Never underestimate the power of a full moon. Especially in May. Any soft-shell crabber worth his salt will have his peeler pots set with some fine-looking Jimmies tucked in well before that silvery white orb rises in all its glory. Long-time local crabber and fisherman Tucker Walker knows the drill. “When I was younger, I’d argue with the older guys and tell them that the moon has nothing to do with it. But then as I paid more attention, it made sense.” After toiling nearly 40 years in the business of crabbing, Tucker has had plenty of time to ponder the moon’s effect on crabs shimmying out of their shells, leaving themselves soft and shell-less.
These crustaceans are highly sought-after in their soft-shell stage and considered a culinary delight. After they’ve been cleaned, they can be eaten whole. But before these delicacies are fried to a crispy, golden brown and land on a dinner plate, there’s quite a bit of behind-the-scenes activity involved. Namely, a person committed to working long hours, who understands the time-sensitive nature of the process, and is willing to endure 2 – 3 weeks of sleep deprivation.
Tucker is one who has undertaken that commitment year after year and prepares for the event accordingly. “If the full moon is in the middle or end of May, we’ll set the pots at the early part of April or the very first week of May,” he says. On the full moon they start shedding their shells. You catch on the dark of the moon and shed them on the full.”
In addition to the full moon forecast, water temperatures must be considered. Crabs are cold-blooded, so after whiling away the winter happily hunkered down in the mud, they’re on the move as the water warms up, spurred on by a desire to mate and fatten up as they prepare to molt. “In the spring, the shallow water warms up quickest, so I set my pots there first, in the sloughs,” says Tucker. “And then as the air and water temperatures increase, the pots can be moved out to the deeper water. The ideal water temperature is about 65 degrees.” It must be warm enough for the female crab to be lured in by the Jimmy (male crab) stationed in the bait pocket of the pot. Interestingly, it’s been said that the Jimmy calls for the female by whistling a sonorous melody only she can hear. This bit of crab lore cannot be confirmed, but what a sweet thought!
With water in every direction, how does one scope out the most lucrative area to set the pots? The number one rule of real estate applies to crab pots as well: location, location, location. “This is the most important step,” says Tucker. “If you don’t have your pots in the right place, you won’t catch the crabs.”
Much of it is intuitive. There’s some science. But a lot of it is luck. However, do take care not to set pots too near someone else’s pots. Pot-setting can get a bit territorial and there are unwritten rules of the waterways. Tucker recounts how it was in his early days of crabbing. “I remember setting my pots and being so excited to see what would be there the next day that I couldn’t even sleep the night before.” He also remembers being terrified by one of the more seasoned crabbers who schooled him about encroaching on his claimed domain. Lesson learned.
Growing up in Wanchese, Tucker was inevitably exposed to all things fishing and crabbing. He and his buddies curiously observed Sam Dough, a friendly neighborhood fisherman, who worked tirelessly rigging crab pots and painting buoys in his yard. Sam patiently answered the youngsters’ questions and shared his abundant knowledge of fishing and crabbing and an adventurous tale or two of his life as a waterman. “I would never have been able to do what I do now without having learned from him.” says Tucker. “Sam would hire us to help him rig the pots - attach the bait leads, the irons, the straps, lines, and buoy. Then we’d load the pots in the boat, slip in the bait, and drop them where he thought they would do good. Sam used different techniques and baits and set pots in places other people wouldn’t.”
Over the years, Tucker pursued a livelihood as a commercial fisherman and crabber. He kept an eye on the “old timers”, watching what they were doing and where they were going; he was fascinated by their skills and made mental notes of what worked and what didn’t. Nothing excited him more than harvesting bushel upon bushel of crabs and taking them to the fish house to sell.
Fast forward to the present and Tucker, now in his 50’s, can be found working his crab shedding operation on Dough Creek in Manteo. He’s happy to have his friend John Machie from Manns Harbor by his side as John seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to crabs. “John is amazing,” says Tucker. Whether it’s calm or blowing a gale, before sunrise or at sundown, John heads out in his boat, several times a day, circling Roanoke Island to fish the nearly 500 pots they have strategically set. “John can pull up a pot and cull through the crabs (which may include as many as 100!) in minutes, checking to see which ones are nearing their time for shedding.” He examines the faint line around the crab’s paddle fins, which are located on their back legs. If the line is white, the crab will shed in a week to 10 days. A pink line indicates 2 – 5 days and a red line means the crab will molt in 1 – 2 days. “Rank” crabs have a particularly deep red solid line and will molt in mere hours.
Once John returns with the crabs, they are placed in the shedding tanks where water pumped from the creek is circulated, creating a constant flow. The peeler crabs are separated in the tanks based on how close each one is to shedding. It is at this point where the 24-hour vigil kicks in and the pressure is on. The crabs must be monitored so they can be plucked from the tank as they molt. During this brief period, typically 2 – 3 hours, the crab is soft but is on its way to forming a hard shell. Removing the crabs from the water prevents their thin, delicate covering from hardening. “If the air temperature is cool, it may take all day to firm up. If it’s hot, they’ll firm up in 3 hours.” says Tucker. If you wait too long, they cannot be sold as soft crabs. But they can’t be too soft, or they’ll fall apart. He knows by touch when to remove the crabs after they have shed their shell. As the soft crabs are whisked out of the shedders, they’re nestled into waxed cardboard boxes and stored in a cooler. Properly packed crabs will stay alive for up to a week. When enough boxes are ready, Tucker will deliver and sell them to the fish house.
During the shedding operation, Tucker catches a nap when he can. But there are always crabs to grab and pack, pumps to check, and pots to pull. John’s wife pitches in and a part-timer helps to fill in the gaps.
To call it labor intensive is an understatement. However, Tucker enjoys the whole process. When it comes to tracking down the crabs, “I enjoy the thrill of the hunt,” he says. “I still get excited, there’s nothing like it. I’ve seen a crab shed its shell around a million times and it still amazes me. When you live here you get used to seeing the water, the beach, Jockey’s Ridge, and then one day you’re out on the boat fishing pots and see the sun popping over the horizon and think, My God, that’s beautiful. I’ve traveled some but I’ve never been anywhere that I wasn’t ready to get home, no matter the good time I had. I’ve never come back to this island and wished I was still in whatever place I just left.”
That’s the wonder and joy of a life spent here, where the rising sun of each new day illuminates the extraordinary beauty of the natural surroundings and casts a warm glow over the hard-working individuals who bring us a bounty of delicious seafood to enjoy.
And for that, we are filled with awe and gratitude.