PECONIC FORAGER: Crabbing on Georgica Pond

peconic_forager

What some savory swimmers tell us about the luxe lagoon.

EAST HAMPTON-It was a perfect day last November. Kevin Miller, L. J. and I headed to Georgica Pond to catch the last blue crabs of the season on the clearest of fall days.

“We’ll be lucky to get enough for dinner,” says Miller, aka Apey.

“Yea, and get gas for the truck,” his partner, L. J., adds.

What more could you ask for on an Indian summer day?

We round the bend past the Georgica Home Owner’s Association’s unmanned security gate. Beetlecats replaced baymen a long time ago on Georgica Pond, but most of the toylike sailboats are long docked. It’s low tide and the reeds (nonnative Phragmites) that normally frame the pond here have been recently removed, leaving room to pull the green Ford pickup closer to the pond than usual.

Miller and L.J. work together in short-sleeved T-shirts and waders to slide the Spirit of Saint Louie off its trailer and into the pond.  Miller starts his outboard motor by pulling on a cord, and we’re off. “Look, the gut is open,” he says.

The spit of land between Georgica Pond and the Atlantic Ocean has had its own controversy, including a bit of mystery.  Some of the world’s most influential and wealthy people own summer homes around the 290-acre lagoon. At times the 50-foot sandbar has been artificially cut, say when basements get flooded or privacy is an issue.

Ten years or so ago, President Clinton was staying at film director Steven Spielberg’s home during the height of the summer season and the gut had been mysteriously broken in the middle of the night to let water out of the pond. To prevent prying eyes from getting close to waterfront property perhaps. At the same time, crabs-and other resident critters-escaped into the Atlantic Ocean, messing with the ecological balance of the pond and putting the baymen out of commission on their blue-crab catch.

“It should open when nature intends for it to open,” Miller huffs, literally shaking off the annoying thought of man interfering with Mother Nature. We continue in the sun searching for their first of 20 buoys aligned along the opposite shore.

The buoys are attached by ropes to the crab pots. While Miller captains the boat, it’s L.J.’s job to lift the crab pots out of the water, empty the crabs into totes and dump the old bait back into the water. The funnel is re-baited with dead fish and closed with a bungee cord. The rectangular wiremesh trap is dropped back in, in another location if the catch was not good.

L. J. does this messy and smelly job with aplomb and quickly at that. It’s back-breaking work and their hands take a beating, but the baymen never complain. Their hands are so calloused its not an issue. In any case, there are so few crabs, it’s not like real work anymore to these commercial fisherman. Yet Miller remains positive and says, “crabs go in cycles.”

Callinectes sapidus, or the beautiful savory swimmers, go through about 24 molting stages. Blue crabs take between a year and a year and a half to grow from juveniles to adults. They live up to three years and, fully grown, measure eight inches across. They have five sets of appendages, which grow back if need be, and a hard blue shell that turns red when cooked. They are scavengers.  Like lobster, they eat dead fish from the bottom of the sea. Atlantic blue crabs occupy coastal waterways as far north as Nova Scotia all the way to Northern Argentina, being the most abundant in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.

Once the air temperature goes below 50 degrees, they use their two paddlers or back fins to dig deep into the mud, where they overwinter. Mature females, or sooks, overwinter while pregnant.  Their egg sacks resemble a sea sponge on their abdomen and contain two million eggs but take only two hours to form. It takes anywhere between two and nine months after mating before the larvae hatch, depending on how long the winter is.

“When the peepers come out in the spring, the eels and crabs come out of the mud,” says Miller.

Come springtime, larvae will start to grow when the water temperature hits 59 degrees. In the beginning of the season the baymen will get a few large crabs that have overwintered from last year, but it takes until August or September for the crabs to grow large again. Each time the crab sheds its shell, the crab grows bigger, sometimes doubling its size in one molt. There is one day between molts when the crab has a soft shell, which is considered a delicacy and can be eaten whole.

Sooks mate once (they store sperm for future use), and only while they are soft-shelled. The males, or “jimmies,” attach and release their grip on the sook only when her hard shells forms again.  While jimmies are not as discriminate, females head toward high salinity areas near the shore. They burrow in the reeds for protection, perhaps even those reeds that were chopped down near the launching area of the pond.

Phragmites play an interesting part in Georgica Pond. They have been removed mysteriously from there but nowhere else in East Hampton. While it is true they are invasive and grow tall, they also thrive on pollution and so in a way filter the pollution from the water. If they get too thick however they run the risk of killing other good things in the pond such as the native cattails. “I’d like to see muskrats and cattails reintroduced to the pond,” says Miller.

We arrive at the traps. Each buoy is painted a distinct, recognizable color, but it’s not as much of a priority these days. There’s maybe one other crew crabbing Georgica. After picking up all the traps, Mr. Miller spots his friend fishing on the other side of the pond.

“Let’s go bother, Henry,” he says. “The good thing about Georgica is it only takes a few minutes to get to the other side.” The Spirit of Saint Louie spins around and pulls up to the only other boat in the pond. The fishermen exchange pleasantries.  “The deadliest catch,” Miller says, lifting up a half-bushel of blue crabs as we head back to shore.

Kelly Ann Smith runs locally owned holdout, A Little of What You Fancy, in East Hampton, and writes from her home in Springs.

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Kelly Ann Smith lives in East Hampton between Gardiner's Bay and Accabonac Harbor. She's been writing about the East End since 1995. Her weekly column, "A View from Bonac," can be found in the East Hampton Press.