NEAVITT -- The muffled roar of a 220-horsepower diesel engine and the ca-chunk, ca-chunk of ice against the fiberglass hull of Guy Spurry's work boat are the only sounds at first light as the Talbot County waterman plows out to the open channel of frozen Broad Creek.
Already on the down side of Maryland's six-month oyster season, Spurry harbors few illusions about this dreadful harvest -- the worst since the state began keeping records 130 years ago. It has been a dismal catch, and he knows that concessions by state regulators that allowed him to work last week aren't likely to turn things around for the diehards who spend their winters scratching for a dwindling crop.
But Spurry and others from waterfront towns around the Chesapeake Bay have been out dragging heavy steel dredges across oyster bars, "power dredging" under temporary rules that will allow them to use their boat engines until the season closes March 31. If nothing else, they figure it might bring a little money until crab season starts in April.
"It's just a grind; you feel like a scavenger out there looking for a handful of oysters," Spurry says.
Trolling in a slow, loping circle amid floating ice, Spurry stands on the slippery deck, flexing his foot on a pedal that controls a hydraulic winch, alternately plunging and retrieving the mechanical talons brimming with oysters -- dead oysters.
Time after time, the dredge opens and spills mud-spattered shells onto the boat. Time after time, Spurry sweeps empty shells back into the gray-brown waters near the Choptank River, confronting the remains of a fishery that once was the bay's biggest.
"I grew up loving it. Everything was new to me then," says Spurry, 38, whose father, Joe, has left the water to open two seafood restaurants near St. Michaels. "I still love it, but without that product, it can be the worst job in the world."
The bay's oyster population, devastated by the diseases Dermo and MSX, was further damaged this season by record-breaking drought. The lack of rain made the bay and its tributaries saltier, creating ideal conditions for the deadly parasites.
Where watermen once hauled in 2 million or more bushels of oysters in good years, they will get 40,000 to 50,000 this year, perhaps boosted by another 10,000 bushels the power dredgers might get in the next two months, guesses Eric Schwaab, the Department of Natural Resources fisheries director.
Even with the increased efficiency of power dredging over hand tongs or other methods, the catch surely will be the smallest ever, he says.
"I'd be surprised if there are 50 boats out taking advantage of this. I just don't think there are a lot of oysters to get," Schwaab says. "It's too early to say how much impact they'll have, but there's no indication of any big surge. They seemed willing, and we were willing to give them the chance."
Many bay scientists and DNR officials are skeptical about the benefits of power dredging, particularly at this time of year. But the department -- perceived by watermen in recent years as hostile to their interests -- went along with the plan, which was pushed by Eastern Shore lawmakers.
One point of contention for watermen and the scientists is whether dredging, or "tilling" oyster beds as one oysterman put it, helps clean and expose shells that can then provide a place for baby oysters to settle and grow.
Both agree that the theory makes sense, but some bay researchers say that traditional power dredging has little effect and that only specialized equipment will get at oyster beds that are buried under silt and other debris. Moreover, they say, going to such great lengths to take the bay's few oysters could worsen the decline of the shellfish population.
Watermen are just as sure power dredging has produced positive results, particularly in portions of Tangier Sound, where it has been allowed since 1999. Before being iced in for the past few weeks, Lower Shore watermen were reporting average catches there of seven to eight bushels a day.
Last week, some in the Fishing Bay area of Dorchester County reported decent catches -- below the limit of 12 bushels a person or 24 a boat, but a far cry from the meager results elsewhere in Maryland waters.
"We've always got oysters down here because we've worked up and cleaned the bottom," says Chuck Marsh, a waterman from Tylerton on Smith Island. "It's not anything to get excited about, but it usually gives us a day's work. You can argue about how to do it or when to do it, but the idea is to work up the bottom."
Industry leaders such as Larry Simns, who heads the Maryland Watermen's Association, hope the rule change -- though crafted in the final days of the administration of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- marks the beginning of a new era for them under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Ehrlich has promised to look more closely at the effect of state regulations on farmers and watermen.
"We've already seen a big attitude change within DNR," Simns says. "It almost looks like a miracle that we got this approved this year. I've put up with eight years of heartache."
Waterman Brent Haddaway, who has worked the waters around his home in Bozman for most of his 39 years, says the liberal dredging rules probably won't make much difference to his pocketbook this winter. But the policy shift has at least given him hope.
"This is the first time I can think of where the state asked us what we thought or listened to what we said," Haddaway says. "We used to make 80 percent of our living from oysters. Now, you crab like a maniac and hope you make enough to live on for the rest of the year."