This Absecon Creek Waterman Doesn't Let Life, or Eels, Slip Through His Hands


Press of Atlantic City, 1999




   ERICKA BLOUNT Staff Writer

Published: November 15, 1999
Section: REGION
Page: A1

David Showell plunged his net into the tub, scooped out eight slippery eels and placed them easily into a plastic bag. Showell makes things like touching squirming eels, minnows and soft-shell crabs look easy.

But what he does is hardly simple. Showell works hard to maintain his lifestyle as a self- employed businessman on the water.
He and his wife, Judith, own the Absecon Bay Sportsmen Center, an Absecon Creek store that offers bait and tackle, marine supplies, soft-shell crabs and other gifts. The tiny mom-and-pop store is an outdoorsman's dream.

The space where it sits, off Berkeley Avenue on Absecon Creek, is known only to die-hard area fishermen. The area still acts as a boat dock where boaters can pull in and shop as they please. Showell bought the land 14 years ago; he and his wife and children live above the store.

Showell earns a living doing what he loves - being on the water. And a very good living - unlike the typical hand-to-mouth bayman. He can earn as much as $100,000 a year - although he says he doesn't ever see this profit because of his expenses - with his store, guiding snow goose hunts, selling soft-shell crabs and occasionally guiding gamefishing trips in Central America during the winter.

Showell is one of the most successful watermen on the East Coast. But he hasn't gotten where he is just by having a strong stomach for slippery creatures. He has had to juggle a number of his water hobbies to maintain a steady income.

He grew up in the same house his parents still live, a half-mile from Absecon Creek. He said he remembers 30 years ago when it was nothing to see children riding their bikes after school, shotgun in hand, on the way to hunt for ducks and geese. He said children would go to school with their rifles preparing to hunt by the marshes when school let out.

"Thirty years ago this was like the outskirts of the world," Showell said.

But, he said, times have slowly changed. Even Absecon has become more urban. He says hunting has decreased as a sport lately; technology and times have changed to bring other types of recreation to the area.

"There are so many different things to do," Showell said. "And it takes a lot of patience to hunt. It is not immediately rewarding."

Showell, 45, has always loved working on the water, but he never seriously intended to pursue a career as a bayman.

"It is not something anyone with any sense plans to do," he said, jokingly.

Showell said after he finished college he wasn't quite ready to take on a 9-to-5 job. He said clamming wasn't too good at the time, so he entered the Peace Corps in Guatemala.

While in Guatemala, Showell knew enough Spanish to pursue the woman who would eventually become his wife. Over the years he has become fluent in Spanish.

His wife, Judith, is now co-owner of the store, and their son and daughter are bilingual.

Dressed in a flannel shirt and baseball cap, Showell has a slow smile and a slight southern accent.

He jokes with his customers, most of whom are regulars.

"I used to have the honor system for the customers to come by and get their minnows and leave the money, but eventually I think some people forgot how to count," he laughed.

One customer roamed through the store with familiarity. He opened Showell's freezer stocked with baits and frozen fish and decorated with Polaroid shots of customers proudly displaying their big catches.

One Polaroid shows a customer barely able to lift a 30-pound striped bass. Another shows Capt. Edwin "Hacksaw" Peterson holding a gigantic striped bass with the caption "Spring '99."

Peterson who is missing and presumed drowned in a boating accident 70 miles off the coast of Cape May.

"He would be in here four times a week," Showell said of Peterson. "He loved fishing so much, I think he miscalculated that day because he wanted to go so bad."

Showell has met many customers in his 14 years at the store. Experienced fisherman frequent the place, partly for the live bait, but also for the lively gossip.

"A lot of people, when they shop in the big shopping centers for fishing equipment, the clerks don't really know what to tell them to do," Showell said.

Showell offers his expertise to customers - he says eels are the best bait for striped bass and fisherman's suits should be tight to give guys with a gut that "extra girdlelike support."

Showell starts his day at about 6:30 every morning when he works in the store. When he is guiding hunting tours, he starts two hours before sunrise.

When Showell returned from the Peace Corps, he spent his days clamming and fishing.

He said he could work a five-day week clamming, which is what he enjoyed doing anyway in his leisure time, and he would average about $150 a day.

Showell said someone who clams solely for a living can average about $30,000 a year, before expenses.

"It definitely teaches you to work," he said. "You only get paid for what you catch."

Between the time he stopped clamming and when he bought the store, Showell continued to guide hunting tours, which could earn him about $400 a day depending on how many people joined the tour at a $100 a person.

As he prepared to guide a snow geese tour on a recent Saturday morning, he was skeptical.

"The snow geese are too smart nowadays, they don't want to go off the refuge," he said.

Showell said as a result he is losing a lot of hunting customers.

He is still trying to work on continuing gamefishing trips in Guatemala to supplement his income in the winters when clamming isn't as good. He used to co-host a successful show called "The Salt Water Journal" in Guatemala.

In June for about two weeks he sells soft-shell crabs - a 24-hour-a-day responsibility. The crabs are caught as shedder crabs and when they shed they become soft-shell crabs. The trick is to catch the crabs as soon as they come out of their shell, otherwise they make an easy meal for the crab right next to them.

"Crabs are really cannibalistic, you have to catch them at exactly the moment when they come out of the shell or one of the other crabs in the tank will eat him," Showell said. "And they shed 24 hours a day."

Showell, like any self-employed businessman, works long hours. But he has figured out a secret that a lot of other baymen have not: They can make a living on the water and enjoy every minute of it.

But he says his business could be doing better if the city would only realize what a resource they have with the Absecon Creek and continue the up-keep by doing things like dredging it.

"I think Absecon Creek has unlimited potential," he said. "I don't see why the city doesn't look at their waterfront as an asset. In Cape May my store would be worth 10 times what it is worth here." Absecon's David Showell says he never planned to pursue a career as a

Copyright (c) 1999 The Press of Atlantic City