Remember When: Soft crabs, peelers and Solomon’s Island

Soft crabs, peelers and Solomon’s Island

 by Pepper Langley

Pepper Langley with skipjack model in his woodshop at the Calvert Marine Museum. Copyright 1988 – 2019
Pepper Langley with Ernie Bell and Louie Goldstein at Calvert Marine Museum. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

Pepper Langley, one of the founders of the Calvert Marine Museum, is shown here in this 1989 photo guarding the front door of the new building and holding two politicians at bay. Left, is Maryland Comptroller Louie Goldstein, Pepper at the center, and right is Maryland Delegate Ernie Bell (D. Leonardtown), who at the time represented St. Mary’s and lower Calvert County. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

Enjoy this story from Pepper that appears in THE CHESAPEAKE: Oyster Buyboats, Ships, and Steamed Crabs, available in Kindle, paperback and Audible at Amazon.

Any correlation between slippery eels and politicians exists only in the mind of the reader.

Eel trapping days on the Patuxent

By Pepper Langley

In a prior chapter, I told you about how we caught soft crabs and sold them to the packing house in Solomon’s, but I did not mention how the trotline crabbers caught their crabs. These were large hard crabs caught on a line about a ½ mile long. These lines had a buoy and an anchor on each end which was baited with eel bait, about every three feet apart.

Then the crabber would run his crab boat down this line with the crab bait coming up over the roller which was mounted on the side of the boat. When the line came up and had a crab on it, the crabber would dip it with a wire crab net. The crab would be tossed in a crab barrel.

Before the crabber could catch his crabs, he had to get that eel bait on the line. He couldn’t crab and catch eels both, so he had to have someone catch his eels. That was my job. I worked to catch eels for the crabbers.

At the age of fifteen, I began trapping eels. Our eel traps were 10 inches in diameter and three feet long with three iron rings fastening them, one on each end and one in the center of the trap. Each one of these rings was wired inside of the wire net which was 3/8-inch mesh galvanized wire. Each ring had a trap load to the rings; on one end was the net where the eels went in, the next was the net in the middle where the eels also had to get through to the crab bait. The crab bait was in the last section, and the last ring had a net with the drawstring that we would untie to take the eels out.

Where we set our nets was on a section of the river that we had put the crab pickings that come from the crab packing house that was discarded. There was no better place to put these remains of the crab picking process than back in the water where the eels could eat them. What that eel didn’t know was while he was eating the crab pickings, the next day a crab would be eating him. That was the life cycle of crabs and eels.

At that time, I was setting fifty eel traps a day, and I would be towed out to the eel set area by the crabber at four in the morning. As soon as I could see the corks floating on the water that was attached to our eel trap, I would pick them up, and when I got them all, I would take them ashore to process the traps.

I would remove the eels from the traps and put them in a barrel that the crabber had set up with a lime solution in it that would kill the eels and remove the slime off them.

When the crabber came home from crabbing, he would get his lunch go back down to the shore from his home to the little boathouse. Then he would gut the eels and take off the heads. He then put the eels in a salt solution in another barrel until the next day. After spending the night in the salt barrel, the eels were removed and packed in dry salt. What he did not use for bait were then shipped to Baltimore where they were smoked and sold for those who enjoyed eating eels.

If you have never tasted eel, you should try it. I used to throw out two or three of the biggest eels and set them aside to take home. I would cut them into 3-inch sections and fry them in real butter, and they were great eating. Add a little lemon too, and they are really a better meal than most saltwater fish. The taste is much like sea trout. When you are fixing your own fresh eel, please think of me as it’s been a long time since I have seen one big enough to eat. – Have a good eel-trapping day!

Read more from Pepper Langley, Capt. Joe Lore, Jack Rue, Frederick L. McCoy, Mark Robbins, Vi Englund, and Stephen G. Uhler in THE CHESAPEAKE: Oyster Buyboats, Ships & Steamed Crabs

  • THE CHESAPEAKE TALES & SCALES - Short Story collection by Lenny Rudow, Beth McCoy, Capt. Larry Jarboe, John Peterson, Mel Brokenshire, Mark Robbins, Stephen Gore Uhler, Patty Muchow, Ed Laney & Ken Rossignol in Kindle, paperback and Audible

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