How To Crab
Some of my happiest childhood memories involved crabbing. Me and my cousins, we had it down to a science. We would walk to the corner store for chicken parts or get the fish heads from yesterday’s catch. Next, we would gather our other supplies, the string with a wire triangle and a weight for holding the chicken bait, the bent up wire net for scooping the crabs and the big bushel baskets for saving our catch. Drinks, sunscreen and sandwiches were seldom considered but Mom’s prevailed and we were grateful to have them once the action commenced.
We crabbed the old school way with hand lines, not traps. We would head down to the pier and set out about 20 lines. Each line would have a nasty fish head or chicken piece on it. Sometimes we would let the chicken get rancid, the fouler the better the crabs would like it. We would pierce a fish head or chicken piece on our little triangle piece with a weight and throw it over the side of the pier. By the time we set those 20 lines it was time to start checking them. This is where the skill comes in.
Crabs can be skittish. They will eat until their heart content but if they feel a disturbance they will shimmy away. The trick with hand lines is to ever so slowly raise the line up to see if you have a crab or two feasting on it, usually you will feel a little tugging on it as you lift it. Once it is still below the surface of the water and you can see if there are any crabs, you grab the net and scoop below the bait and crabs to haul in your catch. Flick the crabs from the net into the bushel basket or cooler with a firm snap to the wrist and throw the bait and line back into the water to catch the next one. A wire net works better than a nylon net in getting the crab to release into the bucket.
Sometimes the flick doesn’t go as planned and you have an escapee. Don’t panic. Grab the net and trap him or her again before it goes over the edge and back into the sound. If the crab is very close you can pick him up from the back so that his claws can’t get you. It is a little unnerving at first, but once you realize no matter how big the crab, his front claws can’t reach around back to pinch you.
By the time you check one line, put the crab in the basket it is time to check the next line. We would go non-stop like this. In an hour or two, we would have a bushel basket of crabs. If we were out longer, we would keep our catch on ice to make sure the crabs stay alive until cooking. You can’t cook and eat a dead crab. It will make you sick.
Outer Banks NC Crabbing Regulations
You do not need a license in NC to crab recreationally with hand lines or collapsible traps no larger than 18” which lies flat on the bottom. Individuals are allowed to set out one pot per person from a private pier or shoreline if they have permission from the property owner.
Crabs must be 5 inches from point to point of the carapace horizontally across their back in order to keep and make it worthwhile to cook. From Sept 1 to April 30, the size must be 6.75 inches minimum. Recreational limit is 50 crabs per day per person not to exceed 100 crabs per vessel per day.
Toss any small crabs back in the sound to catch another day once they mature. Also, release any female crab with eggs back to reproduce. A female with eggs has an obvious reddish sack on the bottom which is hard to miss. These are called “sponge” crabs because the egg sack looks like a sponge.
Where to Crab in OBX
Crabbing in the Outer Banks is best on the Albermarle, Currituck or Pamlico Sound. You can set your handlines or traps off a pier or bulkhead. Soundfront or canalfront homes are an excellent location to crab from your very own backyard.
Historic Corolla Park is a popular location for crabbing in the northern beaches. Colington Harbor, in Kill Devil Hills, has many canals and bridges with access to crabs. Further south, going toward Manteo is “little bridge” on the causeway with access for both fishing and crabbing.
My best memory of crabbing in the Outer Banks with my kids was at the Pea Island Rodeo. This occurs each year for only one day and only from 9am to 12pm at the north pond on the Pea Island Refuge. It is typically held the second Saturday in June.
Since the area is only open for fishing and crabbing for 1 day a year the catch is plentiful and large sized! It is non-stop action with crabs everywhere. It is a very family friendly event with prizes for all the children 12 and under.
After spending the morning at the event, my son was hooked on crabbing and spent the afternoon at our dock crabbing by himself. He didn’t catch as much as the morning, but he was very proud of himself and insisted we cook his catch with our haul from the morning.
Lake Mattamuskeet is also legendary for the size of crabs harvested there. The pictures I have seen are monsters, far larger than even my childhood crabbing memories. It is still on my bucket list.
Prepping and Cooking Crab
The only thing better than the family fun of crabbing is the delicious joy of eating them.
Cooking is a simple one pot affair. Grab a large pot and fill about one inch or two with water. We always added a can of beer to the water and I think it does make it taste better, but maybe it was to make the crabs feel better. I prefer the crabs steamed rather than boiled so I use less water. Bring the pot to a rapid boil. Generously add old bay seasoning, some salt and pepper and dump the crabs in the pot being careful not to let them escape. We usually put the spices directly on the crab not in the water but it depends how brave you are and how angry the crabs may be. Steam the crabs until the shell turns red, usually only about 10 minutes and drain.
Eating crabs is really an event to be savored. It can be rather messy so I have always prepped the porch table, picnic table or outside location and spread the table with newspapers. Serving is as simple as dumping a hot steaming pile of crabs into the middle of the table and calling a free for all. Some simple tools are handy to have, like a wooden mallet for cracking the claws and a small fork for getting the small pieces of meat.
How to Eat and Get the Crab Meat
Pull the two front claws off with a bit of a twist. Find the bottom apron and pull back. Locate the ridge at the back of the shell and lift the top off the shell. Locate the gills on the top of the crab and remove them. Remove any bits and mustard looking gunk. Snap the crab in half down the middle. Pull the back fins gently away (so you can get a chunk of meat). The back fins do not have a lot of meat, but you can use the mallet and see what you can get out of them. Pick each half of crab getting inside each chamber to the meat. A small fork can be helpful to get the small pieces of meat out. Break the front claws at the joint. A tap with the mallet to crack the shell is useful so you can break it in half by hand. Don’t smash the claw with the mallet or you will get bits of shell mixed with the meat. Wiggle the pincher and pull slowly to get a large prized piece of meat. Eating crab can be a slow leisurely process best enjoyed with family and friends and a cold beverage. Turn on the music and get the party started.
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