From the time I grew up here in eastern North Carolina the blue crab has played a very important role in my life. At first it was just one of those things that was an everyday item when I was around the brackish waters of our state. It was everywhere we looked. Catching them was a leisure time sport for most everyone, it was food on our table and it was a source of income for those who made their living from the water. It is fitting that the blue crab has become the very symbol of our way of life here in Eastern North Carolina.
Many t-shirts and car bumper stickers have been proclaiming “Salt Life” for a slogan. The local version of this reads “Brackish Life” and it has a picture of a blue crab on it. It just matches one of those giant sized sculptures blue crabs you see a lot of street corners these days.
Most every little town along our coast used to have their local “crab houses” where the commercial crabbers brought their daily catches to be processed by local labor, packed for shipment to mostly northern cities where the demand for crab meat had outgrown the availability from more local sources (such as the Chesapeake or Delaware Bays). North Carolina seems to have become the number one state on the Atlantic seaboard for both live crabs and processed crabmeat.
To give you an idea of just how important the blue crab is to the economy of North Carolina, in 1996, as the price of crabmeat peaked, over 65.5 million pounds of blue crabs were harvested commercially with an estimated value of 40-million dollars here in North Carolina. The North Carolina blue crab fishery is by far our most important commercial fishery.
Today the price of buying a pound of freshly processed crabmeat puts this specialty seafood in the “gourmet” price bracket and many of us who live or have get-aways along the coast have resorted to catching our own blue crabs and inviting friends in for a good old fashioned crab boil. Crabbing is enjoying a rebirth of the sport of taking local crabs with a very minimal amount of effort and expense. More and more people are “sitting by the dock of the bay” and doing a bit more than “watching the tide go away.”
There are rules and regulations having to do with the recreational use of our natural resources, as with about everything today. With this in mind it’s best to check with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries to see exactly what laws and regulations apply to recreational crabbing. Since these regulations frequently change on short notice it is advisable to stay on top of any new regulations that apply to recreational fishing.
Since the relatively new Coastal Recreational Fishing License (CRFL, AKA “Saltwater Fishing License”) pertains to the taking (catching) of only “finfish,” it is not required if one is trying to catch crabs at the recreational level. Crabs taken recreationally cannot be sold and are for individual consumption only and there are strict regulations about how our blue crabs are taken.
There are minimum and maximum size limits of our blue crabs. Basically crabs must be at least (minimum) 5 inches in width as measured from the point of the shell to the other point of the carapace. An exception to this minimum width limit is that mature female crabs are exempt the minimum size limit but a maximum size limit of 6 ¾ inches (point to point) is in effect on female crabs from September through April and applies to mature female crabs only. If you are really a novice at recreational crabbing it’s a good idea to contact the Division of Marine Fisheries and ask them to explain the difference in a male and female blue crab and how to tell a mature female crab from an immature female crab. This is not taught in the sex-ed classes in our public schools.
While commercial crabbers set a lot of crab pots it’s noteworthy that recreational crabbers can set just one crab pot similar to the ones the commercial crabbers use. This one recreational crab pot must be set from private property or pier and No license is required to set this one pot.
Recreational crabbers have a possession limit of 50 crabs per day and this (assuming that two or more people might be crabbing from a boat) is limited to 100 legal sized crabs per vessel per day. Experienced commercial crabbers say that a bushel of legal crabs has about 45 crabs in it on an average so this works out to about two bushels of legal sized crabs per boat per day for the recreational crabber.
Perhaps the most basic equipment that’s necessary for recreational crabbing is a simple crab dip net. Most sporting goods dealers in the eastern part of our state will carry them for a nominal fee. We used to go out into the shallows of the Pamlico River at daybreak with such a net and it wasn’t much of a problem to scoop up a dozen or so of big jimmy (male) crabs for supper. We’d tow a basket behind us to put the crabs in and we had no problem in getting these crabs along the inner border of the grass beds that used to be so common on the Pamlico.
During the full moon in May this “stalk and dip” method of crabbing along the shallows often offered us a bonus of finding a lot of freshly shed soft crabs as they sought shelter from predators under the cover of the aquatic vegetation.
Probably the second most common method of catching a mess of blue crabs is to use a piece of fresh meat on a weighted string and dunking it into the water of one of our brackish water streams. When fish heads, left over from a recent fish cleaning station, aren’t available many crabbers go the grocery store and buy chicken parts for bait. Chicken necks are commonly used and this has led to some folks call this kind of crabber a “chicken necker”.
The crabber keeps a close eye on the strings and if one starts making unusual movements this may tell the crabber that a crab is trying to get a meal of fresh meat on the other end of the string. When a gentle pull on the string by the crabber reveals that something alive is tugging back on the bait he (or she) gently tries to pull the bait with crab attached to within dip net range where the crab is quickly scooped up and deposited in the basket where it is carefully sexed, measured and released or retained.
Other more elaborately equipped crabbers utilize small crab traps that open up when baited and allowed to rest on the bottom but close up frequently to see if there are any crabs enclosed. They work but one wonders if all that is necessary. One of the real beauties of recreational crabbing is that rank amateur can do it with a minimal amount of expenses and have a good time catching a meal of what a lot of folks would pay a lot of money for.
With number one Jimmies (large male blue crabs) selling for as much as $150.00 per bushel in the Baltimore area, a dedicated recreational crabber in our area could conceivably pick up a bushel of crabs per day. They couldn’t legally sell these recreationally taken crabs but, if you put a dollar price on his catch, he’d have a very expensive dinner that night (in Baltimore dollars anyway).