Maryland Crabs, When I Would Supply Dinner for Free

My grandparents boat the “Buster”
named after my grandfathers nickname
for my grandmother Evelyn.

My childhood was  spent with my grandparents on the Eastern Shore of Maryland .  They lived a beautiful, old, large and slightly decrepit Victorian farmhouse in the small town of Nanticoke.  The farmhouse had some drawbacks.  No air conditioning and the TV could only pick up one station. That one station came in fuzzy.  The good points of the house included  a giant attic  to explore, 2 barns filled with  antiques and old farm gear,  and porches over looking the Nanticoke river.

Summers were especially wonderful.  There was always fishing and the hope grandfather would take me out in the boat.  The Buster was hand built, and had a motor that had a mind of it’s own.  We were towed in more than once by the Coast Guard when the boat was out in the Chesapeake Bay.  When the motor would fail, I remember my grandfather telling my brother and myself  to quickly dump all crabs that might be too small overboard!  The Coast Guard was always nice, and got to know us very well.  However, too small a catch of any sort could get us in trouble  Anything that we were unsure about was dumped over.  Also, the Coast Guard simply found you, there were no cell phones and the boat had no radio.  We would sit and wait until a boat came by to rescue us.

My brother Paul and I on the “Buster”.
We always had a wonderful time on that boat.

A skill I don’t remember learning, it seemed as if I were born knowing how to do this, was the fine art of crabbing.  You can crab using a nets, you can place crab pots in the water and pull up the pots later, but the real way to catch crabs is the way I do it.

You need a piece of wood, I always used a small bit of driftwood that had been worn smooth by the water.  No splinters, and smoothed around the edges so I could hold it comfortably in my hands.  Then you need string.  White packaging string.  It came on long cones that never seemed to run out.

You also needed chicken.  The cheaper bit of chicken the better.  Chicken necks were the best and we could get them for free from the local butcher.  Last of all, you need a net, not too big but with a somewhat longer handle as you crab off a dock or the edge of a boat.  Lastly you need an old apple basket to put the crabs in.  The basket needs a lid.

You need a long poled net. At this age
I was already an experienced crabber.

Crabbing requires patience.  I would tie the string to the driftwood.  Then tie the chicken neck a good length along the string.  I’d guess the depth of where I would be crabbing, then wrap the string around the driftwood.  Crabbing is best done on your stomach.  You rest facing down, and slowly let the line out until you feel the chicken neck hit bottom.  Most crabbing days involved more than one line.

Once the lines are set, you wait.  You give the crabs a chance to go “Oh chicken necks!”  Then comes the art part of crabbing.  You have to slowly lift the string with just one finger.  I like to use my pinkie.  You let the string rest on your finger, you also try not to not or lift the string anymore than you have to.  You have to hold as still as possible barely lifting the string, and feel if there is a gentle tug on the string.  If you pull on the string too much you will scare the crab off.  You want to feel if a crab is feeding on the chicken neck.

Once you feel a gentle tug, you begin to play a mind game with the crab.  You have to pull the string up slowly, gently wrapping it around the driftwood.  As you pull the string up, you have to keep a feel for that gentle tug.  If the tugging stops at any point, you have to stop reeling in the string. Then you wait and see if the crab will become interested in the bait again.

Too quick a rewind results in the crab being scared away.  A gentle slow winding means the crab keeps interested in the chicken and doesn’t notice the slow ascent to the surface.

It takes experience to know how close to the surface you can bring the crab.  It’s a satisfying feeling to peek down off a pier or boat and look down to see a crab happily feeding off a chicken neck.  Then, you have to grab the long handled net, and scoop up the crab!  This is not as easy as it sounds.  You have to guess at the depth, so the net goes to the right depth to come up behind and under the crab.  The crab, when started, will back away and go down.  You also have to get the crab up quickly and then plop it down in the apple basket.  The lid has to go on so the crab won’t climb out later!

The crabs in the basket aren’t happy.  They’ve been tricked and they know it.  I always felt it was a fair fight.  About 1/3 of the crabs would get away.  There always seemed to be some smart ones that had figured out more light (as they come toward the surface) meant trouble.  A poor crabber can spend all day trying to catch a crab and fail.  I was very successful as I had no time limit.  Relaxing on a pier, freckling in the sun, shoes off, and catching crabs I knew I would be eating that evening, was my idea of a perfect day.  I had no where I had to be, nor any wish to be anywhere but where I was.

The end of the day meant a basket full of crabs.  My grandmother had a huge pot she would fill with water and a dash of vinegar.  In would go some Old Bay seasoning.  When the water would boil in would go the crabs.  They would bang on the sides of the pot, and the bangs would slowly subside.  That meant they were almost ready!  I never felt sorry for the crabs, I’d be nipped by too many of them for me to have any sympathy.

Eating crabs mean spreading newspapers all over the kitchen table (which I still own, it’s battered and worn as a good kitchen table should be).  We would set out small bowels of vinegar for dipping.  Little wooden hammer were set out, as well as small knives for prying off the shell of the crab.  I always had a hard time waiting for the crabs to cool enough for me to handle them.  I wanted to eat them as soon as possible.

No dinner can ever taste better than those crab dinners.  Fresh crabs I had caught myself, the sound of hammers banging claws open, the levering off of the shell, the digging out ever bit of meat, and the careful discard of parts my grandmother warned were poisonous, all made for a feast.

The only thing better was soft shell crabs.  Soft shell crabs, only available when the crabs had recently molted, were deep fried and also seasoned with Old Bay.

My grandparents, that taught me
I didn’t need TV and organized activities to have fun

My kitchen stove has a can of Old Bay on it to this day.  I season fish and even chicken with it.  Crabbing is a thing of the past.  I live in New England where lobster is the shell fish king.

When I go visit my mother in Maryland we’ll go pay a fortune for crabs I used to get for the price of only a lovely days enjoyment.   Still out comes the newspaper, vinegar, hammers and knives.   To say nothing of the Old Bay seasoning!

Categories: Family, Maryland, Nanticoke

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