Week 13. Billy Rice: Representing the Maryland Waterman
Billy Rice has seen just about everything there is to see on the Bay. For nearly five decades, Billy has worked on the water in southern Maryland, crabbing, oystering, fishing for rockfish and eels, and guiding for waterfowl. He's seen the booms and busts, and witnessed long-term changes in the market. He has also helped set the commercial seasons and quotas as chairman of the Tidal Fish Advisory Commission and guided the industry as an officer of the Maryland Waterman’s Association.
Billy spends all 52 weeks of the year on the water on his 24-foot Chesapeake classic Miss Jill, and sees first-hand every morning which fish and fowl are moving up and down the Bay. He does pay attention to the recreational anglers and listens to the state biologists, but those folks actually have much more to learn from him and turn to him when it's time to manage the Bay's fisheries.
I caught up with Billy on a November evening to hear more about his business and how the Chesapeake fishing industry has changed over the years. My questions are in bold below, followed by Billy's answers.
How long have you been working on the water, and what do you mainly fish for ?
I began my career working on the water when I was 10 years old, and then full-time after I graduated high school in 1973. When I started working, oysters were our #1 money maker, followed by striped bass and white perch, and then followed by blue crab. Today it’s the opposite — blue crab are our #1 money makers, followed by stripers and then oysters.
All told, I have 40 years on the water working full time, and I’ve really harvested everything that swims in the Bay and whatever the market demands. I’ve even harvested snapping turtles and trapped muskrat — everything that Maryland has to offer in the Bay except for clams.
Oddly enough, we have a robust blue catfish fishery emerging in the Potomac that has turned into a real money maker and helps at filling in the gaps between seasons. The market is good for blue catfish, and it’s great on the table. My son does it almost full-time, and that’s some that we didn’t have when I was younger.
In many ways you speak for the commercial waterman — what are some of the Boards and Commissions you serve on?
I’m the chair of the Tidal Fish Advisory Commission, which is a commission of commercial watermen that advises the Director of Fisheries Service, which reports to the Governor.
I used to be an officer with the Maryland Waterman’s Association, but it really took up a lot of time, and I backed out and let someone else else handled it.
I’m also a senior officer and the second longest-serving commissioner on Potomac River Fisheries Commission. We have four members from Maryland and four members from Virginia, and set rules and regulations for fish and shellfish.
For better or worse, I find myself having to weigh in on issues that effect our fisheries and a number of different stakeholders. Some of my peers aren’t always singing our praises but you gotta consider not just commerce, but also the recreational angler, the resource, the consumer — it’s not as easy as picking among A, B, C, or D.
What are your major commercial seasons? What is a "year in the life" look like for Billy Rice, and what are some of the seasonal changes that you look for and anticipate?
In April we’ll start getting crab pots rigged up, and around Mothers Day’s, I’ll switch over to crabbing. We'll crab from early May to right up through Thanksgiving. Blue crab will be the main seafood we’re after all summer and we’ll keep the pots out until mid- to late-November — we’re actually still crabbing right now.
In terms of anticipating the season, I put a lot of stock in the winter survey and find it pretty reliable. But there are also a lot of variables that can influence the success of a crabbing year — things like a lot of rainfall vs. not enough, or an influx of croaker or other prey that might eat up crabs.
Also, in the fall, I know what I’m putting back that isn’t quite ready. If I’m seeing a lot of sub-legal crabs in the fall and we have a mild winter, I know it’s going to be a good spring. Also if we’re putting quite a few back and we have a good cold blast, we want to make sure that they hurry up toward Virginia and migrate, so that they don’t go too far and are back within our grasp earlier in the spring.
After I’m done with crabbing, I’ll move to striped bass and fish for that all through the winter. Striped bass is regulated by a quota, not a season, so if we hit our quota, we’re done early.
I know if it’s going to be a good gill-net season by watching the recreation fishermen. Right now, the recreational fishermen are doing extremely well, and catching a lot of fish in the 22-30” range. It looks like we have a good population, and if the weather holds and they want to stay, we’ll have a good season. Watching the recreational fishermen, I can also decide on what size of gill net to set out. If it’s too small, they’ll bounce off it and go around. If it’s too big, they’ll go through. The legal size is 5-7” of stretch mesh webbing measured from the corners, and I find that 6.25” is a happy medium. I find that 6-8 lb. fish are a good target and what the market really demands.
What is one of one of the advantages of fishing in southern Maryland where you are located near the confluence of the Potomac and the Bay?
Where we are located is about mid-stream in the Bay, and we’re a happy medium when it comes to salinity. If we have a really dry year, we do fairly well. If we have a really wet year, we still do fairly well.
But the other important thing is that watermen don’t really stay home in their particular region like they used to — we travel. We will fish for catfish all the way up the Potomac to Mt. Vernon and Ft. Washington if that’s where the fish are.
Have you seen any big changes in your decades on the water?
So many things have changed, but a big one that jumps out is the marketing of our catch. When I first got into the seafood industry, we worked on volume and got much lower prices. We used to sell a bushel of oysters for $4, but you could catch 25 bushels a day, or up to 75 bushels per day with three men on the boat, and we did it regularly. Today, you can sell oysters off the boat for $45-50 per bushel, but might only get 6-8 bushels per man.
Same with crabs. We would get $10-12 per basket, and now it’s $140 per basket but there’s fewer to go around. At the same time, the cost of crabbing has gone way up. A crab pot used to cost me $3, and now the pots that I’m rigging up this winter are $22.50 a piece, or $40 with all of the wire, ropes, and corks.
Also, the table trade for crabs is really where it’s at these days, and the market now demands big, fat, happy #1’s. We don’t worry too much about competition from other places, because if we can provide the supply, there is a good market demand all year. Our Chesapeake seafood is so high quality that our local customers will pay for it.
Any favorite recipes?
I’ll really eat any fish that swims! I know you’re not supposed to, but just about any fish is good fried too. We also have some of the best oysters around here in the Wicomico River, and I’ll eat them steamed, raw, and love them in oyster stew. We’ll eat crabs about once a week too during the season — maybe eat them on a Sunday, and we’ll say we’re done for a while, and then next Sunday, we might have them again!
I grew up on tobacco farm on the Wicomico River, and thank God it was a waterfront farm, because we did not have a lot of money, but we had plenty to eat. My mother made homemade biscuits to die for, and my Dad was a big hunter that put a lot of wild game on the table. We used to have a big quail population, and there’s nothing better than wild quail. Young, tender rabbit is one of my favorites too.
Any favorite traditions?
I love fishing for striped bass — just plain love it! Maybe it because it puts a little bit more money in my pocket, but there’s also nothing like the beauty of getting up in the morning and watching the sunrise on the water.
When my son was born, he had some complications that left him in the hospital for a few weeks, and it was a bill of about $11,000. Well, we were young and had no insurance and probably had $1,500 to our name, and I had no clue what I was going to do. Rockfish season opened that year on February 1, and we had such a good season that year, that I was able to write a check to the hospital for the full amount before it was due, and still put away a few thousand in the bank. So my Dad started calling the baby Rocky, and people still call him that today! So when I tell people that rockfish are important to me and I have depended on them my whole life, I mean it!