"They're greedy. They want the food. So they keep on holding on to it."
It was a gray day on the Wye River, and Kenny Schnaitman, 14, was explaining the blue crab's fatal flaw. The description also fits the folks who eat them.
With proper tools and passable technique, they can be preposterously easy or maddeningly hard to catch, depending largely on luck. You can find them most any place with salt or brackish water, especially near docks, where they're likely to be scavenging, or in shallows where the bottom's fairly firm. And if you visit Wye Landing on Maryland's Eastern Shore, one of the Chesapeake region's richer spots, some old salt might be willing to show you how.
"If people would just ask me, I'd help 'em," said "Fast Eddie" Garrett, one of about 60 watermen who make a living on the Wye. "It's just that they hear so many stories about how rough and tough we are, nobody ever asks."
Garrett, who owes his nickname to a knack for nimble crab-culling -- "And I never once got my fingers caught" -- was hanging out with some comrades after a day of serious crabbing. Kenny Schnaitman, an aspiring waterman, had just acquainted a visitor with the joys of crabbing for fun.
Young Schnaitman's family has worked the river for three generations -- his father, Charlie, is the "Mayor" of Wye Landing, where he rents out rowboats, sells bait by the pound and crabs by the bushel. Kenny was ready with a boat, a wire-mesh dip net, a few traps baited with chicken necks and a 100-yard trotline tied with bits of salted eel.
This was pretty hi-tech gear for a "durn chicken-necker," as watermen call casual crabbers, but none of it requires a special license in Maryland. The important thing, anyhow, is to catch the crabs -- which you can also do from a pier with some lengths of baited line.
Kenny revved up his Chrysler engine and pulled away from the dock. About five miles from headwaters to mouth, the Wye's a precious gem of a river, and, with mansions and manicured lawns lining its banks, looks to be the financial mainstream of the Eastern Shore.
"There's a doctor lives back in there," Schnaitman said, pointing to a cove. "Keeps a really nice yacht. He had the river dredged to get it in here." Farther on, a plump chap in tennis whites emerged from his castle into the morning haze and sauntered to the bank to dispense a smile and a wave. Schnaitman waved back. "You don't see any of these people crabbing," he said.
It was close to nine o'clock, and the river brimmed with crabbers, many of whom had started long before dawn. Schnaitman steered a steady course past bright buoys marking traps and trotlines and through a glut of small boats to the side of a long workboat with a shirtless man aboard. It was his big brother Chuck, 27, a full-fledged waterman of the Wye.
"Where are they biting the est?" Kenny asked. Chuck, standing on deck amid a dozen bushel baskets, offered a grin but little else. "C'mon," Kenny wheedled. "Please tell me."
"Okay," Chuck said at last with a chuckle. "I'll show you where to go. How long a line you got?"
"Three hundred feet."
"Then you should do real good, 'cause the tide's coming in right now," Chuck said. He pointed to a spot near shore, sheltered by outcropping branches. "You try to get as shallow as you can, get in as close to shore as you can, and drop your anchor right there."
Kenny tipped his skipper's cap. "Why, thank you, sir," he said.
Following his brother's advice, he tested the river's depth with the handle of his dip net -- "Looks about five feet here" -- and set his traps at 20-foot intervals, letting them sink to the bottom where the crabs like to stay. Baited with chicken, and tied to plastic floats, two were collapsible ring traps, the other a pyramid trap. The ring trap, simple, effective, and cheap (Charlie Schnaitman sells them for $2.25) is a cotton- mesh affair with two steel rings, and uses water pressure to hold down the quarry when retrieved. The more expensive pyramid trap is an all-steel number whose sides fold shut when it's yanked to the surface.
Kenny Schaitman next laid his trotline -- an abridged version of the 2,000-foot line used by commercial crabbers, and requiring no license in Maryland. Baited at three-foot intervals with salted eel, which is far more durable than chicken necks, it has chains on either end to hold it to the bottom, and floats to mark the ends. Schnaitman fed it from a bucket as his boat puttered forward.
He was using two of the commonest baits, but the sweet-meated blue crab will eat almost anything: pork skin, sow bellies, bull lips and other things we'd rather not mention.
Crabs swim and scuttle all over the Chesapeake to forage and thrive, but spawn in Virginia, at the mouth of the Bay; they hatch in summer, sleep for a time in winter, and take about a year to grow to adult size.
They eat what they can. "Their eyesight is pretty poor," said Dr. W.A. Van Engel, a crustacean expert at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "They locate things more by taste and smell."
The longer they live -- and blue crabs may live as long as three years -- the harder and meatier they get. The Wye, some say, harbors the fattest and sweetest of them all.
"Let's check the traps," Kenny said. One by one, he wrenched them up; nothing. Then he ran the trotline, feeding it over a wooden roller off the side of the boat, which edged forward as a visitor stood by with the dip net. Suddenly the crabs appeared.
Big and small, they held tightly to the baits as they were lifted through the water. The visitor scooped them with the dip net before they broke the surface and dumped them on board in assembly-line fashion. It was ridiculously easy; before the run ended, half a dozen blue crabs skittered and clacked in a bucket.
With exceeding care -- "I've been pinched four or five times," he said -- Schnaitman grabbed a couple of undersized crabs by the back fin and tossed them overboard. They were smaller than the legal minimum: five inches from tip to tip. But he kept another small one. "This is a peeler," he said, holding it up and pointing to a red line along the backfin. "In a couple of days, it'll shed its shell. You can keep 'em if they're three inches from tip to tip." He was using a ruler to measure.
Then it was back to the traps. This time, the pyramid trap held two good-sized ones, and a ring trap boasted three. "Look at this," he exclaimed. "That's the most I've ever seen in a ring trap."
Over the next hour, shuttling between trot line and traps, Schnaitman collected two dozen more, tossing back perhaps one undersized crab for every three legal ones. He returned to Wye Landing with more than enough for lunch: mostly common No. 2 crabs of between five and six inches, and one No. 1 -- the meatiest, most coveted kind, with a harder underbelly and a tad more girth.
He tossed them in a steamer with a concoction of spices: salt, mustard, celery, paprika, cracked red pepper, black pepper, thyme, ginger, laurel leaves, mace and cinnamon. In half an hour they were ready.
"You're making one big mistake, and it's the biggest mistake you can make," Ray Ratajczak told a visitor. A television producer from Baltimore who spends most of his weekends on the Wye, he was hovering over a table that fairly groaned with steamed crabs.
"What's that?" asked the visitor between slurps and licks.
"Well," Ratajczak said, "it appears that you're getting comfortable here." CATCHING CRABS If you visit Wye Landing, Schnaitman's Boat Rental will outfit you with all you need to gather dinner: rowboat ($12, plus 75 cents apiece for safety/seat cushions), ring traps ($2.25 apiece), square traps ($4), bait ($1 a bag for chicken necks and eel), bushel baskets ($2.25), dip net ($1 rental fee, plus a $6 deposit) and ice to get your catch home ($1.25 a bag). You can also buy seasoning at $2.50 a pound. The best time for crabbing is early in the morning, but you might want to show up before sunrise to beat the crowd. The staff, and perhaps even a few watermen, will tell you the basics of crabbing -- for free. TO GET THERE Cross the Bay Bridge and continue east on U.S. 50, to the 51-mile marker and turn right on Route 662 just past Queenstown. Follow the signs to Wye Oak State Park. Go past the ancient oak and Old Wye Church, turn right on Wye Landing Lane (the next paved road) and follow it to the end. Call 301/827-9811.
In the meantime, you should familiarize yourself with the crabbing laws in Maryland and Virginia. In Maryland, licenses are available to residents only, but you don't need one to use as many ring traps as you want, or a trotline of no more than 100 yards; you are permitted one bushel per person per day, but cannot take hard crabs smaller than five inches, soft crabs smaller than 31/2 inches, peelers smaller than 3 inches (though few novices can spot a peeler) or egg-bearing females. Call 301/269- 3151 or 301/269-3152 for more information and a detailed blue-crab fact sheet.
In Virginia, the laws are more complicated, and most sport crabbing requires a license. Call the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, at 804/245-2811, for the line on the nearest licensing agent.
Crabbing on the Potomac River, meanwhile, is regulated by the Potomac River Fisheries Commission in Colonial Beach, Virginia. For details, call 804/224-2923.