- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

Outdoors

BENEDICT, Md. At a little after 4:30 in the morning, the only lights we saw on the Patuxent River were navigational hazard blinkers on the Route 231 bridge those and the occasional backyard porch bulb on a shoreline home. The rest of the waterway was dark as blackstrap molasses, and the sudden screech of a great blue heron who was indignant when our boat came too close to its perch eerily pierced the quiet night.
But Bob Rice was on a mission. "We need to get there to stake out our spot. It's Friday. There'll be half a dozen trotliners in the creek where I want to run my line."
As his center console's remarkably quiet outboard motor hummed along, he added, "You want enough crabs for the family, don't you?"
With only his boat's stern light and the red/green navigation lights on the bow providing a little guidance, Rice unerringly found the exact spot he wanted to drop his licensed, 1,500-foot trotline. As the tide slowly receded, Rice's electronic depth sounder showed the water to be between six and seven feet deep. He was satisfied because so far only one other crabber had shown up and Rice knew the man.
"Our crabbing has been hot and cold," said the retired government worker. "One day I find plenty of them; the next it's as if there wasn't a crab in this entire river."
It hasn't always been that way. The Patuxent River on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore's Wye River usually were considered the premier crabbing rivers in Maryland. It's not that the others couldn't deliver the blueclaws; no, that wasn't it. The Wye and the Patuxent, for some reason, were favorite picks of boat-trailering recreational crabbers, hence received a lot more pressure.
Now, however, the entire Maryland/Virginia region laments the lack of plentiful supplies of the delectable crustaceans. For example, this time of year every seafood restaurant from Baltimore to Washington should be serving native Chesapeake Bay crabs, but a truck driver for one St. Mary's County eatery told us just a few days ago that he drives twice weekly to southeastern North Carolina to pick up crabs for his boss.
What does that tell you?
Meanwhile, as the first light of day showed up over the Calvert County shore, Rice began "laying" his line. It was an intricate, oft-rehearsed release of a heavy weight at one end, followed by a marker buoy, then 1,500 feet of nylon that had the consistency of venetian blind cord. Every four or five feet, in self-tightening slip knots, the trotline held a generous piece of chicken neck. When hundreds of the baits had been unwound from a large vertical spool, Rice snatched up the end, attached a buoy to it, then followed it with a separate piece of line that held the other anchor weight. The job was done.
"In the old days, we'd sit here, smoke a cigarette and wait a while for the crabs to pick up the scent of the baits," said Rice. "But I've quit smoking, so let's run it and see if it needs to be tightened or loosened."
The boat's starboard side was brought alongside the buoy that touched the mouth of the creek. I picked up the bright red float with a boat hook, moved it behind an open hoop made of PCV pipe that was attached to the boat's gunwales, and soon the trotline began to slide up toward the hoop and back down behind it while Rice slowly edged the boat forward with the outboard motor.
The first crab came along by the 15th or 16th bait. It was a beauty, a "dirty" crab, as Rice calls the brown-bellied, heavy males that have dark, almost blacktop shells. "Way to go," he said with a big smile. "That's the first one, and look there's another." It, too, was snatched up with a long-handled dip net weaved from narrow-mesh wire.
The first run of the line all 1,500 feet of it produced 10 crabs. We were happy to have those 10 beauties but also sad because in days gone by a half bushel of crabs on one such run would not have been unusual.
Rice waited a few minutes, then started again. This time we had nine crabs. The third trip netted only four or five, then only three, followed by one run that provided only one.
Still, after three hours we managed to fill a bushel basket with some of the finest looking crabs this side of heaven.
Rice, never one to be greedy, said, "Let's go home and steam these boys."
We eventually had a feast of perfectly seasoned blueclaws. It is undeniable that Rice is a master of the steam pot.
What hurts a fellow who might go out twice a month, then looks at the thousands of crab pot buoys that litter the Chesapeake and its rivers like a case of measles gone haywire, is the realization that commercial seafood lobbyists have far more influence with the Maryland and Virginia legislatures than they should be permitted. What a shame. Those so-called crab conservation regulations both states are patting themselves on the back for are so meaningless, we fear the worst for the future of this Chesapeake creature.
Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report every Friday only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]



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