A Cape Cod Notebook 9/16/08

listenCrab Charity

Originally broadcast September 18, 2007

By Robert Finch

It's not everyday you get a lesson in crustaceans and charity at the same source. The other afternoon, returning from Hyannis by a back route, I came to a spot where the road crosses a tidal creek several miles inland. I got out to look around and noticed a young boy perched on some rocks where the channel comes out underneath the road. He was about ten, or eleven, red-haired and freckled. He was holding a dip net with a long handle and wearing rubber boots that were filled to the brim with water. As it turned out, though, his boots were not for keeping his feet dry.

"What are you fishing for?" I asked.

"Crabs," he replied, not taking his eyes off the water as it swept by.

"Blue crabs?"

"Yup."

At first I thought I'd encountered one of the last practitioners of the Cape Codders' fabled reticence, but suddenly he swooped his net down into the murky waters and came up with a small, struggling blue crab about four inches wide. The catch seemed to loosen his tongue.

"They start to swim through here when the current starts to flow in," he informed me. "It's all muddy and crapped up when it's going out, but it starts to clear up now and you can see them swimming along on the bottom. You have to throw them back if they're less than five inches or there won't be any left, but this one I'm going to keep for my science class."

The boy gingerly began to transfer the crab from his net to the bucket, not an easy feat, for the crab's temper, to use an old pun, is snappish, and his appearance is no less intimidating. Armed with two strong front claws, the crab has a shell that's drawn out into a sharp point on each side. The front edge of it is also serrated like a rough knife. To remove one from a net is like poking your fingers into a snapping, clacking pincushion. The purpose of his boots became apparent.

"We used to catch them to sell," he went on, "but we only got 20 cents apiece for them, so I went into my own business and I give them away to whoever comes along. You can have the next one I catch."

I thought this was a refreshing use to make of a poor market, and hoped that local economic development councils would be glad to hear of this public-spirited example of free enterprise.

Just then some friends of his came canoeing through the culvert and he went off to talk to them. I stood there admiring his ability, his sportsmanship, and especially his eel-grass-roots knowledge of life in this creek. It's the kind of first hand knowledge that comes from just "messing around," and that no science class or textbook can teach. Here, I thought, begins the lifelong naturalist.

Then, in the clearing water, I saw what looked like a large crab clinging to a piece of seaweed in the current. I called the boy over, and he crept swiftly down the rocks, swung his net down, and hauled up not one, but two good-sized, wriggling crabs. I could already taste the succulent crab meat for dinner, but the young philanthropist scrambled back up and raced over to his companions to show off his catch. Apparently his recently formed Crustacean Foundation had been suddenly dissolved, and I realized that if I wanted crab charity, I'd have to begin at home.