Deep in the perfume of the sedge meadows, Jason Stulsky stands in his skiff. Silhouetted against a winter sky, he bull-rakes clams in the back of Southold’s Mill Creek. Stulsky has pulled “the stupid stick” since he was legal age for a digger’s permit, 14. Nineteen years now, he has toiled on that bull rake. “I guess it’s called a bull rake because you have to pull like a bull,” he says.
Stulsky is the tail end of a dying breed, the Long Island clammer, a life unchanged since Walt Whitman, who summered at his sister’s house in Greenport, recalled in Specimen Days “the soothing rustle of the waves, and the saline smell—boyhood’s time, the clam-digging, bare-foot, and with trousers rolled up.”
“On a good day, I get two bags of necks, two bags of stones and two bags of chowders,” says Stulsky. “Not like it used to be. I think the brown tides in ’84 and ’85 that wiped out the scallops also hurt the clamming. The scallopers dug clams until the scallops came back. Dug ’em all out of the creeks.”
Stulsky’s dad, John “JJ” Stulsky, taught him to clam. When the creeks opened in the fall, he let Stulsky and his brother cut school for a couple of days to get a boat full of clams. John Stulsky worked the ocean draggers for steady money and clammed and scalloped when they were in season. Like his dad, Stulsky tends conch pots and blackfish traps during the summer, when the creeks are closed. Fall he dredges scallops. Winter and spring he bull-rakes clams. “I am my own boss on the water.” Only the wind and the tide dictate to a bay-man.
Even though Stulsky has raked clams in Mill Creek his entire adult life, he contemplates going up to Huntington Harbor to clam. A clammer is sure to get 10 bags a day there, some days 20. He would need to go with another clammer, but there are very few left in the Peconic. You would not want to bring a bull rake solo into Hunting- ton Harbor. You would need backup. Up-island, they pack iron in their boats.
“They seed the bay there. The Baymen’s Association and their town work together. Here, they just complain about how much better it used to be,” he says. “When I was in my 20s, my friends and I would talk about how many more clams we’d get when the old-timers quit. Well, the old guys are gone now, but so are the clams.”
Clammers ride the cusp between hunter-gatherers and farmers. Old-timers swear the more they work a creek, being careful not to overharvest, the more clams will thrive in that spot. From a distance, there is a poetic similarity between a bayman bull-raking clams and a farmer plowing his field. Indeed, both are the essence of the Long Island that was.
We all recall fondly our first clambake, our first wonder at digging just an inch below the creek bottom to garner our own delicious meal. But the vast majority of the necks, stones and chowders we devour come from baymen like Stulsky, tirelessly bull-raking the creeks.
As the quintessential native of Paumanok wrote in Leaves of Grass:
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.
This story was originally published in October 2014.