A colleague returned from the Eastern Shore last week with half a bushel of Charlie Schnaitman's No. 1 blue crabs.

When he sat down to eat them he found out he was improperly armed. He had wooden mallets to bust the claws open but the crabs were too big and tough.

He broke a mallet.

The Wye River has long had a reputation as an excellent place for big crabs, but mallet-breakers posed a whole new dimension. This I had to see.

By phone, Schnaitman confirmed that the crabs were indeed starting to bite well after a somewhat slow start and there were plenty of big ones.

It took him a full five minutes to describe the route down to Schnaitman's Landing in baffling Eastern Shore dialect. He mentioned trees and fields of soybeans and corn and schoolhouses and grain storage sheds. What it came down to was a right off Rte. 50 and then a right on the first blacktop road after the Wye Oak, the oldest white oak tree in America.

"You'll know it when you get here, cause if you keep going beyond you'll be swimming," he said.

Schnaitman opens every morning at 5:30 and he recommended arrival as close to that time as possible. "Tide's rising all morning," he said, "and the crabs feed best on the incoming." Besides, he said, very few crabbers had the stomach for plying their shadeless trade in the midday August heat.

Having never crabbed before, I asked what I'd need. Nothing, he said. He had it all for rent.

Schnaitman's was all abustle on a midweek morning, even in the midst of a cloying and relentless fog that concealed the far shore 50 yards away. Private boaters busied themselves at the state boat ramp next door, commercial crabbers scurried to their moored boats and novices like us waited in line for Schnaitman's rental boats, baits and nets.

Still, my daughter and I were on the water in 15 minutes, fully equipped for a day's crabbing, our eyes fixed on a misty spot where Schnaitman promised the crabs would be.

She did battle with the oars while I tied greasy chicken necks to hanks of stout string, then tied one-ounce sinkers a foot above the baits. We dropped anchor in a little cluster of boats off a green point and waited to see what crabbing was all about.

It took us awhile, since we had no background at all. Others around us were hoisting up crabs at an even pace, slowly lifting the hand lines inch by inch, then plunging dip nets in to collect crabs before they darted away.

A bite!

I felt an extra weight on one of the seven bait lines we had tied to the gunwales. While Laura bent over the rail, quivering with anticipation as she readied the net, I raised the line slowly and evenly. We saw the chicken neck a foot down. Hanging on with mammoth claws was a crab. She dipped, lunged and hauled it up.

"Musta been quite a crab, the way you grunted," said the man in the next boat.

"Big for us," I replied. "That's the first crab we ever caught in our lives."

Suddenly the boats around us were rocking on their anchor lines as the crabbers stood and clapped. "Hey," said a man close by, "I bet you never thought you'd get a standing ovation on the Wye River, did you?"

Recreational crabbing turned out to be a very friendly game.

We got all kinds of pointers from neighboring boats, but we still managed to foul up better than half our chances, which probably is about average for beginners.

We consoled ourselves most of the morning with the knowledge that if we lacked enough for the crab feast that was being organized at home, we could always buy a dozen or two from Schnaitman, whose principal business is commercial crabbing.

As it turned out we were saved that indignity.

By noon, when the heat grew oppressive, we had a dozen and a half and we turned for home. All the crabs were big and fat and there were some real giants. But it still wasn't quite enough.

At the dock we pulled in alongside a pair of our compatriots. "Want some crabs?" they asked, as if on cue.

They'd only caught 10, not enough for an old-fashioned crab pig-out. Into our cooler the 10 went, making a handsome haul.

We showed our biggest ones to Schnaitman. Some were at least 6 1/2 inches point-to-point, 1 1/2 inches over the legal limit.

He turned up his nose.

"You want to see some big crabs? Well hold on."

He trundled to the ice house and came back with a pair that looked like they could eat the Warner Theater.

"Take a picture of these," he said. So we did.

Our bill for a day's crabbing, including bait, boat, string, ice and advice, came to $12.25. That night we feasted on steamed crabs and had leftovers. Cheap feast.

And fun. CAPTION: Picture, Charlie Schnaitman holds up a pair of his No. 1 blue crabs, typical of the giants found in Wye River waters. By Angus Phillips - The Washington Post