How can you go on a summer vacation in Ocean City without spending a few hours catching crabs? Recreationally, you can catch up to a bushel per day, and if you’re just using a net, you don’t even need a crabbing license. With a little luck and a decent amount of patience, you can bring home enough crabs to feed the entire family–just make sure someone has the Old Bay.
How to crab
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A net. Specifically, you’ll want either a crabbing net or a shrimping net with a pole that’s 3-5 feet long. Crabbing nets are recommended for beginners as they have larger holes and make it easier to remove the crabs once they’re caught, while shrimping nets have smaller holes and can be used to catch tinier fish and crustaceans.
- Crab traps. These are usually a bit more expensive than the nets and will run about $15-25, but in my experience, they make crabbing just a little bit easier. You really only need one or the other, but using both a net and traps will increase your chances of bringing home a bushel. Just remember, to use traps, you need a crabbing license. No license is required if you’re using only dip nets.
- Bait. Chicken works well. It’s recommended that you use fresh bait because crabs will be able to sniff out fresher meat, but we did just fine using old chicken found in the back of the fridge. More on that later.
- String or twine. When you’re using a net, this is what you’ll tie to the bait to throw it in the water and bring it back up. We tied a long piece of twine around a drumstick, waited 5-10 minutes and then gently brought it to the water’s surface. You should be ready with the net (better yet, your partner should be ready with it) as you draw the bait up so you can scoop the crab up quickly, before it jumps back into the water.
As for the traps, those will also need to be lowered into the water with some kind of string or rope. Ours was rigged so that the doors were open when they were underwater, but when we pulled up on the rope, the doors closed and trapped the crab(s) inside. The chicken was also tied with string to the bars of the trap so it wouldn’t float away.
- A bucket. If you’re not releasing the crabs back into the water, you’ll have to keep ’em somewhere.
- A ruler. If your hard crab isn’t five inches across, you’ll have to throw it back in the water.
- I also recommend you bring along a partner or two, as it makes catching crabs in the net a lot easier and the experience more fun overall. A timer’s also helpful, even if it’s just on your phone. We waited and checked on our traps and bait every 10 minutes.
When to crab
During crabbing season, of course! May is a good time, and crabs tend to be most active during the summer months. Some also say that September is a safe time to go crabbing because crabs spawn during the summer and take 1-1.5 years to reach maturity, so early fall is when they would be at their meatiest.
You can crab year-round (just not in Maryland), but your luck probably won’t be as good when it’s colder outside. Crabs thrive in warm water and when the water is cold, they tend to hide in the mud rather than swim around.
Maryland’s crabbing season is April 1 to December 31.
Where to crab
Your best bet is to crab bayside–the Assawoman Bay, Sinepuxent Bay and Indian River Bay are popular crabbing locations. We set up shop off a pier over the Assawoman Bay, but you’ll also be able to crab off a dock or a boat.
Wherever you decide to test your crabbing skills, take a look at the location’s tide chart before you go out. The best time to catch crabs is when the tide is incoming, which is near and after high tide.
Some rules to follow
- Legally, you can only catch one bushel of hard crabs per day for personal consumption. If you’re on a boat, only up to two bushels can be caught per day, regardless of how many people are on the boat.
- You don’t need a license if you’re crabbing with dip nets or handlines, but you do need a Maryland recreational crabbing license to use trotlines, collapsible crab traps, net rings and seines.
- Size requirements: from April 1 to July 14, hard crabs must be at least 5 inches across from the tips of their spikes. After July 14, the minimum size increases to 5 1/4 inches. Male peeler crabs must be 3 1/4 inches across, and 3 1/2 inches after July 14. Soft crabs must always be at least 3 1/2 inches.
- Do not keep the female crabs! To tell male blue crabs from females, look at their claws: males’ are bright blue, while females’ have red tips. (It might help to remember that “female crabs wear red nail polish.”) Males also have long, pointy “aprons” on their undersides, while female aprons are rounded (and adolescent females’ are triangle shaped).
Crabbing off the pier
My camera-equipped partner BL and I set up our equipment off a pier in Ocean Pines on a sunny Thursday afternoon. We had no intent of keeping the crabs we caught (most of them were too small, anyway), but I hope to someday bring home a bushel to cook for dinner. When I do, I’ll be sure to make my own guide to cooking crabs–but for now, here’s just a few pictures from our catch-and-release experience.
(If you enjoy eating crabs more than you enjoy catching them, here’s a handy little guide to choose where to get them from.)