How to Catch Crabs: Crabbing 101

Right behind fishing for finfish, catching the succulent, sweet, and very feisty blue crab is one of the big reasons people get a saltwater fishing boat. It doesn’t take much of a boat to catch crabs, either, since most crabbing takes place in relatively sheltered waterways. In fact, a simple, small skiff is ideal for loading up the bushel basket. So, how will you make your crab harvest a big success? There are three basic ways people go recreationally crabbing for blue crabs, listed here in order of effectiveness:

After detailing how each works, we’ll take a look at:

crabs in a bushel basket
Crabs are considered a delicacy in many areas of the nation, and recreational crabbing can be quite popular. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Trot Lining for Crabs

The most ambitious crabbers of all will learn how to bait, deploy, and run a trot line. Trot lines can be from a few hundred feel long up to 1,000-plus feet (even longer for commercial crabbers) and generally have a bait every five or six feet. That means a single trot line can present at least 10 times as many baits as any other method. And the results can be spectacular, including catches of crabs by the bushel load.

As productive as trot lining can be, it’s also far more complex and involves a lot more work than either other method. The process begins with baiting the line with hundreds of chunks of chicken neck, or sometimes mesh bags of clams or chunks of salted eel. Depending on the method used these may be tied directly to the trot line with slip knots, or they may be secured in small loops attached to dropper lines called “snoods.” Once the line’s baited and you’ve picked out your spot, a small anchor line with a large float at the end gets deployed. Another line coming off of the float gets attached to a short length of chain, which is clipped to the end of the trot line. Then the captain drives away from the float while the trot line is set out from the back of the boat. Once the entire line is out, another float and anchor gets deployed to secure the far end.

Now, it’s finally time to catch some crabs: the crabber pulls his or her boat back to the first float, snags the trot line, and lays it in a U-shaped cradle attached to the side of the boat. Then as the boat idles along, the line rises up off the bottom and gets pulled through the U (called a “stick”). Whenever the crabber spots a blue crab hanging onto a bait, it gets scooped up in a net before it has the chance to drop off or swim away.

running a trot line for crabs
The red arrow points to the “stick” and the blue arrow to the trot line. This crabber is scooping crabs with one hand, while he steers the boat with the other! Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Often the crabs do drop off and swim to freedom, but with so many baits out all at once, when the crabs are active it’s possible to scoop up a dozen or more in a single run down the trot line — which only takes about 10 minutes. Then the crabber motors back to the first float, snags the line again, and makes another run. In most cases, trot-lining is by far the most effective way to catch big numbers of crabs and it’s employed by many commercial crabbers as well as those crabbing on a recreational basis.

Pull Traps

Collapsible crab traps (also called “snap traps”) have sides that fall open when the trap sits on bottom. When you pull them up, tugging on the rope pulls the sides closed and the crabs are trapped inside. Ambitious crabbers will stack a dozen or more pull traps on their boat, bait them with cut fish, mesh bags of crushed clams, or chicken necks, and drop them in a line along a drop-off or edge where they suspect the crabs are hiding.

crabbing snap trap
When tension is on the rope, the sides of the trap pull up and trap the crab inside. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

The end of each rope has a float, and once they’re all set out the crabber can motor to the end of the “string” of traps, pull up them up one by one, then motor back to the beginning and start all over again. Some people will set out as many as two dozen pull traps at a time, vastly increasing the number of baits they can keep in the water. Still, no matter how many traps you can fit on your boat it’s virtually impossible to set out more than a small fraction of the number of baits you can use with a trot line. Using traps a catch of a dozen or two crabs is usually considered a win.

Chicken Necking

Chicken necking is the time-honored method of tying a chicken neck to a length of kite string long enough to touch bottom, waiting for a crab to pick up the bait, then slowly pulling the string until the crab is within netting distance. To maximize the return most people will set a half-dozen or so necks out. this is the most rudimentary form of crabbing, and while you can certainly catch a few crabs by chicken necking, it doesn’t often produce more than a half-dozen or so keepers through the course of an afternoon.

Types of Boats Used for Crabbing

As we mentioned earlier, all it takes to go crabbing is a small, simple skiff. Plenty of people also crab from center console boats. Some smaller aluminum fishing boats work well as crabbing vessels, too. Remember, however, that cabin boats and larger boats can make for difficult crabbing because of their increased windage. That’s not such a huge deal for chicken necking or using pull traps, but when trot lining, if a gust of wind pushes you over the line it can easily become tangled in the prop — which is a big crabbing disaster.

a crabbing skiff
Low-slung, stable skiffs are ideal for crabbing with a trot line. Photo via Mollie Rudow.

Inboard boats with keels are a rarity in today’s market aside from some downeast boats, but if you happen to have one, these can work well for crabbing since the keel prevents the boat from being blown quickly across the surface of the water. In fact, many commercial crabbers work from larger inboard boats with full keels.

The bottom line? If you’re going to try using pull traps or go chicken necking, virtually any type of boat will do the trick. But if you’ll be running a trot line for crabs, you need to be a little more picky and use a boat that doesn’t get blown around easily. It’s also advantageous to choose a boat that maximizes stability so it doesn’t tip over too much when everyone is leaning over the same side, watching the baits come up and scooping for the crabs. Also remember that you’ll need to do some modification to add a stick to the boat. Most people build them out of PVC pipe that can be lashed to a bench seat or console, but commercial versions that mount to the gunwale or drop into a fishing rod holder are also available.

Crabbing Tips

We have the methods down-pat, but it’s not quite time to go out and buy Old Bay and a steam pot just yet. These tips will help you put more crabs in the basket:

  • When using a method that requires scooping the crabs, use a net with wire mesh as opposed to nylon mesh. Sometimes crabs get tangled in nylon mesh and it can be difficult and time-consuming to get them out.
  • When scooping crabs use a smooth, deliberate motion. Jerky movements can startle them into dropping a bait.
  • Try not to drive your boat or lean over the side in such a way that you cast a shadow over the water (and the crab) prior to scooping. They’ll sometimes be scared off by sudden shadows.
  • When chicken necking, scoop from under the crab, up. Crabs can swim sideways, but not straight up or down so if you try to scoop them sideways, they can scuttle away from the net.
  • When trot lining scoop forward towards the bow of the boat, not up. Since the boat’s moving forward water pressure will help keep the crab in the net, and if you scoop up, you risk snagging the bait and snood in the net.
  • If the crabs are in water deeper than 15 or so feet, chicken necking and trot lining become ineffective because the crabs will usually drop off long before they get near the surface — but pull traps will still work.
  • When trot lining if the line droops straight down, it means the line is too loose. Go to one end or the other, pick up the anchor, and use the boat to stretch the line tight before re-dropping the anchor.
huge blue crab
Use these crabbing tips and you might scoop up a monster crab like this one! Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Crabbing FAQs

What’s the best place to go crabbing?

As is true with fishing, a big part of crabbing successfully relates to what spot you pick out. Generally speaking you’ll want to find an area close to a drop-off or a point, where there’s a depth change. Crabs often move shallow during high tide then move deep during low tide, so you want to try to catch them in a transition area that’s close to different depths. Points, creek mouths, and shallow flats near sharp drop-offs are all good bets.

What’s the best bait for crabbing?

The answer to this question can change from place to place and season to season. Generally speaking, chicken necks are considered a very reliable bait. But at some times in some places, mesh bags filled with cracked or crushed clams work better. Some people swear by salted eels and others (believe it or not) like to use bull lips.

How do I cook Crabs?

In the deep south people boil them, but most crab lovers prefer to steam them for about 20 minutes over a mix of one-third water, one-third apple cider vinegar, and one-third beer. They can be seasoned with crab spice or a 50-50 mix of Old Bay seasoning and kosher salt. Add in a dash of powdered mustard, celery seed, and mustard seed for extra zing.

steam pot full of crabs
A successful day of crabbing has its rewards – in the form of a full steam pot! Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Will the Crabs Pinch Me?

Yes, if you give them the chance they certainly will – and it hurts! So, be careful. You can safely grab a crab where its swim fin joins its body, but doing so without getting snapped at takes some practice. Most crabbers wear heavy rubber gloves when handling crabs, just to be safe.