What do bull lips, veal, razor clams, eel and chicken necks have in common?

They’re all used by commercial crabbers as bait. Bull lips? Yes.

Veal? Really?


Thanks to my friend Bill Sewell, I learned a lot about crabbing today on a 42 foot Chesapeake Bay deadrise workboat named Alice (named after his great wife – the two of them are such a cool couple – after many-many years of marriage, they seem to just love each other’s company and have such fun together.) I’ve been looking forward to this day for months! I set my alarm for 4:00 am, and was only nine minutes late to meet him at the dock at 4:30.

Wow. It’s pretty dark at 4:30 am.

But we weren’t the first boat out, by a long shot. In fact, we may have been one of the very last boats to go out crabbing today.

Here’s Alice – we were on the Miles River on Sunday, and saw her go by. And it turns out that Bill was giving a Frederick Douglass tour to the historian David Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, who spoke at the celebration in Easton for a new statue of Douglass. The statue was unveiled this weekend, with thousands gathering. Alice is a beautiful boat – and you can see that she can handle a crowd comfortably.

And boy am I glad that Alice has a canopy, because it started raining once we got underway and rained the whole time. My skimpy jacket (duh) wasn’t nearly enough, but luckily, Bill had an extra warm one – it got downright chilly out there this morning! Here we are:

We used a trot line – 2400 feet long. The bait – inch sized pieces of eel -is tied to the line every 5.5 feet. With anchors at each end, Bill stretched the line across the end of Tilghman Creek (we crabbed right outside Mayberry) and watched the radar screen carefully to be sure to lay that line right down on the edge of a bar. He says that crabs are always moving, swimming and moving with the tides – and they move together in groups. That played out during the morning as we’d find a bunch of crabs together, then none – then another bunch seemed to all hit the bait at the same time. Placing the line on a rig that sticks off the boat perpendicularly, Bill can stand at the helm of his boat, steer with one hand, and snatch up the crabs with a dip net as the line comes to the surface using his other hand.

Bill didn’t miss ANY crabs. It looks easy, but feels remarkably clumsy to do it. AARGH! When it was my turn to net the crabs, I missed a ton of them. It really requires your full attention. Bait five feet apart sounds far, but when the boat is moving and the line comes up quickly, it seems that you only have 3-4 seconds to act. And hey – I have a new appreciation for what any workboat is doing out on the water. Don’t think they see you, don’t think they are steering around you. They’re busy, they’re not looking at you, and you better stay away. Check.

We watched the sunrise (in between the rain) and had some breakfast. Back and forth, we’d ride the line, netting crabs, then pop inside the warm cabin for the ride back to starting end of the line again. Maybe ten times? We crabbed till 9:30 – just about five hours of going back and forth. Talking, listening to a DC classical radio station, watching the cormorants, heron, osprey and gulls glide around, with the ever-present sound of the diesel engine as a backdrop. Super fun.

Did I mention that Bill is a great guy? Smart, interesting, generous, kind. A true native, he grew up on Tilghman Creek, and has crabbed these waters all his life.  He’s retired from DuPont, and mindful of the fact that many of the other crabbers are feeding young families, he steps back when the catch is slow so that others can take the share they need.

Now THIS is a full bushel!

We ended up with almost five full bushels of crab – two of sooks (females), one and a half bushels of number ones (large males – at least 5 3/4 inches tip to tip), and another bushel of number twos – 5 inches and/or with soft, papery shells. Number ones are most expensive – best for the crabbers, and are all completely hard. Bill can tell by looking, but had the measuring devices out a lot as well. You’ll see in the photo below the word “SUN” on the boat canopy – required by state law, each workboat has to list its day off. Bill doesn’t crab on Sundays.

Of course, every crab story ends EXACTLY the same way. Bill, great guy that he is, gave me a fat half bushel of crabs to take home. And I ate a bunch of ’em for supper. Out of the water and into my stomach within 9 hours. O yea.

Bill – THANK YOU! I owe you one!

~ by kbosin on June 20, 2011.

16 Responses to “What do bull lips, veal, razor clams, eel and chicken necks have in common?”

  1. Great write up, Kathy!

  2. Great write up, Kathy….very enjoyable read!

  3. So glad you finally got to go…and that you got to enjoy the spoils!

    • Thanks – me too. It was a fun day. Every time I get out there on workboats, I learn so much! On my bucket list – gill netting for rockfish.

  4. Wow, that was great! You made me feel like I was there (though I was probably getting up just about the time you were heading home – ha ha!) I didn’t even know you could catch crabs like that.

    • Cool, isn’t it? And here’s what I learned – there are way more number ones (big ones) than anything else there on the Miles River. Impressive. And tons of females too. The Baltimore Sun said that the crab population is doing great this year, and from what I saw on the Miles yesterday, I believe it. Thanks, Su!

  5. i love it!

  6. Hi. I’m the extremely fortunate daughter of Bill and Alice. Mom told me about your post and I wanted to say I really enjoyed reading it! Spending a day on the water crabbing with dad is a great day, rain or shine.

  7. That would be great

  8. Hi, I loved your story. I was on the “Alice” taking the Frederick Douglass Tour! I agree, Bill & Alice Sewell are two of the nicest people and make me so happy & proud to live in Talbot County. You can see the tenderness and great love they have for each other and for the land & water that live upon. I too, learned so much on that trip and will cherish the time I spent with them, always.
    Harriette (Frederick Douglass Honor Society)

    • Thank you so much – they’re terrific. Thank you too, for your important work for the Frederick Douglas Society – such a wonderful weekend you put on and brought so many families together! Bravo!

  9. where do you buy bull lips?

    • Hi Sandra – Depends where you are. Go to your local fish markets and bait shops and ask what kind of baits are used in your area for crabbing. Agricultural areas will have access to all kinds of animals parts. Good luck crabbing! Our season opens April 1st, though we don’t usually see many crabs in our local waters till the water temps raise.

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