With full bushels seasonal reward, it's worst of times to run out of bait; Extra-hungry crustaceans put premium on planning; Crab Corner


With the summer heat behind us, September has proved to be a fantastic crabbing month, with catches of up to three bushels in four hours.

It is important to take extra bait this time of year as crabs are now extremely aggressive feeders, unlike in previous months, when bait typically lasted half the day, with crabs stripping the meat, but leaving the neck bones intact.

On a recent trip, I found myself out of bait by 9: 30, even though I had taken more than 100 necks for thirty traps. At one point, I thought the crabs had to be stealing the bait, retreating to the shallows where they prefer to feed rather than in the open waters with the equipment.

However, upon closer inspection, I realized that the crabs were actually breaking apart the necks with their strong claws before devouring them, as there were still pieces of bone under the springs in the trap.

Hurricanes such as Floyd, which recently crossed the mouth of the Chesapeake, may increase catches, as crabs, unlike fish that school and become inactive, react to the turbulent water by becoming aggressive scavengers, feeding on the fresh food supply resulting from runoff into the bay.

As cooler weather approaches, the crabs return to deeper depths, and crabbers should lay their equipment in 8 to 10 feet of water.

Instead of doublers -- males holding females about to slough, which were prevalent a few weeks ago -- crabbers are now mainly catching mature females that have mated and hopefully bore their young last spring. Many crabbers believe that harvesting these females benefits the ecosystem, ensuring the food supply for other creatures in the bay.

However, it is tough to tell which females are in their second year of life and finished reproducing from ones that have just recently mated and have not yet had a chance to bear young. Females have the ability to store sperm for up to a year before returning to the ocean and using it to fertilize their eggs.

Determining a crab's age by its size is equally difficult as a crab grows by one-third each time it sloughs, and an average-sized, 6-inch crab may quickly become an 8-inch jumbo. Most females have a life expectancy of two years, while males average three.

The Upper Bay has been slow all year with the exception of Miller Island and the Bush River, where crabbers averaged two bushels, mostly females, last week.

Kent Narrows is maintaining its two- to three-bushel catches, surprisingly yielding more males than females. The Wye River is producing plenty of crabs, mostly females. The Choptank and the lower Chesapeake near Crisfield are doing better than average for this time of year.

As you'll be catching plenty of females, which make excellent soup, here is a delicious recipe for Maryland crab soup.

1 1/2 gallons of water

8 raw crabs, cleaned and broken in half

8 steamed crabs with seasoning, cleaned and broken in half

1 lb. special or claw crab meat

1/2 head of cabbage, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 stalks of celery, chopped

2 medium potatoes, skinned and diced

2 medium onions, peeled and diced

1 15-oz. can stewed tomatoes

1 12-oz. can tomato paste

16 oz. frozen soup vegetables rinsed in colander

2 tablespoons Old Bay

1/4 tablespoon black pepper

1/2 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons vinegar

1 stick butter

1 tablespoon parsley flakes

Combine all ingredients in large soup pot. Bring to boil for 5 minutes. Reduce to simmer for 3 hours with lid cracked. Stir occasionally.

For more information, visit my Web site at www.members.home.net/thecrabman.

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