Watermen set their trotline in the early morning near Oxford, Maryland. Image by Jim Kidd, an.umces.edu/imagelibrary
Before watermen peppered the Bay’s bottom with crab pots, there was a simpler way. Older than brightly painted buoys, and in-board engines (or outboard, for that matter), people who worked on the water caught crabs with a baited line, a net, and a boat. Known as ‘trotlining,’ this technique is most rudimentary form of water work that can be undertaken by a single person in a small craft, propelled at first by sail and later by simple outboard engines.
Waterman Mark Adams makes a quick pass at a crab on his trotline.
To trotline, there’s just a few essential tools- a workboat, a waterman, a long baited line, a dipnet, and a roller. The waterman lays their line, which is attached to two buoys on either end. This line, sometimes 100 yards long, is weighted at regular intervals with tough bait: chicken necks, bulls lips, and razor clams. In the past, before the market for it exploded in Asia, watermen used salted eels. This long line droops to the riverbottom between the two buoys, and a watermen will cruise along it, threading the line up and over a roller. As the boat moves forward, the line, weighted with crabs like cherries on a branch, is pulled up to the water’s surface where a quick grab with your dipnet sends them scrabbling into a waiting bushel basket.
The author as a child, trotlining on the Chester River.
Trotlining is one of the few ways the commerical and recreational fisheries on the Bay overlap. Watermen have troltlined for generations, and so too have Chesapeake people, families with kids, pretty much anybody who wanted to catch a whole mess of crabs for the steamer and do it themselves. As a child, my father would take my sister and I trotlining, and we did the whole routine: cutting the salted eel into chunks to be threaded onto the line at the picnic table the night before (a hated task for the two of us little girls), waking before the sun rose and layering up for the frigid pre-dawn Bay temperatures. As the sun rose, we’d head out of Rock Hall harbor, lay our line, and work it in passes, taking turns with the net and being chastised when we missed a crab’s fast getaway: “That was the biggest one I ever saw and you let it go!” By lunchtime, the bushel basket was frilled with the emerging legs of blue crabs who bubbled in the sun. Clamped together with locked claws, a literal food chain, they quieted in the heat and awaited their admission to the steampot.
Kids crabbing at sunset. Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Program
This story is not just mine. Throughout the Bay in the summertime, people head out before sunrise to see what they can pull out of the dark bottoms of the rivers and creeks. The water is quiet and only a few buoys and markers blink red, white, and green in reflection on the glassy wake. Their bushel baskets are empty, and as engine cuts through the silence, the would-be crabbers look awake, ready to steel their reflexes for the dart and snatch as a keeper comes up the line.
It’s an old tradition, and has been handed down for generations as grandfathers have guided a small hand on a dipnet to show them the way. That thin line, studded with snoods of razor clams or slick chicken necks is an unassuming thread connecting the past and the present, summer to summer, in the Chesapeake’s quiet coves and sandy-bottomed rivers. It’s a legacy- perhaps not as stunning as a skipjack, or as iconic as a lighthouse, but it’s a way of savoring the Bay’s best things, one feisty blue crab at a time.