Saturday, September 06, 2008

Crabs and clams

To catch crabs in Chesapeake Bay, kids would tie one end of a long piece of string to a flip-flop and the other to a chicken wing, and let it drift out into the shoals. The chicken wing would sink a bit and the flip-flop would float visibly. When the flip-flop bobbed, it meant a crab was biting. The kids could then carefully scoop it up with a bucket.

We did it differently on the Jersey shore. We rented a rowboat from Chapman's, on the Manasquan River, and bought bunker -- heads, tails, and middles -- for bait. We tied the fish to one end of a string and tied the other end to a hook on the gunwhales of the boat. With two people in a rowboat -- my father and me -- we set out five or six lines. Every ten minutes or so we'd slowly raise the lines, hand over hand. If a crab was eating the bait, it would appear like a ghost out of the depths. When the crab and the bait were two or three feet below the surface, you took a long-handled scoop net and scooped down and then up from below. You had to keep your shadow out of the way and be quick and smooth to get under the crab without it noticing and dropping down to disappear.

Another method was to wait til the tide was moving -- I don't remember if it made a difference if it was rising or falling -- and glide the boat along the piiings at Chapman's marina or along the pilings and abutments of the bridges that crossed the Manasquan, looking for clingers. Crabs clung to the pilings, I think, to avoid getting carried along on the tide. You moved slowly and were quick with the net, scraping the net's metal ring against the piling and scooping up the crab.

The summer I was 12, we rented a bungalow for a week in a grove of pines in Brick Township, along the Metedeconck River -- the next river south of the Manasquan. The bungalow was not far from the beach on the Metedeconck that we had taken day-trips to for four or five years (or since the beaches on Staten Island were shut down because of pollution). We'd seine from the beach where we swam and with each haul we'd be amazed at all the life that was sharing the cove with us, including blue crabs. You learn quickly on a rowboat that when a crab gets loose, you have to grab it from behind, two or three fingers on the bottom, thumb on top, out of reach of the claws, and that's how we extracted them from the mass of kelp and sea lettuce and killies, my father and I, and my sisters and grandfather, who had been waiting on the beach, hurrying to get them into the bushel before they scuttled back into the water.

I bought a clam rake on Block Island this year. I've bought a non-resident clamming license each year there since 2004 and always dug for clams in the Great Salt Pond with my hands, bending down in the warm shallows and sending up clouds of sediment that attract tiny fish that swim through my fingers and around my ankles. There are egrets in the marsh, and plovers and sandpipers on the sandbars, and usually four or five other people digging for clams in the sharp, warm light of late afternoon. With the rake this year I could work waist-deep waters, pulling the tines through the sand and stones and watching, as the clouds below me cleared, for the ghost-like brightness of a clam to appear. I'm thinking now of buying a non-resident shellfishing license in Westport but am not sure if the clamming near shore is good enough, or if I'd drive over there often enough, to make it worth it.


Blogger Tamara said...

My son spent a week on the Vineyard with his cousin, and they all went crabbing one day. It was his favorite activity.

Thanks for sharing your stories.

10:07 PM  

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