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Wind walkers

Every October, stone crabbers begin their ritual waiting game.

They deploy traps about the beginning of the month, then wait for the first pull of the traps Oct. 15 to see what kind of season they'll have.

Generally, the initial pull gives crabbers an inclination as to whether the season will be productive. This year, the results have been lackluster.

"So far, the numbers are low," said Capt. Jim Bradley at Capt. Brad's seafood on Hernando Beach. "We need to see some wind. Our weather has been too calm."

Stone crabs are so popular the demand for the sweet-tasting delicacies usually outpaces the supply.

They feed best when the water is churned and silted. Windy weather turns up the bottom, uncovering small bits of forage for the crabs. Included in their diets are other crustaceans such as clams, oysters and mussels. To open them, the crabs crush the shells with their tremendously strong pincher claws.

Studies show that stone crabs are capable of exerting 19,000 pounds of pressure per square inch in their claws. Anyone who has had a finger caught can attest how much it hurts.

Stone crabbers are as tough as their quarry. They often are found on pitching, heaving boat decks, leaning precariously over the side to catch the next trap buoy with a gaff hook.

The work is strenuous, the life a tough one, and meager rewards await those faint-of-heart individuals not capable of coping with the harsh conditions of crabbing through the winter season. Crabbers with strong constitutions can make a handsome living, but that doesn't ease life on the deck.

I recently spent a day aboard Capt. Brad Bradley's Crab Chaser, watching the process of collecting stone crabs. Of the 2,200 traps he deploys each season, we were scheduled to pull 500 in a day.

On the deck were two rookie hands. One had a fair amount of experience and an uncanny sense of timing. The other was experiencing his first day.

Tim Fountain, with the tremendous timing, learned the routine well while making the first pull. His on-deck motions were smooth and competent.

Tim McKinnon, the new guy, discovered the hard way that life on the sea can bring a man through all of his emotions in a day. A deck hand can go from excitingly expectant, to sick, to hateful of the work in a short time. McKinnon experienced one of those times.

The day dawned windy and grey _ perfect weather for crabs to get walking along the bottom. Above the surface, the boat pitched, slammed and heaved in an uneasy motion.

Capt. Brad kept his cool operating the Crab Chaser. Despite the harsh sea, he guided the boat along the trap buoys with tremendous accuracy, giving easy opportunity for the deck hands to snare and winch the traps onboard.

What is a productive day to a stone crabber?

"When things are good, we can pull 750-900 pounds out of 500 traps or about 1{ pounds of claws per trap average," Bradley said.

This day, we reached only a quarter pound per trap _ not nearly enough to call it profitable.

Bradley started the first line in about 15 feet of water. Surface conditions couldn't have been much worse for pulling the traps, about 175 in all.

Fountain worked this first line exclusively. McKinnon didn't pull traps but baited them before they were set back in place. It was on this line, with all the heaving and pitching, that McKinnon found his character.

After staring relentlessly _ on an empty stomach _ into the boxes of thawing mullet, grouper heads and pigs feet used for bait, he contributed to the chum slick behind the boat. Yet in all the mess and confusion, McKinnon could say just thing: "I'll be back the tomorrow."

Such is the constitution of a seaman.

When we returned to the dock, Capt. Jim Bradley and a small group waited to see the results of the day _ poor as they were.

From the dock, the crabs must be boiled and cooled to be kept fresh. Back at Capt. Brad's Seafood shop, Gloria Thompson had the boil pots heating. Once the loads were weighed, she worked long into the darkness boiling, cooling, then sorting the claws by size.

Like a Broadway production, there is much that goes on backstage before the opening curtain. Watching this experience was an intense eye-opener to what occurs in preparing the crab claws for market.

_ If you have a question or comment, call Capt. Mike Scarantino, (352) 683-4868.

The Stone crab claw season is Oct. 15-May 15. They feed best when the water is churned and silted by windy conditions, which produce small bits of forage for the crabs.

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