Dancing on the sound

For 20 years, Mark Hooper has tended crab pots on Core Sound, northeast of Beaufort, North Carolina. Bounded by forested lowlands to the west and south, and the distant Outer Banks just visible five miles away, Core Sound is shallow and can be windy, but by the standards of Capes Fear and Hatteras to the south and north, it’s a quiet stretch of water. Of course hurricanes sweep across it from time to time, bringing wind-driven tides into people’s front yards and homes every few years, but this kind of weather hasn’t kept watermen like Hooper from going about their daily rounds for hundreds of years.

Crabbing with pots is like catching lobsters in Maine-up to a point. You go out in a small boat-Hooper’s is about 25 feet, a shallow-draft v-bottom hull that-like a Jonesport lobsterboat-has evolved through the efforts of generations of local builders for just this purpose. The deck underfoot is wide and flat enough for two people in rubber boots to move about efficiently as one of them pulls the three-foot-square traps aboard using a small winch, opening each on a narrow washboard to starboard, then emptying them into a set of wood or plastic totes stationed nearby. The engine box in the middle houses a “marinized” gas-powered GM engine built originally for a yacht; Hooper replaced an earlier engine with this one recently and still isn’t sure he likes the sound. But it does the job today at an efficient-feeling high idle, moving the boat along at a moderate, unchanging speed as I steer and Mark picks up his buoys.

Crabbing in this manner is a sort of dance. “Bring the boat alongside the buoy and then turn the wheel two and a half turns to the right,” he instructs as we head for the first one. I do so, sending the boat into a tight circle. “That stops the forward motion of the boat,” he explains. And so we progress down the trap line, scribing a wake that might look, from above, like a sort of stretched-out spring: straight line, circle, straight line, circle. I approach a buoy; Mark grabs it with a hook as I spin the wheel (which has a steering knob like an old car); he puts the trap’s 20-foot line into the winch and up it comes as the boat slows; he pulls it onto the gunwale, opens its doors and starts pulling out crabs and what’s left of the menhaden he uses for bait. If there are a sufficient number of crabs he’ll tip the trap’s contents into a tote; sometimes he must reach in and remove an octopus (this day we found at least four) or puffer fish, which he throws back before he drops a menhaden into the little bait cage and shoves the trap overboard. If I’m on the job at the wheel, the boat’s back on course and headed for the next buoy by the time the trap hits the water. Spotting the buoys, which are small, not as distinct as Maine lobster gear and sometimes hard to see in the chop, can take two pairs of eyes. But because the sound is so shallow they can be placed in lines, fairly close together, so when my eyes fail me Hooper can always find the next one.

The beauty of the crabbing dance isn’t lost on Hooper, who volunteers that he loves the 360-degree view he gets each time he pulls a trap. Swing your partners and promenade!

Back ashore, we drag our half-dozen full totes up the dock to Hooper’s walk-in cooler where he’ll sort them by size and species. Hauling 150 pots has taken just under three hours.

These waters are very shallow, by Maine standards: 10 feet or less in most places, meaning warps can be short and that in some places, where the water’s clear, you can actually see the wire traps-often yellow or green-on the bottom. Despite the wind the region’s weather is milder than Maine: it’s early November and the temperature, by mid-morning, is well into the 50s. Except for a state-mandated three-week shutdown in the winter, Hooper can fish year-round within a few miles of his house; whether he does will depend on the prices being offered for crabs. Like many fishermen he can re-rig for other species such as scallops, and unlike many of his neighbors he has taken an interest in aquaculture: off his dock, plastic pipes mark beds of clams he’s raising with assistance from the state of North Carolina.

This 60-year-old waterman is as much an optimist as any farmer or fisherman, but the signs of trouble and decline are hard to miss: crab populations along the East Coast are down, problem species like octopus are moving in and markets and costs are becoming bigger problems. In his area, it’s not always easy to find a dealer willing to buy crabs because the demand is being filled from abroad, or from other regions of the country. The costs of bait and fuel are rising, as they are everywhere. Development alongshore is affecting access and the condition of the water.

Still, circle after circle, the dance goes on.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront. He’s working on his post-retirement transition by leaving his snow shovel at home and sailing down the East Coast in the general direction of warmer weather.