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First Blue Crab of the Season

January 12, 2010

June 1, 2009

After a good month of mucking around in salt ponds, I finally found our first blue crab of the season. Let the games begin. While this big guy seemed to be going solo, I can only hope his friends are not far behind. Blue crabs can all but capture the soul of a seafood lover – and hunter.  They inspire a kind of reverence paired with obsession that usually is reserved for things like very good oysters and striped bass. Clams and blues, eat your hearts out.

The incredible flavor of blue crab is mostly responsible for the frenzy their appearance creates among those who’ve learned to catch and eat them. But their striking beauty is noted by all, and their fierceness earns them great respect. You do not want to get anywhere near the claws, as the bite is not so much crushing pinch as razor slice. Plenty of blood has been shed over a fast-escaping crab, but they don’t reserve their nasty strikes for such exciting moments; blue crabs will lunge at anything that moves, delivering punishment to those who don’t respect their tenacity.

To fight them is sublime; to eat them, divine. It is a familiar theme in the fishing world. And blue crabs call on the physical skill and sharp senses of the hunter. When scooping, the playing field offers sinking mud that sends clouds of debris in every direction with every step, making the already challenging task of seeing the prey through the sun’s glare on choppy water that much more impossible. The scoop-net needs to be handled by a lacrosse player. Nailing the crab and quickly twisting the net to catch it inside and lift it out of its comfort zone is a move that requires practise and finesse. The crab can move lightning-fast, and it invariably moves deeper, somehow sensing that a buffoon in waders in waist deep water will not be able to follow it, even if he or she could see where it went.

Hunting the crab with a net is less popular than the baited hand-line, which reins supreme in places like Dennis’ Crab Creek. The gear is simple and cheap; a length of twine, braided line, heavy monofilament or clothesline; a hunk of bluefish or pogie or some other oily fish, or even more popularly, chicken; a long-handled crab net; and a bucket to receive the catch. One wraps the line around the bait, tying it securely, and throws it into the creek. Crabs will come and begin to tear the meat apart, at which point the line is slowly pulled in and the crab lifted to shore. It is advisable at this point to have a net, as crabs will let go when you hoist them out of the water. I was always surprised that the crab would keep holding on as it is reeled in, but their fierce territorial nature makes them fight to hang on to the best meal in the river. Double-headers are not uncommon.

I prefer to scoop crabs. The scene in Dennis and other rivers with high crab populations is pretty crazy. There is a huge amount of poaching of undersized crabs, and my experience has been that the most egregious poaching comes at the hands of Vietnamese crabbers, who make up the majority of the crabbing population at these sites. It is possible that they can’t read the posted signs that indicate the minimum allowable size, which is a 4 and 1/8 inch shell width from spine to spine. As the numbers of Vietnamese crabbers increase with every year and every cell-phone call from the river bank to the city, I think the town of Dennis should post the regs in Vietnamese at Crab Creek and Clancy’s – or at least enforce the rules.

While the numbers of crabs in Orleans and Chatham are not as impressive as those in Dennis, there are usually enough crabs for a family dinner, once they really arrive for the season. The blue crab is regarded as a migratory species, but there is debate among locals about whether some burrow into the mud in salt ponds to winter over. Wherever they are coming from, they seem to get active when the weather and water warms.

I have ogled at what seem to be delicious recipes for blue crab, like those printed in Saveur magazine’s story about crabbing in New York with a Vietnamese family. I long to try their crab spring rolls with dipping sauce or spicy crab soup, but our crabs are invariably cooked the same way, and eaten with wild abandon – often out in the yard or standing over the kitchen counter. Somehow blue crabs just do that to us. For more than a few, we fire up the propane burner and put on a big pot of water heavily flavored with Old Bay seasoning. Crabs are carefully dropped in, and when they turn red they are pulled out and pulled apart. The meat is cracked out, picked out, sucked out and even chewed out of the shell. This is a great barbarian meal.

Our first crab made a nice snack for Grandma, and we look forward to a good season of crabbing. The formal name for blue crab is Callinectes sapidus, from the Greek calli=”beautiful”, nectes=”swimmer”, and Latin sapidus=”savory”. For a great read about the blue crab, try Beautiful Swimmers by William W. Warner.

p.s – While I hunt around for crabs, I am continually amazed by the quality of Orleans’ oysters. These ‘selects’ can get really huge!

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