We’re still eating leftover Thanksgiving turkey and here it is, time for Christmas. It’s time for a change in our holiday diet. How about some good Eastern North Carolina oysters fresh from the waters of our sounds?
For many Tar Heels the holidays are a time for getting into the out-of-doors. Some hunting seasons have been open for months now and the fall fishing couldn’t be much better. With the long overdue colder weather bearing down on us, it’s time to think about warm clothing and waterfowl hunting.
Of all the winter outdoor sports that I know of, hunting ducks and geese has to be one of the coldest sports around. After a day spent slogging around in the marshes or in the swamps, breaking ice with our boots and suffering extremities that are so cold that they’re numb, it’s really nice to return to a warm kitchen and sit down to a supper that begins with a big bowl of oyster stew. I’m not talking about the watered-down northern version of oyster stew; I’m referring to our eastern North Carolina oyster stew that’s concocted using whole milk, lots of fresh oysters, some crackers all served with a dollop of butter floating momentarily around on top. That’s the kind of oyster stew that sticks to your ribs and goes a long way toward restoring some feeling to those frostbitten fingers and toes.
If you are like some of us waterfowlers that go out for diving ducks on our coastal rivers and sounds, you might have gathered some of those oysters that you’re eating during a break from scanning the skies looking for approaching birds. You could have gotten those Christmas oysters at a nearby commercial seafood dealer’s store but, if you’re out there in oyster country anyway, why not take a break from the hunting and gather your own oysters?
Many outdoorsmen probably don’t realize it but there are special regulations from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries that allows the recreational taking of oysters by anyone with the know how to do this. Should you be inclined to try your hand at catching your own oysters, there are some rather unique rules that the recreational oysterman needs to know.
First of all, you are not required to have any licenses. Both residents and non-residents who wish to harvest oysters recreationally in our state can take up to one bushel of oysters a day without having to purchase a special license. This daily limit allows up to two bushels per boat per day if there are other individuals on the boat.
All recreational oystering is to be carried out by hand methods only. This means that no mechanical methods such as dredges, mechanical (patent) tongs or a dredge being pulled by non-mechanical means. Basically, the recreational taking our oysters in North Carolina must be accomplished by picking them up by hand, with a hand rake or with the aid of hand-operated tongs.
Hand tongs are available for about $65 for an eight-inch, four-tined, stainless steel set of jaws and this does not include the handles that are attached to the tongs.
Some oysters are available to harvest by hand in tidal waters where the oysters are exposed during the low tide. You simply bend over, pick the oysters up, check the size, break the smaller oysters off the clump and keep the legal oysters. In waters a couple of feet deep, a simple garden rake is used while the tongs are usually used to harvest the oysters in water that is deep.
The size rule on oysters in North Carolina is that they must be at least three inches across measured from the oyster’s lip to its hinge.
The average number of oysters in a bushel basket is about 85 to 105, depending on the average size of the oyster and the way they’re stacked in the basket. A true five-gallon bucket filled (not stacked above the rim of the bucket) equals a half-bushel. One bushel of oysters should make quite a nice meal for the average family or group of hunters.
Recreational oystering must take place during the regular oyster season that is usually open from Oct. 15 through March 30 every year depending on the proclamations of the DMF. The opening and closing of the season is determined by several things that include the sanitary conditions of the water where the oysters are harvested and the cumulative amount of oysters that can be taken every season without harming the overall population of this shellfish.
Probably the trickiest part of taking oysters recreationally is keeping up with what areas are open to the recreational oysterman. In general, any oyster ground that is open to commercial oystering is also open to recreational oystering. There is an exception in that there are a few privately leased oyster beds that are closed to recreational oystering.
Even though commercial oystermen are limited to harvesting oysters during certain hours and days of the week, recreational oystering can take place seven days a week during daylight hours.
Oysters harvested by recreational methods are not required to display a shipping tag that the DMF supplies to insure that the oysters were taken from approved waters. If one wishes to buy in-the-shell oysters, they are cautioned to examine the shipping tag that each bushel of oysters taken commercially must display. The NCDMF cautions people not to buy “bootleg” oysters that do not have the necessary paperwork displayed proving that they were taken from approved waters.
Recreational oystermen are not allowed to sell their catch of oysters and therefore are not required to display a shipping tag.
If you might be thinking about trying to catch your Christmas oysters recreationally, it pays to go the NCDMF website at ncdmf.com and carefully check the latest NCDMF proclamations having to do with the approved (or closed) areas for the taking of shellfish. Such proclamations may change rapidly after an unusually heavy rain or accidental dumping of some pollution into the water.