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Fish Or Cut Bait

Low Country Crabbing
by Bob Ciminel


June 12, 2004

Being raised in the environs of the formerly "Smokey City" of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I entered adulthood with a profound lack of knowledge about seafood. I thought "seafood" was a breaded and fried fillet of some generic fish served on a bun. For years, I thought I was eating Flounder, but later learned it was Whitefish or Turbot, those ubiquitous denizens of the deep hauled in by the millions off the Grand Banks.

Even in today's health-conscious environment, I still enjoy a mouth-watering, deep-fried boneless fillet of fish with seasoned breading; protruding several inches on either side of a huge sesame seed bun; doused with hot sauce and served piping hot.

I grew up in an industrial area with bars on every corner, and each one of them served fish on Fridays to meet the needs of the predominantly Roman Catholic population working in the mines and mills of the area. I remember the aroma of a half-dozen fish sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, carried home in an oil-stained brown paper sack, along with a six-pack of ice-cold Iron City beer. Friday night dinner homeward bound.

After leaving Pittsburg in 1963, my next encounter with seafood did not occur until the Navy sent me to Vallejo, California at the northern end of San Francisco Bay. On payday weekends, I would take the bus into San Francisco, hop the cable car to Fisherman's Wharf, and spend what little money I had on a fresh seafood dinner. That was my first exposure to crabmeat. It was included with the seafood salad I ordered, but I was more interested in wolfing down a loaf or two of that delicious sourdough bread they served at Alioto's Seafood Restaurant at No. 8 Fisherman's Wharf. As far as I was concerned, crabmeat was only a white, sweet-tasting meat they mixed in with the lettuce and salad dressing. My seafood epiphany occurred when Uncle Sam transferred me to Charleston, South Carolina in 1965 and I met my future wife.

Alice grew up on the South Carolina coast, and seafood was a staple part of her diet. We went fishing on the pier at Myrtle Beach on our first date. When a shipmate and I were able to rent a small house on the Isle of Palms in the winter, Alice came down to visit one
gif crab net
weekend and offered to take me crabbing.

"What kind of bait do we need?" I asked Alice. "Chicken necks," she replied, "and it's best if we can let them rot for a day or two before using them." I assumed she knew what she was talking about, but for the life of me, I could not visualize how we were going to get those chicken necks to stay on the fishhooks. Trying not to show my Yankee-from-Pittsburgh ignorance, I simply said, "Okay, but we're going to need some fairly large hooks." Alice laughed and said, "We don't use a hook; we tie a piece of line around the chicken neck." Now I knew she was putting me on, for there is no way a crab is going to hang on to a chicken neck while you pull him out of the water. I was beginning to think this was a "Snipe Hunt."

Seeing my raised eyebrows, Alice, who was college-educated, as opposed to me, who barely made it out of high school, realized that I had no clue about how one catches an Atlantic Blue Crab. Using skills that would serve her during her 20 + years as a foreign language teacher, Alice carefully explained, using simple single-syllable words, how we were going to pull those "beautiful swimmers" out of their preferred environment.

First, you attach a four-ounce lead sinker to a strong white line, about 20 feet long. You wrap the chicken neck securely to the end with the sinker and wind the remaining line around a stick. The next piece of equipment you need is a dip net, a small wide-mesh net attached to the end of a pool and held open by a metal hoop. The wide mesh is extremely important. Here is a picture of the equipment:

Take your paraphernalia down to the water. Alice recommended we try the shoreline beneath the bridge over Breach Inlet, which separates Sullivan's Island from the Isle of Palms. As an aside for you literary folks, Sullivan's Island was once home to Edgar Allen Poe and is the setting for his novel, "The Gold Bug." A sloping bottom, with water four to six feet deep not far from shore is best. Breach Inlet was perfect because the Corps of Engineers kept the channel dredged for pleasure craft.

Peel off enough line to get your chicken neck out far enough where the crabs can't see you over the water's surface. Toss that chicken neck out there and lightly hold the line. When you feel the line jerking, it means one or more crabs are feasting on that rotten chicken neck, and are not paying very much attention to their surroundings. Very, very gently begin pulling in the line and stop immediately if you no longer feel the crabs pulling on it. As you draw the bait into shallower water, check to make sure you are not casting a shadow on the water over the bait. You can tell where the bait is by the chicken fat oil slick that will rise to the surface as the crabs tear at the meat.

If you are very patient, you will reach a point where you can see the crabs through the water. You want to bring them to a point where they are only a foot or two under the surface. Pick up your dip net; slowly bring it over the water behind the crabs, being careful not to let them see the shadow of the net. As fast as you can, take the net and scoop up the crabs and the bait. This is where the wide mesh and skill comes in; crabs can move in any one of six directions in the blink of an eye. The wide mesh reduces water resistance, allowing the net to move quickly through the water, hopefully, faster than the crab. After more than 30 years of crabbing, I still miss more than I catch. Reflexes decline with age, except for crabs; the oldest and biggest crabs are the fastest crabs.

Well, there you have it, now you know how the fine folks who inhabit the Low Country catch the crabs.


Bob Ciminel ©2004
All Rights Reserved


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