Steamed, fried, caked or sauteed, there's no denying that the blue crab is the quintessential mid-Atlantic food. It makes sense, since the nearby Chesapeake Bay has been one of the nation's most productive crab fisheries for generations. The Chesapeake has faced its share of environmental struggles, but despite the doom and gloom, recreational crabbing remains a popular activity.
"Whether you're young or old, eight or 80, a mess of crabs is just plain fun," said Whitey Schmidt, the "Blue Crab Guru" and author of 10 books on traditional Chesapeake cooking. It doesn't take a lot of know-how or expensive gear to get started, either. Schmidt's favorite method, in fact, is what's known around the Chesapeake as "chicken neckin' " -- tying a piece of raw chicken to a string, tossing it in the water, and pulling it in once a crab grabs hold.
"It takes a little practice to keep them from falling off," Schmidt said, "so you've got to pull it in real slow."
It turns out that these critters are smarter than they look. Fun, yes; easy, no. My advice: Invest in a crabbing kit -- essentially a line with a metal bait holder on one end -- available at bait shops all over the Chesapeake. It helps keep the bait where it belongs.
What to Expect: Crabbing is as much about finesse as it is persistence. You need to not only master the technique, but also to understand where the crabs will congregate and what they'll eat. A slow, steady pulling motion combined with a quick scoop of the net has proven, in my experience, to be the most effective way to go. Make sure you wear plenty of sunscreen, and old clothes that you won't mind getting wet.
What to Bring: One of crabbing's main draws is its simplicity. All you really need is a line, some bait, a dip net and a bushel basket for storing the caught crabs. Chicken necks -- which can be bought at the meat counter at just about any grocery store near the Chesapeake -- are the classic crab bait because they're cheap, plentiful and hold up well in the water, but any sturdy, oily fish also will do. Bring a cooler if you'll be out all day, as raw bait can spread disease if left out.
The Cost: Chicken neckers can expect to spend less than $20 for everything. More advanced traps and charter fees can push the cost up to $100 for food, gas and supplies.
Where to Go: You can crab from the water's edge, a boat or a pier, but since crabs tend to prefer warm, shallow water, the closer you are to shore, the better. Public piers, beaches, parks and even bridges along the tidal creeks and rivers that feed into the Chesapeake are popular. You'll be able to tell the good spots by the size of the crabbing crowd gathered.
Fortunately for eager Chesapeake crabbers, there are literally hundreds of crab charter outfits operating on the bay. The question isn't so much where to go, it's when. Crab season generally runs from May to October, but since states have different licensing requirements for recreational crabbers, it's important to check the local rules and regulations before heading out.
These state agencies can suggest places to go and provide other local details.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources. 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis. 410-260-8367. www.dnr.state.md.us.
Virginia Marine Resources Commission. 2600 Washington Ave., Newport News, Va. 757-247-2200. www.mrc.state.va.us.
A bushel of fresh-
blue crabs means good eatin' tonight.