Some of my fondest childhood memories are the days my father and I spent crabbing on Chesapeake Bay each summer. Just about every other weekend, from June until October, we’d sit on the back porch and bait our 1,000-foot trotline with smelly, salted eel. Dad would sip gin from a coffee mug and smoke a cigarette while I cut up the eel and placed the pieces into the slipknots he tied. By the time we finished, we were dirty, stinky and ridden with mosquito bites. I loved it. My mother did not.
The next morning would typically find us on Eastern Bay, setting our trotline around first light. Once it was set, we’d allow it to soak for about 10 minutes. Then my father would pick up the trotline and guide the boat over it slowly as a roller rhythmically thumped with each piece of eel that ran over it. I’d stand at the ready with a net, scooping up the cantankerous blue crabs that held onto each bait for their lives. We’d catch a bushel or more before heading home in the afternoon, and then we’d pick steamed crabs well into the darkness of night.
Chesapeake Bay is known for having some of the biggest, tastiest blue crabs on the planet. They can be found anywhere along the U.S. coast from Texas to Maine, but they are especially thick between Delaware and Florida. Here’s how you can catch them.
A mountain of regulations protect blue crab populations from decline. Check with your state fish and game or natural resources department about catch sizes and limits, approved methods and licensing. There are stiff penalties for folks who try to slip under the radar.
Perhaps the easiest way to get started is a method affectionately known as chicken-necking. Tie a chicken neck — available in grocery stores — to the end of a 15-foot piece of cotton line and toss it over the side of your boat or off the local pier. (Use more line for deeper water.)
When the line comes taught, slowly pull it in, with a crab net at the ready. When you can just barely see the crab on the end of the line, scoop it up. Half the fun is the challenge of catching the crab before it swims away. Unlike many crab species, blues are lightning fast. They’re also particularly grouchy and have weaponized claws, so pick up a pair of crab tongs from your local bait-and-tackle shop.
Collapsible traps are another way to wrangle a couple dozen crabs. These metal traps are square- or triangle-shaped and have sides that fall open when the trap — baited with a chicken neck or back — hits bottom. The trap sides are tied to a line that is buoyed at the surface. Pull up on the line quickly, and the sides close up, trapping crabs inside. Traps can be set in long lines or scattered around an area to provide good coverage.
Some crabbers prefer a collapsible trap called a ring net. It has two sizes of rings — a larger top and a smaller bottom — with net strung between. When the trap hits the bottom, it lays flat. The crabber pulls up the line, and the crabs are trapped in the netting.
Anyone with a waterfront home and a dock is legally entitled to one pot and a limit of 24 crabs. These oversized square traps are made from chicken wire and have four funnel-shaped inlets that allow crabs to get to a central bait compartment. Once inside, they gravitate toward the bait and become trapped in what’s called the “living room.” These traps can be left in the water for three or four days, then cleaned out when you get a crab craving.
My preferred method for catching a bushel or more of crabs is a trotline. It’s a long length of baited (chicken necks or eel) line that lies on the bottom with a weight, chain and buoy on each end. After the line has soaked for a while, the crabber maneuvers in with the boat, picks up one end of the line and places it over an outboard roller. The line passes over the roller as the boat slowly motors. This picks up feeding crabs, which hang on to the bait until they’re just beneath the surface. A quick scoop with a net picks off those that take the ride up. This method requires a boat and a lot more equipment than other methods, but it’s very effective.
Crab Cooking 101
Here in Maryland, we believe the only way to cook blue crabs is in a steamer smothered in Old Bay or J.O. seasoning. Fill the bottom of a two-part steamer with water and some vinegar or beer, and fill the upper pot with layers of crabs, each covered in seasoning. The more seasoning, the better. Once the pot comes to a full steam, set a timer for about 25 minutes. The crabs should be bright red when cooking is complete.
Thickly cover a table with newspaper or craft paper. It makes cleanup easier — wrap everything up in the paper and toss it into a heavy-duty garbage bag at the end of the feast. You’ll need mallets for cracking claws and sharp-ended butter knives for picking out meat.
Opening the crabs can be a challenge, but the meat inside is as sweet and rich as it gets. I recommend searching online for “how to pick a blue crab” if you need help. If you’re wondering how many people to invite to your feast, six to eight crabs per person is a good gauge. I usually boil up a big pot of corn, as well.
With or without a boat, crabbing is a fun way enjoy a morning or afternoon with family and friends. I’ve loved every minute of it for 40 years.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue.