"It's this palpable sense of community amongst the fisherman and the crabbers that makes going to the docks so addictive."
The crabbing’s been good in Patchogue. For the past month, I’ve been to the docks several times a week for a few hours every time. With an interesting book and some drinks for refreshment, I could be there all day hauling in net after net of crab. I have four crab pots going simultaneously on a staggered schedule, so that I’m pulling in a pot every few minutes or so. Usually, I average about a dozen medium-sized crabs every two hours, though I throw back a good many little crabs.
I didn’t always believe it but blue shell crabs are mean, spiteful creatures. The rock crabs on the north shore of Long Island will make half-hearted attempts to fend off attackers, but their rounded claws are hardly threatening. The Dungeness of the West Coast, in my experience, are gentle giants, allowing themselves to be flipped over with ease for a thorough scrubbing between the legs. But the blue claws? These are truly vituperative crabs, their sharp pincers jabbing at whatever comes into sight. The very build of the blue crab suggests that these creatures were made for battle. Their pointy shells are the armor; their claws, like razors ready to cut. (Each claw has a specialized use: one claw is smaller and has sharper teeth for biting and cutting, while the other has larger, rounder teeth for crushing food.)
What’s more, the reflexes of a blue shell are preternaturally fast. With lightening-quick agility, a blue crab can reach far underneath its own body to attack a vulnerable human hand or in some instances, another crab. While rock crabs remain placid when more of their kind are tossed into the bucket, I’ve watched in amazement as each successive blue shell in the bucket struggles to stake out its own spot amongst the other resident crabs. The bucket becomes a tiny Coliseum and I, the cringing spectator. Usually, a vicious battle will ensue if the blue crabs are of equal size; other times, I've seen the smaller one climb onto the back of its larger foe in order to circumvent a full-on fight.
The people on the docks are almost as much fun to watch as the crabs. While the fishermen tend to be more reserved, waiting patiently for their lines to be bitten, the crabbers are a rowdy but good-natured gang. The most active of the bunch are the wandering observers who amble around the docks, poking their heads into the buckets of others crabbers.
“Oh, watcha got there?” they’ll ask amiably, offering their unsolicited advice about what pots to use and what bait (drumsticks, bunkerfish, and clams) works best. Loquacious and inquisitive, they’ll saunter around for hours just to talk to other crabbers, seemingly without catching any crab of their own.
Families are another distinct group on the docks. When very young children are present, it's almost a given that there will be no crab involved. Hauling up the pots every thirty seconds, the boys and girls will be momentarily disappointed at the empty cages, but their anticipation of future catches is boundless and unflappable. Teenagers are also a common presence on the docks, yet they’re not there to take advantage of the ocean's bounty. Instead, they’ll loiter about on the railings, speaking in phrases and words that I can’t understand. They are never curious about the crabs and fish that are getting hauled in, but they're not a bother, either.
Most of all, I have a soft spot in my heart for the fishermen. Content just to sit there with their rod and lines, the anglers are usually the most generous ones on the docks. Without exception, they will walk over to you just to donate the errant crabs that they catch on their hooks. And when these fishermen depart for the day, they always leave behind their bait for crabbers to toss into their pots.
Besides all those delicious blue shells, it's this palpable sense of community amongst the fisherman and the crabbers that makes going to the docks so addictive. Even choppy waters and rainy days can’t keep me away; recently, I’ve been crabbing on the weekdays too. I’m told by Patchogue locals that as the season progresses, the crabs will grow even larger in size. Until that times arrives, I’m biding my time and dreaming of crab cakes.