On the lower Eastern Shore, they still talk about the formersheriff who turned up for a crab feast in his working clothes.

The beer and hard crabs were so plentiful everyone set to work with gusto. After a while, the sheriff dozed off, as they say. Rather than disturb him, friends called his home and suggested that his daughter come fetch him.

An hour or two later came a phone call. "I got him home all right," said the daughter, "but has anyone seen his gun?"

The leavings from the crab feast having been tossed, the only place to look was the dumpster out back. It was a long hunt before the service revolver was found down at the bottom, awash in crab gurry and shell fragments after a night of hard use as a mallet.

The folks who tell this tale insist it's true, but it can't be. No self-respecting Eastern Shoreman would use such an instrument to crack crabs.

Even the use of crab mallets is discouraged on the Shore, where anyone swinging a wooden hammer to dissect a crab is presumed to be from Dundalk.

The instrument of choice among sophisticated crab-pickers is a one-piece, forged steel knife made by Carvel Hall Co., in Crisfield and sold, if you can find one, for about $2.50.

It is one piece for cleanliness, so little bits of crabmeat don't get caught in the joint between knife and handle where they might molder. It has a stiff back and a sharp blade, handy when moderate striking is needed to break through a bit of heavy claw shell, and a sharp point for picking out the sweet, white meat.

But a bludgeon? Never!

All this comes up because it's crab season on Chesapeake Bay. After a slow start, doublers are once again paddling around Point Lookout, preparing to mate; softshells have been shedding out in shallow water at Annapolis; trotliners watch dawn break in the creeks off Eastern Bay and chicken-neckers crowd private docks and public bulkheads from Baltimore to Bishop's Head.

George Turner reported that last week he and his young son Ryan scraped two dozen pairs of doublers off dock pilings near his house on the Severn River in about an hour.

(Doublers are a male and female hard crab clasped together. The male hovers over the female to protect her as she nears time to shed. Then, when she sloughs her shell, she is vulnerable to mating and he's there to pounce.)

By this week, Turner said, shedding and doubler activity was declining and a whole new crop of keeper-sized crabs was fattening up for hard-crabbers.

His observations were echoed elsewhere around the bay. "There's plenty of crabs around, but they're not fat yet," said Bruce Scheible in Ridge, near Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac. "Another week or two and it ought to be prime."

Doris Johnson at Woodburn's in Solomons Island said chicken-neckers were "running all around my seawall" catching crabs, but she, too, predicted the best crabbing was a week or two away.

Ray Dintaman, Maryland's crab specialist, blamed cool weather for the slow start but believes things are about on schedule now. Dintaman was reluctant to offer predictions on crab prospects, but said nothing to contradict earlier assessments by state officials that this would be a banner year, as the last three have been.

I have to confess I have not yet crabbed this year, mostly because I can't find my chicken-necking gear in the chaos that passes for our basement.

But I'll start looking for my strings and sinkers with renewed vigor after passing a sign on the local seafood store that said, "Crabs Invade Annapolis City at a Crawl."

Some biased observations from one who loves his crabs:

*There is no discernible difference in taste between the meat of female and male crabs, though females are half the price or less. Females don't, however, have as much delectable fat as the males do. What this means is, if you have a crab hankering but are too poor or cheap to buy big jimmies, get females. If you go crabbing and catch legal-size females, don't discard 'em. Eat 'em.

*"Fat" means the brown and white globules that first come to your attention when you snap the back shell off a cooked crab. A clump of fat lies between the two halves of the carapace you're about to tackle. There is also some fat tucked away in the pointy corners of the back shell, which you should remove with your knife and eat before tossing the shell away. Fat, to some, is the best part of the crab.

*Softshell crabs are overrated and, at $15 to $18 a dozen, overpriced. The meat of a hard crab is easily as good, probably better.

*Spice is not nice. In a bid to sell more beer, restaurant owners smother steamed crabs in hot pepper spice, which overwhelms the delicate flavor. When you order crabs say, "No spice," or, "Put the spice on the side," and when you cook your own, put just two or three tablespoons of Old Bay in a pot of water, along with a couple handfuls of salt and a cup or two of vinegar. That's all the seasoning you need.