Soft-shells won't be a hard sell

Crabs: A bigger and more plentiful early harvest has watermen and restaurants ready to eat up profits this season.

May 29, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Amid all the doom and gloom about the health of the Chesapeake Bay comes this news: Soft-shell crabs are plumper and more plentiful than during any season in recent years.

From Annapolis to Crisfield, those who make their living catching and selling Maryland's iconic crustaceans are eating up this early bounty. Somehow, the crabs knew to shed their shells just in time for the Memorial Day weekend, when many pleasure boaters first rev up their motors and the long summer of beach traffic begins.

"The biggest run is right now," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, as he cruised the bay off Love Point in Kent Island. "They've just come out. They're all ready to shed."

Soft-shells usually measure 3 to 4 inches this time of year, Simns said, but this year they're about an inch or so longer.

But at waterman David Cantler's crab shed along Mill Creek in Annapolis, the crabs are nearly twice as large as the average size last year. One measured 7 1/2 inches across, and it wasn't the largest one on a packed metal tray.

"They're big this year. Biggest soft crabs I've ever seen," said Cantler, who sells jumbo soft-shells for $3. "It's early, so most people don't even know we have them."

No one can say for sure why the soft-shells seem to be faring so well. The bay grasses that crabs need to hide from predators during their most vulnerable, shell-free stages are disappearing fast because of pollution.

One logical explanation may be the weather. Crabs like a warm climate for shedding, and recent temperatures have been cooperative.

Because the soft-shell season is short - it usually runs from Mother's Day until the second week in June, with another burst in August - last year's chill cut it short.

But the current abundance of soft crabs doesn't necessarily mean that the hard-shell season will be as bountiful. A winter dredge survey, an indicator of how many crabs are in the bay, showed watermen can expect a moderate harvest overall this year, about equal to last year's.

"It's nature at work, and it's hard to pin it down," said Terry Conway, owner of Handy International Inc., a seafood supplier in Crisfield. "Most watermen over 70 are still trying to figure it out. It's a lifelong thought process."

What's not so hard to digest is the uptick in business. Handy is selling 70 percent more soft-shells than it did last year. Every day, a shipment of Handy's fresh soft-shells leaves Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"After you eat the first one, you want 10 more," Conway said. "It's a very unusual, delicate taste. People can get very emotionally excited when the first soft crabs arrive."

Perhaps nowhere is that jubilation more apparent than at Cantler's Riverside Inn along Mill Creek in Annapolis. A homespun bar adorned with a rockfish sticker proclaiming "Maryland watermen rock," the place is known for its just-caught crabs that come from Mill Creek and nearby Whitehall Bay.

Below the restaurant's deck and across the parking lot from David Cantler's operation, Cantler's seafood manager Sherry Gore monitors hundreds of crabs in about a dozen labeled white basins.

Because a soft-shell is basically a hard crab that has just shed its shell and is about to grow a new one, timing is key. Gore and the watermen check the peelers every hour in season because they have to take them out of the tank quickly after they begin shedding.

"From everything I've been told, it looks like it's going to be a super season for soft-shell crabs," Gore said. "Everybody likes that first run. They say, `Fresh soft-shell crabs? Haven't had those in a while.' Everybody wants the first ones that are local."

This week's lunchtime indulgers included Susan Kingsbury of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who was in town visiting her 11-day-old grandson, Tristan Ridgeway.

The infant, on his first outing, sat in his car seat as Kingsbury dived into a soft-shell on a toasted roll with tomato. She pronounced the sandwich tasty but said the crab was small.

Then there was Albert Neutzner, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health who brought his parents, who were visiting from Germany, to try the soft-shells.

"I've heard they're supposed to be good, but I've never had one," said Neutzner, who also ordered a sandwich. "I know they're taken out of the water, and you can eat them completely. I'm curious."

Myrna Zezza told the Cantler's waitress that she and her husband, Bill Chung, had traveled 5,000 miles for crabs. The Hawaii residents, in town for a friend's graduation from the Naval Academy, seemed to be munching their way across the mid-Atlantic Coast.

Chung said he'd eaten soft-shells in Virginia Beach, Smithfield and Tilghman Island and pronounced those in Tilghman Island best, in part because of a wonderful sherry sauce.

Until this trip, Chung said, he hadn't had a fresh soft-shell since he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1972.

"I'm full of crab," Chung said as he ate Cantler's crab cakes. "I'm enjoying every bit of this."

Chung timed his visit well: The best soft-shell season in years will likely end by next weekend. Yesterday, Gore said, Cantler's watermen brought in only 56 soft-shells, compared with 300 to 500 a day earlier in the week.

Those who don't indulge soon will have another chance at fresh soft-shells in August. But thanks to the recent catch, soft-shells will be on the menu for a long time to come.

At the Cheshire Crab restaurant in Pasadena, chef and general manager Peter Brown is freezing more than half of the 30 dozen or so coming in every day from watermen near Bodkin Creek so customers can order them, sauteed or fried, even during lean times.

"You hardly see anything like this. They're beautiful," Brown said. "I'm buying as many as these guys can bring me."

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