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Long IslandNassau

Raking the Sound, a day in the life of a clammer

Fisherman Bill Fetzer, of Bayville, prepares to empty

Fisherman Bill Fetzer, of Bayville, prepares to empty a basket of clams onto a cull rack for sorting and counting aboard his boat, The Rolic. He fishes Long Island Sound full time. (July 13, 2010) Credit: Jesse Newman

It's quarter 'til 4 in the morning. Bill Fetzer sinks into an overstuffed living room chair, eyes fixed on the TV screen. "Deadliest Catch," his favorite reality TV show, streams from his DVR.

Ducky, as friends know him, is a clam digger in Oyster Bay. With a breakfast plate of turkey bacon and eggs in hand, he watches as crab fishermen in Alaska risk their lives to haul a living from the Bering Sea.

 By 5:30 a.m. 
He is at the wheel of The Rollic, a 20-foot skiff with a 115-horse motor. The waters of Oyster Bay Harbor are calm and the sky is awash in pale, pastel hues. Checking the winds and tides, Fetzer cuts the motor. He doesn't drop anchor, and just lets the boat drift. He assembles his rake -- 30 feet of aluminum pipe fitted with a steel basket on one end and T-handle on the other -- and begins the circular pulling motion that he has repeated all day long, 300 days a year, for the past 28 years.

Generations ago, when the Atlantic coast was still a wild place, Oyster Bay hamlet was home to hundreds of fishermen and offshore whalers. These days, only a small fraction of that number fish the small harbor.

Over time, the scenery has changed. Fishing boats now sway and bob in the shadow of multimillion-dollar homes, gleaming white recreational sailboats and other signs of prosperity. But commercial fishermen still ply the waters, carrying out a centuries-old tradition and providing a coveted culinary delight.

Fetzer was 19 years old and working at a flower shop when a friend took him for a boat ride amid a fierce winter storm. "The bay was all frozen over. I watched the clam boats breaking ice and it looked like fun, so I thought, that's what I'll do. These waters have been feeding my family ever since." At 14 cents a clam, the days can be long and slow.

By 8 a.m.
Fetzer's T-shirt is soaked with sweat. He pulls the rake through the water with short, hard tugs that grab at clams burrowed in the mud below. When the basket is full, he hoists it skyward and unleashes a waterfall of bivalves onto a cull rack in the stern of his boat. Clams must be sorted by size -- little neck, top neck, cherries and chowders -- and then carefully counted, bagged and tagged for distribution to seafood shops and restaurants across Long Island and into New York City.

He knows when he's found a good spot. "I'm on clams," Fetzer says, wiping his brow and reaching for a Rice Krispies treat. By midmorning, the front of his T-shirt is blackened with mud and his neck is burnt a mean shade of red. Deep crow's-feet mark the corners of his eyes, one of which closes in a perpetual squint, as if surveying the distance.

Years of clamming have taken their toll: Some nights, Fetzer's hands cramp up at the dinner table, and he flexes them before he can eat. The T-handle on his rake bears the imprint of his fingers; they have worn a hole straight through the aluminum pipe in one spot.

But Fetzer can't imagine earning a living any other way. "I have my freedom," he says, gesturing through the salty sea air. "This boat is the state I live in. It's my country, my nation, my world. I'm the mayor here and the treasurer, too. On this boat, I am Oz."

Broken clamshells clutter the floor of his tiny kingdom. The hull is strewn with extra length of pipe and rope, and empty wire baskets await the day's catch.

Around noon
A boat putters over and pulls up alongside. A clammer known as Big Davy offers a slice of watermelon. Fishing can be territorial. Each clam digger works to feed himself and his family and can afford few loyalties. Even so, there's a camaraderie on the water, born of mutual isolation and shared experience.

Frequent phone calls between boats break the monotony of long days. The talk is of weather conditions and gear and who is buying clams for how much. "Weatherman said to expect north-south-east-west winds today," Fetzer calls out, "zero to 50 miles per hour!" Graver matters are touched on briefly, then abandoned, and the subject of family is raised gingerly, if at all.

Fetzer, 47, lives in Bayville with his wife and two teenage daughters. Five years ago, his son died of cancer. Matthew was 10 years old. Losing a child has tormented Fetzer. "Do you know how hard it is to live?" he asks, tossing young clams back into the water. Large tattoos of his children cover Fetzer's back and biceps and, he says, keep Matthew close.

On a good day, digging for clams provides an escape. "It's easier out here than it is on land. Being on the water keeps me distracted from the bottom line."

At 1 p.m.
Dark rain clouds unfurl across the sky. Radio dials are flipped on and forecasts shouted from boat to boat. Fetzer hoists an umbrella in the bow, dons his foul-weather gear and returns his rake to the water.

Before long, chilly sheets of rain come thundering toward the boat, a wet army of silver spears on the march. Suddenly, The Rollic feels smaller; even Fetzer's imposing figure appears to have shrunk amid the endless gray. Dripping wet, he bends over his cull rack, counting: "five, 10, 15, 20."

By late afternoon
The storm has passed. It has been a tough day. When the wind fights the tide, Fetzer takes home fewer clams. He motors slowly into shore, across waters now calm and still. He stretches, winces and is quiet.

A large bird circles overhead, flying carefully behind the sun so that the fish will not detect its shadow. "I'm lucky," he says with a sigh. "I can look at a bird and find peace."

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