Blue Crab Florida's Other Crab
Kris W. Thoemke
I lived in Maryland for six years. That's about five years and 364 days longer than it takes to fall in love with the blue crab. Admittedly, these crustaceans have a look and disposition that most other life forms find hard to love. The love in this case is based on consumption, as in the "let's eat 'em" kind. If you've ever cracked crabs, a Marylander's way of saying eating them, you'll know why this crustacean has a large following.
Florida has an ample supply of blue crabs. You will find them throughout the state's backwaters, tidal creeks, and in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. They are marine creatures by nature but they can tolerate fresh water. It is normal to see them far up tidal creeks and rivers well beyond the dividing line between salt and fresh water. Lake George, a freshwater lake on the Saint Johns River almost 90 miles from the coast, has a large enough supply of blue crabs to support a small commercial fishery.
Despite their abundance you don't often see crabs for sale in the seafood markets. The demand for them comes primarily from former Chesapeake Bay residents amazed that crabs aren't more popular in what is generally considered a seafood loving state.
If you can't find them in the stores, try trapping them. It is relatively simple. Bait and tackle shops sell two kind of traps. One is a rectangular wire mesh trap with a one-way opening that allows crabs in to feed on the bait but won't let them out of when they are done. These are the types that you can place in the open water attached to a rope and a float. They can be left out for hours or even overnight.
The other style trap looks like a pyramid. These work well from bridges and docks. When lowered into the water the sides open up and the crabs walk in and can feed on the bait. After a half an hour or so, you pull the trap line up closing the doors as quickly as possible and trap the crabs before they can scoot out.
You can also catch crabs without a trap. Simply tie a piece of bait to a string and toss it in the water. Leave it there for a while and then very gently start to pull the line in. If you feel some resistance, that means there is a crab holding on. When you can see the crab, slip a long handled dip net behind it and scoop quickly. The technique is much easier than it sounds.
The bait used to catch crabs is not something to bring up to persons with squeamish stomachs. Crabs are scavengers and they will eat just about anything. People use fish heads, dead mullet, chicken backs, liver, and other low food value and odoriferous products. The fact that a blue crab can turn dead and decaying materials into the white flaky meat of the backfin part of the crab or the sweet meat of it's claws may classify as one of natures miracles.
Perhaps blue crabs don't receive the recognition they deserve in south Florida because stone crab claws are so popular. To those who have never sat down face to faces with a dozen steamed blue crabs, the sight is rather intimidating when compared to eyeballing a plate of chilled stone crab claws. My wife, a native Marylander, is a stalwart believer that blue crabs taste far better than stone crab claws. She is also more than willing help persuade you to try them if you need the encouragement.
So long as you use five or fewer traps, you are considered a recreational crabber and are governed by the state's salt water fishing license regulations. Recreational laws regulating the harvesting of blue crabs are very liberal. There is no minimum size limit and no closed season. The only restrictions are a 10 gallon bucket of whole crabs per day limit and a prohibition against keeping egg bearing females. To these rules I would add not keeping a crab unless it had at least a 5 inch shell, measuring from point to point. Smaller ones than that won't have much meat on them. If you want to run six or more traps you will need a salt water products license.
Cooking you catch is simple if you have a big pot. Crabs can be boiled or steamed. Whichever way you go, the animals must be alive when you start. Steaming them is the way they do it in Maryland. They are also very fond of using liberal amounts of Old Bay seasoning. You'll know when they are done when the shell turn bright red.
Eating crabs is a ritual around the Chesapeake Bay. It begins with a thick layer of newspaper spread out on a table. Each person receives a crab mallet or an ordinary table knife. The implement is necessary to crack the claws and access the meat. If you ask politely you can get a fork to help you pick through the shell to extract the meat, but fingers are still the most effective extractors.