SOFT-SHELLS SNARED BY LURE OF LOVE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The little ferry leaving Smith Island on a May morning is crowded -- about 10,000 passengers, I'd estimate.

A few tourists, bound for Crisfield, sun themselves in the brilliant air; the rest of the passengers are soft shell crabs, agurgle in beds of sea grass, en route to salivating customers as far away as Tokyo.

And this shipment is merely a single day's harvest from one town on the island, which in turn is only one of dozens of places up and down the Chesapeake Bay and the East Coast where watermen are reaping the brief bonanza of the phenomenon known as "the run."

Spring thrills us all as it bursts on the land, as if the long winter's sunlight, seeping into barren ground month after month, has finally reached some saturation point, and the earth must explode in first forsythia and shadbush, followed by azalea, iris, magnolia, and a thousand shades of new-minted green.

Less noticed, a similar glad spectacle is occurring across a hundred square miles of bay shallows; their tired, gray muds blossom almost overnight into jungles of eelgrass, wigeongrass and a dozen other varieties of submerged aquatic vegetation.

Also synchronized to the spring warming of the shallows, and abetted by the waning phase of the moon, a great wave is building, traveling through the coastal bays and estuaries from the Carolinas in April through the May Chesapeake and by June nearly to New England.

Like the reverse of last autumn's falling leaves, blue crabs by the millions are skirling up from their winter burial in the bottom. Among the first to arise are those females -- called "she crabs" or "maiden crabs" -- that did not quite make it to their final shed, or molt, before cold weather arrested them last December.

Though the blue crab sheds its shell (the only way crustaceans can grow) some 20 times during a brief life span of two to three years, it is only on the final shed that the maiden crab becomes a sook, capable of reproducing before she dies. Her abdominal apron, or vaginal covering, changes strikingly from a triangular shape to one that resembles nothing so much as the dome of the U.S. Capitol.

So it is that the May bay seethes with sooks-to-be that have only two things on their agenda, to molt and to mate. In nature, this leads to acourtship and consummation both sensuous and, well, loving -- not what you might think for a crab, whose name in English connotes a sour disposition.

Envision, if you will, this tryst between jimmy (male crab) and sook, described exquisitely in more detail in William Warner's classic "Beautiful Swimmers."

Accompanied by tender gesturing of his huge, hard claws, the jimmy raises high on his swimmer fins and tiptoes through an animated courtship dance. The sook finally signals her readiness by backing gently beneath him. For the next two days to a week, jimmy swims with the sook cradled contentedly in his fierce-clawed embrace. As the hour of her terminal molt nears, they seek the protective cover of thick grass.

Here, he stands guard as she performs the exhausting ordeal of leaving her shell, emerging helpless, glistening and silken soft. And now, ever so gently, he helps her turn on her back. She opens the Capitol Dome, and he extends his pleopods; and there amid the splendorous, sunlit groves of emerald eel grass, waving to and fro with the tides, they lie face to face for as long as 12 hours.

It is, in Warner's words, "a most affecting scene. You cannot possibly mistake these actions for anything other than lovemaking."

All well and good for the crab; but how to satiate the world's lust for soft-shells sauteed in butter and served on toast, or crisply fried and sandwiched between slices of soft, white bread with luscious slices of ripe tomato and slathered with mayonnaise?

Sometime in the dim past, decades before crab pots first appeared in the 1940s, Smith and Tangier Islanders had figured a way to turn the great spring run of peelers, or shedding crabs, to commercial benefit. Somehow the islanders had learned what science even now has only sketchily proven in the laboratory -- that sooks, and probably jimmies, exude pheromones, chemical substances that act as sex attractants, to ensure the two get together during the critical few hours of the female's life when she can mate.

"We would tie a string around a jimmy's fin and stake him to a pole," explains Bobby Marshall, a Smith Island waterman. "There were poles all up and down the channel. Soon as he'd get him a wife [embrace a female peeler], we'd take her away and throw him back to catch another one."

Ernest Kitching, another Smith Islander, recalls a jimmy "that caught seven wives just as fast as we could take 'em away from him. After that he wouldn't even look n'more. I guess we treated him dirty, didn't we?"

Nowadays, cropping the big spring run of peelers has been further industrialized with the advent of "jimmy potting." Beginning around the end of April, watermen up and down the bay begin saving in holding tanks every large jimmy they can catch, even though they could send them to market for as much as $65 a bushel or more.

The jimmies, four or five together, will become live bait, inserted into a crab pot that normally would hold dead fish or other food to attract its quarry. Female peelers will flock by the dozens into the pots. The psychic effects on the outnumbered jimmies can only be imagined: perhaps joy, building to a fever, followed by terror. "It's not much of a story for women's liberation, is it?" laughs Janice Marshall, Bobby's wife. "All those women crawlin' after a male. It's disgusting . . . ought to be the other way around."

Though the real action of the run takes place below water, there are many outward manifestations. Coves and channels are filled so chock-a-block with pots that crabbers must attach corks in dizzying color variations to differentiate them.

This can create one of the bay's prettiest scenes: acres of water confettied with bright corks, swirled and striped and stippled in a rainbow of colors. On a calm day it looks as if candy drops have spilled from fluffy, spun-sugar clouds afloat in the blue May sky.

To the crabbers, the run is a draught of spring water after wandering the desert of the winter oyster season. Their gratitude shows at the little churches on Smith Island, where the weekly total in the collection plate may soar above $2,000 on an attendance of less than 50 -- and many of them widows on fixed incomes.

Too intense to last long, the run will end within a week or two of when it began. Soft crabbing will continue through September, punctuated by lesser runs; but nothing like now, when the fragrant come-hithers of sook and jimmie mingle so compellingly in the sunny corridors of the eelgrass.

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