How to catch and fish fiddler crabs for a variety of inshore species.

Common on shoreline tidal flats, fiddlers are great baits for reds, sheepshead and many other fish.

Remember chasing fiddler crabs when you were a kid? Fiddlers are probably my all-around best bait, especially if kids are along. Catching the crabs can involve action, yelps of joy, lots of bending over, and a great lesson in biology. They’re also an irresistible bait for hungry fish.

Finding a fiddler colony is pretty easy. Fiddlers love company, where the males can use that big claw to spar and wave at the ladies. Scientists have counted up to 30 separate motions in each wave. When the tide comes back in, the males drum underwater, thumping around with their tiny feeder claws and feet.

Look for beaches or mudflats with lots of finger-thick holes going down to sea level. There will probably be some individuals scuttling across the ground.

There are a couple of ways to catch these little side-steppers. First is the time-honored method of digging them up, one by one. This is agonizingly slow, as the crab usually gets scooped up in your first handful of sand and thrown aside. It is, however, a great way to keep antsy kids occupied.

The next method, running them down, can be frustrating. About the time you’re about to nab a crab, it disappears down a hole.

Tommy Thompson, who writes the “Sportsman’s Kitchen” column for this magazine does indeed run them down. “Run around them in a circle,” he said. “They’ll pile up in the middle, and you can just scoop them up with your hands.” But as I get older, wiser, and creakier, there is the super easy way. I got this tip from an elderly fisherman. All it takes is a plain old coffee can.

Bury the can so the lip is flush with the sand. Then, if you’re still intent on running around, herd the crabs into it. Personally, I just bait it with a chunk of meat—smashed mussel, oyster, or king’s crown— and walk off.

Come back before the tide reaches the can, and you’ll have a bucket full of bait.

Check out your catch. The top shell of each crab has a distinct, individual pattern. They’re actually pretty, even if they act… well… crabby. There are seven species that live on saltwater beaches.

If you get one that feels soft, it’s molting. A crab grows by literally backing out of its old shell, pumping water into the new shell, and hiding until the bigger shell hardens. Missing legs also get replaced. That’s a pretty handy trick. If a male is fighting, or needs to escape a hungry raccoon, it can release a limb, usually where the leg joins the body. They can even regenerate a missing eye stalk.

Crab re-growth is also a good indicator of water quality. Crabs in water polluted with heavy metals take several molts to get their limbs back to full size. If you see a crab with an undersized leg, check the water.

Fiddler crab hooked and ready for action.

Release the females, please. They are the ones with two small claws. The males have one big claw, which they will try to pinch you with. It’s rarely a fatal pinch—you might not even feel it—but at least you know your bait is feisty and will wriggle enough to attract fish.

Lady crabs can carry up to 30,000 tiny eggs under their apron, which looks like a turned-under tail. Male “keys” are long and skinny. Female aprons are a smooth half circle; let them go. But if any crab has a smooth, spongy mass there, the crab is parasitized and sterile. Go ahead and use it.

Getting a fiddler on your hook is simple. I use a smallish hook, with a gap about the same depth as that of the crab’s shell. Push the hook into the base of a leg, and out either the top or the bottom shell. Try to get the barb outside the crab, with the point hidden among all those wriggling legs. Better yet, get the point of your hook right beside that big claw. It’s the first place fish tend to chomp.

You won’t be crabby after using fiddlers for bait. FS

First published Florida Sportsman October 2014

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