WANCHESE, N.C. - Marc Mitchum eyed a buoy on the Roanoke Sound. Then he turned to a blond-haired boy aboard his 42 foot-long workboat, Jodie Kae, to nab that float with a long-handled hook.
That nine-year-old kid did just as instructed while wearing big rubber gloves - and a big grin.
Next, Mitchum grabbed that float and spun the line on a pulley that yanked in the catch: a crabpot, bustling with two-clawed critters.
Mitchum, 52, catches crabs for a living during the shoulder seasons on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, when tourist traffic lightens during spring and fall.
Yet, in summer, this well-tanned waterman sheds his shell to become a charter-boat captain. He's the proprietor of OBX Crabbing & Shrimping Charters, a venture launched three summers ago from a dock at Wanchese, a historic fishing village on Roanoke Island.
Named for a Native American Indian leader, Wanchese sits a few miles from the famous beach towns Nags Head, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills. Yet, from here, it’s only about a 10-minute drive to Manteo, where you'll find a branch of the North Carolina Aquarium, with tanks of turtles, sharks and tuna.
Mitchum knows all about tuna. He came to the Outer Banks in 1984 to serve as a mate on an ocean-going charter boat – before he went crabbing.
Today, from May to October, he enlists kids of all ages to help grab crabpot buoys while he teaches visitors what life is like as a commercial crabber.
"I'd like to say kids love this trip, but everybody loves it," Mitchum said. "We take a lot of older people, too."
>> ‘Let’s Get Crabby’
Like Mitchum, the staff of the Hatteras Island Ocean Center focuses on educating visitors, especially with what swims or crawls in the wide waters of the Pamlico Sound.
Standing more than an hour south of Wanchese, this multi-faceted center at Hatteras offers kayak tours of the marsh along Big Ditch.
You can also sign up for the popular "Let's Get Crabby" at the non-profit center’s dock.
This program is free, fun and family-friendly.
You learn how to go hand-lining.
First, pieces of raw chicken are tied to strings. Then dropped in the water, feisty crabs take a pinch. Next, staff members carefully scoop up each crab with a net. And, all the while, kids on the dock flutter to see each pointy-shelled swimmer.
"I won't hurt you, buddy," Emma Cunningham, an ocean center intern, told one crab with no claws.
“Let’s Get Crabby” is all about catch-and-release, said the center's founder, Eric Kaplan, of Charlottesville, Virginia.
"Normally, we catch somewhere between 7 and 15 every time," said Cunningham. "Everyone usually get a chance to catch one."
And, sometimes, that happens more than once.
Cunningham tossed back that poor crab with no claws. But, quite comically, that same crab was caught again - about five minutes later - on a different hand-line.
>> ‘Always happy’
Passengers on Mitchum's boat keep all they catch. And that may be dozens.
First tip: Bring a cooler. Second: Take your catch to the seafood market of Sugar Creek at Whalebone Junction, where you can get nearly half a bushel of crabs steamed for as little as $2.
"A lot of times you go fishing, you don't catch a thing," said Mitchum's youngest son, Wesley, a teenager helping aboard the Jodie Kae.
This summer, it’s Wesley’s job to shake crabpots and empty out the crabs. Then, this ninth-grader culls the catch and keeps only the big ones for customers.
"With this, people are always happy with what they're catching," Wesley Mitchum said. "Coming here, we always get a basket of crabs."
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>> Want to go?
Hatteras Island Ocean Center: Hatteras, N.C., 252-564-9575, hioceancenter.org.
North Carolina Aquarium: Manteo, N.C., 252-475-2300, www.ncaquariums.com
OBX Crabbing & Shrimping Charters: Wanchese, N.C., 252-
Outer Banks Visitors Bureau: Manteo, N.C., 877-629-4386, www.outerbanks.org