Catching Crabs

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PHOTO: PAUL FLEISHER
A wire trap baited with a chicken neck is one method of catching crabs.

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!