Catching Crabs

You can forage up some free and tasty meals using the authors primer on catching crabs.
By Paul Fleisher
May/June 1980
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This is the proper (and safe) way to hold a live crab.
PAUL FLEISHER
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The Atlantic coast of the United States—from Cape Cod south to Florida—is graced with one of the world's most delicious seafoods: the blue crab ( Callinectes sapidus ). In my home state of Virginia, the "blue" is widely appreciated ... yet I'm constantly surprised at the number of people (both here and elsewhere) who've never tried catching crabs, nor cooked and eaten the easily gathered delicacy.

Fortunately, the aggressive crustaceans are so abundant (especially through the middle Atlantic and southern states) that I don't feel too concerned about encouraging more people to take advantage of them. Furthermore, few creatures are better equipped for survival. Crabs can swim efficiently and crawl rapidly ... have keen, 360° eyesight ... and, as you know, are blessed (from their point of view, if not from ours) with an imposing pair of powerful claws. Such characteristics make catching the feisty little fellows interesting ... and sometimes even downright exciting.

No license is required to take crabs, although there are restrictions on both the legal size and bag limit. In Virginia, for example, it's illegal to keep more than one bushel per day (which is certainly an ample haul), and the law protects crablings smaller than 4 3/4" across the widest part of the back shell ... critters which don't have enough meat to bother with anyway. (Regulations in other states may vary, so be sure to check before you catch.)

How to Bag Them

The blue crabs' favorite feeding grounds are salt marshes. Swimming into such areas with the tide, the crustaceans feast on the rich animal life which thrives there. Consequently, the best time and place to go crabbing is on a rising tide in an area well supplied with marshland. [EDITOR'S NOTE: It's a sad sign of our times, but you should always call your local health department to check out the purity of the water in your chosen foraging grounds.] 

Crabs come in from deeper waters when the ocean warms in the late spring, and remain available until fall ... when colder weather drives them back into deep ocean dormancy again. (In the far South, however, they can be found—albeit in limited numbers—prowling in the shallows throughout much of the winter.)

During the warm water season, though, crabbing is never the "sometimes" proposition that fin fishing is. If the tide is right and you've located a good spot, there's no need to worry about whether or not they'll be biting on a given day. They will be. 

The most common (noncommercial) means of catching crabs is to use a chicken neck, a fish head, or a chunk of salt pork tied on a string and weighted with a lead sinker or rock. Drop the baited line into the water, and soon you should feel a gentle tugging. Watch out, though, because—if the line isn't secured or carefully observed—your quarry may quietly make off with the entire rig.

When a crab has latched onto the bait, carefully retrieve the line until the tasty crustacean is just below the surface of the water. If you pull it out into the air, the startled creature will almost always release its meal and escape. To avoid such losses, slide a long-handled net into the water below the bait and scoop up your catch. (I prefer to use a net made of stiff wire mesh, since a crab can get amazingly tangled in the more common twine variety ... and disengaging the struggling shellfish from a cotton web while avoiding painful nips requires too much patience.)

Other Methods

There are several other ways for an amateur crabber to catch his dinner. Many sporting goods stores and bait shops sell inexpensive ring nets, which are strung around two concentric wire rings, the larger of which is usually one and a half feet in diameter. Weighted and baited in the center, these snares lie flat on the marsh bottom so the crabs can enter. When one is lifted from the water, the outer ring forms a circular wall of netting that prevents the agile arthropods from escaping. Ring nets can even be made at home with little difficulty. (Crab traps, which are wire mesh boxes with sides that fold up when lifted, are also available but are somewhat more expensive than the simpler nets.)

When using ring nets and traps, you can catch two or more of the clawed brutes at a time, and fewer crabs will be lost. Such snares can also be used from docks and bridges that are too high above the water for dip-netting.

The most sporting way to catch crabs, however, is to stalk them in their own territory with a long-handled net. Just walk along the shallows or through the creek and salt-marsh thoroughfares while keeping a sharp eye out for the well-camouflaged crustaceans. A quick set of reflexes is an asset in this form of crabbing, because the shy sea creatures will scuttle away quickly when they sense your presence. This kind of foraging will also occasionally net you an' extra dividend: a soft-shelled crab ... which is a blue that has just molted and its new shell hasn't yet hardened. (The little "softies" are truly a delicious treat!)

A Contact Sport

First-time crab foragers often hesitate to pick up an escaping crustacean as it dashes toward freedom or takes a defensive stance with pincers raised. And when novices ask me how to approach this delicate task, I always tell them ... carefully! 

For safety's sake, you should pick crabs up from behind ... with your thumb and first two fingers placed clear of those clashing claws. Another workable method is to hold the crustaceans by the  "elbows" just behind the powerful pincers. (The disadvantage to this technique is that two hands are required.) If you're really nervous about getting nipped, it's best to simply wear heavy gloves or bring along a pair of kitchen tongs.

Once a crab is caught, drop it into a cooler filled with ice or place it in a wet burlap sack. The idea is to keep your prospective dinner moist, cool, and alive until you're ready to cook it. (Crabs put in a bucket of still water will quickly suffocate as the liquid loses its oxygen.)

Incidentally, the "angling" methods that I've described will work on other crab varieties as well. The waters of northern New England and the Pacific coast don't have the blue crab, but they do host some species ... although they're usually not as abundant as southeastern blues, or as aggressive at taking bait. Still, since few people take advantage of the crabbing opportunities in such areas, I've caught a good number of local delicacies (like rock crab and green crabs) using ring nets.

How to Cook Them

Once you've bagged a bunch of crabs, you'll want to cook them up right away. To steam any variety of hard-shelled crab, put about an inch of water in the bottom of a large pot and add a few ounces of vinegar, along with a couple of tablespoons of "crab boil" spice (such as Old Bay Seafood Seasoning, available in many grocery stores). Bring the water to a boil and drop the live crabs in upside down, so that the spices will permeate the meat. Finally, sprinkle some more spice on the top of the last layer, cover the pot, and let it steam for about 10 minutes. As they cook, the crabs may squirm briefly . . . but the boiling water and steam will kill them quickly. Once the shells turn a brick red, your dinner is ready.

To prepare soft-shelled crabs, use a sharp knife to cut out the eyestalks, then—with the crab on its back—make a small cut just below the mouth and remove the stomach ... a gelatinous, coiled mass. Next, make two more slits along the sides ... fold back the soft, new shell ... and cut away the spongy, grayish gills (otherwise known as "dead man's fingers"). The rest of the crab is edible, shell and all, and the best and easiest way to cook softies is to saute them in melted butter until they're brown on both sides. (Soft-shells can also be breaded and deep-fried.)

How to Eat Them

Many people are puzzled the first time they're served a steamed, hard-shelled crab: They know there's meat in there, but don't know exactly how to get at it (and lose a lot of the tasty morsels in their attempts). So here's a step-by-step description of the proper way to proceed.

First, cover the table with newspaper and supply it generously with napkins, bowls for empty shells, and plenty to drink. Serve the crustaceans right up in the cooking pot—if you like—because a crab feast is far too messy for ceremony.

Now, crack the claws with a mallet or a nutcracker and extract the meat. (A nutpick is sometimes useful for the latter task.)

Next, break off the walking and swimming legs where they join the body and suck out whatever meat and juice is in them. (There usually isn't enough inside to justify breaking them open.) Then turn the crab upside down and remove the "key," a flap attached at the rear of the shell and extending forward, flat against the abdomen. (Males have long, pointed keys, while females have broad, triangular flaps known as "aprons.") Set the crusty seafood delicacy right side up again ... slip a finger under the top shell at the crustacean's rear ... and pry it off to reveal the insides.

That done, remove and discard the white coiled stomach and the dead man's fingers. You'll also see a yellowish or greenish substance which is known as "mustard." This is the crab's liver, and it's quite tasty.

In order to get to the rest of the meat, break the remaining portion of the crab in half lengthwise. Where the rear swimming legs were attached, you'll find the "back fin lump," the largest and sweetest chunk of seafood anywhere. (Of course, there're dozens of other little chitinous compartments filled with succulent bits which can be extracted with your fingers or a nutpick.)

When you've picked the crustacean clean, wipe your hands and face ... take a long drink of cold beer or white wine to quench the spicy burning in your mouth ... and start all over again!


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