Driving Tours: Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network

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Watermen make their living harvesting the Bay’s finfish, shellfish, eels and crabs. Independent and self-employed, they own their boats and choose their catch. It’s a tough, physically demanding way of life, and it’s been going on for hundreds of years.

Watermen fishing a pound net - photo by A Aubrey Bodine courtesy the Mariner's Museum
Watermen fish a pound net. Photo by A Aubrey
Bodine - courtesy the Mariner's Museum

Their profession is as diverse as the Bay’s species. There are pound netters, crabbers (soft-shells and hard-shells, employing completely different techniques and gear), oyster dredgers, hand-tongers, gill-netters, clammers. Over generations, they have developed boat designs, gear and fishing methods unique to the Chesapeake.

Most work year-round, modifying their equipment to follow the seasons. In summer they may set hundreds of crab pots, every day checking, baiting and resetting them. In winter, they’ll install patent tongs for oystering. In fall and spring they may go after eels or finfish.

Many start working as youngsters helping their fathers or uncles. Most find they can’t bear to leave the freedom of the water for anything else. But that’s changing.

Watermen of the Chesapeake
Watermen on the Chesapeake. Photo by A Aubrey
Bodine - courtesy the Mariner's Museum
What once was a relatively open fishery is now tightly regulated by Virginia, Maryland and in some cases the federal government. Disease and overharvesting have devastated the oyster beds. Prices for some fish are too low to make fishing a break-even proposition, let alone a profitable one. Many watermen are leaving the water, finding part-time jobs on land to supplement their income, or trying new ways like aquaculture.

Perhaps no image of the Chesapeake Bay is more enduring than that of a waterman heading into the sunrise, the sharp bow of his bright white workboat slicing the glimmering water, his radio blaring as he listens to his friends discuss the day’s work ahead. Living in small, tightly knit waterfront communities, these men (and a few women) help define the very essence of the Chesapeake. A Bay without watermen would be diminished, a place without a part of its soul.

Watermen in the Southern Bay
This tour visits three sites in the lower half of the Chesapeake to explore the history of the men who followed the menhaden fishery, the culture of traditional Virginia watermen, and an island community built around the watermen’s life.

Watermen in the Middle Bay
This tour takes visitors to three sites where they can learn about oyster dredgers and the oystering industry, visit the 1860s home of a buyboat captain, and learn about a waterman’s neighborhood that thrived until the 1960s.

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