- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

DRUMCLIFF, Md.At 5 in the morning, with the humidity so high you could have sliced the air, Bob Rice let his center console boat slide from a trailer into the Patuxent River and said ominously, "Those crabs are in trouble. Imagine, you and me running a trotline together from the same boat. The crabs don't have a chance."

It was classic Rice. He's a man who ought to be cloned and spread around this land of ours. We need more like him.

To wit: Instead of cursing the presence of another crabber when he reached a small cove where he could search for Maryland's pride and joy, the blueclaw crab, he approached the fellow, wished him a good morning, introduced himself, then asked in which direction he'd strung his line.

The crabber, whose boat bore commercial license numbers, seemed surprised. He provided the information, even smiled (a rarity when recreational and commercial crabbers meet), then quietly went about his business.

The whole deal was vintage Rice. He's a disarming gentleman who shortly after the dawn encounter unspooled 1,000 feet of eel-baited trotline from an ingeniously rigged garden hose reel that was mounted on the starboard side of his boat's console.

Amid talk about the current state of the Chesapeake Bay's top cash cow for commercial fishermen, the crab, Rice put a 10- or 12-pound weight over the side, let some 30 feet of line it was tied to run out with it, then snapped brightly painted jug buoys at the end, with more line and a length of bottom-hugging chain following it. That was clipped to the line on the hose reel, which now slowly unwound. The outboard motor pushed the boat along slowly, Rice carefully paying out the thin rope as straight as possible. The nylon from the big spool contained a finger-sized piece of eel every four or five feet, and before long it rested on the river bottom in five to six feet of water, with another buoy and anchor holding down the opposing end.

"The crabbing has been terrible," said Rice. "If only the state had enough guts to make some real changes, the crab population would bounce back in no time. We need a total prohibition on the taking of female crabs, and as far as males are concerned, why not increase the minimum width requirement from 5 to 5-1/4 inches? That tiny quarter-inch would save millions of crabs every year and provide future harvests. The whole deal would allow many more crabs to mate and multiply."

Rice observes a self-imposed size increase. In fact, most of his crabs have to measure more than the 5-1/4 inches he'd like to see enforced. "You can afford to be choosy when you run a trotline," he says, "and as far as females are concerned, there'll never be any in my baskets."

After waiting 10 minutes or so, allowing the river's crabs to pick up the scent of the eel baits, hopefully attracting them so they could greedily cling to the food, Rice and I picked up the line just behind the first buoy and watched as it slowly slid across a section of curved plastic plumbing pipe. With the forward movement of the boat the contraption pulled the line from the bottom, let it pass over and back down into the water behind the craft.

"There's a nice one," said Rice after six or seven baits passed uneventfully. I stuck the long-handled wire net under the crab and quickly pulled it away from the bait, a fat nasty-tempered male inside the wire mesh. It was flipped into a sorting basket. More crabs followed, some of them exceptionally large, others not big enough to meet Rice's standards so they were pushed away from the baits.

After the initial run of the 1,000-foot line, we had 17 good-sized keeper crabs not great when compared to the days of yore when a similar run might have resulted in half a bushelful, but not bad either.

Rice and I alternated with the crab-netting duties, after each run stopping long enough to drink cool water from a jug, and always complaining about the oppressive heat.

Thanks to Rice's knowledge of the river, having previously checked on the best location for a trotline run, we filled a bushel basket by 9 a.m.

Friends, we're talking about brown-bellied, blue-clawed beauties that soon were seasoned with coarse salt and Old Bay, then steamed in a propane gas-heated pot. The taste of the crabs was heavenly.

"What worries me," said Rice, "is that the PETA animal rights bunch will find out what we do with live crabs and, brother, will they ever come down here to protest against my steam pot and my seasoning."

Last I saw of him, he plucked the backfin meat from one of the crabs and smiled like the Cheshire cat.


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