- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006


Ever wonder why most people think of steamed, spicy Chesapeake blueclawed crabs only when the mercury creeps past 90 and your shirt appears to be glued to your skin? Well, I learned an important lesson recently: if you want to trotline for succulent, large crabs, think about doing it in late October and early November.

No, I haven’t been into the bottle. It’s a fact, and it required two tough friends — both of them commercially licensed trotliners — to prove it to me.

For starters, it’s nice to know that when most of your pals are out hunting deer, you’ll pretty much be crabbing without bumping into 50 other boats. The days are pleasantly cool and the crabs will jump onto the baits as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks, which in some cases may not be an exaggeration.

My lesson began when Bob Rice, a septuagenarian who enjoys trotlining for crabs almost as much as he enjoys eating them, took me on a “cold weather” crab outing in late October. The Patuxent River’s water temperature was still in the low 60s and Rice, quickly paying out 1,000 feet of thin line that contained finger-sized pieces of chicken necks or salted eel every 3 or 4 feet, chose a fairly shallow river portion downstream of Benedict. In 5 to 7 feet of water, he ran his line (weights and marker buoys at each end) and quickly found the critters, making sure that later in the day the Mueller and Rice families were cracking claws and tearing apart bodies, pulling luscious, steamed crab meat from the small meat-containing chambers.

Rice slowly ran the boat along, the line slipping through a special roller attachment as the forward movement pulled it up from the river bottom where crabs are likely to spend their time. With a little luck, one of them would hang onto the bait long enough, allowing me to slip a long-handled wire-mesh net under it and snatch it away before it could let go. Male crabs this time of year must measure 51/4 inches from spike to spike. We measured them at the end of the trotline run, releasing smaller specimens and keeping those that met or exceeded the mark.

Two weeks later, Jim Harris, an imposing 50-something fellow who looks as if he was born to play Santa Claus, allowed that he needed enough crabs for himself and a few family members who were into eating crabs, but not doing the trotline thing.

Rice and I met him at a private river launch ramp and quickly learned that Harris wanted no help. He preferred to do his own work. Let me emphasize the word “work.” He rapidly laid out three 1,000-foot lines kept on big hose reels that he swears he can put over the side while the boat is on plane. The baits were the same as those Rice used when I dipped the delicious hardshells.

Harris chose water up to 8 and 9 feet deep, figuring the crabs had begun their southern migration, aiming for the Chesapeake Bay and eventually finishing their journey in deep layers of Virginia bay water, not all that far away from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

But for now, there was still a good number of them in the Patuxent and other bay rivers, especially those that are close to the Virginia state line. As the water cools down, the crabs will simply hang out in deeper layers. By the time you read this, it already may be touch-and-go, but the information is something you can use next season.

When Harris began to pull up the baits, puttering along in a broad, heavy-duty 18-foot aluminum center console boat that was powered by a 90 hp outboard, the first run of one of the lines nearly filled a bushel with crabs. The surface water temperature was in the high 50s and Harris held court, saying how an increased minimum size of male crabs from 5 inches to 51/4 inches had already proven to be beneficial in the resurgence of the crustaceans.

The run of all three trotlines — after finishing the sorting of the bounty — produced two bushels of beautiful blueclaws. By 1 p.m. he had enough crabs to satisfy five families, with plenty left over to pick steamed crab meat for crab cakes, crab soups and crab casseroles.

Is it any wonder that Maryland is known as the Land of Pleasant Living?

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

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