We really don'’t think of ourselves as being in the hospitality business, but in the summer we do set up shelters in the wilderness and offer free food to attract visitors. We don’t charge for temporary lodging, either. When the guests are ready to check out, we are at the front desk. We show the door to the females and the little ones, but we keep the big boys. Then we cook ’em and eat ’em.
We call this crabbing.
On the West Coast, crab are crawling around in local waters from northern California to Alaska, and they’re found in brackish water up and down the Atlantic Coast. Ever thought of catching crab from your own boat? It’s pretty simple compared to fishing for salmon or halibut.
Crabbing requires a trap (or pot—- same thing), weighted line to go down 30–100 feet, and a buoy. You can put out a pot with the mothership or with any size dinghy. Using a dinghy is usually easier.
Fishing is an active pursuit that suggests you arrive at your spot at a certain tidal stage and spend a few hours fishing. Crabbing is more passive in that you can put down pots and then go off and do other things. Pulling up a crab pot heavy with crab is very exciting.
REGULATIONS & GEAR
Before going crabbing, you must get a license. For crabbing in British Columbia, you need an annual or one-, three-, or five-day Tidal Waters Sport Fishing License (see http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/index-eng.htm). In Washington State, shellfish licenses are available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/. For information about crabbing licenses in other parts of the U.S., visit the website of your state’s Department of Natural Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, or equivalent regulatory body. On these websites, you’ll find explanations about seasons, daily limits, and other important information.
Descriptions of legal crab traps also can be found in the regulations of the region where you’re crabbing. There are a variety of traps that fit the bill. The basic differences are round or square, and collapsible or rigid. Some research indicates that round pots are best because crabs walk sideways. (You know, they crab.) A straight side on a square pot is said to show only one side to the crab. If he does not see what he likes and a door in, he’ll keep moving away. A round trap seems to encourage walking around the trap until a door is found. A collapsible pot will store in a smaller space—an excellent feature on a boat.
All pots must have a biodegradable escapement device: a part of the trap that will biodegrade and let the crab out if you are unable to pull the pot out of the water. If a pot is abandoned for some reason, live crab in it will die and attract more crab that will be unable to get out, and they, too, will die. It is definitely a bad situation. The white cord you see on a trap that holds a part of the trap together is designed to rot after a week in the water, giving the trapped crab a way out.
Why would a pot be abandoned? If you forgot exactly where you put it down, if you did not tie the float on the line securely, or if you dropped a pot in 90 feet of water with a 60-foot line attached.
BAITING & SETTING OUT THE TRAP
Crab bait is a topic of discussion everywhere people go crabbing. Yes, cat food works, and rotten chicken legs work. People think crabs are scavengers and like crappy food. What I have learned is that little crabs have to put up with less than gourmet meals, but big crabs go for the good stuff, so we use fresh or frozen fish, fish heads, and backs and parts that are left when fish are cleaned and filleted. Next season, we are going to try fresh clams if we can find them.
So where should you drop your crab hotel? Find a gently sloping or flat sandy bottom with eelgrass and little or no current. A marine chart and a depth sounder are very helpful in finding a good spot. If I am new to an area, I look for other crab-pot floats. There are thoughts as to when or at what stage of tide to drop your crab pot. We generally let pots “soak” all day. The hope is that we are somewhere on the crab highway and will have lots of traffic. The current moves the bait smell to where the crabs are, and then the crab moves to the bait. This means some current is good, but too much current is not.
It is exciting to pull up a bunch of crab and then sort, measure, and corral your dinner. A handy crab-measuring gauge shows the size limit for the U.S. and Canada, as well as a diagram of male and female undersides. Keep only the males that are big enough.
Measuring a crab is easy if the crab holds still and keeps his pincers to himself. He won’t. If you can get the two small rear legs together, the claws will not reach your fingers. This would be a good place for some lawyer lingo releasing the author, his heirs, and PassageMaker Magazine from liability, but…just be careful. Until you get the hang of grabbing the crab in the right place, a pair of metal tongs will work well.
Be very careful, and toss the really small crabs and females overboard, and then deal with what is left. A crab on his back is helpless, but he has to be on his front so you can measure across his back. If you push down on a crab’s back, he will calm down and pull his legs in. After you size the crab, you should also check the shell for softness. A soft shell means the crab is molting; even a large-looking crab that is molting will not have much meat. Toss him back.
Before we leave the crab-handling lesson, one more cautionary note: There is no way to safely hand a live crab to someone else. If you are offered a live crab, get a bucket and let the donor drop it in. My last crab wound happened during a live crab handoff, and it drew blood. Lastly, crab can be kept alive in a bucket of sea water if the water is in the shade and changed every couple of hours.
COOK ’EM, DANNO
Boiling a whole crab is not the best idea. To cook a crab the right way, kill the crab first by turning the crab on its back and delivering a very sharp blow along the midline of the abdomen, where the nervous system is located. This has an effect similar to hitting someone on the head. (I don’t let our young grandsons or our dog watch this part.)
Turn the now-limp crab over, and pull off the carapace (the big shell). Break the body in two, discarding the gills, fat, and mouthparts. You’ll end up with two pieces, each with four legs, one claw, and the white body meat. This is what is picked out of the shell and eaten after you cook the crab. Why cook the parts you won’t be eating? This method is faster, and it uses less water and less fuel. We boil the crab in sea water—just an inch or two is fine—for 15 minutes or less.
Finally, cool the crab in cold sea water, and then enjoy. It’s the finest seafood available, in my humble opinion.