Dipping into trot line's net profits


GRASONVILLE -- You'd never know Chris Lenz hails from Ohio where lacrosse was practically unheard of until recently. He's a natural with the stick.

If there's anything that suggests that old Indian game, it's dipping crabs that drop from a trot line. A man has to be quick with the long-handled net, which is not unlike a lacrosse stick.

Lenz goes for the long fast sweep, plunk, the crab is inside -- and before it realizes what's happened it's in the basket. His reflexes are fitting for a Class of '91 Naval Academy graduate who is headed for flight school in Florida.

It was his first trip ever for crabs, but when his Navy hitch is up, Ensign Lenz can sign on as a captain aboard a Chesapeake Bay commercial trot-lining boat. How about dipping 22 in a row, miss one then do another streak of 15?

With a trot line you've got to catch a crab twice; first on the bait, then in the dipnet when the bait is wheeled up to the gunwale. It's not as simple as it sounds. Once the crab detects daylight, it yields its lunch and darts off.

On a pile of steamers, a crab might not appear fast, but see it in the water and you'll be amazed. It is fast, and can head in any direction -- and change course on a dime.

Different strokes for different folks, and I prefer the short flick with the net. But miss a crab, and there's a handicap. You don't have the momentum of the long sweep, and the crustacean has a good chance of saying goodbye.

It's the net work that decides how many crabs will end up in the pot. You can't steam the ones that get away -- and many do when novices climb aboard. The netter's eyes must be glued to the line as the roller brings it up as the boat moves slowly ahead.

A chicken-necker -- as city crabbers are referred to over here in Queen Anne's County -- often stabs at the crab when he should be scooping it from the outside of the rising longline. An inside shot knocks it off with the crab on the other side of the trot line and a 3-to-1 favorite of escaping.

Three bushels came aboard Joe Bernard's 17-foot Mako in a couple hours of working two lines, one of 175 feet, the other of close to 500. That's what crabbing is like on the upper reaches of the Wye near Bennett Point -- if you do it right.

There's more than netting involved. One has to make a good set with the line. Some boats were working the deep channel. "That's not where crabs are, they're more in the shallows," said Bernard, who prefers to crab on the drop-offs, somewhere in the vicinity of 10 foot.

Our line was baited with short chunks of eels by Bernard and his sidekick Mike Rossbach. "Chicken necks are for those on the other side of the Bay Bridge," said Rossbach. "Crabs stay glued to eels longer; and eels last longer."

Those sharp claws on a crab can pick baits clean quickly. By the time we called it quits there wasn't enough eel flesh tied to the lines to flavor a bowl of soup.

As soon as we worked both lines we headed back to Bernard's nearby dock to dump the catch into a live box, enjoy a cool beverage, then head back for another run. That 20-minute interval gave crabs still in the Wye sufficient time to start feeding again.

Too often, inexperienced crabbers don't allow that interval -- and they wonder why they don't fill the basket. Bernard uses a 1 1/2 -bushel plastic basket, which holds more, but don't get in the boat barefoot. Caught crabs used the plastic side webbing for a grip, and some angry ones were crawling around the deck -- and they're as difficult to re-catch as they were the first time around.

Doubleheaders weren't unusual. Now crabs -- and they're big at the Wye -- are getting the urge to mate, and the larger males get a firm grip on the female as either one or both start feeding. Even as the net approaches, he won't let go, so you get both.

Rossbach sorted through the doublers chose those, ready to slough and set them aside. They'll end up in a frying pan as sauteed soft crabs. We were steaming our hard crabs with black seasoning before some chicken-neckers working near us had taken their first bushel.

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