by Judith Bailey on the Hidden Gem of Outer Banks crabbing
A favorite family pasttime on the Outer Banks has always been crabbing with a handline and dip net. It is possible even Native Americans spent time catching bluecrabs this way. Modern day locals enjoy it too. The cost is at minimum but the fun is at maximum. Stop by any bait & tackle store to get equipped.
You will need a fishing license if you are sixteen or over. The cost is $5.00 for NC residents and $10.00 for out-of-staters and it is valid for 10 days. This license is good for fishing in any sound waters, off the pier or in the ocean. You will also need a long-handled dip net.
Some people use a minnow net so it can do double duty. Tackle stores stock strong line especially for handline crabbers. Stop at the grocery and get some raw chicken legs or wings in a small pack and put these in your cooler. You will only need a couple of these so put the rest in the refrigerator to cook with your supper at a later time. A pair of kitchen tongs or pliers and a ruler are also wise investments for the serious handline crabber. I have wooden tongs, as seen in the photos, and I measured out 5 inches on the tongs and marked it so I don't have to carry two things, just one thing.
The best places for Outer Banks crabbing are where there is a low dock over the water. My favorite place is the bridge on the Nags Head-Manteo causeway nicknamed, "the Little Bridge," in Nags Head, NC. This place is also a great fishing spot and there is a public restroom there too. This kind of Outer Banks crabbing is always done in sound waters, not in the ocean. There is a concrete embankment in Colington by the fire station that used to be quite popular. Other places are the docks in Manteo and the gazebo at the end of Sothel Street in Kill Devil Hills, NC.
Pay out about 15 feet of line and attach one end of your line to the chicken leg or wing and the other end tie to the dock and throw the bait in the water. After awhile you will notice your line stretching out. You have a crab! Start reeling it in carefully. Bear in mind that it is busy eating and if you can keep it eating while it is pulled toward you, it won't notice it is moving. This calls for patience, something that is good for youngsters and all of us to learn. Sharp, jerky movements will cause the crab to drop the bait. Here is a secret I learned from a commercial crabber. When you have the crab alongside the dock, don't lift it out of the water too soon. This causes the crab to let go, when it feels the air hitting it. Make sure the dip net is down in the water and fully under the crab. Then lift the bait, string and crab altogether out of the water in one deft motion. If the crab is off to the side, likely it will clamber over the edge of the net and back into the water. So be sure to get it centered in the net. Great! Now you have caught your first crab.
Measure from tip to tip lengthwise to make sure it is legal size, which is at least 5 inches but not more than 6 3/4 inches. Your legal limit is 50 a day so have at it! I had enough (8 fair-size ones) for a nice supper in about an hour. If you have measured and the crab is of legal size, drop it into your cooler by holding the net with one hand and banging the net handle on the side with the other hand while the net is over the open cooler. Make sure the crab is on the outside of the net. That's sort of obvious, but, I just had to say it... and watch those claws at all times. A pinch from these guys will bring tears to your eyes.
Sometimes they don't want to let go. Sometimes they get all tangled up in the net. Sometimes you catch two at a time and they attach to each other and the net and you can't get them undone. Again, patience is required. If you are releasing the crab, snap the net a few times over the water. It will let go eventually. If you catch one that is legal and one that is not, release them on the dock and pick up the legal one with your tongs or pliers. To the amusement of all onlookers, the smaller crab will scramble right off the dock and back into the water, saying, "Phew! that was a close one!" I often see people with buckets of water instead of coolers. I always try to tell them a cooler is a much better idea because the crabs will keep much better in there than in what quickly becomes an oxygen-depleted vat of HOT water. Shellfish can be lethal if eaten after they are dead. So keep those babies alive, at all costs. Really, trust me on this one. If you are a vegetarian you can turn your crabs all loose at the end of a crabbing adventure. Otherwise, we proceed to the next step.
The crabs will keep in the cooler with the lid open slightly in a cool location 'til dinner time. Or you can cook them ahead and put them in the refrigerator if you are worried they are going to die. Most grocery stores sell large steamer pots with racks for lobsters or crabs. Secure one of these and a box of Old Bay. Follow the directions on the Old Bay box for a delicious Outer Banker style feast. Another intimidating factor in crabbing is how to eat the crab once it has been cooked. I always rip off the upper shell and wash out the green ick that is in the middle. Then, as I was taught to do, I break the crab in half, down the middle and each half, in half, again. Then I can get at the meat that is in each of the four sections. This is a little bit tedious but it is always enjoyable because it is food I caught myself. Then I dip the meat in a little melted margarine. Some people say it tastes better than lobster and I think so, too. Use a nutcracker to crack open the claws and get to the meat inside them. So there ya go! Have fun!
Editor's note: Everyone has their own method of cleaning bluecrabs and you can clean them first before boiling or afterward. There are quite a few videos and how-to articles on the internet. But the main thing to do is eat only the white meat inside the bottom shell and nothing else.