Crabbing is a great way to teach kids all about the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay and the free enterprise system. It even works with kids who think crabs are too yukky to eat and creatures to be feared when you stick your toe in any water that's not in a swimming pool.
Given the squeamishness of my city-bred children, Tabitha, six, and Caroline, three, I immediately eliminated the walk-in-the-water and-scoop-them-up-with-a-net method of crabbing. Since no suitable boat was readily available, I tilted toward the time-tested method of tying bait on a line and netting any crab that tries to nibble. But my husband, who grew up among fisher-folk on the north shore of Long Island, counseled against this.
"That is a time-consuming and painstaking activity," he said. "Why don't you get a crab pot?"
Since crab-potting is the method used by professionals to catch the beautiful swimmers of the bay, this seemed like good advice. By asking around among fellow amateur crabbers, we found out where to get a crab pot. At the far end of Saint Michaels, beyond the antique shops and chic bars of this Eastern Shore town, there's a house with a front porch and a sign that advertises Holland's Taxi Service, snow cones and crab pots. For $12.50 we got a large, galvanized-wire crab pot and advice from Mrs. Holland on how to use it.
"It's meant to be hung from a dock . . . You can just separate the wire here," she explained.
"Is that where you put the bait?" we asked, showing total ignorance.
"No, that's where you take the crabs out. The bait goes in here," she said, indicating a tube-shaped cage in the center of the pot. Pulling aside a piece of rubber that was probably once a bicycle's inner tube, she opened the bait compartment door, which was obviously once a can top. The crabs, she explained, swim in through this other large hole to get the bait and, for some reason, can't find the way out again.
What should we use for bait?
"You can use chicken necks or scraps if you have any," she suggested. "Some people use salt eel."
As she wrapped up a dollar's worth of salt eel, Mrs. Holland explained that she and her husband and children made the crab pots themselves, in addition to running the taxi service and selling bait and snow cones.
"We try to make it," she said. "In the winter, we pluck and dress wild geese the hunters shoot."
The kids wanted to carry the shiny new crab pot to the car, but it was so big I suggested that they carry the bait. But even wrapped in a paper bag, the salt eels were too frightening.
"You take one end and I'll take the other," the six-year-old told the three-year-old, and they slowly carried the wire pot to the car. Before heading for the dock, we stopped at Big Al's Seafood, just to check what time they closed in case the crabbing expedition was a bust. We also wanted to check the price of crabs.
Hard crabs were selling for an incredible $13 a dozen for jumbo size, making our expedition seem all the more worthwhile. A dozen big ones would pay for our investment in pot and bait, I told the kids. After we had recouped our losses, I promised them a dollar for every crab they caught. The crabs didn't have to be jumbo, but we'd have to throw back the babies, I said.
"But why? Maybe if we caught a baby we would eat it," ventured Tabitha, whose culinary habits run the gamut from hot dogs to peanut butter. After my lecture on the ecology of the bay, and the necessity of letting little crabs live long enough to beget more little crabs, and the fines that could be imposed that would more than wipe out our profits, she abandoned the idea.
When we got to the dock and tied the crab pot to a pylon, nobody volunteered to put in the bait. But as I put two eels in the bait compartment, the kids' curiosity got to them.
"Is that sugar on it?" asked Caroline, who didn't really understand why sugar won't do as nicely as salt. "Can I touch it?"
After the first touch, the ice was broken and soon both girls were cutting off bits of eel, tying them to lines and trying to attract crabs that then could be scooped up with a net. We soon used almost half our bait without netting any crabs, but at least this kind of crabbing kept the kids from pulling up the crab pot to check it every two minutes.
"It takes a crab a long while to figure out how to get in there to get the bait," I said, to discourage them from pulling up the trap too often.
"Do dead ones count?" asked Tabitha hopefully, seeing an imaginary dollar sign on a crab lying stomach-up in the shallows.
To keep interest from lagging and to avoid feeding all our bait to the crabs -- for whom I had begun to develop a grudging admiration -- we took a walk. Before long, we'd come across two turtles, both of which Caroline touched gingerly.
"Maybe we should find turtles instead," she suggested.
But I refused to buy and turtles or any of the many horseshoe crabs we found, some of them still alive, lying helplessly on their backs on the shore. We turned them over and watched them make tank-like tracks into the water. Buoyed by our good deeds, we went back to check the crab pot.
As I pulled it up, the kids jumped up and down on the dock. In one corner of the pot was a good-sized crab.
"We caught a crab!" yelled Tabitha to a professional looking crabber scanning the shallows from a boat.
"One crab," I said, trying to sound casual.
"That's about all I got, too," he said, in a tone that indicated he was probably telling the truth.
"Crabs aren't really running yet," said an Eastern Shore woman who'd been at it all day and only taken eight crabs. "The water's been too cold."
But we were far from discouraged and, adding more eels, we threw our pot overboard again expecting great things. Meanwhile, our first captive was resting comfortably in a basket and getting lots of attention. First, Caroline netted some seaweed to keep the crab company.
"Mommy, can we just give him a tiny piece of eel?" begged Tabitha.
"Just so you don't give him a name," I muttered, forseeing tears at the demise of any crab that had a name.
To prevent such attachment, I organized another, longer walk in search of wild asparagus. It was a little late for wild asparagus and most of it had gone to seed, but we found enough for dinner -- enough for a family in which not everyone is crazy about green vegetables. Since wild asparagus seems to grow very close to poison ivy, my husband and I did most of the picking. This got us out of paying commercial rates for the asparagus. Our walk also netted another find that proved invaluable when it came time to get the crabs into the pot: a lined rubber glove, the sturdy kind watermen wear, washed up on shore.
When we could delay no longer, we headed back to the dock. The kids ran the last hundredd yards in anticipation and were already tugging at the line when I got there. As we pulled up the pot, they started counting. There were seven crabs, but one of them looked awfully small.
"That one's too small," warned 12-year-old John Murdoch, and experienced Eastern Shore crabber. "If the cops see you . . ."
Deciding to be law-abiding, we let John pick up the small crab and throw it back.
"Bye, bye," waved Caroline.
Tabitha, meanwhile, was adding up the profits. Seven dollars.
But, I reminded her, first we had to recoup our investment.Since we caught only seven crabs and our outlay had been $13.50 . . .
She looked so crestfallen I almost relented. Then I remember that when I was a kid I sold greeting cards but never sent the money in to the company until they threatened to go to the authorities.
"But," I said to console her, "There are only enough crabs for Daddy and me, so you and Caroline can have frozen pizza for dinner instead."
"Carrie, Carrie, we can have frozen pizza instead of crabs!" she rejoiced.
So much for the capitalist system.