Local crabbers endure ‘dead water,’ thievery to deliver succulent seafood to diners’ plates (PHOTOS)
Having seen recent Harbor Docks ads touting the purchase of fresh, properly identified seafood, I thought I would have a closer look at the local crabbing industry.
My feet hit the floor at 5 a.m. in Destin and the price I’m willing to pay for blue crab just went up.
I cross the Mid-Bay Bridge, turn east on Hwy. 20 and nine miles later, I arrive at Nick’s Restaurant.
This is where I join in on a day of crabbing to see how it’s done by the professionals. I am met by three members of the largest commercial crabbing operations on Choctawhatchee Bay. Trey Nick is captain with Johnny Wilkerson as his right hand man. Sitting close to me with a warm body, wet kisses and soft amber eyes is Trey’s black lab, Trap. Trey’s 10-year-old lab is home today and her name is Crab.
Trey began crabbing with his grandaddy when he was five to six years old off of a homemade pontoon boat with a six horsepower Evinrude motor. Today he runs the crabbing operations. Starting before dawn, he is lucky to leave Nick’s restaurant and get into bed before 11 p.m.
After our boat is loaded, we ease away from the dock in Basin Bayou into the cool quietness of the early morning. Across the soft streaked rose and pink horizon, the deep blackness of night gives way to a soft glow of light blue. It’s beautiful and tranquil as a bald eagle flies overhead.
Following this tranquil time come hours of hot, backbreaking work.
“Because of all the rain, Mother Nature has delivered the slowest crab gathering in 10 years. Too much rain brings in river tannic acid to the bay, and we never know where we will encounter ‘dead water’ — and traps filled with dead crabs and fish.”
Johnny operates from the front of the moving boat, quickly stuffing fish scraps into the food well in the middle of the trap. He throws out a new trap and immediately grabs the buoy with a line attached to a crab trap set out a few days ago. Trey, from the back of the boat, grabs this trap, unhooks the bottom and shakes out the crabs into wooden boxes.
Trey tells me “blue crabs are in tune with the earth. The crabs will move out into the gulf where the water salinity level is very high to lay clouds of eggs. The eggs hatch into microscopic crabs and they travel with the currents that bring them right back into the bay to mature.”
Johnny swears the crab catch is heaviest on a full moon.
Did you know that a crab’s mouth covering opens, not up and down, but slides outward and back like an automatic door opening? These fighting, pinching, irritable crustaceans do show a soft side on occasions. When the female molts and loses her hard shell, her back feels as soft as creme brulee. During this time, a male crab will cradle her, protect her and claim her as his own.
Trey pulls up a trap that has been robbed.
“This is a third degree felony you know. The last fellow we caught got nine months in jail. This is our livelihood and part of that has been taken away by someone who just helped themselves to the contents of our trap,” he said.
Trey pulls up another trap and finds all the fish and crabs inside the trap are dead. We have hit “dead water” and this disaster goes on for the next 22 crab traps.
“Mother Nature has been hard on us this year but she has a way of healing with time. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it happens en masse,” Trey laments. “We usually get 300 pounds of crab in a day but we will be lucky to get 150 today.”
Thankfully, things soon change and they end the day with 175 pounds.
We return to Nick’s restaurant with our catch and the best of both worlds collide as Trey has saved out a soft shelled crab to fry up for me for lunch along with three steamed blue crabs. I join Trey’s father, Frank, at the bar where he instructs me in the proper way of cracking and eating one of the most delicate and succulent things I have ever, ever eaten.
It was surely sent from the storage room of the gods to intoxicate my taste buds.
An interesting circle of buy and barter exists between Nick’s and other establishments in Destin. Trey needs scraps of fish parts to bait 200-plus crab traps with horrifically smelly stuff that draw crabs like bees to honey. The crabs can’t resist these yummy, stinky heads, entrails and skin, which Trey picks up twice a week from fish cleaning operations at Harbor Docks. Trey returns to Harbor Docks and Sexton’s with fresh blue crabs caught earlier in the day.
I will recommend these fried or steamed blue crabs and bet you a beer they will be the best you ever ate. As my father used to say, “Let the joy be unrefined!”
Laura Hall is a longtime Destin resident. She explores area gardens with her dog Annie and writes about local topics of interest. Got a good topic for a story? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org