The Chesapeake Bay boasts many delicacies, each splendid in its way, but there is nothing quite like a fresh Chesapeake soft crab dusted with flour and sauteed in butter.

You can eat the whole thing!

The subject comes up because during the last two weeks crabbers from the lower bay to above the Bay Bridge have been catching an astonishing number of peeler crabs, which soon shed into softs. By all accounts it's the best run in decades, resulting in a temporary flood of fresh soft crabs on the market.

"I have soft crabs here that are the prettiest and fattest I've ever seen in my life," was the phone message from Annapolis Produce Farm Market, a seafood outlet on Forest Drive.

Pete Jensen of the tidewater division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources confirmed that the early summer run has been of historic proportions throughout the bay. But the abundance, warned Jensen, will be brief.

"It's already starting to taper off," said Jimmy Cantler, who for the last two weeks has been working around the clock tending his shedding trays next to Cantler's Riverside Inn on Mill Creek.

Cantler and a dozen workers, friends and neighbors have been overseeing and constantly replenishing a crop of about 12,000 peeler crabs in more than 30 floats and shaded trays. The men help the crabs shed their hard shells in captivity, then snatch them up quickly to send them to market as live softs or snip their lungs, eyes and carapaces and freeze them for use later in the summer.

This is the only time in the season when he will be overwhelmed with peelers, Cantler said. The first shed seems to happen all at once, as last year's crop of young crabs sheds its hard winter shells to grow new, larger ones. As the summer progresses, the crabs will shed several times more, but never again all at once.

The early abundance of peelers also bodes well for this summer's hard crab crop, the DNR's Jensen said, because hordes of peelers translate quickly into hordes of legal-sized hard crabs, five inches across the back.

But for now the action is almost exclusively peelers. "We're not catching any hard crabs to speak of yet," said Cantler, a bearded, lifelong waterman.

Cantler and his friends and employes carry each crab by hand from one shedding tray to the next to be with its contemporaries in the moulting process. "Have to," said Cantler, explaining that if you don't, those closer to shedding will be eaten by the others.

From this operation, which runs 24 hours a day during high season, Cantler supplies his restaurant, several retail outlets and any stray soft-crab lovers who stop by with $12 a dozen for cash-and-carry mediums, $18 for jumbos, fairly standard prices apparently unaffected by the surfeit of softshells.