How to Catch, Clean, and Cook Blue Crabs - Delishably - Food and Drink
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How to Catch, Clean, and Cook Blue Crabs

Crabbing is a favorite summer pastime for my family in Charleston, South Carolina.

Crabbing on the Coast of South Carolina

Crabbing is a favorite summer pastime for my family in Charleston, South Carolina. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are from days spent on my grandparents' dock—the day my cousin and I caught 102 crabs, the time I pulled up four crabs on one line, and the time one escaped and pinched my little toe.

What some people may not know is that crabbing, particularly line crabbing, is a sport, a science, even an art. And the payoff is a feast of tender sweet crab meat dipped in hot butter as friends and family gather around the newspaper-covered picnic table on the porch. So, follow along and hear how we catch, clean, and cook blue crabs here in South Carolina's coastal lowcountry. My Charleston Deviled Crab recipe is perfect for all that hard-earned crab meat.

Atlantic Blue Crabs Can Be Found on the Coast From Nova Scotia to Uruguay

Where to Crab

Blue crabs can be found in muddy coastal waters from Nova Scotia down to Uruguay. I live on a saltmarsh tidal creek off the Wando River in South Carolina, and crabbing is very popular. So, where do you crab if you do not have access to a dock on a waterway?

  • Check your local parks—some have docks and crabbing opportunities available.
  • Sometimes public boat landings will have a dock that can be used for crabbing.
  • If you have access to a boat, load up your crabbing gear and find a shallow spot to anchor and test for good crabbing. Tip: Blue crabs like rock piles.
  • Many public beaches allow crabbing. It is more difficult to crab in the surf, but it can be done.
  • If you are a visitor to a coastal area, check with the Visitor's Center for good public crabbing spots.
  • Check with a local store that specializes in fishing and crabbing supplies.
  • My best advice is to ask around. Locals who crab might be willing to share their secret spot!

How to Make a Crab Line

To make a crab line, you will need:

  • sturdy stick or piece of wood that will float, 6–8 inches long
  • cotton cable cord string (#18), 25 feet long
  • bullet fishing weight, 4 or 5 oz.

Instructions:

  1. Tie one end of the string around the middle of the stick to serve as the handle.
  2. Wrap the string around the handle.
  3. Tie the bottom end of the string to the weight.

To bait the line, tie a raw chicken back or neck at the bottom of the line, close to the weight.

How to Catch Blue Crabs

One of the easiest ways to catch blue crabs is to use a crab trap, which is a baited wire contraption that does the work for you. You simply add bait, toss into the water, and wait. After several hours, you pull up the trap and hopefully have enough large crabs for a meal. A good day might bring 30 crabs, but early in the season, I may only catch 5 or 6.

The old-school method, which I prefer, is to have a baited line of string that you pull out of the water, ever so slowly, in hopes of keeping the nibbling crab on the line. When the crab comes into view, you scoop a net into the water to catch it. This method is a lot of fun and really transforms crabbing into a sport. Tip: As you pull up the line, don't let the excess string fall back into the water. It will scare the crab away.

You can purchase complete crabbing lines at some hardware or sporting stores. These have a triangle metal piece that serves as the weight and an easy clasp to hold the bait. You can also make your own crabbing line by following the instructions above.

Another method of line crabbing is with a wire mesh net that you bait and lower into the water. To check for crabs, you will yank up the net. No net scooping is necessary, because the crab will be trapped in the line's built-in net. Another similar style has a string net, which will not rust as the wire one will, but does tend to get tangled more easily. Tip: You will need to tie a 4- or 5-oz. weight to the bottom of these line nets.

One last method is to scoop crabs right out of very shallow water with a net, but no bait. This is called "scapping." If you know a good crabbing spot, you may be able to catch a few this way. To do so, though, you either have to be in a really populated area or be very lucky! My daughter and I enjoy walking the near-empty creek at low tide, but it is a muddy adventure. Tip: Wear water shoes.

Pros and Cons of Different Crabbing Methods

MethodProsCons

crab trap

lots of crabs caught at once; crabs stay in water until time to eat

not as fun as other methods

baited line with wire mesh net

durable, reliable

wire net will rust

baited line with string net

reliable

string net tangles easily

baited line with weight only

fun to pull line in and scoop crabs; easy to store

some crabs get away if you are not quick enough

scapping: scooping crabs from creek bottom with net

no bait required; great adventure!

hard to find a good spot; muddy

Safety Note on Cooking Blue Crabs

If a crab dies before you get to cleaning or cooking it, the safest thing to do is to throw it out to avoid eating a spoiled crab. There are several ways you can keep the crabs alive as you continue to crab:

  • Don't empty your crab trap until you are ready to cook or clean the crabs.
  • Keep crabs in an old laundry basket with holes, but you will have to keep dunking the basket in the water to refresh them.
  • You can keep crabs in a big bucket with a little seawater, but you will have to refresh it often.
  • Kill and clean the crabs as you go, putting them on ice or in the fridge to keep them from spoiling
  • Put crabs in an extra-large bait bucket and keep submerged.

How to Clean Blue Crabs

Many people like to throw live crabs right into a pot of boiling water to cook. Cooking crabs whole like that leaves a mess to deal with when eating. Once the crabs cool, you will have to rip off the shell and scoop out the yellow insides. There are those, however, that like this yellow "mustard" and leave it in for flavor.

I prefer to kill and clean the crabs before cooking. Using metal tongs, I flip the crab over on its back and pierce the underside with an ice pick right at the top point of the triangle shell section (the "apron"). It takes only one stab to get the job done, and then you can pull off the shell without any fears of getting pinched. I also pull off the apron.

Once the outer shell is removed, I then pull off the gray gills, which we call the "deadman." It is not a part you eat, so out it goes. Next, I grab the water hose and rinse out the inside gunk with a quick spray. The crabs are now ready to be cooked. Save those crab shells if you plan to make deviled crab.

Test Your Blue Crab Lingo

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What is a female crab called?
    • Lady-crab
    • She-crab
    • Red-lady
    • Mrs. Crabs
  2. What is a male crab called?
    • John
    • Jack
    • Joe
    • Jimmy
  3. What is scapping?
    • the way a crab swims
    • the way a crab crawls along the river bottom
    • using a net to scoop crabs out of shallow water
    • using an ice pick to kill crabs
  4. What is deadman?
    • crabs that die in warm stagnant water
    • gray gills under crab's main shell
    • a softshell crab
    • a crab trapped in a crab trap
  5. What is raking?
    • shaking the crabs out of the crab trap
    • scraping a hand-held tool along the creek or ocean bottom to catch crabs
    • catching more than 50 crabs in one day
    • Pulling off the main shell of a crab
  6. What is a poor crab?
    • a crab with no money
    • a tiny crab
    • a softshell crab
    • a crab with little meat inside
  7. What is deviled crab?
    • seasoned cooked crab meat
    • a mean crab
    • a red female crab
    • raw crab meat
  8. What is picking?
    • scooping a crab out of the water with a net
    • how you get the meat out of steamed or boiled blue crabs
    • stabbing a crab with an ice pick
    • how a crab eats the bait
  9. What is a "buck and rider"
    • commercial crabbers in a boat
    • tools to eat crabs
    • two fighting male crabs
    • a pair of mating crabs
  10. The scientific name for blue crabs is Callinectes sapidus. What does it mean?
    • sweet fast swimmer
    • savory beautiful swimmer
    • lonely bottom dweller
    • one with sharp claws

Answer Key

  1. She-crab
  2. Jimmy
  3. using a net to scoop crabs out of shallow water
  4. gray gills under crab's main shell
  5. scraping a hand-held tool along the creek or ocean bottom to catch crabs
  6. a crab with little meat inside
  7. seasoned cooked crab meat
  8. how you get the meat out of steamed or boiled blue crabs
  9. a pair of mating crabs
  10. savory beautiful swimmer

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 3 correct answers: Oops. Pretty crabby score.

If you got between 4 and 6 correct answers: Nice try, but you may want to take another "crack" at it.

If you got between 7 and 8 correct answers: Good job. You "picked" some good answers.

If you got 9 correct answers: Way to go! You know what it "boils" down to.

If you got 10 correct answers: Excellent! You really know the "scoop" on crabs.

How to Cook Crabs

You need at least a six-quart pot to cook a dozen blue crabs. My family likes to boil the crabs, though steaming is another option. To boil the crabs, follow these instructions:

  1. Fill your pot about 2/3 full with water and bring to a boil.
  2. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and 2–4 tablespoons of Old Bay Seasoning to flavor the water.
  3. Next, add the crabs one by one, leaving the claws attached. Let them cook for 8-10 minutes.
  4. Drain crabs in a colander.
  5. After cooling a minute, pour crabs out onto a newspaper-covered table and dig in.

You may want to have some melted butter in small dipping cups, as well as paper towels, and something to crack open the crab claws. We always use standard metal nutcrackers, but you can find lobster or crab crackers as well. Tip: It is not necessary to use a mallet for blue crabs.

Some of my family members like to pick all the crab and create a huge pile to eat at once. I like to eat as I go so that every bite is warm. See my video for more details on how to pick crabs. If you have any leftover crab meat, try my Charleston Deviled Crab recipe below. You will need to save the main crab shells, scrub them clean with a vegetable brush, and boil them along with the crabs. Let them dry on paper towels until needed.

Charleston Deviled Crabs

blue-crab-how-to-catch-clean-and-cook

Do You Like This Blue Crab Recipe?

Cook Time

Prep timeCook timeReady inYields

20 min

40 min

1 hour

serves 4 people (2 deviled crabs each)

Ingredients for Charleston Deviled Crab

  • 5 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1/4 cup green pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 1 cup Panko bread crumbs, plain
  • 2 cups crab meat
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 8 crab shells, scrubbed clean and boiled
  • paprika
  • lemon slices, for garnish

Instructions

  1. Saute green pepper and onion in 1 tablespoon of butter for about 5 minutes and set aside.
  2. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a medium saucepan.
  3. Add milk and stir continously until a smooth thick white sauce has formed.
  4. Add lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, bread crumbs, salt and pepper.
  5. Add the sauteed green pepper and onion.
  6. Fold in crab meat.
  7. Stuff crab shells loosely with deviled crab mixture.
  8. Sprinkle each crab with paprika.
  9. Cook at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
  10. Serve with lemon.
  11. Notes: If you do not have the crab shells, use small ramekins. You also can use one small casserole dish and cook it all together. For a special sweetness, add 1 tablespoon of sherry to the crab mixture before cooking. To round out the meal, add a side salad and some bread.

Your Opinion on Crabbing

© 2012 Sarah Johnson

Comments

JamminJamy on June 30, 2020:

I really enjoyed your article Sarah! Lots of good information on crabbing. I would like to try the "scapping" method you mentioned with the kids. I just posted a "how to crab" video with some visuals that some of the readers of this page may find helpful, thanks again! https://youtu.be/Vzao6-rGckA

Craig Kroll on October 04, 2019:

Ive6been crabbin since I was 7 years old, and 50 years later still enjoying this art of single line crabbin with a chicken neck or back. Crabs think its a delicacy! Lol ! But, when you get 30 to 40 crabs, especially the Jimmys( Male crabs), it is a worthwhile effort ! I still have fun putting them to sleep! Rub their bellies for a minute or two and they take a little nap ! Had crab every way possible. None are bad one bit. It's a great life living in Mt. Pleasant, SC. The Old Bridge at the end of Pitt St. is my honey hole for them. Come get ya some ! Happy Crabbin !

Lisa Loudermilk on August 24, 2019:

If the crabs were alive when I refrigerated them 24 hours ago are they still safe to eat. I didn’t cover them and they weren’t moving when I put them in the pot. Now I’m afraid to eat them.

David Emery on June 13, 2019:

What a great article. I moved to North East Florida a while ago and I have been told that there are plenty of crabs here. You have inspired me to get out there and catch some. The only thing that you could have added was how to handle the live crabs without getting a finger painfully crushed by a claw.

Crystal Greene on May 20, 2019:

I put my crabs in beer, not in water. Too much water, can make crabs soggy. Crabs have water already in them.... I use a can of beer, original Old Bay seasoning, with garlic Old Bay seasoning. You will find your crabs to be very firm and tasty.

Barry Flach on April 04, 2019:

You start boiling crabs in cold season water bring to boil for 20 min chill with ice to cool soak 10 min to stop the boil tempture taste add more seasoning to your taste and soak about 10 min if ok remove crabs. The reason for cold water is the crabs don’t shun their claws and the ice is to stop the boil while you soak and add more season to taste. We like and use Cajun Land Seasoning

Jim cordray on March 25, 2019:

Thanks for the suggestions i live in jax fl cant w8 to try

linnie on March 25, 2019:

I enjoy fishing. Love t cook seafood and experience my cooking. I am going to go to the tee head where the fresh seafood is daily sold if in season I enjoy fishing but with my heart pace maker I must be careful throwing out old hook and the line. Your recipe for the deviled blue crab is a nice recipe. It sounds so good and I will make it soon. Thank for sharing your recipe .Hats to you.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on September 09, 2018:

I would not recommend freezing live crabs, but instead, freezing the crab meat after the crabs have been cooked and picked. If you freeze the cooked crab meat in milk, you will not lose the taste and texture. The meat can be frozen for up to three months.

Kinga on September 06, 2018:

Can you freeze live crabs and then steam them later?

Katt Grothouse on July 06, 2018:

My husband and I are on our 2nd day of our honeymoon, near Williamsburg, VA, and we are excited to try all of this!!!!! We are going to get our supplies, then will be trying EVERYTHING you have here!!! Thank you sooo much for the info!!!

Paula from The Midwest, USA on December 30, 2014:

Hi Sarah, that Charleston Deviled crab recipe looks amazing! I thoroughly enjoyed your in depth video, wow! Thanks so much for sharing the various ways that crabbing is done. I had never quite seen it like that before. You are a great resource for crabbing, and maybe someday I will have the opportunity to use this information. Thanks for sharing the recipe and video and photos. Voted up! Happy New Year to you!

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on February 04, 2014:

I think there is actually a boating excursion for crabbing on Hilton Head.

There is also a State park, Hunting Island State Park. Sometimes the state parks have short crabbing programs in the summer. I know the park at Edisto Beach does that so worth a check for the one at HHI. If all else fails, take a bucket, net, crabbing line, and raw chicken down to the beach. Try to find a spot with little wave activity.

Also, ask someone at your hotel for a tip - they may know a good spot. Have a great trip!

MaryDavidS on January 26, 2014:

We are getting ready to head to Hilton Head this summer and just found out its possible to do this any suggestions for Hilton Head or 1st timers just trying.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on November 02, 2013:

As a child, a remember a crab escaped and pinched my little toe! Ever since, I keep them at arm's length using metal tongs!

jonillynn on October 29, 2013:

I love your video! I love crabs too. Has a crab ever pinched you? I would freak out, lol.

iguidenetwork from Austin, TX on October 28, 2013:

I've never tried crabbing, but it sounds like fun, and I love crabs too. Catching your favorite food from the sea is indeed priceless.

Thanks for sharing your little experience and your tips, and your recipes.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on October 16, 2012:

Hi, Becky. My magic number is 5 medium to large crabs. Any less and I throw them back. Of course, a dozen is much better!

Rfordin from Florida on October 15, 2012:

My g/f and I just started playing around with catching crabs....our new found hobby has yet to yield enough "meat" to cook but were gently getting the hang of it (and enjoying it EVERY step of the way). Should we ever catch enough to "cook" I'll revisit.....

~Becky

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on July 14, 2012:

Hi, Sally's Trove. You are so right about crabbing being in your blood - you just can't shake it. It has also prevented me from being a true vegetarian, so I am what you call a pescatarian! Glad your family still celebrates the crabbing tradition.

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on July 14, 2012:

The video is wonderful and brings back many memories of crabbing with my family at the Jersey shore and along the banks of the Potomac. We used lines and scooping nets, mostly, and sometimes traps. Sometimes we crabbed from docks and sometimes from boats.

Crabs are not as plentiful in these places as they used to be, but once a year, to celebrate a special cousin's birthday, we have a huge newspaper crab fest, whether we catch them or buy them cooked. Once crab is in your blood, well, you're hooked for life.

I like your instructions for killing a crab. My family never did this; they always put them live and kicking in boiling water. If I didn't love the taste of crabs so much, the horrible clicking, tapping, and scraping as the crabs met their end in a boiling bath would have made me a vegetarian a long time ago.

Super hub in every way. Sharing all over the place. Voted up and all other good things.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on July 09, 2012:

Thank you for your kind words, Purple Perl. Crabbing is my favorite summer activity!

Esther Shamsunder from Bangalore,India on July 08, 2012:

This is one of the best hubs I have read. Catching your food, cooking and then eating it. And crab is my favorite too! Great video instructions, step by step and well shown. Loved every bit about this hub.

Congrats on a very well deserved hub win!

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on June 30, 2012:

Thanks, Teresa. Let me know if you are headed my way, and I will get the crab lines ready!

Teresa Coppens from Ontario, Canada on June 30, 2012:

No crabs to catch ourselves here in Ontario but my youngest son and I do love crab. Congratulations on your well deserved win. This is a beautiful hub! Hope I get a chance to try Bluecrabs someday!

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on June 29, 2012:

Thanks, vespawoolf. It is a topic I really enjoyed writing about.

Hi, Escondido7. I spend a good amount of time on Edisto Beach, though I have not crabbed there before. I have seen people crab on the beach (on The Sound) and near the little bridges on the main road leading to the beach. Crabbing supplies can be purchased right there at The Edistonian gas station shop. Have a great time!

Escondido7 on June 29, 2012:

WOW! We are going to Edisto Island and this is so cool I can't wait to try it myself. My boys will love crabbing and my girls will love eating that tasty crab meat! Thank you for such a fantastic video. It shows me everything I need to have some fun!

thanks again

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on June 29, 2012:

Wow, what a fascinating and thorough hub! Congrats on a well-deserved win in the contest!

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on June 29, 2012:

Wow, thanks, Simone! I have been wanting to write a crabbing hub ever since joining HP last Fall, but had to wait for the crabs to start biting!

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on June 29, 2012:

This is one of the most awesome Videos (and Hubs in general) that I've ever seen on HubPages.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on June 25, 2012:

You are right, mmcgiver. Even if you don't catch or keep any - it is still a good time!

mmcgiver from North of Boston Mass. on June 25, 2012:

A real good time crabbing I live north of boston mass. all the crabs I caught were very small I dont think they were blue crabs all very small and we just thru them back hoping to catch its parent.Its always fun to just be outside enjoying the small things in life.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on June 24, 2012:

Hi, teaches12345. I think one of the reasons kids like crabbing so much is the anticipation of something on the line, and scooping the crabs up. Like fishing, but even better if you have a hot spot with lots of crabs biting. We will spend the whole day crabbing, and even if we end up with only a few crabs, it was still a good time.

Dianna Mendez on June 24, 2012:

I am not a big crab lover ( my hubby loves them), but I would enjoy going on the adventure. Your photos make it look like fun. Great recipe ideas.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on June 24, 2012:

Hi, Alissa. I hear the crabbing is good on both sides of Florida. Kids really love to crab, and it is a great family activity. Have a great trip!

Alissa Roberts from Normandy, TN on June 24, 2012:

Fantastic video and hub! My boys enjoyed watching you and the kids catch the crabs. They soooo want to go crabbing now! It's a good thing we are going to Florida next week since we won't be finding too many crabs in Tennessee :) Really great job with this one - voted up, useful, and awesome!

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on June 24, 2012:

Hi, Sadie432. My grandmother's name was Sadie, and I remember her standing in her kitchen making enough deviled crab to freeze. People here also crab from the little bridges. As you know, crabbing is fun!

sadie423 from North Carolina on June 24, 2012:

I have wonderful memories of crabbing as a child. We threw traps out in the Chesapeake Bay or sit off the little bridge on our road with chicken on a string. I love crabs- crabcakes especially

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on June 23, 2012:

Hi, PenHitsTheFan. You would think I had a good crab cake recipe by now...but no. Something I will work on!

Ha, ha, Natasha! That sounds more like the commercial crabbers. Line crabbing is much more fun than crab pots. Join the fun!

My son is the opposite of you, blessed365. He loves to crab, but will not eat them. Ever tried softshell crab?

Vicky C. from New England on June 23, 2012:

Love me some crabs. Don't think I will ever catch them, but I sure will keep on eating them.

Natasha from Hawaii on June 23, 2012:

While I'm at work, I see people go by in boats throwing out (and bringing in) crab pots. It makes me so jealous because I can't do the same! Who knows - I'm in Charleston, maybe your family has made me jealous before.

Amy L. Tarr from Home on June 23, 2012:

Oh, now you are speaking my language. I will dream of crab cakes tonight.