Spend a day on the water catching blue crabs. Here’s exactly how to catch ’em!
I’ve lived in Maryland all my life so, when it come to knowing how to catch Maryland blue crab, I’m the chick to talk to. In the summers of the 1960s, my family had a bay front home on Kent Island, right across from Annapolis. Some of my best memories were being handed a string and a chicken neck and being told to ‘go get some crabs.’ That’s all it took for me and a few friends to spend time on the shoreline, bringing in ‘keeper’ after ‘keeper’ of Maryland blue crabs. By the way, a ‘keeper’ to us Marylanders is a crab that’s the legal size to keep. I personally only keep male crabs, preferring to send the females back to repopulate for my next year’s dinner…
The tips that you’ll find in this article apply to anywhere blue crabs live – that’s mostly up and down the Eastern seacoast. Laws and regulations may change so make sure you’re aware of any state restrictions before you head down to the dock of the bay and cast your line for some blue crabs. To me, there’s almost no better way to spend a few early morning or late evening hours than crabbing.
What is a ‘soft shelled crab?’
Crabs shed their old shells as they grow. Their new shell is larger and is soft for about 3-4 hours after the crab molts. Soft shelled crabs are typically found close to shore where they are safer from predators during the vulnerable time after the blue crab sheds their old shell and before the new crab shell hardens. They are also in a weakened state so very easy to just pick up with a net or even one’s fingers.
I used to think you could use any kind of fishing net as a crab net but, boy, was I wrong. Those crab claws will break through a regular fishing net in no time flat. You must use a strong polyethylene net, or, even better, a metal crab net, such as the below, when trying to catch your Maryland blue crab dinner.
My favorite Maryland blue crabs catching method
Also the easiest and cheapest: Chicken necks and string!
I realize that my favorite way to catch blue crabs is not the most efficient, but there’s something very satisfying to me to tie a chicken neck to the end of a piece of string, throw it off the dock, and wait for a ‘walker.’ A ‘walker’ is when a crab grabs the chicken neck and tries to take it elsewhere – the string becomes taut and you know you’ve got a crab on there. So, what do you do? You grab your trusty crab net (or, even better, have a friend grab the net) and you s-l-o-w-l-y pull the string back in. It’s important to not jerk the string during this delicate manuever; instead, you must steadily draw the crab back in.
Ostensibly, your friend should be able to dip the net below the crab, swoop up and, when the blue crab releases the bait, voila – you’re on your way to dinner.
Now, netting for crabs this way has a few obstacles:
1. Depending on the time of day, how hungry the crab is, and what the weather is like, blue crabs may release the bait the second they feel the line pull away from them. Just let up on the line – that blue crab will come right back to the chicken neck and you’ll get a second chance to net that crab.
2. Unless you use a heavy line, the crab can easily cut it with those sharp front claws.
3. You’ll want to get a nice, heavy crab mit for handling blue crabs. Trust me on this, once in the net, there are some crabs who just will not let go – witness the triple play I had in that photo above. Trying to pick them up with your bare hand, even for those of us skilled at this, will get you a nice pinch on your fingers. Ouch!
Crab line needs to be strong so that it can withstand the water and those crab claws. Nylon line works best but, in a pinch, I’ve been pretty successful with a ball of thick twine. I actually like colored crab line as it’s even easier to see a walker during the early morning or early evening hours.
A fun video of a crab chasing an elusive chicken leg
This little crab just doesn’t want to give up. I’ve actually seen this kind of action before so I know it can’t be that rare, but it is funny!
If you don’t have your crab calipers…
…Here’s a few handy items that might help you guestimate the size of that crab:
A dollar bill is 6.13 inches long
A soda (or beer….) can is 5″ long
Get the most crabs the fastest way with a trot line.
In order to run a trot line, you need to have a small boat. A trot line is a line of rope (it can be 100+ feet) which is anchored on the ends. Crab bait is anchored to the line every 3 feet or so. The line is attached to some PVC piping on the boat so that, as the boat moves down the line, part of the line is pulled up, ostensibly bringing the crab along with it. Someone on the boat just has to net the crab, put it in a bushel basket and go to the next crab, etc. I’ve personally seen one man come back into the dock with 1.5 bushels of blue crabs in one hour!
A trotline in action on Bush River here in Maryland
This is a nice, light video of a few guys having fun trotlining. I particularly like that one guy measured a little crab and let it go – it was too small.
Crab traps are a bit like cheating to me but, don’t get me wrong, I still use them! A crab trab works by having a bunch of bait added to a metal cage in the middle (and tying it in very very securely). The trap typically has 4 or 6 holes that the crabs will find and enter to get to the bait. There’s even escape holes where crabs under 4″ or so can go through on their own. The ‘keepers’ will be waiting for you when you pick the trap back up.
These type of crab traps are meant to be ‘soaked’ overnight for the best results. You might easily come down to the dock with your morning coffee, pull up your crab trap and find a few dozen keepers awaiting their invitation to your crab feast dinner!
Beware, that first crab pot below is very expensive but it’s also very heavy duty.