Your complete guide to blue crabs

Blue crabs are a celebrated delicacy in Sussex County, where the locals all have their own crab pots in the water and tourists pay top dollar for a bushel. They’ve already hit the market this year, and the crabbing season is predicted to be a good one. Whether you plan on doing your own crabbing or splurging on an all-you-can-eat dinner, there’s a lot to know about the species before you dig in.

The life of a blue crab

Blue crabs live in salt and brackish waters along the east and Gulf coasts from Maine to Argentina, mostly along grassy bottoms. They have a hard shell that ranges in color from blue to green to brown to gray, and that shell must be shed as the crabs grow in a process called molting.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, male crabs molt many times over the course of their lives, while female crabs usually molt only once. It’s during molting that crabs are harvested as soft-shells and can be eaten in their entirety. Since mating occurs when the female is molting, female crabs only mate once in their lives, but have the ability to store sperm for several spawnings. When spawning, female crabs carry millions of eggs beneath their abdomens, the collection of which looks like a sponge.

Charles Epifanio, Professor Emeritus at the University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment in Lewes, has spent most of his career studying the lifecycle of the blue crab, particularly the early stages.

“They live two to three years,” he said. “If you were to keep them in a setting away from predators, they might live five years.”

Predators vary depending on the age of the crab. After hatching, crabs enter the larval form as plankton. Plankton cannot swim against a current and are therefore eaten by a wide variety of fish and other species. After about a month, crabs enter the juvenile stage, but continue to be eaten by predators like small fish and jellyfish. About a year and a half after hatching, blue crabs reach the size at which they can legally be caught by humans, and as adults, have few other predators.

Catching crabs

In cold temperatures, crabs burrow into the mud. They can still be harvested through dredging, but for the recreational crabber, the time to catch crabs is between April and September. High summer is prime crab season, according to Rich King, who operates delaware-surf-fishing.com. He won’t name a specific location where crabs are plentiful – who would? – but has a few tips for new crabbers.

 “Slow-flowing water allows them to find the bait,” he said. “If the water’s moving too fast they’ll go right by it. So you want to crab where the water is calm. Around structure is good too.”

Crabs will eat just about anything, but they aren’t technically scavengers, as commonly thought. Charles Epifanio pointed out that crabs won’t eat a rotting fish carcass, but they will eat a fresh one. Since we live in an area where poultry is plentiful, the bait of choice is often chicken – fresh chicken – but almost any meat will do.

If you’re from Sussex County, you probably spent some time as a child sitting on a dock, dangling some chicken on a string into the water. That method will keep a child busy all day, but is otherwise pretty inefficient. If you plan on dropping a crab pot or a trap off a dock, King recommends the Cape Henlopen Fishing Pier in Lewes, the Lewes Canal, or the pier at Rosedale Beach, near Oak Orchard. Further south, there’s a pier built specifically for crabbing at Holt’s Landing State Park, near Ocean View.

Crab pots, which resemble wire cages, can be purchased at any bait and tackle shop or even Walmart. They can be sunk off a dock or in open water with a buoy marker, and are the most common crab-catching tool. Also available where crabs pots are sold are crab traps, which fold out onto the floor of a body of water and, once crabs have moved in on the bait, are pulled to the surface as they close simultaneously.

A third method of crabbing is trotlining, in which a horizontal fishing line is suspended between two vertical lines that are held in place with anchors and buoys. Imagine an “H” with baited lines hung from the middle. Crabbers leave a trotline in place for a time before slowly pulling it to the surface, using a net to catch crabs clinging to the bait.

Rules and regulations

A fishing license is required to crab in Delaware waters. They can be found at bait and tackle shops or Walmart as well, or online at dnrec.delaware.gov. Fishing licenses are $8.50 for in-state residents.

Male blue crabs can be harvested when they measure five inches, from point to point at the top of the shell. Though many people eat female blue crabs, they are less desirable in general, and most favor throwing them back so that they can continue to reproduce. If you do choose to harvest a female, there is no minimum size – female maturity is determined by the rounded, u-shaped apron on their undersides, as opposed to the v-shaped apron of an immature female. Females bearing eggs are illegal to harvest and must be thrown back immediately.

According to the Delaware Fishing Guide, “Recreational crabbers may not use, place, set or tend more than two pots. The person claiming to own the pots must be the one to set and tend them. These pots must be marked with all white buoys with the owner’s full name and permanent mailing address inscribed either on the buoy or on a waterproof tag attached to the buoy. All crab pots must be tended at least once every 72 hours. All crab pots must be removed from the water between December 1 and February 28. Recreational crabbers may use a trot line (no length limit) and any number of hand lines or traps. The recreational daily limit is one bushel per person.”

Delaware law requires all crab pots to include a turtle by-catch reduction device. Turtles must surface to breathe and drown when trapped underwater. Regulation-size 1.75 by 4.75-inch reduction devices, which prevent turtles from entering the trap, are installed on many traps available in stores, but not all. It’s fairly common to see DNREC Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police out on the water, checking for turtle by-catch reduction devices.

Cooking and picking

There are an infinite number of ways to cook crabs, so Sussex Living consulted an expert on the best way to steam them – the late Anne Meding, of Meding’s Seafood in Milford, and her cookbook, “Catches of the Sea.” She recommended the following to feed 9-12 people, depending on the size of the crabs.

INGREDIENTS: ½ cup seafood seasoning, ½ cup salt, 3 cups white vinegar, 3 cups beer (or water), 3 doz. live hard blue crabs.

DIRECTIONS: Mix ingredients, except crabs, well. Place half the crabs in a very large pot with a rack and tight-fitting lid. Pour half the seasoning mixture on top. Add the remaining crabs and seasoning mixture. Steam, covered, 20-30 minutes, or until crabs are bright red in color. Serve hot or cold.

Anne’s husband, Henry, and their son, Robbie, co-own Meding’s Seafood. Blue crabs are already available for purchase this year, at about $189 a bushel.

There are as many ways to blue pick crabs as there are to cook them. Some people use tools like knives and mallets, some use only their teeth. Some people eat the “mustard” and fat, most people eat the claw meat, but everyone loves the savory backfin meat.

Typically, when picking a male crab, you start by peeling away the apron and using it to pop off the top of the shell. In the center of the crab, you may see fat, innards and waste that didn’t come away with the shell, which you want to thoroughly scrape or rinse away, along with the eyes. Next, scrape away the gills resting on top of the meat.

Pull the legs from the body of the crab one by one, using a twisting, upward motion at the joint. Eat or put aside any meat that comes out attached to the legs. Crack the claws with your teeth, the end of a knife or a mallet, and remove the meat to eat or put aside as well.

Take the remaining body of the crab and break it in half down the middle. Use your fingers or a knife to break away the cartilage and get at the compartmentalized backfin crabmeat.

Of course, crab picking is not an exact science. There is no “right” way, but the best way is that which allows you to remove the most meat. Common crab-eating condiments include Old Bay and butter, and many would agree that beer pairs well with blue crabs.

If you’re a visual learner, visit sussexlivingde.com to see Robbie Meding on video, explaining how to pick a blue crab.