Wednesday, July 30, 2008

After class, teacher heads to the Chesapeake

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Bill Ryan⁄The Gazette
Dave Smith and his son Joe, 11, head out to collect crabs from their crab pots on the Chesapeake Bay. Smith is a teacher at Poolesville and Seneca Valley high schools.
Dave Smith calls himself a ‘‘weekend waterman.”

At the end of almost every one of his weekly senior softball games, the teacher at Poolesville and Seneca Valley high schools takes off his glove, jumps in his red pickup, and drives three hours southeast to his second home in Ridge, a tiny bayside town on Maryland’s Western Shore.

Like a ‘‘peeler” crab climbing out of its hard shell, when he arrives at his cottage on St. Jerome’s Creek, the Adamstown resident removes the skin of his weekday role as a teacher and reveals his commercial-crabbing, charter-captaining parallel life.

Blue-claw duo

One Sunday morning, Smith, 55, geared up Little Miss Molly, his 19-foot Larson crabbing boat, and loaded buckets to store the blue crabs he knew would be clinging to the 11 wire traps he had set the previous day.

Smith, who has a license for 50 crab pots but never uses more than 25, mostly catches the crabs for his family and friends to eat. He does sell some at $115 per bushel to help pay for the gas he uses driving back and forth to the remote town.

Smith and his 11-year-old son, Joe, got the 85-horsepower boat motor puttering and pulled out into the short stretch of creek between their dock and the vast, awaiting Chesapeake Bay.

As they left the creek, the water turned bluer and rougher. They didn’t have to travel far before spotting their first crab pot.

‘‘On your right!” Joe yelled to his dad over the din of the engine which Smith dropped into neutral as he pulled up alongside the foam float marking the trap.

Joe, who is licensed to drive a boat, went into action, bending over the gunnel and pulling the pot up and onto the boat.

He opened the door keeping the crabs in their metal cage, and dumped them into a long, shallow trough.

Ten traps and about 20 crabs later, father and son declare the bounty a rare disappointment. The traps had been out for too short a time to render an impressive harvest.

‘‘We’ve been getting about three-quarters of a bushel out of 11 pots, so this isn’t too good a haul,” Smith explained. ‘‘That would be averaging five or six crabs per pot.”

That evening, the crabs were steamed in beer, vinegar and the ubiquitous Old Bay seasoning, and the succulent meat was so tender that the disappointment melted away like so much dipping butter, and a smile graced every diner’s face.

Fishin’ with Miss Molly

A day on the water usually starts early for Captain Dave.

‘‘Sometimes, in the morning, I’ll get up and go fishing and catch two rockfish and be back here drinking coffee before the kids even wake up,” said Smith, who has two sons – Joe and Taylor, 14.

He often gets up at the crack of dawn, rising with the pelicans, blue herons and ospreys, and sets out on Miss Molly, his 25-foot C-Hawk fishing boat, dodging crab pots and swells in the choppy water as he heads to Point No Point Lighthouse to troll for the first catch of the day.

‘‘Here fishy, fishy, fishy, fishy,” he calls from beneath his gray-blue hat and dark shades when the bites come too rarely.

Taylor joins his dad on many of his fishing trips, and when Smith is busy baiting hooks and giving fishing advice, Taylor often takes the wheel.

The father-son fishing and chartering team, like Joe and Smith’s crabbing team, is a successful operation, bringing in some money, but it is first and foremost a chance for the two to bond and have fun.

Environmentalismon the half-shell

Smith’s strong affinity for the Chesapeake Bay and its bountiful seafood began when he was a young college student in the 1970s.

‘‘My family is from the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, but we moved out to the Midwest. I didn’t get back to the water until I came here and went to St. Mary’s College,” he said. ‘‘We would go down from the dorms and catch crabs – we called it chicken-necking – and sometimes we’d only catch four or five. That’s really how I kind of fell in love with it.”

As his love affair with the Bay deepens, Smith is developing a burgeoning sense of environmentalism.

‘‘You look out that window and you see clean water — or relatively clean water — so you want to keep it that way,” he said.

A quick peek into the murky depths under his wood-planked dock will reveal one of the ways he contributes to the health of the Bay, a pursuit which provides both culinary and environmental rewards: his oyster-raising operation.

‘‘We buy oysters by the thousands when they’re as big as the nail on my baby finger and we put them in rubber-coated wire mesh bags. They live in there and they float,” he explained. ‘‘It takes 18 to 24 months to grow to market size. We aren’t commercial so we can’t sell them, so we eat a lot of oysters and throw parties and give them away. But the other advantage is they filter the Bay while they’re growing.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has encouraged oyster gardening for years, and as Stephanie Reynolds, a Maryland fisheries scientist with the foundation, says, the benefits to the bay are far-reaching.

‘‘An oyster is a filter feeder so as it’s eating it actually filters sediment and algae out of the water – it cleans the water and makes it clearer,” she explained. ‘‘Whether the issue is too much sediment or too much algae, what you end up with is cloudy water. When the water is too cloudy, the sunlight can’t penetrate very far into it, so green plants living on the bottom can’t live because they can’t get enough sunlight and these plants and grass beds are very important for many Bay species, including young blue crabs.”

Smith also shares his sense of reverence for the Chesapeake Bay’s natural environment with students at the schools where he teaches — Poolesville and Seneca Valley high schools.

In the 1990s, he started taking them on summer trips from Montgomery County to places in the Bay’s watershed, where he teaches them about sound environmental practices and how to test for various pollutants.

The classes give him an outlet to spread his knowledge and passion for the Bay and the environment, and also to help ensure that future generations understand the importance of good stewardship.

‘‘The thing about teaching people and teaching kids about protecting the environment, and showing them that it’s not just a bunch of jabber and you’re actually practicing it, actually trying to keep the Bay clean, is you never know what it could do,” he said. ‘‘If I could just convince one kid to do one thing environmentally sound, it will just pass on these practices, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

One day, after his children graduate from high school, Smith will retire to his Ridge house, he says. But his family’s lives are in Adamstown and Montgomery County for now, and Smith is content being a weekend waterman.