Iron Man: Shellfisherman and family describe five decades of quahogging on Narragansett Bay

David Brayton and grandson Evan Riley

Dave Brayton and grandson Evan Riley work the waters of Narragansett Bay.

When Dave Brayton was 23 and fresh out of the Marine Corps, he followed his father and his older brother into the family business, raking for quahogs in Narragansett Bay.

While his older brother had a knack for it, Brayton said, “I just wasn’t very good at it.” He told himself, “There’s no way I’m doing this for the rest of my life.”

But, he soon discovered a love for the work. “It’s a sickness,” he said, that he couldn’t shake, and now, at age 80, Brayton has been a quahogger for nearly 60 years.

“He’s out there like the postal service, in rain and snow and sleet,” his wife, Nancy, added.

These days, Brayton works the bay four days a week, accompanied by his grandson Evan Riley, 15.

Rhode Island's Shellfish Heritage: An Ecological HistoryThe three joined writer and part-time shellfish harvester Sarah Schumann at a recent book talk at the Tiverton Library near the Braytons’ home. Schumann, who wrote Rhode Island’s Shellfish Heritage: An Ecological History, interviewed the Braytons for the book. Schumann read passages from the book detailing the history of quahog shells as wampum, the changeover from oyster dominance to that of quahogs, and the cultural significance of shellfish to Rhode Islanders today.

She then facilitated a discussion with the Braytons that, along with questions from the audience, painted a picture of a life spent on the waters of Narragansett Bay.

Schumann asked Brayton about his nickname, “Iron Man.” While he was quick to say he had only heard that second-hand, and that lots of quahoggers had nicknames, Nancy Brayton credited it to his work ethic, adding, “We’ve had a wonderful life because of who he is as a man, not only a shellfisherman,” she said, “Fifty-four years we’ve been together and raised four children, and never been in want.”

She adds that their children picked up a love for the bay from their dad as well, swimming and beachcombing. She said that when their oldest daughter visits them from her home in Oregon, “She always wants to go out on the boat with Dad.”

Dave Brayton mentioned that another daughter had her own bait business for a while: “She was one of my best deckhands,” he said.

“I work 45 minutes, he works 15,” Brayton said of Riley, whom he jokingly called his “co-conspirator.”

“And percentage-wise, he does better than I do … probably give him a swelled head, but that’s the truth.”

Riley, who is home-schooled, said he started out a few years ago helping his grandfather sort his catch. Now he has a student license himself.

“It’s really nice to get paid,” he said, “And to spend time with my grandfather.”

Both of them talked about their love of being out on the water.

Riley said he enjoys being able to “jump in to swim whenever you want and come home with a few bucks in your pocket.”

Brayton clarified that he doesn’t swim, but said, “What other job can you go out for a boat ride and have a picnic lunch and a beautiful view?”

And financially, Brayton said, prices for quahogs are good, with little necks going for 23 to 25 cents a piece, compared with 2 cents a piece when he started years ago, and “the bay is in really good shape … there’s a lot of small stuff (quahogs) around.”

He joked that although the job is fun, “Sometimes … you lose money having fun,” but most days there is what he called a “happy hour—if you stay long enough, you’ll get an hour or a couple hours that put you over the top.”

You can learn more about the Braytons and many other Rhode Islanders involved in the shellfish industry in Rhode Island’s Shellfish Heritage: An Ecological History. The book was produced by the Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island and the Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant, both located at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. It is available free for pickup at the Rhode Island Sea Grant program office, or may be ordered for $7 per copy to cover postage and handling. One copy per household, please. For ordering information, to read online, or to see upcoming events, visit shellfishheritage.seagrant.gso.uri.edu