River Blue

O n a Saturday afternoon in August, I saw a man perched over six or seven ropes that’d been cast into the West River. On their submerged ends were traps, a chicken leg attached to each for bait. As he hauled them out, the river’s current caught them like kites in the wind, and I asked what he was fishing for.

“Blue crab.”

“To sell?”

“To eat. For me and my family.”

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He measures each crab with an iron gauge exactly five inches long. “You don’t need a license. As long as they’re five inches or bigger.” One was too small so he tossed it back into the water. As he opened a beer, I learned his name was Walter. I asked if I could come back another day to photograph him fishing.

“Sure. The season is in full swing so I’m out here nearly every day.”

A few days later I returned with my camera, but instead of Walter I found Carlos. We had nearly the same conversation, this time in Spanish. “Hay otros sitios para pescar?” I asked. Are there other places to fish? He sent me upriver, promising I’d find many more fishermen there.

Thanking him, I biked up Ella T. Grasso Boulevard to the spot where the Boston Post Road spans the river. The crossing was loaded up with drivers, their heads as hot as their engines. But no fishermen.

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I felt gulled. Had Carlos just been trying to get rid of me? I had half a mind to go back and find him when a trap flew out from the grasses on the western bank, cracking the surface of the river.

I rolled my bike down to the spot and found what I was looking for. Hidden by giant green walls of grass, and thus spared the sight and much of the sound of rush-hour congestion, a group of crabbers hung about. In the distance, the late-summer verdure of West River Memorial Park wound upriver, calm as a bayou. Louisiana might have been lying just beyond the bend.

The trap I’d seen fly belonged to Noel and Theresa Caraballo. Seasoned crabbers, the couple has been fleeing their Waterbury apartment for the West River for the past twenty summers. While Noel was busy checking a circuit of traps, Theresa sat in her folding chair within arm’s reach of a book of crosswords, a bag of powdered mini-donuts and the most protective Chihuahua I’ve ever met. “We make a day of it,” Theresa said.

Sometimes they make other people’s days. They’d caught sixteen crabs the day before, they said, and given half of them away. “Someone wasn’t having much luck,” said Noel. While I was there, Noel took time from tending his traps to help check those of Lynn, another crabber.

Lynn got hooked on eating crab five years ago, when she tried some of Maryland’s famous crustaceans. Later, disappointed with “flaky and frost-bitten” supermarket fare, she began catching the critters herself. “It’s hard work, but it’s so worth it,” she said. For some strange reason, chicken meat seems to be a favorite among crabs and, as a result, is often used as bait. But not exclusively. Lynn uses Herring and Bunker—a funky-smelling fish most people would never eat, but that crabs don’t seem to mind.

Blue crabs are generally cooked alive to minimize risk of toxicity from bacteria. “I don’t like to put them through any more stress than I have to, so I cook them right when I get home,” Lynn said. “Sometimes they’re in the bucket all holding claws, going ‘I’m scared.’” She gives a stiff laugh. “Oh, it’s not funny.”

Between the months of May and November, crab-lovers like Lynn can fill their buckets and creels—wicker baskets traditionally used for carrying a fisher’s catch—as much as they like. There’s no limit according to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Yet Connecticut does have laws to protect the blue crab population, and these laws can pinch. Theresa Caraballo has seen rangers deal out generous fines to those caught snatching up babies and pregnant mothers.

With pride, first-timer Wendong Xing showed me his very first catch, crouched at the bottom of a metal strainer. Xing and his family drove about 90 minutes from New York for “some summer fun.” He grinned as he talked about steaming his crab and enjoying it with vinegar and ginger. “Shellfish make the stomach cold. Ginger heats it up,” says Xing, referring to a tenet of traditional Chinese medicine in which certain foods cool and heat the body and must be mixed to retain equilibrium.

But there’s more than one way to find equilibrium in this scene. Some, like Lynn, find it in the taste. Others, like Noel and Theresa, find it in the tranquility of nature. For people like Walter, it may be the satisfaction of putting food on his family’s table. And for those like Xing going at it for the first time, there’s the thrill of a new experience, and the promise of tantalizing results.

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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