For some years now, my good friend and exemplary charter-boat crewman Larry Grimard and I have embarked upon an oyster-gathering expedition to the muddy banks of Maine’s Damariscotta River. Grimard studies his charts to determine when the lowest tide will occur on an afternoon in November. This time he emailed me early in the month with a terse, “The 14th is the day. Meet me at the secret parking lot at 2:30.”
Grimard knows the Damariscotta well. He has spent decades on the river lobstering and fishing, and for a long time he had a “personal use” oyster lease, growing the mollusks for personal consumption and to barter with neighbors for fresh chickens or venison sausage.
We met at the appointed place and hour. It was a nice afternoon — sunny, calm, 37 degrees. I climbed into Grimard’s truck, and off we went, out of the lot and onto the blacktop for a couple of miles, then down a narrow, twisting dirt road to the western bank of the river. We got out and donned our hip boots. Grimard grabbed his hod, and we carefully worked our way down the mossy, greasy-slick bank and onto the mud flat.
My friend always has a plan. “We’ll head to those old pilings up there and work our way back at the waterline,” he announced quietly, looking around to make sure we weren’t being observed. For some reason Grimard doesn’t like to be watched, but I’ve never asked why. “We should find some nice ones.”
And find some nice ones we did. Every few feet we’d come across a fine oyster lying in the mud, ranging from the tasty “cocktail” size, 2 or 3 inches long, to the “jumbos,” some approaching hand-size, that are destined for stew or the grill. Into the hod they went.
We slogged along in foot-deep mud the consistency of mayonnaise, which sucked at our boots with every step and made for slow going. A couple of times, I thought I’d pulled my femur out of my hip socket. After about 15 minutes, Grimard abruptly stopped and stared at something on the leaf-littered sea grass of the river bank some 75 feet away. I followed as he plodded toward it.
Grimard had spotted a black plastic mesh bag that’s used to hold juvenile oysters that would eventually grow to a salable size. The floating bag had evidently broken free from a longline on a midriver oyster lease and drifted ashore at high tide, with no chance of washing back into the Damariscotta. And it was full of seed oysters, perhaps 2,000 of them, that were still very much alive.
“We need to let these go out onto the mud somewhere so they can survive and grow up,” said Grimard, ever the conservationist beneath his grizzled hunter-gatherer exterior. We lugged the bag onto the mud flat; found a suitable bathtub-size, seaweed-covered boulder that offered a bit of protection; and spread the tiny oysters around it. Grimard then took the empty bag back to the river bank and tossed it well up on the shore where it could later be picked up.
Interestingly, oysters cannot move. Not one bit. They can’t burrow like clams do, or jet around on the bottom like scallops. Wild oysters, when they are microscopic in size and drifting with the current, attach themselves to rocks and boulders and stay put for their entire lives, if all goes well. If they fall off or get knocked off their perch, that’s exactly where they will remain, filter-feeding and living quite nicely, even when exposed to the air for many hours each day as the tide recedes and finally fills back in.
In less than an hour, Grimard collected a full hod of oysters, the legal daily limit for those who possess a coveted town-issued recreational shellfish license. I tag along as an observer, pointing out harvestable specimens I come across, so it’s a true team effort.
As a chilly, gray dusk began creeping across the flat-calm river, we rinsed the oysters as best we could and worked our way back, taking turns lugging the heavy hod as we carefully climbed the slippery bank. Back at the truck, we doffed our muddy hippers and planted ourselves on the tailgate.
What came next was a ritual we have followed at the culmination of every late-fall oystering excursion. We partook of a wee dram of single-malt scotch, and toasted the charter season that had just finished and the hod of fine oysters.
“And here’s to summer,” Grimard announced, raising his little plastic cup and swirling the single ice cube. “This next one might be the last one, so let there be a next one.” I raised my cup and agreed.
Then silence. Two old guys, far closer to death than birth, sitting in the darkness at the edge of the river, pondering what the future might bring. Then we headed back to the secret parking lot.