Crabbing the flats for redfish.
Blue crabs are the bait of choice for bull redfish around inlets all over Florida, but cut crab is equally effective on shallow flats.
There are several advantages to using crab for bait. For one thing, bait can be purchased or trapped well in advance because crabs are relatively easy to keep alive. I usually purchase my crabs the day before I go fishing and store them in a brown grocery bag in the refrigerator overnight. Even though I break up the crabs I still want them to be alive until I need them. The scent the crab puts out is a big factor and redfish seem to be able to distinguish fresh crab.
Crabs are relatively simple to prepare for hooking. The first step is to remove all the legs and pincers; simply break them off. Some anglers wear gloves for protection from the various sharp points protruding from the shell as well as their violent pincers. After removing the legs and pincers, remove the top shell from the crab by opening the apron on the crab’s abdomen and peeling it off in one piece with the top shell. Needle nose pliers work well for gripping the apron.
The next step is to cut the crab. I usually cut my crab in two with needlenose pliers or tin snips. Cut them right down the middle halfway between the eyes. Half crabs work well for slot-size fish. If you are targeting smaller fish or using really large crabs or just low on bait you might want to cut your crabs in quarters.
A jighead works well for deploying the crabs. I’ve had success with all sizes but I prefer a 1⁄2-ounce jig with a wide-gap hook. The weight helps on long casts, and the wide-gap hook fits around the crab better. Hook the crab in the slot between the leg joints from the bottom shell up through the meat. Leave enough hook exposed to grab the redfish by the lip when it picks up the crab.\
I generally use 20-pound-test braided line with approximately 20 inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. Oftentimes I see redfish up on the flats so shallow they’re unreachable by boat. These fish are out of casting range with a light lure but that 1⁄2-ounce jighead and braided line closes the gap. If I can get the bait within 10 yards uptide of the redfish, he will eventually pick up on the fresh crab scent and find it.
I’ve found it best not to set the hook with the crab-and-jig combination. I leave the bail of a spinning rod open and hold the line with my pointer finger as if preparing to cast. When the redfish picks up the crab I release the line for a second. By the time I reach for the reel handle and engage the bail, the redfish has usually had just enough time to take the bait. Instead of setting the hook, I hold the rod pointed straight up and reel as fast as I can. After the fish has made a good run and I’m sure he’s running away from me I give the rod a slight hookset to make sure the hook is firmly embedded into his lip. I’ve found that an immediate hookset usually results in a missed fish.
Another advantage to the crab over live bait is that the crab stays where you cast it. I’ve found it particularly effective around high tide when the redfish are deep in the spartina grass of the Intracoastal Waterway; cast the crab right in the middle of the grass and wait for a redfish to pick up on the scent. Live finfish are useless in this situation because they swim around and hang up in the grass. The crab also stays on the edge of the oyster mounds at low tide. This is where the redfish will most likely be found on this tide phase.
I prefer male crabs over female crabs as bait; they generally have more meat inside and tend to hold on the hook better. It’s also a better use of the resource not to harvest the females since they bear the eggs. It’s relatively easy to distinguish male and female crabs. The least complicated way of telling them apart is that all female blue crabs have red on the tips of their claws.
Peeler crabs are probably the best baits of all. When crabs are in their shedding mode we call them peeler crabs or soft-shells. The ultimate redfish bait is half of a male peeler crab. (Of course, you may want to take these guys home and eat them yourself, but that’s up to you.)
Fishing cut crabs doesn’t offer the same challenge as sight-fishing with an artificial, but at times it’s far more deadly and just as much fun.
First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, June, 2005.