You just can't put your line in any place and get a crab. You got to know where they are. I could give some people my boat and line, but they'd starve to death. You have to have a feel for it.
— George Procter, age 83 (1977)
A Twentieth Century Seafood
In the early 1980s the Chesapeake Bay produced more than half of all crabs harvested in the United States. By 2000 the Bay's share had declined to only 28 percent as catches decreased, and North Carolina and the Gulf of Mexico began to capture more of the market.
Find the Eastern Shore Stick-up Crabbing Skiff on display right outside the Boat Shed! In the 19th century, crabbers "down the Bay" used scrapes (dredges) towed by boats like this to catch peelers and soft-shell crabs.
Trotlines and Crab Pots
Trotlines and crab pots are the main methods used to catch crabs in the Chesapeake Bay.
Until 1943 most watermen used trotlines to harvest crabs. To make a trotline, watermen knot bait — eel, chicken necks, and bull lips — onto lines up to two-thirds of a mile long. They string the trotline between marker buoys, rest it on the Bay bottom, then pull it up and over a roller on the side of the workboat — scooping the crabs up with a dip net as they nibble the bait.
pots catch more crabs and are easier to use than trotlines. Tied to a buoy and dropped into the water, crab pots trap crabs 24 hours a day. Lured into the crab pot by bait, crabs swim up to the surface to escape and find themselves captured in its "parlor." Patented in 1928, crab pots were not legal in Maryland until 1943. Even then the State imposed strict regulations on this controversial new technology. Initially a waterman could have at most 50, and then had to have been a waterman for two years to use them. By 1960, a waterman was allowed 100; in the late 1960s the state removed all limits; today a typical watermen sets 300 on average.
Scraping for Soft-Shells
As they grow, crabs shed their shells or "molt;" initially, the new shells are soft. In the early part of the 20th century, these "peelers" and "soft-shells" were abundant in the aquatic grasses close to the shore — said to be so plentiful in Parrish Creek you could pluck them right off the grasses. To harvest molting crabs, watermen could "haul a seine" — drag a net — through the shallows by boat.
He'd trotline. In the evening when he would come back, he would clear his line off, and circle it. He had a big tub, and would put it in the tub as he would bait it. The next morning, he would lift his line out in a circle, take it down to the shore, and put it in his boat. As he went out, he would lower it over the side, and just sit there and wait. After a point he would pull it up and take his crab net and scoop up his crabs. That's how he would catch crabs.
— Joyce Brown Thompson (2002)
Clark "Flutes" Brown baits a troutline, circa 1990.
Courtesy of Joyce Brown Thompson.
That's My Living — Following the Water