Oysters you harvest yourself taste much sweeter

Harvesting oysters can be back-breaking work.

Everyone who lives in and enjoys the Lowcountry outdoors should make it a point to gather their own oysters for an oyster roast at least once. If nothing else, it will help you appreciate what commercial oystermen go through to supply the local seafood dealers.

It’s muddy. It’s strenuous. You can cut yourself if you’re not careful. But it’s fun. Then you get to take them home, clean the pluff mud off and steam them over a propane cooker or, if you’re really old school, build a hot wood fire, throw them on a thick piece of steel and cover them in wet burlap until the shells pop open.

Yum!

Sure, all things considered, it’s probably cheaper to go to the local seafood market. But you don’t build those lifetime memories driving down Savannah Highway to the seafood market.

“I pull oysters several times a year, mostly if I have some friends wanting to get together,” said Capt. John Fuss of Holy City Fishing Charters. “It takes longer to get the boat rigged up and go out there than it does to get your legal limit. But it’s a great way to enjoy the fall and a heck of a way to do something a little different.”

Fuss said some of his fondest memories of pulling oysters were with his late friend Russ Broward.

“We would always stop and go sheepshead fishing along the low tide. Then we would pull our oysters and eat them (raw) on the side of the rivers during slack water,” he said.

“It’s a memorable Lowcountry experience to take in. In that same morning you can go fishing, catch crabs, pull oysters and enjoy them all.”

Gathering your own oysters can be a great family activity, although not with rambunctious young children. Oyster shells are razor sharp and an oyster cut can easily lead to a nasty infection. But pulling oysters with teenagers can be a delightful way to spend quality time outdoors. Fuss said you can also drop your family members off on a nearby beach and “let them hang out while you knock out a bushel of oysters. I’ve done that more than once. It works out real well.”

Picking your own oysters is a big deal to some people, said Nancy Hadley, shellfish program manager for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

“There are a lot of people who have their whole lives gone and gotten their own oysters. For somebody who does that, the oysters that you pick are so much better than anything you’re going to buy,” Hadley said.

For recreational oyster harvesters, the state maintains 20 Public Shellfish Grounds (recreational users only) and nine State Shellfish Grounds (open to recreational and commercial use), a total of 273 acres of intertidal oysters on 15,785 acres of coastal tidelines. The harvesting season generally runs from Oct. 1-May 15, although dates can vary. You are required to have a $10 recreational saltwater fishing license and are entitled to gather two bushels of oysters per day no more than two days per week. A handful are accessible without a boat, including one at the Folly River (S201) Bridge, but a boat is required to access most of the grounds.

If you take a lot of pride in your boat, then harvesting your own oysters is probably not for you. A beat-up johnboat or flat-bottom skiff works well but expect scratches and scrapes.

“Any shallow-draft boat you are not afraid to put a character mark on,” Fuss suggested. Other necessities include a couple of 5-gallon buckets (according to DNR, a 5-gallon bucket equates to approximately one bushel) and a large, flat blade screwdriver or something similar to pry the clusters loose.

Wear clothing that won’t break your heart if you decide it’s better to discard than try and clean. Wear a pair of heavy rubber boats to protect your feet and bring along a pair of leather gloves.

“The first time I pulled oysters I did not bring gloves with me and I was a mess when I got back. It was interesting, to say the least,” Fuss said.

Most importantly, make sure you carry a current map that shows the Public and State Shellfish Grounds. Commercial harvesters do not take kindly to having their leases poached. Maps can be found at dnr.sc.gov/marine/shellfish.

Fuss said he likes to find small beds that are on either side of a creek feeding into a larger body of water. If you can get your boat inside the feeder creek, he said you will find more beds, usually smaller but with bigger oysters that are much easier to pick.

“The closer you can pull up to the oysters with the bow of your boat, the less distance you have to carry those suckers. Another reason I like creek points is you can go ahead and pull your bushel basically sitting on the bow of your boat,” he said.

Once you’ve consumed the oysters you gathered, don’t simply toss them in the trash. DNR has numerous recycling locations where the shells can be used to reseed area shellfish grounds. DNR offers the South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement (SCORE) program, and these recycled shells help provide a surface for new oysters to attach and grow.

Oysters are filter feeders that can process more than 50 gallons of water during a 24-hour period.

When oysters spawn, the larvae are released into the water column and are free swimming for a couple of weeks, said Ben Dyar of DNR. They then settle out, and where they land determines their future. If they land in a soft substrate, they probably die, but if they find a hard surface such as concrete, wood or, better yet, an oyster shell, they survive. And in two to three years, they mature into oysters that are a harvestable size.

“All the recycled shell we use is put back in locations that are accessible by the public,” Dyar said.

DNR began an oyster recycling program in 1999. The program now has 27 locations listed on the DNR website (saltwaterfishing.sc.gov/oyster.html).

Oysters also serve as reefs, attracting small crabs, shrimp and minnows, which in turn attract desirable fish species such as redfish, trout, flounder and sheepshead.

In the case of gathering your own oysters, it’s a case of what comes around goes around. Harvest, eat, recycle and then in a few years, harvest again. TL