With Independence Day now behind us, we can now safely pronounce it High Summer in Brooklyn. The fountains are sprinkling, farmer’s markets are bustling, parking spots are comparatively plentiful with everyone taking their respective vacation shifts, the crabs are out…
Oh, wait. Perhaps that last one bears explanation. You may or may not know, but the shores of our boroughs and the surrounding area are teeming with millions of eight-legged crustaceans whose most active season is summer. I’m talking about blue crabs, who are probably just as plentiful below the surface of the Hudson as humans are on its shores. You don’t need a license to catch and eat them, and crabbing is a family activity that kids of pretty much any age can get into.What’s more, these critters are not only delectable but fun and relatively easy to catch, making for an off-center family trip your kids might just talk about ad nauseam throughout the winter. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Where to Go
The best place to go for a beginner is one of the many piers in and around the city, preferably one designated for fishing. Once you’re more seasoned and your kids are old enough not to use the restroom for a few hours, there are a number of places within an hour of the city where you can rent a rowboat and go after a much heftier catch. I’ll divide the options here into three general areas.
If you don’t have a vehicle or you’re not so concerned about bringing home a meal, probably the easiest option would be any of the less-travelled piers on the Hudson or East rivers. For reasons I explain here the New York State Department of Health has issued an eating advisory for crabs in the Hudson estuary, but the toxins in their system don’t make Hudson crabs any less spunky or fun to catch.
If you have a vehicle or want to rent a Zipcar, the South Shore of Long Island is a great destination that’s far enough from the mouth of the Hudson that you and your family can eat your bounty. A couple of my favorite spots are the piers at Captree State Park near Fire Island and the bulkhead at Bay Park, but there are probably hundreds of spots to be found if you want to spend a little time with Google Earth and consulting the Northeast section of the BlueCrab.info Message Boards.
For the widest range of crabbing options, you can always head over to the Jersey Shore. Piers and other landbound spots abound in pretty much every shore town from Sandy Hook Bay down to the Maryland border, but something else makes the Jersey Shore especially attractive for a crabber with a bit of money to spend and a burning desire to get at the biggest crabs: boat rentals. For anywhere from $50-125, you and the kids can rent a rowboat or low-horsepower motorboat from one of the local marinas. I’ve found the Navesink River and Barnegat Bay particularly fruitful for boat crabbing, but again consult the message boards, this time the New Jersey section.
When to Go
Warm-water creatures, blue crabs come out of their winter hibernation in the deeper-water mud when the water temperatures reach about 55 degrees, but they become more active the warm the water gets. This means that the best time of year to go crabbing is the hottest, from late June through early September.
As for time of day, the earlier the better, especially if you’re crabbing from a pier. Though smaller crabs will generally hang out in human company all day, I’ve found the bigger, wiser ones (you can keep any that are 5 inches or more from point to point) will leave the vicinity of a pier once they detect a lot of human traffic above them. This will also probably make your own trip more pleasant, as you and your kids won’t have to deal with the increased midday traffic or the intense summer heat and sun.
What You Need
For most of the reusable hardware, you’ll probably have to take a one-time trip to a local bait and tackle shop, or you could mail-order it online. Randomly enough, I’ve found the best deals through Trailer Parts Superstore.
Handlines – This is the simplest method of crabbing: put some bait at the end of a string, tie the string to something solid, throw the bait in the water, and wait for a crab to grab it, then gently pull it in. Being vicious little creatures, blue crabs will generally not let go even when pulled toward the surface as long as they don’t sense a human at the other end of the line. To prevent this realization on the crab’s part, just maintain easy but consistent pressure on the line as you pull it in. You can buy handlines for about $3 apiece, or simply use old rope or twine you have lying around the house.
Net – Did I mention that blue crabs are vicious little creatures? If you were to pull a blue crab out of the water on a handline, once it reached the surface, if it didn’t little go and drop back in the water, it would fling its sharp little claws in the air and snap at anything coming close to it. For this reason, you will need a net. It’s also fun to scan the pilings of a pier for clingers or keep an eye out for occasional crabs swimming on the surface with a net in hand and scoop them right out. There is a special kind of net designed specifically for crabbing – just ask for one. The key, though, is that it should have a relatively long handle and a relatively small net. The bigger nets designed for fishing are too bulky and hard to handle for crabbing. A crabbing net will generally run you around $10, and it will last for years.
Traps – Though handlines are fun, traps are by far my favorite method of crabbing. Operating a lot like an aquatic rabbit trap, non-commercial traps are fastened securely by rope, baited, and thrown out into the water. Upon landing on the ocean floor, the sides of the trap open, allowing hungry crabs to enter and partake of a delicious chicken or bunker buffet. Every five minutes or so you and the kids pull the traps up, where they close on the unsuspecting diners and pull them in. The are a few different style of traps, but I’ve found the easiest ones for young crabbers are the enclosed (not topless), box (not pyramid) traps. Each trap will run about $7-8, and you’ll probably want six or so. This is a bit of a capital investment, but they do last a long time, probably at least 5 years.
A basket to put the crabs in – The traditional equipment is a hard-bottom bushel basket, but you can also use a paint bucket, laundry hamper, or any other container that holds roughly more than three gallons. Whatever you use, don’t spend more than $5 or so on it. If you use a watertight container like a paint bucket, resist the temptation to put water in with the crabs you catch—crabs can live for a day or two out of water, and like fish they will quickly deplete the oxygen content in a limited amount of water and suffocate.
Rope – All of your traps will need to be attached to a secure surface by a a sturdy rope long enough, usually 20-30 feet, to get your traps out and to the bottom of the water. I’d get a 100- to 200-foot coil to start at the hardware store or tackle shop. As long as you don’t mind the smell of the sea, you can reuse the rope for a long, long time.
Knife – You know, to cut the rope, and also to cut bait if you need to. I like to use a fillet knife, but a decent pocket knife or Swiss army knife will do.
Tongs – These are a must for a beginning crabber. In case I haven’t emphasized this directly enough, do not try to pick up a blue crab with your bare hands. It will pinch you, and it will hurt. A sturdy pair of tongs is a good way to wrangle a crab that happens to get loose on the pier or in your boat. My daughter Checkers now handles the tongs, while I take off a flip-flop, have a crab grab ahold of it, and flip the crab into my bucket or back into the water, but this is an advanced crab-handling technique.
Bait – I’ll go ahead and state the obvious: this is the one thing you’ll have to get each time. Many avid crabbers use bunker, the common name for menhaden, an oily baitfish that is plentiful all along the Atlantic seasboard; to get this, you’ll probably need to visit a local bait and tackle shop. The more readily available bait of choice for many crabbers is something no marine animal would ever see in its natural habitat: chicken drumsticks. These of course are readily available at any local grocery store. I can usually find a pack of 10-15 drumsticks for $5-8.
How to Eat Them
I could spend an entire blog post expounding on the technique and philosophy of eating blue crabs, but I’m already pushing my word count. We’ll save that for a future post. In the meantime, here are the basics.
- Steam them, ideally with potatoes, corn, and Old Bay.
- Break out the nutcrackers or invest in a cheap set of crab picking gear, take your time, and enjoy the process. For my kids and my nephews, this is just as fun as catching them.
- If there are leftovers, pick the meat out and make crabcakes the next day. Here’s an easy recipe.
- Congratulate your kids and yourself on eating a meal you hauled out of the water surrounding you.
- And if possible, listen to this while cooking.
John Proctor is our Dad for All Seasons and writes on his experience living and raising his two children in Brooklyn. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2000, and been a father since 2009. Besides keeping company with his wife, two daughters, and chihuahua, he also writes memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in The Austin Review, The Diagram, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, New York Cool, and Gotham Gazette, and he serves as editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can see more of him at his website NotThatJohnProctor.com, and he can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’d love to hear from you!