CRISFIELD, Md.

When the mood strikes, author Whitey Schmidt can hop into his blue Ford Focus and take a short drive down to where lazy Jenkins Creek flows into the open Chesapeake Bay. Along the banks are rustic shacks perched atop stubby piers. Locals call the shacks crab shanties.

"This is the perfect place to write about crabs, the most colorful crabbing town on the Bay," says Schmidt, 64, who has compiled and published eight books on Chesapeake Bay travel, cooking and crabs.

Schmidt easily finds inspiration for his cookbooks in Crisfield. That is precisely why he moved to the southernmost town in Maryland seven years ago. After all, Crisfield is the self-proclaimed Blue Crab Capital of the World.

There are additional Crisfield benefits.

"Here, when I'm testing crab recipes, I don't pay Annapolis prices," he says.

Crab prices fluctuate, but Schmidt estimates that hard and soft crabs are 20 percent less expensive in Crisfield than in Annapolis or Washington.

There is that local color as well that Schmidt loves.

Inside the crab shanties, in raised tanks, watermen monitor the progress of hard crabs that are shedding their shells to temporarily become soft-shell crabs -- a growth process called molting. In one shanty, when surprise visitors arrive, five-gallon plastic buckets are upturned to become seats.

Schmidt is a good listener. Over a can of cold beer, lifelong crabber Buster Nelson, 81, tells of bad years when "I didn't even make gas money" and better years -- "well, pretty decent, anyways" -- and tales of bold sea gulls that will "swoop in and grab a fresh-peeled crab right from under your nose" and the reality of pesky, biting no-see-ums that can "take your head off at certain parts of the day."

Blue crab harvests in the Chesapeake Bay have risen and fallen for decades. But since the mid-1990s the harvest has been well below average. The decline is believed to be related to water quality, the loss of underwater grasses and overfishing.

The prized crustacean that Nelson catches is Callinectes sapidus -- also known as the blue crab. This good-tasting bottom-dweller swims in coastal waters from Nova Scotia to northern Argentina. In North America blue crabs are most abundant from Texas to Massachusetts. But it's estimated that more than a third of the nation's harvest comes from the Chesapeake Bay.

Back in his car, Schmidt drives through a downtown area that is substantially vacant. In the early part of the last century there were 150 oyster-packing plants in Crisfield. Now there are three. When the oyster supply dwindled in the 1920s another crustacean took its place. The blue crab became a major part of the town's economy.

But crabs, apparently, are not enough. Imposing, well-preserved churches of brick and stone are the only indication that Crisfield ever had a golden age. But Schmidt sees seafood splendor.

"That's what's so neat about [Crisfield]. It may be a screw-cap-wine town. They have never heard of blue cheese down here," he says. "But there is all this funky crab culture -- a big crab on the water tower. Crab packing houses. Then, you get to eat crabs."

Schmidt brings this life alive in his books, which are distinguished by generous helpings of his personal, mellow style, honest advice and low-key, simple English.

He grew up in Hillside, near Suitland, one of 14 children in a family he describes as "very close, then and now." He remembers, at age 10, crabbing for the first time at the YMCA Camp Letts, near Annapolis. "And crabbing just stayed with me all my life."

School days were forgettable. "I was a poor student who had never even done a book report, let alone write a book," he says in a slow, deliberate tenor.

For 20 years he made deliveries -- from Baltimore to Richmond -- for the family-owned auto parts business. Says Schmidt -- who is never without a cap covering long, white hair poking out all-around -- "That's what put me out there. I'd be driving along and I'd see all these crab places and stop for lunch." As a hobby, one that would prove invaluable later, he collected hundreds of crab house menus, seafood cookbooks and waterside memorabilia.

And along the way he etched into his memory an amazing amount of crab house knowledge.

"People try to stump me. They say: 'You drive along the railroad track, then down a gravel road.' Before they can finish, I say, 'Tim's Rivershore in Dumfries, Va.' "

When friends said he should write a book about crabs he did just that and published it as well. In 1985, after failing to find a publishing house that would offer him more than 10 percent of the profits, he founded Marian Hartnett Press, named for his mother, and released "The Official Crab Eater's Guide" -- reviews of 275 Schmidt-tested seafood restaurants and markets in the Chesapeake Bay region, liberally seasoned with maps, recipes and crabby lore.

"That first year I sold 5,000 copies without a bit of advertising, just a lot of legwork," he says. Those legs took him, with a portable sales booth, to Bay-area festivals, feasts and boat shows.

But one book barely dredged the depths of his acquired aquatic knowledge. In 1988 came more dining options in the form of "Chesapeake Seafood Dining -- Bayside Views to Dine By" and in 1990 "The Crab Cookbook" -- 200 recipes selected from his deep, dog-eared archives.

From 1993 to 2000 he produced two additional seafood cookbooks, a guide to Bay-view restaurants as well as a two-volume Bay travel guide. All told, he says he has sold "well over" 100,000 books.

During the years he has done crab-cooking demonstrations on local television, weekly radio spots of Bay talk and he continues to be a regular contributor to the dining columns in regional magazines. Schmidt has rightfully earned the name of Blue Crab Guru.

His weedy, two-acre corner lot and large culinary herb garden scream for attention. Schmidt says only: "I've been too busy."

A detached, oversize two-car garage has been converted into a guest room/pool room and shipping department. Here, behind a mountain of brown cartons he can "listen to my jazz, shoot a little pool and sign copies of my books." Schmidt has been married twice. But now, "It's good to be single again." His obsession with crabs, he says, was not an issue in either breakup.

At the rear of a small, white cottage there is a wide, substantial screen porch that easily accommodates a 12-foot, custom-made white pine dining table flanked by a pair of salvaged church pews that seat 16 -- a perfect setting for crab feasts with family and friends.

A doorway leads to a country-style kitchen with open cupboards filled with a sizable collection of antique crockery mixing bowls. A lone scale is the only accessory in sight.

The nucleus of Marian Hartnett Press is Schmidt's office. In addition to a scuffed wooden desk and bookcases filled with other authors' cookbooks, there is a long, broad table covered with cardboard beer carton tops. Each beer carton top represents a chapter in a future book.

Schmidt's approach to publishing is time-honored as well as laid-back. There is no computer or even a typewriter in his tidy office.

"I hate them," he says. "I do what they call thinking with a pencil. And besides, you don't write a book, you build it."

For Schmidt that means selecting and testing recipes, one by one. He's picky. For the Crab Cookbook, for example, he tested more than 100 variations on crab imperial before selecting a favorite. Each recipe is written in longhand in pencil, on sheets of yellow, lined legal paper. Ones that work and win his taste test are placed along with his own photographs in an appropriate beer box.

And when a box fills with enough pages and pictures to complete a chapter, he seals the carton and ships it to a graphic artist in La Crosse, Wis., who typesets and lays out each page.

Days later, back the pages go to Schmidt, who places each page first in a plastic sleeve and then into a three-ring binder. Many edits and beer cartons later, the completed manuscript is ready for the printer.

Regardless, Schmidt says, by his experience, "a successful cookbook is 5 percent writing and 95 percent marketing." That means that soon the Blue Crab Guru from Crisfield will take to the road -- to boat shows and seafood festivals. "Got to sell my books one by one. It's a great way to make a living."

But for the previous 12 months he has stayed close to home, working in his "Crab Lab" kitchen testing more than 200 recipes for the "Chesapeake Bay Oyster Cookbook." He hopes to have it ready to ship by September.

"It's not just a job," he says. "What makes it nice is I've become part of the culture of the Chesapeake."

Who could argue? Schmidt claims he can consume a dozen hard-shells in a traffic jam.

ALL THINGS BLUE CRAB: Since 1985, Whitey Schmidt's books on the Chesapeake Bay, his crab-cooking demonstrations on local television, weekly radio spots and regular contributions to dining columns in regional magazines have made his reputation. To many, blue crabs are the pinnacle of the Chesapeake Bay experience.Whitey Schmidt's life revolves around the Chesapeake Bay blue crab.