Catching Maryland Blue Crabs on the Choptank River

When I got back from Europe, I was exhausted. But no amount of jet lag was going to keep me from "Bloggers on the Bay."

I'd been plotting an excursion on the water with Steve Vilnit for months. Y'all remember Steve, he's the one that who promotes Maryland seafood to chefs... like, for a living. I can confirm after spending a Saturday on the water with him and a few of my favorite folks that, indeed, it is one of the better ways to earn a buck.

I picked up Jenna, Nikki and Laeticia bright and early in Washington, DC and we aimed my rig towards the quaint Eastern Shore fishing village of Cambridge. Within five minutes of arriving at J.M. Clayton Seafood, we were on a boat in the Choptank River with Captain Billy. The first step was getting friendly with the crabs. We each were forced got to hold a blue crab and learn what the markings mean. This guy that I'm holding is a Jimmy (boy crab), which you can tell by the "T" shape on his abdomen.

Me holding Jimmy
The females ("Sally" or "she crabs") have a triangle on their abdomen and bright, red "nail polish."
Sally and her red nails
Crabbing in the Choptank is old school. Forget those big crab traps you think of when you see Deadliest Catch (they do that out in the Chesapeake Bay.) When you crab in the river, you haul out a line that's about a mile long and tethered to a buoy. About every three feet on the line, Captain Billy ties a small net "clam bag" that acts as bait. The boat approaches the buoy and feeds the line along the side. As each clam bag passes, you can wait with anticipation see any attached crabs approaching. Then you scoop them up in a net and toss them in a bucket. Each crab has to meet certain size standards - about six inches during this part of summer (the requirement is larger later in the season.)
He's a keeper!
Now, I made that seem fairly easy, right. Run the line, scoop the crabs into a net and move on to the next buoy. When my turn came, I got excited as I saw the first crab and moved to get him. I anticipated how he'd drop wrong and lost him. Another one came down the line and I told Captain, "I got this." Yeah, I didn't have that. The third try was a charm and as I dropped him into the bucket, Captain informed me that had now earned twelve cents.

Way to put it into perspective.
Captain Billy
The other thing that is cool about this form of crabbing is that it has zero environmental impact on the watershed. And that means more sweet and delicious Maryland crab for generations to come.

Here's THE ONE I caught.
After we all took a turn, we headed back to J.M. Clayton where we'd learn how those crabs would get from the boat to our table. The crabs are sorted and weighed, then those destined to be lump or backfin are tossed into these giant steamers where they are cooked.

Giant Crab Pots
The cooked crabs then head to the pickers. During the busy season, as many as 80 women are picking crabs. They are paid by both the hour and by the pound. Some of the best can clear up to 60 pounds of crab a day!
Bad ass crab picking women!
This is where the shocker happened. We learned that most restaurants that say they serve Maryland crab are not actually serving you Maryland crab! That's right. Between Philly and Northern Virginia, restaurants import 43 million pounds of crab. Maryland produced about 700,000 pounds. Do the math. (Ok, fine, I'll do the math. That means about 2% of the crab on those menus is actually coming from Maryland.)

For the Clayton clan and Captain Billy, the 80 women picking crabs and for the amount restaurants charge for crab, I think we all deserve to know when Maryland crab on a menu actually means Maryland crab. As Jessica from Washington City Paper called them, "crab fakes" not "crab cakes."

There are two ways you can help:
1) Ask. When you see Maryland crab on the menu. Ask your server to confirm with the chef that it's actually from Maryland. Don't feel like a pain in the butt. Ask. Otherwise, you're getting cheaply-picked Indonesian crab (and paying Maryland-quality prices) that took two weeks to get here and sat on a shipping dock for who knows how long.

2) The State of Maryland has launched a "True Blue" Maryland seafood authentication seal. Chefs who use "True Blue" on their menus must prove once a month, with receipts, that what they are calling Maryland seafood is Maryland seafood. Ask your favorite restaurants to join the program and patronize those that do.

Here's the deal folks... Whether it's wine or cheese or meat... Location matters. That doesn't mean you have to be snobby, it just means things taste different and you may have a preference. In a recent test taste, Maryland blew away the imported crab. And why not? It's fresher because it's local. Also, because it gets chilly up here, Maryland crabs have a little fat (what they call "mustard"). Doesn't everything taste better when it's cooked with a little fat? (See: bacon, duck fat)
Steve showing us the crab picking machine at JM Clayton... they invented it!
The other thing I wasn't really aware of is that you can eat crab off season because J.M. Clayton pasteurizes it. Steve reported that when they did blind taste tests, some of the chefs that did the tour actually liked this product best.
J.M. Clayton's Epicure Crab - look for it at Whole Foods
But the way I like it best? Fresh picked and sprinkled with a bit of Old Bay.
Fresh picked crab on the river it was caught... life is good.
PS. We hope you enjoyed reading about this adventure. We all agreed, it was one of the most inspiring, interesting and delicious things we've done.
Jenna, Laeticia, Nikki and Amanda
 PSS. I've got one more post from this day coming your way... on Maryland oyster farming!
me, Nikki and Jenna... clearly working hard...
PSSS. And, I'm working on the next Maryland seafood adventure with Steve... and possibly a snakehead hunt! So follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest to get the latest!

PSSSS. Which of my favorite spots are serving True Blue certified Maryland seafood? Woodberry Kitchen, Dino, Equinox, Cantler's, Tony & Joes, Nick's Riverside Grille, Bistro Bis, Gertrude's, Vidalia and area Whole Foods.

UPDATE: The fantastic Ben Fortney has a Foursquare list of all of the Maryland True Blue certified restaurants. Follow it here


Unknown said...

Oh my gosh! Last night I was just telling myself I wanted to go crabbing now that I'm here in DC. I am a Florida girl as well. My fam is from MD, so I've done the whole "dump a box of MD crabs on the table and pick away" thing. BEST! But seriously DYING to do this. So envious!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info on Maryland crab meat. It was really interesting. You are amazing on all your adventures. Your Grandmother is so proud of you as well as the rest of the family. You did forget to mention how good crab chilau is. I guess that is my favorite way to eat it. Lois made the best. Love you.

Pat said...

Sorry it is Aunt Pat.

Meg said...

So fun that you got to go out on the bay and see how it's done! Great post.

Maybe I'm just not trusting enough in peoples' ability to be honest, but I'm wondering if staff/chefs would actually admit that the crab isn't authentic if it says Maryland crab on the menu. Have you tried this tactic yet, and has anyone come out and said the menu is incorrect? Just curious!

The other thing I was thinking is that a lot of the time, the menu probably doesn't say Maryland crab, and we (the patrons) assume it's from Maryland because we're so close. It's very eye-opening to see how often that's not the case!

.b said...

If you're on Foursquare, I set up a list with 40+ "True Blue" certified locations serving the real deal MD crab cakes:


If you're not on Foursquare, the map is still handy to show you the spots.

Tammy Gordon said...

Meg - I think it's a mix of both. When pressed, I've had restaurants admit to "Maryland style" or "a mix of Indonesian and Maryland."

Either way - very eye opening!

Meg said...

Interesting! I'll have to try that. Thanks for posting the list of True Blue certified places. And Ben, the Foursquare list is very helpful too!

Unknown said...

I will eat nothing but bay crabs. As a kid growing up on the Chesapeake Bay I caught crabs everyday. They are nothing but the best seafood in the world. Now I'm teaching mykids how to catch crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, they love it. Xbox doesn't have a chance with them when it comes to crabbing.