These hot days, a right-minded Marylander's thoughts turn to crabbing, which means getting up long before the sun to make a day of it before the heat runs you inside.

One obvious advantage to do-it-yourself crabbing is the half-bushel or more of succulent hardshells you're likely to catch for free, instead of forking over $60 a bushel or more at the local crab store. But there are subtler benefits as well.

Down here, where the Rhode and West rivers meet, the Smithsonian Institution owns much of the surrounding land and handles it so gently you can still hear the sweet whistles of bobwhite quail in the morning, and you may scare up a deer or two on the way in.

"There's one," said Tom Hardesty as we drove down the sand road to the little clearing he uses to launch his aluminum boat. "There's another, and that one's a buck." The deer bolted when Hardesty stopped, but you could clearly see the big one's spike horns in the pale light.

Which made us late, of course. It may be impossible for a city fellow to get up early enough to crab properly, unless he just doesn't go to sleep at all. The alarm had rung at 3:30 and I was on the road at 4, but by the time we'd had coffee, hooked up the trailer and made the trek down here it was well past 5, visibility was on the rise and we were still scratching gravel.

Ideally, the trotline already would have been set and attracting big jimmies. Still, from the looks of it we were the first ones out on this section of the Rhode, where commercial crabbing is minimal, which left us the whole river from which to pick a spot.

Hardesty had in mind to set up the trotline along an unprotected shore near the river mouth where he'd done well before, but we saw quickly that a warm southwester was blowing onshore there, making the water too rough for our purposes.

"Better stay in sheltered water," he said. So we headed for a forested shoreline he'd never tried and felt around with the handle of one of the dip nets, seeking hard bottom and five or six feet of water. The idea was to waylay the crabs as they moved into the shallows for their breakfast.

Hardesty, a retired District policeman who crabs several times a week, said placement of the line wasn't as crucial as timing anyway. "One thing about crabs," he said, "there's plenty of them. They're just about everywhere."

His ancient, 3-horsepower Evinrude putted along until he found a spot he liked and started setting out 1,000 feet of nylon line, anchored at either end with steel and baited every few feet with chunks of bull lips.

Maryland regulations allow sport crabbers to set up to 500 feet of trotline and catch up to a bushel of crabs a day per person with no license, but Hardesty takes the game seriously enough to buy a $10 resident's sport-crabbing license, which allows him to set unlimited lengths of line and keep up to two bushels a day per person.

He favors bull-lip baits, which he buys from a meat-packing plant, on grounds they hold up better to the tenacious assaults of hungry crabs than salted eel or chicken necks, the other standards.

The bull lips found the shallow bottom quickly. Once he had the line down and floats marking each end, he mounted a home-made roller bar on the side of the boat and locked it in place with a C clamp. After a wait of 10 minutes, he fired up the Evinrude again, picked up one end of the line and ran it up and over the roller.

Then, while he ran the boat ahead dead slow, I stood watch with a dip net as the trotline and its baits rode up and over the roller bar. Any fat crabs caught clinging to a bait were my targets and, with a few heart-rending exceptions, most hit the chicken-wire net with a comforting clank and went into a bushel basket for sorting.

Some amateur anthropologists have suggested that dipping crabs off a trotline this way must be the prehistoric forebear of lacrosse, since the skills of catching, cradling and accurately tossing crabs around with a net are much the same.

But I can't see how anyone would waste his time chasing around on some overheated field after a lacrosse ball while all those delectable hard crabs lurked out on the river. Catching crabs is easily as sporting, and you don't have to play in the middle of the day.

Hardesty and I, by contrast, had our half-bushel by 9 a.m. and were headed for the takeout. By then the blazing sun was headed high in the sky and the larger crabs already were dropping off the line prematurely, scuttling away from the harsh light.

Coffee time in America; quitting time for crabbers.