him.”
But Viprino didn’t like traveling in bad weather to get a good fishing window, and there was a lot of gear repair.
Still, he earned enough to buy a skiff, which landed him in Pleasant Bay and Rock Harbor with his bullrake. It’s another old school symbol, teeth and a metal basket attached to the end of a long pole with a T-handle that you use to rake up quahogs.
Getting into a new business can be a pricey endeavor, so Viprino ended up basically building his quahogging boat. He bought virtually a shell from a marina in Gloucester, did all the electrical, plumbing and rigging.
“It wasn’t beaten up, there was just nothing on it,” he said.
He also built a dredge himself, which looks a bit like a narrow jail cell with a blade that cuts into the sand and sends clams tumbling back. The shellfish are different sizes, sorted on a table on the deck.
“It’s been pretty good to me,” Viprino said.
Viprino needed to cobble together a few loans in the beginning, because no lender was comfortable with the full amount. His permit comes through the town and his limit is set by the state. It’s not an easy business to get into or to stay in.
“The boat was the cheapest part of the deal,” he said.
The first year went well and he was able to restructure the loans into something more manageable. He mostly works alone.
“He wasn’t allowed to work with other people,” smiled his wife Emily. “He is not the best communicator.”
Viprino just grinned and agreed. He does now have a young guy helping, which helps ease wear and tear that comes with 12-hour days.
The pandemic was an unwelcome surprise, but things have improved.
“There was panic initially,” Viprino said, adding that a lot of his catch goes to Red’s Best or Wellfleet Shellfish Company. “I think once the dust settled there were so many places making clam chowder, stuffed quahogs.”
Although this spring has seen some ugly weather, he fished all January and February:
“It doesn’t take too much weather to keep us in, too much motion on the boat isn’t good for the tow. We’ll have some of the sunniest days and the charter fleet will be out, but the draggers will be tied up.”
The good part of that is that he has more time to spend with his two-year-old son, Colt.
Viprino sees the quahog industry, which stretches back a century, as sustainable. He thinks things will improve even more with restaurants opening to outdoor seating.
“It’s nice to see it come together and prove it to myself and my loving wife” – he looks at her and grins – “that it was feasible.”