Fourth-Generation Waterman Mike Mcgee Loves The Industry
And Any Day At His Cabin On Pope’s Bay
A 30-minute boat ride from Chincoteague Island lies Pope’s Bay. Its vast landscape of tranquility is dotted only with a few small cabins. One in particular, which happens to be the only working oyster-watch house among them, belongs to Mike McGee, and he knows every square inch of these farm waters like the back of his hand.
“Pope’s Bay wouldn’t appeal to most people, but it is God’s country to me,” said McGee, who built the cabin, named Snatch and Grab, in the 1970s with his business partner at the time. “Sometimes I enjoy coming here alone, just to take it in.”
Born and raised on Chincoteague Island, he’s lived and worked along the waters of his hometown for 45 years. With the exception of a few years spent in the U.S. Army in the late 1960s — the seafood industry is all he’s ever known.
“My father and his grandfather were both in the seafood industry their entire lives,” said McGee, who rates his sense of humor as a 10-and-a-half on a 10 scale. “My father used to take me out when I was 5 years old, toss me overboard and give me a limit to catch. That’s how I learned the trade.”
McGee, now 74, recalls those days with great fondness — a series of decades in which the oyster industry on the Eastern Shore, in Chincoteague in particular, was at its peak.
“The number of Chincoteague islanders working in the oyster industry is not what it used to be,” McGee said. “The heyday for the oyster industry was in the 1980s, ‘70s and the decades prior. There were over a dozen shucking houses on the island then, and now there is one.”
That company is the Ballard Fish & Oyster Company, whose history on these waters dates back 115 years. Chad Ballard, the fifth generation of the Ballard family to run the company, knows just how invaluable McGee is to local watermen of all ages.
“Mike’s experience in the seafood industry is too long to list, but he has probably produced more oysters and clams than anyone alive today. He has an intimate knowledge of the waters and growing grounds surrounding the Island,” Ballard said. “If you are truly lucky, he will invite you to his cabin. There is not a finer place to spend the day or a finer person to spend it with.”
According to McGee, there’s not an oyster along the entire Atlantic Seaboard that compares to the famed Chincoteague oyster, which is internationally praised, thanks to the Bay’s high salinity and its clean, sandy floor.
“Chincoteague has the best water quality of anywhere on the East Coast for growing oysters,” McGee said. “Rarely do we have oyster bottom that is closed due to pollution. The proximity to the ocean and the twice-daily tides give us some of the best water on the East Coast.”
Nicknamed Old Salt, McGee is universally known and respected throughout these parts for his industry knowledge and experience. He credits his continuous success in the business to “finding a good market for my product and hard work. Working hard and being dedicated to the oysters and clams has kept me in the business,” McGee said. “You have to love being on the water. I could easily retire now, but I continue to work. I have owned six seafood corporations during my career.”
His sixth is a brand-new venture named McGee Old Salt.
“The seafood industry is what I know. It’s something that gets into your blood. I’ll live and die by it.”
Story by Jonathan Westman
Photos by Jay Fleming