Since I was born in Maryland, it makes me a blue crab expert. It’s a fact. That probably sounds arrogant, but you won’t find me lecturing a Mainer about lobsters or a Cape Cod resident about fried big-belly clams. If you’ve spent time around the Chesapeake, you likely know that the blue crab is woven into every nook and cranny of our way of life. Well, it is in my simple, possibly boring, world.
You probably already know that Marylanders are insufferable about how their prized crustaceans are prepared. Crabs are not to be boiled. Sorry, Louisianans. Nor are they to be stripped of their shells and have their insides power washed with a garden hose before steaming. This means you, North Carolinians—and my neighbor, Tobias. Crab cakes do not contain peppers or vegetables of any kind. I’ve got my eyes on you, TGI Fridays. And please, don’t get me started about those who think picking crabs is tedious and boring. Sorry, you soulless people.
My love affair with crabs began in 1976 after my father gave me the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by William Warner titled Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay. Over the coming years, catching the tasty but ill-tempered creatures provided some of the best memories I have of time with my dad.
Our first crabbing expedition was in July 1977. We stayed up the night before among a swarm of mosquitoes as we baited up a 1,000-foot trotline with chunks of smelly eel that I’d cut up. I’d then insert them into a knot my dad tied. Dad wasn’t content with wire traps or chicken necks tied to a string. He wanted to catch crabs like the watermen did, so a trotline with 300 pieces of eel was how we rolled. Otherwise, we’d be “chicken neckers,” a term watermen use for the unskilled (us).
Our first trip was a catastrophe. We never managed to get the line laid on the bottom at the right tension. I got nailed several times by the crabs’ weaponized claws, and the water was so thick with jellyfish that my father and I were both slimed several times by the painful blobs as they flipped over the roller and into the air. One stinging globule landed in my left eye and ended the trip. We left Eastern Bay wounded and bedraggled with only a dozen crabs.
By the time the season was drawing to a close in early October, my father and I had become a well-oiled machine. Baits flipped over the roller rhythmically at the perfect intervals as I found just the right spot in our small skiff to scoop up the crabs that stubbornly clung to the baits for the ride to the surface. My dad became a Jedi master at steering the boat along the line at the right speed and distance. Surrounding us was the beauty of Eastern Bay with its thick, pastel-green marshes and white sand beaches.
Some summers we’d crab almost every weekend. Other kids had Boy Scouts or Indian Guide campouts. My dad and I had crabbing. It was our bond, and even though he’s gone, when I think of him my mind always snaps to those crabbing weekends.
Once we had our crabs—usually a bushel or so—we’d set about cooking them. Dad was always the master of ceremonies. He loaded up the crabs into the steamer before layering thick amounts of Old Bay seasoning on their olive-green shells while trying not to get nipped—which always happened.
I layered the patio table with sheets of newspaper. As neighbors and friends arrived, dad piled the table high with the hot, delicious critters. We often picked crabs well past dark, the table lit only by our dim patio light. Maybe the “picking crabs is tedious” crowd has a point, but my dad and I often outlasted all the guests, picking and grinning like banjo players until my mother barked, “Clean up that mess and get inside.” This was usually around 11 p.m.
You don’t have to live on Chesapeake Bay to catch and enjoy these crustaceans. They thrive in most waters from Massachusetts to the Mexican border. A simple “how to catch blue crabs” Google search will set you in the right direction. All you need is a roll of butcher’s twine, a pack of chicken necks, a net and a little patience. You can catch them from a 50-foot express cruiser or, like my dad and me, a beat-up 12-foot skiff.
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue.