The author of "Beautiful Swimmers" is William Warner. He was incorrectly identified in last Sunday's story on Chesapeake Bay waterman Lester Lee.
At 3:30 a.m., Captain Lester Lee, weathered and 72 years old, confronts the 35-degree breeze that whips off the Chesapeake Bay. He wears chest-high black rubber fishing pants over his checked polyester trousers, a three-button cardigan sweater over a wool shirt and thick, rubber boots. He is ready for another day's work.
His son, Donald Lee, opens full throttle the 350 Oldsmobile engine housed in the 36-foot fishing boat Mertz. They leave the county dock located half a mile from his home in Dominion, Md., pass through Kent Narrows, cross Crab Alley Bay and motor into Cox Creek. It's a late start for crabbing and the sun will be up before their trotlines are secured on the soft muddy bottom.
There haven't been many crabs this year, says Lester Lee, shaking his head. It's been a cold spring--no incentive at all for the hard-shell crabs to come up from their muddy winter napping grounds. Nevertheless, the Lees are out for the eighth time this year. Three days earlier they had their biggest catch this season--seventeen crabs--hardly worth the tough day's work, or the $15 in gasoline and an unknown amount in bait, brine and wear and tear on the trotlines and boat. But they're optimistic and study the water hard during the next eight hours. "Weather's a funny thing," he says. "Sometimes you don't get crabs 'til July."
Lester Lee talks a mile a minute while looking for shallow water and the trotlines of other crabbers. Trotlining has been a way of life for five generations in the Lee family, beginning with his great-grandfather. Four of Lester Lee's five sons are carrying it on.
His curly brown hair only hints silver; his body is strong and able. Only Lester Lee's eyes reveal the tough life of crabbing on the bay, made famous in the book "Beautiful Swimmers," by John Warner. Those eyes have seen the start of 65 crabbing seasons since his father died and Lee was forced at age 8 to help support his mother and four sisters. When you ask him when he'll retire he says flat out: "This is my last year, my eyes are givin' out on me." His son Donald predicts it'll be at least three more summers.
"I guess they call it trotlining because you're trotting up and down the line all day, honey," he says, while draining the brine protecting the baited line that lies coiled in a 50-gallon white drum called a "pickle." It contains a solution of salt and water that keeps his line from rotting and keeps the $60 worth of eel bait from smelling too bad after a few days in and out of the water. He calls everybody honey, even his sons.
The sky is black. Off to the east shine the red lights of the Bay Bridge. Donald Lee slows the boat to a near halt while his father snaps on a spotlight to check the water's depth and look for crabs. Back in the tiny cutty cabin a fathometer reports a steady 5 feet. "This is it," he announces and turns off the spotlight. Crabbers start their season in the warmer shallow waters, he explains, and move into 10 feet of water as summer comes on.
He reaches into the barrel and throws a heavy piece of old pipe overboard to anchor his trotline. A red buoy marks each end of an east-west line. Under water, a chain attached to the pipe holds a half-mile of line to the muddy bottom. Every two feet a four-inch slab of eel is secured to the line with a slip knot in the expectation that a crab will grab hold to feed. A similar line is laid north to south. Forming his trotlines in a T-shape, he explains, covers more territory than laying them out parallel.
Father and son finish setting their lines just as pastel pinks and blues illuminate the water. At 6 a.m. a round, red sun peeks over the horizon. "There it is," he says showing off his private glory--a Chesapeake Bay sunrise. "Nothing prettier."
They bring Mertz about and start back along the line. Lester Lee reaches into the water and picks up the first buoy. He slips it up over a four-foot metal arm that extends from the side of the boat.
Donald Lee slows the boat to a crawl, and eel after eel along the line breaks out of the water as the line passes over the arm. Controlling the tiller with his foot, he scoops crabs into a net at the end of a long pole just before the line leaves the water and the crab releases the eel and attempts its escape. He rarely misses as the boat moves down the line.
"If a crab man says he ain't never missed a crab, he just ain't telling the truth," says Lester Lee, smiling as his son misses a crab. "But the first thing he does is look around to see if anybody saw him miss it."
On the first run down the line they haul in two peelers, a number of culls, a few eight-inch Jimmies and sooks, and two "doublers." Doublers, explains Donald Lee, are crabs about to mate. The male carries the female under him to safe grounds where she will undergo her final moult. "She's what you call his territory, his woman--he'll stand at the bottom and fight off anything that gets near her from here on out." Mating occurs just after the female has shed her shell and the male's shell is rock-hard. He stays with her until her shell hardens fully, about three days.
"The red tips are females, call 'em lipstick crabs," Donald Lee continues. "We also call them she-biddies, sooks and, just between ourselves, call them all 'hims.' " The males, or Jimmies, have the blue tips, the color of the Atlantic ocean at its deepest and cleanest point.
The sun is fully up now and though Lester Lee won't say it straight out, he's making some mental calculations and hints that this might be their first successful day. "Got to bring in $100 a day or it ain't worth it, honey," he says. "The big ones bring you $50 a bushel." The culls (crabs that have moulted and aren't guite meaty or hard enough to bring in top dollar) bring in $15 to $20 and the peelers (crabs getting ready to moult) bring in 40 cents each. "Not sure I brought enough baskets," he jokes. "Maybe I'll have to take off my pants and tie 'em off at the ends and we can fill them up too."
As they finish running down the first line and head for the second, Lester Lee slips on a thick rubber glove and separates the crabs--according to size--into bushel baskets. All crabs smaller than five inches across the back from point to point get tossed into the water so they can reach the legal limit.
A crab latches onto Lee's glove, "God doggit, these things can bite," he swears, holding his hand out over the wooden barrel as the crab drops off. Lester Lee learned early, back when he was 6 years old, just how hard a crab could bite. "I tried to catch a soft crab with my bare hands. Sneaked up on him and grabbed him right out of the water. Well, he was only half soft. He got me that time, took my meat and all."
It's almost 9 a.m. and they've trotted the line some dozen times. Three bushel baskets are full of culls and there's another half-bushel of six-inch hard crabs. He tops off the baskets with lids and damp sailcloth. "The air'll kill 'em," he says and shoves them over in a corner of his boat.
Mertz, his 11-year old crabbing boat, "has done real good for me," he says, "but I'm afraid to brag on it or the next thing you know she'll break down. Run the thing eight hours a day, 100 days a season, you know." She carries the nickname of his wife of 50 years, Mary. She died last year on Thanksgiving Day, he says, "an angel on earth to me, hardest-working woman I ever seen."
You've got to keep the trotline on the sunny side of the boat, Donald Lee explains as he begins the final runs along the lines. "Crabs like the warmth and they can't see you coming." He hauls in enough to top a fourth bushel of culls and fills out the basket of hard-shells three-quarters of the way.
Lester Lee goes back to work, with his son at the tiller, hauling in the line and rebaiting where the crabs have eaten a good portion of the eel.
With the line out of the water and the brine back in the barrel, thoughts turn from work to money as Donald Lee points the boat back toward Kent Narrows and the establishment of William H. Harris, one of the large wholesale buyers of crabs on the Eastern shore. By noon Mertz is tied up at the dock scattered with picnic tables, marked with a large red and white sign announcing "Eat Crabs Here." Lester Lee disembarks to chat with other crabbers finishing the day's work.
Donald Lee hauls the day's catch up to the scales. They are weighed in and a Harris employe hands him $90. The crabs are moved into the back of the tiny warehouse where they'll be sold to seafood retail outlets and restaurants in Maryland and the District.
"It's a good life if you like to be your own boss," Donald Lee says, bringing Mertz back to the county dock for the night. "But you also have to live with being broke one week and rich the next. For us it's a matter of farming the land or farming the water. You know it's like if a man's a doctor, his son's going to be a doctor. Well, that's the way it is around here, too." LESTER LEE'S STEAMED HARD-SHELL CRABS
There's only one way to eat crabs, according to Captain Lester Lee, and that's steamed. "I like to pick 'em out--now that's real eatin."
Kill the crabs just before cooking by poking an ice pick vertically through the apron, Lee says, or you run the risk of the crabs' biting one another and pulling off each other's legs while in the pot.
Put a pint of water and a pint of vinegar in the bottom of a 10-gallon crab pot. Put the rack over the liquid. Add a layer of crabs and sprinkle with salt, pepper and Old Bay seasoning according to taste. Continue layering and seasoning until the pot is 3/4 full. Turn on the heat and cook for 25 to 30 minutes.
While they are cooking put a big table in the back yard and cover it with a plastic cloth. Make five to six homemade biscuits per person ("That's too many, I know, honey, but they're real good") and have yourself a real good time. CRAB CAKES (4 to 6 servings) 2 eggs 3 tablespoons mayonnaise 1 tablespoon dijon mustard 1/4 cup minced parsley 2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning 4 slices white bread, trimmed of crusts and barely moistened with water 1 pound lump crab meat, picked over Butter for pan
Beat eggs with mayonnaise, mustard, parsley, Old Bay seasoning and bread. Stir in crab meat until evenly mixed. Press into patties and fry on both sides in medium-hot greased skillet until browned on both sides. CRAB AND NOODLE SALAD (6 to 8 servings) 1 1/2 pounds linguine, fettuccine or thin spaghetti 1 tablespoon salt 1/2 cup sesame oil 6 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 1 sweet red pepper, diced very fine 1 pound crab meat, picked over 1/2 cup minced scallion 4 tablespoons shredded ginger 1/2 cup chopped arugula or watercress leaves 2 cloves garlic, minced
Drop pasta in 4 quarts boiling, salted water. Cook for 3 minutes after the water returns to a boil. Drain and quickly submerge it in cold water for about 30 seconds. Drain off the water, tossing the pasta to get rid of as much moisture as possible.
Put the pasta in a large bowl and immediately stir in the sesame oil, soy sauce and pepper. Mix in the remaining ingredients. Refrigerate overnight and serve cold. CRAB SOUFFLE (4 small servings) 5 tablespoons butter Bread crumbs 6 ounces shredded crab meat About 1 cup milk 1 medium onion, chopped Salt to taste 1/4 teaspoon pepper 4 tablespoons flour 4 eggs 1/3 cup chopped parsley Pinch nutmeg
Butter a 2-quart souffle' dish with 1 tablespoon butter and coat with bread crumbs. Drain any juice from crab and add enough milk to make 1 cup liquid. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in small saucepan and add onion. Cook until translucent. Add salt, pepper and flour. Cook a few minutes over medium-low heat. Separate eggs. Place egg yolks in a medium bowl with parsley and nutmeg. Add milk to flour mixture gradually, stirring constantly, and cook until thickened. Remove from heat and beat this into egg yolks. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Stir about 1/4 cup of egg white into yolk mixture, then fold yolk mixture into egg whites. Pour into prepared dish and bake at 350 degrees about 30 minutes.