After a slow start to this summer’s blue crab season, crabbing has picked up throughout New Jersey. The scant early season catches created concern among crabbers that 2013 would be a washout. The past few weeks however have brought reports of catches up to the full bushel limit in many of the state’s crabbing hot spots. If previous seasons are any indicator, there could be at least two solid months of good crabbing left.
Crabbing is an egalitarian activity, in that it can be enjoyed by the wealthy crabbing from the decks of luxury cabin cruisers and the not so well off crabbing off piers, bulkheads, bridges and beaches. Though crabbing expenses can mount by buying (or renting) boats, depth finders, nets, traps, etc., all crabbers really need are a roll of string , a $10 crab net and a package of raw chicken. And with the high price of live crabs in supermarkets and fish stores, recreational crabbing (if you’re not spending a lot on gas or boat rentals) can be an inexpensive way to fill your refrigerator.
There are many ways to catch crabs ranging from wading the shallows with nets, to commercial crabbers running trot lines. The focus here will be on recreational crabbing. One popular way catch crabs is to find shallow areas, no more than waist deep, where crabs can be seen and scooped up with nets. When wading it’s a good idea to wear old sneakers lest a crab you didn't see latches onto your foot, which can be a painful experience. Some boaters like to cruise along bulkheads and bridge supports and net any crabs clinging to them. Both methods can be productive.
For recreational crabbers however the two most popular methods of crabbing are traps and hand lines. Recreational traps are little more than small cages with three or four doors that open when the trap hits bottom. Bait is secured to the middle of the trap and the trap is pulled up periodically (which closes the doors) and checked. Traps are best used from boats and bridges, as they need to be dropped vertically for best results. A two to three ounce weight secured to the bottom of the trap helps them to stay upright and in place despite any currents. If the currents are particularly strong, heavier weights might be required.
Hand lines are probably the most popular method because of their versatility and low cost. Bait is hooked or tied to a length of thin string (the length should be about three to four times as long as the water depth) and often a lead sinker (usually about a half ounce to an ounce) is added to send it to the bottom. The crabber then checks the line periodically for the sign of a crab feeding on the bait. Feeling a little extra weight, or tug usually means there is a crab on. The line is then slowly drawn in with the crab merrily feeding away unaware that he (or she) is being towed within range of the long handled net that most crabbers use. Once the crab is close enough, a quick scoop and it is in your basket or cooler. Hand lines are versatile because they can be used from boats, the shore, bulkheads, piers or any place the water surface isn't beyond the reach of your net.
Veteran crabbers will debate the effectiveness of traps over hand lines (or vice-versa), but both methods can be highly effective. There are times when one will produce better than the other so many crabbers set out prepared to use both methods.
“Jugging” is another popular method on New Jersey waters. It consists of a using traps tied to a float made from a plastic laundry detergent bottle or other float, with enough line to make sure the float stays on the surface as the tide changes. Traps are then lowered into the water, often a dozen or more in a row, and the crabbers periodically cruise down the line of jugs to check the traps.
Crabs are omnivores and will feed on nearly anything, including other crabs, but above all they are scavengers and enjoy dead or decaying animal matter. Throughout New Jersey the most popular baits are “bunker” (a.k.a. mossbunker, menhaden) and raw chicken. Bunker is an oily fish, which makes it attractive to crabs and it’s inexpensive which makes it attractive to crabbers. Bunker is usually cut into to chunks for crabbing and a single bunker will yield three to four chunks depending on the size the size of the fish. And don’t throw away the head, because they work too.
Chicken is more popular than bunker probably because it’s more widely available. Depending on who you talk to legs, backs, wings, necks or thighs are best, but all do well. Some say that skinless chicken works best while others prefer to leave the skin on.
Crabbers will also debate the effectiveness of bunker vs. chicken, but many veteran crabbers will tell you it all depends on what the crabs are in the mood for. Sometimes bunker works better, sometimes it’s chicken and sometimes both work equally well.
The key is to find out what works best for you. Feel free to experiment. With crabbing it’s easy, as you can have several traps or hand lines in the water, each with a different bait.
Where to find crabs
Blue crabs thrive in salt and brackish water so you’ll find them in tidal waters such as bays, estuaries, coastal rivers and creeks. In New Jersey the Shrewsbury and Navasink rivers are popular crabbing waters, as are Barnegat Bay, Toms River Bay, Little Egg Harbor and the Maurice River estuary. Many veteran crabbers also have a “secret” creek or two. If the water is salt or brackish and tidal, odds are it is home to blue claw crabs. During the crabbing season you’ll generally find them in shallower water ranging from about two to twelve feet deep. Crabs are most active during the incoming and outgoing tides, meaning action will often slow during the low and high slack tide periods, so check a tide chart before heading out. In most years New Jersey's crabs are active from June through early November, though water temperatures can extend or shorten the season. In the winter they move to deeper water and bury themselves in the mud or sand, where they lie dormant until spring.
New Jersey Regulations
Unless you are using commercial style crab pots, no license is needed for recreational crabbing in New Jersey. Crabbers are limited to a catch of one bushel per person and there is a 4 ½ inch size minimum (measured across, point to point) for hard shelled crabs. If you are lucky enough to land a soft crab (one that has recently shed its shell), the minimum is 3 ½ inches. In New Jersey there is no prohibition against keeping female crabs, but many crabbers will voluntary throw them back. The only exception is if there is an egg sac underneath in which case returning them to the water is mandatory. Female blue crabs can be identified by a pyramidal shaped “apron” on their underbelly and a splash of red on their claws. There are no limits to the number of hand lines or traps a person can use, but it is unlawful to leave them unattended, so it’s best to keep the number of lines or traps to a number you can manage.
Crabbing can be inexpensive, relaxing and fun and a perfect activity for the whole family . So what are you waiting for? Thaw out a package of chicken, grab a roll of string, pick up a crab net from a tackle shop, load the family into the car and hit the water for a day of fun. Perhaps you’ll land enough crabs for the evening’s dinner.