By 11 a.m. on a recent Monday, the heat wave gripping Maryland has begun to drive even the hard-core regulars from their crabbing at Schnaitman's Boat Rentals on the scenic Wye River.
Just docking are Stan Stewart, 71, and his wife of 48 years, Marie, who arose this morning at 1:40 to get here by first light, when the crabbing's best. As they have almost every week, spring through fall, for nearly 20 years, the couple will pick up some fresh sweet corn at a farm stand, and complete the 280-mile round trip from their home by around 4 p.m.
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The phone will be ringing -- one of several grandchildren eager to know how many of the Wye River's jumbo blue crabs they caught; and later in the evening, the Stewart clan will gather in Hummelstown, Pa., to savor the best Maryland's Chesapeake has to offer.
No one can say precisely how many pleasant scenarios like that occur every day throughout Maryland and the mid-Atlantic region. But the latest survey of recreational crabbing in Maryland's part of the Chesapeake, taken in 1990, estimates that 500,000 people make around 2.5 million trips annually to catch the blue crab for fun and food. And many suspect the survey considerably understates the true numbers.
Indeed, pursuit of the bay's crabs has expanded dramatically in recent decades as Maryland's population virtually doubled, and commercial watermen, having lost most of their traditional fisheries for oysters, striped bass and shad, have turned to crabbing nearly full time.
As concern has grown in the 1990s that crabs are being overfished throughout the Chesapeake, even the dozen or so crabs said to be caught by the typical "chicken necker," as recreational crabbers are known, is coming under new and critical scrutiny.
Maryland and Virginia have recently passed regulations that limit the number of crabs being taken from the bay, and it appears they soon will need to get more restrictive. (The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an Annapolis-based environmental group, last Thursday called on both states to ban crabbing in the bay's deep waters.) A recent round of public-information hearings in Maryland, detailing worrisome downtrends in crabs, pitted commercial and recreational crabbers against one another.
Chicken neckers argue that while there may be only a few thousand serious commercial crabbers, those crabbers take crabs by the ton.
Watermen counter that there are millions of potential chicken neckers, their numbers growing without limit; and many of them catch more than the surveys indicate, and, moreover, do it for profit, illegally selling their catch to bars and restaurants.
One thing is certain. It is a debate that raises questions about the future of a pastime that is as much a part of living in Maryland as taking in an Orioles game or vacationing at the beach.
On peak summer weekends at Wye Landing, the public boat-launch ramp by Schnaitman's, it can seem as if the chicken neckers are going to overrun the world. By 5 a.m., traffic is backed up nearly a mile with people from as far away as New Jersey and West Virginia, all eager to try their luck in the deep, labyrinthine channels of the Wye, where the Chesapeake Bay blue crab grows larger than anywhere else in the 180-mile-long estuary.
"When she's backed up with people trying to get launched before it's even light, Barnum and Bailey's circus got nothing on this little ramp," says Charlie Schnaitman, 63, who has spent his life by the landing.
The little landing, not even listed on many road maps and boaters' charts, is virtually the only point of public access to the Wye, whose bucolic shoreline remains mostly in private estates, farms and undeveloped, state-owned Wye Island.
For most of the last couple of centuries, Wye Landing was primarily a quiet spot for local watermen, a place where horse-drawn wagons of grain came down to unload onto sailing schooners and steamboats. Now, from annual launching fees of $10 a year per boat ($35 for out-of-staters), the ramp takes in more than $27,000 a year.
In fact, Schnaitman's, which Charlie's waterman father began as a sideline in the 1930s, is a big part of the lure of crabbing the Wye nowadays. Located next to the public ramp, it features around a hundred wooden rowboats, which Mr. Schnaitman builds in the off-season. With their high sides and flat, stable bottoms, they are ideal platforms for crabbers of every age.
A pocket out of time
The boats rent for $22 a day -- a day covering the legal sport-crabbing hours from 5:30 a.m. until sunset. Anything else you need for crabbing, Schnaitman's will sell or rent -- dipnets, crab traps, line, chicken necks, sinkers, life preservers, seasonings for steaming crabs, even long-handled tongs for safely handling the big ones -- some prime jimmies, or male crabs, here run to nearly 9 inches across their backs (legal keeping size is 5 inches).