A sleepy Washingtonian, making a late night drive to Ocean City, suddenly came upon two eyes staring up from Rte. 50, forcing the driver to swerve and almost lose control of the car. When he drove back in the morning, he noticed many dead muskrats on the road and assumed one of them to be the red-eyed culprit that had startled him the night before.

Not giving the long-tailed rat another thought, he continued home. Had he been a native of the Eastern Shore he would have been horrified at the waste of such a delicacy.

Muskrat a delicacy?

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, muskrat, or marsh rabbit to tenderfoots, is not only a delicacy but a valuable rodent whose trapping season is anxiously awaited the world over.

Local churchgoers often rent buses to take them from Sunday service to small volunteer firehouses in towns with Indian names to eat family-style muskrat dinners with all the fixings.

Thousands yearly invade bayside towns to feast on recently trapped "rat" cooked like chicken and served in gravy, bones included. A recent dinner attracted 700, many from Baltimore and Washington.

Not only is the meat sought after, the fur is internationally traded and is viewed in the fur business as a durable, fashionable skin worth well over $2,000 when made into a full-length coat.

A jet black muskrat pelt can bring in as much as $11 for trappers like Wylie Abbott of Elliott's Island, a 100-member community at the end of an 18-mile, long-lane road ending in marshland.

Abbott is a championship skinner, having six times captured the National Muskrat Skinning Championship, held each February in Cambridge. He recently took the 1981 title by skinning five muskrats in just a little more than one minute, beating out his Louisiana counterparts. For the past three years, a Marylander has won the $300 purse in record-skinning time.

Abbott has been trapping muskrats in the Chesapeake Bay marshes since childhood. The 41-year-old has taught his two sons and daughter his trade and they also compete in the championship. His youngest son won the junior competition while his daughter Wendy feels she was cheated out of a championship, believing the winner left too much fur on the muskrat's belly.

On a typical day, Abbott, who is a waterman when the muskrat is out of season, waits for the tide in the bay to drop and then sets off with his sons to check as many of his 600 traps as he can before sundown.

An muskrat is an odd animal. "All he does is sit out in the marsh and eat roots all day, cleaning everyone of them." Abbott said. When they travel, he added,they run along the bottom of trails and burrows even when the tide is many feet above the trail, so many of his traps are below water when the tide is up.

Oh, he can swin and stay under the water for quite awhile," Abbott explained.

After he puts on his hip boots, Abbott steps out into five-foot deep mud and heads into the marshes looking for orange ribbons tied to tree branches he has driven into the ground near his traps. If there is a rat there, he hooks it around his shoulder like a fisherman would do with brook trout and moves on.

"I've caught 100 in one day," Abbott said, adding that 15 to 20 of the animals are a good day's catch.

Back home he skins the catch, and sells the meat and skins the next day.

"There is nothing I like more than animals," he said, rejecting claims by animal lovers that he is heartless. "But it is like farming. If you don't farm this year's crops there won't be any next year."

Often Abbott will arrive at a trap and only a rat's jaw and backbone will be there. "We have to put up with a lot," he said. "Coons and buzzards take the muskrats" from the traps.

Muskrat season ends this month. Muskrat dinners will continue, however, until the season's catch is used up. Marylanders on the Eastern Shore hate to see that time come.

But when the season opens again in September, beady red eyes will once again be looking up at drivers on Rte. 50 and families will be rolling in from Baltimore and Washington to feast on "rat."