Crabbing's materials look unassuming, some twine and time and defrosted chicken necks, but if used right you'll move into deeper currents. For crabs scuttling in a bucket and a dash of seasoning are essential ingredients for a grander feast.
The margin between land and water is a revelation of the senses, of birdsong and tide-rippling winds. This became clear to me on the L-shaped dock at the Clyde Watson boating area in Brandywine. I'd arrived with a crabbing permit and vague hopes of bucketing enough blues for a meal, but as the hours passed and the crabs stacked higher I realized possession paled compared with the draw of this calming place.
Mimi and Pete Rawlings clued in early about crabbing. They've been doing it for 28 of the 40 years they've been married. They also know that most vital destinations, including the Watson dock, are relatively short drives from their home in Lanham. During much of the crabbing season (April 1 to Nov. 30), they make the 40-minute trip to this section of Patuxent River Park about twice a week. They've got a decade of visits.
By the time I arrived, the Rawlingses and their 5-year-old niece, Brittany Kissinger, had been settled in for hours. Two catfish, roped through the gills, hung off the shallow end of the dock in the outgoing tide. Their fishing poles, stuck in the ground along the shore, let out slackened lines that Pete Rawlings checked periodically before moving on to his crab pots. Although by late morning the catfish had eased off feeding, the crabs kept accumulating.
I peered into a utility bucket they'd placed on the dock. In it were two keepers, both wide enough to meet the five-inch minimum for hardshell blue crabs. They were backed up against opposite sides of the container, staring across the gulf. Eventually they would join the others stored in a bushel basket lodged against a thick tree. There were 16 by noon.
"He'd rather fish and crab than eat," Mimi Rawlings said of her husband. "It's peaceful down here. And of course we like to eat the crabs."
When I was a kid in New England I was magnetically drawn to pots of chowder and the kitchen drama of a lobster, claws banded shut, as it was lowered into scalding-hot water by an adult hand. Shellfish of all kinds contained a strange interest. My brother and I spent many hours enticing stream crayfish with handlines. We left one bucketful outside the house, only to return after a raccoon made our gatherings a meal.
As Mimi Rawlings elaborated her version of crab imperial, with mayonnaise and Old Bay seasoning and lump crabmeat heat-bubbling in a dish, I knew it was time to produce. Jim, the photographer accompanying me, had fastened chicken necks, bought in a frozen plastic bag, to the base of his two collapsible traps and had rigged handlines with one-ounce leaders. The lines were tied to the dock's stiles, the white fabric angling with the shifting tide and darkening with silt as the afternoon wore on.
Not long after the lines were baited, the crabs started tugging. As a line slowly was pulled into view, I dipped the metal-mesh net into the water, rose underneath a crab that had clamped itself to a chicken neck and scooped it, claws gouging at the wire. Moments later, it was dropped into our bucket among the other crabs.
Pete Rawlings did the same on the dock's shared space, one time yanking up a trap that contained two crabs. A tiny one slipped through the wire mesh, hustled across a wood plank and dropped back into the foam-flecked incoming tide. He'd seen this happen before.
Rawlings said he started crabbing when "I was about two days old. I used to go out with my grandfather."
"He's been doing it a long time," Mimi Rawlings said. "You can never get a straight answer, but he's been doing it a long time."
Pete Rawlings dumped the keeper into the plastic bucket and threw the trap back into the river.
"That's a big one," Mimi Rawlings said as another blue was added to their cache. "I wish they were all like that."
Their bushel basket grew more crowded, but it seemed as if the numbers didn't matter. The tide continued upriver, the navigation markers pointed the opposite way from earlier on. What stood out was a personalized recipe for imperial and the hours of ease on Patuxent's shore. The appetites seemed evenly split between the crabs and the crabbers.
"It's something about the water that is so relaxing," Mimi Rawlings said shortly before leaving. They'd be back the next day. "I wonder what it is?"
Questions? Comments? Do you know of a special place in the outdoors? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at: The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C., 20071. Or e-mail him at email@example.com
Directions and Guidelines
From the Beltway take Exit 11A (Route 4) toward Upper Marlboro. Go south on Route 301. After four miles, take a left at the stoplight on to Route 382 (Croom Road). Because of a detour, the driving gets circuitous: Take a right on to Vaden-Naylor Road, then a left on to Nelson-Perrie Road. From there make a right on to Bald Eagle School Road and a left on to Vaden-Westwood Road. After turning right on to Croom Road, go left on to Magruder Ferry Road. Boating area is on the right.
Patuxent River Park requires special-use permits for all activities. For more information, call the park office at 301-627-6074. Crabbing license is required. For more information call the Department of Natural Resources at 410-260-8200.
CAPTION: Pete Rawlings checks a trap for blue crabs caught at the Clyde Watson boating area. He and wife Mimi have been crabbing for 28 years.
CAPTION: Pete Rawlings, from Lanham, started crabbing "when I was about two days old."