By Doreen Leggett
Captain Tom Smith grew up in Orleans and remembers going down to Rock Harbor to see the fishing boats when he was a kid.
“There has always been a little quahog fleet in there,” Smith recalls.
Most associate the tidal harbor the town shares with Eastham with the trees that mark its channel, and the popular charter boat fleet. But the quahog industry predates and has been as constant as the tides.
“That’s what helped shape the harbor,” said Captain Chris Viprino, a newcomer to the stalwart group. “We are right around the 100-year anniversary.”
And that’s a century with powered boats. Clammers heading out of the “crick,” as they called it, date back to at least 1890.
Warren S. Darling, the son of Nathan who owned the Ella B, writes about the early days of the commercial industry in his book, “Quahoging out of Rock Harbor 1890-1930.”
The early captains used catboats, almost as wide as they are long, 28 feet and sturdy. There were no dredges in the early days, so hand raking brought the harvest.
Back then, according to Darling, the quahoggers made their own raking poles, often several because of the differing depths of the water.
“Successful raking depended almost as much on the pole as the man using it. However, a pole that helped the rake to fish just right depended on how it was made,” he wrote.
Quahogs can live in the shallows or at depths of 40 feet or more. The longest poles often stuck out beyond the bow of the boat but they always used the same rake with metal claws to scrape. The “bullrakes” weighed 20 pounds or more and were made by a local blacksmith.
A 36-inch wide rake would have about 25 teeth and was nailed into a ring on the pole when the fishermen got to their spot. It was taken off and hung in the cabin before the ride home.
“The teeth of a rake rolling to the waves would be a dangerous companion of a cockpit underway,” Darling wrote.
In the beginning the big bag that held the clams was made from makeshift twine but as time went fishermen could buy them in stores. When they were stretched full they extended two and a half or three feet.
Darling told the story of his father making a 56-foot pole which meant several long pieces of pine had to be put together, carefully lined up in the direction each pole had its natural bend. The poles, cut and sanded, were screwed together and fastened with tarred lobster twine. Then the tee, which attached the quahogger, was added.
“One of the most beautiful sights I can imagine is that of a quahog boat anchored in the distance with the quahoger pulling up his rake,” Darling wrote. “The thing that made it so beautiful was the graceful smooth curve of a 56-foot pole arching across the boat just before the tee touched the water 20 or more feet away.”
Most times there were two people on the boat, bullraking from opposing sides. Sometimes there was a third that separated the clams into sizes. Before World War I there were “blunts,” “sharps” and “littlenecks”; afterwards “counts” (often served as cherrystones) were added.
Raking required an exceptional amount of balance because the fisherman was inching backwards, hands on the rake, on a section barely wide enough for both feet while the boat bobbed.
The intent was to rake an area of the sea bottom the length of the boat and as wide as possible without missing any strips or raking the same area twice. Short, hard, downward-backward jerks on a narrow beam were used, balancing with legs and back.
Then, like today, the fleet often worked 12-hour days. Starting in the mid-1920s they no longer had to barrel and ship their catch to a shellfish merchant. A buyer from Boston would meet them at the dock and paid about $3.50 for a three-bucket bushel. A short day of work usually resulted in three or four bushels, a long day seven to 10.
“And in the 1920s, $30 a day was … BIG MONEY,” Darling wrote.
Unlike today there were no slips. Captains set out stakes against the bank. The docking spaces didn’t require town approval and were free. The stakes were trees, just like ones that mark the channel today and put in the same way, with a pump. After the trees, or stakes, were in they were overlaid with planks.
When Darling talked about the 1920s he made mention of the charter boat fleet for the first time. He said “party boats” to take summer visitors fishing docked right next to them, outfitted with a luxurious three-plank walkway with handrails.
As engines became available, fishermen experimented with new boat designs. And soon after dragging, using engine power to rake, replaced hand raking, but the fundamentals haven’t changed.
“We are literally going out to the same spots,” Viprino said.