Spend the Weekend Chasing Crabs


Wye Landing // (c) 2011 Talbot County Government

The Baltimore Sun, July 15, 2011
By  Candus Thomson

July 15--WYE LANDING --You could drive to a fish market or stop at a roadside stand to pick up a few dozen steamed crabs, or maybe a bushel.

But then you'd miss the tranquillity that comes from bobbing in silky-smooth back waters, the sound of bass leaping to catch low-flying bugs, the sight of great blue herons and bald eagles sweeping the sky to begin their search for the first meal of the day.

And you'd miss the satisfaction that comes from baiting a line and netting your own dinner.

Lots more folks choose the easy way out over the sweat-equity method. But if you're so inclined, there are places to go and people to see when the blue crabs are on the move up Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

On a busy summer day, which is to say almost anytime between the Fourth of July and Labor Day, the parking lot at Wye Landing in Talbot County is bow to bumper with folks launching small skiffs and bigger pleasure boats on their way to the crabbing grounds downstream.

Off to the side, Schnaitman's Tackle has doors propped open, ready to rent a boat or sell bait that lures crabs in.

Inside, young men in T-shirts hoist bushels of crabs just plucked from the river and dump them in huge stainless-steel steamers. White mist rises from the vats and mingles with a red cloud of spices that hangs in the air.

It is heaven, Maryland style.

Roy and Brenda Lee Thompson of Milford, Del., make the hour drive to the landing on a regular basis, arriving at 4 a.m. to guarantee a parking space. There, they wait until first light to launch and make their run 20 minutes downstream "at full throttle," says Brenda Lee, to reach their favorite spot. She drives the boat and he dips the crabs until they reach their two-bushel limit or the heat of the day chases them back to the dock.

"This is the only river this boat has ever seen," Brenda Lee says of the 13-year-old skiff. "We have our spot to go, and if the crabs aren't there, they aren't anywhere."

Andy Dowell of Severna Park could choose any number of crabbing spots on the Chesapeake Bay's Western Shore when he goes out once a week, but he wouldn't think of it.

"The crabs are bigger here," he says while offloading a bushel basket nearly full to his daughter, Caroline. "They're worth the work."

But not everybody has the time, talent or temperament to go it alone. For them, there's Capt. Chuck Schnaitman, the third generation of his family to call Wye Landing home.

Like most charter-boat captains, Schnaitman spends the bulk of his time on the water finding fish for his customers to catch. However, what sets him and a handful of other Chesapeake Bay watermen and captains apart is that they'll chase crabs, too.

From now until the end of August, Schnaitman and his 46-foot boat, Hooked Up, are booked solid.

"News used to take a few days to get to people that the crabs were here," Schnaitman says. "Now, with the Internet, it's almost instantaneous and we fill up fast."

Private charters run about $500, depending on the number of people in the party. Most boats have a maximum of six or seven people, but some can hold 12. Charters run anywhere from four to six hours. The captain supplies the licenses, bait and crabbing gear. Participants provide their own food and beverages.

In Maryland, a recreational crabber may crab without a license from docks, piers, bridges, boats and shorelines using dip nets and hand lines. A license ($5 for residents and $10 for nonresidents) is required if you crab with a trot line -- the baited line that extends from the boat to the river or bay bottom -- less than 1,200 feet in length or collapsible traps or rings.

One recent morning, a party of five from Red Lion, Pa., arrived at 4 a.m., hoping to catch a bushel apiece.

Customers are offered a choice when they book their charter: have Schnaitman go out early to bait and set the trot lines before returning dockside at 6 a.m. to pick up passengers or be part of the pre-dawn patrol.

"Most would rather be here early to see you choose your spot and put the lines out," says the captain. "They want the full experience."

Right now, Schnaitman has to motor about four miles downriver to intercept the crabs, but as the season progresses and the crabs move up the Wye, the boat ride will get shorter.

On Kent Island, customers aboard Capt. Frank Updike's Natural Light make a short run across the Chesapeake Bay to the Severn River, where he sets his trot lines.

Updike agrees that his customers could buy a lot of crabs at a fish shop or a restaurant for the $540 he charges for seven hours, but says that's not why they sign up, year after year.

"It's a day out with the family. We get family reunions, we get a lot of kids going back to school or going off to college. Everyone can do it. We have people who crabbed as a kid and want to show their kids or grandkids how it's done," Updike says.

The captain says he likes to set up near working watermen so families "get an idea of what it's like and get an appreciation for how hard a job it is."

Updike lays out as much as 1,200 feet of trot lines baited with old meat or fish in five to 25 feet of water, with an underwater anchor and a float at each end, and waits for hungry crabs to come calling.

"It's quiet and there's time to interact. We give a little crab lesson," says Updike. "How to tell the girls from the boys, how to tell a peeler crab. I've had people come down from Pennsylvania who didn't know crabs are green."

Pretty soon, it's time to pick up the line and dip the crabs into a net before they get spooked and let go of the bait.

The effort makes beads of sweat pop out on brows and arms burn. When the customers reach a bushel each -- or tire -- the captains head for shore. There, Updike and Schnaitman will steam crabs upon request for the trip home.

"It's about being in the right spot at the right time and a whole lot of work," says a grinning Mike Flaharty, as he lifted his bushel off Schnaitman's boat. "These are going to taste a whole lot better than buying them because we did the work."

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Crabbing charters

If you're looking to go crabbing and don't want to do it alone, these captains offer private charters. They'll bring the supplies; you bring your own food and beverages:

Capt. Chuck Schnaitman, Wye Landing, 410-310-8658

Capt. Frank Updike, Kentmorr, 410-978-0232

Capt. Russell Dize, Tighlman, 410-886-2249

Capt. Frank Tuma, Annapolis, 443-995-8666