Come out of your shell for blue crabs

Picking through a dozen steamed crabs may not be for every meat-and-potatoes person, but it’s a high-price meal for many folks incoastal areas. (Bob McNally/For the Times-Union)

Blue crabs are a delicacy to many people and lots of marine fish, too. Crab baits catch everything from cobia and tarpon, to redfish and permit.

 

And humans are so attuned to eating properly steamed (NEVER boiled) blue crabs, that a friend said he was in Maryland recently where a dozen steamed blue crabs were selling in a restaurant for $75 per dozen.

Gulp!

There are restaurants in Jacksonville specializing in cooking locally-caught blue crabs, and while they’re not cheap, the prices for them don’t rival what they bring in Baltimore or Washington, D.C. In truth, the market in that high-rent region is so strong for blue crabs (including softshell blue crabs) that the biggest of the jumbos caught most everywhere (including Northeast Florida) are culled and shipped north where big money demands them.

Fortunately for less well-heeled folks not living near the nation’s capital or the cities near Chesapeake Bay, Northeast Florida has tidewaters jammed with delicious blue crabs, and it’s easy and fun to catch your own.

Lots of crabs are caught by folks simply soaking a few chicken necks or wings tied to a stout cord and soaked off a beach or dock, break wall or jetty. With a deft hand, a crabber can feel the weight of a crab as it grips a bait with its pincers. Then, by ever-so-slowly pulling in the bait-and-crab, the fishermen maneuvers the crustacean to place where a long-handle, small-bag-and-mesh “crab net” can be quickly dipped and the crab is caught.

It’s a great fun-in-the-sun activity, sort of like fishing and hunting at the same time, and it’s a hoot for families who commonly practice it throughout our coastal area.

A more efficient way of catching crabs is with a trap.

One simple, inexpensive lift-style trap is made by Eagle Claw, and it’s shaped like a pyramid, with hard-metal cage-like sides. It’s designed to be used vertically off docks, bridges and seawalls, though it could be tied off to a floating buoy and worked vertically from a boat. The pyramid-shaped trap is lowered to the bottom, and when slack is given to the line its four sides open flat to the bay, lake or river floor. A bait has been positioned on the flat bottom inside, which draws crabs into the trap.

When the trap is “pulled” vertically with a line upward by a fisherman, the four sides to the trap close around the crabs, then are raised to the surface.

By far the best way for private citizens to catch wild blue crabs from public waterways is with a larger trap made of rugged wire mesh and measures approximately 2-feet square. State law dictates traps cannot be larger than this size, and they’re available commercially from some tackle shops, Academy Sports, Wal-Mart and other retail outlets. Priced about $25 to $35 each, they’re not cheap, but considering a dozen live blue crabs sell in Jacksonville for nearly $20 per dozen, the one-time trap price is a bargain.

Such traps have a bait-access door, which is a cone of wire mesh that puts bait inside the heart of a trap where crabs can’t nibble it from outside the trap.

Crabs must enter the trap from one of several openings, which allow crabs in, but they usually can’t escape. Traps also have small round “escape” ports so small fish and other critters drawn to a bait can get out of the trap. But ports are too small for large blue crabs to use.

Traps are easy to rig and use, and if you’re looking to get a few dozen crabs for a family dinner, this is the way to go. Recreational crabbers can only “run” five such traps at a time, which usually is plenty for getting many crustaceans in a short time.

The key to consistently catching blue crabs with traps is using fresh bait, fish preferred. Some people use chicken necks or wings, but fish is best. I bait my traps with the viscera and bones from filleted fish I catch (trout, redfish, kingfish, dolphin, etc.), and it works like a charm.

Heads from marine shrimp also are good, once the shrimping season starts.

If you set and leave traps overnight, be sure to tend them the next day, and always re-bait again. Allowing a few crabs to remain in a trap for a day or two is OK, provided bait is maintained in a trap. Otherwise, crabs cannibalize themselves.

Care in handling crabs is required, and large specially-made crab tongs are good for removing a catch from a trap to a bucket or cooler, for transport home.

The old traditional way of cooking crabs in North Florida is to clean them first, removing the larger carapace shell, plus the internal organs and fat, then boiling them in saltwater.

First time I witnessed this was with a couple dozen of the largest blue crabs I’d ever seen, and the boiling process was appalling because it resulted in a tasteless end product.

My family is from the Chesapeake, where crabs are king of the dinner table, and trust me, steaming them in a double boiler or special crab pot ABOVE water, white vinegar, salt and Old Bay Seafood Seasoning is the ONLY way to cook them. It’s easy, fast, and the directions are right on the can of Old Bay.

Eating blue crabs is a festive feast of a meal, and the participants get their hands messy, but it’s steeped in tradition and family fun. The fresh, hot, bright-red steamed crabs are dumped onto a table covered with abundant newspapers, and then crabs are opened, parts of the inside discarded, and the delicacy begins by cracking shells carefully and heating the hot, steamy and seasoned crab meat by hand.

Learning to eat steamed blue crabs is not hard, but there are right and wrong ways to do it.

The internet is full of videos of doing it correctly, and it’s worth the effort to watch before trying it.

If you’re a steak-and-potatoes, easy-to-eat-food kind of person, picking apart a dozen oversize blue crabs for dinner may not be for you. If so, let me know, and I’ll swap out a cheeseburger for a dozen blue crabs with you any time.

bob@mcnallyoutdoors.com

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