I woke at dawn thinking I was going quahogging, but stepping onto a boat in Bristol harbor at 7am, it turned out that it was a day for conching.
I had volunteered as an extra pair of (inquisitive) hands for a morning of conching with a father and daughter shell fishing team on their normal morning route. Wiping sleep from my eyes as I crossed the dock towards the boat, one thought came to mind: I definitely wasn’t dressed for the occasion.
From my small suitcase I’d pulled a pair of casual jeans, plain t-shirt, and hooded zip-up in case the morning breeze was chilly. Experienced shell fisher-woman Katie took one look at my shoes — a pair of flat leather boots (with good, sturdy soles, I proclaimed!) — and hinted, “I think I have an extra pair of rubber boots somewhere around here..”
I was in Bristol researching a story for New York magazine on the artisanal side of this Rhode Island town, and thought taking a look at the excellent local seafood at the source might be a fun excursion. Now properly attired, we set off from shore. The morning was warm and clear, ideal for a gentle sail. “Wow you are lucky,” Katie declared. “This is a great day to see a shell fishing boat — but we’re out here at 7am on winter days too. Only when the weather is really bad does it force us inside.”
I asked about the day’s chores. After establishing that we were conching and not quahogging, I was told that we would be pulling up cages that had been dropped a couple days prior with bait bags to lure the conch. We would separate the conch from anything else — crabs, etc — in the cage, add a new bait bag, and then the cages would be strategically dropped back into the water with the help of an impressive pulley system. This process of pulling up the cages and dropping them back was completed three times before 9am.
In between we sipped on coffee and squinted against the sun, talking about local oysters, an electricity-free island where locals go to escape, and what there is to do for young people in town. We talked about the hiking trails and farmers market at the historic Mount Hope Farm and an Irish pub called Aiden’s where many locals gather to sip a brew. Fishing is in the blood of the Eagan’s, with life on the water extending a few generations back. But times had changed, too. Katie went to school to study Marine Policy and was incredibly knowledgeable on the obstacles and current state of affairs of shell fishing in Rhode Island and beyond.
With a pair of thick rubber gloves we prepared bait bags and separated the conch into plastic tubs. We talked about local lobster, mussels, and of course, clams and quahogs. As the sun began to heat up, I realized why the crew had gotten started so early. Around 9am I asked, perhaps foolishly, “What do you do in the afternoon, after your morning run?” (I knew I was being dropped back at the dock, where we began.)
Katie replied, “This is our day. We’ll drop you off, and then it’s back to conching. We’ll finish up around 3pm, and then drop off the product. Then we do it all over again tomorrow.”
Like a chef that must prepare his signature dishes every night to make a career of cooking, this shell fishing team is out on the water in Rhode Island most days of the week. I’m thrilled they let me experience a slice of it. Next time I pick up a conch fritter, I’ll have a whole new perspective on what’s inside.
All photos from the personal collection of Jessica Colley.