Maryland-Style Crabbing

WHEN MARYLANDERS GO CRABBING for fun or a family feast, most of them use some chicken necks on a line to bait the crabs and a dip net to catch them. The more ambitious, however, can try some of the tools the pros use. Those who go crabbing for profit are called watermen, and they chase hard crabs with crab pots in the Bay's mainstem and with trotlines and net rings in the tributaries. When they're hunting peeler crabs, crabs that are getting ready to molt, watermen use peeler pots, bank traps, or crab scrapes.

Hard shells make up most of the commercial harvest by far, with crab potters catching twice as many as trotliners. Most large crabs go to the "basket trade" and are sold live by the dozen or by the bushel for steaming and eating. Smaller crabs and most females go to seafood processing houses to be cooked and picked, their meat sold in cans and cartons.

Peeler crabs will molt and become soft-shells. A small percentage of the total commercial harvest, soft-shells can sell for 10 times the price of hard crabs. Buyers include local restaurants and large seafood processors who freeze them for shipping around the country and the world.

Crab Potting: Outguessing a Quick-Moving Quarry
Wherever blue crabs go, Bobby Abner is sure to follow. When they head for the deep, he moves his pots.When they bury themselves in the Chesapeake mud come winter, he heads to Florida for warm-weather crabbing.
Credit: Michael W. Fincham
Crab potting. The float leads a crab boat to the line, the line leads down to the pot, and the bait leads crabs into the pot. There's also a small cull ring that leads small crabs back out into the Bay. In a hard shell pot, the bait can be razor clams or menhaden. In a peeler pot, it is often a declawed male to lure females ready to molt and mate. Drawing from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Bobby Abner has a good idea where he's going to find crabs today. He's been crabbing since he was 11 with time off for college and a government job he quit pretty quickly. It's been mostly crabbing ever since with its daily guessing game about where the crabs are moving now.

He's heading out of Chesapeake Beach on The Brittany Mae, a classic deadrise workboat with a short front cabin and a long, covered cockpit that will offer shade on this bright, windless day.

A nor'easter blew through several days ago, and he figures the crabs in shallow water took a pounding. A number of his pots are in the shallows just off all those new townhouses lining Chesapeake Beach and North Beach. Those pots don't hold many crabs.

Crab potting with Abner is a three-man job. He drives the boat along a long line of floats, timing the speed for a smooth workflow. Leaning over, he hooks the line under the float and passes it to Donnie Eastridge, a lean and weathered man who's worked with Abner for 40 years. Eastridge whips the line into a winder, steps on the pedal, hauls the pot out of the water, dumps out the old bait, shakes out the crabs, sticks in the new bait, shuts everything up, and heaves the pot and float back in the water. All before the boat hits the next float.

Tommy Dorsey starts grading the crabs into three baskets: number ones, number twos, females. He's the rookie on the crew. He's only worked three years with Abner.

The work has rhythm, and they'll keep it going for 500 pots. And Abner's guess was right: the best hauls are out in the deeper waters. That's where the crabs went, and when he finishes crabbing that's where he moves his shallow-water pots.

— M.W.F.

Trotlining: One Man and His Catch

Bobby Whaples loads about a dozen bushel baskets, recently emptied of jimmies and sooks, onto his boat, now sitting idle along a wharf in Madison, Maryland. At 54, this ex-Marine is one in a long line of crabbers. Whaples's grandfather and father both worked the water, and his own son had his first skiff when he was nine years old. But despite nearly 30 years spent hunting for blue crabs,Whaples says the animals are still a mystery to him: "Right when you think you have them figured out, you don't," he says.

After a long day spent crabbing, Bobby Whaples stows the last of his bushel baskets onto his boat, the Courtney Drew — named after his daughter and first grandson.
Credit: Daniel Strain

And predicting where crabs are going to go and how they'll behave lies at the heart of his harvests. Whaples fishes with trotlines, essentially long fishing lines about 2,400 to 3,000 feet in length, with bait attached every few feet. Whaples runs three of these lines at a time, sinking them down into the water where the crabs scuttle. Then he makes his rounds, slowly pulling sections of those lines up to the surface to net the crabs still clinging to their meals of bull lips or chicken necks.

On a good day, he says he can bring in 16 to 18 bushels of crabs from this river, the Little Choptank. But, he adds, "Some of the best of them you can't catch if you try."

Trotliners, who represent just over a third of all the crabbers in Maryland, follow a more solitary existence than crab potters. But Whaples, who's tried out both techniques, says he likes this life better. As a trotliner, he doesn't have to head out with a crew, a necessity for crab potting. If things go wrong, "you only have one person to blame," he says. "That's you."

Trotlining. To run a trotline, a waterman shuttles his boat slowly down the length of his line, pulling his bait up and over a "prop stick" — typically, a wooden board with a metal roller. As the bait rises into sight, he has to be quick, skimming his dip net into the water before the crab falls off and out of sight. Drawing from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

— D.S.

Bank Trapping: In Pursuit of Peelers
When he empties his big, boxy bank trap, John Barnette no longer finds turtles in among the fish and crabs. Bank traps are built tall to give breathing room at the top for turtles. Now he keeps them out with a TED (turtle exclusion device). It's not just for conservation: "Turtles eat crabs."
Credit: Michael W. Fincham

John Barnette skims his 17-foot skiff along the green marshes that border the south side of the Wicomico River, then throttles down into neutral, and glides up against a tall, cage-like structure that sits just out from the shore, its top jutting above the water line. Five feet tall and four feet square, the cage looks like the world's largest crab pot, but Barnette calls this contrivance a bank trap.

When he empties his big, boxy bank trap, John Barnette no longer finds turtles in among the fish and crabs. Bank traps are built tall to give breathing room at the top for turtles. Now he keeps them out with a TED (turtle exclusion device). It's not just for conservation: "Turtles eat crabs."

Cutting his motor, he lashes his skiff to a wooden pole, then swings a small boom out over the top of the cage. He hooks the top of the trap and then, pulling hard, he heaves the whole contraption up out of the water and bangs it onto the washboard of his boat. In the bottom of the trap is a bonanza of Bay life: flopping fish and scuttling crabs. Most of the crabs are peelers, crabs that moved close to shore looking for a safe place to molt — only to end up in a cage.

Bank trapping is a little-known, cleverly designed crabbing technique that targets peeler crabs for the higher-paying soft-shell market. Bank traps for crabs look a lot like pound nets for fish.Wire netting is strung along a row of wooden poles stretching straight out from the river bank. A shore-crawling crab hits the net, then follows the "leader" right into a heart-shaped pound. To get out of the "heart," the crab heads through a small funnel and ends up in the trap.

Somerset County, a hub of soft-crabbing activity located down at the southern end of Maryland's Eastern Shore, is the only county that still allows bank traps. That's why Barnette only works the south side of the Wicomico. The north side is part of Dorchester County. You could say the river divides Somerset from the rest of the world.

— M.W.F.

Bank trapping. Here’s what a peeler crab looking for shelter can run into: a leader, a heart, a trap. It may then spend the rest of its days in a shedding float, waiting to molt into a soft crab. Watermen can "read" the back fin of a peeler crab looking for "sign." White sign: a week or two from molt. Pink sign: less than a week. Red: two or three days. A "rank" crab is hours away. Drawing from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
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