Monday, August 18, 2014

A day with Capt'n Bob Evans

In the soft shadows of daybreak, bevies of shorebirds crisscross the thistled marshland. Along the shoals, Mother Blue Hereon gently tip-toes to a sudden pose; the pointer hound, stretched full out, strikes at bait fish unopposed, with a flip and a gulp, it's gone.

The mates offload the truck and ready the boat for launch. With his thermos and lunchbox properly stowed, Capt'n Bob Evans hobbles aboard. "Good Morning" he brims from his double chin, and his hearty wry sense of good-naturedness, unless of course when he's gruff that is.

From the deep rooted soul of a Chesapeake morning, Capt'n Bob throttles up the old Detroit Diesel. BRUM BRUM she roars. Both fore and aft are untethered, and away from the pier churns the 43 foot bay-built Tempest. Atop the channel buoy, the osprey leaps from its tangled nest of driftwood for a birds-eye view of what's below. "I smell shad" exclaims the first mate. And with that, in flowing harmony, the sea hawk swoops down and bare-hands a fish in mid-flight. "There are two hatchling beaks as best we know" says the Capt'n.

It's a short boat ride to the crabbing grounds. Time enough to fill the bait box with razor clams and fish halves. The culling box fits tight to the gunwale. Off to the side sit three bushel baskets for culling out jumbo jimmies, mixed males and sooks, or females to the layman. "Let's pull the first pot and see what we've got" said the Capt'n. The big diesel roars in reverse slowing the boat down to capture the hawk as the line marker buoy is called.

Twenty pots to a string, 600 all toll. "200 today fellas" utters the Capt'n. The day's first is dangling from the winch. "Soft crab" yells the Capt'n, and there in the pot, soft as velvet and totally vulnerable, lays the summertime delight of the Chesapeake Bay. Always the first culled, the mate opens the trap door and carefully hands off the crab to be covered in wet burlap. The mate then shakes the remaining crabs from the pot and into to the culling box. The trap door is closed, the bait well is stuffed with fresh bait and the pot is stacked on deck ready for the next set.

One-by-one the hard crabs are separated into their proper basket. Feisty rascals they are, scampering sideways down the culling box wildly snapping their pincers at anything that moves. It takes a master crab handler to grab them without injury. The undersized and paper-shells are thrown overboard, maybe next time Charlie.

The ebb tide on the full moon night was pulling the shells right off of their backs. We caught 56 peelers that day, soon to be soft crabs when they slough. Peeler crabs are safely stored in the live well. By now, surface ripples across the bay glimmer like diamonds in the morning sun.

The first line is complete, the crabs are culled, and twenty crab pots are stacked on-board waiting to be reset. "Let the hawk go" orders the Capt'n, and the line buoy is once again thrown overboard. One after another the pots are reconnected to the line and rolled into the bay. A second buoy follows the last pot to mark the end of the string. Each step in the process is a well choreographed transition. Once the line is set, we're off to find the next hawk and fish the next 20 pots. In between lines is time to replenish the bait box, stack full bushels, make repairs, and grab a quick drink.

As the pots tick by, regrettably the day comes to an end. We have 9 bushels of hard crabs on-board, as well, a hefty catch of peelers and soft crabs. Not to mention an ice bucket full of croakers, spot and white perch. On the way in the clean up begins. Buckets of water are splashed on deck, while swift moving push brooms sweep up the mess. At the dock, we load-up the day's catch onto the truck and take one last look across the western bay. The work is fast paced and strenuous, but I can't think of a better way to spend a day, than with Capt'n Bob Evans.

Back at the shop the hard crabs are unloaded into the walk-in box. Fish and soft crabs are stored on ice. The peelers are carefully dumped into shedding tanks where they are monitored 24/7 in 2 hour vigils. Once they have sloughed, there is a short window of time to harvest them as soft crabs as their shells harden quickly. Paper-shells, as they're aptly named, are worthless crabs that have matured beyond the soft shell stage. They lack enough meat to fill their new, and larger body cavity. Paper-shells, aka, white crabs, have thirty days to fatten up until the next full moon repeats the growing process. May we meet again in the time between.

"Crabs are a fickle creature" explains Capt'n Bob. "They may be in shallow water on a sandy bottom, or in deeper water near the ledges." "I guess that's why it's called crabbing and not catching." After 50 years on the bay, Capt'n Bob says the only thing he knows for certain, is that "they eat, swim and bite," but I think he knows more than he leads us to believe.

S.A. Peck

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