Five inches from spike point to spike point. That's the magic number, the sweet spot for some of the sweetest meat around, and Tia Clark knows it like the back of her ... calf. Yep, her strong leg, muscled from years of food & bev hustling and more recently, hustling from crab trap to crab line along the docks of the North Bridge fishing pier, is the proud canvas for an exactly five-inch tattoo of callinectes sapidus.
"I learned the hard way. Once I was out canoeing with my family and we caught more than 70 crabs in two hours, but I didn't have a ruler with me so had to eyeball them, which is a pain, especially when I had to toss out the too-small ones once I got back to the dock. But now I'll never be caught without a ruler again!" she says.
Clark is nothing if not resourceful. And infectiously upbeat. It's as if the crabs are lured not by the oh-so appetizing decomposing poultry parts but to her energy and enthusiasm. In my 20+ years as a Lowcountry dweller, I've sacrificed many a perfectly fine chicken leg to a piece of string and crab net, only to come up demoralized and empty handed, but within two minutes of crabbing with Tia we snag three big ones. And that's just for starters. If Bradley Cooper is click bait, Tia Clark is crab crack.
"This is my happy place," she says, looking out over her waterfront office on the public docks. The constant whir of Cosgrove traffic up above the waterway doesn't even register with Clark; she's attuned to the slow scuttles and gamesmanship below the Ashley River's murky surface. "When you see the line get tight, then gently pull it in. Slow and steady, like a little tug of war," she tells 14 year-old Anthony Hubbard, who's out this afternoon on a "Casual Crabbing with Tia" adventure with his mom, dad, and sister. He pulls up the hand-line and scoops a net beneath it to snatch the unlucky dangler. "Good work on the hand-line," she high fives Anthony. "Now with a crab basket, you want to pull it in real quick, steady and continuous." Anthony is a Charleston native but a crabbing virgin, and judging by his five and one-half inch post-catch smile, he's hooked.
"Casual Crabbing with Tia," or CCWT as her swag says, is Charleston's premiere and premier crabbing adventure — and a five-star Airbnb Experience. For 75 bucks Clark gives clients a hands-on primer on all things blue crab — from how to use her "flip-flop trick" to avoid getting pinched, to a quick lesson on crab sexuality, to the fine art of tossing a cast net (not so much for crabs as for shrimp, and for fun), to tips on cooking and eating the delicate meat. And should you be visiting from out of town and not have kitchen access, well, she's been known to come boil up a pot. It's a worry-free, hassle-free outing — she brings all the equipment, cold water, fishing poles, and bait should you care to do a little angling, and more than enough good vibes. You take home dinner, i.e. a crate full of gorgeous fresh crabs on ice.
Though her business has been one rising incoming tide since she launched in July, Clark's crustacean passion did not begin with entrepreneurial or culinary intentions. "I quit smoking cold turkey two years ago," she explains, and she's since cleaned up her diet and lost 107 pounds. Somewhere along the line she reconnected with a cousin who invited her crabbing, and she loved it. "I realized how much I thrived being out in the salt air, by the water," Clark says. She went on a four-month streak of daily crabbing, as much to be outside as to catch dinner. When her doctor told her she needed to be more active and exercise more, she starting throwing a weighted cast net, doing reps. "I'm sure as hell not going to the gym," says Clark, who still holds down her job as manager of The Mill in Park Circle.
"Crabbing is where my heart and soul is," she says, and according to her Facebook reviews, her enthusiasm comes across to her clients. But it's more than the satisfaction of a good haul. Clark thrives on the client interaction, and the joy of seeing, for example, a doctor from Brooklyn go crabbing on his vacation and feel like a kid again. "'You've just changed a grown man,' he told me," she recalls. Or the woman who said, 'this was the best day of my vacation. And one of the best days of my life,' and then proceeded to tell me she had terminal cancer."
"I think I'm just out here crabbing, but it's so much more," she adds. "These experiences are changing me more than they are the people who go crabbing with me." And who says there's not much meat in a crab?
Book your Crabbing with Tia adventure today by visiting casualcrabbingwithtia.com.