- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2007

GOLDEN BEACH, Md. — Crabs are devoured by tens of thousands of people who live in the middle Atlantic and some Gulf states, but ask a resident in Chesapeake Bay country and you’ll quickly learn that no one knows more about the blue claw crab than Marylanders. When it comes to cooking (or rather steaming) them, a bay resident is convinced that most of the people south of Virginia have no inkling about the proper table treatment of crabs.

My favorite crabbing partner, St. Mary’s County’s Bob Rice, agrees.

As we readied his boat for a morning of trot-lining for crabs — attaching a large garden-hose reel filled with 1,000 feet of baited line to the side of the boat’s console, then adding three or four empty bushel baskets, anchors, floats and a small cooler filled with water and sandwiches — we discussed the crab mania that strikes Maryland every summer and fall.

After all, where else would two trot-lining crabbers get into a fight, one of them suffering knife wounds and ending up in a local hospital — all because of crabs. It happened recently on the Wicomico River, near the Chaptico Wharf.

Some years ago in Charles County’s Nanjemoy Creek, a tidal Potomac River tributary, I watched two crabbers get into fisticuffs after they returned to land because one accidentally laid his line over a portion of the other man’s line — a major faux pas among trot-lining crabbers.

An Eastern Shore acquaintance of mine who is a commercial crab pot operator recalls thefts of crabs from local pots near Kent Island. One night, the man who owned the pots waited for the culprit. Around 10 p.m. he heard a boat with a small outboard motor coming through the Chesapeake”s humid haze. A man leaned over and pulled several pots, then emptied the crabs from the box-shaped traps into a small barrel on his boat. He stopped when several rifle shots struck his V-bottom craft at water level.

Later that night, a state trooper picked up a wet and cold Baltimore man on the bay”s shore. He said someone shot at him while he was “night fishing” and that his boat sank. True or not, it’s a story that is happily repeated by Eastern Shore crabbers.

But back to our expedition.

Rice, an expert at properly seasoning and steaming crabs in a large pot over a propane cooker, finished hitching his boat to the truck and then drove the brief distance from his home to a Patuxent River boat launch ramp. Within 20 minutes he began readying his trot-line that was baited with pieces of chicken necks. It began with a small boat anchor that provided the weight to keep the line on the bottom, then a plastic float, followed by releasing the line from the revolving hose reel. The slowly spinning reel allowed him to pay out the long line, which at the other end was attached to yet another float and anchor.

The line now sat on the bottom in six feet of river water. We eventually lifted one end of it into a hoop on the starboard side and Rice slowly ran along, pieces of bait rising from the river’s floor, an occasional crab hanging onto the “food.” That”s when I would quickly slip a wire-meshed dip net under the crab and pull it away from the bait. It would be deposited in a crab basket and at the end of a run we’d stop and measure our catch. Anything less than five inches from body spike to body spike was put back into the river. Later this summer, it will not be unusual to have crabs hanging on every other bait, which will immediately give rise to Maryland officials claiming that we’re having a banner crab year. However, it’s never a banner crab year when waterfront restaurants charge $30 and $35 for a dozen of barely legal crabs, as they’re currently doing.

Despite a strong northeast wind and increasing waves, Rice and I filled a bushel basket with fine Jimmy crabs — fat males that would provide a sumptuous meal for our families later that day.

Of course, Marylanders steam their crabs after generously dousing them with a mixture of coarse salt and Old Bay seasoning. Compare that to places like Florida and Louisiana, even Georgia and the Carolinas, where they boil the heavenly crustaceans. That’s pure sacrilege. Imagine preparing to eat a hardshell crab and a half pint of water flows from it as you pull it apart.

The ignominy of it all.

c Look for Gene Mueller”s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.