By Chris Ball
This is the perfect time of year to get out on the water to catch blue crabs.
And this How-To Guide will tell you everything you need to know to get started.
What You’ll Need
Gearing up for crabbing is pretty simple.
The heart of the method is a Crab Rig. This consists of a fist-sized triangle. At the top of the triangle is a heavy weight to keep it all on the bottom (of the river). And the bottom of the triangle has an opening with a pointed spear to fix your bait upon. You can get these on Amazon, or in any fishing/tackle store.
As for what kind of bait you should use? Well most folks agree on raw chicken parts.
My favorite are the necks. You see, they’ve got plenty of meat but they’ve also got lots of bones. These bones make it harder for crabs to get what they want quickly. The longer the crab has to work on it, the longer he’ll stay attached to your line.
You don’t really hook or trap crabs. You entice them. You put food they want to eat in front of them, and they’ll stay with that food until it’s all gone or they’re scared off.
Now, with big traps — properly called Pots — the crabs are semi-restrained until you suddenly whisk them up.
But with crab rigs you’ve got to be a little more delicate.
With your chicken necks, make sure you’ve got the spear through the meat really good and secure. It helps if you can spear it through twice, but with necks that can be very difficult.
Crabs like the Stink.
Crabs are ultimately scavengers — they prey upon already dead flesh.
And they are drawn in by the smell.
Now, I’ll grant you that the longer you leave chicken at the bottom of the river, the nastier it will get.
But it’s my firm belief that crabs prefer that “fresh stink” over the smell of decay. And at some point, you’ve got to accept that your bait will have lost its stink — a long stretch without crabs biting is a good indicator.
Considering just how cheap chicken necks are from any butcher, don’t be afraid to change them out even when there’s plenty of meat left on them.
Fresh necks will have a wonderful effect of drawing in new crabs. Wait to change out your necks until they have lost all appearance of being chicken and instead look just like a brown blob.
I also make it a habit to add any small fish I catch out there to the rigs as well — don’t be afraid to combine baits. Just kill them and open them up so the crabs can get at them.
Baby blue catfish are an especially great option. I’ve yet to catch crabs without also landing plenty of blue cats — and Virginia is currently asking us anglers to keep all the blue cats we can for conservation.
Once you’ve got your crab rigs and they are all properly baited up, all that’s left is to drop them in the water. Each crab rig should come with a long piece of kite string attached — if not, just tie your own. Secure that string to something firm. On the boat we tie them off to cleats, but wooden-posts or chairs on shore would work equally well.
On the river, the current is always a factor. We generally can only run crab rigs off one side of the boat at a time without them getting dragged under the boat — which is bad. If you pull up crabs that way, they are almost certain to get knocked off.
At best, we can run 4 or 5 rigs before the lines just get too jumbled. But if you have the space to spread out more, there’s no limit.
Once the rigs are in the water, they need to soak. Just let them be for a while.
One tip is to go rig up a fishing pole and start working the other side of the boat.
FYI, we’ve never failed to add a few crabs to our haul with shrimp on croaker rigs — 2 or 3 hooks weighted to sit on the bottom. If you keep feeling hits, but just can’t set a hook, you might have a crab nibbling on your bait. At that point, try a slow retrieve without a jerk. And keep your eyes peeled for a crab coming up!
Once your rigs have soaked for at least a few minutes, you can start checking them one-by-one. Pull the lines in slowly and smoothly. Any crab chowing down on your bait will hang on for dear life — unless you scare it.
And whatever you do, never EVER lift your crab out of the water when retrieving the rig. The second they break the water’s surface they’ll let go and swim for safety. Blue Crabs have got to be netted while still under water.
Once the crab is off the rig, just toss the rig back in the water and it’s good to go again.
I don’t recommend crabbing any deeper than ten feet of water — shallower if you can.
And don’t be afraid to shift your boat if the crabs start to slow down. They tend to spread out fairly evenly, so at some point you will have caught all the keepers in your little area.
At the same time, don’t give up the first time you pull up all empty strings!
It does take a while for the smell to spread, and crabs take their time.
And while it may not be exactly kosher, the placement of the professional crab lines are usually a good indicator of where the crabs will be. As long as you don’t physically interfere with their pots or buoys, all’s fair and legal.
Keeping them Alive
Crabs are both tough and sensitive. They can live out of water for a good long while. But fresh water — like from melting ice — and excessive heat will kill them real quick.
On the boat or shoreline, it’s probably best to keep them in a bucket or cooler of the same water they just came out of. Just make sure to freshen that water every so often.
As for getting them home, that can be tricky too. While the crabs would be just fine buried in ice, if enough of that ice melts they will drown in the fresh water.
I’ve heard that some folks will place a layer of ice covered by a burlap sack, and then dump the crabs on top of the burlap. This keeps the crustaceans above any melted water. I’ve personally tried placing ice in one five-gallon bucket, and then placing the crabs in a second bucket that rested on top of the ice.
Lately, we’ve been freezing 2-liter bottles and placing several of those in with the crabs. The melting water stays in the bottle, and has done a good job chilling the crabs.
Also, don’t freak out if you find any spare limbs lying mixed in with your crabs. Concentrated like that, blue crabs tend to fight and knock off each other’s claws. It’s normal, if at times disappointing.