Whether using a dip-net or a trotline, crabbing at high tide ensures good catch


The 7-year-old has bent himself so that his chest rests atop a short piling and his feet and legs extend back across the dock proper. His head and shoulders are suspended over the murky water, and his hands deftly work a thin, cotton line upward between his fingers.

"Got one?" says a playmate, anxiously spinning a long-handled net. "Got one? Is he still on?"

The 7-year-old nods and says quietly, "He's really tugging. I think it's a keeper."

The playmate dips the net into the water and scoops.

A shout goes up from the two as one, "Got him!"

A lump of chicken tied and lightly weighted at the bottom end of the line is tossed back into the water, and the catch is shaken from the net into a bucket.

It did not matter that the tide was low and the sun high. Still, there were crabs to be caught, enough about to put a dozen on the table at dinner time.

It is a game played by kids of all ages every summer on the Chesapeake and its tributaries, the business of dip-netting blue crabs.

Often, the older the player, the more serious the game, and chicken necking gives way to manning a string of traps, fishing a few pots or running 500 feet of trotline -- and sub-teens give way to men in skiffs who proficiently run the channel edges.

This summer, the crabs are early, following a mild winter and a warm and dry spring.

Already, many crabs are big and full, their claw arms deep blue on the undersides, their walking and swimming legs a lighter blue.

In the beds of submerged vegetation, the hatch of last spring will be molting to close to legal size. In another month, they surely will be so, and the females, painted orange on their claws, will be molting a final time and the mate will be in full swing.

The basic legal limits to unlicensed recreational crabbing are simple:

* The season runs from April 1 to Dec. 31.

* Seines not exceeding 50 feet in length and which are drawn up in the water may be used, as may dip nets, hand lines, open-hoop-type net traps, crab pots (check county for number and placement), trotlines of no more than 500 feet per boat or as many as five collapsible traps per person.

* An egg bearing (sponge) crab may not be kept.

* A trotline cannot be set within 50 feet of another trotline.

* The minimum size limits are five inches for hard crabs, 3 1/2 inches for soft crabs and three inches for peelers.

* The daily catch limit for personal consumption is one bushel of crabs per person and two bushels of crabs per boat.

But, as we go through this unusual summer, there are a few other guidelines we might follow to ensure that the recreational catch of blue crabs is proper, that there will be good numbers of smaller males to overwinter in the mud of the deep channels and good numbers of females left to retreat down the bay to spawn their eggs.

* Even though it is legal to keep a mature female crab of any size (except sponge crabs), put it back and give it a chance to mate. To determine sex, check the apron on the underside of the crab: If it is the shape of spire, it is a male; if it is triangular, it is an immature female; if it is rounded, it is a mature female.

* Although it is legal to catch and keep a paper shell or buckram crab (except in Worcester County), turn it back. Such a crab recently has finished molting, its shell has yet to harden and fill with meat, and eating it will not be as satisfying as a good hard crab. To tell a newly molted crab, turn it over and squeeze the lateral spines. If the shell is pure white and the portion of shell inside the lateral spines gives when squeezed, throw it back to fill out.

The hardest crabs will be those whose underside has taken on a rusty color.

* The best crabbing will be found in the early morning or late evening, when the bigger crabs will come to the surface more readily. Crabs learn to hate bright light. Big crabs will drop off as they come to the surface, and midday crabbing will subject smaller crabs to unnecessary handling.

* A high tide is best for crabbing, and when a high tide coincides with early morning or evening, the crabbing will be better still.

* If you are going to dip-net, use a net with wire mesh to eliminate tangling the catch. Wire nets also move better through the water.

* When setting a trotline, try to pick 6 or 8 feet of water depth, where the bottom comes up from deeper water near the shoreline or on a channel edge where there is moderate tidal flow and the breeze figures to be onshore. It won't help the crabs, but it certainly will help the crabbing.

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