What kind of crabber are you?
Blue crabs are fished for a variety of reasons, but most are gathered for commercial and recreational purposes. They are of the most plentiful and delicious macro invertebrates in the Eastern United States. When looking at the way blue crabs are gathered, one must consider the person's purpose for fishing. Professional crabbers are obviously looking to gather the most number of crabs; the larger, heavier, and cleaner the better. People who go crabbing for a good time are not as concerned with the raw number collected. Their reason for crabbing is different and therefore the methods of capture are usually different. Read below to understand the differences between, and pros and cons of, each common fishing type.
Commercial crabbers, or "waterman" as they are referred to in the bay area, make their livelihood though the process of fishing, gathering, and the eventual processing/marketing of blue crab. Waterman typically fish using boats and crab pots throughout various locations in the Chesapeake Bay. They also use lines and traps and until recently, many used dredging techniques as well. Commercial fisherman have come under heavy scrutiny lately due to dwindling numbers of blue crab harvested each year and because of over-harvesting of females (via dredging and other techniques). While this site mentions commercial fisherman when speaking of fishing techniques (see below), the large economic impact to the area, and conservation efforts currently underway (see Conserving page), most attention is paid to the joys of recreational fishing.
If you do decide to go crabbing, make sure you review and are aware of regulations for recreational crabbing. Please be advised that regulations may differ between refuges and wildlife management areas and they can vary from state to state.
Now, let's get started. Blue crabs can be caught at any time during the day, but factors do exist that might influence your catches. First of all, check the weather. Crabs may be more active in the cooler parts of the day, i.e. early morning or later in the evening when temperatures are more tolerable at the surface. Secondly, the tides frequently influence the feeding behavior of crabs. If you are able to move around, more crabs are usually caught on a "moving tide." During the last few ours of high tide, the crabs follow the water levels out of low-lying vegetation back out into ocean (or bay) waters.
The Chesapeake Blue Crab can be found throughout the Bay area as they inhabit anywhere from the high-salinity beaches to the low salinity marshes. Most land-based crabbers (most "recreational" type people) stick to road-adjacent areas like docks, wharfs, bridges, and roadside canals. Some venture out along the seawalls and water control structures, but extra care must be taken. Marshes are actually the best place to catch crab, but much of the marshy area is very difficult to get to. Keep in mind waters that are active and moving reward more crab than stagnant waters.
There are many kinds of bait that can be used depending on availability and budget. Some work better than others (superior), while some will get the job done with little invested money. They are:
1. Poultry: chicken or turkey necks, backs, or wings (most common, at your local grocery store, and least expensive- used for "chicken necking", common on Maryland's Eastern Shore)
2. Fish: mackerel (common and easy to get, but not as effective as others) or shad (commonly used by commercial fisherman)
3. Beef: suet, short ribs, tail or small soup bones
4. Organs: hearts, kidneys, or cow lips (also commonly used by commercial fisherman)
5. Eel: cut into four inch sections
For more information, try this site: The Ultimate Fishing Blog- Best Bait for Crabs.
There is a wide variety of ways you can go about catching crab. As mentioned above, the way you catch crab depends on why you're doing it, what regulations are in place at that point in the season, how much you want to catch, the physical limitations of the habitat, the amount of time you have, and the amount of money you want to spend, not to mention others. Crabbing gear also varies greatly in complexity and ease of use, reiterating why most recreational crabbers tend to use the easier methods. Regardless of method chosen (examples are shown below), there are certain things all crabbers need before they set out to fish. You will need a pair of gloves (to handle the crab you catch so you don't get pinched), a dip net made of nylon mesh, your chosen bait, a ventilated container to keep your catch alive in (do not put water in it as the crabs will suffocate when all the oxygen is dissolved out of the water- they can survive out of the water for a period of time), and a heavy cloth cover. Although it doesn't take much skill to catch crab recreationally, experienced fisherman obviously catch more with experience. The biggest piece of advice is to be patient, regardless of choice of bait or gear. Crab feeding habits fluctuate from day to day and hour to hour.
This is a long handled dip net, an essential to good crabbing. Nets made with nylon mesh work best (versus cloth, which can tangle up). Nets are used to scoop crabs out of the water when using other methods, and the net can be used to catch crabs itself. This process is called scabbing. When scabbing, a fisherman walks through the water or rides in a boat. He/she then attempts to scoop the crabs out of the water, using no bait. After netting the crab, put them in your ventilated container (wooden bushel baskets from the local grocery store work great), and put your wet towel over the top.
Blue crab can also be caught with the use of a hand line. Hand line crabbing (or chicken-necking when using chicken necks as bait), a strictly recreational way of fishing for crabs, can be an enjoyable family activity on a nice, summer day. Basically, all you need for this type of crabbing is a length of string long enough to reach the bottom of the water, bait, and a dip net (if you have one). A weight can be tied to the bait to keep it in the water. Simply tie the bait, drop the line, tie it to the deck or boat, and wait for the crabs to come. Check the lines by using your thumb and forefinger. If a crab is feeding, you will feel the nibbling transfer up the string. Slowly and gently pull the crab out of the water, hand over hand, pulling up the string. Once the crab nears the surface, use your net to go under and scoop it up!
Crab traps are another easy way to catch many crabs at the same time. Traps, like the one pictured (this is ring net trap), can easily be found at local bait/tackle or outdoor shops. Bait is placed in the trap, the trap is lowered into the water from a dock, bridge, marina, or boat, and then the fisherman waits. After a period of time (called a soak), the fisherman returns to the trap and pulls on the rope to pull it up. The once open basket structure closes as the fisherman pulls on the rope, trapping the crabs that were caught.
A crab pot is an enclosed framework of wire with four openings, lowered on a rope to the bay or ocean floor, where the crabs enter to eat the bait you've set. Once the crabs enter, they cannot leave the same way they came in. So they float upward and go through the openings of the inner wire portion of the pot, where they stay until you pull the pot out of the water. Anytime you trap a crab like this and they cannot escape from your equipment, the device is referred to as a crab pot. This heavier piece of equipment, usually a square with two foot sides, can weigh fifteen pounds or more when baited. While some recreational fisherman and waterfront landowners do use crab pots, they are the main way commercial waterman catch crabs. Crab pots must be attended, pulled, and checked every day to two days. The crabs must have food. Once the bait is gone, they'll begin eating each other!
A seine is a large net with two five to six foot hardwood poles and weights at the top, used to catch fish and crabs. They come in various sizes, but the one most commonly used by recreational fishermen is rectangular, four feet high by eight feet long. Typically used to dip in the water to catch minnows, these nets are used to skim through the water, starting from a deeper and then ending in a shallow area. Two people walk the net, each holding one side. Holding the pole about two feet from the bottom and keeping one hand near the top of the net, the crabbers move toward shore. As the net billows at about a 60 degree angle, and the crabbers walk toward one another, the net flares out to form a pocket, trapping crabs inside! This fairly simple method for catching blue crab can be fun for the whole family!
Troutline crabbing is one of the most efficient ways to catch a lot of crab in a short time frame. Because this method is expensive, involves a boat, and is somewhat labor intensive, it is most regularly used in commercial fishing. Basically, the trout line is a baited line that is weighted on the bottom with two to three feet of galvanized chain. Then the rig is attached to anchored floats or buoys at each end (see picture to the left from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, an excellent resource on crabbing). Fisherman then place the line parallel to the shore in water that is five to twelve feet or so in depth and tie bait to it at four to five inch intervals. A roller or hook should be mounted off the back side quarter of the boat. As the boat approaches the buoy, the fisherman picks up the bait line and puts it over the roller or hook. As the line begins to rise out of the water, crab should be running up the line to get at the bait. Using a small mesh wire net, two fishermen then work together quickly to scoop the crabs into a container as they come up out of the water.
Once you do catch a crab, be careful as you attempt to store it. Blue crabs cannot reach behind to pinch, but if they get you from the front it can smart (and if they draw blood you could get sick). So, needless to say, proper handling is essential to keeping the fun going! You will be holding the live crab from the back, away from the snapping claws (duh!). If the crab is moving around too much to pick up, try this trick: Grab a stick and press the top of the crab's shell. Just don't push too hard, as you could crack it! Okay, once you are ready, place your thumbs on top of the swimming paddle where it meets the shell. Place your forefinger underneath where the swimming paddle meets the underbody. Close all of your other fingers into the palm of your hand to keep them out of the way. Be sure to keep a tight grip on the crab. Once you have hold of it firmly, you can then pick it up without being pinched. Don't get discouraged if it takes you a few times to get it right. Any regular crabber has been snipped a few times in their life! You'll get the hang of it! For more information, go to Blue Crab Info: Handling Live Blue Crabs.