The crab pot is the most commonly used method of harvesting crabs on the Chesapeake Bay. The crab pot is a square trap constructed out of galvanized wire and has two internal chambers. The lower chamber can consist of two or four entrance ways, which allow the crab to enter but not exit. The bait box, which is a mesh wire box, is located in the center of the bottom chamber and is enclosed so the crabs can not get to it. The top chamber is the holding area. The crabs reach this upper holding area by swimming through funnel shaped holes cut in the floor, making it difficult for the crabs to swim back downstairs. Crab pots are also required to have cull rings in their pots. The purpose of the cull rings is to allow the undersize crabs to swim out, while keeping the legal sized animals in the pot.
Many watermen will make their own pots. The bottoms of the pots are framed with rebar which helps to increase the longevity of the pots. Waterman also put zincs on their pots to help aid in the slowing down of corrosion due to the brackish nature of the bay. Some watermen will attach their pots to a long line; with typically about 25-50 pots on a line, while others will ‘set’ or drop their pots in the water in lines of about 30, with each pot having an identifying buoy attached to the top. Many different types of bait are used in commercial crabbing:
- Bull Lips
- Menhaden (alwives, shad, etc.)
The crabbing season runs from April 1 thru December 15. Commercial crabbers are allowed to start crabbing one hour before sunrise to 7.5 hours after.
Trotlining is a method of crabbing utilizing a heavy line or rope that can be as long as up to a mile, depending on where the crabbing is taking place and size of location. The trotline is anchored at both ends, allowing it to rest on the bottom of the tributary and bait is typically attached at intervals of two to six feet using snoods or slipknots. Snoods are smaller drop lines that hang down from the main line with the bait attached. Traditionally Bull lips, eel, shrimp heads and razor clams have been used for bait.
Many trotliners utilize an electric winder to pull the main line slowly to the surface. The boat navigates down the line watching for crabs that are attached to the bait. Once a crab is spotted on the line, a waterman uses a dip net to scoop the crab out of the water and put it in the basket, making sure to cull their catch as they go. Trotlining requires a certain amount of patience, dexterity and rhythm as there is not a lot of time in between snoods to scoop, empty the dip net and repeat. Once the waterman has reached the end of his line, if it is a long line, he goes back to repeat the process all over again. The season runs from April 1st to December 15th. Trotliners are permitted to start working one hour before sunrise in the months May thru September and work nine hours after. April, October, November and December they may start one hour before sunrise and work ten hours after.
A crab scrape is not unlike a dredge used to harvest oysters except that it does not have teeth. It is a long round bar, with a bag attached that’s drug along the bottom behind a boat allowing the crabs to go into the bag (Maryland State law requires that scrapes be no more than 3 feet wide). Scraping is mostly used for catching peelers and soft crabs and is primarily done off of Smith Island.
Bank Traps are used primarily for catching peelers and are permitted only in Somerset County. They function similarly to a pound net and they are made of wire.
The most arduous method of harvesting oysters is often thought to be that employing the use of hand tongs. Hand tongs are made of two wooden shafts that can range in length from 16’ to 30’ with rakes attached to each shaft and are joined together by a pin, mimicking scissors. The oysterman stands on the side of the boat, lowering his tongs into the water, feeling around until he hits a mound of oysters. He’ll then make several ‘licks’, opening and closing his tongs, catching the oysters in his rakes. Lifting the long shafts out of the water, the oysters are then dumped on the boat for culling. The depth of the water being worked will dictate the length of the shaft tongs being used. For instance, if you are working in 18’ of water, you will need a 24’ pair of tongs. You should allow for at least 6’ of the shaft to be out of the water. The typical set of tongs you will find in the Chesapeake Bay are 20’. Most oysters grow in 18’ of water or less and are caught in 10-12’. The deeper the water gets, the less oxygen the animals get, making it harder for them to survive.
Using hand tongs to harvest oysters is not only physically demanding but also inefficient. Most hand tongers will only catch 30% of the oysters on a given oyster bar. Tongers are allowed to harvest 12 bushels of oysters per day, with up to two license holders on a boat. Hand tongers have oyster bars set aside for their exclusive use however; hand tongers are permitted to work on bottom designated for any gear type/method of harvesting such as patent tongs, power dredge and dive bottom. Very few areas are left exclusively for hand tongers with most of it having been turned into oyster sanctuaries.
Patent Tongs employ the same basic technique as hand tongs; however they are controlled using hydraulics and have a much bigger head (rake) then the traditional hand tong. The tongs are lowered into the water and the head is opened and closed using hydraulics, making about three licks in a minute. With the use of hydraulics, patent tonging is obviously not as back breaking as using hand tongs. It is more efficient allowing watermen to harvest about 50% of oysters on a given bar. Like hand tong bottom, there are oyster bars exclusive to the use of patent tongs. Patent tongs are allowed to work on bars designated for other gear types/methods of harvesting except for hand tong bottom. Patent Tongers are allowed to keep 12 bushels per day with up to two licenses on the boat, thirty bushels at maximum.
The harvesting of oyster by divers is just what the name implies. Divers go down on the oyster bars and pick up the oysters off of the bottom. Diving is a two person job, once the person on the bottom fills up a basket, the person on the surface will hoist it up. Divers have exclusive bottom to work but any gear type/harvest method may be used on dive bars. They are allowed up to 12 bushels of oysters per day with a two man limit, harvesting 24 bushels at maximum.
Power Dredging for oysters is the least backbreaking and efficient way of harvesting the species. A mast and boom type rig is attached to the boat and using foot petals to control the hydraulics, a chain/mesh type bag is lowered down on to the bar. It is then dragged over the bar by the boat, collecting oysters into the bag. The bag is then lifted back over the boat and the catch is then deposited onto the culling station. Power Dredging for oysters is permitted November 1 thru March 31st and only in designated areas of Calvert, Dorchester, Somerset, St. Mary’s, Talbot and Wicomico Counties. In order to power dredge a permit needs to be obtained from the MD DNR. Oystermen using a power dredge to harvest are only permitted to keep 10 bushels per day per license, with only two licenses being allowed per boat. There are oyster bars designated exclusively to be harvested using a power dredge only, however any other gear type/harvest method may be employed on dredge bottom. Many argue that dredging is detrimental to the bay floor harming grasses and such. Many watermen feel dredging is helpful in turning over the bottom and ‘cleaning’ it up, breaking up the mud and turning over deposited silt, which allows for spat (baby oysters) to set on the cleaned oyster shells.
Clamming is done with a hydraulic dredge conveyor that hangs on the side of a boat, spanning the length of it. The front end (head) of the conveyor is let down on the bay bottom, the hose goes into the water on the bottom, blowing the clams back up onto the conveyor. The conveyor is made of mesh so as the clams go back up the conveyor, everything that is not desired to be caught or of a certain size re-deposits back into the ditch that was just blown out, filling it back in. Razors, mannows and cherrystones are caught in the bay and the head of the conveyor is made a little differently based upon which species is being harvested.
Pound Nets are large, intricate nets typically used in fishing for bait fish, such as Alewives or Menhaden and also for Rockfish. Nets are supported and hung on wooden poles which have been driven into the bottom of a body of water. Fishing and maintaining a pound net is a labor and monetary intensive operation. When swimming, fish generally follow the contour of the bottom of whatever body of water they happen to be in. Knowing that, leaders are strategically placed, usually from shore, going to the heart of the net. Leaders do just as they sound; their purpose is to lead the fish into the heart. Once in the heart, the fish are unable to get out, and are then fed into the crib, by a muzzle, where they are held until the net is fished. The size of the average crib in a pound net is 16’ x 16’ but can be much larger. When going to fish the net it is loosened from the four bottom corners to allow the net to be fished from the bottom. A skiff comes into the net, all the while watermen are gathering and rolling the net as the skiff moves forward letting it drop under the skiff creating a corner pocket to hold the fish eventually allowing for bail out of the net into the skiff where the fish will be culled and sorted. Pound netting is one of the cleanest methods of catching fish as far as by-catch and loss are concerned. The net is coarse and the fish don’t get stuck becoming ‘gilled’ therefore allowing any un-targeted species to be released.
Gill Nets drift along the bottom of a tributary. Every ten feet a cork and weight are attached to the net, just heavy enough to sink the cork, keeping it submerged. The net is laid across the tide and it moves up and down with the tide, allowing the fish to swim in and get gilled. When fishing a gill net, the watermen must be within two miles of the net at all times to properly tend to it and a net may not be left overnight. Properly tending the net increases the chance that any unwanted by-catch will survive.
Another way of preventing unnecessary by-catch and loss is by using the appropriate mesh size net for the species of fish being targeted. In tidal waters, gill nets may be used to catch Striped Bass beginning on December 1 and ending February 28th.
A fyke net, used to catch fish, is similar to a pound net in that it has a leader from shore leading fish into the heart or chamber; from there they go to the hoop for holding. Once the fish enter the heart, they are trapped and have no choice but to go into the hoop. When a waterman goes to check his fyke nets, he’ll pull up the hoop end, where all the fish have collected and remove them. Fyke nets are primarily used for perch fishing during the spawning season.