- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 10, 2005

People who live in Nebraska or Indiana would never understand it, but those of us who pay for outlandish mortgages within reasonable proximity to the Chesapeake Bay frequently suffer from a dilemma I call a “crab attack.”

Having a crab attack has nothing to do with pincer-equipped crustaceans coming after you. No, it’s a sudden yearning for a heaping platter of hot, spicy, steamed blueclaw crabs — and the bigger and heavier they are, the quicker a cure for these attacks manifests itself.

I’ve been getting crab attacks in biweekly intervals since last December.

However, since my mother always reminded me not to act like an idiot, it helped last month to remember her. I abstained from paying $300 for a bushel of steamed crabs. (Some people actually paid that much in early June.)

Even now as watermen on the Chesapeake and its feeder rivers begin to find more of the finest-tasting seafood this side of heaven, it’s not unusual to see price tags of $130 to $150 a bushel, although last week in one Southern Maryland town there was a sign advertising live crabs for $75 a bushel. You’d have to do your own cooking.

But even that amount is too much for our group of friends that fishes and hunts together and — when a crab attack occurs — baits trotlines with finger-long pieces of eel, chicken necks, or slices of cow nose (jokingly known as bull lips).

In case you’ve just arrived from the Midwest, a trotline for crabbing doesn’t contain hooks like Southerners’ catfish trotlines. Ours simply is a string the thickness of a Venetian blind cord, usually 1,000 feet long among recreational crabbers. On each end of the line is an arm’s length of heavy chain, followed by 15 or 20 feet of cord attached to a float (such as an empty bleach bottle) to let you know where the line is and then a piece of similar-length rope that connects the buoy to an anchor. My two anchors are homemade 10-pound lead weights that have eye bolts.

In 5 to 7 feet of water, the trotline is paid out by hand from a plastic laundry basket or a pail into which it has been coiled — or from a garden hose reel, as my innovative friend Bob Rice, taught me how to do it. Whatever works is fine with us as long as that baited line — a chicken neck or eel piece held in a slip knot every 5 feet or so — finds itself in the salty water, spreading its aroma far and wide.

Once it’s on the bottom, you wait 10 minutes or so to give the crabs a chance to visit the baits. They’ll soon clamp onto the “food” and hopefully won’t let go when the line is picked up with a boat hook and slipped across a roller or hoop mounted on the side of the boat. With the outboard motor slowly inching the boat along the line, it rises up and over the roller and disappears again into the water.

It’s the rising of the line and the sight of a crab hanging on that makes this so much fun. The net man, a long-handled, wire-mesh dip net in hand, slips the device under the crab, quickly lifts up and pulls it away. Bingo! A crab is deposited into a waiting bushel basket.

Yes, the crab has to measure at least 5 inches from body spike to body spike. Most of us can tell by looking at it, but if there’s the least bit of doubt, it’s good to have a crab caliper along. They’re sold in all tackle and bait shops in tidewater areas. DNR service centers will give you a thin plastic one that also works.

Last week fishing pal Dale Knupp joined me on my boat as the two of us ran a chicken neck-baited 1,000-foot trotline in a St. Mary’s County creek.

The strange part of this outing was that there were so many undersized crabs chewing on our baits, by the time we filled three quarters of a bushel with wonderfully feisty legal crabs, the baits had been completely eaten up. All that was left were spindly pieces of neck bones.

That was OK because a friend on shore had a few crabs he didn’t want. We filled our basket to the top, went home in a downpour, layered and seasoned the live crabs in a steam pot that I bought many years ago. The pot has a removable liner, and the entire setup is so big an entire bushel of crabs will fit into it.

One hour later, the crabs — steaming in little more than a 16-ounce mix of water and vinegar over a hot propane cooker and changing color from blue and brown to bright red — were done.

We had totally delectable crabs. Unbelievable, irresistibly tasty crabs. But you can bet your last dime that I would never pay $150 for a bushel of these taste delights. Even if my name were Donald Trump.

Principle has a lot to do with feeling that way.

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

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