By Sean CW Korsgaard
Hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill may be the stereotypical All-American summer foods, but near the Chesapeake Bay, the crab is king, as any crabber will tell you.
“There ain’t nothing that tastes more like summer than fresh crab,” said Manny, who works for Mo’s Crab Shack. “And there ain’t no crab that tastes better than the ones that taste just like home.”
Mo’s Crab Shack is based out of King George County, but they’ve begun showing up to events in Caroline County as well, most recently the Royal Fourth of July celebration, with home steamed and locally caught crabs in tow. They’re one of many coming to Caroline County as part of the small, growing crabbing industry.
“Crabbing goes on in many of the rivers of Virginia, tidal rivers especially, including the Rappahannock here in Caroline County,” said Gary R. Wilson, Caroline’s Economic Development and Tourism director. “Crabbing is kind of new to Caroline County, but people have been coming here to fish almost as long as there has been a Caroline County, so it’s not too surprising,”
One of the things that has been driving the growth of crabbing in Caroline County and elsewhere is that large sections of the lower Chesapeake Bay have been placed off limits to crab fishing between May 16 and September 16, as part of a successful effort to allow the blue crab population of the bay to recover from overfishing.
Those protected areas, which are centered mostly in deep water, has sparked a boom in shoreline crab fishing, means the best places in the summer for fresh crab are near the rivers and coasts, in places like Caroline County. Any person can come with two crab pots for personal use, and fish up to a bushel of crabs per day without a fishing license from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).
It’s something familiar for Caroline County Administrator Charles M. Culley, Jr., who lived and worked in Middlesex County for 18 years previously, during which time he became very familiar with the local crab industry there. While not as familiar with the fledgling crabbers locally, he’s more than willing to work with anyone looking to try the local waters.
“Crabbing is hard work, but of course, we’re all too happy to work with anyone looking to set up any kind of job or business in Caroline County, crabbers included,” said Culley, Jr. “I know Port Royal has put a lot of work into fixing up their riverfront and encouraging fishing, and we worked with a gentlemen last year, Wesley Deloach, regarding zoning for a crab joint over on route 301.”
The restaurant in question, the Crab Shack, located on US 301 south of Bowling Green, is one of a handful of local newcomers, as well as more established restaurants like the River Haven Restaurant in Port Royal.
Prospective Caroline County crab houses might want to look across the county line in King George for a model of success, with the county becoming well known regionally for its crabs. Jane Schmitz, a King George resident who works as a manager at Tim’s II at Fairview, one of King George County’s premier crab houses, says a big part of that has as much to do with the culture as it does the crustaceans.
“While great crabs are critical, it’s just as important to establish an atmosphere and an experience,” said Schmitz. “Some days you’ll have good hauls with crabs, some days you’ll have bad hauls with crabs, but if you can establish a good crab house or two, the kind of recognizable places people will travel out of their way to eat at, you’ll have people coming there to eat crabs even on the bad days.”
According to Wilson, it’s an atmosphere and experience that Caroline County will be all too happy to nurture locally.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work with King George County to promote the US 301 Corridor, and maybe the growing crab culture is another thing we could work together to promote and bring people through to the region,” said Wilson. “I would love to see a day where someone travelling down the 301 corridor could stop in Port Royal or Bowling Green for a crab dinner and a locally brewed beer.”