The next day was Thanksgiving at my mother’s house and those oysters were savored down to the last morsel. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.
Since we live in the mid-Cape area, my recreational shellfishing license can be used in designated areas in Barnstable’s seven towns. I shellfish mostly in Barnstable, West Barnstable, and Osterville. Some day I would love to shellfish in Dennis, Provincetown, and Wellfeet. Lots of oyster lovers contend that Wellfleet’s oysters are the sweetest—I can’t imagine anything sweeter than a West Barnstable oyster, but I’d love to give it a try.
Residents of Cape Cod towns from Bourne to Provincetown can get a shellfishing license for varying prices from around $20 to $40. All you have to do is head to your Natural Resources office or Town Hall and prove your residency. You can also buy the small rectangular shellfishing gauge at most offices. Wherever you dig, you MUST have your license with you and it is a good idea to always have your gauge on hand. Most towns have non-resident and seasonal licenses available as well for higher fees.
Shellfish wardens are a hardy, committed lot and won’t let you dig if you don’t have your license displayed. Even on that frigid November morning in West Barnstable, a cheerful young shellfish warden carefully checked through our entire wire basket to make sure all the oysters were big enough. Shellfish that are too small will be dumped quickly back into the water for another season’s harvesting.
When you get your license, you can usually get easy-to-read maps that will show you where you can—and can’t—shellfish. Sadly there are rivers, coves, and beaches on the Cape where you can’t dig because of pollution.
The Wampanoag Indians so valued the Cape’s then abundant shellfish that they used it as a form of currency. When the Mayflower arrived in Provincetown in 1620, the English settlers found enormous piles of discarded shells along the beaches. Called “middens” by the Colonists, the shells were burned for their lime.
Today, recreational shellfishing is a strictly regulated pleasure. Every town has a schedule of specific days when shellfishing is allowed. In Barnstable’s towns, you can dig on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. You are only allowed to take a single 10-quart wire basket per week.