Blue Crabbin’ Basics

The author with a pugnacious blue crab.
The author with a pugnacious blue crab.

If you live near the coast of New England, you have a major food source in your backyard. Our local waters host many forms of sea life that can be classified as delicacies, and with a little knowledge and determination, you can usually scrounge up a free meal. When the weather heats up in August, my culinary pursuits turn toward Callinectes sapidus, better known as the blue crab. These tasty crustaceans are available in good numbers in the summer months, they’re fun to catch, and they’re even more fun to eat!

In other parts of the country “crabbing” is a serious pastime, but here in New England it is often overlooked or considered a diversion for kids. But this shouldn’t be the case. Our bays and estuaries are home to millions of blue crabs, which, as far as table fare is concerned, are topped only by lobsters and bay scallops in my book. They’re fun to chase and easy to catch. Cape Cod marks the northernmost reach for these critters, although a few will make appearances in Cape Cod Bay. In the late-summer months they are around in good numbers, and anywhere south of the Cape they are plentiful.

If you want more info on blue crabs, check out “The Compleat Crabber” by Christopher R. Reaske.

Catching Crabs

Catching blue crabs isn’t complicated, but there are a few fundamentals you need to know in order to be successful. First of all, these critters are nocturnal. While you may see an occasional straggler hanging around during the day, they seem to appear from behind every rock in the bay as soon as the sun goes down. They tend to favor shallow bays, harbors and estuaries with soft muddy bottoms, and I usually target them in the same areas where I dig quahogs and steamers. Not only do these places offer the preferred habitat, but I’m certain the water quality is good. Our local shellfish warden regularly checks these areas for contamination, and I trust that if the clams are good enough to eat, the crabs should be clean, as well.

You should know that blue crabs are lightning fast, and yes, they do indeed swim – they don’t just awkwardly stumble their way across the bottom like most of their relatives. When they do swim, they either go directly right or left. Blue crabs are equipped with two paddle-like legs, one on each side of their body. And they are comfortable at a wide range of depths. I’ve seen them circling on the surface of water that was 20 feet deep.

And don’t disrespect them – blue crabs are one of the most ferocious life forms in the sea. They have attitude. I’m sure we’ve all heard fishermen say something like, “Pound for pound, the so-and-so fish is the hardest-fighting fish.” Well, if blue crabs grew to be 200 pounds, there is no doubt in my mind that they would be able to rip me to shreds in a matter of seconds.

Their claws are both powerful and speedy, even out of the water. Add to this their pitbull-like mentality, and a 6-inch blue crab can back a grown man into a corner. When you do manage to capture one, there is only one way to safely grab hold of them, which is by pinching the back part of the top and bottom of the body. Just don’t put your digits too far forward, as they can extend those big blue claws underneath their bodies for quite a ways. And they will!

The best times to target them are August and September. I have caught them as early as June, but I usually concentrate my efforts in late August. This is a time of year when striper fishing comes to a standstill in my area, so I’m looking for another excuse to get out on the water. I have also encountered them in October in a spot where I regularly go surfcasting for autumn stripers. This particular area has a salt pond that leads out to the ocean through a small channel, which is no more than six feet wide and two feet deep. At that time of year, the crabs seem to be exiting the salt pond and heading out to sea for the winter. On an outgoing tide, they can easily be scooped up with a net as they cruise by.

There are a few different techniques for catching blue crabs, none of which is very complicated or hard to master. My favorite is what I call the “hunt and peck” method. All you really need is a long-handled net, a powerful flashlight and a 5-gallon bucket. A pair of waders is nice, but not essential. I used to venture out in an old pair of sneakers, but one night I stumbled in a particularly deep mud hole that consumed one of my sneakers. I now wear waders instead. Another reason I prefer the waders is the peace of mind they give me. I try not to be squeamish, but when you look around in an estuary at night, you’re bound to see some creatures that would give even the most seasoned sea captain the willies. These places come to life at night. You will come across countless python-size eels, alien-looking spider crabs, bizarre worms, jellyfish and toadfish. My neoprene waders become my armor.

The blue crab is the master of its domain. It has evolved into a lightning fast predator that actively seeks live prey.
The blue crab is the master of its domain. It has evolved into a lightning fast predator that actively seeks live prey.

As far as nets go, you want to stay away from the large, cumbersome models that are more suited to landing 20-pound stripers. What you really want is a “fast” net. A fast net has a small diameter opening, no more than 15 inches or so. The netting should be relatively shallow, since blue crabs have the tendency to hang onto the mesh for dear life once they’ve been scooped up. It should also have a wide mesh that doesn’t create a lot of water resistance. The faster you can move it around underwater, the better it will be. The handle should be at least five to six feet long.

When the sun goes down, it’s time to head to an estuary. I prefer going out close to the low tide, but this is not essential. I have found it helps to have a running tide, since the moving water will clear up the water faster. Blue-crabbing is always best when you are accompanied by a buddy. Both people should be equipped with a net and a spotlight or powerful flashlight, and one of you will have to volunteer to be the bucket-carrier. You will have to cover a lot of ground to be successful, since your feet are going to stir up the bottom, reducing visibility.

Start out in about three feet of water and move parallel to the shoreline. It shouldn’t take long to catch sight of your first victim. Once you’ve spotted a blue crab, keep your light on it and send your buddy out around 10 feet from it, into deeper water. Have him corral the crab back toward you. Usually your spotlight will have the “deer in the headlights” effect, and the crab will freeze with its claws raised, ready for battle. Other times the crab will get squirrelly and bolt for deeper water. Keep in mind that the crab will go either left or right, so if you set up on it correctly, it will bolt toward one of your nets, which should already be underwater near the bottom. If you’re quick enough, you will bag it on your first attempt. If you miss – and you will have plenty of misses – try to chase the critter into shallow water where it’s easier to spot again. Once you’ve made a successful capture, flip your net upside down over the 5-gallon bucket and shake it until the crab lets go of the netting. Never try to force the crab out of the net, since that will often separate one of the delicious claws from the crab’s body.

A big, ornery blue claw heads for the bucket. Note the improvised beverage holder. Beer and crabs pair well both during the hunt and on the table.
A big, ornery blue claw heads for the bucket. Note the improvised beverage holder. Beer and crabs pair well both during the hunt and on the table.

Once you have managed to catch a few blue crabs, you will be faced with a new dilemma. Blue crabs have the tendency to fight each other until death when confined in a small area. This usually results in the largest crab ripping the claws off of all the others. One thing I’ve learned to minimize this kind of damage is to place large clumps of seaweed in with your catch. The crabs will tend to box up and hide, rather than tear each other apart.

Another technique that will aid in your “hunt and peck” approach is to set out bait as you work the shoreline. Take along some fish racks or old bait and periodically drop them in as you are walking. At some point you are going to have to turn around and work back in the direction you came from. If you have strategically placed some baits, oftentimes they will attract a crowd of blue crabs for your return trip. Once a blue crab has found a meal, it will hang tight and defend it with its life. Usually the biggest crab in the neighborhood will claim the prize, and when they are sitting on food they become a lot easier to catch.

There is another crabbing technique that works equally well and requires less work. If you happen to have a boat that is docked or moored in a clean body of water, you might want to consider picking up a crab pot. A crab pot works similarly to a lobster pot. The pots are baited and sent to the bottom, attached by rope to a float. Bait them up before you head out for a day of fishing, and check them upon returning. You can capture blue crabs during the day using this method, since they are willing to venture out of hiding for a free meal. You don’t want to leave your crab traps in the water for more than six to eight hours, since once the bait is gone the crabs will turn on each other, often resulting in one large survivor-crab.

Another tactic I’m a fan of is the “chicken wing” style of crabbing. This can be a lot of fun, and kids seem to really get a kick out of it. This is perhaps the simplest technique. Here’s how you do it. Pick up a small pack of chicken wings at the market. Find some sticks and wedge them into the sand along the shoreline about every 20 feet or so. (This technique also works great on piers, bridges and docks.) Using a 10- to 20-foot piece of twine or string, tie one end to the chicken wing and the other to the stick in the sand. Set up a bunch of these “rigs,” throw the wings out into the water, pull in the slack, sit, and wait. When a crab grabs one of the chicken wings, you’ll see the string start to dance. Grab the string and very, very slowly and steadily pull it toward shore. The crab will hold onto that chicken wing for dear life, not wanting to give up a free meal to one of its competitors. Pull it right up to the dock or shore, and then bag it with a net.

Time to Pig Out

Sorting out the catch in the back of a pick-up truck after a good haul.
Sorting out the catch in the back of a pick-up truck after a good haul.

Once you capture some delicious blue crabs, it’s time for a feast. They are delicious and should be eaten soon after they are caught. They won’t last very long in a refrigerator; I like to boil them all up the same night they’re caught. My preferred method of cooking them is quite simple. Steam them up (similar to lobsters) for about 8 to 10 minutes, and they’re ready to eat or be stored in the fridge. I will often separate all of the claws off the steamed crabs and save those to eat with melted butter. Simply steam the claws for about 3 minutes to reheat them. I will take all of the bodies and pick the meat out over the sink. This can be used for crabcakes, a bisque, or whatever other recipe you desire.

Blue crabs can be a lot of work to crack and shuck, but it is well worth the effort. The meat is very similar to lobster but it’s a lot sweeter. Don’t be discouraged by the brownish-color that surrounds the meat in the claws – it looks kind of weird but it tastes great! Most of the meat is inside the body, at the base of the legs. Split the bottom section of the crab away from the top shell, and crack it in half. Some of the meat is in a small lump behind the swimmer legs, but you’ll want to have some small utensils handy to assist in getting the rest out (a chopstick works well).

Separating the meat from the body is slow and messy, but the result is a true culinary delight!

Our local waters offer a wide variety of delicious seafood. I encourage everyone who lives near the ocean to find new food items that come from the sea. If you look hard enough, you will find something for a tasty dinner.

Note: In Rhode Island, harvesting blue crabs at night is prohibited. Check all local regulations before harvesting blue crabs.

Massachusetts Regulations

Rhode Island Regulations

Connecticut Regulations

New York Regulations

New Jersey Regulations

19 on “Blue Crabbin’ Basics

  1. Chris

    Great Article. I found some other great crabbing tips at CrabTips.com. Check it out.

  2. mjy

    This was a very informative article, I’m a newbie and this makes alot of things really clear. Thanks!

  3. E. Banakovitch

    This was a very good and informative article. I had my first crabbing experience a couple days ago, and now I know a couple tips and tricks I learned from this article to make me a better crab catcher! Thanks so much!

  4. Greg

    Great article and helpful EXCEPT don’t crabafter sunset as that’s illegal and could cost you some cash. I have had a problem with the 15 inch diameter net. Late in season the big ones on the piers thrust their arms out rigidly and push out of the net. Perhaps I need to trick them into swimming into the net.

    1. Bob

      Agree with you here although besides the illegal factor I feel right at sunset is when the crabs are at their highest, down in Brigantine those 15 minutes result in half bushel of some monster

  5. Ron

    We live in ny but visit relatives in RI and pass through Conn. Haven’t crab fished in many years but Remember it being great fun. Will a marine license from NY be acceptable? Got a list of piers? Thanks!

  6. Scott

    I have used a product called the Illuminet Pro.. has the flashlight builtin to the landing net handle, frees up my other hand

  7. Kathryn

    It is easy to tell the difference between male and female crabs, and good practice to leave the female crabs to provide future dinners. The “apron” on the underside of a male crab is pointy like the Washington Monument and the female is much more domed, like the U.S. Capitol. Here in Georgia we also put back crabs that are less than 3″ across. Here is a link to pictures if you need one: http://www.southbaltimore.com/steamedcrabs/sex.html

    1. JamminJamy

      I stumbled upon your article again Andy… I really need to try your nighttime hunt and peck method for catching crabs… it seems like a lot of fun. We usually do basket and box traps during the day.

      The kids and I just tried a bait test between bunker, chicken and dog food here 😉
      https://youtu.be/IQczD_1fC2o

  8. RJ

    I enjoyed your article Andy and have a technique that my wife and I use all the time. We live in South Texas near Padre Island. Blue crab are abundant here. Crab cages work ok but the fun way is to use a fishing pole and chicken leg. You’re gonna need a net too. Wrap that leg to the pole line, cast it out and wait for the tugging. Once those critters latch on just reel it in slow and have your better half stand by with the net. Blue crabs love the thick dense meat of chicken legs. One time we caught three crabs at the same time. Oh yeah, make sure you sweep from the side or upwards to catch them. They tend to release from they leg just before you bring it to the surface. As always, check your state laws to insure that the method, limit, size and time are followed properly.

  9. JamminJamy

    I stumbled upon your article again Andy… I really need to try your nighttime hunt and peck method for catching crabs… it seems like a lot of fun. We usually do basket and box traps during the day.

    The kids and I just tried a bait test between bunker, chicken and dog food here 😉
    https://youtu.be/IQczD_1fC2o

  10. TP

    Where can I buy live blue claw crabs on the Cape? Most fish markets carry only live rock crabs.

  11. Eileen

    I’m from Louisiana and we crab differently, our blue crabs are great, did get some good advice. Thanks

    1. Joe

      In your state maybe. Not where I live 🙂 Rule # 1 – check your states regulations before doing ANY fishing or hunting.

  12. JamminJamy

    I may take the kids for this “hunt and peck” method. I always seem to stumble on this article and always enjoy reading it… Crabbing is such a fun thing to do in the summertime. I did create another “how to crab” video that may be helpful for some of your readers who want to try the basket and box trap style of crabbing as well: https://youtu.be/Vzao6-rGckA

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