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Crabbing

or Fishing for Blue Crabs

A popular summer pastime for families vacationing at the mid- atlantic seashore is fishing for Blue Crabs. It is not very difficult and the equipment is not expensive.

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Where to find Blue Crabs

During the spring, blue crabs will move from the deep water to the shallows the Chesapeake Bay and the coastal estuaries of the Western Atlantic Ocean. When conditions are right, they can be found in water 2 feet deep or less. Blue crabs feel most comfortable in murky water with lots of eel grass or other vegetation in which they can hide. They also tend to move shallower when skys are cloudy.

For blue crabs caught in coastal bays in both Maryland and Virginia, the carapace must be at least 5 inches at the widest point for the crab to be legally kept. This is of course is subject to change.
In the Chesapeake Bay , regulations are somewhat more stringent, only male crabs may be harvested and from July through December only crabs with a carapace of 5 1/4 inches or more may be kept. You should consult the most current regulations before you go. Links to those agencies are listed at the bottom of this page.

All sponge crabs should be thrown back. These are female crabs with egg sacs, which can be identified by the orange or brown sponge looking masses on the underside of the crab.

If the crab is a keeper then it should be put in a bucket and covered with a wet burlap cloth or eel grass and kept out of the sun until it is time to cook them. Crabs stored this way will last for several hours.

Warning! A blue crab is capable of inflicting a nasty injury with its pincer claws particularly to young children. They are very dexterous and are able reach under their abdomen and over their back to pinch the unwary. Children fishing for crabs should be under adult supervision and should be made aware of this hazard. It is best to handle crabs by holding them where the swimmer claw and carapace meets or to use a set of crab tongs. Since raw meat is frequently used as bait all people handling the bait should wash their hands before eating or drinking to avoid ingesting samonella, e coli and other bacteria.

Handlining for Blue Crab

Perhaps the most common and least expensive method used by recreational crabbers for fishing for blue crabs is handling. All that is required is one or more baited hand lines, a landing net, a bucket to hold the crabs and something to measure them with. The hand line is made from a cotton string that is 8 to 30 feet long with a 1/2 to 1 oz lead weight on to which a piece of bait is tied or fastened. Commercially made hand lines will have a large spring steel safety pin type device on to which a chicken neck or some other bait can be threaded.

Holding on to the free end of the line, the weighted bait is cast out into the water where it is allowed to sit until a crab hopefully happens upon it and seizes the bait. When a little tug is felt the fisherman pulls the line in slowly. Crabs are so reluctant to release a piece of food that they have seized that they will allow themselves to be pulled up almost out of the water before they will let go. When the crab is near the surface, it is netted. Most hand nets used in crabbing will have a handle at least 18 inches long.
Tip: It is usually easiest to measure the carapace while the crab is still in the net which gives it less of an opportunity pinch you.

Baits for Blue Crab

The most popular baits for crabbing are chicken necks, wings, gizzards and bull lips. Crabs find their food by tasting the water and the most effective baits are generally not too fresh.

Other Methods of Crabbing

Another popular method for catching blue crabs particularly from bridges or piers which are too high above the water to reach with a hand net, is to use a crab ring or a trap.

Crab Ring

The crab ring is a circular bowl shaped net made of a steel or string mesh. Bait is tied to the center of the net, When it is lowered into the water it will lay flat allowing scavenging crabs to enter it. After a time, it is quickly brought to the surface trapping any crabs that are feeding on the bait.

Crab Trap

A crab trap is made of stiff wire screening. The most common design looks like a square cage and has 4 doors hinged at the bottom. The bait is tied to the middle of the floor of the trap and it is lowered into the water. When the trap touches the bottom the doors fall open allowing the crabs to enter. As the trap is brought up the doors are pulled closed trapping any crabs feeding on the bait.

For crab rings or traps to be effective, you must check them periodically, perhaps every ten minutes or more often if the crabs are really feeding.

Crab rings and traps can vary in price from three to 50 dollars.

Crab Pots

Crab pots are traps which are designed to be left unattended for some period of time. Crabs find their way into trap and are unable to find their way out. They should be checked at least once every day. Crab pots are bulky and expensive which makes them a bit impractical for the average vacation crabber. Regulations may also limit or prevent their use in public waters. Make sure that you understand the regulations and licensing requirements before buying one of these.

Notes on Blue Crabs

Callinectes sapidus

Males are known as jimmies, females as sooks. It takes a 12 to 18 months for a blue crab to grow to harvestable size. They feed on fish, molluscs, shrimp and other crustaceans, aquatic worms and carrion.

Cooking Blue Crabs

Do not cook dead crabs or food poisoning may result.

The most common and popular way of cooking blue crabs is to steam them. It requires a relatively large pot with a rack or some other device that fits inside the pot to keep the crabs out of the boiling liquid.

  1. Place the rack in the pot and add equal parts of (apple cider) vinegar and water to a level of about 1 1/2 inches from the bottom
  2. Bring the liquid to a boil
  3. Using tongs, add your live crabs one layer at a time to the pot and sprinkle liberally with seasoning mix (Old Bay or some other brand). To avoid food poisoning, never try to cook crabs which have died before you have had a chance to cook them.
  4. Cover the pot
  5. Once steam starts escaping from the pot, cook for an additional 20 to 30 minutes.
  6. When the crabs are fully cooked, the shells will be a bright orange, not red but orange.
  7. After taking the crabs out of the pot, sprinkle with more seasoning mix and serve.

Cooked blue crabs on table ready to be eaten.


Crab Fishing Regulations for Maryland and Virginia

Virginia Blue Crab Regulations
Maryland Blue Crab Regulations for the Chesapeake Bay
Maryland Blue Crab Regulations for Coastal Bays and the Atlantic Ocean