Illustration by Bart Gelesh (www.bartgelesh.com)
There are few better ways to spend a summer day than anchored in the back bay, kite string between your fingers, waiting for the telltale vibrations of a big blue crab ripping away at your bait. As you slowly pull the line toward you, the netter stands poised, ready to strike, and as the big jimmy comes into view, a swift, smooth stroke puts the now furious crab skittering across the floor of the wooden rental boat. Hours later, the same crab, covered in bay spices and dunked in drawn butter, puts an exclamation point on a perfect summer day.
Young or old, male or female, old salt or greenhorn, crabbing is an activity that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves spending time on the water. While done easily from shore, crabbing is at its best aboard a small johnboat in the back bays.
If you don’t own a boat, or don’t own a boat capable of navigating the tight spaces and shallow waters found in the back bays and creeks, you can find rentals perfectly suited for summer crabbing in many shore towns. Many rental facilities will also provide a map and explain exactly where to set your bait. By following these simple techniques on how to crab, you may even bring home a meal or two at the end of the day!
Crabby Times and Locations
The first quality I look for in a crabbing spot is moving water. Crabs move in and out with the tides just like the fish do. Make sure the depth is no deeper than 10 feet. If you’re an inexperienced boater and don’t want to venture too deep into the bays, the easiest areas to crab will be right outside the deeper troughs in the estuaries. While these areas will hold plenty of crabs, they will often hold plenty of crabbers as well.
I recommend getting away from the boat traffic and summer rush to find a creek. If I can choose the time of day to go crabbing, I will always try to target a creek. Locate creeks that are no deeper than 10 feet and no wider than 30 yards and you will find the blue claws. Creeks tend to funnel the crabs from one place to another, usually from one section of a bay to another. When setting up in a creek, you are placing yourself and your baits in the blue claw expressway. This way, all the passing crabs will move in close proximity to your baits, which will often prove impossible for them to resist.
I prefer setting up over a bend or sharp turn in a creek. Crabbing in areas where the creek bends sharply forces the crabs congregate and gives them a few extra minutes to grab onto that fresh fish you have dangling over the side. Be sure that every trap or handline goes over the same side of the boat. Be sure to send out your handlines on the down-current side of the boat. Crabs will almost always let go if your handline swings under the boat while you retrieve them.
Once you’ve found your creek, for the best results, you’ll want to double anchor, setting one anchor off the bow and one off the stern. This will keep the boat, and your baits, still for the entire trip. Moving baits will deter crabs and not attract them. You want to place your boat perpendicular to the creek channel. This way, the front, middle, and back of the boat cover most, if not all of the creek and the crabs have to encounter one of the baits as they swim past. Make sure both anchors are set with enough scope out and that the boat has very little side-to-side motion. If you notice one side of the creek is deeper, set up over that side, as the largest jimmies will favor the deeper, cooler waters on their way to lunch.
Crabbing through a slack tide will be very slow. You may pick a few short ones here and there, but it will not produce better than a moving tide. So make sure you have good moving water during your crabbing outing. I like to begin my crabbing missions at dead low tide, as this gives me a few minutes to get the boat set up, the lines baited, and the boat secured for when the water starts moving and the crabs go on the prowl. Also, crabs will follow the incoming tide up into the creeks, making this a great time to intercept them.
The Humble Handline
There is no shortage of ways to catch crabs, from large commercial Chesapeake Bay traps to collapsible traps and even pull nets, but the one way I have found to be the most successful, and most enjoyable, is the handline.
The handline requires a bit of finesse and technique. You must give the crab some credit – they are not as senseless as most would think. They can feel the slightest tension in any moving current and will not remain attached to the baits if the handline is pulled up too fast.
A handline consists of a spool of string, either yarn or kite string, a curtain hook, and a lead weight. The curtain hooks work nicely because they easily accommodate the string, the bait and the weight. Each spool of line should contain anywhere from 30 to 50 feet of line depending on the depth and speed of the water current, a 2- to 4-ounce pyramid-style sinker, and the curtain hook. The pointed end of the hook will attach the bait by pushing right through the eye of the fish. Then, close the hook and you are ready to send it down to the bottom. There are also commercially made handlines and bait holders available at most tackle shops.
The way to fish these handlines is simple, though it requires some patience. The key is picking the bait off the bottom slowly so the crabs do not jump off before reaching the surface, where they can be netted. Wait three to five minutes before pulling up each line. When I first started crabbing around the age of three, I retrieved the line finger over finger until the bait and crab were close enough to net. Many times, the crabs will abandon the bait right as it is lifted off the bottom. On a bright sunny day, be ready to net the crabs earlier than normal as sometimes the largest jimmies will jump off as they are brought closer to the light.
Typically, when crabbing with handlines, there will be a net man and a line man. This way one person will net the crabs while the other pulls up each handline, and they can switch throughout the trip. Long-handled green mesh nets, readily available at tackle shops or even big box stores, are perfect for crabbing. The long handles help tremendously if the current is running fast. As the crabs and bait are lifted off the bottom, they will move out away from the boat. Old time crabbers will often say “he is really running,” meaning it feels like a nice jimmie, get the net! As the bait approaches the surface, the net man must scoop down from the side below the tail of the bait and come up from below in one motion, netting the entire bait with crabs, weight, and hook. It will take practice to become a pro at netting, but even the most experienced crabbers miss those big jimmies now and again. While all the other traps and pots mentioned above will definitely catch crabs, it’s the handlines that produce not only the most fun, but the most crabs.
While aged chicken has been a long-time crabbing favorite, I have always had the best luck with fresh fish racks. After we come in from a day of flounder fishing and filet our catch, we will always save the racks of the fish and freeze them in bags to use for crab bait. I have found that summer flounder racks are large enough that the crabs will often not even know they’ve been lifted off the bottom. The curtain hooks attach right through the eye socket of the thawed flounder; just be careful not to poke yourself in the hand with the hook.
Another popular bait is bunker. These fish make one of the oiliest and smelliest baits out there. It does fall apart rather quickly and the crabs do not have as much room to hang on compared to a fluke rack – especially if the crabs are running so well you can land them three or four at a time! If you cannot find any other type of fresh fish, go with frozen bunker but be sure to pull up those lines nice and slow.
Following these simple techniques will produce more crabs, and crab dinners, for you and your friends this summer. So rent a boat, bring some snacks and enjoy one of the greatest summer pastimes in our region.