Crabber's craft links art to commerce


Watermen: Nature's glory and human determination meet on the Chesapeake in an aquatic dance seen by few but benefiting many.

October 01, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WAKES lashing the calm bay, searchlights stabbing the starry blackness. The Tangier crab pot fleet sallies from the harbor for another long day's pursuit of Callinectes sapidus, that savory, beautiful swimmer, the Chesapeake blue crab.

What we have here is commerce, also culture. But ultimately we have art - the art of crabbing, to be sure; but even more profound, the artistry of the crab.

There's a signature, a dance unique to the crab potter's craft. Watch from a vantage point on Tangier as the island's watermen spread out into the bay, spotlights locating the corks that mark the first string of pots.

Full reverse, then throttle down; hook the first cork and, in the same motion, feed its line into a hydraulic pulley that shrieks as it rockets the trapped crabs to the surface. Hoist the pot, dump the crabs, jam in fresh bait. Full throttle to the next pot.

Hook, pull, hoist, dump, re-bait, fast forward ... on board, in the glare of deck lights, all-weather radio speakers blare Christian rock from WOLC in Princess Anne.

Pumped by the beat, and mindful he's got 300 pots to fish, the potter slams gears, sorts crabs, bobs around the deck with the speed and forceful precision of a boxer.

Hook, pull, hoist, dump, re-bait, fast forward ... GREAAAAAT IS THE LOORRRRD! He's got four pots fished by song's end. And another 296 to go.

An hour later, gliding slowly along the island's edges, come the soft crab scrapers. Impending sunrise casts the eastern horizon in violets and pinks. The quickening light coaxes the colors of goldenrod and creamy, blooming baccharis from the marshes.

Broad and squat, scrape boats fish close to land at a few miles per hour, small engines seldom rising above a chuckle and a murmur. Designed to "float on a heavy dew," they haul twin mesh bags across shallow sea grass meadows, scooping molting crabs that seek refuge there.

Scrapers move sedately to and fro, describing great whorls and circles and esses through the grasses, pausing as the starboard net, then the port, are hauled aboard for the crabber to sort through rolls of sea grass literally quivering with marine life.

I would like to put a GPS unit on a scrape boat to record its position every few minutes, then print it out at day's end to illustrate the graceful patterns of this slow, wandering pursuit of shedding crabs.

Sun's up now, and the dip netters have come out, perched surferlike on the very bow-tip of their little wooden skiffs, pivoting, bracing, turning, shooting forward by pushing their long-handled dip nets against the shallow bottom.

Conducted in silence, dipping crabs as they lie on the bottom is the prettiest way anyone has figured out to fish - I'll put it against fly-casting any day.

Skiff and netter move conjoined, half man, half boat, a Chesapeake centaur. Netter and net handle perform an intimate dance - etching elegant, spare verticals on the horizontality of bay and marsh.

No space today for the trotliner, the bank trapper, the winter crab dredger, the peeler potter or the chicken necker, all ways of crabbing with their own signatures and rhythms.

In photos and paintings, in poetry and music, we celebrate the watermen who seek the crab, and the fishing cultures and bayside villages underwritten by their livelihoods.

But it is the crab who calls the tunes to which so much else dances beneath the Chesapeake sky - does it sublimely, its tastiness inviting - no, commanding that we invent myriad ways to capture and consume it.

Lawrence Durrell wrote of France that if we were to wipe it clean of all civilization and begin again, the soil and climate and other natures of the place would again give you essential Frenchmen, surely as they would great wine.

And so it would be with our Chesapeake and crabbing.

The homages to Callinectes, essayed daily by watermen across the bay, the seasons and the centuries, are art that is all the more artful for contriving nothing.

Each afternoon, as long slants of lowering sun sparkle goldenly across the waters that enisle Tangier, no trace remains of the day's dance. The slate is erased, ready for the next day's inscriptions.

It is part of the art of the blue crab that it demands daily and annual re-enactment, disdains museuming or archiving, commands our full engagement.

If water quality continues to deteriorate in the Chesapeake, perhaps we will learn to farm crabs inland - or import all our crabmeat from abroad.

It might satisfy our taste for crab cakes, but our souls would hunger.

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