Ellen Mason waited patiently on the dock, just a few people separating her from the sizzling soft-shell crab that she craved.

"Love 'em," the Pocomoke City resident said, waiting in line at the annual soft-shell crab festival, which celebrates the blue crab that has just shed its hard shell.

She had come to the right place. It was the watermen of Crisfield who, more than 100 years ago, introduced the soft crab to the seafood industry and the world, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Today, four of every five soft-shell crabs plucked from the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay are brought to shore by the fleets out of Somerset County, state Del. D. Page Elmore said.

And Mason had come at the right time. Sunday's crab festival follows a soft-shell run, the first of the season, that was the biggest in years, some watermen said.

"The first run they had was the best they ever had," veteran waterman Frank Horner said, "the best that I remember."

"There were so many of [the crabs], the watermen were glad they slacked off," Horner, 72, said. "They were having to work too hard."

The prices tell the story. A dozen "primes," a midsize crab, cost local restaurateur Jim Dodson $14 this year, about $3 less than last year.

"We had a fabulous soft crab" run, Dodson, owner of Captain's Galley, said as he manned a crab-cake booth at the festival. "Now's the time to buy them."

The soft crabs, which are caught cyclically in bursts between late April and September, can be frozen. With prices in the basement, at least in crab terms, some restaurant owners are thinking of stocking up. "I'll probably put away 100 dozen or so, 150," Dodson said.

It appears to be pretty much anyone's guess why the run was so good this year. Watermen with decades of experience dismissed expert predictions over the winter of a slow season ahead.

"All these rocket scientists saying this and that -- the only water they see is in the shower," Binky Dize groused. "We've been doing this all our born days, and there ain't no way to tell what season's going to be good and what season's going to be bad."

The blue crab will shed its shell as many as two dozen times before reaching full size. A crab caught and sold in this stage will reap a higher price in the market than its hard-shell cousins. Once cleaned, the entire crab is edible.

Watermen in Somerset check their haul for signs that a crab is about to shed -- a pink belly is one, or how it swims -- and then set it aside until it does. Then, watermen have only a small window of time, sometimes just several hours, before the crab's shell becomes substantial enough that it is no longer considered soft.

The dire predictions were based in part on a state Department of Natural Resources survey that estimated the number of crabs found buried in the Chesapeake Bay mud this winter. Other observers cited a long-term deterioration in water quality and the decline in bay grasses, a key crab habitat.

"Most of the grass is gone and the water's not clear anymore," Paul Tyler, 68, said.

Tyler said he has been crabbing since he was about old enough to start school. He works alone on the Queen Mary, which berths in Crisfield.

"Plenty of seagulls to keep me company," he said.

An abundance of crabs is good for consumers but can have a downside for watermen as the supply outstrips the demand and the price decreases. Tyler said that during the run, a dozen "jumbos," a larger crab, fetched only $11. "Market's been real bad," he said.

No one, expert or waterman, can predict what the run will mean for the rest of the year or future years, Dodson said. "There are three things they know about a crab: He comes, he goes and he bites," he said. "Those are the only things we know about a crab."

Ellen Mason knows one other thing: that she loves to eat them. And her husband, Jim, knows that he doesn't. He, along with other detractors, refers to the dish as a "spider sandwich," owing to its very intact eight-legged appearance.

At the festival Sunday, John Koenig of Columbia sang the praises of the soft-shell crab. Yet as he did so, he waited in line for one of Dodson's crab-cake sandwiches. The marketplace, in some ways as unpredictable as the rising and falling crab population, had worked in a different way, pointing him to what he figured might be the better dish.

"The line here was longer," Koenig said.

Blue crabs that are shedding their shell are harvested in Crisfield, Md., during the annual soft-shell crab festival.Eaters eager to sample soft-shell crab sandwiches form lines in Crisfield.