Navigating Challenges

As a fourth generation Eastern Shore waterman, Bobby Whaples knows the delicate balance between success and failure

Written by Joe Willey  |  Photography by Jill Jasuta

Watermen live with a different perspective. They are witnesses to the breathtaking merger of rivers and land and the soggy beauty of the Eastern Shore. But they are also independent business owners making decisions that will matter for generations. As unique or idyllic as the life of a waterman may be, they face growing pressure of profit and loss and the need to be part of their local communities. The two sides may seem like the banks of opposing rivers, but navigating the river that runs between the two is the way a waterman survives. 

Bobby Whaples is a fourth-generation Dorchester County waterman who has navigated the vagaries of the Little Choptank River six days a week for 38 years. He is a trotliner and a one-man operation. He works a 9,000-foot line divided into three 3,000 ft. sections. At each end of the trotline is a buoy. The buoys mark where the line runs through the water and lifts each end to create a starting and ending point near the surface. They are also a way for Whaples to grab the trotline. The line is baited along intervals, the bait varying with the season — razor clams or chicken necks in the spring, bull lips as summer cools into fall.

Whaples sets his course along the length of the line, starting at one of the buoys. He moves through the water while feeding it over a pulley on the side of his boat. Slowly, the line rises from the bottom of the river with the crabs clinging to the bait. Using a net, Whaples scoops the crabs from the water before they release their grip and swim back into the murky bottom of the river. After he reaches the end of each trotline, he begins the process again, making as many runs as he can in one day.

The rising cost of operating a business plays a vital role in Whaples’ decisions about all aspects of his business — from the nearly staggering cost of bait to the rising cost of fuel. Whaples is a savvy business owner who is keenly aware of operational expenses. He can quote budget line items, and he understands wise business principles. He cuts his experience down to an easily understood maxim for young watermen, “If you can’t balance finances, you’ll never make it.” His son is a waterman and the fifth generation to pursue the career. His grandsons are the potential sixth generation, but Whaples is honest with them about the expense and warns them about the cost of pursuing the career.

Whaples is a friendly, no-nonsense thinker who understands the free-spirited mentality of watermen, but knows that independence can lead to competition and the potential for failure.

Whaples is a friendly, no-nonsense thinker who understands the free-spirited mentality of watermen, but knows that independence can lead to competition and the potential for failure. Because he has a long-term perspective, he became president of the Dorchester Seafood Heritage Association, where he works to encourage watermen to work together and change the perception of stubborn independence by supporting the community through events and fundraisers. He believes in the community, supports the community, and wants to change the view many on the Eastern Shore have about strong-willed, salty watermen.

Navigating the realities of a lifetime of working on the water is what Bobby Whaples has done. He merges business with beauty, passing on his knowledge and experience to other watermen and his local community. His perspective on the unique life of a waterman leads through the sublime beauty of brackish rivers while bracing for future challenges — at the same time teaching others to navigate through trickling tributaries to the rush of open water and independence. CS

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