“I learned about soft-shells from the government’s Sea Grant program,” Bridges said. “They were going round to different communities to show fishermen better ways of doing things. I went to meetings, and I even went up to Virginia and Maryland to see how they’d come up with this method for shedding crabs. I seen where it was a good thing. Price-wise, too. They could sell a soft-shell for three times what we’d get at the local market.”
Bridges was raised in Wanchese, at the southern tip of Roanoke Island, and spent more than twenty years on the water as a merchant marine. He settled down with Brady in her hometown of Colington, which sits near the convergence of Currituck, Albemarle, Croatan, and Roanoke Sounds—the perfect site to launch a seafood business.
Bridges learned about grading soft-shell crabs according to size, which is a different system from grading hard-shell crabs. When he began, the very smallest crab was called, curiously, a “medium,” a term that is still used, though the smallest crabs are not generally favored by the buying public in the United States today. Four additional categories, each increasing in size, are hotels, primes, jumbos, and whales. Initially, only male crabs could be classified as whales; the largest females could only be placed in the jumbo category. “That was the way they graded up north,” Bridges said, shaking his head, “so we had to follow that until the number of males fell off. Now females can be graded as whales, too. Go figure.”4
Bridges devised special crab pots, smaller than the traps used for blue crabs the rest of the year. During soft-shell season, he puts a small male crab—known as a “jimmy”—inside these smaller pots for bait. “We don’t use a big rusty crab for bait. A little jimmy’s got the stuff,” said Bridges, grinning. Because molting occurs during the mating season, the traps lure hundreds of females, and then males follow them into the traps. Mating happens immediately after the female has shed. Once caught, these peeler crabs are placed in tanks, called shedders, for a few hours—only long enough to finish molting and to firm up enough to be handled for shipping. After a crab has shed its old shell, its new, larger shell will harden in a mere twenty-four hours if the crab stays in the water. A live soft-shell must therefore be taken out of the water and sent to market very quickly, or it may be cleaned and frozen.
In the early years, Bridges scaled up his operation with float shedders—tanks that actually rode on the surface of the creek behind his house. They were rigged to circulate water as the crabs inside began to shed their shells. But the process was cumbersome. “We try to bring them into the tanks just before they start shedding,” Bridges said. “When they first shed, though, they’re too soft to work with. We have to wait a bit before they’re ready to be handled. They need to firm up so they can live for at least two or three more days after we ship them. But if you keep them too long in the shedder, they’ll weaken and die.” Bringing the peelers to shore once they had shed was also tricky.
Bridges has since come up with creative alternatives to this set-up. “One night I went out to check on my peelers and got tangled up and fell in the shedder!” he said, chuckling. “Right then and there I decided I was going to do better, and I came home and fixed me six or seven shedder tanks on solid ground with electric lights strung up so I could watch them at night.”
As his soft-shell business grew, Bridges eventually built by hand 150 four-by-eight-foot tanks. They are lined up outside the processing warehouse that flanks his ranch house. Each is outfitted with overhead lights. A complex grid of white pvc pipes is connected underneath the wooden and fiberglass tanks to carry water pumped from the creek to overhead spigots that shower the crabs and freshen the water. The water pressure can be adjusted above each shedder. Drains in the bottom of each tub circulate the water back out into the creek on the other side of Bridges’s spit of land. Moving water provides the molting crabs with oxygen.
Bridges still sets his own crab pots and buys thousands of additional peelers from many of the other ninety-some Dare County crabbers who have shedding permits. He was among the first to master the technique of properly packing and shipping the crabs to maximize their freshness. When the creatures reach the best possible moment after molting, they are carefully packed in waxed cardboard cartons, layered with parchment paper and a scrim of ice on top. Depending on the grade, the cartons hold seven-and-a-half dozen to fifteen dozen per box. At the peak of the season, which usually lasts a week to ten days, six members of the Bridges family will work day and night monitoring the water temperature and the condition of every single crab, which sheds on its own timetable.
At the peak, the family handles 4,000 to 5,000 dozen crabs per day. Their record shipment of crabs at one time, said Bridges, was fifteen pallets. A single pallet holds 216 dozen. The quick math on that figure translates to a little more than 38,800 crabs processed by hand in a single day.
“My daughter, Kissy, gets all hepped up this time of year,” said Bridges. “Once we’re into it, though, it gets a little rough. We don’t get much rest or eat regular.”
It takes a seven-figure credit line and the seasoned eyes of the Bridges family team to pick and purchase the peelers that are within days of molting. Murray Bridges explains that the telltale sign is on a crab’s back paddlers, where a fine white line runs along the little hairs at the end of a section of leg. “That line will go from white to pink to blood red when the time comes,” Bridges said. He pulled a blue crab out of the cooler and pointed at the spot.
Though some crabbers will show up to his dock with their day’s catch hoping to pass off peelers that are far from shedding, Bridges can always discern the degree of readiness. “And we don’t let the crabbers grade their catch,” he said. ” We do it ourselves.”
Even before the crabs start shedding in earnest, Bridges and his competitors watch the weather and their traps intently. He said that the fishermen will get “clam-lipped”—unwilling to reveal how big their catches are—as the race to collect peelers draws near. In his warehouse on this day, more than 2,000 waxed boxes have been assembled and stacked, at the ready. Out in the yard, some of the thousand peeler pots that Bridges’s daughter, Kristina—known since childhood as Kissy—has made in the off-season are waiting to be deployed.
Though he sells some of his catch locally and some of it to a couple of markets in Japan, most of Bridges’s soft-shell crabs leave his operation packed in tractor-trailer trucks that travel up the East Coast. The bulk of his live crabs end up at the famous Fulton Fish Market, which operated from 1822 to 2005 in Manhattan and now is at Hunt’s Point in the Bronx. If there is a glut of crabs at a certain point in the season, Bridges might also send some to Handy International in Crisfield, Maryland, the largest crab processor in the world. At Handy, one hundred-some employees clean crabs around the clock and then freeze them. While soft-shell crabs are prized because diners don’t have to pick the sweet meat out of the claws and shells and can instead eat the body whole, it is still necessary to remove the mouth, eyes, gills, and abdomen in the cleaning process.