Crabbing for Soft Shell Crabs


 

Scapping

 

Scapping

The most basic of all crabbing methods, scapping involves the age-old "man against crab" ploy where a man simply takes a long-handled dip net (scap net) and wades through the water looking for crabs among the eelgrass (no bait is used). This method is practiced when hunting both hard and soft-shell crabs. An alternate method employs the use of a small boat where the crabber stands on the bow and uses the net's long pole to push himself along near the shore.

Crabs seek shallow water where they can hide in the eelgrass in order to molt. Once a crab molts, it is extremely weak and cannot easily swim away. Once spotted, the crabber simply scoops it aboard. Scapping soft crabs is best practiced in the early morning.

Important tip: if you see what appears to be two crabs in the shallows (one behind the other), always go for the crab that's in the back since the front "crab" is usually just the crab's old empty shell.

 

Jimmy Potting

 

Jimmy Potting

Jimmy potting is a seasonal method of taking large peelersshe-crabs that did not reach the terminal or mating molt the year beforewhich works well in many parts of the Chesapeake Bay only during the last two weeks of May. No bait is used in the bait box. Instead two or three large Jimmies are placed in the upstairs section of the pot.

The virginal females who did not get their chance in the fall evidently build up a strong mating urge over the winter and are attracted by the encaged males. The Jimmies at this time may also be sending out into the surrounding water extraordinary strong waves of sexually attracting pheromones. For one reason or another, or most probably a combination of both, the females readily enter the pot to double. The two or three males may entice as many as twenty or thirty female peelers. The latter are always red sign and close to their final molt. "So rank you don't even have to nick the claws," all crabbers will agree, by which they mean such peelers are already too weak to fight.

Jimmy potting can only be practiced in special areas singularly devoid of eelgrass or other plant cover. Bald places, in other words. Pocomoke Sound is one such. "All bald, mostly sand and you won't find much over ten feet" is the way crabbers describe this broad expanse of water.

While this method works well using a regular pot, it will sometimes catch only a few peelers because once a Jimmy doubles with a female other females will not seek him. The use of a peeler pot is preferable.

 

Peeler Potting

 

Peeler Pot

A specially designed crabpot used to catch mate-seeking female peeler crabs. A peeler pot is similar to a standard crabpot except that instead of a bait box, it incorporates a special holding cell where a live Jimmy is placed. Mate-seeking female peeler crabs are attracted to the lone male and will enter the pot and become trapped. Since the Jimmy is isolated in its cell, it cannot double with a female. Peeler pots can be utilized all season long and work remarkably well.

 

Jimmy Crabbing

 

Jimmy Crabbing

In this method a string is tied around one swimming leg of a healthy Jimmy crab. The other end of the string is secured to a pole strategically embedded in the breeding shallows. The Jimmy will unfailingly clasp every red sign female that comes within his tethered orbit. The crabber then gently draws in the line and dip-nets the pair. The rank female is kept and the frustrated Jimmy returned to the water to continue his work.

 

Bare Potting

 

Bare Potting

After the second week of June, crabbers will throw bare pots with nothing in them at all. Big males go into the pot to shed. For bare potting to work, you must have a bald place with no grass or deep down in the channels, where the crabs see the pot as a hiding place, there being nothing else around. Usually only practiced for a week or two in spring.

 

Mud-Larking

 

Mud-Larking

For reasons not completely understood, a small number of crabs will climb up on to the marshland and blunder through the Spartina grass on a flood tide, searching for tiny clearings where in the space of two hours they laboriously excavate conical holes a foot wide and six inches deep, finishing just before the tide recedes. They then rest happily in these warm little bathtubs of their own construction. Some scientists believe this is but another manifestation of the drive for concealment prior to molting.

Watermen have observed the phenomenon and use a simple technique known as mud-larking to take advantage of it. Before the advent of crabpots, mud-larking was practiced by walking out into the marsh, basket in hand, sneaking up on the resting crabs and snatching them up. It is still practiced today strictly as a recreational activity.

 

Crab Scrape

 


Crab Scrape
Photo courtesy of The Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay

Crab Scrape

The crab scrape was patented in 1870 by L. Copper Dize of Crisfield, Maryland, and is by far the most efficient tool for harvesting peeler and soft crabs. Since its invention, the scrape has been used extensively in areas of the lower Chesapeake Bay where there is an abundance of eelgrass growing on the bottom.

A crab scrape resembles a small hockey goal about 3 to 4 feet wide and about 1 foot high (Maryland State law requires that scrapes be no more than 3 feet wide) with a 7 foot long net bag attached and weighs about 40 pounds (dry). The scrape is dragged along the bottom behind a boat through the eelgrass.

As it is pulled along, it scoops up the grass and any peeler or soft crabs hiding within. Once pulled aboard, the waterman will pull through the grass looking for the small crabs. The harvested eelgrass makes a perfect bedding for transporting the delicate crabs.

 

Peeler Pound (Crab Fyke)

 

Peeler Pound (or Crab Fyke)

The exact origin of this gear seems to have been lost, but it is generally thought that the peeler pound originated in the late 1800's which has since evolved into an important tool for harvesting peeler crabs.

The peeler pound resembles a pound net. It has a hedging (or leader), a bay (or heart), and a head (or trap). The hedging is made from 1-inch mesh wire, 2 feet tall, and extends from the shore a distance depending on the depth of the water at high tide.

Stakes are placed every 3 to 4 feet and the wire is tacked to the stakes. The bay is shaped like a heart and made from 3-foot-high wire. It acts as a funnel for crabs to move from the hedging into the head. The head is a trap that is also made from 1-inch mesh wire and is 4 feet by 3 feet by 4 feet tall. Watermen will place the head a distance from the shore where at normal flood tide the top of it is just out of the water.

No bait is used in a peeler pound. Crabs moving along near the shore headed for creeks and molting grounds are stopped by the hedging. Since the crab can't go ashore to circumnavigate the barrier, it moves towards deeper water along the leader where it eventually enters the heart, and ultimately into the head where it becomes trapped.

 

Doublers

 

Doublers

If at any time you catch a doubler (a male crab carrying a female crab underneath him), chances are that the female crab will be a soft crab.

If the male is carrying a she-crab, then she's probably a red-sign or rank peeler. If the male is carrying a sook, then she's probably soft. Doublers can be scapped from bulkheads, pilings, and are sometimes discovered trapped in crabpots.

 

Shedding Floats

 

Shedding Floats

If a waterman catches a crab nearing the end of its molting cycle (rank peeler or red sign), he will place it in a special holding pin where it remains until it molts.

This method requires a lot of patience and hard work. Immediately following molt, the crab's shell begins to ossify, or harden. It is crucial that the crab be removed from the water as soon as possible in order to stop this process (the shell won't harden out of the water.) Because of this, the floats (or tanks) must be checked routinely every three or four hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week!

In the photo at right, a waterman is tending his shedding float. As you can see, it is a rectangular box that is floating and anchored in the water. This is the simplest method of shedding crabs but requires more work since you must wade into the water or use a boat to check for soft crabs.

Photo courtesy of The Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay
Tending a Shedding Float
Photos courtesy of The Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay

 

Shedding Tanks

 

Photo courtesy of The Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay
Shedding Tanks
Photo courtesy of The Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay

Shedding Tanks

Serious soft-crabbers will build tanks up on a pier or on the shore. When using tanks, there are two types of systems that are employed:

Open System - Uses pumps and pipes to circulate and drain freshly drawn seawater throughout the tanks. This type of system is very simple to set up and operate, but the system is at the mercy of Mother Nature when it comes to water quality. Many watermen have lost entire inventories due to algae or stale water being pumped into their system.

Closed System - Uses pumps, pipes, filters, and aerators to recirculate (re-use) the water, much like a fish aquarium. The water must be closely monitored for proper oxygen, salinity, ammonia, nitrate and nitrite levels. While more difficult to build and maintain, closed systems allow the waterman to better regulate water temperature, can be installed far away from the water and, if maintained properly, offer greater insurance against inventory loss.

Regardless of system used, shedding tanks are much easier to tend by bringing the crabs up on dry land and allow the watermen the convenience of a roof over their heads and bright lighting. As you can see from the photo above-left, many tanks can be easily worked in this fashion.

If you are interested in building a shedding system, there are numerous considerations to take into account. See Technical Resources for more information.

 


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