ON MY FIRST visit to Washington I was shocked and appalled by the decadence. Imagine an impressionable 10-year-old from Phoenix being exposed to the orgiastic chaos of a Washington crab feast.
Never before had I witnessed such unabashed gluttony: faces streaming with hideous green gunk, beaming over piles of empty, broken shells. Someone handed me a steaming, bright-red "blue crab" and said, "Here, let me show you the way . . . . "
And I was hooked.
The apparently infinite cornucopia of crabs was overwhelming to an innocent from Arizona, where crab meat is something you get a dab of at a graduation banquet or when the banker's daughter gets married.
But each autumn upon returning home to the desert, there appeared a yearning vacancy in my life, and my stomach. I had become a different person. I had become one of them. No longer did the hamburgers and french fries of youth satisfy my fancy; I needed seafood.
Unfortunately, when you live hundreds of miles from the ocean, fresh seafood is a joke -- indeed, such words on a menu inspire doubt and fear. Supermarket boxes of frozen fake "crab" meat (it's actually processed fish) became objects of contempt. I scoffed haughtily in seafood restaurants, where only the legs of the jejune Dungeness crab (often the only species available) were served, and then they had to be pre-cracked, probably so we naive desert-dwellers wouldn't gore ourselves trying to cut through the shells with our knives and forks.
My passion grew until, this summer, I was driven to go out and pluck my own crabs from Mother Nature's bosom. The cousins who'd originally led me into the Valley of Gluttony swore there was always good crabbing on the Wye River, the epicenter of Maryland blues about 10 miles east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. So we rose at dawn one Saturday and, with the single-mindedness of mercenaries, began our day of carnage.
Nearing Wye Landing we noticed with some surprise that cars and boat trailers lined the side of the road for over a mile above the parking lot. "It's rush hour every weekend," said landing proprietor Charlie Schnaitman. "This is the only public boat landing on the Wye."
We waited an hour or so until the cruel sun drove a boatload of crabbers ashore, parched and redfaced. After mounting our little outboard on the boat, we putted off down the tree-bordered, peaceful river, loaded with the tools of crabbing: string, lead weights, chicken necks, wire net and loads o' patience.
You thought fishing was tedious, but at least when one is hooked you can jerk and reel and shout and get all excited. The fickle crab, however, is only as "hooked" as he (most of the crabs caught are male) wants to be; since he's gripping the bait with his claw, he thinks he's got you. So it's only by maintaining an air of nonchalance, yet at the same time remaining focused on the task, that you may net one.
Otherwise, crabbing is conceptually similar to fishing. After tying your string around a slimy chicken neck and a weight and letting them drop to the river bottom some dozen feet below (the old-timers say to crab near the shore), you sit and sit and, possibly, sit some more until there is a distinct tugging and twitching on the other end of the line. Fighting the impulse to stand up and, with all your strength, heave the sucker out of the water, you retrieve the string very calmly and maturely, without causing the crab undue stress. If you pull too quickly or make too much noise or jerk the line or even breathe the wrong way, the pesky little bugger simply lets go with those big claws and floats back to the depths.
Once the ghostly, flickering form is just visible under the surface of the water (polarized sunglasses can give a few feet extra warning), you hiss for someone to get the net and slip it under him, so that when he dives down and away, he's in the bag. Thus responsibility for success or failure is shifted to an innocent bystander.
If all goes well, you'll find a nice big angry blue crab sitting in the net to add to the congregation in your basket. If your companion messes up, all you'll have to show for it is an ephemeral flash of white and the clack of the net frame brushing a big one (like fish, all the crabs that get away are big) off into the turbid deep.
My companions told me of one time when, on a houseboat near Wachapreague, Va., they were pulling crabs out of the marsh as quickly as they could drop their lines into it. Transporting the snappy crustaceans from net to bubbling pot to plate in a matter of minutes, they ate with one hand while catching more with the other. We were not so lucky this day, catching only three and none of them keepers. But then we had started at 10, by which time real crabbers are cooking their day's catch.
Somehow I think we were just plain unfortunate, because as we were heading out, two gentlemen who'd just come in gave us five bulky "jimmies" (male crabs) they couldn't cram into their baskets (the limit's a bushel apiece).
Local knowledge is important. You have to listen to the watermen, who grumble about "chicken neckers" but then tell them where to find crabs. This is like giving somebody instructions on how to pick your own pocket, since every crab an amateur catches is one that a crabber can't.
But the most important thing when crabbing near Wye Landing is to reserve a bushel of crabs from the Schnaitmans before you go out in the boat; by the time you get back they'll all be sold.
That evening there was feasting and sloth to make Henry VIII blush. It was ecstacy and disgust, death giving life. Afterwards, the table hunched there, covered with gore like a desecrated altar. I sat back and surveyed the wreckage, the failure of centuries of civilization, not quite believing the depths to which I had sunk, but then, not quite minding either.
SCHNAITMAN'S BOAT RENTAL -- Wye Landing, Md. 301/827-7663. Open during daylight every day from Memorial Day until the first hard northeaster drives the crabs into hibernation, usually late October to early November. Boat rental is $17 on weekdays, $18 on weekends and holidays. Life preserver rental is $1, net rental $2. Chicken necks are $1.50 per bag. Other equipment and snacks available. From the Bay Bridge stay on U.S. Route 50 east and bear right on Maryland Route 213. After stopping to admire the giant Wye Oak, continue to Wye Landing Road. Leave early to avoid beach traffic. The drive should take less than two hours from Washington.
Maxwell V. C. Higgins is a student at the University of Virginia.