Crab Pots, Eel Spears, and Fish Nets

This woven, basket style eel pot is an older form of a trap used by both Native Americans and Chesapekae Bay watermen. Woven eel pots are cylindrical in shape and are constructed using molds to guide the weaving process.They are similar in structure to the contemporary round eel pot made from wire mesh. The interior of the pot contains a funnel through which the eel cannot readily escape once it has advanced through the small end of the funnel. Watermen use a variety of bait when fishing for eels including soft-shell clams, razor clams, horseshoe crabs, and alewives. Once captured, the eels are either salted and used for crab bait or are shipped to Europe and Asia for human consumption. 

American Eels range from Greenland to Brazil. In February, mature eels return to the Sargasso Sea (Atlantic waters northeast of the West Indies) to spawn and then die. Females lay twenty to thirty million eggs that hatch into larvae that are carried by currents to areas along the Atlantic coast. Drifting larvae develop into “glass eel” then turn into the pigmented or “elver” stage at 2 inches, then move into freshwater rivers and streams, estuarine, and marine waters. Here the “yellow eels” mature for 3 to 40 years. “Silver eels” complete sexual maturation as they return to the Sargasso Sea. 

This spear has a flat, metal head with a central unbarbed prong and six barbed prongs on either side. At some point the furthest most right barbed prong became separated from the metal head. This head is not attached to a tapered pole as eels spears typically were.

This is a spear for catching the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata). It is most likely cast iron, and measures 15.9 inches (403 mm) from mounting socket to the tip of the center blade. Handles range from 10-20 feet in length. When thrust into mud, the tynes capture the eel because of its natural inclination to twist back and forth. Eels prefer muddy bottoms and calm waters. They are nocturnal, and during the day hide under rocks or in mud. Spears are used particularly in the colder months when eels burrow into the mud and remain inactive. 

The American Eel stock is considered depleted by the ASMFC. In Maryland, glass eel and elver fisheries are prohibited. The size minimum is 9 inches. A commercial fishery seasonal closure was introduced in 2014, and small eel pot mesh sizes are being eliminated. Commercial crabbers may harvest eel for trotline bait and the daily recreational creel is 25 eels. The record high catch of 918,000 lbs. was recorded in 2010. This fell to 568,000 lbs. in 2013. Stock depletion is likely due to a combination of fishing pressure, habitat loss from damming and development, hydroelectric turbines, pollution, parasites, and disease. 

This wooden net needle was used to make and repair nets. Today, net needles are typically made of plastic. The worn surface of the needle suggests it was well used. 

Watermen use a variety of nets and select the appropriate net based upon the location they are fishing and the species they are targeting. Accordingly, net needles – the tool used to make or repair these nets – come in a variety of sizes. Selection of the particular needle is determined by the diameter of the twine used in making the net. This particular net needle would hold a heavier type of twine so would probably be used to make or repair pound nets. Although net making is a significant skill, the availability of manufactured netting has diminished in importance. However, the net needle remains a valuable tool since it is used to repair nets. This is important to a waterman since a single tear in a net can provide immediate escape of the intended catch. 

Watermen use a variety of nets to target specific species of fish in the Chesapeake Bay; these nets include pound nets and gillnets. Pound nets funnel fish into the trap through a no return mesh tunnel. Pound nets were first introduced to Maryland in 1858. They are used to target bluefish, catfish, and flounder and are harvested by concentrating the catch in one corner and using a dip net. To learn more about fisheries and nets used to harvest catch from the Bay: 

Sadler’s Seafood was a lucrative business in Eastport. This one pound can was used to pack and sell crab meat to customers. Larger gallon cans would be sold to local restaurants.  

This is a tin plated, one-pound crabmeat can from Sadler’s Crab House (1947-1980). Sadler’s was located on Third Street in the Eastport community of Annapolis. Herbert E Sadler, known affectionately as Herbie, was a well-known and well-loved waterman who, with his wife Gladys, mentored many local children in fishing, crabbing, and oystering. 

Crab canneries were centered around the business of picking crabs, boiling the meat, and then sealing the can. Boiling the meat prior to sealing the can provided customers with a sterilized product. Sadler’s was a packinghouse, not a cannery. Workers at Sadler’s steamed fresh crabs, picked the meat, and capped the can. Sadler’s crabmeat was shipped and stored on ice to ensure freshness. 

This crab pot buoy is rigged with nylon line and is skewered with a weighted wooden stick. This buoy would have been attached to a crab pot.

Commercial crabbing season usually lasts from April through mid-December. Crab pots are used to bait. lure, and catch crabs for commercial use. The Maryland crab pot was patented by Benjamin F. Lewis in the 1920s. Watermen bait crab pots and set them along the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. Buoys like this one are attached to the pot with rope so that it can be easily retrieved. Crab pot buoys bear the state-issued permit number of the crabber. 

The blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) is the official Maryland state crustacean and the states largest commercial fishery product. In recent years, the blue crab population in the Bay has declined and as a result the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has placed strict regulations on commercial crabbing. Regulations manage crab pot specifications as well as commercial harvest requirements. 

It is believed that this can bears its original J.C. Schultz label. The contents of the can were emptied and the bottom was reattached.

Bay watermen, both historic and modern, often pursue agriculture to supplement their earnings from commercial fishing. Watermen sell their produce to grocers and processors like J.C. Schultz. In addition to farming, watermen raise and slaughter animals for sale as well as hunt for wild game to earn additional income.

Eastport and Anne Arundel County began largely as farmland. Anne Arundel County farmers found market demand in Baltimore and Washington, where products were shipped by rail and steamboat. Canneries were established throughout the county during the 19th and 20th centuries. One of these canneries was J.C. Schultz of Pasadena who produced the “Anne Arundel Pride” label.