Reporting Jay Lloyd
They’re back. “They” are those succulent crustaceans, broadly associated with the waters of the nearby Chesapeake Bay – The Maryland Blue Crab. The 2017 season is now open. You can start cracking and peeling at waterside crab houses or do it yourself with some simple and inexpensive gear. Follow along for a look at the season ahead and some of my favorite crab stops, accessible by water or land.
The Chester River off the northern bay (north of the Bay Bridge) yields some of the region’s largest and meatiest crabs. So, for a forecast of what lies ahead, I turn to Chris Lingerman, a lifelong crabber and operator of Chester River Seafood. Chris expects a pretty good season, ” If you have a mild winter, no ice and no big freeze, it gives you bigger numbers in the Spring.” And this has been among the mildest of Chesapeake winters. Chris also suggests and we can only hope , that prices for that crab feast may dip a bit this year. The biggest spring crab harvests, generally start on the Southern bay and work their way north.
NORTHERN BAY CRAB HOUSES
When you see the boats snugging right up to the dock within conversation range of your table, you know the feast will be fresh. To watch the harvest arriving and being whisked from dock to steamer, and 20 minutes later to your table, Harris Crab House at Kent Narrows is the spot. Tie your boat up alongside the deck and start crackin’. By the way, if you enjoy those twice-yearly Wegman’s crab feasts near home. The crabs come from Harris. One of my favorite stops is Waterman’s Crab House at Rock Hall, Maryland. From your outdoor table, you can watch the harbor traffic, the Bay Bridge and the stacks of Baltimore across the bay. If you crave those “River Monster” crabs, ask for them. They’re often in limited supply and go to those who know there might be some, lurking in the galley. Plenty of docking and weekend entertainment. If you prefer a bayside picnic and your own private crab feast on the upper bay, head for Chris Lingerman’s Chester River Seafood. Take away a bushel or a few dozen, live or steamed. Don’t forget to bring mallets for cracking, knives for picking and plenty of paper towels. I don’t think I have to mention the beer.
There was a guy with a broken leg who couldn’t go to town with his sailing buddies. I watched him standing on the dock, dropping a hand line tied to a chicken neck in the water. Each time he dropped it, he’d wait 3 or 4 minutes.
then haul it back in with a big blue crab clinging to the neck. He’d secure it in a net and plop it in a bucket. When he had a dozen, he stopped. Simple as that. Fresh and ready for the steamer. It you haven’t tried crabbing, why not? All you need is a handline and a net or a wire mesh trap. Lines are under $5. Traps under $10 and nets under $20. They can all be found at Bass Pro Shops, Dick’s Sporting Goods or Cabela’s – even Walmart. On the Chesapeake, recreational crabbers are known as “Chicken Neckers”. That’s the bait of choice. Backs are also great. You can rent a small boat for a few hours, trailer your own, or just crab from a pier or waterfront property. Check Maryland crab licensing and regulations. Then you’re good to go.
THE FUN PART – CRACKIN’ CRABS
My sailing buddy Cap’n Mark has mastered the art of cracking and cleaning a crab with one hand. He’s been working on doing it with one in each hand simultaneously for 5 years. It’s messy and he’s not quite there. But it doesn’t have to be a challenge. Experienced crab crackers do it automatically. Novices take some time. In short, you remove the legs and claws. For the moment leave the flippers. Peel off the back shell. With your finger or knife clean out the gills and mustard (some folks keep the mustard). It’s not neat. Then break the crab in half. Now quarter it. The quarters with the flippers contain that prized lump crab meat. Peel away any shell and dig out the meat while your fingers are covered with seasoning. Eat. Then keep cracking until you’ve gotten all that succulent bounty. Back to the claws. Position a knife across the claw, just behind the jaws, smack sharply with a mallet to just get through the shell. Bend backward to break at the score and pull apart. You’ll have a neat crab finger. That takes a bit of practice – but only a bit. The crab house will provide the knife, mallet, brown paper to cover the table, a roll of paper towels and a shell bucket. If you need a Show-and-Tell, ask the server. They love to watch those first-timer reactions.
Crabs are expensive, so don’t be shy about sending back any that have an ammonia odor. They were dead before being steamed, or any that are all shell and little meat. Always ask about the price. If there’s a substantial difference between medium and large, go for the medium. Don’t let your eyes get bigger than your stomach. If you’re not sure how many you can eat, depending on size you can order 3 to 6 a person. You can always order more if you finish those. Many “All-You-Can-Eat” crab feasts are made up of small crabs, some are “Papershells” – thin brittle shells and little meat. Ignore then and keep ordering more until you get crabs that are worth the effort. “All-You-Can-Eat” often comes with corn on the cob and shrimp, things that can fill you up fast. Remember, you’re also drinking beer. Personally, 6 large meaty crabs, a bit of cole slaw and a couple of pints is usually my limit.
Now, park at a waterside deck table, start cracking, get messy and enjoy , not just a meal, but a social event.