Chesapeake Bay pollution apparently has had no grave effects on blue crabs, which continue to thrive in the murky water.
"Crabs are everywhere," said Ray Dintaman, a biologist for the Maryland Natural Resources. "I'd have a hard time finding a place to run my trawl where I wouldn't catch 'em."
The state commercial catch is about a healthy 60 million pounds a year, but you don't have to be a waterman to catch crabs, particularly from now to September when they are at the peak of abundance.
"We usually go out around 4 in the afternoon and catch our supper," said Bill Copeland, an airline pilot from Annapolis.
Copeland is a "chicken-necker." In about three minutes on the phone last week, he explained what you need to know to catch crabs in this time-honored way. Later, I took the family out in the boat and we caught dinner. It was so easy I felt compelled to share his advice.
Here, then, is a guide to chicken-necking in these bountiful crabbing times, plus additional opinions on cooking and eating the catch.
You'll need a ball of stout twine, a dozen or so fresh chicken necks from the supermarket, some small weights and a crab net, which is any net with a six- to 12-foot handle.
Cut 15- to 20-foot lengths of twine. Tie a chicken neck on the end of each and attach a weight a few inches up the line. Use two-ounce lead fishing sinkers if you have them, or just some old steel nuts and bolts if you don't.
Now, get in the car and go to the Bay. Anywhere. Annapolis, Deale, Shadyside, Galesville; or someplace on the lower Patuxent or Potomac rivers, like Solomons, Broomes Island, Benedict, Cobb Island or Point Lookout.
If you a have a boat, fine. If you don't, still fine, because crabs love docks, rock jetties and seawalls. You just have to scout around and find a dock or jetty without a sign that says, "No Crabbing," or worse, "Positively No Crabbing."
You should be in five to 10 feet of water. Maybe 12. Fifteen is okay, too. But the best summer depth will be fairly shallow and near a dropoff to deeper water, Copeland said. If you don't catch something in a half hour, move.
Drop your chicken necks to the bottom, tie off the lines on the boat or dock, wait a few minutes and start checking lines by lifting up gently.
If you feel something tugging back, it's a crab. Keep lifting gently and yell, "Net!" to whomever is with you. When the bait gets near the surface, the netter swoops down and dips the crab off. If he misses, thrash him.
If the crab is five inches across the widest part of its back, point-to-point, it's a keeper. If not, throw it back. You can keep up to a bushel a person and two bushels per boat without a license. "We had people down here last week catching three-quarters of a bushel in a morning," said Roy Shorter, who owns Shorter's Place in Benedict, Md., and who lets people crab off his dock for $1 per person, per day.
"It's been real good up in the creeks," said an employe at Woodburn's in Solomons, Md., which rents crab skiffs for $10 a day, or $30 a day with a motor.
So what do you do with a crab once you've caught it?
Handle it gingerly. Crabs can't pinch you if you grasp them by the joint where the swimming fin meets the main body. The swimming fin is the flat, paddle-shaped leg farthest from the pincers, and the pincers simply can't reach that spot.
An easier solution is to wear rubber gloves, or use crab tongs.
Crabs need not go in a cooler, where they can suffocate. They'll live all day in a shaded bushel basket.
The easy way to cook them is boiling, like lobsters. Most people steam crabs because that's how the big commercial operations do it, but boiling is quicker and just as good.
Put a gallon of water in a big pot, add a couple handfuls of salt, a cup of vinegar and two tablespoons of Old Bay seasoning. Boil the water, toss in a dozen crabs and cook five minutes or so, until they turn bright red. It is not necessary to sprinkle more Old Bay on after the crabs are done. This is a restaurant ploy to sell more beer, and many crab eaters believe it actually smothers the sweet taste of crabmeat.
Eating a crab with a hammer is a fairly crude technique. The pros use a crab knife and never splatter the guy across the table.
With a small, sharp knife, you can crack the pincer claw and the joint behind it and dig out the claw meat.
After removing the smaller legs, snap off the back and dig out the white and yellow fat amidships with your knife and eat it.
Then remove the lungs, break the body in half and tackle the main course -- the succulent white meat.
There are a thousand approaches to this. Remember that the meat of a crab is the muscles that drive its legs, and each muscle for each leg is separated from its neighbor by bony cartilage.
The key to happy crab eating is to dig the meat out of each compartment without busting up the cartilage that separates it from the next compartment.
But any chicken-necker who has gone to the trouble of catching and cooking a mess of crabs ought to be clever enough to devise his own method of retrieving the meat.