Fisherman leaves no stone unturned

He stalks crawfish in lively Dead Run, sells them for bait


People zipping off to work early on a summer morning might notice the beat-up station wagon parked by a skinny stretch of trees in Woodlawn.

What they probably won't see is the burly man ducking into the woods with an empty bucket and a net strung between wood poles.

"Soon as you walk in these woods, you're going to see things you're not going to believe," says Ed Sonn, 57, a retired construction worker who visits this spot four times a week in warm weather.

As he walks down a dirt path, Sonn points out raccoon prints and deer tracks. But he didn't come here today to look for raccoons or deer, or even to search out the snapping turtle that lives amid the roots of a tree along the stream. He came to catch crawfish.

Dead Run, a sluggish stream that straggles along Security Boulevard before dumping into the Gwynns Falls, seems like a strange place to look for living creatures. The trees along its banks are choked with kudzu and strung with shreds of blue grocery bags. In one spot, water trickles through the rusted hulk of a washing machine.

At first, the stream bottom appears lifeless, the only movement a silver bag waggling in the water. Then some of the tawny rocks seem to shift. Claws, tails and antennas stand out from the sand. One crawfish appears. Then another and another.

"Yup, there they are," says Sonn. "Every stream in Maryland is full of crawfish. You just got to know how to get them out."

Luring crawfish - or crayfish, or crawdads or 'dads as he sometimes calls them - from their hiding places under rocks or deep in the mud is Sonn's specialty. For 35 years, he's been catching the crustaceans, which look like mini-lobsters, in area creeks. He sells them for 15 cents apiece to sporting goods stores for use as bait.

"I don't want you to think this is easy," Sonn says, bending over the stream with his net spread wide. "They're not dummies. Don't ever think crawfish are dummies."

He grasps one end of the poles and rests the others on rocks near a dead fish he left at dawn. With quick jerks of his wrist, he raps the rocks three times to get the crawfish jumping, then swoops the net out of the water.

Nine crawfish struggle in the net, claws waving, antennas twitching madly. Sonn picks them up with deft fingers. He throws back the newly hatched pinheads, females studded with eggs and peelers, those in the process of molting. He tosses the rest into his bucket.

"See, they know me," Sonn says. "I've caught most of these crawfish before. They probably have a name for me."

He holds a wriggling pinhead in his palm. "I may catch him 25 times in his life before he's big enough to keep," Sonn says, dropping it into the stream.

Sunlight sifts through the trees, glinting off sweat beaded on his neck. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Sonn spends his days coaxing crawfish into his bucket. While his mom was giving birth to Sonn, the eldest of six boys, his dad was out fishing.

His brothers became trophy fishermen, but Sonn was the only one to get serious about crawdadding. He saw that there was no need to shell out money for bait when the best was hiding by his feet. Nothing lures a yellow perch, channel catfish or a bass - smallmouth or largemouth - like a wriggling crawfish, Sonn says.

Crawdadding was just a hobby until Sonn was hit in the neck with a piece of drywall while on a construction job in 1993. He underwent several operations and was told that he could never do construction work again. Since then, health problems have piled up - diabetes, a quadruple heart bypass in 2001, surgery on his right knee last year and a left knee in need of an operation. He walks slowly now and swivels his left leg forward.

He brings in a few extra dollars selling crawfish to Clyde's Sport Shop in Lansdowne and Old Reisterstown Bait and Tackle.

"Eddie's got it down pat," says Bill Blamberg, one of Clyde's owners. "He's the only one we've found that's reliable."

But Sonn is quick to say he doesn't crawdad for the money.

"This is not a glory trail," Sonn says as he stands in thigh-deep water to check a trap he laid a few days ago. "I'm just doing it 'cause it's so interesting."

This is what interests Sonn about Dead Run: the bald eagles he calls "my buddies," the skunks whose scent lingers in the morning, the yellow eyed-blackbirds who wing along with him, a buck with a velvety rack that stared at him for a long time before bending down to drink. Sonn has even enjoyed watching the washing machine crumble over the years.

He pauses to listen to mockingbirds chattering in a tree.

"They're all talking to you, believe it or not," he says. "You just don't understand."

But most of all, it is the crawfish that fascinate him. Sonn says their eyes glow red at night and that they can grow back a claw in a week. He has observed that they dig deep into the mud when thunderstorms are on the way.

Pinheads are a dull brown, but the biggest crawfish gleam deep shades of rust and verdigris. Close up, they can be heard skittering up the sides of Sonn's bucket.

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