Categorized | Our Town

Patron Saint of Oysters

Posted on 05 August 2011

by Jim Marquardt

In bygone days, we always had a sticky jar of English marmalade in the back of the kitchen cabinet that was labeled in ornate type, “By appointment to her Majesty the Queen.” On that basis it would be fair for Howard Pickerell to stamp his oysters, “By appointment to the American Hotel.” When asked about the Pickerell oysters featured on his menu, Ted Conklin, proprietor of Sag Harbor’s landmark hostelry, said “Howard Pickerell is the patron saint of Peconic Bay oysters. We love him.” Tom Allnoch, manager at the Main Street hotel and restaurant, claims there are no better oysters, that they have a “friendly” taste, even aphrodisiac powers “if you believe in such a thing.”

One reason for such gustatory acclaim is the freshness of the bivalves that Pickerell supplies.

“They call me in the morning,” says Howard. “I go out on Little Peconic Bay, select oysters that are at their peak, and deliver them the same day.”

It’s not surprising that Pickerell works 10 and 12 hour shifts during the busy season. He grows the oysters from an infant stage, called spat, coddles them in plastic mesh cages he refers to as “bags,” then regularly cleans and tends them until they’re ready for harvesting. Now and then he vigorously shakes the bags to break off the oysters’ feather edges to make them fatter.

With diligent care, Pickerell’s oysters reach marketable maturity in 18 months rather than the normal two or three years. Each bag that Howard tends may have a mix of 250 oysters at various stages of growth.

To keep up with demand from the American Hotel and other top restaurants like Pierre’s in Bridgehampton and Coast Grille in Noyac, Howard purchases 300,000 spat every year from hatcheries in Southold and Islip. Nature is cruel and a large percent of the spat do not survive, succumbing to predators, smothering or freezing. (Howard’s son, Chris, is a marine biologist currently working with Cornell to promote growth of eel grass which provides a natural nursery for many kinds of shellfish.)

Even healthy, adolescent oysters can be killed by oyster drills, tiny predatory sea snails that, second to sea stars, are the bane of oystering. Only an inch or so long, they latch on and bore a neat, round hole in the shells of young oysters and consume them. Last year, Howard says he removed as many as 50 drills every day from his string of bags.

According to Biomes Marine Biology Center, oyster drills and sea stars don’t like low salinity water, and, perhaps due to heavy rains that brought an abundance of fresh water to the bays, the problem isn’t as great this year. Howard says Little Peconic Bay’s ideal growing conditions encourage oysters to mature more rapidly. The waters are rich with nutrients for them to feed on.

Fifty years ago, dredge boats from Connecticut brought young oysters to the Peconics to help them grow faster, like taking the kids to summer camp. Last year several streaks of red tide crept into the bay, but they didn’t affect Howard’s crop. Strangely, even though oysters thrive and grow faster in the bay, they don’t reproduce there which is why hatcheries are needed to induce spawning. Howard worries that population growth has increased run-off of toxins into the bays, and strongly supports efforts to monitor and protect the Peconic Estuary.     

A year and a half ago Pickerell underwent a quintuple bypass operation at St. Francis Hospital in Port Washington. They told him he couldn’t leave the hospital until he was able to walk unassisted down the hall and back. For a man who’s made a living in the outdoors since he was 16, confinement to a bed was unacceptable and Howard got out in three days. Not long after, he again was lifting 80-pound bags from the water.

The 67-year old bayman is in perpetual motion. This year he’s entering an outboard hydroplane he built of mahogany and fiberglass in several races on a Connecticut reservoir. Oystering now keeps him too busy for more frequent racing, but years ago he beat more than 100 competitors to win the national championship for A-stock hydroplanes, and in 2005 he took first place at a regional meet in Standish, Maine. Pickerell says he achieves higher speeds by ”remanufacturing” his engine and propellers.

Howard also is renowned among other baymen for the rugged workboats he builds at his home in Water Mill. His stable, open “garveys” feature a blunt bow, progressive vee-bottom, and low freeboard to make it easier to haul aboard shellfish. He says, “George Washington crossed the Delaware in a garvey. That’s why he could stand up without tipping the boat. But it wasn’t one of mine.”

Pickerell has worked Long Island waters for 60 years. While still a youngster, he built his own clam boat, studied diesel engines, and later took a night course in aquaculture, which helps him read bathymetric maps of Long Island waters. Over the years he’s built some 550 boats, more than half of them garveys for clammers in Great South Bay when clams were abundant there. In Alaska a tough, 18-foot Pickerell garvey salvaged logs that broke away from logging rafts being floated to sawmills, earning $100 each for the man who lassoed them. He also builds down-east style boats from 24 to 32 feet. One served as a dive boat in Antigua, another tended telephone lines in Casco Bay, Maine. They’ve become popular too as “picnic” boats, admired for their salty resemblance to Maine lobster boats.

Howard brings us back to the days before Sag Harbor became a Hampton’s attraction, when the Peconics were afloat more with workboats than luxury yachts. Next time you slurp a dozen local oysters, think of Howard Pickerell and other baymen who were here long before most of us, making a living on the water through hard work and ingenuity, and lending our village an authenticity that charms everyone who comes to visit.

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