Anyone who has been paying attention knows this was a banner summer for crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay. Now, at the height of the season, these delectable shellfish are so big and plentiful even veteran crabbers are gloating.
"There's been more crabs than ever in the last few years," said George Turner, who owns and runs Church Circle Realty when he isn't catching jimmies, peelers, doublers and she-biddies in the cove in front of his mother's house on the Severn River.
"But lately," he said, "we've been getting the biggest crabs I've ever seen."
It's worth a look when folks such as Turner, who supported himself through high school crabbing in the 1960s, start waxing lyrical.
"Come on along," he said. "We just baited up with fresh bull lips and we're going out tonight."
Turner's crabbing partner is Billy Patterson, his high school pal, now a construction supervisor. Both are prep school graduates who took a wrong turn. "We sit out here on the weekends, covered with dirt and stinking of crab bait, and watch the sailboats go by," said Turner. "Then we say, 'Nah, we're definitely not preppies.' "
Instead of a yacht, Patterson has a commercial crabbing license and a sleek, 44-year-old, 50-foot, cedar-on-oak workboat called Third Term, so named because she was launched the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the only president to enter a third term in office.
Usually, Patterson crabs in the water around the mouth of the Severn, but this year he's made frequent forays upstream to the oyster bars in front of the Turner home, pursuing the jumbo male crabs his partner promised were there.
"I think the salty water is good for crabs," said Turner by way of explaining the phenomenon. He believes the dry summer helped the population along.
Each evening, Patterson comes upriver after work and Turner sits in the air-conditioned family house and watches for Third Term to glide under the old Rte. 450 drawbridge. Then he grabs a six-pack of cold beer, trundles down the lawn to his inflatable dinghy and motors out to meet the boat.
"Smell those bull lips?" he laughed as we passed downwind of the big boat. Patterson was putting out the first of two trot lines and a ripe odor wafted down on a warm breeze.
Trot-liners traditionally bait with fresh salt eel, but it's expensive and fragile. Lately, Patterson has been using half salt eel and half bull lips from Iowa, which are exactly what the name implies. "When the crabs really turn on, they can chew up all your eel in no time and you have to go in," said Patterson. "Bull lips last longer, so you can keep on crabbing when it's hot."
The trot lines he put out were 1,000-foot-plus lengths baited every foot or so and held on the bottom by chunks of metal.
Once the lines were down, Patterson draped an end of one over a roller hung off the side of the boat. As he ran the boat slowly along the line, the baits rose to the surface and any decent-sized crabs hanging on were deftly netted by Turner and deposited in bushel baskets.
Thirty years ago, before crab pots were invented, trot-lining was the predominant commercial crabbing technique. Now, it's uncommon on the populous western shore of the Bay, although it persists on the wilder Eastern Shore. Seeing an old boat such as Third Term working a crowded river such as the Severn is a rarity.
Patterson runs the boat and Turner, who went to the University of Virginia on a lacrosse scholarship, is net man. "It's hard to say whether crabbing helps your lacrosse or lacrosse helps your crabbing," he said as he dipped up fat, hard crabs, carefully cradling them in the net while moving along the narrow washboard.
People still trot-line for a living, which looks like a hard way to make a dollar on one hand, and a nice way to spend a day on the other. "This is my way of relaxing," said Turner, who whoops it up whenever a big jimmy or a pair of doublers turns up on the line.
Our first run turned up three-quarters of a bushel of crabs, including a dozen or so whale-sized No. 1 males, the choicest crab of all. Turner was a dervish, dancing up and down the washboard, dipping up six and eight crabs at a time and keeping up a happy commentary as he worked.
When the run was over, he glanced down at Patterson.
"Well," he said with a gleam in his eye, "it's not much, but maybe it'll pick up when the sun drops."
One of the curiosities of Washington life is the tremendous demand for hard crabs during May, when they are scarce as silver dollars, and the disdain for them in September and October, when they are heavy and plentiful.
Last week, I paid $6 for two dozen fat, live, No. 2 male crabs from a fellow in a truck parked alongside Rte. 2. He threw in a few extras and a family of four spent two days delightedly picking at them.