At the counter in Dee’s Bait and Tackle in Fair Haven, the nexus of know-how for New Haven County fishermen, Peter DeGregorio and I got to talking about crabbing. Dee’s advertises live bait (shiners, eels, bunker, night-crawlers) and fishing equipment, but advice is its most sought-after product. DeGregorio is as gruff and curmudgeonly as his average customer, but his eyes lit up a bit when I told him that I was new to saltwater. He held up a growing line of fishermen to answer my questions and rattle off his favorite local spots. When I asked how to find Atlantic blue crabs, which I’d seen on ice in the fish market down the street, he told me to try the mud bank behind the Target off I-91. New Haven County’s most productive bits of water don’t usually look like something out of Field and Stream.
With two hours to kill the next day, I set out for North Haven armed with an eight-foot net and a vague notion of what crabbing might look like. The spot turned out to be a muddy, plastic-littered bank along the Quinnipiac River. There was nobody else around, but well-worn trails and monofilament-festooned trees along the bank told me that the dreary scene deterred neither fish nor fisherman. I scrambled down to the bank and, despite the favorable low tide, quickly found myself stuck up nearly to my knees in slick estuarine mud.
Despite my ruined shoes and general clumsiness, I had surprisingly little trouble finding crabs. Almost every bit of underwater shelter (downed trees, stacked rocks, shopping carts) harbored a few. Netting them proved more difficult than expected, though, and it took me several ungraceful attempts to snag my first. My first major problem involved separating crab and net: blue crabs are loath to let go of things. The first crab eventually relinquished the net, clamping firmly on to my left thumb instead. I responded by shouting in agony and flinging the surprisingly strong creature back into the Quinnipiac.
Crab #2 gave up more easily, and I eventually got the hang of it. My second major problem involved my poor equipment. Lacking a bucket, I had brought two flimsy trash bags with me for crab storage purposes. Unfortunately, crabs #3 and #4 proved skilled at poking holes in stretchy plastic, and my bags were soon thoroughly perforated. Still, I emerged from the river with nine decent-sized crabs in tow. Mud-covered but triumphant, I sped back to New Haven feeling only slightly guilty about the crab water sloshing around in the backseat of my sister’s recently-detailed car.
As strange as boiling creatures alive can make a person feel, my housemates and I prepared the crabs nearly without incident (one crab nearly exploded in the microwave, but the rest were handled more expertly). Despite the circumstances of its extraction, the large soft shell crab that I ate arguably tasted better than anything I’ve had in a restaurant. My housemates reviewed the hard shells less glowingly, but at least nobody dropped dead.
On my next trip to Dee’s, Peter informed me that there is no limit on crabs in the state of Connecticut. You can just take them! For free! As many as you want! Anyway, anyone willing to contribute to the cost of a good pair of galoshes and a better net is invited to my backyard crab boil sometime before the season ends on November 30th.