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Easy Does It

By John R. Meyer

The best crabbing requires a net, a string, a chicken neck and a child.

In an age when any outdoor activity seems to require a host of complicated and expensive gadgets, it is refreshing to pursue a species with tools and techniques that have changed little over the years. Texas’ population of native crabs offers one of the simplest, yet most entertaining, outdoor experiences available in the state.

Fishing usually requires a boat and a variety of tackle. In contrast, excellent crab habitat is readily accessible from land. Equipment is simple, too. You can use crab traps, but you can get by nicely with as little as a roll of string, a few chicken necks and a net. Action begins to warm up with the water temperature around April or May, but recreational crabbers can be successful throughout the year. Best of all, crabbing is fun for the whole family, regardless of age.

The blue crab is the most common and popular edible crab along the Gulf Coast. Blue crabs have two same-sized claws that are various shades of blue. The back is dark or brownish green, and the legs and underbelly are white. Females have red tips on the claws. Blue crabs prefer sandy bottoms and sea grasses in brackish water and are usually found in bays.

Stone crabs prefer a hard, rocky bottom such as near jetties or reefs. They are easily distinguished from blue crabs by their primarily brownish-red coloration and stockier claws. The right claw normally is much larger than the left and is the only part of the stone crab that is harvested.

Although they will eat almost any animal or vegetable matter, crabs usually prefer fresh-dead or recently caught food. Their diet is highly varied and may include everything from live minnows and shrimp to dead fish or other meat. Crabs are cannibals, preying on each other when the molting process leaves them temporarily soft-shelled. Stone crabs often use their powerful claws to crush young oysters and clams as well.

When looking for a place to go crabbing, think like a crab. Understanding a little about what they eat, where they live and how they behave makes it easier to figure out how to catch them. Habitat includes marshy mud flats, bulkheads or brackish inlets. Once you have found crab habitat, consider what they eat. Areas around fish-cleaning tables, public fishing piers, jetties and mud flats often contain pieces of shrimp, fish and other food wastes that are magnets for hungry crabs. Many pier fishers keep a crab line or two in the water while fishing. The most common method of catching blue crabs involves using bait on the end of a piece of twine to attract them and a long-handled net for the actual catching. Chicken necks are popular, but any type of meat scrap on a bone may entice a crab. Check with the butcher at your local grocery store. Butchered meat often yields scrap bones with just enough fat, gristle or meat to work nicely.

Tie the bait to the string and toss it into the water, allowing it to sink to the bottom. A weight tied to the end of the line may help keep it on the bottom, as well as improve your ability to toss the bait accurately to a particular location. Tie the line off to a stake or other solid object, leaving a foot or two of slack. Set up several lines to increase the odds of attracting a crab. Then wait.

A jerking line is a sure sign that something is interested in your bait, but it pays to check all your lines regularly, as a crab may not move the bait enough to disturb the line. Gently pull up the line while a helper stands nearby with a net.

From the murky depths, the end of the line slowly appears. This unfolding mystery is one of the most entertaining parts of the process, especially for children. How big is it? Is it male or female? Does it have eggs? Maybe a claw is missing. Of course, the line may hold nothing but a soggy chicken neck. Even an experienced hand can have difficulty telling if there is a crab on the line.

It’s important to pull in the bait slowly each time, as if there is a crab on the end of it. Larger crabs usually are older and more wary, and they may drop the bait if it moves too fast. Yet you must act quickly when you see the crab, otherwise it will release the bait and disappear. Keep the net hidden until the last possible moment, and then quickly scoop it under the crab before it goes for the bottom. The most difficult job for the netter may be maneuvering into a position to reach the crab quickly with the net when the time comes. If you are successful in netting the crab, just dump it into a bucket and return your bait to the water to entice another victim.

Watch for egg-bearing or “sponge” crabs. Females with a mass of orange-yellow to black eggs on the abdomen should be returned to the water immediately — it is illegal to possess them.

If you are crabbing by yourself, you may want to forgo the string and use a dip net. The dip net has two metal hoops, one larger than the other, that are connected and covered with netting. Place the bait inside the net. Once lowered to the bottom, the device lays flat. When a crab walks onto the net to munch on the bait, lift the net. The larger, outer ring rises and traps the crab. What this device lacks in teamwork and excitement, it more than makes up for by surely netting the trespassing crab. The only ones that get away are those small enough to slip out between the spacing in the netting, and these are well below the minimum legal size.

You may also harvest crabs using traps. See the rules and regulations section for information regarding their construction and use.

Things get interesting when crabs must be handled directly to remove them from traps or throw lines. To handle both blue and stone crabs safely, grasp the back of the shell or the back pair of legs from behind. It may help to wave a hand in front of the crab to distract it and keep the claws busy. Remember, especially with stone crabs, the claws are made for crushing, and they do not discriminate between human fingers and any of their usual prey. A stone crab is powerful enough to break a finger in its grip.

Keep crabs alive by placing them in a bucket or crate covered with a wet burlap sack. Putting the crabs on ice makes them easier to handle. As the temperature decreases, their metabolism slows down along with the speed of their claws.

Clean and cook the crabs as soon as possible. They can be boiled whole in a mixture of herbs and spices tied up in a small bag of mesh or cheesecloth. Several varieties are available in the spice section of your supermarket. Once cooked, crabs must be cleaned or “picked” to remove the edible meat from the shell and claws. For complete illustrated instructions (and perhaps more than you ever wanted to know about crabs), go to <www.blue-crab.org>.

As with any outdoor experience, the pursuit at hand can end up being only the beginning of the fun. Once while crabbing near Palacios, my parents and I shared an abandoned bridge on the edge of a marshy inlet with three anglers. While we were working our lines, one of the anglers reeled in a sizable redfish. Soon after, a distant floating log we had noticed drifted close enough to the pier for us to see that it was a seven-foot alligator. All this happened before we caught our first crab!

Wheelchair-accessible piers and ample public access make crabbing a readily available adventure for anyone who wants it. Texas has miles and miles of coastline filled with bays, mud flats and fishing piers. Crabbing is an excellent way to experience the Texas outdoors — and some outstanding eating.

Where to Go

Copano Bay State Fishing Pier, (361) 729-7762, Goose Island State Park, (361) 729-2858, and Port Lavaca State Fishing Pier, (361) 552-5311, have fishing piers suitable for crabbing. The salt flat across the highway from the entrance to Mustang Island State Park, (361) 749-5246, is a good spot to try, but stay off the soft sand to avoid getting your car stuck.

Matagorda Island State Park, (361) 983-2215, has crabbing opportunities in and around the Intracoastal Waterway, as well as around the bulkhead and finger piers there and on the island itself. Galveston Island State Park, (409) 737-1222, also has some suitable crabbing areas on the bay side of the park. Ask for directions at park headquarters. Fishing piers generally charge for each fishing device, and parks charge entrance fees.

In addition to the above locations, the entire Texas Coast is laden with great locations for crabs. Fish camps, boat docks, marinas and areas around bait stands are excellent habitats for crabs. A list of wheelchair-accessible fishing sites is available at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fish/recreat/fishrept/whchlst.htm>.

When scouting out locations, consider one other thing: get permission from the owner. Just because a place looks good to you doesn’t mean the owner will think you’ll look good standing there.

Rules and Regulations

Crabs are protected by regulations established by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. Throw lines — any line with bait attached but without a hook — have no restrictions. Traps, though, have several. Recreational crabbers may use no more than six traps in most locations. Individual traps may not exceed 18 cubic feet. Each must also have two escape vents at least 23⁄8 inches in diameter in each crab-retaining compartment. The trap also must have a so-called degradable panel, essentially a 3-inch by 6-inch or bigger door attached by either twine or untreated steel wire that will deteriorate relatively quickly in salt water. This allows crabs to escape if the trap is not emptied. Each trap must be marked with a striped white buoy at least 6 inches by 6 inches by 6 inches. Plastic bottles may not be used as buoys or floats. Traps must have a gear tag containing the name and address of the person using the trap.

There are no daily bag or possession limits for blue or stone crabs. Blue crabs must be at least 5 inches across the widest part of their body to be kept. Stone crabs must have at least a 21⁄2-inch-long right claw to be harvested. Twist off the right claw only and return the crab to the water. The claw will regenerate.

Crabbers must have a valid fishing license with a saltwater fishing stamp, unless the person is under 17 years of age or was born before September 1, 1930.

For complete regulations pertaining to crabbing, refer to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Outdoor Annual, available wherever hunting and fishing licenses are sold. Regulations and instructions on how to measure crabs also may be found at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fish/guide/crab99.htm>.

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