Chesapeake Bay Blues

This part of the year, trapped indoors by bad weather, always gets me to musing on better times — like last spring, when there was no better time in memory for getting the blues. I’m talking about Chesapeake Bay blue crabs of course, not the mournful variety. 

I had steeled myself in 2010 not to expect anything happening crabwise until maybe mid-June, and perhaps not much even then. So I was astounded when a friend keyed me in to a red-hot run starting in mid-May. 

Fish Are Biting

Nice-sized pickerel are starting to hit in the tributaries where the ice has receded enough to get at them. Mepps spinners, especially those dressed with squirrel tail, are the hottest lures, while a fat bull minnow hooked on a shad dart and slow trolled under a float around shoreline structures will get its share of attention.

North of us, in the Bay headwaters, the yellow perch fishing is heating up. Full limits of 12- to 14-inch fish are becoming common — when the weather cooperates. It’s still a deep-water bite as yet, 30 to 50 feet, but the fish will be moving up into the rivers shortly and within range of shore-bound anglers. The deep-water fish are falling to small bass assassins and soft shad (two to three inches) jigged slowly across the bottom. Closer to shore, minnows and grass shrimp will get you your fish. 


In Season

Woodcock: thru Jan. 22
Migratory Canada geese: thru Jan. 29 
Light geese: thru Jan. 29
Ducks: thru Jan. 29 
Black ducks: thru Jan. 29
Sea ducks: thru Jan. 29 
Brant: thru Jan. 29 
Snipe: thru Jan. 29 
Rabbit: thru Feb. 28
Squirrel: thru Feb. 28
Resident Canada geese: thru Mar. 5 


Opening Soon

Light Goose conservation season: Jan. 31 thru Apr. 16, with special permit

I jumped on it, of course. The best crabs are always those you get in the early season. After an absence of their succulent presence over a long winter, the first crabs from the Bay are virtually an orgasmic experience. 

My friend’s tip turned out to be even better than I’d hoped. Amazingly enough, that surprise May bonanza continued to grow into an unbelievably good season, the best in two decades.

The Maryland and Virginia emergency restrictions placed on female blue crab harvest back in 2008 had resulted in a record population recovery in just two years. My family feasted on blue crabs almost every weekend all the way to the end of summer.

The only problem with that early crab run was the drop-offs. The chilled spring waters had the crabs moving slowly, and they were tentative in holding onto the baits as my trotline brought them to the surface. I missed a lot of big jimmies those first few weeks. This coming spring, I’m changing tactics because I’m thinking this season will be at least as good as the last.

Perfecting the Technique

Crab traps are one answer to drop-off problems in springtime. Traps, boxlike and usually about 12 inches in diameter, come in a number of varieties: collapsible, fixed two-door, fixed four-door and topless. When any is pulled up, the crabs are trapped inside. 

Since space is a consideration for me, the topless style traps should be a good solution. They can be stacked inside of each other until deployed. Crabs instinctively try to flee downwards so the open top is not a hindrance — as long as the crabs are retrieved smartly. 

Baited with chicken necks, fish or clams, all traps are lowered on a line marked by a small float. Regulations permit the use of up to 30 traps. You drop them over a wide area, then go back and haul them up, catching the crabs inside. Over time, you will gradually concentrate your traps in the more productive areas.

Crab ring nets are also a good possibility. These are netlike devices consisting of two metal hoops, one smaller than the other and set concentrically in cotton netting. The bait is tied into the bottom center of the netting and dropped, like the traps, on a line marked with a float. When pulled up, the two hoops form a hollow basket that traps the crabs in the bottom — assuming they are pulled up quickly. Crab ring nets are the simplest and least expensive of the trap devices.

Many crabbers use rings and traps year round. But when waters warm and the jimmies get more aggressive, I’ll resume using my trotline. It’s the most efficient and effective device for me under those circumstances. Last year during June and July, I averaged a bushel of crabs in about an hour and a half on my 900-foot line (the legal limit is 1,200 feet). 

I’ll keep the traps in reserve, however, for those days when I don’t need a bushel. Under those circumstances, once again, they’ll be just the solution. Sliding a canoe into the water with some traps or rings along should easily result in two dozen or so crabs for an impromptu lunch or dinnertime treat, assuming of course that Mr. Crab cooperates.

My mouth is already watering from just the thought of it. Calendar-wise it’s still a ways off, but I’m already making preparations. Shopping off-season sales for some traps and floats, scrubbing out my boxes, baskets and my steamer and making sure I’ve got enough crab knives and mallets, I’m staying busy. When the runs start this spring, I’m planning on being ready.