- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

SANDGATES, Md.

When my friends Bob Rice and Tony Maddox plan a day on the Patuxent, “laying” a trotline into a tidal sector of the river that varies between 7 and 10 feet in depth, I want to be invited. I need to come along. A day of autumnal crabbing soothes the soul, and the older I get the more soothing it becomes.

Hallelujah! The sticky days are gone; temperatures are perfect for a light jacket in the early hours, then it’s shirtsleeves all the way and there’s no need to drink 20 gallons of ice water to keep from succumbing to heatstroke.

“We’re going out on Friday,” Rice said recently. “Tell your bride she’ll be eating crabs that night.” He’s a cocky one that Bob, apparently sure that he’ll connect, knowing where the delectable blueclaws hang out.

We met while the local St. Mary’s County roosters were still fast asleep. Everyone downed a cup of coffee, then helped to load Bob’s center-console boat with two long-handled wire nets, empty bushel baskets and lids. We put in a garden hose reel wound full with a long, eel-baited trotline, added a cooler filled with sandwiches and sodas, then departed for the water.

During the drive to the launch ramp, and even while slipping the boat off its trailer, a muted discussion focused on Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich and how disappointed we were by his staffing of the Department of Natural Resources with people in command positions who are unabashedly in favor of commercial fishing and pretty much scornful of the recreational fishing and/or crabbing community.

One of them, waterman Kenny Keen, recently was named director of Maryland Fisheries. Imagine, a man who has no formal training, no degree in fish management or biology, running the fisheries department.

In regard to a recent Coastal Conservation Association/Southern Maryland meeting where Keen showed up to introduce himself to skeptical sport anglers, Rice said, “He was very careful with what he said, [but] the man doesn’t know much of anything about fisheries management or programs except for the commercial aspects, based on his years of experience as a waterman.

“When questioned on specific issues and contemporary fishery problems faced by the state, he lacked personal knowledge of many but indicated he would be scheduled for more DNR briefings to acquaint him with a working knowledge of these matters. He has the notion that the numbers of sport fishermen and those of commercial watermen are evenly balanced because he includes seafood consumers on the side of the watermen’s head count.”

Imagine that, counting seafood buyers and consumers as part of the commercial fishing family. That’s kind of like saying if you’re a real fan of pro football, that makes you an NFL player. Hoo, boy!

The discussion about Ehrlich’s blatantly pro-waterman stance came to an end. Now there was enough light to see where we were headed. Rice soon had the boat in proper position and payed out the entire length of line. Two other crabbers were seen a quarter-mile away.

“Let’s run it,” he said after waiting a good while, hoping the blueclaws would attach themselves on the slip-knotted, finger-long pieces of eel. The boat was moved alongside a floating buoy that marked the beginning of the line, and Maddox picked up the line with a boat hook and slipped it onto a U-shaped PCV pipe contraption that hung alongside the boat’s starboard gunwale. As Rice put-putted along, Maddox watched the line rising from the bottom, sliding across the line roller and back down into the water behind it.

Suddenly, there were crabs. Maddox dipped one, two, three without stop, quickly depositing them into a waiting basket, then resumed the removal by wire net of crabs that just didn’t want to let go of the salted baits.

By the time we finished three runs, one bushel was nearly full of gorgeous male crabs, all of them easily exceeding the minimum required 5-inch shell width.

By 10 a.m. there were enough crabs for three hungry families, with enough to spare for the later picking of crabmeat that would be turned into delectable crab cakes or helping to stuff a rockfish.

Life is good, and the crabs were oh so soothing.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]washingtontimes.com.

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