by David Cecelski
On Colington Island, just west of Kill Devil Hills, you can get a glimpse at what the old fishing villages on the Outer Banks were like when I was a child. A lot has changed there, of course. But in between the luxury condominiums and gated communities, you’ll still find a lovely old Methodist church, a 19th-century graveyard on a hill, stacks of crab pots in backyards, long rows of soft-shell crab shedding tanks next to saltwater creeks, and a small fleet of fishing skiffs and shrimp trawlers tucked into salt marsh berths.
Today Colington Island is especially renowned for its blue crabs. Around the village, hand-painted signs saying “Hard crabs for sale” stand in front yards. At those homes, you can buy fresh blue crabs from the man or woman who pulled them out of a crab pot that morning. A local fish market, Billy’s Seafood, also sells local hard crabs. Billy’s staff will steam them for you, too, if you want.
And then there’s Endurance Seafood, the Bridges family’s crab house. It’s down a dirt lane in between the bridge and Hilltop Cemetery. For 35 years, a genial crabber and ex-tugboat man named Murray Bridges has been doing a wholesale and retail trade in blue crabs there. Now 77 years old, he still works 300 crab pots himself. When he’s not on the water, he often regales visitors with stories about Colington Island.
When my wife and son and I were there the other day, his daughter, Christine, showed us around the crab house. She works in the business, as does her brother and husband, who are both crabbers. The family also buys crabs from roughly 25 other local fishermen.
The Bridges had a good soft shell crab season this spring. For 5 or 6 weeks, they were packing 3,000 dozen soft crabs a day. Christine Bridges showed us the family’s now-empty shedding tanks and recalled those frantic days: the rush of crabs, the tending of the tanks in the middle of the night (the crabs have to be culled every 4 hours), and the coming and going of refrigerator trucks.
As we were leaving Endurance Seafood, her father had just finished dipping several hundred “peeler pots” and came over and traded stories with us. The soft shell season is at a lull now, but the Bridges still have frozen soft shell crabs, a few fresh soft shells, and plenty of hard crabs. They’re all for sale mornings after 8 a.m. We put a dozen frozen soft shells in a cooler, thanked Mr. Bridges and his daughter for being so welcoming, and headed home.