Catching Stone Crabs

When friends and family turn to crabbing, watch out.

 

Jackpot! Those colossal claws easily measure greater than the minimum 2 ¾ inches from tip of lower finger to elbow.

“No way did they get 90,” said Caroline Cowan.

“You know, Mike, no way,” agreed Sharon Jorgensen, smiling.

“Oh, I got 90,” Mike Valind responded, laughing, “It was hard getting the first crab out of the trap without being pinched, they were packed in there so tightly.”

The banter among homemaker, lawyer and title agent, all-turned recreational crabber, got my attention. Not much that’s discussed in my brother-in-law Al Cowan’s waterfront home surprises me, but to hear my sister-in-law and her friends try to one-up each other on their latest crabbing adventure was both fun and unexpected. Al explained their recent interest.

“I’ve been grouper and snapper fishing for years on the west coast,” he said, “and it keeps getting harder and harder to land a legal catch, and with pending grouper closers coming I started to take note of Mike when he’d come back with a cooler full of stone crab claws. We put out our first traps this year and are having a ball.”

I’ve watched The World’s Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel, so I was ready for anything the 2- to 3-foot Gulf chop could bring, as my nephew, Austin Cowan, steered his family’s 23-foot center console out of Blinds Pass, St. Petersburg Beach. We were off to retrieve their five pink R-TAC (state required markings for your traps, Recreational-Tanner, Austin and Carly) stone crab traps.

Austin had the traps saved in the GPS and we followed the heading due west. Once we found the first trap, hardly a mile from the pass, it was easy to see the others, lying in a north to south direction.

In talking to these guys, I learned that Mike got started stone crabbing three years ago when his wife Sue came home from participating in a Coastal Cleanup project on neighboring Shell Island, where she found three stone crab traps that had washed up on the beach. “We love it,” he explained. “It gets you out on the water, we normally take friends, it’s a renewable resource and probably 70 percent of the time that we’re out crabbing we’re fishing too. I’ve caught tripletail, and seen cobia caught, right on the very trap lines we’re about to pull. A seafood buffet.”

I asked Mike what he’s learned over his last three crabbing seasons. For starters, he said that to consistently catch crabs it’s not always as easy as going berry picking. “You have storms that move, or take your traps,” he noted. “Boats run them over and then you have poachers out there, looking for a free meal, to contend with. We increased our traps from five to 10 traps this year, Sue wanted her own five, and already we’re down to seven, and we’re not even halfway through the season.

“I’ve found that keeping the traps close to shore helps,” Mike continued. “When the wind’s blowing hard offshore you get a little protection from land, out to about two miles. When the wind blows from the northwest, land doesn’t help, but at least you don’t have that far too run. The first nice ledge, just north of Johns Pass, in about 18 feet, is where I’ve been putting my traps. I like to set the traps within a couple of feet of the ledge or rocky bottom. I lay them out about 75 feet apart in a zigzag line following the ledge. I think being on both sides of the ledge increases your odds of catching them when they move.”

Recreational stone crab trap specifications are the same as for commercial, found at www.myfwc.com/Fishing.

Commercial crabber and Seminole resident Doug Johnston has been crabbing for 32 years in the St. Pete Beach to Clearwater area. He says the bulk of his 800 traps are just off the beach in 16 feet of water, but he also has traps out to 30 feet, as well as a hundred or so in the bay. “The nice thing about having the traps inshore is that I can always go out and get crabs, weather isn’t an issue,” he said. “The crabs are just as big, but you get about half as many as you do offshore. The key to placing your traps inshore is to keep them in eight to 10 feet of relatively clean water. You want to avoid stagnant bays. If the water is flushed well with the tides, and if you have a shell or rocky bottom, you’ll get crabs.”

Doug says he’s never seen so many crab traps in the water, thinking the additional recreational input has something to do with it. He still averages a half pound to three pounds per trap. That really hasn’t changed over the years, he said.
When I asked Doug about bait, he said he has a deal with a local fish house for grouper heads. “If there’s time I put the heads in a mesh sack, but we’ll just throw them in the trap as well. Once the cold fronts start coming we’re working pretty fast. After a good cold front you can go from a 200-pound average to 450 pounds. The crabs move at night, and the cold fronts stir the water up adding to the time that the crabs are moving about. The fronts are when you’re catching the bulk of your crabs.”

Al Cowan and Bob Jorgenson opted to buy traps locally versus building their own, Fisherman’s Ideal Supply House (www.fishermansidealsupplyhouse.com) in St. Petersburg is the largest supplier of stone crab traps on the west coast, selling over 40,000 traps a year. You can buy a kit which includes everything you need to build five traps for $125. The only thing it doesn’t include is the concrete for the floor, an estimated additional $6. Cudjoe Sales (www.cudjoesales.com) in the Lower Florida Keys, is another major supplier of crab trap kits; their Full Monty Kit has five traps and accessories for $105.

Kevin Fossett, of Ideal Supply, says that the number of recreational crabbers has increased over the last couple of years, with what he figures there to be over 6,000 traps going to recreational anglers last season.

Bait ‘Em and Drop ‘Em

Mike Valind offered some valuable tips on trap deployment.

“The length of your crab trap line should be at least double the depth your traps are in,” he said. “You don’t want too much scope, because you’ll lose your traps to boats, but if you don’t have enough, you’ll lose them to storms.
When it comes time to working the traps, Mike usually checks the traps at least once a week. “When I go out to check on them, I’m always prepared to re-bait them. I use trays in the trap, which prevents the crabs from eating the bait as fast, so when I check the traps; I’ll usually throw the old bait into the trap and replace fresh bait into the tray.”

Just like when they’re fishing, Bob, Mike and Al (or should I say, Sharon, Sue and Caroline) have different opinions and theories on what bait works best or is more practical. “I just had my best day ever,” exclaimed Bob, stating that the leftover turkey carcass crammed into the trap was the reason. “But, we also caught lots of other crabs in the traps without turkey. So I guess we’re not quite ready to re-bait with turkey bones.” “We’ve been using chicken necks,” said Caroline, “but we haven’t been doing that well. I think we’re going to be switching to pig feet; that’s what Sue’s been using.

The bait trays do look to make sense. Mike says that if he simply puts the bait in the trap, the crabs, once inside the trap will eat your bait clean in three or four days, but if you’re using a tray, your bait will last a couple of weeks.
Pulling the traps is messy, and I can see where some may not want to pull a trap into their freshly waxed boat, but watching my nephews bring the traps aboard, just using a towel, showed you can do the job with minimal impact to your boat. Mike uses an old carpet, but a friend in Stuart, on the Atlantic coast, looks to have the best answer, using a washable rubber car mat.

Legally you can take both claws, but most crabbers just take the single largest claw, throwing the crab back with one claw intact. The easiest way to remove the claw is to grab the crab by the outside elbows of the claws, and while it’s facing away from you, you turn the claw down and away from you, creating a clicking sound, which is actually the crab releasing his own claw. You shouldn’t see any exposed meat once you’ve taken the claw off; this indicates a clean removal and will allow for the re-growth of the claw in about a year.

And finally, and clearly, the best part of being a crabber is a steady diet of one of the best-tasting seafood items on the menu. “There’s nothing better than sitting around with a bunch of friends eating your catch of claws,” smiled Mike. “Even if I have to catch them for you,” quipped Caroline. FS

Preparing stone crab claws is easy and quick.

Cooking: How to Prepare

Pre boil water, then put in crab claws, wait for the water to come back to a boil, and then set your timer for six minutes.

Claws are ready to eat, warm, straight from the boiling pot.
But, a lot of people like them cold, for which you should take them straight from the pot and put them on ice for approximately 45 minutes.

You can use the back of a spoon to crack the claws, or for larger parties it’s nice to pre-break the shells with a shell-cracker or hammer.

RANGE: Two species of stone crabs inhabit Florida waters—the Gulf stone crab and Florida stone crab. Differing mostly in color, the Florida version (Menippe mercenaria) looks tan while the Gulf version (Menippe adina) has a dark, chocolate tint. The Florida stone crab ranges from the East Coast, south into the peninsula and north to the Big Bend, while the Gulf version lives in the northern portions of the state. In the Big Bend, and from East Central Florida to South Carolina, both species are present and can hybridize. Stone crabs range from Texas to North Carolina, though they’re often targeted as bycatch outside of Florida.

REGULATIONS: Current regulations allow recreational trappers to deploy up to five traps through the October 15 to May 15 season. A saltwater fishing license is required.

Unlike other Florida seafood, the entire crab is not harvested—only the claws are removed, releasing the crab alive. Claws must be 2¾ inches in length to harvest, and females bearing eggs must be released immediately with claws intact. Current bag limit: 1 gallon of claws per person or 2 gallons per boat.

Both claws may be taken if each is legal size (though it’s recommended to leave one claw so the crab can defend itself and scavenge for food). Crab traps must have the harvester’s name and address legibly marked on the trap; the buoy must be marked with an R to represent “Recreational.” Crab traps tied off to a dock don’t need a marker. Don’t deploy your traps in navigation channels, and only pull traps during daylight hours.

CRAB CARE: To guarantee the crab you caught is a stone crab, look for white bands around the legs. This differentiates the stone crab from other mud crabs. From there, measure each crab claw in a straight line from the elbow to the tip of the lower immovable finger. If it’s longer than 2 ¾ inches, it’s legal. When removing a claw, make sure not to break off the joint that connects the claw from the body—that leads to ripped muscle, bleeding out and guarantees that a new claw will never grow back. For proper claw removal, never twist the claw. Instead, break down with a sharp, quick movement.
A stone crab can re-grow a claw in about a year, or one molting period. But to re-grow a claw to legal size, it takes three years (or three molting periods). Younger crabs can grow claws faster; older crabs (stone crabs can live up to 9 years) may never re-grow their claws.

Quick Facts

› By the time a female crab has legal size claws, she has probably spawned two or three times. Good news for the stone crab fishery!

› Crabs that have both claws removed have about a 53-percent survival rate; crabs with 1 claw removed have about a 72-percent survival rate.

› Original crab claws have a mark that looks like a finger trip inside their claw. Re-generated claws have a series of bumps inside their claw that look like miniature goose bumps.

› For optimal crab claw taste, do not ice down your claws. Keep them in a bucket or livewell. Once at shore immediately boil them. Any claws that float to the surface are recently-molted claws called “floaters.” They tend not to have as much meat but are still delicious.

Originally published February, 2011 print edition.

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