I am not admitted to discussions of The Hunt, not being qualified. I have marvelous things to say, but early in every conversation the fox-followers and the bear-trackers discover that my sport is crabbing, and I am shouldered out of the hearty circle again. They think, I suppose, of sitting in the sun, with a fish head on a string. There's a great deal to be said for that, but the first of it is that it's fishing. Real crabbing, with a net alone, is essentially hunting. You have to stalk and sight your quarry and lunge, scooping along the bottom, or nipping under bulkheads and overhanging ledges. The coloring of crabs, refraction, water resistance and the effective scuttle of a crab when lunged at—these, as any fair-minded person can see, are something entirely different from fooling around with line and fish heads.
When I was too small to go crabbing by myself my grandfather used to take me. He and I, on a good morning, marched seriously down to the bay, where he would have beached the rowboat a cautious four lengths above any possible rise of the Barnegat tides. He wore his peaked cap and carried the oars and nets. I carried the crab basket, a peach basket with a rope handle. Grandpa would heave the rowboat into the bay, and the small chatter of the oarlocks was the loudest sound in the morning. The thin bay waves lapped placidly on the sand and against the old gray pilings of the swimming dock. In the afternoon we would all be here, with our bright inflated rubber rings and animals—shrilling, hopping, wet woolly-suited children, swarming over the stolid old dock, the whole presided over by an adult or two to administer justice and prevent drownings with peaceful impartiality. But now, in the early morning, there was only Grandpa and me.
We would take up the line around the shore, following the bulkheads on out to the edges of the salt marshes. Grandpa would be keeping the perfect distance off, with a leisurely pull on one oar, not saying anything. I would hang over the edge of the boat, peering at the bottom of the bay, quiet too. Perhaps Grandpa was considering some obscure functioning of the eye—we tended to forget that he was a doctor, since he had never practiced. Patients had turned out to be an astounding intrusion on his thinking, and he had taken down his shingle nearly as soon as he had put it up. He had built the boat he rowed me out in, as well as the house we had just left, and he could play the piano. At 15 my grandfather had been teaching school—but there isn't any end to this. It is the opinion of everyone who knows him that there is nothing my grandfather can't do, or doesn't know, and certainly in the course of our acquaintanceship I have never found this to be less than the literal truth.
We came first to the bulkheads, which smelled of tar, where the crabs would be swimming sideways, shifty and quick in the shadows, or edging their way along the bottom. Sometimes a successful swoop would bring up two, entangled in the net in a fury of waving flippers and claws. When really enraged, a crab will almost knit itself into the net; I would reverse it and shake it over the basket, but crab and mesh would be so entwined I would think I had made a mistake, that the other way was the reverse; subsequent flappings and thrashings meant a crab loose in the bottom of the boat. So I would have to stalk it again. The crab retreated, waving a great blue claw, I advanced, but only to look at it helplessly, until Grandpa would present a stick for the claw to close on and then reach down and grasp the crab firmly, thumb and forefinger between the back flippers, and whisk it into the basket before it regained any perspective of the field of battle.
After the bulkheads came the edges of the flats, always more productive and more exciting. They stretched back into the island, expanses of pale salt grass, as the bay stretched bright the other way behind us. It was the coast of a strange miniature country. The sun would be high by the time we had come this far, and would light the shallow water and the bottom. Jellyfish maundered past, just visible, or not visible but casting faint shadows on the sand beneath. The crabs bustled under the boat, and the provident gulls kept close in case we decided to fish. I marvel now at this arrangement of peace for my grandfather and excitement for me, at how satisfying it was for us both.
Later, when I was old enough to take the boat alone, crabbing became quite another thing for me; it was later that it became a hunt. With the oars, the nets and the crab basket I went by myself down to the beach and wrestled the boat into the water. With small and doubtful strokes I set an erratic course, past the bulkheads, for the tiny coves and bay shores of the flats. There I pottered and crabbed and daydreamed until the noon whistle from the firehouse mooed across the bay to call me back. And then one day I realized that inland the flats were a crisscross of narrow creeks, and that here and there were warm salt-water pools.
The day I learned this I had come out barefoot, but I tied the boat and explored from inland pool to pool and creek to creek. The stiff marsh grass cut my feet and ankles, but the basket was heaped with crabs from the warmer inland shallows, and all the farther creeks were more insistent. One by one they pulled me across the empty, sunny marshes, after the more and doubtless bigger crabs. When I looked up I was deep in the desert of grass, and extremely late for lunch.
The greediness of that first day passed; in time I only crabbed along the creeks. In the pools the crabs were fairly easy game, visible and close in the shallow water; in the creeks, though, which were narrow, the banks cast shadows and there were overhangs and holes. Angling a net in here to any effect was an achievement, and a miss stirred up the bottom hopelessly in the shadows of the banks. Odds were heavily in favor of the crab, and my pursuit of him in here is why I say that when you crab you're hunting. I don't remember the sun on the flats from those days, or rain, or the look, even, of that labyrinth of grass. And this has made me question what's so often said of hunting, that "half the pleasure is in the being outdoors," in walking in the woods, and being alone, and "getting back to nature." There is all that. But it is in addition to the hunting, it isn't "half" of it. Hunting is something else, and is the same for me as it is for the stalker of deer, or the lion hunter. On my New Jersey flats I move with infinite care along the narrow cut in the harsh salt grass. I watch where my shadow falls, I look beneath the surface of the water and strain to distinguish the bottom-colored creature from the bottom. And somewhere in all of this I come to a point of total focus. The nerves in the hands holding the net, the muscles in my knees, my eyes, my ears; I am turned virtually inside out. Mortality, the pangs of disprized love or the bottom fallen out of the market are not going to reach me now. I don't know what could penetrate this trance of pure functioning, other than a physical blow.
I was sneered at again the other day for my fondness for this particular activity. Nothing, though, so compels the human animal as that which draws him entirely out of himself; a fact which I am certain will insure the continuing popularity of painting, of writing, of being in love with someone who loves you less, and of hunting. Even for crabs.