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Catching the Beautiful Swimmer: Chicken-necking 101 and other techniques for the recreational crabber

Jul 24, 2017 12:30PM ● By James Houck
By James Houck | Photography by Nicole Caracia

Thirty-two years ago my grandfather showed me the way. Peering over the edge of the old wooden dock on the South River, he patiently began pulling up the taut bait line and instructed me to ever-so-gently dip the net into the shallow water and under the blurry, spidery-looking creature. Then, with a quick scoop, I lifted the net out of the water. Its metal mesh held a jumbo blue crab. For the first time in my life, I had caught blue crab number one of the day. Several more patient catches followed, and eventually my grandfather and I had enough to take to the kitchen and steam. We enjoyed the tasty riches of our efforts. It was a memory that will last a lifetime. It might even be my earliest memory.

By the time I was 12, my brother and I would take to the docks of Annapolis and Eastport with only a small cooler and dip net in hand. We’d scour the pilings of the long docks, eyeballing the unsuspecting crabs clinging to them. With one movement, we could easily “scapp” the crabs off the pilings and into the cooler. After catching two dozen keepers this way during one outing, we tried to sell them to O’Leary’s Seafood Restaurant. They politely rebuffed our entrepreneurial overture. No matter, the crabs tasted just the same to us.

These days, when time affords, I’ll awaken early and take my jon boat out on Valentine and Plum Creeks off the Severn River to set box traps and “get a few lines wet,” as we say in my family. The relaxing atmosphere on the water as sunny mornings drift into breezy afternoons, combined with the sense of accomplishment (if you catch some crabs), is a precious feeling. Recreational crabbing is far removed from the pressures of its commercial counterpart and enjoyed by many during the warmer climes of mid–summer into brisk, late-October. Those who are able to manipulate the right bait at the right time with patience, confidence, and a little luck are rewarded with the Chesapeake Bay’s finest delicacy, Callinectes sapidus—the blue crab.

From its Greek and Latin roots, Callinectes sapidus translates to beautiful swimmer and savory. Indeed, the blue crab lives up to its scientific designation. From the South River in Anne Arundel County to the Wye River in Queen Anne’s, jimmies (males) and sooks (females) are abundant—and anyone can tempt them from the river bottom to your belly.

Know One to Take One

Before you get your lines wet, let’s step into the underwater world of the blue crab to gain a basic understanding of its life. The mantra be the crab can lend itself to catching them. If you enjoy eating crabs, you’re probably familiar with the hard-shelled, 10-legged adults, which average 5 to 7 inches from pointy tip to tip. (The largest recorded in Maryland was nine inches.) Before reaching this mature size (harvestable minimum is five inches) and age (1 to 1.5 years), a crab will have shed its shell, or molted, upwards of 20 times. Blue crabs seldom live past the age of three, but those three years are quite intense.

Between May and October mature crabs spawn in the brackish tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, with the male crab cradling the female underneath him. During the summer, recreational crabbers occasionally catch these doublers (etiquette dictates throwing the female back into the water). After mating, the female crab migrates to saltier waters near the mouth of the Bay. Within nine months (sometimes as early as two), she produces and then drops an external egg mass, which can grow to the size of a baseball and contain more than 8,000,000 eggs.

Two weeks later baby crabs are born, looking like something from the movie Alien. Called zoeae, the microscopic young’uns drift to and fro in the currents, eventually settling in sea grass beds. There they mature into megalopae after six to seven initial molts—getting closer to crab status. Megalopae soon morph into half-inch blue crabs, which by late fall have migrated back into the upper Bay’s waters, where they grow to maturity. In mid-winter, they migrate into the deeper waters of mid-Bay, where the crabs often burrow into the soft, muddy bottom, patiently awaiting the start of the spawning cycle. When water temperatures warm in late-spring and early-summer the crabs “run” back into the shallow, spawning rivers around us.

Mature crabs aren’t picky eaters, which is why they are incredibly easy to catch during the most active months of their lives. Being omnivorous bottom feeders, crabs will eat the Bay’s bounty with little scrutiny. Live and dead fish? Yum. Clams? You bet. Snails, oysters, mussels, submerged aquatic vegetation, and even other crabs are part of the feast.

Soft-shell crabs are particularly vulnerable to being eaten by their hard-shelled siblings. When a crab molts, it sheds its hard shell, which is replaced by a larger, new shell that starts out pliable before hardening to the consistency of the old one. A crab in this stage of the molt is commonly known as a peeler, though others may call it a softy, or a shedder, among other names. When molting, crabs retreat into eelgrass or other vegetation, attempting to hide. Within two hours the new shell begins to harden, but that can be a long two hours for a vulnerable, defenseless crab. Of course, Marylanders seldom mind inconveniencing a peeler in order to enjoy a soft-shell crab sandwich.

Donald Cole of Crownsville has been an avid Waterman his entire life.


Docks, Tides, Baits, and Beer

Have no doubt that the recreational crabbing methods herein described work. But “to each his or her own.” Those who crab for a number of years develop a style that works well for them—depending on when, where, and in what weather. However, there are basic rules of thumb that should land you enough crabs for supper.

Location. Finding your spot can be tricky business, but it is incredibly important. All Chesapeake Bay river systems have crab populations. In a perfect world, we’d all have private piers from which to crab. But many do not. Some communities have marinas and there are a number of public facilities with fishing piers. These are great in that they offer water access, but they tend to be busy during the summer. A busy pier equals a heavily pressured fishery, which equals a tougher catch. Find a serene spot on less pressured water, and you’ll be set. Overall, docks and piers are excellent to crab from because they also offer structure, or cover, for the crabs (and fish) to hold to. A spot with great structure, such as docks and piers; cover, such as marsh grass and submerged aquatic vegetation; or both is ideal. Even better, if you own a small fishing boat you can seek and work your own secret spots. A sonar fish finder (available for as little as $75) is a great asset in a small boat. Use it to locate sunken logs, debris, vegetation, maybe even an unfortunate vessel—all likely inhabited by crabs and fish.

Timing and weather considerations. The old saying, “the early bird gets the worm” couldn’t ring truer with regards to crabbing. True, the “bite” can peak as the sun rises from the horizon, but paying close attention to the moon phase and tide chart yield better results than simply paying attention to your alarm clock. In general, I have found an incoming tide yields better results than an outgoing one. This means checking the tide chart when you plan your outing. Seek the high tide hours and plan to be crabbing at least one hour before high tide peaks. This generally holds true no matter the time of day, whether high tide is morning, noon, or night.

Tackle. You’ve picked your place. You’ve nailed the time to go. How to catch the crabs? You have your choice of bait and method—choices influenced by the level of your skills.

Bait may be easiest to choose because crabs aren’t choosy, so why not be cheap on your date? Chicken necks, readily available in large quantity and at low cost at supermarkets during the summer, are high on most recreational crabbers’ lists. So are cut eel, menhaden, bull lips, and other odorous meats. Take your pick. You can’t go wrong.

Method depends on your skill level and dictates what tackle to bring. If you are a novice, using simple, collapsible traps is a winning way to catch keepers. Collapsible traps are available at most boating supply stores in three popular styles: ring net, pyramid, and box. To use any one, you tie a piece of bait to its middle and then lower the trap to the river’s bottom, its sides resting flat. After several minutes, the trap has likely attracted a crab or several to the bait, at which point you pull up the trap by its drawstring, raising its sides and trapping the crabs within. Easy, effective, and fun.

For a more active outing, try chicken-necking. You need cheap cotton string; several heavy-gauge steel nuts (one for each line made); a mesh dip net (aluminum or nylon); and, of course, chicken necks for bait. To use this simple method, you individually bait your lines. Draw enough string for your line to reach the river bottom and cut it. Thread one nut onto the end of the string and tie one chicken neck to it. Tie the other end of the string to the dock piling and toss your bait into the water. The nut helps weigh the bait down so it sinks to the river bottom. When you see the line move from slack to taut you have a crab on. Gently and patiently pull the stringed bait to the surface. You’ll feel the crab drop off if you’re pulling too fast. As the bait and crab come into view just below the surface, quietly dip your net into the water at the crab’s backside and underneath its belly. Then, with one quick motion, scoop the crab into the net. Viola! You’ve caught a crab.

Those wanting a truly engaging man vs. beast experience ought to try scapping. In angling circles, scapping is akin to what’s referred to as sight-fishing, in which you gently wade through the shallows of the river system (or use a push pole and move by boat) and look for prey. In scapping, when you spot a crab, perhaps resting among eel grass, you simply try to scoop it up quickly with your dip net; no bait required. It’s a simple concept, but can be frustrating—it’s your attack versus the crab’s reflexes, and works best when going for soft-shells. Scapping also can be done by scooping crabs off a dock’s pilings. Just peer down the length of a piling into the water—often crabs cling to them just several inches below the waterline.

If you’re a serious recreational crabber, especially one with a boat and a big party to feed, you may want to try your hand at trotlining, which requires helping hands on deck. Trotlining is especially popular among Eastern Shore residents along the Wye and Chester Rivers, but also well practiced on the Severn and South Rivers. The method uses a very long line to which you tie multiple baits spaced evenly apart. Anchored on both ends with weights and marked with auxiliary floats to identify its location, the full length of line (minimum 500 feet and upwards to 2,000) is lowered to the river’s bottom, where it rests for a short duration before one end is raised gently and placed on a roller attached to the boat’s port or starboard. The boat is driven slowly along the length of the line, which raises the baits, and the crabs are scooped into a large dip net.

And if you happen to have the privilege of accessing a private waterfront pier, throw in a couple large crab pots, baited to the max. Invented in the 1920s by Benjamin F. Lewis, the crab pot was perfected within 10 years and has changed little in design since. It did, however, change the face of the crabbing industry forever becoming the most popular method used by commercial watermen throughout the Bay. For recreational purposes, owners of private shoreline property are allowed a maximum of two crab pots.

Ashley Raymond of What’s Up? Media and her grandfather, Donald Cole trot lining on the Severn River.


Odds and Ends

Sunscreen and water are two necessities at the top of the list of what to bring. Don’t forget that long mornings, afternoons, or early evenings under the sun can burn and parch you. Of course, an ice chest with a couple of barley pops can help pass the time if your day on the dock is slow-paced. For crabbing purposes, an ice chest can double as your “catch-keeper.” Many crabbers prefer the standard balsa wood bushel in which to keep their catch (it’s traditional after all), but a large ice chest will keep the crabs fresher for a longer duration and calms them into a limp physical state, making for easier handling when moving them to the steam pot for cooking.

And if you’re really serious about your crabbing, purchase a pair of high-quality, polarized sunglasses. The polarized lenses significantly reduce glare on the water, helping you see the crabs much better. And at the very least you’ll look good out there, crabs in net or not.

Steam ’Em Right

How to steam one dozen jimmies

(or as many as you can fit into the steamer). Ingredients

  • 12 large, hard shell blue crabs
  • 12 oz. beer (your choice)
  • 6 oz. apple cider vinegar
  • 6 oz. water
  • 5 tbsp. Old Bay, Wye River, or J.O. Brand Seasoning
  • 5 tbsp. coarse kosher salt

Pour beer, vinegar, and water into bottom of large steam pot. Place steam rack in pot. Bring liquid to a boil. Add live crabs to steamer and sprinkle generously with seasoning and salt (reserve 1 tbsp. each of seasoning and salt). Cover and steam for about 20 minutes or until crabs are bright orange in color. Remove from steamer to serving platter or baking sheet and sprinkle remaining seasoning and salt over crabs. Serve with drawn butter, extra seasoning, and vinegar; each in bowls for dipping crab meat. Enjoyed best with ears of sweet white corn and ice-cold lagers.


Adjust seasoning and salt to taste and to number of crabs. Experiment by splashing the crabs with a mustard/vinegar mixture in steamer before applying seasoning and salt. You can also add ears of corn or potatoes to steamer.


Crabbing Literature & Websites

Four editors’ picks to complete your blue crab experience.

Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay
By William H. Warner, © 1976, 1994
A glorious read for anyone interested in blue crabs and the Bay, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel explores the intricacies of the crabs’ life cycle and the watermen who pursue them.

How to Catch Crabs by the Bushel
By Jim Capossela, © 1981
Expands upon the methods used to catch crabs described in this article, offers useful tips, and explains how and where to find crabs specifically.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ website features crabbing regulations, up-to-date tide charts for all bodies of water in the state, and fishery reports.
Excellent website with detailed information about the blue crab life cycle, crabbing methods and tips, industry news, recipes, as well as a community forum with discussion boards for recreational crabbers.

Learn how to pick a hard-shell crab step-by-step with our tutorial video

Learn how to pick a hard-shell crab step-by-step with our tutorial video