After years of deriding sport crabbers for using chicken necks as bait, commercial crabbers on Chesapeake Bay are doing the unthinkable -- switching to chicken necks themselves.

"They started last year some and they're finding it makes a much cheaper bait," said Jerry Harris of Harris Seafood on crab-rich Kent Narrows. "I don't think {chicken necks} catch as much and they don't hold up as well, but the difference in price is so great, even if they have to change baits every day it's cheaper."

Chesapeake Bay watermen traditionally favored salt eel as the No. 1 crab bait, but eels, considered a delicacy overseas, cost up to $1.50 a pound. Bull lips from meat rendering plants, another popular bait in recent years, have skyrocketed in price as well and often are hard to get.

By contrast, chicken necks from the Eastern Shore's booming poultry trade are only 25 cents a pound, Harris said, and readily available. One Delaware chicken processing house advertises its chicken necks in the Waterman's Gazette.

"The higher eels get, the more chicken they want," said Millard Sindler of Dover Poultry. He said his company's necks cost a bit more -- 30 cents a pound -- but are worth it because they come from older stewing hens and hold up better to hungry crabs.

Use of the derogatory term "chicken-necker" to refer to recreational crabbers gained notoriety in William Warner's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Chesapeake, "Beautiful Swimmers." He learned it from venerable Eastern Shore waterman Lester Lee, who blamed many ills on the "durn chicken neckers" who got in his way when he set his crab trotlines around Eastern Bay near Kent Narrows.

Lee is retired now, but he reported by telephone that his sons and grandsons are active professional crabbers and one grandson has been using chicken necks.

"He did use them," said Lee, "but he said he had to bait up every day, and that's a mess."