Crabbing on the Hudson

a watercolor rendering of blue crabs

Blue Notes

On a warm Sunday afternoon in late June, I rolled down the hill toward the Hudson, with a couple of crab pots in the bed of my truck and a sandwich bag full of fat chicken wings. It was about an hour before high tide when the Hudson River swells at its banks. Admittedly, I was jumping the gun. June is early for crabs in the Hudson, but I wanted to get started. It doesn’t cost anything, after all, to hop in the pickup and head down to the riverside.

My pots were modern, folding, poly-mesh contraptions with a bait bag—they are light, easy to handle, and they fold flat in an instant. You can get them at bait shops, as well as online. Commercial crabbers use heavier, bigger cages made out of wire, but they work on the same principal: imagine a box with a funnel or two on the side like a door. My funnels actually meet, so while crabs find it easy to get into them, they are exceedingly difficult to escape. The somewhat crafty creatures can push through the mesh to create an opening on the way in, but they don’t have the smarts to spread it open, the way you can create a hole big enough for your buddy to step through in a barbed wire fence by stepping on the bottom wire while lifting the top.

Thankfully for crabbers, crabs don’t work in teams, and they can’t figure stuff like that out anyway. Some funnels are always open, taking advantage of the fact that a crab, when spooked, swims upward toward the surface. Most popular on the Hudson are little traps that unfold flat on the river bottom when deployed, with sides that fold up when you pull it in, like a metal purse seine. The crab is supposed to be so occupied with the bait that they won’t swim away, straight up through the closing walls, but I think a lot of them get away when you use these traps.

Walking towards the river’s edge, I noticed maybe a dozen people arrayed on the waterfront, sitting on benches or leaning against railings and enjoying the view of Storm King and Crow’s Nest Mountains casting the first afternoon shadows across the water. Now the sightseers were watching me and my son West, who had joined me in the day’s excursion. At my elbow, appeared Christine Ashburn.

She was at the river photographing for a book that the Hudson Highlands Land Trust out of Garrison is creating. She was rocking on the balls of her feet, anxious to know if she could take pictures as I set the traps. Her shutter snapped in bursts as I sent the pots arcing into the water, the line feeding out behind them gracefully. It’s odd to do something so basic and attract such attention. To feel the eyes of sightseers upon you, to hear the whirr of a fast camera track your motion as you fish, or in this case “crab”. There was no denying the beauty of the scene, however. The pots hit the water with a soft whoosh. In the distance, through the golden light, a kayaker paddled smoothly upstream.

One of the cool things about crabbing—especially with pots—is that it’s incredibly easy. I’m not saying you can’t be good at it, there are certainly people who know the river well, and have studied its crabs for years, decades sometimes, and they are going to pull upon those skills and catch more crabs. But anyone with the tools and something crabs like to eat (almost everyone on the river uses fish called bunker, a type of herring, for bait) can throw a pot in, and if the crabs are there and biting, you will catch some. You can even tie a chicken leg to the end of a string and when you feel it tug, if you move carefully and slowly, the crab will be more interested in the food than he is in the fact that he is being pulled up through the water to his capture and eventual demise. With pots, you can leave them. I left mine overnight, making a date with Ashburn, the photographer, to come back and check them with me, in case there were crabs she could photograph.

Writer Max Watman demonstrating the pot throw

Swimming Upstream

Callinectes sapidus, the blue crab’s scientific name translates to “beautiful savory swimmer” (it is a tribute to the deliciousness of the animal that even science had to throw in a little comment, like a gold star, about how tasty it is). These blue crabs populate water from Argentina up to Nova Scotia. The crabs in the Hudson River are residents of the river; they don’t, as some folks believe, migrate out to sea. They move between waters with lower and higher salinity.

The females, commonly called “sallys” or “she-crabs”, release their eggs—millions of them per female—into the high salinity waters of the New York Harbor. The crabs travel up the river to eat and mate. Males will travel all the way up to the fresh water—sometimes as far as 100 miles upriver. Male crabs, called “Jimmys”, have been found as far north as the Federal Dam at Troy. There are large populations in the Gulf of Mexico, and around the barrier islands of North Carolina, and famously in the Chesapeake Bay. The words “Chesapeake Bay” might as well mean “crabs,” so heavily are the two associated. I spent my formative years in Virginia, where lots of crab is eaten, and most of my youthful summers where whiled away at the farm of a family friend on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, just off the Bay on the Chester River.

Two years ago, my friend C. Russell Muth—an Old Bay-seasoned good old boy from Baltimore who left his hometown to work making television in New York and L.A.—saw someone crabbing and threw a crab pot into the Hudson to try his luck. It worked!

He went nuts. My subsequent enthusiasm for crabbing encouraged him, too. Together, two friends presented with an activity and a flavor that dredges up nostalgic comfort can really work up a roiling ardor. I would drop in on Russell, help out, go down to the river at night with him and check on the traps, but it was his undaunted effort that kept us in crabs that year. And we were swimming in beautiful savory swimmers: Russell caught 181 crabs out of the river that summer. Big, healthy, delicious Jimmys which we’d steam and crack with hammers and devour, until our lips were on fire and every little cut and scratch on our hands (from the shells themselves) was stung with Old Bay seasoning. Very few things make me happier than busting crabs.

The going rate for a dozen crabs in Maryland is $35. Russell caught over $500 worth of crabs that summer. To purchase them from Maryland and have them shipped would have cost easily twice that.

Somewhat surprisingly, we didn’t have much opportunity to share them. As popular as crabs are in the Cheseapeake area, nobody seemed to want much of our Hudson River catch.

Beasts of the Northern Wild

One of the ways in which we seem to have gone astray, culturally speaking, is that people no longer trust the wild to provide food. Although a quick glance at our industrial food practices makes it clear that it is the food you buy that often isn’t to be trusted, with the numerous recalls and significant health scares. However processed and cultivated food remain our preference, and most people still hesitate when presented with something foraged or hunted. It frustrates me to no end to see people turn their nose up at a shot duck, while cheerfully filling their shopping cart with cellophane-wrapped pork chops, but I can’t pretend I don’t understand. We have stepped away from that world. We have been assured that the systems in place are there to protect us. We trust the things we buy, but not the things we work to acquire on our own, edible offerings that require some skill and communion with the natural world. Then again, The Hudson River doesn’t exactly have a reputation that would inspire confidence in its bounty. “Are you really going to eat those?” was the question posed to me time and time again by friends and acquaintances wary of anything fished out of our majestic waterway.

Believe it or not, such skepticism wore Russell and I down. Last year, we spent more time trying to figure out if it was okay to eat the crabs than we did fishing for them. If enough people look at you like you are insane, you start to wonder if they’re right.

I was reminded of the other, most unfortunate, obstacle that slowed down our crabbing operation to a sudden halt when I went back to check the traps my son and I had set on the Cold Spring waterfront and found them gone, stolen! Six of Russell’s had been pinched that first year. It’s part of a sad loss of river culture that someone would even consider fooling with another person’s pots, much less going so far as to steal them. In places where people relate to the water, make their livings on the water, they don’t mess with other people’s stuff lightly.

I’m pretty sure you could coil a rope up and leave it on a pier in, say, Newport, and no one would touch it. When people do start in on one another—shoot outs over lobster traps in Maine, for instance—it’s not on a lark. To have traps pilfered definitely put a damper on the project. Initially when Russell’s traps had been hijacked, I had figured it was an outlier, an unlucky bit of mischief. I was wrong.

My research into whether or not it’s okay to eat the crabs was more encouraging. Tom Lake is an estuary naturalist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC), and has been the editor of the Hudson River Almanac, a tremendously informative publication, for 21 years. Lake assured me that he does eat Hudson River crabs, but admitted that there is the possibility of toxins in any New York waters. In an email exchange, Lake provided me the following instructions:

  1. Always steam crustaceans (shellfish)—NEVER boil.
  2. For blue crabs, after steaming, remove the carapace and rinse away the hepato-pancreas. This organ (looks like mustard) bioaccumulates toxins if they are present. This process applies to lobsters from eastern Long Island as well.
  3. If you do the first two steps, you can eat a bushel.

The New York Department of Health also indicates that PCBs, dioxin, and metals concentrate in the tomalley (the soft green paste found in the body cavity of both lobsters and crabs), and seconds the NYDEC’s recommendation that the crabs should be steamed, rather than boiled, noting that “roughly 80 percent of the PCBs found in crabs move into the cooking liquid during steaming/boiling.” They strongly recommend that you don’t use the cooking liquid for sauces soups or stews. So, no crab soup, no gumbo, no paella. This leaves us perfectly free, however, to put newspaper down on the picnic table and, in the most primal fashion, crack them open.

There is no guarantee that toxins are, or are not, present in a Hudson River crab, but I think treating them as if they are is the prudent choice. As to the recommendation made by the Department of Health that women under 50 and children under 15 skip the crabs entirely, well I wouldn’t want to contradict them. It does seem to me, however, that if you are leaving large amounts of toxins behind in the cooking liquid, and cleaning out the tomalley, it might be worth the risk.

Wishful Tinkering

Early in July, Russell and I drove down river to Ainsville Creek, in Cortland, where there is a dock. The salt front there, where salt water meets fresh water, is constantly moving—tides and currents and runoff all serve to push it up and down the river—but it crawls up the river as the summer goes on, so the crabs arrive first at points south. The river is wide and calm there, and Russell has pulled lots of big crabs from these waters. To deter theft, we put floats on the lines and tossed them out as far as we could. We’d use Russell’s Stand Up Paddle board to retrieve them.

We left the pots in overnight, but got nothing.

In Wappinger’s Falls, I ducked in to Vinny Liardo’s store, Lake Side Bait and Tackle, to talk about where these elusive crabs were. Liardo has been on the river his whole life, and when he talks about it, you can feel his reverence. The bait shop is a magical place, it’s been operating since 1949. It’s low and dimly lit, crammed with rods and tackle. Every inch of the wall is covered with a clipping or a photograph of an angler holding a fish. It’s like a secret window to another time or a secret world in which everyone understands the river.

Liardo hadn’t heard about anyone catching any crabs yet this summer. “But I expect them any day. Probably this afternoon,” he said with a laugh. He explained that every hard rain we have pushes the salt line back downriver, and with it the crabs. They’d be here soon, but as it stands, he doesn’t even have any bunker in the freezer.

“I should get some, though. I should get ready.”

I got a couple more traps from him. I wanted to make sure I was ready, too.

Editor’s note: The best season for crabbing on the Hudson is from late spring into September, but in the fall, hopes can still run high.

This story was originally published in September of 2014.