Leipsic's way of life is pulled from the water

6/14/2013 9:45 AM
By Associated Press

LEIPSIC, Del. (AP) — Capt. Craig Pugh is a vision of the commercial crabber, dressed this predawn hour in a red and black checked shirt, boots to his knees, jeans and a camouflage cap.

His hands are leathered, his face ruddy from the sun. His fingernail beds are wide and worn.

In the liner of his black pickup, 50-pound boxes of frozen menhaden await a final dip in the Delaware Bay — this time as bait.

But there's something not so predictable about this Kent County crabber. Onshore, Pugh, 50, is the mayor of Leipsic, tending to a population of 183.

Pugh's commercial crabbing efforts, along with a handful of others whose white fiberglass boats line a pier along Leipsic River, not only feed residents and visitors to this tiny fishing village but also its economy — something Pugh is ever focused on in his role as political steward.

When it comes time to catch crustaceans, though, this mayor's office is the Delaware Bay.

It's 4:12 a.m. The town is dark but for a few streetlamps. Quiet but for the crunch of gravel beneath the tires of a few pickup trucks. Reeds of wind-swept salt marsh sway along the edge of the roughly 17-mile-long river, among the deepest in the state, meandering through lush land and muddy embankments in Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

This is the hour when Leipsic's commercial crabbers begin to stir.

By 4:30, Pugh and crew members Rich Jones and Bob Armbruster load crates of bunker, another name for menhaden, bought from a vendor in Virginia onto Hope So, the mayor's 35-foot Evans boat.

"I enjoy the morning sunrise as much as anything," says Pugh, who picked up crabbing at age 12. "As well as independent work, a quality most watermen enjoy."

Just shy of 5 a.m., a turn of the ignition sparks a slow and steady rumble of inboard engines. The sun begins to rise behind a curtain of tall spiky tidal marsh flanking the brackish water some 200 yards wide in the tributary.

This area epitomizes Delaware's diverse terrain.

"Look over there; that's the last structure on the river," Pugh says, pointing west to an old weather-worn hunting cabin still used on occasion.

The throttle is pulled back just enough to make the ride from Leipsic's docks to the bay in about 30 minutes.

"If both claws bite onto you, it's trouble," says Pugh, holding a huge male blue claw. "If he gets two on you, you're going to have to cut your gloves off."

Unlike many, Pugh doesn't wear gloves.

With Jones and Armbruster at the rear and a power winch to pull pots between them, Pugh slows the throttle to a stop. In one fell swoop, he dips a hooked pole into the water and catches a pot line. Never taking his eyes off the bay ahead, he places a line in the winch and the crew retrieves a pot, empties blue claws into worn wooden produce baskets, lifts a wire hatch, places two now defrosted bunker batches inside and drops it into the bay.

They do this for seven hours straight or longer — one at a time, with more than 200 pots. Pugh knows the bay like the back of his hand.

His trade is anything but easy. The elements are fierce, and there is nowhere on the open bow craft to seek shelter.

Temperatures rise to the upper 80s. Salty sheets of bay water slap the deck from the chop.

Twenty or so miles into the Delaware Bay is a little more than two-thirds of the footprint where Pugh's pots are staggered. The catch consists of males, females and soft-shells. Babies, pregnant females and those smaller than 5 inches for hard-shells and 3.5 inches for soft-shells are thrown back.

To the starboard side, Pugh points to Ship John Shoal Lighthouse in New Jersey waters. Boaters have used the squat brick lighthouse as a navigational marker since 1874.

In July, jellyfish, green-head flies, humidity and scorching sunlight works against them.

"In the summertime, it's good until the jellyfish show up, and the little black house flies, they bite," Pugh says. "That's when you are really tested as to whether you love this job or not. This life can be brutal."

It's a business, this retrieving and replenishing crab pots from the Delaware Bay, just beyond the mouth of Leipsic River to Woodland Beach, about 25 miles away. Filling bushels with 60-110 blue claws, depending on size, is the goal.

By 9:22 a.m., the tide is beginning to flood in. It's time to come about and begin making our way back toward the river.

Back onshore, it's a quick cleanup where no one asks questions. They've done this drill thousands of times: Hose down the deck, return the baskets to the freezers filled with menhaden, ready to be stocked for the next day's work.

Menhaden once was the largest commercial fishery in Delaware, until overfishing closed the industry in the 1960s. Now gill net restrictions prevent crabbers from obtaining a bait source locally through most of the season.

Menhaden continues to be used by 100 or so licensed commercial crabbers in Delaware, with most of the supply coming out of Virginia.

This bait yields a catch that countless seafood suppliers and restaurants are eager to buy, including Sambo's Tavern, at 283 Front St.

Loyal patrons and newcomers to this 60-year-old, family owned riverfront Delaware icon savor fresh crabs, never frozen — some right off the mayor's boat.

For repeat customers, the draw seems to be a toss-up between the friendly hometown company of owners Elva and Issac "Ike" Burrows and the crabs.

Maybe it's the "Gone to Pee" cards provided beer drinkers to prop on the rims of their mugs. Or the tall pitchers with compartments for ice to keep beer cold until the last drop.

Large panes of glass are all that separates diners at newspaper-covered tables from the scenery out back. Inside, a jukebox stocked with country tunes croons among a pool table and a gray-and-white Formica counter lined with 13 teal blue stools.

Old crabbing photos, family pictures and a map of the world with patrons' names pinned to it color honey-paneled walls.

"I try to come here as much as I can," says Santosh Viswanathan, managing partner of Willis Ford in Smyrna, who shoehorned in a lunch break on a recent afternoon. "It's a great place with a great view, and sometimes you can see the boats coming in. You have to try their crab bisque soup. It's lumpy, you can taste the crab meat — there's real lumps, not just cream."

Crabs are cooked to order, Elva says with pride, typically 10 bushels per night. The crabcakes, her own recipe, keep 'em coming back for more. Fried green beans and baskets of 3/8-inch "stealth" fries — crispy, coated with potato starch and guaranteed to stay hot for 10 minutes, covered with several shakes of Old Bay seasoning — are staples. The fries are three times what the run-of-the-mill variety costs, but worth it, she says from behind the counter, slicing strawberries.

When asked what has made them a popular stop for celebrities and NASCAR drivers, Elva looks up and says with a smile, "I have no idea."

It can't hurt that they prepare food the old-fashioned way.

"The blue claws come in fresh," she says of the 150-seat crab house, where six cooks, including Ike, who oversees the kitchen, and eight servers make the magic happen. "We never reheat anything — even if we're asked to."

Sambo's was named after Ike's father, Samuel Burrows, she explained.

"Everybody called him Sambo," Elva says. And what defines Sambo's Tavern?

"It's the longevity. Having great customers that have been very good to us," Elva says. "It's laid back, and being out here on the water doesn't hurt."

The riverfront town also is known for its annual muskrat fundraiser, a wild game dinner held at the Leipsic fire hall, just down the street from Sambo's.

The events are put on by local sportsmen, says Pugh, with his mayoral hat on. "The benefit has always had wonderful leadership and huge cooperation."

Leipsic, established in 1720, has quite a mix of residents and homes — early American architecture, some clapboard, others cedar-shaked. Narrow roads are covered by majestic shade trees.

On the edge of town, at Second and Main, Roby United Methodist Church, named in 1866, welcomes all through red double doors and stained glass. Old Leipsic Antiques fills its windows with treasures of yesteryear and carved duck decoys, and a few blocks away Smith's Bait Shop and Leipsic Deli add to the small-town aura.

Leipsic is nestled in Kent County, where farms are abundant and lead the way into town.

"Almost all of us occasionally worked on a potato digger or bailed hay or maybe drove a grain truck or two," Pugh says, but the biggest goal today is to create jobs with healthy enough incomes to support young families interested in Leipsic living.

The true definition of the town, he said, is "the river is the life leading to the bay and then onto the ocean.

"But the people and their families are the most noteworthy local landmarks. Especially the elders, in particular, who have provided the knowledge and the values that show us the way."


Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

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