Mary Saner - August 2010


A Delmarva Introduction
Mary Saner

At Mercersburg Academy in south central Pennsylvania, seniors are required to do an independent study at the end of the school year. My daughter, Leigh, decided to come home to Chestertown and produce a video about crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay.
Leigh promised that my role in this project would be minimal – just introduce her to a couple of local watermen who’d be willing to take her out on their fishing boats. That seemed workable as two men immediately came to mind – Don Pierce from Rock Hall and Russell Dize from Tilghman Island. I interviewed both in the past for radio programs – Don “Dog” Pierce for a show on the nickname phenomenon in Rock Hall, and Russell for a story about skipjack captains. Between them they’ve worked over 100 years on the Bay. Smart, funny, knowledgeable in every facet of fishing, these men could give Leigh all the information she’d need for her senior presentation.
I called Don on his cell phone around 7 p.m. He answered from his boat while heading back to the dock at Crisfield. Crabbing, Don tells me, is better these days near the mouth of the Bay, so he’s keeping his boat down there. He’d be happy to take Leigh out crabbing, he says, but she needs to meet him in Crisfield at the pier at 5 a.m.
After an easy drive down, we found “My Fair Lady,” an old Victorian bed and breakfast in Crisfield, settled in, then headed out for some dinner. I phoned Don again to confirm our meeting place in the morning. Usually upbeat, Don sounded tired. He and his crew were “limping back to Crisfield with engine problems.” No way, he said, could they get out tomorrow – probably not for a couple of days. Could we meet him on the boat at Somers Cove Marina in the morning while a mechanic looks at the engine?
The next day we drove a few blocks to the marina; a woman at the office pointed out Don’s boat, Bristeff, tied up to a pier across the cove about a quarter mile away. “You can’t get there from here” crossed my mind as we turned down several short, bumpy roads that dead ended at the wrong pier.
At the last pier we finally arrived. Bristeff is an imposing fishing boat built, we learned later, by Don in his backyard. Bristeff is 48 feet long and has a large engine that rises up from the center of the cockpit.
In a tan cap pulled down over sandy hair, Don, and his crew, Eddy and Harvey, greeted us. For the rest of the morning, we talked with them; looked at crabs in their metal pots hung off the bow, learned about crab bait (razor clams and menhaden) and heard about recent crab pot invaders. Eddy told about a foot-long sea horse he recently found in a pot, and the couple pots that got badly dented when sea turtles tried to force their way through the cage to the bait.
Don showed us the boat’s computers where he tracks his pots and records the depths of the fishing channels. He said he owns 1,200 pots, but by law he can only use 900. Those are marked by buoys.
“How does it work?” Leigh asked.
Seated high in his chair looking out the windshield of his boat with Leigh looking over his shoulder, Don described driving the boat alongside the line of buoys, while his crew retrieves the pots using a metal winder. Then heaving the pots onto the boat, the crew dumps the crabs into a deep sink next to the cabin. There they separate males from females.
“Females have tougher shells,” said Don. “And the apron is different.” Picking up a couple of crabs and turning them over, Eddy compares the apron of a female crab to the U.S. Capitol (round and domed) and the male to the Washington Monument (long and slender). Crabbing had been good the last few weeks, Don added. One day recently, off Cape Charles, they caught 30 bushels.
As Don described his work, a man arrived to work on the engine. Soon he removed what was identified as the transmission, and carried it away. We learned that about a quarter of the money Don makes crabbing goes toward engine maintenance and fuel.
“What’s your favorite part of the job?” Leigh asked Don as he leaned against the engine. “Seeing the crew smile,” he said. “When they’re smiling, we’re making money. If you’re not catching crabs, you’re not making money; you’re not paying your bills.”
Russell Dize of Tilghman island captained the skipjack Kathryn for many years. Now he primarily runs a crabbing charter. Having sold his seafood business, RDS, he takes time to be a leader in the Maryland Waterman’s Association. Hearing about Leigh’s project, Russell kindly offered to take her crabbing on his boat. He said he liked to cast off from the dock around 4:30 in the morning, so he gave us directions to Severn Marina on Tilghman Island.
Leigh and I agreed that this would be a different kind of commute. She would follow me down to Tilghman in a second car. I would introduce her to Russell, thank him again, and head home. After all, it was Leigh’s project, even though I wouldn’t have minded going along for the ride.
The alarm clock beeped at 2:45. I knocked on Leigh’s door, but she was already up. A few minutes later we were driving out of Chestertown – not much traffic that time of day. About an hour and a half passed until we crossed the bridge onto Tilghman Island. I noticed a full moon peeking out from behind a dark cloud.
Making the turn into Severn Marina, Russell pulled up behind us in his pick-up truck. We could barely see him in the darkness. There was no wind at all – only the sound of fishing boats motoring slowly out of the harbor.
Russell’s boat, The Riley Kat, named after his granddaughter, was a beauty – 42 feet long. He quickly checked the engine, saying he was a little worried about the battery. The engine appeared okay. It only took about five minutes for him to get set and the boat was ready to go. Throwing the bow and stern lines onto the pier, he moved his boat out into the harbor. I waved to Leigh as they pulled away.
I was able to watch the day’s proceedings later that night on Leigh’s computer. Russell’s method of crabbing was quite different from Don’s. Russell works alone and uses a trot line to catch crabs. An average trot line is about 3,600 feet long. Six lines of 600 feet each are tied together to make it. Hundreds of bait bags are evenly spaced along the line.
Leigh’s job – put 4 clams (2 small, 2 big) in the mesh-like bait bags. Russell retrieves the trot line over a metal “feeder” or plank that projects out from the side of the boat. Steering the boat along the trot line, he dips a net underneath the rising clam bags, capturing any crab that’s attached itself to the bait. If the crab pried open or cracked the clam, Leigh replaced it in the bag with a fresh, unopened clam.
Leigh videotaped Russell working steadily and methodically netting the crabs on bags while letting the ones with no crabs go by. They made about 35 runs, she estimated. “Russell said that catching 20 crabs or more is considered a good run,” she tells me.
Without having to pay a crew, trot lining is cheaper for watermen than working with pots and buoys. And speaking of crew – Leigh said she wishes she could sign on with Russell. “It’s fun, it makes me hungry – being on the water,” Leigh reported. “I like the work. I liked learning the art of the trot line.”
And that’s a wrap.