Fisherman Profile by Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme
Fletcher O’Neal pulls his truck through a narrow road and up to the edge of the water. We climb out of the car and into the boat, where he offers me a water and admonishes me that when the sun is this hot it’s easy to get dehydrated.
It’s the middle of July and Ocracoke, the small island where Fletcher was born and has lived most of his life, is packed with tourists in search of sun, salt and seafood. On his boat, though, as we speed less than a quarter mile off the island, the heat and intensity of the island’s high season falls away.
Fletcher grows Devil Shoal Oysters & Clams about a five-minute boat ride from Ocracoke, surrounded by cormorants and other animals. He laughs describing a sea snail he found recently that shot out purple ink when you touched it, which he brought to a friend for his aquarium. The oysters, he says, are so close to the island that they’re intrinsically connected. For him, they’re a true taste of home.
As we pull up to his oyster baskets, he cuts the engine. It’s so quiet – I immediately understand the appeal of his work, even as he uses his whole body to lift a basket onto the boat for me to look at.
He starts shucking the oysters, almost faster than I can eat them. I ask if he likes them and he laughs.
“It’s the one thing my doctor told me I can’t eat,” he tells me, rolling his eyes. Fletcher had kidney issues a few years ago, which took him off the island for some of the longest stretches he’s been away his whole life. The treatment was hard on his body, but he tells me it was also painful to be away from Ocracoke and the water.
“I would get out for the weekend and come home, and I always just wanted to come float on the water, even if I couldn’t fish or do nothing.”