Gone fishin: Blue claw crabs will turn your fingers red

At Chilmark Pond, David Williamson displays a female blue crab, or sook, he captured. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Years ago, I tried to pick up a blue claw crab by approaching it from behind its claws. The technique had worked with other varieties of crabs, and I had no reason to think it would not work with a blue claw. I was very wrong.

Blue claws are remarkable in many ways. They have very quick and powerful claws, and they have almost 360-degree vision, as I learned the hard way. A blue claw can easily draw blood if it catches a finger. The better alternative is the red stain you get when eating blue claws steamed and covered in Old Bay.

Blue claws are fun to catch and they are also delicious to eat. No fancy equipment is required to fish for them. A wire mesh net, a length of twine, and a package of chicken necks or thighs — anything inexpensive — will do.

The fishing method is this. Tie the chicken part to the twine and toss it out into the water until you feel a series of tugs. Slowly pull the chicken to shore and be ready with the net. And strike quick. If you hesitate, the blue claw will be gone in a flash.

This is the type of fishing expedition that is perfect for kids. There is no need to wade deep. The crabs will come to you.

The blue crab is common from Massachusetts to Texas and a few have been reported as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Uruguay, according to the South Carolina department of natural resources. Chesapeake Bay, North Carolina, and Louisiana support the largest blue crab fisheries. The blue claw requires both inshore brackish waters and high salinity ocean waters to complete its life cycle.

On the Vineyard, we are fortunate that many of the great ponds along the south shore support good numbers of blue claws. But the population varies from year to year. This season, the numbers appear to be down.

The blue crab’s scientific name — Callinectes sapidus — translated from Latin means ‘beautiful savory swimmer.’ People who live in the communities that border the Chesapeake Bay hold the blue claw in high regard. Over the winter, a native of Maryland gave me a book, “Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay,” by William W. Warner (Little Brown).

It was a very good read. Islanders would recognize many of the character traits of the Chesapeake watermen. Stubbornness, self-reliance and an appreciation of the natural bounty found in their home waters come to mind. Written more than 30 years ago, the book also describes a changing community in the face of modernization and tourism, themes that are familiar to the Island.

First published in 1976, it was a national bestseller and winner of the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. It was also his first book and written as he neared 60.

Mr. Warner died in April, 2008.

In his obituary, Joe Holley, a staff writer for the Washington Post, described “Beautiful Swimmers” this way: “The book is an elegantly written, scientifically accurate exploration of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab and of the lives and lore of Eastern Shore watermen, who for more than three centuries have depended on Callinectes sapidus.”

Reviewing “Beautiful Swimmers” in The Washington Post, Larry McMurtry noted the book’s “high particularity” — a particular animal, a particular place, a particular way of life. “The prose of ‘Beautiful Swimmers,’ ” he wrote, “has grace, wit and clarity, on top of a real strength of feeling; were one not inclined to read the book to find out about crabs and watermen, one would still read it merely for its sentences.”

Several weeks ago I took two young visitors in search of dinner and some fun. We had no trouble pulling in females, easily identified by their red tipped claws, but the big males, also known as Jimmies, were scarce. Why, I don’t know.

It is legal in Massachusetts to take up to 25 blue claws, male or female (but no eggers), as long as they are 5 inches in width. But good sense dictates that all females be returned to the water where they may spawn.

I returned to “Beautiful Swimmers” for some insight about where the males might be located. It appears the Jimmies prefer more brackish water. I suspect I may have to explore some of the upper reaches of the Tisbury or Edgartown Great Ponds.

Lost and found

Geoff Gibson was driving along post-president vacation South Road when he spotted a tackle bag that had fallen from a vehicle near Abel’s Hill. He brought it to the Chilmark Police station. Yesterday, Sgt. Jonathan Klaren reported that the tackle bag and its owner, a grateful fisherman from Maryland, had been reunited.