Volume 14, Issue 26 ~ June 29 - July 5, 2006

The Sporting Life

by Dennis Doyle

Do-It-Yourself Blue Crabs

Chesapeake Bay is literally crawling with the tasty beasts

The scientific name of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, Callinectus sapidus, translates from the Greek as the beautiful swimmer, but that is only part of the story. Just the first word, Callinectus, possesses that meaning. The second word, sapidus, means delicious.

This is a rare instance of the culinary attributes of a species being embedded in its scientific name. That says something about the exquisite taste of Maryland’s favorite dinner.

Summertime is crab time in the Tidewater, but with the escalating restaurant prices for a dozen No. 1 males, it has become difficult to indulge as often as we might like.

Fortunately, we live next to one of the world’s largest estuaries, and it is literally crawling with the tasty beasts. We can catch our own. This is not a particularly complex task, and it is a great summer activity for the whole family.

In most areas of the Bay, a few yards of cotton twine, a crab net and several chicken necks are all one needs to pursue enough for a meal. A local pier or bulkhead will generally provide access to crabbing waters, and all that is necessary is casting out a neck on about a dozen or so feet of twine … and waiting. A flood tide, early morning arrival and multiple lines can increase your chances of success.

When a blue crab finds the tasty morsel of bait, it will try to swim off with it. This straightens out the length of twine, alerting the crabber. Grasp the line delicately, and gently retrieve until the crab is visible; then ease into position. Start with the net below the crab, for it will flee downward, and make a quick scoop. The blue crab is lightning fast in the water.

Crab traps are also efficient devices. Baited with chicken necks or pieces of fish, they are lowered to the bottom on a cord. When they are pulled up, the devices close, trapping the crabs inside. These have the benefit of working in deeper water and off of higher piers and bulkheads. They also don’t require quite the luck and net skill as simpler crab lines.

Assuming a crabber is fortunate and the prize meets the minimum size requirement of five inches point to point (51⁄4 inches after July 14), a dinner is started. Accumulate the crabs in a bushel basket or some equally airy container. Use a pair of thick gloves or crab tongs for handling the crabs.

Buckets and coolers are not appropriate containers. Lack of air circulation will doom the crab to an early demise, rendering it ineligible for dinner. Dead crabs must never be cooked for a meal.

Once you’ve collected sufficient crabs for the dinner you’ve planned, you’ll need to prepare them. I prefer to immerse the crabs in heavily iced water prior to cooking.

About five minutes in this frigid bath, even the hardiest crab will become dormant. It will also wash off any sand or dirt the crab may have accumulated. Chilled crabs can be easily handled and stacked compactly into a steamer. The crabs will not regain consciousness during cooking, hence will not throw their claws or legs.

A popular mixture for steaming is equal parts beer and water with a pour of vinegar added. There are various explanations for the particular function of each of these ingredients, but I use it because I like the smell. Twenty minutes of steam time is enough to complete the job; more than 30 minutes risks making the crab meat mushy. They should be bright red when done. Crabs of darker color indicate more cooking time is needed.

Once they are removed from the steamer and placed on a serving platter, spray beer or water onto the hot crabs then pour a generous amount of seasoning over all of them.

Multiple layers of newspaper are the traditional table covering and also serve to protect the surface from the enthusiastic pounding of crab mallets. The mallets can be purchased in most seafood and grocery stores, as well as inexpensive paring knives for separating the meat from the shell. You’ll need a roll of paper towels for the napkins. If done properly, the consumption of crabs is not a tidy affair.

Note: No license is required to possess up to two dozen crabs per person. You may fish 10 traps or any number of hand lines. Check DNR regulations for details.

Fish Are Biting

All of the usual locations are producing rockfish for chummers, live liners and deep trollers. The fish are being found in about 35 feet of water. Larger perch are finally showing up over the oyster bars, and a few croaker are mixed in as well. No big spot as yet, but some small ones (perfect for live-lining) are hanging near docks and piers. Small to medium sized bluefish are speeding about but not remaining anywhere for long.

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