On the bay in search of 'black gold'
When Jody King teaches, he likes to show people his hands. They’re working hands, rough and calloused, dark from the sun, and strong from years of raking quahogs in Narragansett Bay.
Jody is a quahoger, or a bullraker, or, as he jokingly refers to himself, a wild harvest bivalve extractor. He makes a living on his boat, Black Gold, by shellfishing for quahogs. He catches four to five thousand clams every week, 12 months a year.
I met Jody outside Pleasure Marina in Oakland Beach on a chilly Sunday morning at 6 a.m. The clouds were spitting and winds were topping out around 14 knots. Jody lives down the street from the marina, so he walks to work. His dog Nosmo King came bounding up to me.
“Good morning,” Jody greeted.
He was wearing a U.S. Foods cap and a turtleneck shirt, with a hook earring, turquoise denim jeans, and knee-high mudder boots. He was smiling, something not uncommon to Jody. He is a man who likes to smile a lot.
After all, he is the perfect example of his oft-repeated mantra, “do what you love and love what you do.”
Soon we were on the boat and off into the fog-covered bay. Nosmo joined us. She had a cozy bed inside the cabin. The sun was just starting to peek through the mist. Patience and Prudence Islands were off to our right as we motored north, and different parts of Warwick peaked out through the fog on our left.
I saw Warwick Neck Lighthouse, and then the arch on Rocky Point. It started to get windy, so I stuck my head back inside the cabin. We bumped along through the waves.
“I don’t know where I’m going yet today,” said Jody. “I usually go to Barrington Beach because that’s where I’ve made my money over the past eight years, but it all depends.”
All depends on Mother Nature, that is. Jody’s wary of the weather. He works in tandem with it. If there is any boss to his work, it’s the winds and the tides and the waves. Jody knows quahogers who have been struck by lightning and killed.
“It’s up to the guy upstairs,” he said.
The wind was getting brutal now. There weren’t many other boats out on the water on a Sunday morning. It had rained heavily the night before, and the gusts were getting so bad that when we eventually got to our spot, just off Barrington Beach, Jody had to drop two anchors to keep us from being dragged ashore.
The rake came out, the depth was measured, and the proper amount of pipe was fitted. Soon, raking commenced. The fog was just starting to lift off the bay, and it was beautiful.
“I have the greatest picture window in the whole world,” Jody said. “For all four seasons.”
He told me in the winter it was magical to arrive at his spot for work, the land still green, and to watch as the snow fell. The land would slowly turn white, even though the ocean around him stayed blue.
<*J>Jody started shellfishing full-time in 1992. He’s 56 years old. He spent time in the Marines after graduating from Pilgrim High School and then graduated from URI in 1984 with two degrees, one in forestry and one in agriculture. He’s the oldest of six. His dad worked in restaurants his entire life, and Jody worked with him too, until he retired and Jody took up quahogging.
Jody’s dad is the one who introduced him to the ocean and the black gold - clams - that she holds.
As we passed Rocky Point, Jody reminisced about days spent there as a kid. Back then Rocky Point still held an amusement park, and it only cost a quarter to get into the pool.
Jody’s had his boat since his second year working as a quahogger. He’s made a number of unique improvements to her over the years, the kind of innovations that he says you won’t see on many other quahogging boats.
He has trim tabs, metal plates on either side of the stern that act like airplane ailerons to steer into and away from waves. One was bent by ice last December when Jody tried to get out of the marina harbor after the Bay froze over.
Jody also has sails, not sails to take him to where the clams are - he has a motor for that - but sails to keep him moving over new mud. One key of being a great quahogger is to make sure your rake is passing over new mud all the time. Go too slow, and you won’t pass through enough mud to get a good rake. Go too fast, and you’ll miss most of the clams or, worse, just pick up the by-catch on the surface of the mud.
Jody uses his sails to adjust his drifting speed. A quarter to half mile of drift every hour is perfect.
We didn’t use the sails the day I was out with Jody. Instead, we used another one of Jody’s innovations, his dual anchors. Most quahogging vessels only have one. With two anchors, Jody is able to keep the boat perpendicular to the incoming waves regardless of the wind’s strength. This way, he can rake over the side of the boat, not at the bow or the stern, regardless of how fast the winds are.
Jody also has a winch to help pull up the rake from the bottom, after it’s been filled with clams. A full rake can weigh up to 150 pounds.
Hard work, but freedom
He also has some innovations for comfort. This particular boat has a larger cabin than most quahogging boats, so Jody can sit when he motors out, and he’s installed Bose speakers.
“What other job has so much freedom?” I asked.
“Thank you for saying freedom and not free time,” said Jody. “Quahogging is hard work.”
Jody is a morning person so he gets up at 4:30 a.m. most days, although that changes depending on the time the sun rises. He eats a breakfast of oatmeal and honey, enough to sustain him until he gets back to shore, which is usually around 11 a.m. He tries to go to bed around 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. every day.
I watched Jody rake. He was an expert, and could rake and talk effortlessly, his hands holding the rake loose and moving in a circular motion, using his core and legs to dig into the mud below. From the tubing came a gentle tapping sound, like white noise, the sound of clams hitting the rake; the sound of money.
We were in 14 feet of water off of Barrington Beach. Jody likes a rake that’s double the depth and 8 feet extra in length, a longer tube than most other quahogers. Jody has half a dozen different rakes on his boat, with varying lengths for the tines and different distances between spikes. In the winter Jody uses longer tines, because the clams are deeper in the mud in the winter.
Eventually, the moment came, and he gave me a chance to ply his trade.
“The rake’s in real good now,” he said. “It’s real deep and getting clams, not on the top with the muck.”
I took the handle and immediately pulled the rake straight out of the mud. I could feel it come free and hang in the water. I was hopeless. I couldn’t rake for the life of me. Jody saw my plight and soon took over.
He didn’t say anything. I like to think he’s used to neophyte guests on his boat.
Twenty minutes later, Jody pulled the first rake of the day to the surface. He let fly a string of expletives not suitable for print. There were about twenty legal clams in the basket, not a good catch by Jody’s standards.
The contents were dumped on a rack that had parallel metal bars set apart by the legal minimum, allowing smaller clams and other debris to fall through to a bin below, which was dumped back into the Bay. Jody has no qualms returning undersized clams.
“I get to see my bank account grow in my Bay,” he said. “Clams have been a guarantee for 25 years because Rhode Islanders have been great stewards.”
Anchors were pulled up, the rake was attached so we could drag it behind the boat, and we motored off to a new spot nearby.
The next rake pulled 100 clams. That’s a good rake for Jody. He aims for around 100 clams an hour.
The clams Jody catches are hard shell clams, known by the scientific name Mercenaria mercenaria.
The smallest ones, which aren’t legal to catch, are called buttons. The next size up is littlenecks, and then after that cherry stones. Those two sizes are the most popular sizes to eat in restaurants, and they catch the biggest price for commercial quahogers. The shellfishermen are paid around a quarter each for these two sizes. The two sizes up after that are top neck and chowder clams. For those clams Jody is paid by the pound, and so makes less money per clam for the bigger clams than the smaller ones.
This system encourages some quahogers to make off with undersized clams.
“We’re self-policing,” said Jody. “But this is a very competitive industry. I would like to see DEM people more often, but I understand they’re short-handed. I wish DEM had more money to dedicate to more patrols.”
After pulling the 100-piece rake, Jody stayed put. We sat in that spot off of Barrington Beach the rest of the morning. Jody raked, pulling out over 50 clams each time, while I helped sort and count. Each bag got 50 littlenecks, while all the top necks and chowders were thrown into a bucket.
The fog started to lift off the Bay and the Barrington coast. Houses that a few hours earlier had been lost in the pea soup came into focus.
<*J>Jody King isn’t only a quahogger. He’s a teacher, and an advocate for the entire Rhode Island shellfishing and marine community. While we talked, I leaned on the cabin of Black Gold.
Jody said, “That’s where Governor Raimondo stood yesterday.”
Jody’s had five governors on his boat, and two mayors, and six senators, and Bobby Flay too.
Bobby Flay was the first famous person to come aboard for the “Taste of the Nation” television series. Jody had to hire a chase boat for the film crew.
The first governor Jody hosted was Lincoln Almond. All Jody did was send him a letter. Jody’s sent every new governor a letter, and all have said yes.
“What’s the worst they could say to me,” said Jody. “No?”
Jody teaches classes for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The free class is called “Come Clam with Me.” Jody has eight workshops over the course of the summer, where he teaches all kinds of people, most of whom have never clammed before, how to catch and cook their own clams. One time he taught over 100 would be clammers.
“I give each person a piece of me as if you were my child,” said Jody. “I give you the knowledge that only dad would give you.”
He also teaches a summer class for the Brown summer program BELL, or Brown Environmental Leadership Labs. In a 14-hour day he calls “The Life of Jody,” he teaches kids from all over the world, from Yugoslavia to the Congo, what his life is all about.
There’s another class he’s taught at Johnson and Wales called “Rake to Plate,” enlightening aspiring chefs to the life of the clam.
Jody said he never thought he’d be a teacher but having done it for so long he says, “Give a person a piece of you and they’ll respond to you. That’s how to teach.”
By the end of our day, around 10:30 a.m., Jody had over 350 clams.
As we motored back to the marina I pointed out two shells on his dashboard. One was a clam with a hole in it, right at the root of the shell, near the hinge. The hole was perfectly circular, like it had been cut by a drill.
“That’s the moon snail,” said Jody, smiling.
He told me how the moon snail attaches itself to the clam, and using its stomach acid and a rasp it drills into the clam’s shell to suck out its flesh.
He gave me the shell, telling me I could teach others about the moon snail too.
The other shell on his boat dash was a curiously shaped clam, maybe bent by a rock, that seemed to be smiling. It was a smiling quahog.
Jody turned grave and looked at me.
He gave the smiling clams to dead friends, he said, placing them in their hands. To some people he gave two smiling clams, one in each hand, so they would have one to give Jody when he joined them.
Smiling clams are very rare.
Jody gave his brother, Tracy, two clams after Tracy died in the Station Nightclub fire in 2003.
Exactly 100 people died in that tragedy, and when Jody checked to see how many smiling clams he had to hand out to the victims, he had 101. Jody placed a smiling clam at the memorial for each victim on the remnants of the nightclub.
Back on the dock Jody handed me a bag of 33 clams, extras on top of the 350 he had caught for his dealer. He gave me his family recipe and a handshake.
That evening I sent him a picture of our meal, before and after. The plate was wiped clean.
“Glad you enjoyed the quahogs!” Jody wrote back. “Empty plate is the biggest compliment. Glad you enjoyed your trip. The next day was way better.”
On that foggy morning, he caught two scallops and 1,050 littlenecks.
Next, he’s going to show me the mussels.