My father loved the ocean, loved fishing on it and swimming in it. Even after he almost lost his left leg in a sport fishing accident when I was very young, whenever he could grab time off from his bar business, from April to October, he went deep sea fishing. He would drive in before dawn to Indian River, Delaware to meet his fishing buddies and Captain Bob, who ran a head boat. They would troll for hours, drinking beer, casting their lines. More often than not, my father would come home with a dozen fish or more, already filleted at the dock and ready to wrap in white paper and store in the freezer. Bluefish, striped bass, hardheads, ocean perch, porgy, croakers—anything edible found its way to our table. My mother had a lifelong dislike for any food from the sea unless it was thoroughly disguised, as in shrimp salad or crabcakes. But my father, my sister and I had an appetite for seafood, even the unpopular varieties, what Dad called “good eatin’ fish.”
He took me deep sea fishing more than once. The waters were rough, and each time, I spent the morning trying to get my sea legs. Dad’s remedy for seasickness was to eat: “Have a ham sandwich,” he’d say.” Have a Coke.” He believed that an empty stomach made seasickness worse. I believed it led to throwing up overboard, which I did, several times. But I persevered, and caught a few small blues, making him proud and happy. More problematical for me than seasickness was the absence of women on those trips. I wasn’t one of the guys, but at nine or ten, with my fishing hat, my dungarees and my short hair, I could pass for a boy and my father certainly treated me like a boy, encouraging me to choose a fishing rod that fit my hand, showing me how to thread the lure on the hook and cut the line with a penknife.
But crabbing, now there was a fine endeavor, without the pitching of a small boat on the choppy ocean. We would leave the vacation cottage early, cooler full of ice, beer, and soft drinks, some sandwiches, and in a beat-up cooking pot, several handfuls of cut up blue eels for bait. The tools we required were few—a long-handled net, a spare cooler with more ice, twine and a penknife to cut it. Over the bridge from Ocean City we drove, into what was then no town at all, just country roads and an occasional gas station, and around every corner, a narrow branch of the Isle of Wight Bay. We found an old footbridge where a few people were already crabbing. They said there was room enough for us as well, so we set up our lines and settled in for the morning. On our first day out, my father had to show my sister and me how to tie the bait, then gauge how much twine was needed, so the crabs would be fooled into thinking they’d found a choice, plump breakfast that had magically fallen to the bottom of the creek. He explained how to check the lines by gently pulling on them, to see if we had a crab nibbling on the other end, and how to slowly and mindfully draw the string in, then quickly scoop the crab up in a long handled net. We stayed there for hours, sometimes bringing up nothing, sometimes watching our prey escape from the net at the very last moment. While we waited, and checked our lines, and checked them once again, there was not much else to do except eat sandwiches and drink grape soda. We kept our talk quiet, so as not to scare the crabs away. I waited, watching the current flow steadily, and the crab lines drifting along, pulling away from the footbridge, parallel lines in the dark water.
There were strict rules about which crabs we could keep, and which ones must be thrown back. A crab might have only one claw, perhaps having forfeited it in a fight with another. “That one goes back,” Dad pronounced sentence. Or a crab might not measure the requisite five inches point to point, as required by Maryland law. “He goes back—we ‘ll get him next year,” my father said. Then there was my father’s odd prohibition against keeping female crabs, their aprons marked by deep horizontal ridges. We obeyed without an argument; after all, he was the expert. My mother, who sat in her folding beach chair, reading her science fiction novel and sipping iced tea, paid no attention to the crabbing enterprise going on around her. She was only along for the peace and quiet.
We did well enough that first day, pulling in a couple dozen crabs over three or four hours. My father took periodic smoke breaks, and finished the beer while my sister and I checked our lines and signaled one another to bring the net every time we thought we had a crab on the line. There were others plying their skills along that stretch of water, not too close to us, but near enough that we could observe their progress. Across the way was a small group of Negroes, as my mother called African Americans in those days, or colored people, as my father was wont to say— three adults and a couple of boys about my age, all working the lines. We noticed that they were hauling in crabs at an impressive rate. My father stubbed out a cigarette, grinding it into the footbridge with his shoe, and called over to them. “Looks like you’re having some good luck over there,” he shouted. “What kind of bait you using?”
An older man, wearing a beat up baseball cap, dungaree overalls, and a white t-shirt, called back, “Chicken necks. Chicken necks and backs. Cut most the fat off them, though. Crabs love them, can’t get enough.” My father hollered back his thanks. That was the last time we used eels for crab bait.
The next day we stopped at a little grocery store on the country road and bought chicken necks and backs. We returned to our same spot early enough that no one else had laid claim to it. My father trimmed the fat off the chicken and we set up our lines. Chicken parts were much easier to work with than those rubbery eels, and if a crab really chewed up part of the chicken it was easy to trim the flyaway pieces of skin and rethread the twine right through the bones. We used those chicken pieces over and over that second day, until the crabs had picked them nearly clean. By early afternoon we had almost six dozen crabs in our cooler. We tossed back another dozen that had failed to meet Dad’s rigorous criteria for size, sex, and all around fitness. Before we left,we threw the chicken skeletons into the creek. That was a nice treat for the crabs that got away, I recall thinking.
That afternoon my father was on the phone to his and Mother’s old high school pals Jean and Dewey, Lib and Harry, inviting them all over for a crab feast at our cottage. “You bring the beer,” I heard him say on the pay phone outside the cottage rental office. “I’ve got the crabs, plenty of big heavy ones, too.” Shortly before our guests were due to arrive, my father filled a deep cookpot with water and vinegar, set a low rack in the bottom of the pot, then covered it and turned up the flame. He sprinkled the crabs with Old Bay, then using only his bare hands, he lifted them out of cooler one by one and dropped them into the pot and replaced the lid. I sat at the table reading, only half paying attention to him. At first I heard much scuttling around, and I tried not to think about what was going on inside that pot. A vinegary smell started to fill the kitchen, and my father set the lid askew so that some of the steam could escape. The sound of the crabs against the pot stopped then, and the sweet spicy smell of crab and Old Bay infused the little kitchen. I breathed it in deeply. “Time to put out the newspapers,” my father said matter of factly, as though I had been doing this—catching crabs and setting up for a crab feast— all my young life.
So we set up the table and a card table beside it, and covered them with a week’s worth of the Baltimore Sun. At each place we put a pile of paper napkins and a wooden mallet. We laid down a few nutcrackers and table knives in the middle to share. The Roystons and the Fishers arrived, and the feast began. Even my mother, disdainer of all seafood, pulled up a chair to be sociable, though I am certain that she had cheese and crackers for her meal that night. And as we hammered away and picked, praising the taste of this claw meat, or the sweetness of this backfin, as the piles of empty shells and the inedible “devil meat” of the lungs were periodically scraped off into the trash bin, my thoughts turned to that other family we had encountered on the creek the day before. And as the adult talk swirled around me, I imagined that family selling some of their take, but keeping the best of it. I saw them in their kitchen, rinsing the live crabs just as we had , steaming them in the pot, their boys inhaling the same spicy mixture of water, crabs and spices. I pictured them sitting outside their house on the other side of the bridge, perhaps talking about us a little, wondering how we had fared once they shared with us their secret, teaching us how best to bring in so many Callinecteis sapidi, those savory beautiful swimmers.