Boy prodigy is a master of crabbing and the bay


Twilight gathered in a dazzling splash of reds and pinks out beyond Old Bay Road while a heron, frozen statuelike, waited near the shoreline for dinner.

In the tranquil waterfront village of Fort Howard in eastern Baltimore County, another grueling day ended for veteran waterman Jimmy Iman Jr. He had put the finishing touches of paint on hundreds of crab pots but still had to examine his trotlines for weak spots.

Suddenly, he remembered the most important obligation of this waning evening: He had to do his homework.

Jimmy Iman Jr. is age 12 and a seventh-grade honor student and he has been a licensed commercial crabber half his life.

"There's nothing I like better than being around the water," the youngster said.

Added his father, Jimmy Iman Sr., a third-generation crabber and boat builder, "He's a typical kid in so many ways, but if he had a choice, he'd rather be around adults, around the water because he learns that way. He never stops asking questions."

State officials say Jimmy is among the youngest licensed commercial crabbers in Maryland, an elite fraternity of perhaps 20 children and preteens along the nooks and crannies of the Chesapeake Bay who amaze the hardiest of old salts.

Jimmy can break down and reassemble a diesel engine and navigate by the stars.

He can explain the subtleties of the blue crab, such as the difference between a "peeler" and a "soft shell." And he can tell why the Chester and Wye rivers are a favorite haunt of jumbo-sized males, called "jimmies."

"A peeler is just before a crab molts," Jimmy said.

Around the mouths of the Chester and Wye, he said, Salinity is near perfect for Maryland's prized catches.

Pete Jensen, deputy director of fisheries for the state Department of Natural Resources, said waterfront Wunderkinds are becoming a thing of the past.

In July 1998, a law was passed making 14 the minimum age for obtaining a crabber's license. After filing an application, a teen-ager must work as an apprentice for two years before getting a commercial license.

Not surprisingly, there are more than a few proud parents in the shrinking universe of young commercial watermen.

Bill Clark, a Rock Hall commercial crabber, remembers plopping his 2-year-old son Shane on the counter at the Centreville DNR branch "and I told them I wanted a license for him. They said he was too young, so I made a few calls to Annapolis, and he got it."

While Shane, now age 7, is not as involved in the business as Jimmy, "he can separate the males and females on the boat, other little stuff so he can get the knowledge," Clark said.

But Clark said his son can't drive a small boat like Jimmy did when he was just a tot, or bait trotlines with chicken necks.

"Besides, I'm not sure the job of crabber is going to be around when my boy grows up," said Clark, referring to closings among Eastern Shore packing houses as more crabs are imported from the Philippines and Thailand.

"Being a crabber is born and bred in you, and it's long, backbreaking work," he said. "But a lot of crabbers don't have health insurance, and not too many kids want to do hard work anymore."

That's what makes young Jimmy Iman so unusual, his family and old bay hands say.

"I've been working the bay my entire life, and I've never seen a boy so young and so good," said Jack Deckelman, owner of one of the largest marine towing and salvage companies on the Chesapeake Bay. "He's a natural, like a fish, breathing and living the water."

Jimmy has grown up in Fort Howard with his parents and three sisters. Becky, 20, and Kelly, 18, attend the College of Notre Dame on scholarships; the youngest sister, Sarah, 14, also has earned good grades as a student at Sparrows Point High School.

"There isn't an idle moment in little Jimmy's life," said his mother, Sandy Iman, a woman with a quick smile who is assistant cafeteria manager at Chesapeake High School.

"We've had high expectations for all of our children," she said. "But Jimmy is very different. His imagination is always going, and he can't ask enough questions. His curiosity can sometimes overwhelm you."

Part of Jimmy's character has been shaped at Baptist Christian School on North Point Road. The school, which has classes from kindergarten to 12th grade, has an enrollment of about 125.

School leaders are demanding in academics and work to build strong character. For instance, when an adult walks into a classroom, the children stand as a gesture of respect.

"There's an exceptional work ethic here, formed by the family, school and church," said Gordon McCain, a teacher and Jimmy's football coach. "Most students' families make their livings around here from the land or the water. There is a certain solid underpinning, and Jimmy is a classic example of that."

Jimmy's imagination was blossoming while he was still in diapers. He would mimic his father, using an old dinghy in the back yard. "He would use our picnic table as a pier, and old soda cans as bait. He had a few crab pots and it was just adorable," his mother said.

After he turned 3, Jimmy adopted his father's uniform - white boots, jeans and a baseball cap - in his backyard world of make-believe.

At age 4, he was crabbing on his father's boat and learned how to steer a crab work boat.

About that time, Jimmy's father and grandfather, Harry Iman, 74, built Jimmy a 12-foot skiff with a small outboard motor.

When Jimmy got his crabber's license two years later, he took his boat "Little Jim" out to Shallow Creek, Sunken Island and other local crabbing spots and laid his 450-foot trotline.

"I was so nervous for a while," said his mother. "But we made certain he was a confident swimmer and that he would wear a life vest. And his father was always watching him."

Jimmy soon became a trusty mate on his father's crab boat. His father tended to 350 pots on the Chester River, and the son learned the hard facts of a crabber's life.

"I woke up with my father, I think it was about 3:30 in the morning, and I saw how the operation works," Jimmy explained. "It was hard, very hard work, but there's no other place to be than out with work boats, on the water."

The long hours, the unpredictable weather and the preventive maintenance he had to do on the equipment - none of it discouraged Jimmy.

He would accompany his father to sell their catch and at least one buyer was impressed by the young crabber.

Jimmy said that while he will always love the water, he wants to attend college.

"After that, I'm not sure what lies ahead," he said. "Maybe design engines or boats. Right now, I'd like to become a Navy SEAL."

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