Fiddler crabs are easy to catch, and they make great baits.
If you spend any time in marsh country, you can’t miss them. If you don’t hear the subtle clicking first, you’ll see them scuttling along the banks like sugared-up 5-year-olds at a birthday party.
Fiddler crabs are a common sight in Florida marshes, and it’s widely known that they’re like kryptonite for reds and other inshore gamefish. But marshes aren’t the only place they’re found, or the only name they go by. In fact, there are over 90 subspecies of these crabs scattered around the world.
The common English name of “fiddler” results from the motion of the smaller claw on a male crab while he is feeding. The small claw looks a like bow moving across the strings of a violin, and thus the name. Another common English name is “calling crab,” which comes from the waving motion of the large male crab claw as he attempts to attract female crabs.
If you’re hunting fiddlers in a German-speaking country you’ll hear them referred to as “Winkerkrabbe” (which loosely translates to waving crab). In Japan, they are called “Siho Maneki,” which translates to beckoning for the return of the tide–clearly in reference to the waving claw behavior of the male fiddler as he attempts to entice female crabs on the low tide.
If you’re visiting Peru you’ll likely hear them referred to as “Maestro-sastre” (meaning master tailor, which is another interpretation of the male fiddler’s feeding movements). In Jamaica they are commonly called the “Deaf Ear Crab,” which comes from the superstition that deafness and earaches can be cured by crushing a living crab and pouring the juice into the infected ear, although no medical research exists to suggest that is true.
That’s a lot of crabs and languages to sort through, but in Florida things are a bit simpler. We have three major subspecies with distinct names and habits.
The mud fiddler (Uca pugnax) ranges from Massachusetts to Florida, and is common in Florida marshes along the Atlantic coast. The carapace is brown in color, with the front of the shell and eye stalks ranging from blue to turquoise. The large claw of the male is yellowish orange to yellowish white, and the walking legs are dark and banded. The mud fiddler generally prefers a muddy marsh habitat where the substrate is relatively free of heavy plant roots, but stable enough to dig a burrow.
The sand fiddler (Uca pugilator) occurs along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Massachusetts to western Florida. Its carapace is typically a pinkish-purple with a bright patch of purple in the center. The leg color ranges from orange to brown. Sand fiddlers will occur in the same areas (and intermingle) with mud fiddlers, but are often found in marsh areas where the substrate is more sand than mud.
The red-jointed fiddler is found along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Cape Cod to Texas. This crab is slightly larger than the mud or sand fiddler, and identified by the red color at the joints of the male’s large claw. It prefers a slightly different habitat and is more common in low salinity or even freshwater marshes. This crab can tolerate low oxygen conditions, and may actually move closer to terrestrial areas away from the tidal zone of marshes.
Regardless of the subspecies, the lifestyles and life cycles are very similar.
All crabs have gills. But crabs that spend much of their time on land (like fiddlers) breathe air instead of water. Their gills must stay wet in order to work, so fiddlers don’t get too far from water–with the possible exception of the red-jointed fiddler, which can tolerate less oxygen.
All fiddlers dig burrows, but not all subspecies dig the same kind. The mud fiddler likes a straight and deep burrow, while the sand fiddler often digs branching side tunnels with multiple entrances. Regardless of who dug the burrow, when threatened by predators they’ll duck into the closest burrow they can find.
Burrows serve other functions in the life of a fiddler. They’ll usually retreat to them at high tide. When temperatures drop below 60 degrees, or stay above 90 degrees for extended periods of time, burrows become thermal refuges to buffer against temperature extremes. When mating, the male crab will herd a female into the burrow, where she will spend up to two weeks. Once she emerges she’ll be carrying an egg mass on her abdomen.
When the eggs are ready the female enters the water and releases them. The eggs then float with the tides and go through several larval stages until they hatch into a true crab stage. Depending upon the subspecies, this may take a couple of weeks to a few months. At the end of this period the juvenile crabs return to land. At this stage both male and female crabs look alike, but as the males mature they grow one large claw that can ultimately comprise over 60 percent of their body weight. Whether that claw is the right or left one is about a 50-50 chance.
The largest fiddler subspecies will seldom exceed two inches across, while many are in the 1- to 1 1/2-inch range. Their lifespan is between 1 and 1 1/2 years–if they make it that far.
The fiddler’s short life is a perilous one. They are a common snack food for a variety of wading birds, raccoons, frogs, toads and about any other carnivorous critter they come across. That includes fish. Sheepshead love them, as do black drum, redfish, and any other fish that will eat a crab. They are great bait, and collecting them is easy.
Pick a low tide, on a day when the air temperature is 65 to 90 degrees, and find an exposed marsh flat. A boat isn’t needed. Any bridge over a tide creek will put you within walking distance. Fiddlers travel in groups, and they are surprisingly quick little rascals. Professional bait catchers will dig a hole to hold a 5-gallon bucket or a small washtub, with the open top flush with the ground. A couple of two-by-fours are laid out to form a V-shaped funnel leading to the bucket, and they then just herd the crabs into it. If digging a hole is too much trouble, just make a closed V with the two-by-fours, herd them into that, and seal the opening with another board. Or, if you just want enough bait for the day, take a cheap plastic laundry basket, cut the bottom out, and drop that over any group you find. They’re now corralled and easy to pick up.
Once fiddlers are collected there are a number of ways to fish them, but only one best way to hook them to keep them alive. A No. 1/0 or 1 hook is about as much as a fiddler can carry. Insert this from the underside of the crab, just inside of the two middle legs (on either side) and bring the point and the barb out the upper shell. The barb should barely exit the upper shell, and this is what will hold the crab on the hook. If sheepshead are the target, pull the large claw from the male fiddler crabs. Sheepshead often grab that claw and pull the crab from the hook.
If you’re fishing rock jetties, pin the crab to a standup jighead. If sheepshead, black drum or redfish are tailing on shallow oyster bars, use a shortshank No. 1 bait hook, pinch a BB split shot a few inches above the crab, and add a small (crappie-sized) float just far enough above the bait to keep it off the oyster. With the bait under a float, you can use the current or rodtip manipulations to bring it to the fish. When wading flats, the crab can be fished without weight to sight cast to tailing fish.
While fiddlers are deadly on inshore species, don’t neglect them in coastal waters. Surface-lounging tripletail seldom turn one down, and fiddlers can be sight cast to them without weight, or under a small float. Ditto for finicky cobia that spurn other offerings. Put a big-clawed male fiddler in front of one and it will get eaten.
It’s easy to catch more fiddlers than you need for a day’s fishing. It’s also easy to stockpile the excess crabs for future trips.
Put eight inches of clean beach sand into a bucket (or better yet, a wash-tub). Sprinkle enough water on top to slightly moisten the sand, but not enough to turn it soupy. Too much water will kill fiddlers. Slightly moist is all that’s needed.
Add the fiddlers. Put the bucket in a shady area. In extremely cold weather protect the crabs from freezing temperatures. Every few days sprinkle just enough water to again moisten the sand and toss in a handful of dry breadcrumbs. They’ll stay happy for a couple of weeks.
First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, September, 2009.