It was simple then, a whole different world back in the late ’40, living in Annapolis, between the Chesapeake Bay, Weems Creek, and the Severn River. We were 11, my twin brother Noel and I, and newspaper boys for the then Evening Capitol, so we had bikes as ready for the summer as we were since summer anywhere near the Bay meant crabbing.
The year before, our older brother Johnny taught us how to catch them. At our age we thought crabs looked ferocious, despite their blue back fins and dark blue-green shells. Their claws looked like they could chomp fingers but we quickly learned how to pick them up from behind as some of Johnny’s catch scuttled around our kitchen floor to our mix of laughter and screams.
Noel and I were surprised how easy crabbing was. All we needed besides our bikes was a bushel basket, a crab net with a long handle, a ball of string, a pocket knife and sliced chunks of eel from a bait shop and hot dogs we’d steal from the ice box (that’s what we called the fridge back then).
Off we’d go, early morning, to our favorite spot – a railroad trestle over the Severn and in sight of the Naval Academy and the Bay. (We had favorite piers as well over on Weems Creek.) We made sure we had everything we needed the night before. We would leave our bikes by the bridge (no locks necessary back then), slide down the riverbank and climb out on the structure underneath the train tracks. Not too far from shore, but far enough to drop our lines in deeper water. The crabs seemed to like the cool shadows of the trestle, especially on really sunny days. And we loved the rattle-clatter noise when the B&A train between Baltimore and Annapolis passed overhead. The crabs obviously could care less.
Once we reached a good spot we went to work (I’d call it fun now). We’d cut an appropriate length of string, knot it around a squishy-smelly chunk of eel and drop it in the river, tying the other end to the beam we were standing on. We did this about eight times, spacing the lines far enough apart and using some hot dog pieces on the last two. That done, we’d check to make sure the bushel basket was secure and the crab net handy.
Then we’d wait a bit. Sometimes we could see a line jiggle with some “action” but the real fun was when, checking the lines, our fingers told us we had a nibble. One of us would slowly and gently inch the line up till we could see the crab picking at the bait, right there below us, oblivious to its imminent fate. The other would dip the net and bring it in. Almost as easy as picking an apple off a tree.
We went from line to line and in what seemed like no time at all, even after letting a number of small guys go, the bushel basket would be filled with jittery, blue-green creatures. Getting the basket home was a special problem. We’d wet the catch down with river water, toss in some seaweed and cover the basket with a scrap of heavy canvas; then one of us would have to balance it between bike basket and handlebars while the other managed the rest of our crabbing gear. Happily I can say we never had a spill.
At home, Mom was delighted … until a few crabs escaped the basket and skittered across the linoleum floor. The steamer pot was on the stove and the other crabs were in the sink, getting rinsed before being tossed, very carefully, into the pot.
When it was full, Mom would shake Old Bay Seasoning all over them and they would squirm and claw the air and each other until she poured a can or two of National Bohemian beer (National Boh, to the locals) over them and they would quickly quiet down.
Steaming the catch was the easiest part, the aroma of the seasoning and beer filling the house. All that remained, in the cool of that evening, was a summer crab feast. Newspaper spread thickly over a picnic table in the back yard, little hammers to crack the shells and picks to get to the moist and tasty crab meat, especially in those once-scary claws, corn on the cob and, of course, piles of wipes.
Noel and I dove in, feeling as proud as a couple of Eastern Shore watermen.