Beyond Boutique

On the water with an Eastern Shore oysterman.

Text and photos by Michael C. Upton

On a gray and slightly overcast morning on the Eastern Shore, oysterman Tucker Terry grabs a trusted employee and jumps in his maroon pickup for a short drive across the Delmarva Peninsula to the seaside town of Wachapreague. Terry leases water rights in Bradford Bay to “salt up” his bayside-grown oysters at Nandua Selects Oyster Farm.

“Water temp is cold, and the air is warm. Well, we’ll go play in the fog for a minute,” Terry says, smiling as we load into his boat. “Hopefully we won’t get lost; we don’t have far to go.”

He has an order to fill, and soon we come to a row of floats where mesh bags are filled with prime shellfish. The oysters—a bit less salty than their famed Chincoteague cousins up the coast—claim top dollar and make the menu at premier restaurants across the United States. This batch of bivalves will head to restaurants in Los Angeles. 

Well over six feet tall, Terry is an impressive sight at the helm of the Carolina Skiff as we cut through the morning mist. He is happy yet get-work-done serious, and carries a proud legacy behind the Terry name. His great-great-grandfather was Henry Miller Terry, who in 1903 started H.M. Terry Co., home of the Sewansecott brand oysters. His father ran Terry Brothers, Inc., and Tucker Terry grew up working in both businesses. As he got older, he realized he wanted to be on his own.

In 2012, Terry found an old crab shack in southern Accomack County where the wide-mouthed Nandua Creek opens up into the Chesapeake, and he set up shop. He and his seven-man crew work six days a week year-round moving anywhere from 2,500 to more than 25,000 oysters per day. Today’s market has created a demand for boutique oyster farmers with a niche product (less than a million oysters a year). Terry and his one-building crew smash modern conventions by harvesting seven to 12 million oysters each year. “We do it and we make it look easy,” says Terry. “I’m not trying to be arrogant. We just have a way we do things.”

Aside from the oyster business, Terry is a devoted family man—the newest addition to his tribe is baby number six, Adelyn May—and an avid deer and turkey hunter. He spends as much time on the water for recreation as he does for work. The Nandua Selects Instagram feed is as much about living a good life—with anniversary wishes to his wife, Caitlyn, Father’s Day posts, and pictures of kids—as it is about oysters. “You can’t tell me I hunt too much, I fish too much. We work hard, but I will always treat my people right,” says Terry.

What made you want to farm oysters on the bayside?

Oysters grow better there. They grow faster, and they are more protected. When I started on Nandua Creek, nobody was on it. It was close to the mouth of the bay, and there’s not many people living on the creek. With the mouth of the bay being so close, we have a nice tidal flow; that’s a lot of water coming in and a lot of water going out. And it’s a deeper creek.

How has the oyster industry changed over the past few years and how did you adapt to meet demand?

The oyster industry got too flooded. We were killing it and then it just dropped off about two years ago. Everybody now wants their oysters to look beautiful. They want to be able to shuck the oysters from the hinge, and if the oyster shell isn’t strong enough it will crumble in your hand. We had to redesign how we grow our oysters. The first thing we focused on was shell structure; we worried about size later.

How are your oysters marketed?

We have a bayside and a seaside oyster, because some people want them saltier. Bayside salinity is from 16 to 18 parts per thousand. (The ocean averages about 35 parts per thousand.) The oysters salt up in Bradford Bay for about 30 days. With our oysters I have the international trademark for Seahogs. I now market our brand as Nandua Seahogs in Virginia.

Is it all about the name?

No, no. When you go and buy oysters, don’t rely on the name. You want to look at where the oysters are from. If you want to taste a difference, you try oysters from different areas, not six different oysters with different names all from the Eastern Shore. It’s not about the name. I mean, yes, the name recognition helps, but it isn’t everything.

Working the Water

Oysters are just part of the waterman’s way of life. 

During the lean times, when the demand for oysters is low, Terry falls back on a stable staple in the world of watermen: bait fish. “This year has been very slow, so we have been concentrating on bait for the fisherman,” says Terry.

Atheriniformes, also known as silver sides, are the choice for New Jersey anglers. The Nandua boat has also been running live minnows down the coast to South Carolina as much as three times a week. “I’ve been on the road a lot this year. A lot more than usual, but it’s good money,” says Terry. “I learned a long time ago, sport fishermen don’t mind spending good money for good bait when they are ready to go fishing.” 

And there are always clams. In 2018, more than 503 million clams were grown in Virginia. Nandua Select clamming, which takes place in Hog Island Bay, stretches Terry’s crew too far to be a sustainable business, but it is a great source of additional income when needed. “One of my favorite times out on the water was when we went out to kick a bed of clams, and it was snowing, like a whiteout, and we got all the way out there and the tide was up,” says Terry. “So, we got up in a duck blind, hooked up a portable heater, and just waited for the tide to go down. That’s one you just never forget.” Nandua Selects Oyster Farm

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue. Check out our list of Top 100 Oyster Spots.

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