In Sengekontacket Pond in mid-February, there is no competition for shellfish. Kyle L. Peters, 47, of Oak Bluffs had the pond to himself.
Mr. Peters was fishing the flats, tolerating the wind and the cold, working amid drifting ice.
About a quarter mile away, Mr. Peters had an observer. A harbor seal sat on the beach at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary for most of the week. The reclining seal occasionally turned its head to watch Mr. Peters in his distinctly bright orange overcoat.
Sengekontacket Pond is quahaug country. Quahaugs are about the only shellfish doing well in the pond and Mr. Peters knows where they are.
At this time of year, he divides his time between the Oak Bluffs harbor and Sengekontacket.
The loud music from Mr. Peters’s portable radio traveled with the wind, classic rock, the rhythm at times coinciding with the jerky movement of his rake.
“I enjoy it and I am good at it,” Mr. Peters said of his vocation. Five days a week, he gets out on the pond, either in his boat or out wading. The day starts early on the water, usually around 8 a.m. He is done by 4 p.m.
There are other seasons in Mr. Peters’s life. From spring to fall, he and his wife Melissa run a painting business called KP Painting and Power Washing.
But when the noontime sun is lower in the sky and the air is cooler, his thoughts shift to the town ponds.
When the time is right, he puts his paint brushes away for the winter and takes out pairs of new thick rubber gloves. In October, he pulls out his gear and heads for the ponds to go bay scalloping. This fall he and his wife fished Lagoon Pond with about a half dozen other shellfishermen.
“Oak Bluffs wasn’t that good this winter, about as good as last year,” he said.
When January arrived, he shifted from bay scallops to quahaugging. For him it is the perfect way to bridge late winter to early spring.
“With bay scallops, the fishery closes when the temperature drops to 28 degrees or below,” Mr. Peters said. “You can fish for quahaugs year-round and at any temperature.”
A frozen pond won’t stop him. It has been a while, but Mr. Peters once quahaugged when the harbor was frozen over with a thick sheet of ice. To reach the hardshell clams buried deep in the muddy bottom, he cut holes in the ice.
Mr. Peters likes the familiar. He uses the same 20-foot skiff today he got when he was 18. For many years, he fished with his Chesapeake labrador retriever Brownie. Now he and his wife Melissa have two French bulldogs: one named Piper, three years old, and Sidney, a one-year old. In this mid-February week, his companion was the radio.
His boat is rigged for business. A floating black canvas offers shelter if he needs an escape from windblown rain.
The boat spends nights in its trailer in his driveway.
“In 1987, it was vandalized,” he said. “So I take the boat home every night where it is safe.” He launches the boat every morning and brings it home every night.
Mr. Peters began quahaugging when he was a teenager. The manner in which he fishes isn’t easy. It is called bull raking and involves a long pole with a T attached at one end and the rake at the other. The pole gets longer for deep water, shorter for shallow water.
The work is backbreaking for the inexperienced. His work itself is a performance, for quahaugging effectively is an art form.
He sets the rake into the soft sand and pulls and pushes the pole, pulling slightly more than pushing so that the rake moves towards him, collecting the shellfish beneath.
His work is long and arduous.
“That is why they call it bull raking,” he said.
It is also rough on his gear. He usually gets two years out of a pair of waders or an orange Grunden rain and weather jacket.
“The waders usually last two years if I don’t step on a piece of broken glass,” he said. He fishes with six dry pairs of gloves, changing them whenever they are wet and cold.
In Oak Bluffs, the daily commercial fishing limit is one bushel of littlenecks, one bushel of cherries and one bushel of chowders. That is about 240 pounds of shellfish. Mr. Peters tries to reach the limit, although there are times when he doesn’t.
Quahaugs are marketed in three sizes.
Littlenecks are the smallest and they measure an inch in thickness and are about two and a half inches in length. They are popular raw and some think they have the sweetest taste.
Medium-sized quahaugs are called cherrystones and they measure from two and a half to three inches in length. Cherries, as they are also called, are good raw, in soups or stuffed in their shell.
Anything bigger than a cherrystone is a chowder clam. Chowders are tougher and are often chopped up for soups and chowders.
Mr. Peters ships his quahaugs to markets in New Bedford, where he said his lineup of customers will take whatever he can find.
“These quahaugs are native,” he said. “They are Martha’s Vineyard quahaugs so they go everywhere, New York and Boston,” Mr. Peters said.
He also sells to Louis Larsen of the Net Result in Vineyard Haven.
“He definitely is a hard worker,” Mr. Larsen said.
Both Mr. Peters and Mr. Larsen say the price fishermen get for wild quahaugs isn’t what it used to be.
“We used to ship a lot to the mainland,” Mr. Larsen said. “Up until about five years ago it used to be the biggest item we shipped year-round. It was our biggest export item, shellfish-wise.”
Today more and more cultured quahaugs are entering the market raised by farmers.
“Cultured quahaugs are aalmost cookie-cutter in size and shape,” Mr. Larsen said. “You get what you want when you purchase what is farmed.”
The Oak Bluffs harbor has long been closed to shellfishing in the summer. Last summer Sengekontacket Pond was also closed in the summer due to high bacteria levels.
The summer closure doesn’t bother Mr. Peters, because he paints in the summer.
Despite the changing times, Mr. Peters says he still can make a day’s pay out of the wild fishery.
“What are you going to do?” he asked. It is a rhetorical question for a man who has shellfished his whole life. Who would want to do anything else?
As about the only shellfisherman on the pond this month, the scene offers serenity. Mr. Peters said he spends a lot of the time just thinking, thinking about where he will dig next, or what he’ll do when he comes ashore.