One of the great pleasures in seashore living that I learned when we spent time in the Chesapeake Bay area was catching blue crabs with a hand line. In SW Florida this is not such a popular past time since blue crabs are harder to find in the brackish waters they favor, and there are so many other options for catching fish and shellfish. But I have found a special secret spot where I take the grand kids to learn this skill and encounter the ferocious blue crab in “hand to hand” combat. And it is indeed combat since blue crabs are one of the most vicious creatures in the sea and will pinch you in the most painful way if you allow them to do so.
This technique involves tying bait (chicken legs in this case) to the end of pieces of twine and throwing several into the water and tying them to a nearby bush. Then you make the rounds of your lines watching for signs that crabs are feeding on the bait- the lines move and draw taut. Then you very carefully pull in the line while a second person holds a long handled dip net into which the crab is drawn and caught if you are lucky and skillful. Now this is only the first part of the process since you now have to remove the crab from the net and this requires the proper technique to avoid being pinched. You grasp one of the hind flippers at the base only and it is safe to hold the crab.
Now you can assess the size of the crab and its sex. Male blue crabs (Jimmies) have mostly bluish claws and the belly has a narrow strip (like the Washington Monument). Females (sooks) have reddish claw tips and a broad “apron” under the belly- the abdomen which is used to hold the eggs during breeding season. The design of the blue crab is a masterpiece of engineering. It swims using the back hind flippers and has two sharp points on the sides of the shell which discourage predators. But the fierce disposition of the crab provides considerable protection as does its ability to swim away fast sideways and burrow into the bottom.
We usually return the “beautiful swimmers”, the actual meaning of the scientific name ( Callinectes sapidus ), to the water to maintain the population. Occasionally we will eat a few by boiling them until they become a bright red color, due to exposure of underlying astaxanthin pigments revealed by the cooking process . Then the hard work begins of picking the most delicious meat from the back fin area. It is impossible to pick fast enough to satisfy your hunger but for those who have tasted the ultimate crab imperial made with fresh blue crab meat, the work is worth the effort.
As a naturalist I would be remiss in not suggesting that you observe other interesting estuarine life while you are crabbing. On a recent trip we observed two characteristic brackish water area inhabitants that you may also encounter. This somewhat tattered but beautiful mangrove buckeye butterfly is very often found along the mangrove shoreline since its caterpillars eat black mangroves. It is a specialist along shorelines whereas its much more widely dispersed close relative the common buckeye is found almost everywhere else. Note that the larger of the two eye spots on the hind wings is less than twice the smaller. In the common buckeye the difference is much greater. We also found a southern leopard frog in the same waters as the blue crabs and this has been noted by scientists previously, although any special adaptations of this amphibian for low salinity waters are not well known.
I am a firm believer in trying to be as non-consumptive of our wonderful wildlife as possible, but you can enjoy catching blue crabs with your family without harming their populations if you return them after the fun of capturing them. The chicken and string technique involves no hooks and there is minimal if any damage to the crabs, allowing you to enjoy their exquisite design and feisty behavior.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA