If you were born in Maryland, you know the world's most exotic sea creature is a Chesapeake Bay blue crab.
This majestic crustacean adorns tables of restaurants throughout Harford County, is always a big hit at summer picnics and can be prepared using more recipes than any other form of seafood. Before you can cook crabs, you'll have to catch them.
Large numbers of crabs currently inhabit the upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay. Here are a few tips that will make catching them an experience the entire family can enjoy.
Currently, Maryland residents are not required to purchase a Chesapeake Bay Sportfishing License to catch limited numbers
of blue crabs.
One of the best aspects of recreational crabbing is they're easy to catch from boats, piers or bulkheads. In some instances they can be caught with a simple dip net while wading the shallows along a rock-strewn shoreline.
Additionally, it's a sport that doesn't require a second mortgage on your home to purchase the equipment necessary to get started. Depending on the method you select, your initial investment could be less than $20.
Hand lines -- There's nothing more challenging than trying to outwit a cagey crustacean that's trying to steal your bait. However, Chesapeake Bay sport crabbers have been doing just that for more than 100 years. They use a popular hand-lining technique known locally as chicken necking, the least expensive method of catching crabs.
With this system, you merely purchase a roll of lightweight nylon string, a half-dozen 6-ounce fishing sinkers, a pound or two of inexpensive chicken necks and a long-handled dip net.
A sinker is tied to the end of each line and a chicken neck is tied a few inches above the sinker. Do not remove the skin. Most of the oils are contained within the skin and it's this scent that attracts crabs.
Lower the baited lines into the water until they reach bottom. If you're crabbing from a small boat, anchor in depths of less than 10 feet. During warmer months, crabs feed heavily in the shallows. If you're crabbing from a pier or bulkhead, allow approximately two feet of slack line and tie the end to a pier piling or dock board. When a crab finds the chicken neck, it picks up the bait and moves it to a secluded area.
This is the point where the entire family gets involved. Chicken necking requires teamwork, and everyone must poses a fair degree of patience, skill and coordination.
As the crab moves away with your bait, the line will draw relatively tight. Moving as if in slow motion, grasp the end of the line and slowly pull the struggling crab toward the surface. Naturally, the crab isn't enthralled about the possibility of being removed from the water, but because they're extremely aggressive, releasing its grasp on the chicken neck is out of the question.
When a crab comes into view, someone must carefully slip the net under the entire rig and quickly lift it from the water.
Collapsible traps -- Collapsible wire crab traps are available at tackle shops throughout Maryland, ranging in price from $5 to $7 each. They're extremely effective when used from piers, bulkheads or boats, but because of their design, they must be lowered into the water -- not tossed.
The trap is a wire box measuring about one cubic foot. A chunk of bait -- chicken neck, piece of salted eel or frozen bait fish -- is attached to the trap's floor with a piece of soft wire or nylon string. The rig then is lowered to the bottom with a length of 1/8 -inch nylon line attached to the collapsible trap doors.
When crabbing with collapsible traps, you'll need patience. A hungry crustacean must cross over a wire mesh door to dine on a bait it can't move. If you're lucky, they'll be content and feast until the trap is lifted. The difficult part about this operation is getting the crab out of the trap and into a basket without getting bitten. A good pair of crab tongs easily solves the dilemma.
Trot lines -- Catching crabs with a trot line isn't easy. In fact, it's hard work, requiring the use of a small boat with sufficient stability to support two people standing on the same side of the craft. The line can be either a 500-foot length of 1/8 -inch braided nylon or twisted, tarred sisal rope. A heavy anchor, weighing 10 to 20 pounds, is attached at each end of the line along with plastic jugs used as marker buoys. Chunks of bait are attached directly to the line at 3- to 5-foot intervals. Some of the more popular baits are salted eel, chicken necks and salted bull lips.
Once baited, the line is stretched over an expanse of river bottom ranging in depth from 5 to 12 feet. After a brief wait, one end is picked up and placed over a metal hook or roller attached to the boat's side or gunwale. As the boat slowly cruises along the line, crabs are gently lifted toward the surface where they're quickly netted.
Where are the best places to go crabbing? The mouth of Bush River, Gunpowder River, lower Susquehanna Flats, Turkey Point, Elk River, Pooles Island and Maxwell Point are just a few of the more productive areas in and near Harford County.
A comprehensive map of public fishing piers and launch ramps is available from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources by calling (410) 974-3765 or (800) 688-FINS (688-3467). A limited quantity of crab-measuring rulers and copies of crabbing regulations are available.