I can't remember the last time I was on the upper Tred Avon, though on this moonless, basement-dark morning it didn't differ much from other more familiar waters. I scanned the waters for potential hazards — other vessels, docks, logs, spaceships — as we motored down river at a clip a notch above idle.
With daylight still hours off, I was tagging along with my friend as he searched for a good spot to set his trotlines. Like many part-time watermen, he dips crabs from late spring through the early fall to help pay bills. Since he hadn't crabbed this part of the river, he was taking his time, scanning the meter for a good edge. He's also particular about where to set.
The meandering reminded me of an incident many years back, when I was also searching for a good edge to lay a line. Only that was on a heavily populated Western Shore creek. Out of the darkness ambled a man in his pajamas, trucking down the pier with his arms flailing about as if directing aircraft. Having run out of real estate, he sputtered in a panicked whisper-shout, "you can't crab here!!" Uh, yeah I can. And I did.
Back to present day, we finally arrived at the mouth of a creek that suited my host — Shipshead Creek I think it might have been. Or perhaps Maxmore, I'm not sure, nor did I much care. Anyway, we paid out the first 1,500-foot trotline without drama followed by the second, letting the first soak. Noticing that attached to the business end of his snoods were bull lips, I commented I'd heard razor clams were catching much better. He said — jokingly, I like to think — perhaps I should visit the hottest place known on heaven and earth, and quickly. He then explained why he preferred bull lips to clams in onion bags: Lower cost and durability, inviting me to pay for and bait the line with clams myself if I was so convinced of their superiority. Sometimes it pays to keep your thoughts to yourself, even among good friends.
The morning's runs proved tedious and the numbers disappointingly low by his standards, though the crabs we did catch were big and fat. Had it been just me I'd have been very satisfied. We finished with three full baskets, mostly No. 2s. I held one monster jimmy aloft, examining with admiration its armored shell and fierce claws. The pugilist of the crustacean world. Looking at its massive swimming paddle, and as if I were possessed with X-ray vision I imagined the succulent meat beneath that I'd soon be exalting in.
Like a bunch of trot liners (pros and sports) I've talked with, my friend has had an up-and-down year. One week he's been dipping up robust jimmies, baskets of them. And then the next day or two they'd be gone. I've heard the upper Chesapeake Bay potters working the main stem from Sandy Point area north have done much better.
Their success shouldn't be too surprising since earlier this year, the bay states' natural resource agencies predicted a banner year for crabs based on the results of their annual winter dredge survey. Speaking purely anecdotally I'd say they've been pretty spot on. No doubt favorable spawning conditions fueled this year's boost in abundance, as did several years of effective bay-wide harvest restrictions.
That day on the Tred Avon I was surprised by the number of sooks, their golden hued egg sacks bursting from its apron, and to a lesser though noteworthy degree, of sallys feeding voraciously on the line. Legally, watermen can keep them, the allocation of which depends on the time of year, gear and type of license they have. Sport crabbers usually turn females loose. My buddy he could keep them, but his buyer only wanted primarily No. 1 and No. 2 jimmies. Besides, my buddy commented, from a commercial perspective there weren't enough to make it worth his while, adding maybe it'd be good juju (at least on this day) to slide them back into the brine.
For whatever reason — schools are back in and college and pro football returns, perhaps — tradition holds that Labor Day weekend marks the end of the crabbing season. I could never understand that. In my opinion and experience, the coming weeks bring the fattest, best tasting crabs of the year.
Should we view this year's relative crab abundance as a precursor for 2017, and possible beyond? Impossible to say, but if past is prologue than that kind of speculation is usually folly. Sure, the dredge survey is probably as good as it gets when handicapping the upcoming season, but even that is no guarantee.
But maybe in this context, yes we can: By continuing to rebuild the bay-wide stocks through the one factor we can control, harvest. Because we know these cannabalistic crustaceans are notoriously volitile — one great year followed by a couple of down years, or vice versa — and can yo-yo more violently than aspiring political leaders' policy positions, the long view remains our best option. That at least gives one of most valuable species a chance to sustain factors largely out of our or their control, chiefly weather fluctuations, but also predators and cyclical declines in sea grass habitat. Only fools turn down good mojo; bigger ones rely exclusively on it.
PSG Kid's Fishing Derby: You still have some time to sign up for the Kid's Fishing Derby being hosted by the Pasadena Sportfishing Group (PSG) this coming Saturday, September 10 at Fort Smallwood Park in Pasadena. But you need to do it pretty quickly, before the September 6th deadline. Register online at pasadenasportfishing.com or give them a call at 410-439-3474.
Through Sept. 17: Chesapeake Summer Slam. Five species, throughout the Bay. Sign up at technicalfisherman.com.
Through Oct. 8: Mourning Dove Season. Daily bag limit is 15. Possession limit is 45 birds. Shooting hours are 12 noon to sunset.
Sept: 7: Free State Fly Fishers, Dusty Wissmath on "Fly Fishing The Greater Yellowstone." 7:30 p.m. at the Davidsonville Family Recreation Center.
Sept. 17-18: MSSA's sixth annual Mid-Atlantic Flounder Tournament. Register at mssa.net.
Sept. 12: Pasadena Sportfishing Group. Jamie Galli of PPY Marine will discuss Boat Maintenance. Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company, 161 Ritchie Highway, Severna Park. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the meeting starts at 7:30 p.m..
Sept. 24: CCA MD's fourth annual "Red Trout Catch & Release" tournament. Awards ceremony at American Legion, Crisfield. Register at ccamd.org.
Oct. 1: A.A. County North Chapter of Ducks Unlimited's 1st annual "Ducktoberfest" Sportsman's Bash, Earleigh Heights VFD, 161 Ritchie Highway. Severna Park. For tickets visit arundeldu.com.
Oct. 15-22: First Split of Regular Duck Season. Max. six ducks, no more than four mallards (only two hens), three wood ducks, two scaup, two redheads. No black ducks.
Oct. 22: CCA Baltimore chapter's "Little Havana Rocktober Cup." Little Havana restaurant, 1325 Key Hwy., Baltimore. Register at ccamd.org.
Nov. 5: "Fish For A Cure" Rockfish Tournament. Register and details at fishforacure.org.
Nov. 12-25: Second split of duck season. Black duck season open.
Nov. 18-20: MSSA's 24th annual "Chesapeake Bay Fall Classic." Anglers can fish two of three days, "Lay Day" rule in effect. Register at mssa.net.
Nov. 19-25: First split of Migratory (Atlantic Population) Canada Goose Season. Daily bag limit is two geese and the possession limit six.
Dec. 13-Jan. 28: Final Split of Duck Season.
Dec. 16-Feb. 4: Final Split of Migratory (Atlantic Population) Canada Goose Season. Daily bag limit is two geese and the possession limit six.