Chesapeake Quarterly
Working the Water with Jay Fleming
Fish potting to catch channel catfish and blue catfish. Photograph courtesy of Jay Fleming
While nippering for oysters, Doug Morris uses small tongs to pluck a large oyster out of the shallows of Broad Creek near Neavitt, Maryland. Photograph courtesy of Jay Fleming

HE WOULD LEAVE ANNAPOLIS at midnight to meet the menhaden boats. It was a three-hour drive to Reedville, Virginia — all high-speed, four-lane highways through Southern Maryland and over the Potomac River Bridge, then mostly two-lane roads that run east through the dark towns down to the tail end of the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Menhaden boats throw off their docking lines at four in the morning, and they weren't likely to wait for a photographer. Omega Protein, the Houston-based company that runs a fishing fleet out of Reedville, seldom lets photographers ride along on their vessels.

Nippering for oysters.  Photograph courtesy of Jay Fleming
Fish potting is one of the ways watermen like Ricky Rice catch channel catfish and blue catfish in the Potomac River. Photograph courtesy of Jay Fleming

Fleming, however, was a photographer with a mission: he was committing three years of his life to photographing all the ways men and women harvest seafood out of the Chesapeake Bay. "I'm just trying to create an accurate portrait of what's going on in the Chesapeake Bay," he says. His approach is objective observation, creating images that carry no advocacy, no message. "I'm not trying to convey my opinions through my work." Taking sides about fishing controversies could, he admits, limit his access.

To cover the many forms of Bay fishing, Fleming would have to win access to all kinds of netting, dredging, tonging, trapping, and potting work. He wanted to photograph 20 different commercial-harvesting techniques, including five ways of catching crabs, five ways of hauling up oysters, and six ways of netting finfish. That meant a lot of midnight rides to meet up with watermen on predawn docks along both sides of the Bay.

A gill net anchored in the Potomac River.  Photograph courtesy of Jay Fleming
A gill net anchored in the Potomac River snags a rockfish headed upriver to spawn. Photograph courtesy of Jay Fleming

His neutral stance helped him get on all those boats, including Omega's menhaden boat at Reedville. "Obviously it's a controversial fishery," says Fleming, and his photographs certainly show multitudes of fish trapped in huge nets. But his first focus — as in all his fishing photographs — is clearly on the hard, heaving, human work that goes into this form of commercial fishing.

Fleming, like a lot of the watermen he photographs, was born into the profession he practices. He's the son of Kevin Fleming, a wildlife photographer who worked with National Geographic and published a number of books on his own, including several focused on Delaware Bay. After graduating with a degree in economics, Jay Fleming set out to duplicate his father's success but with a focus on photographing the Chesapeake Bay. For a number of years he worked as a contract photographer with Maryland's seafood marketing program. With those genes and that kind of job, it was natural for him to focus his talents on the fishing industries of the Bay.

A purse seining net being hoisted.  Photograph courtesy of Jay Fleming
A purse seining net is hoisted by the Omega Protein boat, F/V Tangier Island, in preparation for vacuuming menhaden into large coolers. Photograph courtesy of Jay Fleming

So it's no surprise he was able to publish his first book earlier this year, Working the Water, when he was only 29 years old. The book, beautifully designed and printed, features 280 pages of vivid images, including striking angles he managed to shoot from underwater.

Most of the book's readers will find there are more ways of fishing the Bay than they imagined. And that Fleming has captured them all in images that are clearly and deeply suffused with empathy — a key quality in most great photography. In Fleming's case, it's deep empathy for all the gritty human work that goes into every kind of harvesting.

Using bank traps to land some peeler crabs.  Photograph courtesy of Jay Fleming
Using bank traps, Andrew Benton and Patrick Arby are hoping to land some peeler crabs in the shallows around Deal Island, Maryland. Photograph courtesy of Jay Fleming

Where to Find Photographs

Jay Fleming sells his book, calendar, and prints through his website.

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