Eaten whole in soft-shell goodness or slurped out of armored claws and legs, slathered into cakes or packed into sushi rolls or rendered into the broth of a French bisque, crab meat is a culinary delicacy in many cuisines and cultures.
Crabs support massive commercial fishery industries in many countries, the United States included; here they also are the more casual and small-scale target of recreational crabbers, who get to combine the pleasure of eating succulent crabmeat with the pleasure of harvesting their prize out on sunshiny bays, estuaries, and lagoons.
Here we’ve put together a basic introduction to recreational crabbing in the U.S., highlighting some of the major species involved, basic techniques and gear, and prime locations.
You no doubt can visualize a stereotypical crab: hard-shelled, big-pincered, stalk-eyed. But if you’re looking to engage in a bit of recreational crabbing, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with your quarry—not least so you can pay it the appreciation and respect it’s due.
Crabs are arthropods like insects or spiders: segmented invertebrates with an external skeleton—an exoskeleton, in other words—and jointed limbs. Specifically, they’re crustaceans, a subphylum of Arthropoda that also includes such aquatic organisms as lobsters, krill, and shrimp, plus terrestrial woodlice.
“True” crabs with their armored shells and heavy claws belong to a crustacean infraorder known as Brachyura; some other crustaceans we call crabs, including hermit crabs and the commercially prized king crabs, belong to different “sister” group: Anomura.
The crab life cycle begins with a free-swimming larva that, through a series of molts, morphs into the rigid-shelled adult form; juvenile and adult crabs continue to molt several times, splitting their shell and emerging fresh and vulnerable as the “softshell crab” some palates favor (particularly in the form of softshell blue crab).
Some crabs are active hunters, others are filter-feeders, but most are scavengers of both plant and animal matter. As numerous consumers and as prey to a vast array of predators—bony fish, sharks, birds, pinnipeds, alligators and crocodiles, raccoons, otters, and more—crabs are linchpin components of the ecosystems they belong to.
Commercially & Recreationally Important Crab Species in the United States
The most important commercial crab fishery in the United States centers on the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) of the East Coast. Blue crabs paddle and scuttle over a vast realm in the western Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia down to northern Argentina.
For both their ecological and commercial significance, you could call them the centerpiece of Chesapeake Bay: the largest estuary in North America and one of the most biologically productive on Earth.
So associated is the blue crab with eelgrass beds along the Eastern Seaboard that Bill Perry, in his A Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide to the Middle Atlantic Coast, suggests this extensive and vital habitat could accurately be defined as the Eelgrass-Blue Crab Community.
The blue crab’s Latin name means “beautiful savory swimmer,” an apt description and suggestive of the crustacean’s popularity. Its rearmost pair of legs—the “swimmerettes”—are paddle-shaped, making the blue crab a very capable open-water swimmer, though it also spends much of its time clambering along the bottom.
The grayish or greenish brown carapace may reach 9 or 10 inches across.
Male blue crabs, also called “jimmies,” have blue claws, while those of females, or “sooks,” come red-tipped. A surefire way to distinguish between jimmies and sooks is to look at the abdomen: That of the male is narrow, likened to the Washington Monument, while the female’s is broader, resembling the U.S. Capitol Dome.
The West Coast analogue to the blue crab is the Dungeness crab (Metacarcinus magister, also Cancer magister), the second-most commercially important species in the U.S. with an associated industry of $170 million-plus annually.
The Dungeness crab—named for Dungeness Bay along the northeastern coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula—ranges from the Pribilof Islands of Alaska’s Bering Sea south to the vicinity of Santa Barbara, California, and its mildly sweet meat is prized throughout.
This robust crab may sport a reddish-brown or purplish carapace 10 inches across (though it’s typically smaller) and edged with spines; the serrated claws have distinctive white tips. Dungeness crabs tend to favor sandy bottoms to as deep as 300 feet or so.
While Dungeness crab dominates the commercial fishery on the West Coast, recreational crabbers also readily harvest the Dungeness’s smaller and less-meaty relative, the red rock crab (Cancer productus), found on both sandy and rocky substrates.
Besides Dungeness crab, several other species are commercially important in cold, rough Alaskan waters: the tanner (snow) crab (Chionoecetes bairdi) and the huge blue and red king crabs (Paralithodes platypus and P. camtschaticus).
On the East Coast, meanwhile, the blue crab may be the long-reigning king but there are several other commonly harvested species. These include the Jonah crab (Cancer borealis), particularly popular along the Northeast coast; the Atlantic rock crab or “peekytoe” crab” (Cancer irroratus), recently come into enthusiastic culinary favor; and the much-eaten Florida stone crab (Menippe mercenaria)and Gulf stone crab (M. adina) of the Southeastern coasts.
Prime Areas for Recreational Crabbing in the United States
As the geographies discussed above in our overview of some of the sought-after crab species in the U.S. suggest, opportunities for recreational crabbing exist along much of the country’s saltwater shoreline.
Some particular hotspots for three leading recreational species include:
- Dungeness Crab: Oregon, Washington, California
- Blue Crab: Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana
- Stone Crab: North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana
While depending on the state you can often legally catch crabs year-round, there are definitely peak seasons. For example, prime blue-crab season begins in midsummer and extends through fall, mainly because the crabs are more active in water temperatures in the mid-50s Fahrenheit and above.
Fall is the best Dungeness crab season in Oregon and Washington, partly because of salinity reasons (see below) and partly because the crabs tend to carry the most high-quality meat then.
When the freshwater input to an estuary increases, crabbing declines on account the crustaceans tend to move farther out to saltier waters. Therefore crabbing tends to be mediocre in bays and inlets on the heels of heavy rainfall.
This phenomenon also partly explains why late summer and fall tend to be the best seasons for crabbing in Oregon and Washington, as this is the tail end of the dry season in the Pacific Northwest and rivers are flowing at their lowest.
During strong tidal flow, crabs tend to hunker down in the mud or sand, and aren’t so likely to be out foraging (and therefore catchable).
Slack tide—the interval between incoming and outgoing tides—is a propitious time to catch crabs, as in these calm conditions they tend to be cruising around. But you want to ready yourself for crabbing ahead of that slackwater, so it’s often best to set lines, pots, or ring nets just before, say, high tide.
Crabbing Techniques & Gear
You can pursue recreational crabbing offshore from a boat or along the shore from a dock or pier. For the most part, you’ll be doing so in the brackish, tidally pulsed inshore and coastal waters of estuaries and bays.
The encouraging thing about crabbing is that the creatures you’re after aren’t picky eaters—not by a long shot. Most crabs are omnivorous scavengers, and thus you can use a variety of bait to attract them. The standard is meat of one kind or another, from fish scraps to chicken or turkey.
Short of wading around and trying to catch one with your hands, the most basic way to harvest a crab is to simply hook bait to a line and drop this end into the water, holding the other or securing it to the pier or boat. When you suspect a crab or crabs are on the bait, you pull in the line and use a net to scoop up the diners.
An only slightly more elaborate way to go about crabbing is to construct or purchase either a crab pot or a crab ring net, which like simple lines can be deployed either from a pier or from a boat. You can buy those from any number of businesses that offer supplies.
Crab pots are square or round cages with “tunnel” openings through which crabs can enter to access bait secured inside. Ring nets, meanwhile, comprise mesh webbing attached to metal hoops; they’re laid flat on the seafloor with mesh-rigged bait exposed, then drawn up quickly and steadily to form a basket that traps the crabs.
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife recommends leaving crab pots out some 30 to 45 minutes before hauling in; ring nets should be retrieved more frequently, every 10 to 20 minutes or so.
Obviously check with the proper state agency regarding specific regulations pertaining to the type of gear you can use in crabbing. Maryland, for example, requires Crab Pot Bycatch Reduction Devices on recreational crab pots to prevent the unintentional drowning of muskrats, turtles, and other air-breathing critters that might otherwise becoming trapped inside.
Examples of State Crabbing Regulations
State fisheries departments establish regulations for recreational and commercial crabbing to protect the resource and its environment while providing equitable and sustainable opportunities for crabbers. From the dates of a particular season to the rules regarding what size and sex crabs can be kept, these regulations come based on sound science and, needless to say, should be strictly adhered to.
Given the number of crabbing fisheries in the country, we can’t get into the nitty-gritty of state-by-state crabbing regulations here. We will provide a list of links for them at the end of this section, however, and also use a couple of high-profile crabbing states—Oregon and Maryland—to suggest the sorts of laws you’ll run into. Keep in mind that you should always refer to a given state’s official fisheries agency or department for the most up-to-date crabbing regulations.
In Oregon, crabbers with the proper shellfish license may catch Dungeness crab year-round in bays and estuaries as well as from any shore-based vantage, from beaches and tidepools to jetties and docks. The season for Dungeness crab in the open ocean, however, is closed between October 16th and November 30th.
Only male Dungeness crabs may be harvested—as in blue crabs, the abdomen of the male Dungeness is clearly narrower than that of the female—and then only those of a particular size: 5 ¾ inches is the minimum carapace breadth, measured in front of the widest set-apart spines (but not including spines).
Crabbers may catch a dozen Dungeness crabs per person per day.
Red rock crabs aren’t so tightly regulated in Oregon: You can catch 24 per person per day, and harvested crabs may be either male or female and of any size.
In Maryland, crabbers who use handlines or dip nets to catch crabs don’t need a license; those using any other legal gear do. If you don’t require a license, though, you are still limited to no more than 24 male hard crabs and no more than a dozen soft or male peeler crabs.
“How to Harvest Crab.” Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/