Blue Crabbing on Cape Cod

In an ancient Cape Cod cottage, the Farm House, the walls of which were decorated by his uncle, the artist Frank W. Benson, DR. WYMAN RICHARDSON spent some fifty summers. Here he came to know the moods and everchanging beauty of Nauset Beach and the great salt marsh within; here he developed his extraordinary knowledge of the shore birds; and here he guided his family and friends on happy expeditions for the striped bass or the blue crab. This is the first of a pair of posthumous papers to be published in the Atlantic this summer.

by WYMAN RICHARDSON, M.D.

1

ONE of our more exciting Farm House expeditions is a Blue Crab Hunt. Blue crabs are our largest, crab. The shells measure six to seven inches across their longest diameter. Horseshoe crabs don’t count; and the body of those large deep-water spider crabs is considerably smaller than that of a blue crab, even though their diameter from leg to leg is greater. Blue crabs have paddles on their hindermost pair of legs and can scull either to right or to left with amazing speed. They keep their forward great claw bent at the elbow and let the aft one drag out straight astern. When they reverse their direction, which they can do with extraordinary rapidity, the previously dragging claw is bent and the other allowed to drag.

These crabs are vicious. They are armed with two heavy claws, each of which terminates in needlepointed, strong jaws which are studded with toothlike excrescences. When a blue crab makes a pass at something, he brings his claws together in a flashing arc. If he misses, the claws meet with a loud crack.

Furthermore, he appears to have double-jointed shoulders. In the case of most crabs, one can watch for the chance to grab them firmly by the hind end, thumb on top and fingers beneath. The crab then futilely gnashes his teeth well forward of one’s tender digits. Not so the blue crab. He can bring his claws well up over his back. I seem to remember, as a boy, carrying blue crabs in my fingers, but I can’t do it any more. In my old age, the near miss of those clashing jaws is too much for me and 1 invariably drop the crab — which always leads to further difficulties.

While blue crabs have always been common along the south shore of Cape Cod from Stage Harbor to Woods Hole, it is only within the last five or ten years that they have been abundant in the Nauset Marsh.

July is by far the most exciting time to fish for them; for the warm water puts these monsters on their mettle, and they are extremely agile and will snap at the least provocation. In October, the cold water makes them sluggish and consequently much easier to catch. After a night in the icebox, they can even be handled with impunity. But do not leave them long in a warm kitchen, or you may rue your overconfidence.

One way to get blue crabs is to spear them. We consider this an inferior method because it kills the crab. Our method is to net them with a longhandled, shallow, wide-meshed net. And we net them at night. They can be found in the daytime, but at night there will be ten in shoal water where otherwise there might be but one. The required condition is a flat — or near flat —calm, and low water in the Salt Pond about an hour and a half or so after sunset. We use the three battery headlights, much like a miner’s light, that we use for night bassing. We prefer to go out in a fairly heavy boat designed as a ducking float. A two-man expedition may take the canoe. This greatly increases the sporting element in the proposition but is not recommended for beginners. A crew of four is the limit.

The crabbing boat always has some water in it, and the bottom consequently has a smooth, slightly slimy consistency. It is part of the rules of the game to have bare feel. The big fish basket is the crab receptacle and is placed amidships.

The basket is important. Once we forgot it and had to use a bucket. All went well for a time. But our quota was sixteen crabs, and towards the end of the trip it became a great problem to keep the crabs in the bucket. We solved this by putting a boat seat over the bucket as soon as a crab was released from the net. Even this was not 100 per cent effective.

The time is nine-thirty of a mid-July evening. The tide has still an hour to ebb from the Sail Pond Creek and there is only the slightest afterglow in the western sky. It is flat calm. There are four of us and we soon have the “double” afloat in the creek. The Old Man in the stern takes an oar and begins slowly poking the boat up the creek, lie tries to keep it in less than a foot of water so that everything on the bottom can be clearly seen.

Suddenly the bowman shudders. A huge eel, about ready for its long Bermuda trip, has appeared in the sharp focus of the headlight. As we pass by, the eel lies quietly, apparently unafraid of the light. Green crabs, spider crabs, hermit crabs — all are seen; but no blue crabs. Somebody states that this year there are no blue crabs.

Then comes the cry, “Crab, ho!”

The oarsman tries to hold the boat steady. ’There is some debate as to whether the crab is big enough. It is; the net is passed to the one amidships who is nearest. Very carefully it. is lowered to a strategic position just aft of the crab, and a quick thrust is made. But the crab is quicker. All the lights are now focused on him, and as the crab sculls his way over the edge of the net and flies off into t he darkness of the pond a concerted groan goes up. Then someone says, “He was too small, anyway.” The oarsman gives the boat a shove upstream, without comment.

“Crab, ho!”

There’s a huge one, caught in the shallow water of the bar. It’s the bowman’s chance. This time his quick thrust is successful; the crab is entangled in the mesh of the net and is swung inboard over the basket. The net is overturned, but the crab persists in hanging on to the twine with a viselike grip. Finally the Old Man bats him off into the basket with his oar. There the crab scrabbles around threateningly, but curiously does not seem to be able to climb over the side.

Now we have to paddle through deep water around the peak of the bar, which drops steeply down for 15 or 20 feet. Soon, however, we come to shoal water again off the Nauset Spring. (Nauset Spring water is “good for what ails ye; an’ if there ain’t nothin’ ails ye, it’s a good perventative.”) And again comes the cry of “Crab, ho!” This crab, too, is caught; but unfortunately, as he drops into the basket, one of his great claws is left hanging over the edge. Before this matter can be remedied, over the side he goes, and that petrifying cry goes up, “Loose crab! ”

The Old Man is the only one who can meet such a situation. He sits down on the afterdeck with his feet draped over the gunwales. He waits until the crab, on one of his peregrinations, conies aft. Then the Old Man suddenly pins the crab down to the bottom of the boat by firmly pressing his thumb on the crab’s back. So pinioned, the crab cannot reach up and over. Then, cautiously, the Old Man sneaks his fingers under the crab and, with a quick motion, tosses him into the basket.

It is off Bass Cove, and Sea Lettuce Point just beyond, that we do our greatest business. Things get going fast and furiously; and by the time we get to the public bathing beach we are only two short: of our quota of sixteen. When at last we return to the boathouse, our batteries are weak and our energy is fast disappearing. But we think we have our quota, although our counts under such conditions are notoriously inaccurate.

Among the sixteen, we know there will be several soft-shelled crabs. Some of these will be so soft that they might be cooked whole in deep fat. However, the problem of how to retrieve the softshells from that seething basket has never been solved. We put the whole basket in the fish box, knowing well that those poor soft-shells will, before long, be badly mangled.

2

NEXT day, as soon as the breakfast things have been washed and put away, two large kettles are a little more than half filled with water and put, on the fire to boil. When the kettle comes to a full boil the basket is removed from the fish box, and with the aid of tongs eight crabs are transferred to each of the boiling kettles and the covers are clamped over them as quickly as possible.

It is important not to overestimate the capacity of the kettle. I remember, one time when I was a boy, my mother supervised the boiling of a mess of blue crabs my friend and I had caught. There was a huge kettle of boiling water on the stove, and the cook and her helpers were watching. Mother directed my friend and me to dump the crabs into the kettle. Unfortunately, she did not realize how many crabs there were in the crab car. The next moment, there was chaos. Crabs crawling nimbly over the hot stove and falling to the floor. Crabs under the tables. Crabs under the chairs. Crabs in every corner. The women shrieked and quickly jumped to the top of the kitchen table. It took at least an hour for my friend and me to restore order.

I have no qualms when it comes to the ethics of putting live crustaceans into boiling water. I understand that recently the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has recommended dunking lobsters or crabs in a concentrated salt solution which is said to cause their painless demise. I have seen nothing in the literature to the effect that a crab or lobster suffers less when dunked in a strong salt solution than when dunked in boiling water. In fact, plunging shellfish into boiling water is undoubtedly the quickest way to kill them.

We boil our crabs eleven minutes, counting from the time when the water again starts to boil; then we ladle them out into a big colander and put them in the sink, where cool water is pumped over them. We tear off the legs and throw them away; the big claws we save. The outer shells are removed by lifting the V-shaped shield on the underside and prying off the top shells with the thumbs. Let no man try to break the shell in two by brute strength. The resulting splash will not only cover himself and all the guests, but the ceiling and walls as well.

When the shell has been removed, the gills are peeled off and the inside matter poked out and washed away. The crab is now ready for picking.

This is best done by first breaking the body in two, pressing inward, and then breaking each half into smaller pieces. With a thin-bladed knife the flesh is teased out of its cells. Finally the claws are cracked with the pliers and the big hunks of meat removed with the knife. Great care must be taken not to include any chitinous material with the meat.

One piece of shell may spoil what otherwise would be the dish supreme.

The picking process usually takes an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half, no matter how numerous the crabs. For we figure three to four crabs to the person; consequently, the more crabs, the more people to do the picking. A Baltimore friend says that some of his neighbors will eat ten to twelve crabs at a sitting. I do not wish to doubt my friend’s veracity; but I do doubt the thoroughness with which these crabs are eaten.

In any event, four crabs apiece, prepared by our method, is usually more than we can eat. We put the meat in the refrigerator and wait as long as our patience will allow. Then we sit down with a pile of clear crab meat before us, some mayonnaise mixed with milk or cream on the side, and set. to.

It’s a fine sport and well worth the trouble. If you get the chance, just try it sometime.