Oystaflage: Standing apart while blending in
By Ford Walpole
For many years, camouflage patterns were about like barbecue sauces and craft beers: the choices were so overwhelming, and the differences began to blur. That is, until Bart Key’s Oystaflage burst on the scene at the 2012 Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE).
As South Carolina natives, Bart and his siblings grew up exploring Lowcountry waters in their 15’ Boston Whaler. A passionate sportsman, Bart wanted to design an original camouflage that would represent the coastal lifestyle. His late brother Matt came up with idea of using oyster shells for the pattern.
Bart discusses the appropriateness of the subject: “The myriad of colors and the ruggedness and simplicity of an oyster were what we had been searching for, and what could possibly be more Southern and more representative of this region than the oyster?”
Bart asked his longtime friend Sam Allston to take him out in his boat to get some pictures for the pattern. “Sam dropped me off on an oyster bank behind Botany; I took at least 200 pictures, but I never seemed to find what I was looking for. When Sam came to pick me up, the water from his boat wake rolled up on the oysters, and it revealed the exact colors we were looking for! The pictures we took that day are the ones we still use on all of our products.”
He also recalls, “Once we had the idea and the pictures, the real work began. It took us almost two years before we had something that we could actually hold. ‘Repeat patterns,’ ‘dye sublimation’ and ‘cut and sew’ were terms we’d never heard of.”
The product’s immediate popularity was a surprise: “At our first SEWE, all we had was a few T-shirts, aprons and tote bags. I expected some people might get it, but I was blown away by the response. People would stare at it for a few minutes, scratch their head and then ask: ‘Are those oysters? Man, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’” Bart’s wife was initially skeptical about his idea for a new camouflage, but that changed when she saw the long line of customers at that first Expo. She told Bart, “Wow! People really do love this stuff!”
Sam Allston takes pride in his contribution to the endeavor: “I’ve been to Texas whitetail hunting, and I always wear Oystaflage when I go; everybody out there loves it!” He continues, “Bart’s always been an entrepreneur, and he’s also just a great guy. He’s done a lot of hard work, and Oystaflage is just a great camo pattern — the best there is out there!”
Jayme Horres Hurteau and her family are some of the product’s biggest enthusiasts. “There’s no better camo for the Lowcountry lifestyle than Oystaflage. Doves, ducks or deer —you name the hunt, and Oystaflage has you covered.
“It’s the only camo our kids don’t complain about the feel of,” she continues. “It’s also the only camo they’ve ever fought over, so we fixed that issue: from long- and short-sleeve shirts, hats, belts, buffs and even bow ties, we’ve got it all; even the dogs have Oystaflage collars! We have hunted from Santee to Coosawhatchie to Katy, Texas. My crew doesn’t leave home without their Oystaflage!” Hurteau declares.
“What I like about Oystaflage is that wearing it reminds me of my favorite time of the year — fall!” says Hank Harrison of Winnsboro, another devoted customer who became a good friend and sounding board for new products. “I love oyster roasts and the marshes around Edisto and Murrells Inlet. The Oystaflage is also a great concealer in a dove field. Bart and his team make a great quality product that is both functional and fun!
“I have worn Oystaflage to oyster roasts, oyster festivals, National Wild Turkey Federation banquets, dove shoots, turkey hunting, deer hunting, fishing, shrimping, on the beach and even to the Big Green Egg EGGtoberfest!” says Harrison.
Bart says what he loves most is when he sees someone he doesn’t know wearing one of his Oystaflage products. “I was recently on the Intracoastal Waterway and saw two kids in another boat wearing it, and that just made my day,” he says with a laugh. “Another cool thing is when people finally realize the camouflage actually has oyster shells in it.”
When Key saw that that someone from Kansas had ordered Oystaflage on the website, out of curiosity, he called the gentleman to find out why someone so far off was drawn to a coastal camouflage. The sportsman replied, “Realtree and Mossy Oak don’t blend in to the canyons where we hunt geese and ducks, but your Oystaflage looks like rocks, and it works great out here!”
Trade shows are a great way for Bart to display his products, meet people and engage in good-natured fun. Some shoppers seriously inquire as to whether you really need Oystaflage to “catch oysters,” to which he responds, “Our shirts have a money-back guarantee; if you can’t catch an oyster with Oystaflage, you can send it back for a full refund!” The Realtree Camo representatives jokingly but competitively ask the same question, and Key abruptly quips: “Yeah, and I guess that Realtree helps y’all sneak up on trees, doesn’t it?”
Besides SEWE, Bart has set up booths at shows throughout the Southeast and beyond. Such events include ICAST, Palmetto Sportsmen's Classic, Neptune Festival of Virginia Beach, Destin Seafood Festival, Winyah Bay Heritage Festival and the Waterfowl Festival in Maryland.
Oystaflage koozies from Tideline Outfitters are also a hit. “I keep them in my truck and hand them out like business cards,” Bart says. Organizations such as the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) buy koozies and print their logo on them. Representatives from Mt. Olive Pickle Company, Inc., fell in love with an old-school camouflage pattern designed by Bart’s daughter Hayden.
“Some of the restaurants and seafood shops we’ve done some koozies, shirts and aprons for are Rodney’s Oyster House, the Half Shell, Awful Arthur’s Seafood and Bluffton Seafood,” Bart explains. Besides shirts and koozies, Tideline Outfitters produces hats, aprons, belts, dog collars, face masks and buffs, Oystaflage vinyl wrap, oyster cookers, paddleboard carts and golf cart accessories for beach and fishing enthusiasts.
Like many sportsmen, especially those from the Lowcountry, Bart Key is a passionate conservationist committed to giving back to the natural resources that inspired his outdoor pursuits and business enterprise. To that end, he formed a nonprofit with partner Kevin Joseph.
Although the organization is still in the start-up phase, the mission of Oysters Unlimited is “to protect, preserve and restore oyster habitats … everywhere.” Through partnerships, state chapters and outreach, Oysters Unlimited will seek to create new shell recycling, restoration, oystotourism, culinary and educational programs to ensure the sustainability of the beloved shellfish.
“I am Oystaflage’s biggest fan!” Key laughs. “I call it the ‘unfair advantage.’ When I walk out of the dove field with an early limit, people sometimes ask me, ‘What’s your secret?’ I tell them: ‘It’s the Oystaflage, Man! You’ve got to get you some!”
To “get you some” Oystaflage of your own, visit www.tidelineoutfitters.com.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.