CATCHIN' CRABS They make their living gathering Number Ones, Peelers from ZTC the bay


Sonny Norris pulls his work boat Moon Dog out of the crowded slip at Deckelman's Boatyard quick and easy, as if he's taking a beer out of the icebox.

The Moon Dog slides past a sleek white 40-foot yacht into Hopkins Creek off Middle River. The powdery gray dawn breaks up into a thousand black shards on the placid, softly rolling water.

"We're starting out late today," Sonny says. It's about 6:30 a.m. "We usually get up at 3:30, June, July and August."

You get up early when you're a professional crabber. Sonny's one of about 20 watermen working big rigs out of Middle River.

"Sonny's my nickname," he says. "My real name's Charles."

He's 25 and he's been on the water eight years. He's got a bit of a beard and a little mustache and that eternally watchful look around the eyes that might be called a 1000-yard stare if this boat had been working the Mekong Delta in 1968 instead of the Chesapeake Bay in 1990. His thick upper arms give him a look of a very strong middleweight boxer.

"We'll be crabbing over in front of Tolchester and Swan Point," he says.

And, it turns out, in quite a few other spots, too -- at the mouth of the Gunpowder, before Hart-Miller Islands, off Poole's Island and even a little south of Rock Hall.

"We got pots scattered everywhere," Sonny says. "The least we pull is 500 a day, the most 800."

He figures he's got a thousand pots out. Sonny doesn't get to all his pots every day; some sit two days before he checks them.

More than 3,300 commercial crabbers are licensed in Maryland, but only 159 have licenses to put out more than 50 pots, or unlimited licenses. About 8,000 crabbers have non-commercial licenses, a category too complicated for human beings to explain, and only the Lord knows how many recreational crabbers there are.

Some people see the enormous pressure threatening the crab population in the bay. They contend that watermen like Sonny seem to work harder than ever to bring in the same catch. The crab is the last real cash crop for the bay's watermen. And they certainly work hard for the money they make.

"We go out every day," Sonny says, "as long as we got a market. Six days a week a lot, and seven when we can."

Crabs won't go into the pots when the water temperature drops to 57 degrees, he says. His Apelco fish finder says the temperature today is 62 degrees.

L "We got another month," he says. "We go until Thanksgiving."

The Moon Dog's big Detroit Diesel engine whacks away at the morning air with a steady thumping hammer.

"I put it in five years ago," Sonny says. "It's got 8,700 hours on it. Broke a piston this year. Only trouble I ever had with it."

The Moon Dog is a standard 44-foot box-stern Chesapeake Bay work boat, doughty and sturdy as the owner, with a little wheelhouse and a sheltered deck.

"This boat was built in 1976," Sonny says. "Built by a fellow named Dewey Hart, down on the Eastern Shore, near Hooper Islands.

"No parties," he says. "This is strictly a work boat."

Sonny's got a two-man crew today: Dale Eure, 29, from Wilson Point, and Kirk Catlin, 17, of Walnut Grove. They're at the stern of the boat cutting up bait, three bushels of alewives.

"Dale's been with me awhile. That's my main man. Kirk's got owl blood. He don't come alive till it's dark. He's the one that didn't get up this morning till 5:30. Had to wait for him to make his lunch."

Dale's lean and hard. He's wearing an Everlast sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. He's got a blond mustache and a tattoo of a panther with a dagger through its head on his right arm.

Kirk's got enough hair for four people, Sonny says. All blond. He's good-looking enough to be one of the New Kids on the Block. He is the new kid on this boat. He's only been working with Sonny a week. He's wearing a Dundalk C.C. T-shirt. Nobody's too well combed, including Sonny, and the photographer and writer on board this morning.

"It's a pretty neat way to make a living," Sonny says. "But it's hard work."

He fishes the bay all the way from the Bush River in northeastern Maryland to Crisfield at the southern tip of the state.

"When I work down Crisfield," he says, "it's seven or eight hours going back and forth. Eight hours working. Three or four hours delivering, picking up the bait for the next day. That's a long day."

"Crisfield, that's the furtherest away from home I work. Deal Island, sometimes."

At the mouth of the Gunpowder River, Sonny and his crew put on their rubber overalls from Sweden. Dawn is a thin gray line across the bay. They pull up their first pot near a flashing red buoy. Five crabs.

"We had two bushels Number Ones out of this row yesterday," Sonny says. "We ain't going to have 'em today."

Sonny now runs the Moon Dog from a stanchion in the middle of the boat at the starboard gunnel. He works throttle, gear shift and rudder, and the work settles down to the stuttering rhythm of the engine, revving up with a crackling racket, then backing off while Sonny dips out a pot marker with a boat hook, then revving up again as he moves on to the next pot.

Sonny plants his pots in more or less straight rows of 25 or 30 each. A small cork or wood float marks every pot, a double float -- "a double jug" -- marks the row. Sonny operates the boat and pulls up the pot line. He whips the line onto a small winch and passes the marker to Dale, who slides it along to the stern.

Dale pulls up the cage and dumps the crabs into a trough, slaps in a fresh chunk of alewife for bait and drops the pots back into the water as Sonny slows down the boat to hook another line. The crabs pour into the trough squirming, jerking, wiggling and angry.

Kirk sorts the crabs: Number Ones, Number Twos, Females, Peelers or Bucklers. He's got a crude wooden gauge on the edge of the trough: six inches or larger a Number One. Five inches or under, the crab is too small to keep.

Sonny's built a kind of grate of plastic tubing in the trough to drain off dirt, water and jellyfish. The crab pots come up with jellyfish clinging to them like wads of slimy plastic.

"They burn the hell out of you, too," Sonny says. "Ain't many crabs here but they're all good ones, all nice big males. See that black there. Those are the best ones. Hard as a rock. Mud and stuff. They're stained. They've been around a while."

He takes the Moon Dog out into the mouth of the Middle River, near the Hart-Miller Island dike, a flat shape rising out of the water like the wall of some latter day Devil's Island. The sun's rising off the horizon hot and bright and creamy yellow.

Here the crabs look different. "See the orange claws," Sonny says. "They're all females. We're up on a bar now. That's why they're all females."

Sonny sets his pots maybe 30 yards apart. He and his crew pull and empty a pot about every 25 seconds, all day long, with hardly a break. They eat lunch crossing the bay. You could figure it out: 25 seconds times 800 pots, say, makes for a right long day.

The pot is actually an ingenious, 2-foot-square cage of chicken wire the crab can swim into, but not out of. The pots are weighted on the bottom with a steel reinforcing rod so they land right side up. A chunk of zinc wired to each cage combats electrolysis, inhibiting corrosion.

With a dozen or so crabs in it the pot weighs 20 to 25 pounds. So Kirk gets a nice workout when he dumps seven or eight hundred pots.

Sonny pushes the throttle forward and the Moon Dog hunkers down and heads for the Eastern Shore at 17 knots. The sun's pretty nearly overhead. Sonny got 37 bushels of females out of the flats in front of Tolchester the other day. The Moon Dog does pretty good today.

"We're getting a bushel every three or four pots," he says.

Dale dumps a heavily laden pot.

"There's a few crabs," he says. "About two dozen in there, wasn't it?"

And if a location doesn't produce Sonny moves the pots.

"We move 'em every day," he says. "If you sit waiting on 'em, you ain't going to make any money. You only got a little over a hundred days of crabbing. You can't take no vacations. Got to do this seven days a week, any weather.

"It's hard to get good help," he says. "But I wouldn't trade it for nothing."

The sun's going down the other way when he calls it a day. They've pulled about 700 pots. The Moon dog's got 34 bushel of crabs on board, 12 of them Number One males. Not bad for late in the season.

"Now I got to go sell 'em," Sonny says.

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