VIRGINIA BEACH — When Capt. Chris Ludford was growing up in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, his father had a boat.
Spring, summer and fall, they spent weekends fishing on the Lynnhaven River. Or, as his dad called it, Lynnhaven.
“It was a place,” he said in a recent phone interview. “That’s what imprinted on me.”
And that’s where Ludford wanted to be when he grew up: Lynnhaven.
As a college student, he had ideas about his future. Law maybe. Or journalism. Or teaching.
Then in 1990, he had a summer job cutting fish. He saw tourists piling off charter fishing boats, known as “head boats.” The mates got paid mostly in tips.
Ludford found his way onto a head boat, “The Big D,” the following summer.
“If you could sell yourself and cater to the tourists, you got more tips,” he said.
By 1994, he had a captain’s license and a commercial fishing license for crabbing. Still, after graduating from ODU in 1996, he took a sales job. Went door to door. Wore a suit and a tie.
But his heart was in Lynnhaven.
He became a Virginia Beach firefighter in 1997, giving him another income stream. Still crabbing, but part-time. That’s where the big money was.
“I knew it would probably end at some point,” he said.
The end began in the early 2000s. He started noticing it took more pots and gear to catch the same number of crabs. By 2007, he thought he was done.
His mother, apparently, thought otherwise. She filled out paperwork for a disaster-relief program to get crabbers into oyster farming — growing oysters in cages. In July 2010, she called and told him the cages were on the way.
Now, Ludford refers to himself as a boutique grower. His farm is in the Lynnhaven River Inlet, about a mile from the Lesner Bridge. The restaurants who buy his Pleasure House Oysters include Terrapin and Commune in Virginia Beach.
“My mission is to cater to a very exclusive clientele,” he said. “And that is restaurants who cater to an exclusive clientele.”
As word spread about what he was doing, he started taking chefs out in his boat. Then restaurant staff.
“Next thing you know, I’m like a head boat for oysters,” he said.
Since 2013, about 300 people have toured his oyster farm. They come from Virginia Beach, Richmond, D.C., Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and as far away as Canada and the U.K.
This summer and fall, he’s hoping for roughly 350 visitors — and tours might be about a third of his gross.
“I just want to take a few people out and blow their minds,” he said. “It’s a home run every tour. It’s a performance.”
For more about Pleasure House farm and tasting tours, go here.