Times change anglers, too: James Island crabber also deals in clams, oysters, shrimp
They call it "speed boat shrimping" running a skiff with the hull planing, dragging a shorter net than the big, outrigger-winged shrimp boats use. It might be the future. Fred Dockery might be the vanguard.
Ask him and he shrugs.
"Well, it's hard to say what the future is. All you can do is try something, see if it works, and if it doesn't work you try something else."
Dockery is all about that. The James Island commercial shell fisherman thinks of himself primarily as a crabber, but he moves from clams to crabs to oysters to shrimp as season, demand and supply dictate.
He doesn't pull in the industrial- size catches of bigger boats. He sells freshness rather than quantity. He catches mostly inshore. He sells locally.
And he makes a living in a business where more and more of the boats are tied off each year. How did Dockery develop this against-the-grain technique in the tradition- laden world of Lowcountry commercial fishing? By accident.
Nets on the horizon and fresh catch at the dock are birthrights of the South Carolina coast, as authentic as the smell of pluff mud.
Today, commercial boats and seafood docks are disappearing, replaced by yacht basins and condominiums. The few remaining captains struggle to catch enough to pay the escalating prices of fuel and dock space, competing against an onslaught of cheaper, foreign, farm-raised products.
Analysts say the future of the industry is niche markets, and a few anglers are moving that way.
Wayne Magwood, of the iconic Mount Pleasant shrimping family, has converted part of his dock space to dry storage for recreational boaters. Instead of selling wholesale, he is pursuing higher-profile dock sales, delivery and online ordering.
Snapper and grouper fisherman Mark Marhefka has opened Abundant Seafood, specializing in custom fishing for restaurants and customers who purchase shares of future catches rather than the individual fish at the dock.
Dockery became one of those entrepreneurs when he lost his job when the Atlantic Littleneck Clam Farm on Sol Legare Creek went bankrupt in the mid-1990s.
Dockery, 46, is laid back, good-natured. The boat in his driveway shares space with the kids' bikes. He picks away at blues on an acoustic guitar, gets a dreamy look in his eyes when he talks about what he does.
The sea is in his blood, something his Portuguese mother always has attributed to his heritage.
He has shellfished for a living most of his adult life. When he worked jobs on land, he would get a queasy stomach watching anglers out in the water.
"I don't know, it's boats. Boats are a big part of it. Wide open spaces. Even when I was little, if I saw boats I wanted to be on that side rather than on this side watching. It's emotional, not rational," he said.
"Every now and then, I just stop, look up from what I'm doing and realize where I am. It's a pretty special place to be."
He was teaching environmental science when a roommate offered him a spot on a commercial clamming boat in the seas off Connecticut. There weren't cell phones and few boats carried satellite communications, so the point-of-contact with his wife, Catherine, was "the Sea Horse," an old man in a wheelchair who kept up radio communications with the boats.
When storms blew up and she grew worried, she would go to the Sea Horse and see if Fred's boat could be raised. It was no way to live.
When the Atlantic farm operation started up, Dockery took the job. When he was laid off, he turned to oystering, then clamming when the season ended.
He started slowly, pulling in only two or three bushels of crabs after setting out 80 or so traps and finding he didn't have enough to divide between the two seafood stores that bought from him.
"It was a little unnerving," he said. Meanwhile, a sudden drop in the crab catch early in the decade had goaded a turf war among crabbers. Crabs were stolen from pots, and the pots' float lines were cut.
Crabbers would flood an area, setting traps all around another crabber's line of traps to deplete the catch and drive him off.
On one trip, Dockery pulled emptied pots one after the other. He pulled the last one, found it and the crabs inside stomped flat. His pots were found drifting with the lines cut in the ocean surf, the surface floats set inside. He persisted.
In 2005 he decided to try shrimping, too. Not knowing any better, he bought a 16-foot net and dragged it behind a 16-foot jon boat because "I knew how to trawl." He figured if it worked, he'd get a few more nets. It didn't.
Shrimper Neal Cooksey took pity, brought him around behind the home of Cooksey's mother and sold him an old, 30-foot drag net that had seedlings growing through the mesh.
Cooksey also sold him a tickler chain a piece of equipment Dockery didn't know about. It's dragged along in front of the net to stir shrimp off the bottom.
The first day he went out with the new net, he caught so many shrimp he ran out of coolers and ice. He got back to the dock, was asked how he did and realized he didn't know. He didn't know how many shrimp he should be catching.
Dockery likes the rawness to the business. He'll stay out long hours to make his living, and launch in weather that only the Coast Guard comes out there to check on him.
"It's not very lucrative," he said, "but there's nobody telling you to go home." He has crabbed in winds so bad that one time the roaring swells came over the stern and sunk his boat at the landing. He has to keep an eye on shifting thunderstorms.
When he threw his back out hauling a shrimp net, he put a scare in the family. There's no retirement plan for a fisherman. Catherine works to bring in benefits and build a retirement savings account. They have two daughters and a son. They both know Fred is not getting any younger.
"We've had that discussion a lot," Catherine said. But at least once a week, she goes out with him. "It's wonderful to be on the water. It's a hard thing to say, 'Don't do it.'"
He keeps innovating, using crab pots and bamboo stakes to grow oysters. He bought a diesel engine to use bio-fuel, and found the burning fuel smelled like roasting chicken, giving him constant hunger pangs. He's now trying to process his own bio-fuel from the household's used motor and cooking oil.
Crab pots still get robbed regularly. Some new boaters are dumbfounded to learn that the pots aren't public. But Dockery pulled one pot with a $5 bill and two beers inside, re-baited with a fin fisherman's mullet bait. There were even a few crabs.
The waters are crowding with boats as the Lowcountry population grows.
"The bottom line is, there's a lot of pressure on a limited area," Dockery said. Private docks line the tidal river banks. Marina docks now cater to more lucrative, yacht-sized recreational vessels and their deep-pocket owners.
At one marina where Dockery has stopped occasionally for years, he was taken aback recently when two white- uniformed dock workers came down like valets to tie off his boat.
"It's scary. There's a lot of change," he said. "People have to start to care about what it's like out there.
"You can't stop progress, but I really think you could slow it down because I think maybe in hindsight, we're going to look back and think, if we had done it a little slower, we could have preserved the beauty a little more."