Beer spices a long day of crabbing on the Shore

August 25, 2005|By KEVIN COWHERD

As a general rule, I prefer eating crabs to jumping in a boat and catching them, because the latter involves work, sunburn and the possibility of drowning, among other things.

When my buddies Gil, Neil and Tom invited me on a recent crabbing trip - by the way, we call Gil Captain Crab, because he's been crabbing since Lincoln was shot - I remembered another reason to avoid this particular pastime.

"We're leaving at 3:30," the Captain said.

"Please tell me there's a p.m. after that," I said.

"There isn't," he said.

So in the inky pre-dawn darkness a few days later, we made the two-hour drive to the tiny town of Benedict, which is way down on Maryland's Western Shore and which Daniel Boone couldn't find at that hour.

By 5:45, the Captain's 14-foot aluminum boat and Tom's motorboat were knifing across the Patuxent River to a spot across from a huge power plant with three large smokestacks and two cooling towers spewing white, gaseous clouds.

The cooling towers were sort of unnerving - I had visions of landing Day-Glo pink crabs as big as Honda Civics with 17 claws.

But Neil explained this wasn't a nuclear facility, but rather the Chalk Point Generating Station. Great, I thought. The pollution levels are probably so high, the crabs are carrying oxygen tanks.

Nevertheless, we laid down our trot line, 1,000 feet of rope baited every few feet with eel, which, to a crab, is like a bowl of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia is to us.

Then we went to work, running the boat along the line and using a dip net to catch whatever crabs were dumb enough to hang onto the bait.

Our first run produced about 20 crabs. But we had to throw a bunch back, as they were smaller than the legal length of 5 inches and therefore too young to keep.

This pained the Captain greatly. See, the Captain does not believe in the concept of crabs that are "too small" or "too young."

The crabs could have diapers on them, they could be wearing bibs and sucking on pacifiers, and his first inclination would be to throw them in the steamer and toss some Old Bay on them.

"But I'm an honest man," he'd say as he reluctantly threw the small crabs back. Then Neil and I would point out that statement was not entirely true, seeing as how the Captain is a retired attorney.

Our second run wasn't a whole lot better than the first. By now, another friend, Rick, had joined us in his boat, and his luck with his trot line wasn't any better. So at this point the Captain reached into a cooler and we cracked the first beers of the day.

I don't know whether you've ever had a beer at 6:30 in the morning while wolfing down a Tastykake peach pie for breakfast and watching freshly caught crabs skitter around in a bushel basket at your feet.

But it's a unique experience. And after a while, it sort of grows on you.

"The big crabs don't come out 'til 8 o'clock," the Captain said at this point.

"Then what the hell are we doing out here at 6:30?" asked Neil, which was by far the most sensible thing said the entire trip.

From that point on, though, our luck improved. An hour later, I jumped over to Tom's boat, where Tom and his son, Johnny, and our friend Erik were using traps to catch the crabs.

This was my first time using traps, and Neil warned it was a lot more work than a trot line.

"You're going to feel like you're on a chain gang," he said. "It'll be like Cool Hand Luke. You'll be seeing Strother Martin on that boat."

It was more work. But it was interesting to observe the different mechanisms of doom behind the traps, too.

They work like this: The trap hits the river bottom and opens on four sides. The crab wanders over to nibble on the bait - chicken necks in this case.

Gee, this is pretty good, the crab thinks. Maybe I'll just take another bite or two ...

Then, just as he's getting comfortable and thinking this is some kind of tasty, all-day buffet - WHAMO!

The crabber pulls the line, the trap slams shut and the crab is taking an express-elevator ride to the surface, where things will not end well.

By mid-morning, we were all getting a little tired - yeah, hard to believe with all that sleep the night before - and the Captain decided to take a nap in a duck blind on the water.

I don't know if you've ever been in a duck blind, but it's not exactly a place to kick off your shoes and stretch out.

Still, the Captain acted like it was a penthouse suite at the Four Seasons, so Neil and I left him there and continued crabbing as the sun climbed high in the sky.

By 11 or so, we had caught our limit and the first hints of sun-poisoning were being felt on our backs.

So we reeled in our trot line and traps, gathered up the Captain at the Duck Blind Hilton, and headed home.

There are some other things that happened on the trip - mainly involving adult language after a crab got away or someone suddenly hit the throttle on the engine and nearly pitched the others overboard.

But those stories cannot be told here.

Besides, what happens in Benedict, stays in Benedict.

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