Letting the mud take its due
“Laura, can you not crab while I’m fixing this thing?” my grandmother kindly pleaded from the water while she struggled to untangle the anchor line from around the motor’s propeller. My 77 year-old grandmother and I had been crabbing for the past several hours in our favorite creek, dubbed the “magic creek” because that’s where we always caught the most crabs. My grandmother was the first one to teach me the art of catching blue crabs using a hand line. She taught me along the creeks she grew up crabbing in as a girl my age. We used a small 13-foot Boston Whaler from 1968.
Crabbing seems simple: take a 15-foot line of twine then on one end tie a shower curtain holder and on the other tie a small but sturdy stick. The stick helps you reel, or twirl, in and release line according to how deep the water is (ideally 4-6 ft). The curtain holder spears the half-frozen raw chicken neck you use for bait. Blue crabs love to eat dead things, and chicken necks hold their form best while stepping in mud and salt-water for hours. Other than that, all you need is a trusty net for scooping crabs attached to your bait and a basket tall enough to not let the crabs crawl out (because, oh, they will) and ideally your basket has holes in it so you can “freshen up” the crabs by giving them a loving dunk every half-hour.
Finesse. That’s the most important part that makes crabbing with a hand line an art. There’s no finesse to a giant metal crab trap or a basket - you just dunk and lift. But, a hand line? Now, that’s the elite sport of crabbing. And that’s what my grandmother taught me.
In my elementary school summers when I wasn’t in a classroom, we would go out together for a few hours just about every week. We’d patiently wait for just the right low tide and go slightly before or after. The Georgia Coast benefits from the second largest tidal difference on the eastern Atlantic seaboard -- 6-8 feet difference on average. The only other area with a higher difference between lows and highs is the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.
This particular day, we had gone right before the low tide to magic creek. We went in just before it was too low to get through the shallow mouth of the narrow creek, trimming the motor to avoid scraping the propeller on oyster beds. The crabbing that day was good! We pulled in 15+ large males in the first hour (by law you’re only allowed to keep the males in order to let the females live on to replenish the population, and because, who needs men anyway?). The lowest of low tide gone and past - a time we refer to as “dead low.” At dead low tide, the marsh crackles with life: it’s feeding time. The fiddlers are out collecting, the birds are out swooping, the shrimp jumping like crazy in the shallow water and the low water settles into spartina roots.
We continued to crab as the tide rose again. My grandmother and I typically worked as a pair. One of us would slowly, inch by inch lift the line feeling the delicate vibration of a crab clinging to the soggy meat at the other end of the string. Slowly we’d bring the crab up shallow enough into view of the netter. The netter then swiftly scooped the crab, not letting it skitter out of the net. My grandmother and I made a great team. She had the patience and the finesse to slowly bring up the crab without it sensing the ascent. Without seeing anything, she could feel how big the crab was or how many were latched on just by feeling the weight and vibration of the line. I was good at impatiently and frantically driving the net into the water to capture the crabs.
As the water level rose we drove deeper into the creek in search of shallower water. My grandmother let me drive the boat (my favorite thing when I was 8). We both forgot to pull up the stern anchor line and quickly it wrapped around the propeller. The motor shut off to not overheat. She tried to untangle it without getting in but the tension required someone to crawl into the shallow brackish creek water that was only an hour ago alive with fish, eels, crabs, and who else knows what in that nutrient rich muddy soup. In an act of bravery, she slowly got in the water to avoid going too deep to reach the oysters at the bottom. While it took her time to untangle the giant knot, I figured we were wasting valuable crabbing time. I started to pull up the lines while she worked.
For a few minutes she didn’t notice. But as the current started to pick up, one large crab floated next to where she was floating as I gently brought up the line. How could anyone not notice a 6-inch crab floating on a soggy chicken-neck next to their face? I scooped it up, proud to show her the bounty. That’s when she requested a moratorium crabbing while she was in the water. Understandable, even to an 8 year-old crazy about crabs.
She was eventually successful and we got the motor working again, making our way back to the dock to boil the 20+ crabs we were able to catch. We boiled them with lots of Old Bay, a bay leaf, and the only thing needed for dipping: delicious melted lemon butter. The blue crabs of the Georgia coast are naturally sweet and flavorful. Don’t let anyone from the Chesapeake tell you theirs are better. It’s just not true.
As years went by, my grandmother and I caught fewer and fewer crabs each time we went out. We had to try different spots too mostly because the housing development wrapping around the magic creek continued to build more homes, filling in marsh and wetlands to build million dollar houses for a gated community. After a while, it just feels weird crabbing right next to someone’s backyard while they try and sunbathe by their pool. We caught fewer crabs also because of overcrabbing from commercial outfitters, also from warmer waters, drought, and other factors that sneakily but definitely trace back to human influence.
My grandmother passed away nearly three years ago and I haven’t been able to crab since. It makes me miss her too much and I don’t like to cry. Earlier this week, a combination of higher tides and storm surge from Hurricane Irma overtook the marsh. The water covered the entire creek and marshlands, making it look like a giant lake. As the tide rose, being pushed up by the wind, the salty brine covered docks, then seeped into luxury homes built on top of what was once marshland. It left mud in places it hadn’t been in decades. But this time, instead on top of marsh beds, mud was on top of white carpets and hardwood floors.
Slowly, the crabs are coming back as the mud takes its due. Next summer, I’m ready to start crabbing again.