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Virginia Beach Area Features

Crabbing the Waters of the Chesapeake Bay

  By: Jacquelyn Eurice

Every morning between 4 and 5am, while most people are still in their beds fast asleep, watermen such as Robert and Ben Johnson are boarding their boats and heading out into the Chesapeake Bay. The purpose of these early departures is to collect the crabs that have been lured into the traps that line riverbeds and the floor of the Bay.

Their business, Johnson & Sons, provides crabs and shellfish to hungry residents and tourists as well as several restaurants in Hampton Roads. Robert started the family business in 1975 and following college graduation, Ben started working the waterways with his father on a full-time basis. I spoke to Ben about crabbing and despite being raised on the Chesapeake Bay, I was quite fascinated with the process…

Robert captains the Lisa Dawn, named for his wife and Ben’s mother. During my visit, that boat was rigged for collecting oysters, the other aspect of their business. So we boarded Ben’s crabbing vessel, the Christianna J., named for his wife. Captain Ben demonstrated the daily process of crabbing by picking up a crab trap and hurling it out into the river. It sank in seconds and was marked only by a small floating buoy on the surface of the water.

Every day 400 traps are in the water and Ben and his crew check approximately 300-350 of these “pots overboard” for the tasty crustacean. Each pot has a line of approximately 50 feet that needs to be roped in… Ben himself even seemed amazed that they pull in at least 15,000 feet of rope daily—nearly 3 miles worth! Fortunately, a rotating, pulley-like device called a winder makes their job a bit easier by automating the process. One look at how worn the solid line-guards are, and it’s hard to imagine this process being done strictly by hand as it was for many years.

Ben explained that the traps are placed in straight lines in the waterways to create a methodical process of harvesting the crabs. They hook the line and drag it up to the winder that hauls in the trap. Once the wire cage breaks the surface, the trap is pulled onto the boat and the crabs are dumped on the deck. In the spring the catch are predominately females, called sooks, since they don’t seem to mind the cooler weather. The sooks also school together unlike their independent male (jimmy) counterparts. The jimmys are harvested in greater quantities in the summer—their preferred season to emerge into the bay from their muddy burrows in the deepest waters where they spend the winter in a dormant state. After the trap is emptied, the mate puts fresh bait into it and returns it to the water. Then, they move on to the next trap.

As one of the lowest species on the food chain, crabs are scavengers but they can be rather picky. Their preference is for fresh fish, and Ben and his crew have been successfully serving them Atlantic menhaden. However, in soft-shell crab or “softie” season, the rules are different. Not only are the traps different in that the wire hexagon-shaped holes are smaller and an escape route is available for the tinier crabs, but it is illegal to use bait. Instead, the crew uses a male crab to attract the females. And it works well... I got to have a look at their soft-shell crab facility and it was teeming with crabs.

In the warehouse-like building were rows of rectangular pools where the softies or soon-to-be softies (also called “peelers”) were hanging out, quietly out-growing their shells. Each consistently monitored pool was equipped with pumps to aerate the water and contained crabs that were in different stages of the molting cycle. Ben was able to show me some that were beginning to emerge from their tight-fitting shells and also some of the discarded shells that were no longer occupied. It was interesting to see how much they left behind! Unlike a snake that just sheds its outer skin, the inner membranes of the crab were also edged out of its body and remained with the casted-off shell. A few days after molting (so that they can survive travel to their final destination), the soft shell crabs are sold, still alive, to local restaurants, guaranteeing the freshest quality possible. Preferred cooking methods are sautéing or deep-frying. However, the possibilities are endless.

The hard-shell crabs are sorted and placed into wooden bushels. They are stored in “the cooler”—a fridge that looks like a trailer on a truck. The cold temperatures sedate the crabs, almost paralyzing them for easy handling. These crabs are typically steamed, often with the requisite Old Bay Seasoning, and picked for their succulent meat. The backfin is the preferred morsel of crab often used in crab cakes and other dishes where the lump meat is showcased, though all of the crabmeat is delicious.

After a day of trolling the waters and hauling in crab pots, the crew of the Christianna J. returns to the dock around noon to clean the boat and sell their catch. Ben predicts that 2017 is going to be a great year for crabbing. The stock of mature crabs is up considerably probably due to the mild winter, careful monitoring of crab populations, and the rising health of the bay. For the latter, we can probably thank Johnson & Sons’ other line of business—the sustainable and water-purifying oyster!

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