Crabbing & molting lessons from Barnegat Bay

Growing up on the Jersey Shore and the Barnegat Bay, my brothers and I learned to go crabbing. We picked up different crabbing techniques from our friends and family members. Sometimes we just used a crab net and scooped up the creatures as they sidled in the water below us. Other times, when we wanted a more substantial catch, we’d use a cage.

The cage had a mechanism that allowed you to lower it into the water with a string and, when it touched bottom, all four sides would open up and allow the hungry bottom feeders to come after your bait.

Crabs are kind of like underwater rats. They will climb on top of each other and scramble around trying to get the last piece of food before the next crab can get it. They have very small brains (about the size of a pencil point) and are not involved in any kind of complex social cooperation. Usually the biggest crab, gets its way.

Anyway, our crab cage freshly bated with a piece of chicken (usually a neck or a leg), we’d lower it to the bottom of the creek or lagoon that fed into the bay. Our favorite spots were Beaver Dam Creek and Sunshine Harbor in Point Pleasant. Sometimes we would crab from a boat and sometimes from a bulkhead. Either way, we’d wait a little while and then pull up the cage. Collecting our catch, we would carefully toss the best crabs into a bucket of water one by a one.

It wasn’t that hard to learn how to avoid being pinched. You just had to grab hold of the crab at the back with your thumb on the top and bent forefinger on bottom and you could easily drop each one into your catch pail. This did not always work, however, especially with the biggest crabs. They had a knack for reaching around with their claws and catching you by surprise. It usually didn’t hurt that bad since you could flick them off of you pretty fast. But sometimes the bigger male crabs could latch on to you pretty good and help you have quite an episode of cursing.

If we were going by the book, we’d throw anything smaller than about four inches (across the body) and all the females back and keep only the larger males (the sex of a crab is easily determined by looking at the pattern of the apron on the underside of the crab; a long thin apron shape is a male and a round pointed apron is a female).

Anyway, on rare occasions, if you left the cage in the water long enough you’d pull up a soft-shell crab. We knew they were special. First of all because of their color; they were white on the underside and lacked the bright blue and red colors on their Jersey Blue legs and claws. They looked sick and were kind of floppy since they had no hardened shell. Since we crabbed for the eating of the creatures, we knew soft-shell crabs were, of course, very good to eat. You never wanted to throw a soft shell crab back no matter what.

Some Jersey Shore folks would just crack those crabs wide open while they were alive and slurp away the crab juice and meat right then and there. Others would take them home and put a big pot on the stove and prepare a tasty boiled meal.

Later on, we learned that soft-shell crabs were actually regular crabs that had recently molted; that is, they had shed their hard exoskeleton as part of the growth process. It was a real lesson to learn that when crabs molt, they are very vulnerable. During a process that takes about 72 hours, a crab must extract itself including eyes, mouth and the lining of its digestive tract from the old shell. If the crab gets stuck in this process, it will die. If a crab is successful in removing itself from the exuvia, a new shell begins forming almost immediately allowing the crab to grow. A crab will molt more than twenty times in its lifetime.

The moral of the story is this: If you catch a soft shell crab, boil it and eat it. If you throw it back and allow it to finish molting, it will grow bigger and surely pinch you when you least expect it.

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