Discovering a Bay icon in Richmond

First of all, let me thank Andy Thompson for asking me to join the team. I love exploring the natural and historical sites of my hometown and letting other folks know about the endless diversity and heritage that is virtually in their backyard. Contributing to this fine online resource helps me do just that. Thanks, Andy!

Even though I have lived in Richmond all my life, I am constantly trying to find something new and unexpected. Not too long ago, I did just that.

Prospecting for blue crabs on the James. Credit: Rich Young

One of my favorite summer activities in Richmond is snorkeling in the James River. I know what you’re thinking: snorkeling in Richmond? It turns out that the water in the Fall Line section of the James (the part noted for its rocks and rapids) is crystal clear on most days. It is not unusual to see all the way to the bottom even without a snorkel mask.  The water in this area is also highly oxygenated thanks to the turbulence of the rapids and the underwater plants that photosynthesize during sunny afternoons. This special combination of conditions supports one of the most dynamic habitats anywhere on the James. In short, there are a lot of critters to see!

Knowing this, I was very eager to visit the area near Mayo Island and Pipeline rapids one afternoon after work. I was expecting to see smallmouth bass, catfish, turtles (which I did, of course) and a big assortment of the usual suspects. I was most surprised, however, to see a large number of spiny, blue crustaceans reposing at the bottom of the restless river –Chesapeake Bay blue crabs! At first I doubted my own observation, so I moved in for a closer look. Indeed, the river was full of them. Some were as large as dinner plates!

 The next day at work I told my boss about it. At the time I worked for the James River Park System and my boss was Park Manager, Ralph White. Ralph informed me that male blue crabs migrate to the warm, shallow reaches of the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries in the summer in search of food. It turns out the rich James River not only supports the locals. After feasting on insects, dead fish and whatever else they can find in the James and other rivers, the male blue crabs leave their summer bachelor pads and head back to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in search of love. After mating, males and females bury themselves in the mud of the lower bay to wait out the winter. In the spring, females (a.k.a “Sooks”) return to the saline parts of the upper bay to spawn and males (“Jimmies”) head back up the tributaries.

Male blue crabs are easy to identify. Their claws are blue. The females have pink claws!

If you go snorkeling in the James and you spot a blue crab you can be sure it is a male. The females do not come up this way. They prefer salty water to spawn. Honestly, I was a little moved to learn about all this. It has always been my belief that all creatures in nature are connected, and sometimes it is difficult to discern the link. Here is a tangible tie to the Chesapeake at my favorite playground in Richmond!  

If, after reading this, you feel cravings for steamed crab and think you might grab a few form the James there are a few things you need to know. The state of Virginia requires a license for recreational crabbing and there are limits on the number you can take.  The Virginia Marine Resources Commission website has all the information you need about licenses and harvest limits. Click here.   


Now is the best time to spot the big blue guys before they begin their fall journey downstream. I think I’m headed to the river now with a can of Old Bay. I hope to see you there!

 Where to Go….

The best place to spot blue crabs in Richmond is at the toe of the rapids. (Generally, the channels and islands below Pipeline Rapid and around Mayo Island)

Go to Brown’s Island and find the Pipeline Trail. The trailhead is next to the bridge abutment where the concert stage is set up. Follow the trail downstream (east) and walk along the suspended pipe (it has a walking tread and hand rails). When you get to the first sandy beach, hop off the pipe and follow the big river channel south between the islands. Head upstream from there and start exploring. There are countless little channels and swimming holes!

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