The commercial bay scallop season began this week in four of the six Island towns. And David A. Searle of Vineyard Haven was in his element.
On Wednesday, he was up at 4 a.m. and down at his 20-foot Midland boat by 6:30 a.m. The 65-year-old scalloper was jubilant at the prospect of a season that may last well into the winter.
"I love it," he said, as he guided his small boat out to a shallow area near the Lagoon Pond drawbridge.
"I love being out in the open, out in the pond. I am free. There is no telephone, no cell phone," Mr. Searle said. He does not even have a marine radio. What if he needs help? "I can holler," he said.
His earliest memories of scalloping go back to when he was 14 and out with his father George Raymond Searle, an Edgartown native, self-employed stone mason and commercial fisherman. Though his father died in 1988, the legacy continues. David Searle uses his father's scallop drags.
The chains and rings that make up the heaviest part of each of the two drags are worn soft and shiny as silver, polished by the sandy bottom. Every pull of the drag brought up hundreds of large-sized scallops.
"Those drags are as old as Methuselah," Mr. Searle said, as his rubber-gloved hands sorted out the largest bivalves on the culling board. "They have been rebuilt four or five times."
The only change in Mr. Searle's technique since his younger years is that he no longer hauls by hand, instead using a winch to pull the chain drags out of the water.
Scalloping is still a way of life for many Vineyarders; it is a small part of the economic engine that drives the community in the winter months, and an even larger part of Island culture and heritage. Every morning while school children wait for the bus, fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers head to the ponds for a day of scalloping. Fishermen greet each other at the dock. They board boats of varying shapes and sizes. Recreational shellfishermen go down into the ponds wearing waders. Peering through glass peep sights, they pick the scallops off the bottom with a small net on a long pole.
For Mr. Searle, bay scalloping is a seasonal ritual in a rapidly changing Island.
"Years ago I could fish anywhere I wanted. Now there are gates, there are chained paths, there are private signs. You can't do a thing. The one thing they haven't taken away is scalloping. They can't take that from the natives," he said. "They've taken everything else."
Mr. Searle looked across the pond and identified many of the boats. There was Ronny Rose, Glenn Dickson and his wife Linda, who are his neighbors. There were more boats on the Oak Bluffs side of the pond. Mornings often begin with a wave or a nod of the head.
Tisbury shellfishermen are prohibited from fishing in Oak Bluffs and Oak Bluffs shellfishermen are not allowed in Tisbury. Hostilities occasionally arise.
Many fishermen remember one morning several years ago when a thick blanket of fog hugged the pond. When the fog cleared, Oak Bluffs scallopers were fishing on the Vineyard Haven side and Vineyard Haven scallopers were on the Oak Bluffs side. Mr. Searle was there.
Harvesting scallops is not Mr. Searle's only work on this day. After fishing, he will spend three to four hours shucking the bay scallops, and hopefully finish by 1:30 p.m. "When you are the one that opens them, you are a little particular what you take," he said. He not only throws the juvenile scallops back into the water, as required, but the small adults as well. "I'll take that one in January," he said, holding a small adult scallop in his hand.
When he had his limit - three level bushels - Mr. Searle headed for home.
"My mother was good at shucking scallops. She was fast. The eye would go in one direction and at the same time the shell would go another. My father scalloped his whole life but he couldn't keep up with her," he said.
Of his own skill, Mr. Searle said: "I'm nothing you write home about. I get by. That is about it."
Scallops fetched as much as $15 a pound at the start of the week. On Tuesday the price dropped to $14 a pound.
Chilmark, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown all saw a fair start to their commercial season this week. Aquinnah opened its recreational season this week; it is unclear whether there will be a commercial season.
Mr. Searle has had many jobs on the Vineyard over the years, from delivering home heating oil to running a glass business.
But he likes being outdoors.
From April to October, Mr. Searle works as an assistant shellfish constable for the town of Tisbury. He sees it as one more way to stay close to the water's edge. But more than anything, he said he'd rather be scalloping.