Dangling chicken for Maryland blue crabs

This is a writing sample for students in the intensive-English program at UTSA. They were writing about how they acquired a skill, to show cause-and-effect relationships, and the steps that they took to learn it. (Image of the Maryland blue crab [Callinectes sapidus] ©2012 Lynn Oliver)

Years later, I found out that we were “chicken-neckers,” my father and I, because we dangled the bones from consumed Kentucky Fried Chicken over the side of a boat to bring up chicken-loving Maryland blue crabs. Another oddity about the experience: we were catching the crabs in Delaware, not Maryland. By showing me, when I was nine, how to tie a chicken bone onto string and how to drop the bone into the water, suspending it and jiggling it several feet below the murky surface of water overflowing from the Chesapeake Bay, my father taught me a clever way to catch delicious blue crabs. More important, he demonstrated that learning and mastering a skill brought praise and affirmation along with it. With patience and artistry, I could provide food for my family.

The skill is a simple one. First, collect some chicken bones, ideally with a few fleshy strips remaining, and let the bones sit overnight. Collect the bones in a bait bucket. Tie one bone—the bone from a drumstick or breast—to a sturdy string, several feet in length. Drop slowly over the side of a boat or from the edge of a canal or bay (crabs like relatively still water). Then, wait for the distinctive tugs from the claws of the blue crab. You must lift the line slowly; too quickly, and the crab will peel off before you can lower the net and shift the crab into a tall bucket partially filled with brackish water. You need to haul in at least a dozen large crabs to make a meal.

These hours of quiet instruction are some of the fondest remembrances of my father. He rowed and was captain of the blue-bottomed skiff, tranquil in the midst of physical effort, the brim of a fishing cap pulled down over his flip-down eye shades. As he rarely spoke, he taught me to honor silence. Since he exuded calm, he modeled control and fearlessness in the face of nature, especially while floating on the vastness of an unfamiliar brackish-water world. My fears of crabs, boats, and water would be conquered as my father’s wry grin, accented at the edge of his lips by the nearly perpetual presence of a smoking pipe, worked its way into my being and took up permanent residence long after his departure from this blue Earth.

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