I WAITED AS THE first full moon of May appeared on the 22nd. I was patient as Mother's Day and Memorial Day became history. I held my breath as the strawberries appeared on their vines, and the locust trees, at least some of them, started to bloom.
All these traditional markers of the arrival of Chesapeake Bay soft crabs slipped past. But there were few signs of local soft crabs. Then, like late-arriving dinner guests, they suddenly showed up this week in local restaurants and seafood markets. I was so happy to see them again that I almost forgot about all the worry they had put me through, as I waited for their much-anticipated arrival.
As late as Memorial Day, the soft crabs I had found in the Baltimore seafood markets were imports, flown in from Southern waters. These imports didn't have the big bodies, or the lower price tag, that distinguish the local talent.
So two weeks ago I got on the phone and called around the state, asking what was happening. I was told that the bay crabs, like the rest of us, had been reluctant to peel anything off during this cold spring weather. This meant that the first soft-crab run of the season, that luscious time of the year when massive numbers of bay blue crabs shed their shells and try to grow new ones, was late this year.
Two weeks ago in Crisfield, Carol Haltaman said she had seen few soft crabs. Haltaman is president of John T. Handy Seafood Co., an operation that buys crabs caught by watermen, including those plying the crab-rich waters near Smith and Tangier islands in the middle of the lower Chesapeake Bay.
As head of a company that sells soft crabs around the world, Haltaman is familiar with what folk wisdom -- when the strawberries are on the vine, the soft crabs will begin shedding -- and computer printouts have to say about the habits of Chesapeake Bay crabs.
This year, the computer data indicated that the soft-crab harvest was about two weeks behind schedule, Haltaman said.
The reason for the slow start, she added, seems to be the spring weather. The cool weather, especially the plunging nighttime temperatures, has kept the water temperature down.
As I understand the situation, crabs are sensitive to temperature. When it's cold, crabs don't move around much. This means they are less likely to gorge themselves and get too big for their shells.
When I spoke to Haltaman, a few days after Memorial Day, the water temperature near Crisfield had been in the low 60s, she said. This was about 10 degrees below the normal water temperature in late May, she added.
Last Sunday however, the water temperature climbed to 67 degrees, and the soft crabs were arriving in droves.
Watermen working the Virginia section of the bay were bringing in especially large catches, she said.
That is how it goes in the soft-crab business, she said. One day you are twiddling your thumbs, waiting for action. Then suddenly the soft crabs show up like a bus load of tourists arriving at a McDonald's. Then you work until you almost drop from exhaustion.
"Finally, finally, finally, the soft crabs are here," Haltaman said this week.
Up the bay, in Dorchester County, J. C. Tolley of Meredith & Meredith seafood packers, reported much the same situation. As the water temperature climbed, the soft-crab catch improved.
He also agreed that the start of the soft-crab season has been tardy this year. Not only have springtime temperatures been below normal, Tolley said, but the wind has also been fierce.
"It seems we have had more northwest blows this spring than we had all winter," Tolley said.
A northwest wind is usually a cold wind, he said, adding that such conditions make life tough for the crabs and the men trying to catch them.
I wondered why, if the crabs have been slowed by the cold, the strawberries and the locust trees have not been affected.
"It has been an odd spring," said Tolley. He noted that in some spots around the bay, the locust trees have already bloomed, while in other nearby locations the locust trees remain bloom-free.
So this year, the soft crabs have fooled those of us who watch the calendar, the locust tree and the strawberry patch for signs of their arrival.
But while nobody likes to be fooled, our revenge -- feasting on platters of fresh, local sauteed soft crabs -- will be sweet.
Emiliano Sanz, chef at Tio Pepe restaurant in Baltimore, spoke for many Marylanders when he described the joy a cook feels when the local soft crabs arrive. The early-season soft crabs from Florida, Louisiana or North Carolina are nice to cook with, the chef said, "but the Maryland crabs are so much heavier. You saute them until their skin is crisp, and serve them with a sauce on the side. Ahh, they are my favorite."
Pub Date: 6/08/97