Maryland summer weather leaves much to be desired, in my opinion. It is usually too hot, too humid, and too dry. Spring and fall here can be nothing short of amazing at times, but our summers sure get long. The one thing that keeps me here in the summer is the Blue Crab. I love to catch them and eat them, and summer is when we do that.
As soon as I was old enough to drive to the Chester River, I started crabbing. The Chester is the home of the finest crabs in the whole Bay area. The salinity in the river is just perfect for Mr. Crab and he grows big and delicious there. When I was first married, I crabbed on the weekends and sold my catch to make extra money for my many interests, which usually centered around some kind of boat. A commercial license was necessary to catch them in quantity and sell them. I have always caught crabs with a traditional trot line and dip net. In the heydays of the 70’s and 80’s, we would catch two to five bushels of these beautiful swimmers a day. My best day was an amazing catch of seven bushels.
Crabbing changed greatly with the invention of the patent dipper. This is a device with a large net which hangs in the water just under the trot line and catches every crab as it falls off the line trying to make its escape. It is very efficient and catches crabs you don’t even see that jump off the line before they reach the surface. When using a traditional net, you must see them to be able to dip them. With the patent dipper, no dipping is involved. You just drive the boat straight.
I have watched as more and more commercial crabbers have switched to the patent dipper. Now, most all commercial crabbers use them. This is progress. However, as I crab for the shear enjoyment of it, I have resisted the need to modernize. My trusty dip net and I still enjoy crabbing the old way, occasionally missing a crafty crab as he makes his getaway just ahead of my best effort to capture him. Crabbing has always seemed much more like hunting than fishing to me. He is there, but you still have to put him in the net and then in the boat.
The big reward of crabbing is the Maryland crab feast. These events occur every weekend of the summer on back porches and in backyards throughout the state. They are the social event of the summer and every topic from politics to this year’s crops is discussed during them. Crabs, sweet corn, and beer are the main ingredients. We even had a crab feast for the rehearsal dinner when my oldest daughter was married.
Occasionally, one finds a particularly large crab among the pile of seasoned red bodies on the table. We have always called these big guys Chester River hummers. They are indeed special and a treasure for the lucky person who gets to eat it. These big crabs are not found in the Bay as readily as the river. In Beautiful Swimmers, William W. Warner reports that the Eastern Bay complex produces the perfect salinity for these behemoths. The Chester is the most northern part of this complex of rivers.
The huge crabs seldom make it to the market. After all, the waterman’s motto is, “Keep the best and sell the rest.” By dipping my own crabs and serving them to my guests, we are assured of great crabs and the pleasure these truly fascinating crustaceans provide.