Marc Mitchum chugs out of the Wanchese harbor with a minor wake, the engine loudly growling on his 42-foot-long workboat, dubbed Jodie Kae. But Mitchum’s passengers never get crabby. They simply soak up the salt-spray waters of the Roanoke Sound, all smiles.
Mitchum slows his throttle ahead of a buoy. Then he instructs a young boy on board how to grab the float with a hook, yank its line and help pull in a crab pot. That feisty fourth-grader (my son, John Tennis) loves every minute of what he must consider some mighty high-seas adventure.
“Kids have something to do. They’re participating,” says Mitchum, owner of OBX Crabbing and Shrimping Charters.
From May to October, Mitchum’s charter boat offers a down-to-earth, educational tour on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. “We take mostly families,” he says. “I never had any idea that people would enjoy crabbing like they do.”
But oh, they do.
All Aboard the Jodie Kae
Each summer, Mitchum’s mission has increasingly proven popular, says Aaron Tuell, public relations manager for the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. "He saw an opportunity and a niche, where he could take families out on the water, give them an experience that's sort of a hybrid between the recreational and the commercial way.”
Passengers aboard the Jodie Kae get to keep what’s in Mitchum’s crab pots (as long as they’ve remembered their coolers). But he also shares lessons on what he routinely releases: a female with eggs, also called a “sponge crab,” and an immature female, sometimes called a “diamond belly.”
Mitchum docks his boat at Wanchese, sitting on backwaters not far from three popular beach towns: Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk and Nags Head. It’s also just down the road from Manteo, the courthouse town of Dare County, where you'll find a branch of the North Carolina Aquarium, showcasing sharks, turtles and an alligator.
Coming from Pittsboro, N.C., Mitchum arrived on the Outer Banks in 1984 to work as a commercial fisherman at Oregon Inlet. For years, he hooked tuna and dolphin on the Gulf Stream. “Then I got into crabbing,” he says.
“And it’s hard work,” Mitchum adds. “It takes a lot of gear. It takes a lot of money. It’s expensive. You have to pay your mate. You have to pay your bait bill. You have to catch a lot of crabs.”
Yet, at 52, this waterman shows little sign of slowing down on the Jodie Kae.
In spring and fall, Mitchum still works as many as 400 crab pots a day. This married father of four also spends much of May in search of soft shells—a lucrative treat, caught only when the succulent blue crab sheds its shell as part of the natural growing process.
“When Memorial Day gets here, I start this,” Mitchum says. “This is all we do in the summer—take tourists out, going shrimping and crabbing. You get to see where seafood comes from. You get to see how commercial fishing works.”
Mitchum’s youngest son, Wesley, helps on board. The blond-haired ninth-grader shakes crabs out of pots and re-baits each wiry funnel with menhaden, a flat, soft-fleshed bait fish. Wesley also measures each blue crab, from point-to-point, to make sure the shells are the legal size of five inches.
“It’s a lot easier than commercial work,” Wesley says. “That’s a long day. It’s hard work, too. You know, shaking every time. You get tired.”
Summer days on the Jodie Kae can be long. “Our first trip is always at 6 a.m.,” Mitchum says. “My last trip is 3:30.”
As a commercial crabber, Mitchum’s catch helps supply seafood suppers at various restaurants. While in the area, stop for lunch at O'Neal's, a Wanchese seafood market that serves reasonably priced soft-shell crabs. And be sure to sample the fish—and especially the fried calamari—at Sam & Omie’s, a nearby Nags Head institution since 1937.
Education and Eco-Tourism in Hatteras
About an hour south of Wanchese, the Hatteras Island Ocean Center features exhibits on commercial fishing, sea turtles and seashells. The staff regularly hosts fun adventures, like kayaking toward Sandy Bay, with paddlers perusing periwinkles, observing ribbed mussels and even stopping to sample some salty glasswort. The nonprofit center also teaches a quick lesson on sea turtles.
On most summer afternoons, you can sign up for "Let's Get Crabby," a family-friendly introduction to handlining, or “chicken-necking,” on the center’s handsome dock. Here, participants learn how to take raw chicken tied to strings and attract blue crabs.
"You're going to throw the line in the water and let it sit and wait. If you move it around a lot, the crabs aren't going to be attracted to it," says the crab-course teacher, Emma Cunningham. "But if you let it sit and wait, and they smell it, they'll grab on to it, and you'll be able to reel it in—really, really slow."
That is just what everybody does. Over and over.
"The crabs will tend to grab the chicken and run away from you with it," Cunningham says. "So, that's when you know you have a crab on it."
With a dip net, Cunningham helps catch—and release—about a dozen crabs in an hour.
"We're about education,” says the center’s founder, Eric Kaplan. “But, also, we want to fuel a revitalization of Hatteras with eco-tourism. And we do want people to be visiting here other than June, July and August. The area needs that to be viable economically."
Battered by nor'easters that have packed powerful wallops, the Hatteras Island community has been reshaped in recent years by natural forces: wind, rain and surging tides. Some locals, now, must work multiple jobs to make ends meet, Kaplan says.
Still, this island remains a grand beauty, with sweeping views atop the dunes on the Atlantic Ocean or on the well-packed sands of the Pamlico Sound. Hatteras naturally lures visitors for surf-fishing, wind-surfing and stand-up paddle-boarding. Thousands, too, make an annual pilgrimage to climb the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
"A lot of people who come to the Outer Banks only think of the ocean as the main natural resource," Kaplan says. "They don't really understand that we have this whole other thing going on—on the sound."
Kaplan specifically speaks of the Pamlico Sound, a rich body of water that sits just south of the Roanoke Sound, the place where Mitchum conducts his crabbing tours. Still a resident of Charlottesville, Kaplan has been a yearly visitor to the Outer Banks since 1985. Today, he has a part-time home at Frisco, close to the Hatteras Island Ocean Center.
"Why would people just day-trip down here?” Kaplan asks. “We can teach people about things with these classes and displays. But, then, you can go outside, and you can smell it, touch it, see it. And I think that's unique."