Now considered an endangered icon, watermen are intertwined with the unique identity of the Chesapeake Bay, influencing its history, culture, and economy.
Men and women who make a living by fishing, crabbing, and oystering on the Chesapeake Bay are called watermen. The term “waterman” dates as far back as the eleventh century in England. These early English watermen were actually smugglers who used small boats to transport stolen goods across waterways. When the English settled in the Chesapeake Bay, they continued to use that name, applying it to the men who worked in the fishing industry.
Most watermen on the Chesapeake Bay are independent fishermen. They own their own boat and equipment, and they sell the catch to different wholesale seafood houses. Most watermen start their day at sunrise and depending on the catch, may travel several miles to the fishing or harvesting grounds. In the summer they crab, and the spring, fall, and winter they fish for a variety of fishes and eels. The winter months are also oyster season. Throughout the year the watermen fish in all kinds of weather.
Most watermen live in small waterfront communities. In some ways, life in these communities has changed very little through the years. This is especially true of the islands in the Bay, such as Tangier Island and Smith Island. Even the way the watermen talk and the words they use are often different. Sometimes, their speech is a lot like the speech of people in England hundreds of years ago. It can be very much like the speech of the early colonists who first settled the Bay region.
Because the Chesapeake Bay is unique, over the years, watermen have developed special boats to fish with, and with the help of marine scientists, special tools to catch the seafood. Click here to read about the Virginia Deadrise boat.