I have lived in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed for more than 30 years, and I have cracked dozens of crabs in the summertime, but I am embarrassed to say that until recently, I had never been crabbing.
I don't mean tying a chicken neck to a piece of string and hanging it off the side of a dock while sitting next to a cooler of beer and a boom box. I mean real crabbing, like a real waterman.
Over the years, almost all the crabs I have eaten have been from a pile in the middle of my friend Betsy's dining room table, straight from the crab pot in her back yard, the rewards of regular Sunday morning crabbing trips. Betsy and her family don't believe in buying crabs when they can catch plenty.
I have been curious, and a little guilty, about those trips. I don't contribute much to her feasts but some fresh corn. But space on board her husband's open skiff was always reserved for one or more of their four children, who grew up crabbing just as their father did.
Now the kids are grown and gone, or busy, and there was a spot for me on a recent Sunday morning. I jumped at the chance to cross one wish off the bucket list of any proper Marylander.
My husband has always fussed about eating crabs — a hell of a lot of work for not much meat. I was about to find out how much more work goes into getting them to the table.
I was up at 3:30 in the morning, but Betsy's husband had been up for a while, getting the boat ready and loading a 1,200-foot trot line to which about 400 chicken necks dangled, carefully spaced every few feet.
Her husband, whose identity for the purposes of this column will remain as secret as his favorite double-secret crabbing spot, re-baits the line after every trip and gently curls it in a paint bucket and stores it in a freezer. He pulls it out the night before to thaw.
By 4:30 or so, we had launched the skiff in the Severn River, and the outboard motor was puttering us toward his sacred spot, found after years of prospecting with his kids. We watched as the sky turned a pale pink and we listened to the birds wake. The ducks swam out of their night shelters, and the occasional fish broke the water.
It was an idyllic beginning to a hard morning's work.
Betsy and her husband laid the trot line, with its terminal anchor buoys, while I sat like a lump and tried to stay out of the way. They were careful to keep it the mandatory 100 feet from other crabbers, but it wasn't easy to do. There had been a line at the boat launch, and the river was crowded.
While we waited for the crabs to wake up and smell the chicken necks, Betsy set up the crab-dipping station at the front of the boat: a pair of seat cushions to brace against and an elbow-shaped contraption made of PVC pipe hung over the side to snag the trot line. A net of metal mesh was at hand, and so was a pair of buckets in which to dump and then sort the crabs.
Crab dipping is a skill requiring concentration, instant judgment and the right technique. As the trot line emerges from the water on its way over the PVC hook, you can see the crabs hanging onto the chicken necks. Some are babies, some are females and some are white bellies — and they are not fair game. But catching them, throwing them in the bucket and then returning them to the water traumatizes them and only teaches them to avoid a trot line the next time.
You are aiming to net not just legal-sized crabs but the big boys, heavy with meat. But the glint of sunlight on the surface of the water will shock them into dropping off the line, so you have to act fast. Down and forward with the net, Betsy's husband kept saying, down and forward. If you miss one, there is no recovery and you face the ridicule of the veteran dippers.
I am pretty sure he thought I would be a squealing schoolgirl, and he was nearly right. Crabs got loose on the deck of the boat and they fought and scrambled in the bucket, and it unnerved this city girl.
But I think I acquitted myself well, snagging a couple dozen crabs, using the tongs to take them out of the bucket and measuring them for legality, and then tossing them back or putting them in the keeper bucket, where a wet cloth kept them from fighting, piercing a shell and killing each other.
We made more than a dozen passes along the trot line, the silent, electric trolling motor and the skilled driving of Betsy's husband moving us slowly through the water, the chicken necks flipping rhythmically over the hook.
We finished the day with a modest catch of about three dozen crabs. But there were tons of babies on the lines, and that means August will likely be good for crabs.
It was about 10 o'clock and the sun was on the water when we turned for home. As I said, crabs don't like sun.