Hunter-gatherers make hay while the waters gone
by Mark McCaig
I use my neighbors shallow-water crab pot as a visual tidal marker. When the Bay covers it, the tide has risen; when the pots visible, the tide has receded. Yesterday I looked out and the pot rested on mud, completely exposed. Checking Bay Weeklys on-line tidelog, I discovered that the moon would pull the warm water out for two more hours. I hollered to my eight-year-old daughter Maggie, Were having a mud tide in the summer! Get the nets and the bushel basket!
Mud tides come in the winter to my Herring Bay locale because of at least three factors. Our sister orb, the moon, applies her usual gravitational pull, adjusting her fluid needs on a 28-day cycle. Also, the colder water contracts and occupies less space in winter. Finally, the kicker seems to be a stiff west-northwest wind. If its blowing hard on a winter night, my rubber boots are sitting by the back door. In summer, however, mud tides seldom come.
Wed been crabbing all summer at the creek, with slim pickings thus far. Wed heard about gargantuan channel crabs one neighbor had caught on the Magothy, pots full of females a waterman friend had been harvesting and 15 keepers a neighborhood teenager had netted with chicken necks in eight feet of water from the swim platform. Yep, plenty of crab stories, but precious few steaming in my pot.
Hustling barefoot to the bridge, we scooped up six jimmies in the shallow creek within 10 minutes. Wide swaths of the creeks bed dried in the sun as the tidal pond flowed into the Bay, creating two spots where we could see every creature coming or going. We waited like toll collectors at the Bay Bridge. Everything had to go through us.
What a spectacle we saw. A northern water snake swam by, its intricate markings so reminiscent of the venomous copperhead. Ravenous schools of bull minnows obscured the creek bottom, attacking whatever morsels they encountered. Young spot fish flashed white beneath the minnows. An inscrutable swarm of dark, aggressive fish marauded about. Of course, great blue and green herons and one great egret came to collect the low tides bounty.
As did we. The blue crabs scuttled steadily by, and we caught three dozen in a couple of hours, including Maggies first three keepers. Catching crabs with a net requires stealth, speed and technique, and Maggie had been refining her skill by practicing over and over on unfortunate small crabs all summer. With a slight hip shift and a deft drag across the bottom, she came of age yesterday, hoisting a six-inch crab overhead in triumph.
We feasted last night, enjoying local corn and salad alongside the crabs in the cool evening. Maggie, a fourth-generation crabber, recognized and savored a specific crab she had caught. Before bed, she applied three band-aids to the various nicks and cuts her feet had earned at the creek, and I told her about similar cuts Id had over the years. Later, as she dreamed of crabs, I stepped outside and saw the winter constellation Pleiades rising over the Chesapeake.
Feeling a slight north-northwest breeze on the back of my neck, I gave thanks for connections made with my daughter, the Bay and the mysterious dances of tides, seasons and creatures on this planet.
Mark McCaig of Fairhaven has turned up in Bay Weekly since 1993, our first year. He last reflected on Late Spring Surprises on May 26.