Doris Johnson down at Solomons Island says it's a brand new trend.

"I've lived here all my life and I've never seen it like this. We've always had people coming down to rent boats and go fishing. But lately so many people want to go crabbing."

The mail on my desk and the phone calls to the office back it up. Everybody wants to know where to go crabbing. Maybe it's the $10 to $12 a dozen crab houses are getting for steamed hardshells. Washington area people are starting to think about doing it themselves.

Recreational crabbing is something of a forgotten sport. Heaven knows it's simple enough. Equipment: some string, a wire-mesh dip net, some chicken necks or salted eel chunks. And what nicer way to spend a summer day with the family than in a little boat in a quiet cove, checking lines for fat blue crabs?

This is the season when blue crabs work their way back into brackish areas where the salt water meets the rivers. In summer the fiesty scavengers like shallow grassy areas where they can hide out during their periodic moults. Crabs grow by shedding their shells and growing new, larger ones. When they are in the softshell stage they need the grassy cover to hide from predators.

For some reason the demand for crabs reaches a peak around Independence Day. In truth, recreational crabbing starts to get good about now and generally keeps getting better right through September and into the fall.

Ray Dintaman, the crab specialist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said there was a surprisingly good spring crabbing season and then catches dropped off during June. He predicted last year that this would be a below-average year for crabbing, and he's sticking by that, though now he believes there's a chance for an average year.

No license is required for recreational crabbing in Maryland. There is a limit of one bushel per crabber, which is a catch most folks would be delighted with.

There are three basic techniques.

Serious crabbers set up a trot line. That's a 300-foot string dotted with baits which they leave on the bottom and then hoist up slowly by moving a boat along its length, running the trot line over a roller and dip-netting the crabs off.

Not-so-serious crabbers use collapsible traps. They tie a bait in the middle, lower the traps to the bottom, then haul the traps up from time to time to see if a crab is munching away. Five collapsible traps is the legal limit.

Still-less-serious crabbers use hand lines. Those who use boats tie six or eight hand lines around the gunwales with a bait at the end of each. Then they hoist them one by one and net the crabs off. The least serious crabbers of all don't even use a boat - they run their hand lines off docks, often do just as well as the boating crowd.

In Maryland waters a crab has to be five inches, measured across the back from point to point, to be a keeper size.

Dintaman said mid-July through mid-September is high season because it's the time of year when most of last season's hatch is reaching legal size.

The lower stretches of the Potomac and Patuxent rivers have excellent crabbing waters and plenty of places to rent small boats. There is good crabbing in some of the small creeks farther up the Bay, though boat rentals are harder to come by.

Most places that offer crabbing also have good bottom-fishing for spot and perch as well, so it's a good idea to bring along a light rod and some bottom rigs to round out the day.

Here then is The Washington Post's unofficial guide to Maryland crabbing spots within a reasonable drive. Places listed are all on the Western Shore, so no Bay Bridge tolls are involved. When the crabbing bug really bites you, you can move on to bigger and better things at Wye Landing on the Eastern Shore, known far and wide as the place where the big crabs grab.