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Crabbing With Dad

Updated on January 8, 2012
Crab baskets lay open and flat on the bottom of the bay but close up with a quick pull as you raise it to the surface.
Crab baskets lay open and flat on the bottom of the bay but close up with a quick pull as you raise it to the surface.

One of my fondest memories growing up were the times my father would take me crabbing. Crabbing is such a fun thing to do and also an outing/event that is fun for the entire family. We spent most of the time crabbing in the Rehobeth Bay, in Rehobeth Beach Delaware.

There are many different ways to catch crabs. First off, the best crabbing we ever did was from a small boat. We’d go out into the bay, usually find some shallow coves, throw out the anchor, and start crabbing. By far, the best and most exciting way to crab is with hand lines. Hand lines are exactly what you think it is. All it requires is string with bait tied to the end. For bait, we usually used frozen chick parts (legs or wings worked best), This is basically chicken parts that you would buy in your local food store. Sometimes, we would cut up eels that we may have caught fishing but chicken was our bait of choice.

So how did these hand lines work? After tying the chicken legs or wings to the end of your string, you simply throw the string into the water, over the side of the boat, letting enough string out so the chicken actually sat on the bottom of the bay. Then, you tie the other end to a rail or notch on the side of your boat and wait awhile. Typically, we would throw anywhere from 6 – 8 handlines over the side of the boat, spread out as much as possible. I’m not talking about a big boat here. Simply a little row boat with an outboard motor.

After letting the hand lines sit for awhile, you grab the string and slowly, very slowly, start pulling the string in. I recall using two fingers from each hand, to grab the string and slowly passing the string up from one pair of fingers to the other. The concept was that if by chance a crab was eating the bait, you didn’t want it to realize it was actually moving. That's why “slow” pull-up is the key. At the end when the bait gets close to the surface, you’ll be able to see with your eyes if a crab was attached. If so, you asked someone else on the boat to bring over the net. Once you got close enough to the surface, the person with the net positioned themselves. Then with a very quick sweeping motion, he or she would scoop the crab and bait into the net and bring it onboard the boat to dump into a bushel basket with the rest of the catch. The person with the net had a key responsibility. A bad scoop of the net and the crab would get away.

As a young child, I could remember how excited I’d get each time when the bait came into site, coming up off the bottom. Was there a crab attached? If there was, my little heart would beat even faster until we had the crab into the basket. I can still hear dad saying “slowly, pull the line up slowly”.

Once the crab was caught, there was a decision to made. Is it a keeper? What made it a keeper? Well my first advice would be to check on your local rules and laws. What I remember way back then, was the crab needed to be 4 inches from point to point going side to side on the body. If it was smaller than that, it was considered still a baby and needed to be thrown back. Females with an orange pouch underneath meant it was pregnant and carrying babies which would soon be born. These also needed to be thrown back because it was illegal to keep females that were about to have babies. The females were very tough to throw back because in most cases, these pregnant crabs were usually of pretty good size.

The other thing I can recall, which was very scary as a kid, was that fear that existed once a crab was caught up until the time the crab was secured into the bushel basket with the lid closed tightly. It was inevitable that several times during each crabbing adventure, one of the crabs would put up a fight coming out of the net and would drop to the floor of the boat. If you’ve never been bitten by one of these crabs, it’s not fun at all because they clamp down with those sharp claws and they won’t let go. You physically need to break their claws to get them off. So you can imagine the fear in a young child while that crab was running around on the floor of the boat. It was very traumatic for those few seconds until dad could get the crab into the basket!!

Each of my siblings and I would claim which lines were ours. We’d make it a contest to see which hand line would pull in the most crabs in a day!

Along with the handlines, we sometimes used crab baskets along with the hand lines. The way these baskets worked was simple. You tied the bait to the bottom of the basket and tied a string to the top. When you threw these baskets into the water, they would open up and lay flat when it hit the bottom of the bay. So basically, it would lay totally flat with only the bait attached. Pulling in a crab basket was just the opposite of the hand lines. You needed to pull up the basket as fast as you can because that first jerk on the line would force the basket closed. If a crab was eating the bait, then he’d be trapped inside the basket as you brought it to the surface. Once brought into the boat, you carefully opened up one of the four closed sides, to let the crab drop into the catch basket.

Finally, the last way to catch crabs was to set what we called “crab pots”. My father used to make these on his own simply with chicken wire. Basically, the crab post was a giant rectangular or square basket that had holes in the side where a crab could enter but could not get back out. There was a spot in the center of the crab pot for bait which attracted the crabs to enter the pot. These “crab pots” could be pretty big in size. We would attach a long rope to these crab pots and tie an empty “Clorox Bleach” container to the other end. The Clorox Gallon container served as a float or marker, to identify where you crab pot is. We would put our names on the Clorox bottles because several crabbers would have similar markers for their traps.

So with the crab pots (or crab traps as others called them), you would bait them and go out in the morning and throw them into the water, remembering the general area where you dropped them. Then later in the day, we’d return to the area, find the marker with our name on it (the Clorox bottle), and pull the trap up and into the boat by grabbing the marker with either a hook or a net. On a good catch, your crab pot could be loaded with dozens of crabs in one pull. One of the sides of the trap could be unhooked to empty the crabs out of the trap. At this point, you could either throw the trap back in, or if there weren’t many crabs in the pot, move to a new location and drop it back in.

Crabbing with the “crab traps” was a passive way to crab. I still enjoyed the hand lines the best. Usually, we’d use a combination of both. We’d drop the traps in one location, go off somewhere else to crab with hand lines, then on our return, we’d pick up any crabs that we caught in the pots. This allowed us to increase the number of crabs we would catch in one outing. Those were definitely great times!!!!

This is an example of a "crab pot" or crab trap that you set and come back later to harvest your catch!!!
This is an example of a "crab pot" or crab trap that you set and come back later to harvest your catch!!!

Once we had the crabs back on shore, dad would steam the crabs in a huge pot on the stove, seasoning them with “Old Bay” seasoning. The end result would be delicious steamed crabs that we would sit around and eat for hours.

If you’ve never eaten steamed crabs, it requires a lot of work to get just a little meat. We would use nut crackers and little wooden mallets to crack open the shells in order to get to the meat. It would take a lot of crabs to get you close to being full.

Dad would always teach newcomers the art of cracking open and eating a crab. When I first started eating crabs, I would only eat the claws. They were easy to crack open and easy to get to the meat. Eating meat out of the body requires a lot more work and also required doing alittle cleaning of some of the guts. I know that sounds disgusting and that’s exactly what I thought as a young kid. My older siblings would feast on the bodies and they would throw me their claws!!!

Those truly were the good ole days!! Well dad had passed away many years ago, and there are many many things we thank him for and remember him for on a daily basis!! Crabbing is just one of them. To this day, at least once or twice a year, my older sister has what we call a “crab feast” at her house during the summer. We no longer go crabbing, as nothing could compare to the experience of crabbing with dad, but instead, we all pitch in and purchase a bushel of crabs from a local seafood place and they come already steamed. We set up tables in my sisters garage, cover them with used newspapers, dump the crabs out on the table, and we all sit down with our wooden mallets, and start cracking away.

When eating crabs in this manner, it’s important to have one or two people that do not eat crabs to be there as the “gopher people”. You see, eating crabs is a messy event. Once you start, you can’t just get up and get another drink, get a napkin or paper towel, because its such an effort to clean yourself just for a few minutes. That’s where the “gophers” come in. They “go for” your drink, they “go for” your napkin, they “go for” your corn on the cob, …. and they might even be needed to wipe your forehead!! Believe me, I’m not demeaning these people (gophers) at all. They are just a key requirement and component at any crab feast!!! Fortunately, there are always one or two people that don't like crabs so your "gophers" become obvious!!!

Once done, cleanup simply requires us to roll up all these newspapers that adorned the tables, wrapping up all the empty shells in them, and sliding them off the end of the table into large garbage cans!!!

Life doesn’t get any better than these crab feasts at my sister’s house. The only thing that could possibly make them better would be to have dad their again to share with us the experience he introduced us to as kids, many, many years before!!

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