This year will be the best season in over a decade for Chesapeake Bay crabbers. The Department of Natural Resources estimates that the blue crab population is up 60 percent, the highest number since 1997. If you want to get a share of this delicious Chesapeake bounty, now is the time to start preparations and acquire the necessary gear.
Assuming that you have even the most modest of boats (even a canoe or kayak will do), the best method to employ, especially if you’re just starting out in the sport, is the crab trap. You will also need a crabbing license, which will allow you to catch up to a bushel of crabs. The price is $5; $2 if you also purchase a Bay sport fishing license.
The topless model is rapidly becoming the most popular trap because it stacks so compactly. The traps are also very efficient in capturing crabs, and they last indefinitely. Buy a trap with a stainless steel bait-spring on its base, or install one yourself.
Chicken necks are the superior enticement these days, as salted eel has become prohibitively expensive. Use a whole neck unless it is unusually large, in which case cut it in half.
About two-dozen traps should be sufficient for catching a bushel of crabs, the standard amount for a crab feast and the legal limit for one licensed crabber. One bushel will feed up to eight people.
If your requirements are more modest or more ambitious than a bushel, you may adjust the number of traps appropriately, keeping in mind they retail in the neighborhood of $10 each and the maximum number allowed per boat is 30. There is a two-bushel crab limit per boat per two licensed crabbers.
A small float with your name on it will mark the trap’s location, and a 10- to 15-foot line of at least one-quarter-inch diameter will tether the trap. That thickness of line will be comfortable on your hands when pulling the trap. Sailing or water skiing gloves are not a bad idea for a long day on the water; using a boat hook allows for easy snatching of the crab float line.
Heavy crab gloves, available at sporting goods stores that stock crabbing equipment, will permit you to handle and measure the critters without injury to yourself. A crab ruler is a good idea to be certain that the minimum size of your catches is five inches prior to July 14 and five and a quarter inches thereafter. No females may be kept by recreational crabbers.
At least one bushel basket is needed to hold your crabs as you catch them. Be sure you have a top for it and a means to secure that top. As the basket fills, these tasty devils can climb out with amazing alacrity. Having a few jumbos dancing on the deck around your bare feet is more excitement than most crabbers desire.
Beginning in June, the waters should be warm enough for the crabs to begin feeding and moving in depths of five to 10 feet, the most efficient depths to work. Drop your traps in a linear or circular pattern, especially if you’re under oar or paddle power. This should allow you to efficiently move from trap to trap without missing any. Vary the depth of your sets until you discover the most productive zone.
Always lower your traps under control (i.e., don’t let go of the float until the trap is on the bottom) before you become familiar with an area. Water deeper than the float line can result in your unit sinking out of sight and the loss of the trap. A depth finder is very handy in crabbing; otherwise judge your depths carefully.
Keep your traps at least 100 feet (by regulation) away from any trotline in the area. There is no restriction on distance from another crabber’s traps, but it is a good idea to allow at least 50 feet to prevent ill feelings. It is certainly best not to mingle your traps with others.
Start your day early. The legal setting time is one-half hour before sunrise. Though you may crab until 5pm, invariably better catching is had earlier in the day. Crabs will tend to move into deeper water and to disperse with a higher sun.
A good tidal current is also best for crabbing because crabs always move with the water, and that exposes your baits to the maximum traffic. When fishing a slack or a slow tide, move your traps often for better results.
If you begin catching well in a certain location, don’t hesitate to cluster your traps there. It is surprising how many crabs can come out of a very small area.
Good luck this season, and bon appétit!