The Crab Whisperer

Were those white fragments made of paper, styrofoam, or plastic?

As I worked my way along the slough’s edge, bits of scattered trash compelled my attention as much as the grasses and birds surrounding me. Odd and out of place in an environment where signs of human presence are uncommon, their colors suggested packaging of some sort, although the combination of white, blue, and orange didn’t bring a specific fast-food franchise to mind.

Wading out into the water for a closer look, I found the trash wasn’t plastic or paper at all, but remnants of another sort of dinner — not to mention evidence of diners no more inclined than certain humans to clean up after themselves.

Scattered blue crab shells and multitudes of footprints belonging to raccoons and wading birds made clear that I’d stumbled across one of the most popular restaurants in the neighborhood. Some shells might have washed ashore after the completion of their owners’ molting process, but others clearly had been broken and gnawed at by hungry creatures looking for an easy meal.

Claws and shell of the blue crab  ~ Callinectes sapidus
The scientific name means “beautiful, savory swimmer”

Given the number of body parts scattered about, I realized that more crabs surely were hidden away in the shallows. Being able to see one of the savory creatures swimming in its natural environment appealed, but my lack of a chicken neck and a string made even that low-tech way of attracting a crab impossible.

Then, I remembered the old man. Bent over the railing of a rickety dock when I spotted him on a local bayou, he acknowledged my presence without looking up. “Howdy,” he said. Following his gaze down to the water, I saw nothing more than smooth slickness and a hint of current. “Fishing?” I asked. “Naw,” he said. “Crabbing. See the line?”

Then, I saw it. The heavy twine, common as any found in a multitude of garages and storage sheds, hung perfectly straight, as though weighted. “What’s your bait?” I asked. “Chicken,” he said. “Got a neck on there now. Any part’s good. Legs. Liver. Turkey necks, too. Some use fish heads, but they’re better for a trap. For a hand line, I’d say chicken and turkey’s best.”

We stood for several minutes, staring at the line. Clearly, crabbing required patience. “What if you don’t get a bite?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “I might just set a spell in the shade, and then try again.”

Wishing him luck, I turned to leave, but stopped when he called out. “Just remember,” he said, “there’s one trick’ll guarantee you a good catch.” Curious, I waited to hear more. Grinning, he said, “If nothin’ else works, make a noise like a chicken neck.”

Crabbing Central

I’d always thought he was making a joke — perhaps even poking a bit of fun at me — until I sloshed my way back to dry land and stood staring into what I assumed to be crab-infested water. How do you make a noise like a chicken neck?  I thought. Chicken necks don’t make noise.

Then, it occurred to me. Maybe that’s what he meant.

Deciding to test the theory, I sat down on the bank and waited. Silent and still for five minutes; then ten; then fifteen, I heard nothing more than a faint clacking of dried reeds as the riffling of tidal flow moved across the flats.

Then, a stirring of silt and a faint gleam of color caught my eye as a crab emerged from beneath the broken reeds. In the brackish water, its colors were dull and its outline blurred, but there was no question it was heading toward land. Whether it would join me on the bank, I didn’t know.

Soon enough, the question was answered. Both male and female crabs began crawling onto the land: males recognizable by their blue claws, and females by the red-tipped claws that suggest they found the bottle of fingernail polish.

Unmoving, hardly daring to breathe, I watched them settle onto the sun-warmed mud, acting for all the world like vacationers jostling for the best poolside deck chairs.

I had little doubt they were aware of me. Compound eyes on long stalks allow them to see in multiple directions at once, and any movement on my part seemed to freeze them in place. When I stopped moving, all was well, and they returned to whatever it was they were doing before I so rudely interrupted them.

Finally, one of the more courageous females came close, perhaps to assess the strange creature sharing her mudflat. Tired of sitting and needing to stretch, I decided to talk to her.

“You’re darned classy,” I said, “with the prettiest claws in the bunch. I’m glad you crawled up here so I could see you.” No more chatty than the old crabber who’d suggested I imitate a chicken neck, she didn’t say a word. But she posed for another photo, and I swear I saw her smile.

 

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about blue crabs, provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife.

 

Feeling Crabby?

Stitching its way through the fabric of my world, Clear Creek draws together water and sky, grasses and trees into patterns of exquisite beauty. Traversing coastal Texas on an oft-hidden journey toward Clear Lake, its tangled flow provides a miles-long haven for wildlife and birds. Emerging from the lake, it tautens and slows, rising and falling in rhythm with inland-creeping tides until it eases into the open waters of the bay, diluting the ocean’s salty tang with the freshness of earthborn water.

Dredged into a channel at the entrance to Galveston Bay, the creek sometimes seems little more than a prop, a backdrop for tourist snapshots and Chamber of Commerce brochures. Nearly hidden behind a facade of interchangeable restaurants and bars, it no longer tastes of life on the water but feeds a growing appetite for profit. Weekend boat traffic is heavy. The boaters themselves tend to become loud and boisterous, demanding attention as they cruise past envious, land-locked crowds.  Tossing popcorn and bread to equally raucous gulls, weekend visitors miss the silent tern, the motionless heron, the patient grebe, watching and waiting for them all to be gone. Continue reading

The Parable of the Crab Pots

 

Clear Creek stitches its way through the fabric of my world, drawing together water and sky, grasses and trees into patterns of exquisite beauty.  Pulled through the marshy flood plain toward Clear Lake, its flow is a tangled haven for birds and wildlife. Eventually emerging from the lake to become a channel, it becomes a passage to open water, intertwining with the ocean’s salty tang in Galveston Bay.

Near the Bay, the Creek seems little more than a prop, a backdrop for tourist snapshots and Chamber of Commerce brochures. Nearly forgotten behind the facades of interchangeable restaurants and bars, it no longer tastes of life on the water but feeds a growing appetite for profit.  Weekend boat traffic is heavy.  The boaters themselves can be loud and boisterous, demanding attention as they cruise by the land-locked crowds.  They seem oblivious to the natural marvels that float and swirl before the tide of human progress or fly off, seeking respite from the uproar.

During the week, the channel and its inhabitants are left in relative peace. On a low tide, rocks along the edge serve as perches for some of the world’s most successful fishers: black and yellow crowned night herons, green herons, American and snowy egrets. Mallards and pintails float by, accompanied even in summer by an occasional coot.  Cormorants dive and, in winter, mergansers and loons provide a little excitement for human northerners who also have migrated south to escape the cold.

There always are a few human fishermen about, looking for redfish or trout, walking the walls in hope of scaring up a flounder.  Sport fishers top off at the fuel dock and an occasional trawler fuels for a trip down the coast.  In season, they’re joined by the crabbers and shrimpers, working folk who have schedules and routines.  I watch them make their rounds like clockwork: emptying traps, rebainting, dropping them back in the water.

There’s nothing fancy about a crabber.  Like shrimpers, crabbers work hard and their profit margin is small.  Their boats aren’t pretty and they don’t always have the best formal education, but they’re good people, part of a less-pretentious waterfront world that tourists rarely see. 

Because they have routines and their favorite spots for setting out traps, I’ve come to know a few – one or two by name, but most by sight.  We share  the simple friendliness of neighbors – a wave, a greeting shouted across the water, a question about weather or the catch.  I think about them a lot, and about how similar our lives are.  We spend our days on the water or at its edge.  We do repetitive work,  and we have far more time to think than we have money. 

I love to hear and tell stories, and fishermen are great story tellers.  Occasionally you find them lunching at local cafes or gathering at tiny watering holes in San Leon, Dickinson, and Bacliff, where they swap tales about catches,  crimes of passion, bodies found, or boats run up on the rocks.  They not only tell stories, they’re the subject of stories, and  I recently heard a retelling of one of my favorite stories about a crabber.  Sometimes it’s set in Mexico, and sometimes in the Florida Keys, but this version was set in Cuba.

Day after day, a foreigner visiting Cuba watched a crab fisherman ply his trade.   His routine was ordinary and predictable.  Each day he rowed to his pots, emptied them into the boat, and returned them to the water, hoping for another good catch.
However ordinary his routine, his traps were extraordinary.  They had no top.  Bemused by this topless crab trap and curious how such a trap could keep crabs from escaping, the visitor finally questioned the fisherman. “You caught many crabs today,” he said.  The old man agreed.  “I’ve been all over the world,” the visitor continued,  “but I’ve never seen a fisherman use a trap without a top.   How can it be that your trap works?  With no top, how do you keep the crabs inside?”
“I need no top on my crab trap,” the old man explained with a smile.  “These are Cuban crabs.” The befuddled visitor seemed not to understand.  “CUBAN crabs?”, he asked.   “Yes,” replied the old man. “Cuban crabs. When one crab tries to climb out of the trap, the rest pull him back in.”

No matter which version of the story I hear, my first response always is laughter.  The image of all those crab claws tugging away  at the legs of the would-be escapee is funny.   When it’s told as a Cuban story, political implications do temper the humor somewhat.  The thought that anyone inside a dictatorship (other than the authorities) might try to prevent others from escaping the pot seems amazing, but it’s a fact of life.

Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about the story in an even larger context.  We live in a world where negativity, pessimism, jealousy and anger are powerful forces.  They breed resignation and apathy, a sense that nothing we do will make a difference in our world.  Disappointed by life, we become bitter.  Criticized for one thing or another, we begin to judge others.  Stung by ridicule, we begin to tear others down in order to build ourselves up.

Trapped by a sense that nothing ever will change, convinced that no one can be trusted and ignorant of the possibilities available to us, we live in a trap as surely as those crabs, comfortable with its boundaries and routines.  Perhaps we fear the world outside, seeing it as dangerous, frightening or evil.  Sometimes, simple laziness keeps us from struggling away from those who would pull us back.  Whatever the reason, it’s easy enough to become  convinced that the wiser course is to stay in the trap, rather than risking our lives in the dash toward a different life.  

The point here is not to psychoanalyze those who prefer to stay in the trap, but to encourage those who want to climb out.  Even when surrounded and nearly beaten down by nastiness, griping, negativity, paranoia or bitterness, the urge to move beyond the constricted world of crab pot can be strong.

The fact is that the world is filled with crabby people – people who would like nothing more than to keep everyone else in the trap with them.  If others escape, their new-found freedom becomes a direct challenge to every rationalization for staying in the trap.  Every crab in the pot knows that. It’s what makes some so determined to use whatever means necessary to keep others from making the run.

But that lone crab, fighting his way up the side with his buddies trying to pull him back down is a reminder to all of us – there isn’t a top on the crab pot. You may lose a leg in the struggle to get out, but you don’t have to stay in the trap. Remaining in the pot is a choice.

 

Copyright © 2008 Linda L. Leinen.   All rights reserved.

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