Blue crab tips made simple
Blue crabs are found in huge numbers throughout the Gulf of Mexico and up the Atlantic coast. Most states have high daily limits, and if you know where to go and how to catch them, you can easily harvest enough blue crabs to have an epic boil for you and your fellow seafood lovers.
While catching blue crabs is one of the easiest fishing pursuits around and requires minimal gear — no tricked-out fishing boat needed — there are a handful of hacks that will help you drum up a limit of crabs in no time. In this article, we fill you in on everything you need to know to get started.
1. Focus On Close-to-Home Waters
Unlike West Coast crab species like Dungeness which mostly stay in deep, cold water, blue crabs like to hang out in shallow water close to shore. Muddy-bottomed bays, harbors, and estuaries are prime habitats for blue crabs, which is good news for the casual crabber since these locales are close to shore and accessible on foot.
While you might be tempted to travel to find a great crabbing spot, consider sticking to close-to-home waters that you can crab more frequently. The more you visit a spot, the better you’ll learn its unique qualities and where to find the crabs on any given day.
2. Follow the Clams for Crab Spot Clues
If you aren’t sure where to start looking for blue crabs, here’s a huge hack that will save you tons of time:
Visit your local fish and game department website to find out where the best beaches are for clamming.
What do clams and crabs have in common?
The need for high-quality water.
Since shellfish are highly susceptible to water contamination, popular shellfish beaches are generally monitored very closely by fish and game department biologists for water quality. And if the water quality is good enough for clams, there’s a good chance it’s good enough for crabs.
3. Cash In On Nocturnal Activity
Blue crabs are most active at night. You’ll occasionally see them out and about during the day but those crabs are the exception, not the rule.
So if you want to turn up big numbers and have the best chance at limiting out, it’s best to wait until the sun goes down to start crabbing.
Some states, however, don’t allow night time crabbing, so be sure to check your local regulations before heading out.
4. How to Catch Crabs Combat Style
Later, we’ll get into how to catch crabs with pots and traps, but by far the best and most exciting way to catch blues is to get up close and personal with your quarry.
We’re talking about the hunt-and-peck method of catching crabs, or what we like to call “combat crabbing.”
Hunt-and-peck crabbing involves wading through shallow tidal zones at night with a high powered flashlight to spot the crabs and then scoop them up with a net. In terms of catching dinner, it doesn’t get more fun than this.
To scoop up the crabs you need a long-handled net. It should be at least 5 or 6-feet long and very lightweight. Being able to move the net through the water quickly is important so look for a model with wide mesh netting and a 15-inch opening — not too big, not too small.
To store your catch, a simple 5-gallon bucket works great. And as mentioned, a high-powered flashlight is indispensable. Headlamps are even better as they help you spot crabs hands-free.
If the water you’re crabbing in is particularly cold, a decent pair of waders can be very helpful. But if you’re going out on a hot summer night, shorts and sneakers are how most crabbers make their fashion statements.
Once you have the few items of gear necessary and have found a good shallow-water bay with a muddy bottom, hunt-and-peck crabbing is very straightforward:
- Wade out to roughly 2 or 3 feet of water then start covering ground staying parallel to the shore.
- Scan the water with your flashlight until you spot a crab. The light often causes crabs to freeze and raise its claws in a fighting stance. Other times, crabs bolt as soon as the light hits them.
- Approach the crab with your net in the water and scoop it up quickly. Don’t worry if you miss a lot at first — this maneuver takes practice.
- When you successfully catch a crab, flip the net over your bucket and shake until the crab falls out. If the crab is clinging to the net, don’t pull or yank on it as it’ll likely drop a claw — you don’t want to lose any of that succulent meat!
5. Use the Buddy System to Catch More Crabs
When you’re combat crabbing, teaming up with a friend makes everything a lot easier.
Both of you need to have your own net and flash light, but you can share a bucket and take turns carrying it.
To cover as much water as possible, spread out but stay relatively close to each other. When one person finds a crab, the other should circle around on one side — ideally the deeper water side — to block the crab from escaping.
With both nets ready, move in and scoop it!
6. Exercise Your Ninja Netting Skills
Unlike other crab species that spend all their time crawling around on the ocean floor, blue crabs are extremely agile swimmers. Their back legs are shaped like fins that allow them to cover a wide range of water depths — it’s not uncommon to see a blue crab swimming near the surface in over 20 feet of water.
But here’s the thing:
Blue crabs almost always swim directly sideways.
So when you’re getting ready to net the crab, move in from the side. If you’re crabbing with a buddy, use both nets to block the crab off on either side. That way when it flees, it’ll swim right into one of your nets.
Of course, not all crab nettings can be quite so calculated. That’s where your ninja netting skills come into play. Be quick and use your instincts.
7. Set Up Bait Stations
If you decide to try the hunt-and-peck crabbing method, setting out bait or chum stations in the water as you go is a great way to increase your success.
The bait or chum used can be anything as long as it’s smelly enough to draw in the crabs. If you’re a fisherman, save up your fish carcasses in the freezer and simply drop them into the water as you move along the shore. Then, when you turn around to walk back to shore, you’ll likely encounter a multitude of crabs gathered around your bait stations. Scoop them up and head to the next bait.
If you don’t have access to fish carcasses, raw chicken parts or wet dog food make excellent crab bait. Don’t be surprised when you spark a feeding frenzy.
8. Minimize Bucket Battle
Blue crabs are notorious for having violent tempers — especially when confined to small spaces. If two crabs are cooped up in the same bucket together, a battle will likely ensue. And they won’t be sparring just for kicks — crabs fight to the death.
To minimize the risk of total carnage inside your crab bucket, drop in several big chunks of seaweed to keep the crabs separated. Instead of fighting, they’ll box up, hide under the seaweed, and mind their own business.
9. When in Doubt, Use a Crab Pot
If traipsing through an estuary at night hunting crabs sounds a little daunting, head to your local sporting goods store and pick up a crab pot or two. There are many different styles of crab pots and traps on the market, but most are made of wire mesh with a bait holder in the middle. One-way doors on the sides allow the crabs to enter to get to the bait, but keep them trapped inside.
Docks, piers, and jetties all make excellent locations for setting crab pots. Simply add your bait to the pot — fresh chicken legs work great — and lower it into the water until you feel it hit bottom. Tie off the rope to the dock then kick back and sip on something frosty.
You can let your crab pot “soak” for as long as you want, but give it at least 30 minutes to an hour before hoisting it up to see what you caught.
10. Try the Chicken-On-A-String Method
If you want the excitement you get with hunt-and-peck crabbing mixed with the leisurely pace of crab pot crabbing, the chicken-on-a-string method is for you. This style of crabbing is also great to do with kids as it’s very easy but still offers lots of action.
To get started, go to the grocery store and buy a pack of chicken legs or chicken wings. Tie a leg or a wing onto a length of string or twine then lower it into the water to let it rest on the bottom. Hold onto the string and when you feel a crab tugging, slowly pull it up as carefully as you can.
The crab will greedily cling to the chicken all the way to the surface, reluctant to give up such an easy meal. As soon as you see the crab near the surface, scoop it up with a net in one graceful motion.
Steam or Boil the Blues Away
Blue crabs are best enjoyed fresh, immediately upon harvest. And when it comes to cooking crabs, nothing is as easy or delicious as a simple steam or boil. Eight to 10 minutes in a steamer with lots of Old Bay seasoning is a classic blue crab preparation.
If you’re aiming for a spicier end result, try boiling your catch in water spiked with a generous dose of Cajun-style crab boil spices like Louisiana seafood boil.
Pulling the delicate, juicy meat from the shells is hard work but totally worth the effort — especially when stories of how you caught the crabs are shared with friends.