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Life on the creek
By Jackie R. Broach
On a cold winter morning, Franklin "Snake Man" Smalls navigates a well-used green canoe across the familiar waters of Murrells Inlet. He has a fire going in a bucket on the vessel, named the Happy Traveler, to help keep him warm, and he'll use it later to roast oysters and clams for his breakfast.
It's a routine that Smalls, 61, goes through every day from October to mid-March. He's an oysterman — one of the last in a dirty and difficult profession that changing culture, pollution and over-harvesting have nearly eliminated on Waccamaw Neck. "The only original oystermen still picking is me and my cousin, Boot," said Smalls said.
Like Smalls, William "Boot" Nesbit, 74, has been picking oysters and clams for a living since he was a child. In those days, it was the only option in the winter months for a young person who needed to help put food on the family table.
There are a few younger oystermen working the inlet's waters now — Dan Morgan, 35, and Greg Martin, 48, are among them. But the difficulty and dangers of the profession, along with a reduced oyster supply, are a deterrent to embarking on that life now, when there are much easier ways of making a living.
"Baby, it's hard work in that mud out there," Smalls said, an easy, perpetual grin lighting his face.
Winter temperatures compounded by wind blowing in off the ocean make for an uncomfortable work environment. And lifting and hauling heavy buckets as oysters and clams are loaded and unloaded makes back trouble a guarantee.
"You can't even sleep when you go home, you be so tired," Nesbit said.
The oyster beds, with their razor-sharp shells, are surrounded by thick, dark pluff mud that sucks at boots and anything else that settles on it. A person who doesn’t know how to traverse it could easily find themselves trapped.
"Pluff mud is about like quicksand, and if you don't know how to deal with it, you can be in real trouble," said Morgan, a professional welder and machinist who got into oyster picking part-time as a way to earn extra money.
A TV crew from The History Channel's "Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy" recently saw first hand the difficulties pluff mud can cause. They were on the inlet with Smalls in December to film a segment about oyster picking.
An air date for the show hasn’t been released.
Larry, whose real name is Dan Whitney, got stuck in mud chest deep while filming. Most of the crew ended up stuck at some point, too, but not to that extent.
A person trapped in the mud can easily drown as the tides change.
Oyster shells pose another hazard. With their wicked sharp edges, falling on them can prove fatal.
"They'll cut you up," said Martin, who has made his living off the water up and down the East and West coasts. "You can bleed to death out there. At low tide, there ain't no water at all and nobody can get to you unless they send a helicopter."
"The younger ones ain't going to do that kind of work no more," Nesbit said.
Smalls agrees. "Ain't nobody else trying to learn it," he said. "These young people now ain't gonna do the things we older set do."
Nesbit admits, he wouldn't do it either if he had other options. "I can't read or write; that's the reason I do it," he said. Nesbit left school after third grade and became an oysterman when he was 12.
But Smalls said he'll make his living off the creek as long as his health allows it and be glad of it. He would also be glad to act as a mentor to someone interested in learning the job, the same way he was mentored by James Singleton and Gilbert "Norman" Lee.
"It's hard work, but work is good for your body, and your mind too. Laziness will kill you quicker," he said. "Everything you need to survive is here in this creek, but young people don't have the get up to do that."
Smalls was 9 when he started working the oyster beds, following in the footsteps of his father, Thomas "Marchie" Smalls, who worked for Archer Huntington at Brookgreen Gardens and picked oysters all his life. Smalls was born at Brookgreen, one of 16 children. Only one of his siblings shared his interest of working on the water.
"I just don’t feel right if I'm not on the water or around the water," he said. On the water, he can let his troubles drift away.
When he started picking, Smalls said he did it in "old brogan shoes." He couldn’t afford the knee-length boots usually worn for the job.
"I'd pick a bushel or two and I thought I was doing something great," he said. "I called myself an oysterman when I got up to five and six bushels."
Back then, the supply of oysters seemed unlimited.
"Boys used to load two boats a day," he said. Their harvest would form a small mountain on the boat and they would sometimes bring in 50 or 60 bushels.
"Boot could pick a bushel faster than you could tote one to the boat and empty it," Smalls recalled.
Oysters sell for about $12 a bushel now, but Smalls remembers when he got 60 cents a bushel.
"It went from 60 cents to 90 cents to $1, and it kept climbing from there. But it took some years to get to 90 cents," he said.
The most Smalls ever picked at one time was 47 bushels when he was working in Beaufort and before restrictions on oyster harvesting were in place.
Now, he doesn't pick more than four bushels a day, part of an effort to preserve the resource that has been a livelihood for him and others like him.
Smalls picks oysters from an area of about a quarter of a mile between Marlin Quay and Garden City Beach that is leased by Bill Chandler, an inlet resident and longtime friend.
Shellfishing grounds are leased to individuals by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources as part of a resource management program and, together, Smalls and Chandler manage and protect the beds vigilantly.
In addition to picking below the limit, Smalls who also does yard work and odd jobs, works an abbreviated season to help preserve the oyster supply. Oyster season starts in September, but he doesn't start picking until October, when the waters are cooler and the oysters taste better, he said.
The season lasts through May 15, but he stops picking in March when the weather gets warm again.
Alternating the areas he harvests on a three-year rotation cycle also keeps the oyster supply on Chandler's lease healthy. Three years is the amount of time it takes for oyster spawn, called spat, to grow big enough to be harvested, Smalls said.
"It gives each area a chance to build back up. I'm picking an area I haven’t picked in five years right now," he said.
Smalls is careful to take only full-size oysters, so the beds aren't stripped. Spat need a substrate to attach to as they develop, so if the beds are stripped, the supply can’t restore itself naturally. Lease holders are required to "reseed" annually, usually with depleted oyster shells, to aid the reproduction cycle.
The fact that Smalls is selective in his picking has other advantages.
"It keeps the quality up," Smalls said. "You've got a bushel of oysters instead of little ol' shells and stuff."
Smalls sells his harvest at Seven Seas Seafood and his oysters are almost always reserved ahead of time by buyers who know his reputation.
"Just this morning, a lady at the fish market told me a bushel of my oysters was 60-something pounds and a bushel she got in McClellanville was 30-something pounds," he said last week.
The difference is a lot of oystermen pick up large clusters of shells from the beds and "throw everything in the bag," Smalls said. "They never learned to cultivate oysters in the creek the way we do. I get a big oyster and knock off the small stuff." Others take "anything as big as your little finger," Chandler said. That includes recreational harvesters.
If left to mature, small oysters can be collected at full size within three or four weeks, and will have had the chance to release spat.
The effects of stripping beds and the increased demands caused by population growth are clear.
"From the time I started picking to now, there are shoals out there you can almost walk barefoot on," Smalls said. "They've been stripped completely clean by the public. People go out there and don't know anything about oystering. They think everything they see is oysters. They won't eat 40 percent of what they carry."
There's no requirement for areas open to the public to be reseeded annually.
"Leases are the only way really of retaining some control and keeping things from getting depleted," Chandler said. "It's the only way you're going to keep any oysters in Murrells Inlet with the way the population has increased. We've got too many people drawing on limited resources."
Dredging and stormwater runoff have also been detrimental to shellfishing grounds, Chandler said. If changes aren't made oyster harvesting won't exist in Murrells Inlet in the future.
Chandler thinks size limits should be put on oysters and tighter restrictions put on recreational harvesting.
Recreational harvesters are allowed to take two bushels a day with a fishing license, but that should be cut to half a bushel, or a whole bushel at the most, he said.
"That's really all a family needs," he said. "A bushel like Snake harvests will feed eight people."
Closing public shellfishing grounds on three-year cycles and shortening the harvesting season would also help.
"We've got to do something to control it or this resource is going to be gone," Chandler said.