When Chesapeake hard crabs are plentiful, as they are right now, the price plummets. "I've been seeing jimmies (male crabs) at the roadside trucks for as low as $12 a bushel," said Ray Dintaman, crab biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
So why, at rates like that, would anyone spend a half a day puttering around the river, working half a day for a bushel?
"I call it my mental health day," said Rich Dolesh, adopted son of the little town of West wood in lower Prince George's County. He'd go crabbing even if they were giving them away.
Dolesh manages the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission's Patuxent River Park at Jug Bay near Wayson's Corner. When the pressures get too intense at the river park, he takes a day and goes . . . out on the river, of course. "I learn something new every time I go out, it relaxes me."
Dolesh comes from Cleveland, the son of a chemical engineer. Like many people at the time, he was confused and embittered a decade ago.He bounced around a bit and wound up teaching school in southern Maryland and working part time at the river park. Soon he quit the school and went full time on the river, where he has been ever since. "I never regretted it," he said.
Dolesh, a big, sturdy, blond-haired guy, married Patty Watson, whose father and grandfather worked the sandy soil of southern Prince George's for corn and tobacco and plied the Patuxent after finfish and crabs.
Now the Doleshes have a son, 9-month-old Matthew, and a home. They're ready to pick the cash crop, an acre of tobacco. The garden is full of tomatoes, corn, eggplants, cukes, melons and some sunflowers for the birds. The Doleshes bought seven acres and a tumbledown sharecropper's house, which he is diligently putting right.
"Patty's folks watched this house go up," Dolesh said. "It was built by two drunk carpenters. They never used a level or a T-square. When they got a beam ready, one would step back while the other one held it up. He'd say, 'Look's okay to me,' and the one on the ladder would nail it home."
Once a week, or more often if he can, Rich Dolesh goes crabbing on the Patuxent, using methods and materials perfected over the years by Patty's people.
"We're no chicken-neckers," gasped a horrified Dolesh. "We're trotliners."
Trotlining is the step between chicken-necking (dangling hunks of chicken off a boat or pier and hoisting up a crab when it bites) and commercial crab-potting serious business where a catch of 20 or 30 bushels a day is not unusual.
Trotliners rig up a line with chunks of salted eel tied in every three feet or so. Dolesh's trot line is 1,500 feet long, with four sash weights at each end to hold it on the bottom and plastic milk cartons to mark the ends.
On Thursday, he piloted his father-in-law's duck-hunting skiff downriver to a place near Eagle Harbor. By a little before 8a.m., the trot line was down in six feet of water, the milk jugs were bobbing in a gentle chop and the sky was turning an uncharacteristically brilliant midsummer blue.
"Now, how long do we wait before we run the line?" I asked.
"We don't wait," said Dolesh. "If the crabs are here, they're on it right now. They don't take long to find food."
He grabbed a trotline end and ran it over a wooden arm mounted on the gunwale. Then he motored the boat upwind along the path of the line. Slowly, the line passed over the wooden arm, and when the first salted-eel bait appeared, there was a fat hard-shell crab nibbling away on it. With a practiced flip of the wrist, Dolesh dipped the crab out with a wire-mesh, long-handled net and deposited it in a bushel basket.
Good start. By the end of the run, he'd collected about 25 crabs, which we sorted as we drifted back down to run the line again. A dozen were five inches or better, point to point across the back. Those were keepers. The smaller crabs went back overboard.
Next run, we picked up 14, then 17, then 19, the high run of the day. Dolesh had me dipping, and while I confess dipping hard shells off a trot line lacks some of the thrill of high-sport chicken-necking, there's a certain fascination that attaches to watching the line roll up with doubles on one bait, or huge, dirty mud-dewllers on another, and trying to catch them all.
"Ebb tide is best," Dolesh had warned me," and when the sun gets high the crabbing really falls off." At about 10:30, the outgoing tide went slack and the fishing slowed. By then, we had almost a bushel, and we filled the basket and had started on another one by noon, when Dolesh called it quits.
His $5 noncommercial sport crabber's license permits him to fish a trotline in excess of 300 feet and keep up to three bushels of crabs a day for his own consumption. But Dolesh's crab-cooking facility, a cut-open beer keg, holds only 1 1/2 bushels. He usually stops when he has enough to fill the keg.
During the afternoon, he steamed them (a couple of cups of vinegar, salt, Old Bay seasoning and 45 minutes over the fire). At 5, the family began arriving and by 5:30 there were crab shells everywhere. "Nice crabs, Rich," they murmured.
Clyde Watson, Patty's grandfather, took a seat next to me. "Say," he said, "do you eat all that fatty stuff in the middle when you first crack open the shell?"
"Sure do," I said. "That's the best part of the crab."
"Doggone," said he. "If I'd known, I'd have picked somebody else to sit next to. I figured you were the sucker at this table."