EVERGLADES CITY — As stone crab season approaches, Blake Weeks spends most of the day scrapping and cleaning out the barnacled traps leftover from last year.
He and the rest of his crab catching crew will go through over 20,000 traps, pulling out old buoys branded with their boat’s insignia and discarding remnants of pigs feet used to bait the crustacean.
Once the traps are ready, the new buoys marked and the boats tested, all that’s left is a hope and a prayer that this year will bring an abundant catch.
On Sunday, Weeks and his fellow crabbers will get some extra spiritual support when they participate in the third annual Blessing of the Stone Crab Fleet.
“It’s a way to wish them well and wish them a successful season,” said Tod Dahlke, organizer and founder of the event, which is held at the historic Rod and Gun Club in Everglades City.
This year, representatives from four local churches and the Seminole Indian Tribe will be on hand to bless the crews and their boats.
“It’s a tradition in many other places to bless the fishing boats,” Dahlke said. “They do it up in Fort Myers for the shrimp boats. I thought it was a good idea to bring it here.”
Commercial stone crab catching comprises a significant portion of the Everglades City economy. In a good season, a single crew can haul in 50,000 pounds or more of the sought-after crustacean, which it sells to its main buyer, Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami. However, a single factor, such as a faulty motor or octopus eating up the crop, can cause that number to drop.
“Anything can happen,” said Kit Johnson, a second-generation Everglades City stone crab captain whose son, Austin, is also in the business. “We depend on the this to live. Why not get some help.”
The Florida stone crab season runs from Oct. 15 to May 15, but the crabbers can drop their weighted traps at midnight Oct. 5. They retrieve them 10 days after.
In addition to the blessing, there will be live music, food and the coconut guava cake contest, a fierce competition between local families with recipes for the decadent desert that has been passed down for generations.
“We’ve had our recipe on the menu for years,” said Crystal Potter, the owner of Everglades Seafood Depot and a fifth generation resident. “We’re not going to change it. We’re confident in it that we’ll enter the same cake every year.”
The frog-jumping race is also a popular festivity. A couple nights before, Dahlke will set out into the swamps to catch enough frogs for the competition.
“We go out there in the dark with headlamps and boots and get about 15 to 20,” Dahlke said. “It’s a tedious process, but it’s fun to see the kids with them.”
Dahlke admits the hardest part of organizing the event is getting all the boat crews together.
“There’s a lot going on and so much for them to do right before season,” Dahlke said. “To get them all at the same place at the same time is sometimes tough.”
The most boat participation has been nine. Dahlke expects more this year and double the crowd attendance.
“There’s only 550 people that live here year round,” Dahlke said. “We had 100 people last time, but I think good word of mouth will bring a lot more.”
His intent is to make the event not only a community tradition but also an attraction for tourist from all over.
“It’s to celebrate the town and its heritage,” Dahlke said. “And I’m hoping it will eventually draw people here to experience all the interesting things this place has to offer.”