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Placid, benign master of the crabby set


John Haberkorn creates crab restraining devices.

In the cluttered back room of his Brooklyn shop, he twists wires and bends aluminum into some of the nicest metal dipping nets this side of Kent Island.

And for the strict purist, he stocks traditional nets and Portuguese sisal ropes.

His 19th century hand-operated machine cranks out the precise amount of crabbing line a customer requests, anything from 25 to 1,000 feet. Don't look for anything fancy about his shop, A&W; Fishing Supply at 9 W. Patapsco Ave. in the commercial heart of Brooklyn.

The roof has leaks. He sells no fishing tackle. It's just crab and eel traps, trot lines, rope, nets, floats, dip nets and related supplies. No fancy paint schemes, no displays. You have to go elsewhere for chicken necks, eels, bull lips and Old Bay.

Mr. Haberkorn, 60, worked for American Oil's asphalt plant in Wagner's Point until in 1973 an accountant suggested he go out on his own and take over an established business. "I never looked back. I've been too busy here. Now the American Oil's plant is closed," he says.

Mr. Haberkorn's business traces its commercial ancestry to the old Linen Thread Co., long at 201 E. Lombard St., a site that today is one of the Inner Harbor's best known addresses, the Legg Mason Gallery at Harborplace.

Back in the 1930s, Linen Thread's looms clattered away as they spun gill and seine fishing nets, rope and thread. It was the largest operation of its type in the country.

Two of its employees, Albert Horning and Wilbur Kaufman (the A&W;) went out on their own and opened a fishing supply retail shop. The parent firm moved to Alabama more than 30 years ago. Linen Thread is now owned by an English firm.

Mr. Haberkorn's one-man, two-part-timer operation functions something like a cottage industry.

Most of the metal dip nets are made in the back of the shop. Local handymen also help out twisting the wires when the demand gets heavy. They typically work in their garages and basements.

"There are times like the Friday before July 4th when I couldn't keep stock in here. It just walked out. I'm already into my second gross of crab tongs," Mr. Haberkorn says of an essential $7.50 item that separates crab claws from human fingers by a comfortable margin.

His shop's biggest seller did not have its origins on Lombard Street. His metal basket dip net arrived from the Eastern Shore via the old Kent Island Net Co.

Mr. Haberkorn obtained the production rights for its stainless steel wire net basket on a wood pole several years ago.

Crabbers like the wire net for dipping big ones out of the water from baited trot lines.

Trot lines are the long ropes that crabbers use to lure Number Ones, the big blue crabs so synonymous with Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Haberkorn's dip nets are made around a basket form.

When completed, the result looks like a machine-made chicken wire basket, but everything is hand twisted and attached to a wood pole.

"The worst thing you can do to it is to drop it overboard. It will sink like a brick," the owner says.

Other crabbers like his 24- and 30-inch dip rings, a sort of a netted crab trap without sides.

"I came up with this idea. Maybe I didn't invent it but I came up with the way to make it more affordable for most people. People tell me they catch three or four crabs at one time with this," he said the other day as he used a lighter to fuse the end of a piece of nylon rope. Much of his work involves his own hands and takes time.

"People wait until the middle of the summer to bring nets in for repairs. It's the busiest time of the year. It would be better if they brought them in during the winter. I know. It's human nature," Mr. Haberkorn says.

And what are the owner's views on crabbing? "I couldn't tell you. I haven't been out since one day in 1967 off Fort Armistead. It's too busy in here during crab season," he says.

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