- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

Licensed commercial crabber Mike Roselle arrived at Charles County’s Goose Bay Marina long before any local rooster entertained thoughts of waking up the neighborhood. In total darkness, the smiling 21-year-old expertly backed a trailer that carried a large fiberglass skiff into the Port Tobacco River and tied it to a dock piling.

When he returned, after parking his tow vehicle and trailer, he checked to see if the boat’s bow and stern lights worked, made sure two baited trotlines were aboard along with various bushel baskets and large plastic culling tubs, dip nets, a pail that held gloves, a bottle of flavored water and a couple of packets of crackers.

Roselle started an 18-year-old, 48-horsepower outboard motor and slowly idled away from a row of expensive yachts and sportfishing boats.

He no sooner rounded the first land point as he entered historic Port Tobacco when he slowed his boat to a crawl and began the trotliner’s ritual: dropping a heavy weight (Roselle uses a mushroom anchor) into 4 to 5 feet of water, paying out enough attached rope to let a large marker float bob in the dark water, then clipping the float’s rope to the waiting trotline that lay expertly curled in a plastic tub. The actual trotline was no thicker than a Venetian blind cord, with the baits spaced roughly 4 feet apart and held in place by easily loosened slip knots.

Two thousand feet of chicken-neck-baited trotline was released in a straight path over the transom of the boat until it reached its end, and Roselle repeated the clip-to-the-rope routine, with the float bouncing over the stern, followed by more rope and another mushroom anchor.

That out of the way, with the day’s first streak of pink sky appearing in the east, Roselle snatched up a plastic pail that held 1,000 feet of eel-baited line and repeated the process of putting it into the river exactly the same way as he did the chicken-neck baits.

The two trotlines sat several hundred feet apart but were so well-marked that the first boats that came out of the marina easily spotted Roselle’s bright buoys. They skirted them in wide arcs.

When the professional crabber began, he slowly approached one of the floats, lifted it from the river with a boat hook and allowed the beginnings of the trotline to be inserted in a stainless steel, funnel-like contraption that allowed the line and baits to slip onto and through the funnel, then re-enter the water behind it.

Roselle, who now is in his fourth year of feeding his sizable frame from the proceeds of crabbing, held a long-handled wire-mesh net and soon spotted the first crab that clung to one of the baits. He slipped the net under the crustacean and pulled it away, then deposited it into a plastic tub. It would be measured and judged worthy of keeping when the initial run was done. Crabs must measure 5 1/4 inches from spike to spike.

“I once had one that was just shy of 8 inches,” he said and agreed that typically, 6-inch crabs are highly desired by crab lovers, who might pay as little as $75 for a bushel of uncooked, small, barely legal males but also as much as $200 for a bushel of prime “Jimmies,” as male crabs are called.

After the first run of the line ended, Roselle looked at no less than a half-bushel of mixed-size crabs, but he is different from most other trotliners.

“I won’t sell a crab unless it’s heavy and meaty,” he said. “Too many crabbers get good money for feather-light crabs. Not me. My customers are local people who call to ask if I have crabs to sell. Lately, that can be a problem.”

Nearly half of the first run’s catch was released.

Roselle has seen the tidal Potomac River tributaries’ crab population fall precipitously. In the not-too-distant Wicomico River, it was poor enough to keep him from setting his lines even though he has had great past seasons there. The nearby Nanjemoy Creek had good crabbing, but that also declined. The always productive Patuxent River has been so miserly in recent weeks that Roselle now sees Calvert County trotliners visiting the Port Tobacco.

“Even the Port Tobacco isn’t as good as it was a few weeks ago,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll keep coming back here.”

Although it’s his daily bread, the young trotliner is not against a crabbing moratorium if the local populations are in sad enough shape to warrant such a drastic move.

Roselle, who learned the trotliners’ art from his father and who crabs from May to October, said he remembers going crabbing with dad when he was only 5 years old.

“But I actually don’t care to eat steamed crabs,” he said. “It’s too much work to get the meat out. Usually, three crabs is all I want.”

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com. Also check out Mueller’s weekend fishing report and his Inside Outside blog at washingtontimes.com/sports.

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