Iron Man

Dave Brayton has been quahogging for more than 60 years, and he has no plans to slow down
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Dave Brayton wears his many nautical miles well. He has earned a living quahogging out of Bristol, Rhode Island, since 1958, and even now, at 83, he has yet to slow his pace. Old Dog, his 23-foot Ocean Scout skiff powered by a 225-hp Yamaha outboard, is weathered herself. A workboat through and through, she’s 32 years old and has served Brayton for the past 21 years.

Brayton is one of the oldest quahoggers on Narragansett Bay, but he has no problem keeping pace with the younger guys. For him, this is just work, the same work he has done all his life. With the persistence of a true New Englander, he sticks devotedly to the profession that was passed down to him, and he knows the history of the industry better than many of his professional peers because he’s lived through it for more years.

Brayton grew up on Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay. He and his four brothers all learned how to rake quahogs, a sought-after species of hard-shell clam, from their father, who worked as a quahog dealer for two decades. Brayton is the only brother who continues to pursue the practice of harvesting the clams as a career, which he balances with his work as a minister.

“The work beats your face up,” Brayton says with a grin before backing his trailer down the launch at Colt State Park in Bristol and sliding Old Dog into the water.

Brayton’s boat carries metal rakes that get worked through the mud to uncover quahogs. 

Brayton’s boat carries metal rakes that get worked through the mud to uncover quahogs. 

Though his face is worn from the sun and the salt, his eyes are always alert. The ramp is at a quiet spot on the bay where there are just a few boats out on the water, and where there is a picturesque view of the islands.

“The wheelhouse is pretty clean of fancy stuff,” he says as we climb aboard the boat. There’s a stool and a GPS inside. On the deck, there’s nothing but quahogging gear and a few scattered slipper shells left from past hauls.
I settle onto an overturned bucket and hold on as Brayton maneuvers us through the bay.

His typical workday starts at 6:30 a.m. and lasts for four hours. The job is called bullraking, and it involves attaching large metal rakes or baskets to metal rods of varying lengths, depending on the water depth, and then working them through the mud to uncover the quahogs. The rakes alone weigh upwards of 20 pounds empty, and he works one rake at a time, using an up-and-down motion to coax the clams into the basket. Bullraking is tough, physical work, but he says it’s kept him young. Brayton, who has an athletic build, is usually raking in water that’s 10 to 11 feet deep. The contents of each drag are sorted and separated by size on deck, from the smallest littlenecks to cherrystones, top necks and the largest, chowder clams.

He keeps four rakes on board—“too many,” he jokes of his collection, acquired over the years. Perhaps the most important tool on Old Dog is the pot hauler, which helps to minimize the strain on Brayton’s back muscles by reeling in the rakes for him. “A full rake by hand is very heavy when it’s loaded up with mud,” Brayton says. “When I used to hand-haul, I’d get a big callus on my thumb, but with the pot hauler, it’s gone.” He’s been in the business long enough to remember the days when pot haulers were illegal. “They thought we were going to clean out the bay, but it doesn’t make that much difference,” he says. “Pot haulers were finally legalized because everyone was crying.”

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The season never ends; Brayton works all year, in all weather, with nothing but a propane heater in the wheelhouse during the coldest New England winters. And when he isn’t quahogging off his boat, he’s using his hand digger to rake the beach at low tide. His devotion to the work has earned him a nickname among local fishermen: “Iron Man.” Brayton can’t remember who coined it, but he believes it also has to do with what he’s done to change the public’s
perception of the profession.

“Quahogging used to be considered not too far from the bottom rung of the social ladder,” Brayton says, adding that, at one time, many quahoggers raked to earn money to drink, creating a bad reputation for the profession. “I got ridiculed for starting quahogging after five years in the Marine Corps. I said, ‘I want to show you guys,’ and I went out in all conditions and proved that you can make a living doing this.”

Brayton says a different crowd is quahogging now, a sober group with a genuine passion for the work. And the profession has changed in other ways too. From 1940 to 2000, there were many active quahoggers in New England, and Narragansett Bay was especially saturated. In 1980, a swell of quahoggers moved to the bay and used relatives’ addresses to get licensed. Approximately 3,000 licenses were issued in Rhode Island that year, and the bay was overfilled. A much stricter licensing process is in place now, and as a result, it’s more challenging for newcomers to enter the profession.

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Today, fewer than 1,000 people are licensed in the state. They have their share of troubles as well. Environmental factors have led to a decline in the quahog population, and quahoggers have to compete with oyster farms for space on the bay. “I think quahogging will always be there, but [the labor force] will be small,” he says. According to Brayton, even though the industry is shrinking, the work is still profitable, since the public’s appetite for hard-shells remains strong. Brayton sells his quahogs to a wholesaler for 25 cents apiece, an increase from the 10 cents per pound he made when he started.

Brayton still looks right at home perched in his wheelhouse out on the bay, and shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m gonna do it until I can’t, until I become a threat to the public driving my trailer around,” he says. “I think this is a pretty good life, myself.” 

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.