DEALE – Kenny Keen’s day usually starts before 4 a.m., but on a lazy Sunday in late October, he has decided to sleep in and sets out on the Chesapeake Bay at about 6:15 a.m.
Dressed in long rubber pants and a hat, Keen walks into the cabin of the Long Shot and turns the key, from which a picture of his 9-year-old daughter Kacey dangles. He is alone as he heads out of Rockhold Creek, having given his usual helper the day off.
Keen, 40, has been a waterman for almost 20 years now, catching Maryland’s famous blue crab in the fall and oysters in the winter. He spends four to six mornings a week on the water, and most afternoons and evenings in his crab shack.
The work is time-consuming and physically exhausting but Keen, whose grandfather was a commercial fisherman, has fallen in love with his job.
“I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” he said, even though the bay is wrapping up one of its worst crabbing seasons ever.
Keen himself has had a good season, but he runs a small operation and sells his goods directly from his own seafood store.
“Crabs have been spotty,” he acknowledged. But he says the problem with the crab population is pollution, not over-fishing, as environmentalists claim.
Keen, who is vice president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, says the health of the bay had been improving for most of his career on the water, but it leveled off a few years ago and is declining again.
“Water quality is absolutely terrible in the Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
It is still dark and chilly as the Long Shot putters out into the bay. But the sun begins to rise when Keen stops the boat and starts to pull in and empty his pots.
“I think I’ve seen more sunrises than most people see in an entire lifetime,” he said, taking a deep breath of the crisp autumn air.
The Dunkirk resident was alone this Sunday morning; his helper Bernie takes the slower days off. Keen only wanted to fish about 250 of his 500 crab pots.
“In this business, it’s so hard to find someone who wants to get up at 3 in the morning,” Keen said, suppressing a long yawn.
On this morning, Keen fishes in the shallow water a few miles from his harbor. He methodically grabs the buoyed rope tied to the crab pots and feeds it into a contraption that pulls the cage to the boat.
He opens the bait holder at the top, dumps the empty shells into the water and fills it up with fresh bait. He then opens the cage and dumps out his prized crabs and any other sea creature that made its way into the red pot.
Keen picks up a “monstrous” male crab, the kind that makes customers happy. He sorts the crabs into bushels, males in one and females in the other, and throws back any stray creatures before steering the boat a few feet ahead and dropping the pot back into the water.
This routine is repeated smoothly and automatically for hours. It is physically exhausting and repetitive, but something he is used to, he said.
“By the end of the season, your body is craving it,” Keen said.
As the boat jumps along the calm water, Keen points out surrounding landmarks.
“You see those lights over there, that’s Annapolis,” he said, adding that on clear days he can see the Bay Bridge from where he fishes.
After three hours, three bushels of bait and more than 200 crab pots, Keen decides he will pull one last line of pots before he heads back into the harbor. The sun is now a full circle in the clear sky when he calls it quits for the day, having filled about seven-and-a-half bushels.
More than 500 crabs and a tank of gas later, Keen pulls the Long Shot back up to the dock. As he ties it up, a short, freckled redhead comes running toward him down the dock — his daughter, Kacey, has come to visit before he heads down to his crab shack for the remainder of the day.
At the shack, he will sell his catch to the public. Keen says watermen need to market their catch better, which is why he chose to open his own seafood store; he attracts business because people like the idea of buying direct from the man who brought in the catch, he said.
“A lot of people think that’s cool,” Keen said. “The key now is to market. You’ve got to market your own catch.”
Keen insists that the future of Maryland watermen is bright, in spite of poor harvests, poor water quality and more restrictions.
“You’ve got to get through this rough time right now,” he said. “It will get better.”