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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.

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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

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